February 15, 2008

"There Will Be Blood"

Here's my full review of the Oscar Best Picture nominee in The American Conservative:

"There Will Be Blood"

No movie of 2007 sounded more promising than "There Will Be Blood," which stars the titanic Daniel Day-Lewis in a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 roman a clef novel about prospector Edward L. Doheny, Oil!

In 1893, Doheny sank the first oil well in Los Angeles, digging 155 feet down by hand. His oil discoveries all over California and Mexico (where he employed a private army of 6,000), enabled him to give his son the most imposing house in California south of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon, Greystone, a 55-room Beverly Hills mansion with a private bowling alley (where the last scene of "There Will Be Blood" was filmed).

During the Harding Administration, however, Doheny, a Democrat (but an open-minded one), became entangled in the Teapot Dome scandal. After receiving a no-bid contract to drill on Navy lands, he sent his son and son's secretary with a "loan" of $100,000 in cash to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall.

Outraged, the muckraking socialist Sinclair wrote a verbose but well-researched novel about oil, "the black and cruel demon," leavened with some surprisingly affectionate depictions of the old rascal. If Sinclair had waited two more years, though, he would have had the perfect climax. In 1929, having been acquitted of conspiracy, Doheny was still facing trial on bribing Fall, when his son and his son's secretary, both potential witnesses, died at Greystone in a murder-suicide. Who had murdered whom? The police quickly blamed the underling and the newspapers went along.

The Doheny affair was not forgotten, however, by a Los Angeles oil industry executive named Raymond Chandler. When he drank himself out of a job in 1932, Chandler tried writing detective fiction. The ambiguous Greystone killings became the archetype for Philip Marlowe's cases, with Doheny Sr. perhaps the inspiration for the dying General Sternwood who hires Marlowe to launch The Big Sleep.

It would be hard to go wrong with source material this vivid, and harder still with Daniel Day-Lewis (Butcher Bill in "Gangs of New York") as the oilman. This is only the eighth movie Day-Lewis has appeared in since he won the 1989 Best Actor Oscar for "My Left Foot," in which he played an angry Irish slum lad so disabled by cerebral palsy that he can't speak, yet who becomes a famous painter and writer using the only part of his body he can control.

Day-Lewis claims he felt like a discriminated-against outsider growing up in England because of his half-Irish and half-Jewish ancestry. In reality, his Protestant Irish father, C. Day-Lewis, was the Poet Laureate of England, while his Jewish grandfather, Sir Michael Balcon, was the head of England's most beloved movie studio, Ealing, when Alec Guinness made his comedies. Day-Lewis's combination of English privileged-class panache and American Method Acting self-absorbed intensity has made him possibly the most formidable of all contemporary screen presences.

And, in the hands of the Bard of Studio City, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, maker of such memorable San Fernando Valley-obsessed films as "Boogie Nights" and "Punch-Drunk Love," "There Will Be Blood" had the potential to displace "Chinatown" as the Southern California period masterpiece.

Yet … despite a handful of great scenes, the strangely apolitical "There Will Be Blood" turns out to be just another movie about movies. Anderson entrances the critics with countless references to film school staples such as "Citizen Kane." For example, Day-Lewis's mid-Atlantic accent is lifted from John Huston's villainous tycoon in "Chinatown," which in turn points to Huston's classic about greedy prospectors, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The ominous, annoying orchestral score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood is nearly identical to Gy├Ârgy Ligeti's buzzing insect music used by Stanley Kubrick in "2001." Indeed, by the (perhaps intentionally) comic conclusion, the oilman has devolved into "2001's" ape-man, clubbing someone's head in, although with a bowling pin rather than a bone.

Regrettably, there's not enough to entertain the non-cinephile during the abstract, glum, and static first two hours. Have you ever had that nightmare where you are back in a college on Final Exam day, but you haven't read a word all semester? I wonder if Anderson similarly woke up and realized he had made 120 minutes of a movie starring the world's greatest actor, but had barely given him anything to do. Whatever the explanation, the last 40 minutes suddenly consist of Day-Lewis overacting shamelessly. It's silly, but at least it's lively.

Rated a soft R mostly for art house cred.

*

If you sit through the whole thing, make sure to stick around through the credits to hear the tremendous third movement of Brahms's Violin Concerto, which will make you feel a lot better on the walk to the parking lot. I have no idea what Brahms's Violin Concerto has to do with anything else in the "There Will Be Blood," but I have no idea what anything in the movie has to do with anything else in it.

On World Socialist Web Site, David Walsh offers more details on just how badly Paul Thomas Anderson blew it by draining all the politics (and most of the realism and rationality) out of Upton Sinclair's novel. It's quite helpful to read something written from such an old-fashioned leftist point of view (in contrast to contemporary leftism, which is all about status-seeking).

Why did I like Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" so much, yet was so frustrated by "There Will Be Blood," when they were both highly irrational depictions of mentally unbalanced characters?

It's not that I knew the real story of Edward L. Doheny when I saw the movie and was frustrated that Anderson left out all the best parts. I'd been to his son's mansion, which is now a park, and knew sci-fi writer Larry Niven was descended from Doheny, But I wasn't aware of Doheny's connections to Teapot Dome, the murder-suicide in Greystone, or how the case inspired Raymond Chandler. I may act like a know-it-all in my movie reviews as I fill in the background on whatever the movie is about, but I'm really just looking stuff up on Google a few hours before deadline. (Why almost no other professional critics ever use, oh, say, Wikipedia to find out anything about the subjects of the movies they review is beyond me.)

No, I'd looked forward to the movie, saw it, didn't think the sum of the parts was equal to its impressive pieces. Then, I went home, read parts of Sinclair's novel, and then looked up the real Doheny story, and was amazed by how much more cinematic was the true story than was than the plot of the film.

In "Punch-Drunk Love," Adam Sandler's character isn't quite right in the head, and you feel his pain. You watch, almost from within his head, how his mental illness messes up his career and his personal life and feel sorry for the poor bastard. You rejoice when he finds true love at the end, even though you know it's just a fairy tale. (Among many other implausibilities, Sandler has seven sisters and he must do battle with four brothers.)

In contrast, the Daniel Day-Lewis character's insanity doesn't seem to be related to anything. It doesn't prevent him from getting incredibly rich, but it doesn't seem to help him either. His madness just suddenly manifests itself whenever he's in the presence of this one guy he hates for no particular reason.

Also, please do see Kevin Michael Grace's short, witty reviews of this film and two other Best Picture contenders, "Juno" and "No Country for Old Men."

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve,

You should have put a spoiler alert on this one.

As for P.T. Anderson, this is another movie of his I have no interest in watching -- at least not in a theater, where I'll be stuck for 3 hours. Why can't it be enough for Anderson for everyone to acknowledge that he is a talented filmmaker who is perfectly capable of making these sorts of ponderous opuses that critics praise but everyone else finds tedious? That way, he wouldn't actually have to make films like this (or Magnolia), and he could go back to making more entertaining stuff like Punch-Drunk Love.

- Fred

Anonymous said...

I've never seen an Anderson movie I've liked. They're all PC up the wazoo. Boring and pretentious too.

It's those handcuffs of PC though that make most movies bad. About the only thing left is icky-shocking sex. Which was old in 1908 with DH Lawrence.

Ron Guhname said...

Daniel Day Lewis is overrated. Like other method actors, he tries too hard. Daniel Plainview was a caricature. Give me a natural, lazy actor like, say, Hopkins any day.

Barry Wood said...

You say that Day-Lewis felt an outsider because of his half-Irish ancestry.
In fact, posh Brit thespian often use an affected celtic heritage to claim much desired "outsider" status.
This is usually a fairly transparent attention seeking tactic that many have indulged in over the years
Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins never shut up about places they wouldn't return to if you paid them.
It backfired spectacularly for John Hurt who has always claimed a spiritual connection to his obscure Irish roots that made him feel an outsider in England.
Anyway he appeared on genealogy programme keen to discover more and expected to be trudging through some pictureaque Irish bog somewhere only to discover he came from stout working class London folk with not a sniff of Guinness anywhere.
He was visibly crestfallen. It was part of my identity, he said "Something that I'd always accepted."
You would need a heart of stone not to laugh.

Reticent Man said...

I was disappointed by the movie too. I didn't hate it, but it wasn't nearly good enough to not be about anything. Politics definitely might have helped.

However I really enjoyed the soundtrack... and I don't listen to or know anything about Radiohead, so it's not bias.

SFG said...

It's quite helpful to read something written from such an old-fashioned leftist point of view (in contrast to contemporary leftism, which is all about status-seeking).

Do you really not dislike old-fashioned labor unionism, Steve? Is it the yuppie liberalism that pisses you off?

Anonymous said...

I met someone who worked with Daniel's sister - Tamasin (yes it is spelled that way) Day-Lewis. As far as I can tell no-one would mistake her for anything other than what she is: an uber upper class Brit . Ive never heard this Irish outsider cobblers in relation to her. Most people would not be aware that C.Day Lewis was not English anyway.

Anonymous said...

The last scene was was the most entertaining thing I'd seen in a movie in a long time, maybe since Kung Fu Hustle. "I drink from your milkshake" has to the the craziest, most self-indulgent, I-can't-cut-anything-that-comes-out-of -a-screen-legend's-mouth ad lib since the eggplant line in True Romance.

I've never had a cinematic experience like this flick before. It was like getting dragged around an art museum for a couple hours then one of the docents tears off an old lady mask and the rest of her garments. The buzz lasted most of the night.

Ron Guhname said...

"'I drink from your milkshake' has to be the craziest, most self-indulgent, I-can't-cut-anything-that-comes-out-of -a-screen-legend's-mouth ad lib since the eggplant line in True Romance."

So true! I couldn't believe what I was seeing!

Steve Sailer said...

The milkshake line comes from a transcript of testimony in the Teapot Dome scandal. Accused Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall was explaining to the Senators that he had given no-bid leases on Navy oil reserve lands to Doheny and Sinclair because, he contended, the idea of reserving government-owned oil in the ground for future military crises was unsound. Operators on adjoining private land would drill into the common pool of underlying oil and would suck it all up. Like two high school students sharing a single milkshake, the first one to start sucking it up would get the lion's share.

Steve Sailer said...

The point is that the actual Doheny story is so vivid that this is one of the rare cases in which the movie version is much less dramatic than the real events.

Anonymous said...

And the point was not lost, nor my enthusiasm dampened, learning the milkshake was in the script, though I now have to reevaluate the director's intentions.

I remember a story from the intro to some PJ O'Rourke book about him showing a draft of a college novel to a friend/serious writer/suicide. The friend was largely encouraging though he had a nagging problem: the possibility that O'Rourke's intent might be serious.

As serious drama, I'd give the film a C-. With spectacle and entertainment as the criteria, only a false prophet could watch the last scene and not give the flick an A.

Bob Graham said...

I saw the movie last night. Upton Sinclair was a good old turn-of-the-century socialist, back when they really believed they could change the world.
I'm not sure the movie did as good a job as it could have, but it clearly shows Sinclair's assumption that while capitalism may not start out as evil and insane, it invariably ends up that way.
You actually LIKE the Day-Lewis character in the early parts of the film: his love of hard work and real dirt and grime, his rugged individualism, his stoicism - all things we Americans like to THINK are the stuff we're made of, very Frederick Jackson Turnerish.
By the end of the movie, Sinclair, despite Anderson's editing, have made their point: capitalism is inevitably corrupt.
Whether you agree or not with that assumption, that is the point of the movie.

Anonymous said...

Of all the wunderkindern, I never understood PT Anderson's spell over the critics. It's not his politics, it's his hackery.

Basically I think he is good with a camera and uses very good actors, but he cannot write to save his life.

See Boogie Nights, which is replete with only stereotypes who are not tweaked or played with at all, they just fulfill their 1 dimensional arc to the bitter end. Tack on a feel good mega soundtrack of non-originals that can be counted on to add oomph to the flatness of your writing, plus layers of intertextuality for the college boys, and you've got a masterpiece.

The rise and fall of Diggler really puzzled me for its praise. Where was the insight in this movie ... on anything?

Magnolia had a great soundtrack, but it's melodrama that manipulative and sentimental. Everyone has cancer or has been molested or is knows someone who has/done of the two. Hackery!

I haven't seen Punch Drunk. Hard 8 wasn't bad. But I thought Butcher Bill was hambone city, and Gangs of New York was all about the sets with an unbelievably flimsy revenge story cum romance at its tired, tired heart.

I was afraid Day Lewis was returning to his hambone roots in this one, and I fear his legend has grown at this point to be his generation's DeNiro, he shits gold.

I just don't get PTA's allure. He reminds me of Night Shyamalan, to be honest. Soo pretentious, and believes the hype about himself. But the lack of vision can't be hidden by their solid technical directorial skills.

JJ Dedalus said...

I thought the beginning was great. A complete non-verbal performance. I liked that a lot.

But then it went into the usual Hollywood thing. Anti-American, Anti-Christian, Anti-Big Business.

It's funny Hollywood takes so many pot shots at Organized Religion when it functions exactly like one itself.

Just as painters in Italy hundreds of years ago could ONLY paint Madonna's, so too can Movie-makers ONLY do PC material, ie; Anti-American, Anti-Business, Anti-White, Anti-Gentile, Anti-South.
It's interesting that one exception to this, Training Day, was with a Black director.
Proof it can be done. By why is it so rare?
That's a rhetorical question, of course.

For me the last line in the movie clearly refered to the USA. At least the movie-makers take on the USA.

PT Anderson afterall was a huge fan of Robert Altman.

Matt Parrott said...

--SPOILER ALERT--

How is it that you're so down to earth on scientific and political commentary yet so pedagogical and abstract in your movie reviews? It's like you judged EVERYTHING but the movie itself in its own context.

Was that your bargain with the devil? Was it that you would have a gift for making the indecipherable decipherable at the price of a curse for making the accessible inaccessible?

It was a captivating and amusing movie, one which Daniel Day Lewis brought to life in a character that I found myself at turns admiring and despising...with a finale in which he beat the annoying evangelist to death with a bowling pin! That had to be one of the most cathartic conclusions I've ever experienced.

Anonymous said...

Again a fair post. Thanks your friend