There Will Be Blood: Sorry, But…No

After seeing There Will Be Blood, and thinking about it a bit, I said that Paul Thomas Anderson was the false prophet Eli Sunday and those raving about his film are Eli’s sheep. It’s certainly a gorgeous film, an epic one, a mammothly forceful and visceral one, I’ll give him that. But ultimately is anything being said? I see nothing more than was said in Citizen Kane ages ago, or Chinatown, or 2001, all of which the film heavily borrows from visually. I’ve seen it said many times that this film is doing something new, but can anyone explain to me what exactly that is? I see a film student’s orgasm of references and allusion, but little else, and ultimately an empty core. Elusive Lucidity said it so perfectly:

… I’m not convinced the film is more than half-baked, conceptually and thematically, and I feel as though Anderson were really sure of how he wanted to say something meaningful but spent less time on the meaning that supplied that … meaningfulness. To be clear: I’m not lodging a “style over substance” complaint, exactly, but rather suggesting that PTA knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way too well how he wants to say it. I’m pretty convinced that Anderson is an artist who wants to Say Something; less convinced that he’s accomplished at following through on those very terms. Perhaps it’s a case of “we can spot our own”–when I was a teenager with my own fairly routine movie geek obsessions, and I harbored my own filmmaking dreams, I would often obsess about how my future movie masterpieces would be, and get intoxicated on their imagined affect while paying little heed to real thematic, philosophical, aesthetic elbow-grease. Paul Thomas Anderson sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this stage–the need to tell truths but the rush to sometimes not think them through–and via charisma as well as intelligence & talent, gets away with it.

And another great bit from Long Pauses:

… that’s where the greatest strengths of There Will Be Blood lie — the two hours of screen time enjoyed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose acting is stagey and theatrical in an Elia Kazan-ish way but whose sunburned face, stooped shoulders, and bum knee give Plainview more life than he maybe deserves… Anderson isn’t a contemplative filmmaker. He’s downright bombastic — never happier than when emotions are red-lined, music a-blaring, camera swinging at a frenzy. …Anderson is so good at those scenes, so gifted as a manipulator of our emotions and allegiances, that we overlook the banality and senselessness of the drama. What a fascinating mess of a movie.

Hear hear. When I see any of Anderson’s films I see an immature film student who adores art films but doesn’t really understand them and thinks throwing a bunch of ponderous/difficult/conflicting stuff up on the screen in gorgeous images amounts to something meaningful. And what disappoints me is that few film geeks ever agree with this, but go on with their orgy of trying to pry some meaning out of his films (it’s about capitalism vs. religion! a religious allegory! an allegory for bush! blech blech blech…) and falling right into his giggling schoolboy trap.

Much as many do with the other mammoth fraud out there now, Juno. See post below.

UPDATE: Also wanted to link a podcast on the subject from some like-minded people over at Steady Diet of Film. One of them says something I have thought many times—many critics who say they love this film say they are speechless, dumbfounded, don’t know what to say…implying that it’s because the film’s so powerful, but in my opinion, it’s because there’s just nothing to say. There’s nothing to be wrung from the film, it’s just a virtuoso Daniel Day Lewis flexing his ample acting muscle, no more no less.

And that milkshake metaphor is bullshit. PT Anderson does not understand metaphor. I’m posting here a comment I made over at Chuck’s blog:

“…from what i recall, in the context of the oil business, daniel plainview is saying he’s pumping oil out from all of the land around that one plot, and because it’s just one big sea of oil down there, he doesn’t need that one plot–it’ll get sucked up along with the rest. the milkshake metaphor, visually, doesn’t actually work for that at all. what’s actually happening is that it’s one giant milkshake all connected, not two separate ones and i’m putting my straw into yours. he’s saying he doesn’t need a straw, basically. my 12 other straws will drain you on their own.”

5 Responses to “There Will Be Blood: Sorry, But…No”

  1. February 11th, 2008 | 10:36 am

    PTA has tapped into some interesting stuff, but that’s easy to do. I don’t think he has said anything coherent about petro-capitalism, religious chicanery, or whatever. The film is worth reading symptomatically, perhaps, in that it reflects some of the current economic malaise. It’s the aestheticization of politics without a coherent politics.

    I did find it interesting–and somewhat problematic–that he pretty much wrote out (or wrote over) all of the socialist characters from Sinclair’s novel, but ultimately I think it’s a fairly hollow film.

  2. February 12th, 2008 | 9:26 am

    yeah it’s hard to tell if writing out all of the sociopolitical stuff means he just can’t parse that or that he’s interested in something else. personally i lean toward the former, considering the misapplication of the milkshake metaphor as well.

  3. February 23rd, 2008 | 12:10 pm

    I think you’re right, visually, about the limitations of this metaphor, and you’re definitely right about the “speechless” responses to the film. There may, in fact, be a number of ideas in TWBB, but I don’t see a specific social or political vision shaping those ideas.

  4. Ben Carew
    April 3rd, 2008 | 7:01 am

    I think you miss the point. It seems to me your a geek who revels in feeling superior when ever someone manages to actually create something with some true sincerity and understated power. The film brilliantly portrays a man driven in his quest and alienating all those around yet also resposible for the creation and livlihoods of many. It shows how only someone like this could be successful as he was, where most people get bogged down in religion, morality and the need to belong. The power of money is absolute and this a truth we cant deny. In the face of this injustice people fall into the trap of limiting their freedoms more with superstitions and false morality. It is also not a left wing polemic which also upsets those who desire to see a mirror to their misguided socialist ideals.

  5. April 4th, 2008 | 12:12 pm

    yes you’re exactly right, whenever “someone manages to actually create something with some true sincerity and understated power” my first reaction is to revel in feeling superior. you make no sense whatsoever. this film has NO sincerity and “understated power” is not something ptanderson is capable of, he is 100 percent bombast. the film is over the top and does nothing but retread very familiar themes that were better-tread by many great filmmakers who went before him.