Wednesday, January 30, 2008

It's a gusher!

Posted By on 01.30.08 at 06:47 PM

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Sound like anything you've seen lately?:

"An ice-pack of a movie, a masterpiece in every insignificant detail ... [that] suppresses most of the active elements that make movies pleasurable. The film says that people are disgusting but things are lovely. ... It's a coffee-table movie ... like a three-hour slide show for art history majors."

A lot of the complaints about There Will Be Blood (and there've been more than a few) strike these kinds of disenchanted notes: "a thudding bore," "tempered and wrought, to the point of dullness ... its very scale almost obscures its blankness," or in general simply wondering "what's the point of it all?"—though in fact the passage I've quoted is from Pauline Kael's notorious pan of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, one of the "100 best films of all time" if you believe what the critics tell you. Is it too great a stretch to argue that what's problematic in both films comes to almost the same thing? Since both adapt generally forgotten period novels that demand a sympathetic jump: the issues of the characters aren't exactly ours, and even when they are we talk about them differently, in terms already conditioned by the history of the discourse. Which is partly why Upton Sinclair's moralizing harangue, against vampire capital and religious quackery, comes across as obvious and dated: who's exercised about this anymore, or in quite this way? It's ground we've all been over a thousand times before. But of course the characters haven't, and for them the issues have an urgency we can't begin to match. Here's what it's like when the idea gusher's raging, when concepts old and hoary seem fresh and alive, still eminently arguable. They have to care because we no longer can.

And maybe we're not supposed to. Aristocracy's a problem in Barry Lyndon's world, less so in our own—even if our democratically "classless" class divisions tend to create similar kinds of hierarchy, more economic than hereditary, more under the surface than on it. So both of these films walk a conceptual tightrope, half in the mentalite, half out, which arguably accounts for their seeming distant and cold, dramatically estranged. But what if instead we see Blood as ... well, an experiment—doesn't that sound like the P.T. Anderson we know? Not so much an invitation to engage as a kind of excavation, to uncover obsolete layers of thinking and responding. It's a double game being played—that implicates our own received opinions—or even several games at once. But maybe I'm making too much of a minor point ...

Also, in a free associating mood, there's that (obvious?) connection to Erich von Stroheim's Greed, which goes considerably beyond the shared avaricious theme. Not since 1987's Shy People, Andrei Konchalovsky's Daily Bread/Tol'able David excursion into the Louisiana swamps, has there been anything so Stroheim-like, in the packed-in naturalism, the classically distanced shooting, the ways scenes develop through gradually emerging detail. But already enough critics have picked up on this, and there's not a lot left to add. Time to stop being redundant ...

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