Saturday, March 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood (Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson has admitted that he began working on the script for There Will Be Blood as a sort of writing exercise, to help snap the writer's block he'd been stuck in since trying to come up with a follow-up to Punch-Drunk Love. And after seeing the film, I have to say that this little piece of information sounds about right. The finished product certainly has an aggressive, off-kilter charm, but I still can't escape the feeling that for all its grandiosity and fire, There Will Be Blood was not a story particularly close to Anderson's heart.

To compare Anderson to one of his filmmaking idols, Blood perhaps finds him in his Gangs of New York/Aviator phase. He wants to make great movies, he knows he's made them before, he doesn't want to repeat himself, and yet he doesn't really know what else he wants to say. My favorite film of his so far is Boogie Nights, which may be messy but skates by (oh Roller Girl) on Anderson's pure enthusiasm for the subject. He approaches his characters with a simultaneously satirical and affectionate eye, a balancing act that he milks for all it's worth. We laugh at Dirk Diggler, but we love him, because deep down he is just like us (except for know). Both there and in Magnolia, I really got the sense that Anderson had a personal connection to the characters.

Punch-Drunk Love was the first sign, I thought, of a director who was running out of burningly urgent ideas and was instead relishing the opportunity to show off his film school knowledge. It was a strange movie, and also more distant than his previous work. At the time I remember thinking, "OK, that was cool, but hopefully next time out he'll get back to something more immediate." And now, five years later, we've got There Will Be Blood, which I liked about as much as Punch-Drunk Love.

With Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I had the feeling that Anderson was making movies about the people he knew, the people he liked, the people he rooted for. Daniel Plainview, on the other hand, is more like an idea than a fully conceived character. He is Greed with a capital G, Conquest with a capital C, but human with a lowercase h. OK, sure, so maybe some turn-of-the-century oilmen were actually like this, but my hunch is that most of those guys were decidedly more mundane. They probably sat in their offices and balanced the checkbooks while the immigrants went out and got their hands dirty. Plainview is more fun, but also less plausible.

I'm not saying Anderson should stick to the same kinds of stories with the same old San Fernando Valley lowlifes and losers. But if he wants to make another great movie, I'd like to see him dive a little more into his own soul and really share something personal with us again. Writing exercises are fun but also low risk. I'd like to see him do his Adaptation., his I Heart Huckabees - you know, his "God am I gonna look like an idiot when this is over?" movie. Some have called Blood risky, but for me it was too safe.

Of course, I came in with high expectations, so let's be real here and admit that there's a lot to enjoy. It's never predictable. It's funny and odd. Most of all it never begs for the audience's sympathy. Anderson juggles several provocative themes throughout the storyline: the emptiness of religion vs. the emptiness of capitalism, the way our absolute quest for progress can ultimately ruin the lives of our children, and probably plenty of others if you care to fish for them. But still, I felt like I could actually see Anderson sitting there at his desk cramming all these ideas into the movie, rather than just letting the movie flow through him. It's hard, people. Just ask Scorsese.

Nevertheless, every time Anderson sits down to make a movie, he is trying to make a great one. And for that reason alone, I am still curious to see what he will be making next.

"Film critic" rating: ***1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***


jason said...

I'm a PTA fanatic, so I'll jump in here with a few comments:

1. relishing the opportunity to show off his film school knowledge.

Paul actually dropped out of film school after one day, because his professor said, "If any of you want to make Terminator 2, you should leave right now."

I actually love Punch-Drunk Love for the same reason I like all his movies: they come out of nowhere and have nothing to do with current trends. If he didn't make them, nobody would've.

I know Boogie Nights is his best movie, but PDL will always be my favorite.

2. There Will Be Blood was not a story particularly close to Anderson's heart.

I actually saw him do a Q&A right before the summer where he filmed this, and he seemed genuinely connected to the material. He said it was close to his heart since it takes place in Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley. But I agree that it's hard to see this connection in the actual movie. Which brings me to...

3. He is Greed with a capital G, Conquest with a capital C, but human with a lowercase h.

Couldn't agree more. You should read the book, because it actually has a lot of heart. It's the story of a oilman whose (biological) son becomes a socialist. Even though they're technically enemies the father keeps bailing the son out, and the whole situation breaks each others' hearts. It's an interesting theme -- how do rebel against your parents' generation but still love your parents -- that Paul totally abandoned in TWBB.

Supposedly he was already working on a movie about a family feud, so he bent the book's plot in that direction.

4. Nevertheless, every time Anderson sits down to make a movie, he is trying to make a great one.

Yes! I hear he has his next idea already. Can't wait.

Little Earl said...

I actually do remember that he dropped out of film school now that you mention it, but what I basically meant by "film school knowledge" was the informal accumulation of his knowledge about European art cinema and American auteur cinema. So did he drop out of film school because he wanted to make movies like Terminator 2? I don't quite understand.

Anyway, for me I couldn't like a movie just because "it comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with current trends." I want a movie that will make me feel more connected to myself and the world around me. It has to raise my consciousness a little, however you want to interpret that. I could see Punch-Drunk Love doing that for people even if it didn't really do that for me. I've talked to a lot of people who love it so you're not alone.

It seems like both Andersons are heading in opposite directions, neither of which I'm too sure about. Whereas Paul Thomas might be trying too hard to head in a new direction, Wes might not be trying hard enough.

jason said...

Yeah, Punch Drunk Love also does all the stuff you mentioned. The fact that it's so different from other movies only reinforces this. What I mean is: I really relate to Barry Egan, and I've never seen a character like him in a movie before.

But actually, sometimes I will like a movie just because it's trying to break the mold and do something personal/unique. That explains why I love Marie Antoinette and the most recent Gus Van Sant movies, even though objectively I'd call them "bad movies."

Little Earl said...

Hence my two-pronged rating system attack. I liked Marie Antoinette too even though critics really ripped on it. And out of Gus Vant Sant's latest I've only seen Elephant but that's one of my favorite movies of the past few years and I still need to see Last Days and such. I think the reason I didn't really relate to Punch-Drunk Love was because it was a love story with a bit too much of a happy ending for me, so there you go.

herr zrbo said...

Marie Antoinette made me realize that though Kristen Dunst may be hawt she's just not a really good actress. I thought it was ok, but not memorable at all. In fact, I can't remember a single thing about it and I only saw it a few months back.

jason said...

Yeah, I like your rating system.

You should check out Gerry, if you can stand to watch Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walk around the desert for two hours. The acting is a lot better than Elephant, there's actually written dialogue (hilarious at times), and it's just an all around better movie than Elephant. Paranoid Park is worth seeing too, if it's still in theatres.