Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Still Life: IFC Center, Now Playing

Jia Zhang Ke's excellent Still Life has received a lot of appreciative and thoughtful commentary since it opened at the IFC Center on January 18. I have just a few thoughts to add to the ongoing discourse.

1. Zach Campbell's fine blog entry zeroes in on an important question about Jia: what is he making films about? Is he telling stories about people, or about social and political change? I think it's fair to say that Still Life wouldn't have the necessary dramatic focus to succeed as a character drama if the social context were diminished; likewise, its texture of small observations about the social changes wrought by the Three Gorges Dam doesn't have enough direction to give the film its organization. And yet neither of these aspects is given short shrift: Jia cares about both the human stories and the social document enough to give the film a pleasing shape from either angle. I agree with Zach's suggestion that the film can be fully appreciated only as a form of play or tension between the kind of storytelling associated with stories about individuals, and the kind of film form associated with social observation.

2. One important fact about Jia that I don't believe has been discussed too much: he's really quite the entertainer. Unlike some of today's leading art-film lights, he doesn't ask the audience to dip into its reserves of patience or endurance: he wants everyone to have a good time. For instance:

a. He likes comedy, even routines, even tired old ones. Example: the deadpan timing of Sanming using his switchblade to turn the tables on the bully trying to shake him down for money. Or: the way that Sanming's brother-in-law's entourage enters the frame during the first boat scene: one at a time, each one eating noodles. Or: the resort to formula in establishing a comic-relief character by means of his Chow Yun-Fat imitation, then establishing the character's connection with Sanming via the shtick of their calling each other's cell phones to hear their ringtones. Or: the time-honored play of reprising that cell-phone shtick later in a serious context. Or: the amusing bit with the fan that turns left and right to cover the entire room, but refuses to spin. Or: Sanming's brother-in-law interrupting a conversation with repeated attempts to light a cigarette, eventually prompting Sanming to light it for him.

b. He peppers the film with manifestations of the uncanny. Some of these are so unreal that they stick out: the modernist building that becomes a rocket ship, the UFO over the water, the tightrope walker. Some are more plausible but still a surprise: the wall that falls over in the background as Sanming wanders Fengsie; later, the larger-scale shot of a demolished building collapsing in the cityscape behind the reunited husband and wife; the circuit board shorting out as Hong Shen bandages the injured worker; the costumed opera performers sitting in the corner of a room for no obvious reason. At least one uncanny effect is fully set up, but still stuns with its magnitude: the bridge that illuminates upon command, because a boss wants to entertain partygoers.

c. He has an overall sense of showmanship. An angry-looking boy puncuates a scene by entering a room, lighting up a cigarette, then leaving. Prostitutes make a dramatic, staggered appearance on a patio when summoned by a madam. Hong Shen uses a hammer to shatter a lock gracefully, with the aid of an elliptical action cut that opens the locked cabinet like magic.

d. Without meaning to undercut the gravity of Jia's social concerns, I think it's fair to include the film's many specific social observations as a category of entertainment. Jia uses the social commentary in a structural way, to give a little punch to scenes that would otherwise depict the wanderings of the characters in a languid, Antonioniesque manner. Each random encounter is introduced via one of the many social or economic consequences of the Three Gorges project: companies going bankrupt, demolition work, an endless supply of injured workers and displaced persons. It is perhaps easier to observe how Jia uses the social fallout of Three Gorges to organize the narrative than it is to determine what political position he might hold. In any case, there is no clear place to draw a line between the film's personal and social concerns: not only are the personal stories built around topical material, but the film also integrates social observation into its system of meting out pleasure to the viewer.

3. The sheer beauty of Jia's visual style tends to overwhelm me. On my second viewing of Still Life, I was struck by how much Jia relied on a single visual motif, which you can see several times in the illustrations for Chris Bourne's blog entry. This signature composition features a lead character in the foreground, usually from the waist or the knees up, usually from a slightly depressed angle; the water in the Three Gorges valley in the near background; and mountains or buildings on the other side of the valley rearing up to fill most of the top of the frame. Jia uses long lenses routinely, which has the effect of making the background larger and more present. This shot, which surely occurs twenty times in the film, maybe more, is typical of the way Jia generally composes one-shots; here, however, he weds his visual predispositions to the characteristics of his location with a fixity that I find unusual. Every quality of this shot, from its serenity to its sense of spectacle to its shared emphasis on foreground and background, seems to apply to Jia's art in general. But, more than just a mission statement, the shot is invoked in an almost ritualistic way, and this sense of visual ritual (which recalls the repetitive quality of the theme park imagery in The World - I don't feel a big transition from the artifice of that film's environment to the natural settings of Still Life, as Daniel Kasman does) is itself part of the experience that Jia offers.

Jia has another compositional tendency that one sees in all his films: a desire to unbalance the composition of two-shots, with one character a little closer to the camera than the other, and more massive in the frame. These shots are also usually from the waist or knees up, and have a contained quality, with both characters surrounded by a bit of space and creating a modest but distinct diagonality. The composition has a bit of 50s Ray-Sirk excitement about it, and isn't exactly in keeping with the spirit of today's art film, which often favors symmetrical compositions with minimal dramatic charge. Apart from the great beauty of these shots, their dynamism and diagonality is a call-out to a classical entertainment tradition that isn't so common on the world cinema scene at the moment.

4. The narrative structure of Still Life is amusingly reflexive, when you think about it. The first movement of the film is devoted to Sanming's story, and culminates with his decision to wait in Fengsie for his wife's boat to return, rather than pursue her. While Sanming is waiting, Jia has time to squeeze in Hong Shen's story, which runs its course between the 42 and 79-minute marks. Then he picks up Sanming again as his long wait comes to an end. So Jia evokes the passage of time without making the audience wait along with his patient protagonist.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Marienbad: The Game

After I first saw Last Year at Marienbad, I spent a long evening in my college dorm analyzing the card game that Sacha Pitoëff uses to establish dominance over Giorgio Albertazzi. (Quick: name another Albertazzi movie. He played for Losey a few times...but it's odd that his prominent role in Marienbad didn't lead to more of an art-film career.) By the early morning hours I had devised a set of rules for responding to every possible card configuration. I taught the strategy to my 12-year-old brother, so he could beat his teachers at school.

But I'm writing to make a contribution to film scholarship, not because I think my blog needs some human interest. Revisiting the film as a perfect player, I realized that Pitoëff made a mistake in his second game! Albertazzi could have beaten him, but didn't see the opening; and Pitoëff regained control immediately. Whatever system Pitoëff uses is flawed. Revise your opinions of the film accordingly.

At the time, I hoped that I could decode the film as easily as I did the game. Over the years I grew comfortable with the way that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet throw wrenches in the works of any story interpretation that I can come up with. These days, I enjoy thinking of Marienbad as being about the writing process, with Seyrig as a fictional character who has to be brought in line with Albertazzi's aesthetic concept. Leave it to Robbe-Grillet to equate writing (or anything else, for that matter) with sexual domination.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Video Projection at the Walter Reade

Axel Corti's interesting "Where To and Back" trilogy is being projected at the Walter Reade on video - and rather bad-looking video at that, with a nasty sideways distortion at the top of the screen. I'm happy that the films are being shown in any format, but as far as I know the theater has made no announcement at all about the video projection, not even posting the information at the box office. The Walter Reade has generally been forthcoming about print quality; it's a shame if they're joining the many theaters who sell tickets in silence and hope that no one will notice.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cancellation: In the Meantime, Darling

Heads up: In the Meantime, Darling, by far the best of the early Preminger films playing today (January 14) at Film Forum, has been cancelled, and the showtimes of the other two films have been changed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Point of View and "Intrarealism" in Hitchcock

In 1978, when I was 23, I wrote a paper for a UCLA class that argued against the idea that Hitchcock's point-of-view sequences create character identification. The paper proposed an alternative idea: that Hitchcock's point-of-view sequences were part of a more general Hitchcockian strategy to recreate the primitive sensation that the camera is part of the film universe, and subject to its laws. I coined the word "intrarealism" to describe this strategy.

I managed to get the paper published in 1980 in Wide Angle magazine, a theory journal out of Athens, Ohio. It lay dormant for nineteen years, until Susan Smith wrote about it in an article in Cineaction, and subsequently in her book Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour and Tone. She was critical of some aspects of my idea, but I'm grateful to her for taking the article seriously. Since then the article pops up in the occasional bibliography or university reading list.

Here's the article, in electronic format for the first time, with its tortured style and youthful arrogance intact. I still think the basic idea is useful, though I've given up the practice of coining words.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Henry Hathaway

Henry Hathaway deserves more attention. Granted that many of his films are not up to the standard of his best; granted even that his very best films may still leave a bit of room for uninflected Hollywood conventions to play out. Still, his reputation as a competent craftsperson seems all wrong. Hathaway doesn't merely execute other people's ideas: there's a distinct Hathaway tone that can transform the material it operates upon.

Part of the problem in reevaluating Hathaway is that auteurism has never completely shaken off its allegiance to the practice of valuing directors according to their themes - no matter that themes are generally created on the level of script or story conference. To find Hathaway, we have to explore areas of creation that the director actually controls, even under a powerful front office.

Over my holiday vacation, I revisited what may be my two favorite Hathaway films: the 1944 horseracing drama Home in Indiana, and the 1958 Western From Hell to Texas. (I'd need to throw in the 1935 British Empire adventure Lives of a Bengal Lancer to be sure I'd mentioned all the Hathaway films in my top drawer. But there are many I haven't seen.) The two films present different faces to analysis. 1944 Hollywood style was more codified, more devoted to the well-known rhythms of classical American framing and editing. As a result, personal touches stand out more clearly. 1958 belongs to an era more challenged by new, unruly ideas about what constituted realism, framing conventions, and the studio style in general. It's correspondingly more difficult to determine directorial inflection with the same degree of confidence.

There's another difference between the films that makes comparison tricky. The script of Home from Indiana, by Winston Miller from a story by George Agnew Chamberlain, is rather genre-bound and not particularly noteworthy. Whereas From Hell to Texas is co-written by Wendell Mayes (the fine scenarist of Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, and In Harm's Way) and Robert Buckner, from a book by Charles O. Locke; and it features both memorable dialogue ("Just trying to be constructive" says Jay C. Flippen, advising pacifist Don Murray to take an opportunity to kill a few adversaries) and strong thematic content, both of which help lift the project, and neither of which I attribute to Hathaway.

Hathaway's most obvious contribution to both films is a distinctive, very attractive visual style. The Academy frames of Home in Indiana have a number of characteristics that one finds in much of Hathaway's prewar work, all of which combine to give the image a ceremonial solemnity:
  • The use of frames within frames. Hathaway is especially fond of organizing compositions around arches - once you start looking, they come fast and furious. These shots are generally fairly symmetrical and solid.
  • A lot of slightly depressed camera angles.
  • In conjunction with the depressed angles, a taste for shooting in spaces that open up in the background of the shot. Depressed angles in other directors' films sometimes crowd the frame, as the camera picks up ceilings and other visual constraints; Hathaway likes to find a hole in the background, to suggest a big playing field.
  • A marked taste for keeping the characters low in the frame, with a lot of space above their heads. This is almost a Hathaway signature; you don't see it much in other people's films.
  • A fairly frequent recourse to foreground-background opposition between characters. This taste affects the editing style of the films: quite often the result is a scene played out in a single take, with the forced perspective providing the tension that editing would otherwise create.
  • In conjunction with the foreground-background opposition, an unobtrusive taste for longer lenses than were usual at the time. The effect is that the frame seems designed for something far away, and that foreground figures are slightly out of place in the composition.
  • A definite taste for long shots, especially at the beginning and end of scenes, and during transitional interludes.
  • A distinctive lighting style for interiors: dusky, light-streaked. The image takes on a burnished quality, and sometimes seems a bit hazy.

A visual style that doesn't connect to the mechanics of narrative can seem superficial. (Henry King comes to mind as a director whose pictorial skills don't strike me as strongly related to the films' way of moving forward.) Hathaway is not forceful in his inflection of storytelling, but he can use his church-like, weighty visuals to beautiful effect. Often he deemphasizes the drama of a story moment, and substitutes the weight of the image for the force of a strong dramatic cadence. There are lovely, anticlimactic scene endings in Home from Indiana where the lovelorn character played by Jeanne Crain wanders sadly off into long shot, framed by hanging branches and increasingly unavailable to our inspection. Even key plot points are sometimes soft-pedaled in this fashion: for instance, Crain's moment of realization that her beloved Lon McCallister is smitten with her friend June Havoc. The scene, centering on the exchange of Christmas presents, is executed largely without closeups, so that we are forced to look for the signs of Crain's surprise in the midst of fleeting group-oriented full shots.

In general, Hathaway is far from being a drama addict as regards performance: he likes to include small-scale behavioral touches where he can, though he stops short of undermining drama. The contrast between a somewhat diminished sense of narrative drama and a heightened sense of compositional drama is close to the heart of Hathaway's style.

The obvious comparison is to Ford: there is a like tendency to elevate key moments with a sense of visual grandeur. The difference between the two directors is instructive. More assertive, Ford has a strong tendency to override the narrative with his privileged visual interludes; he draws attention to the fiction-making process by subordinating it to these portentious effects. Even when his narratives are most compelling, Ford's visuals can take on an autonomous quality: for example, the Monument Valley vistas in the sublime scene in Fort Apache when Wayne parts from his doomed regiment. By contrast, Hathaway's low-angled, deep-space long shots never rupture the storytelling - they are a way of doing things, not a thing in themselves.

It's not a cinch to make a connection between the visual qualities of Home in Indiana (which seems of a piece with Hathaway's other prewar work) and those of From Hell to Texas. For one thing, Texas is very widescreen, and the new format made it more common for filmmakers to stage scenes within the frame, without resorting to classic cutting style. So Hathaway's penchant for keeping interaction within the frame was to an extent absorbed by the changing times. The same is true of his taste for long shots and longish lenses; and the vistas that open up in the background of his shots were pretty much up front and center in the widescreen Western.

Still, Texas gives special attention to the enveloping quality of the vast Western landscape, to the spectacle of characters suspended on small promontories as the landscape rolls far away and rears up behind them. One of the first aspects of its visual style that one notices is that Hathaway uses point-of-view sequences with surprising, Hitchcockian rigor to parse the dynamic of pursued vs. pursuers in the vast landscape. Though the camera in Home in Indiana was much less subjective, the films share a pronounced awareness of camera position and cutting patterns as a way of relating the viewer to story events. More than Hawks and Walsh, almost as much as Ford, Hathaway seems to have a rulebook for what to do with the camera and when. If Ford evolved a Zen-like instinct for selecting "the right shot" (right for him, anyway) and ignoring traditional ideas about decoupage, Hathaway became a theorist of traditional camera style, abstracting and simplifying it for more standard uses.

Though Hathaway's visual style is less unorthodox in the context of 1958 than of 1944, Texas is still marked by his peculiar, dusky lighting style, by interiors that open up in the rear of the shot, and by compositions around arches and other frames within frames. The two films have somewhat different visual vocabularies, but ultimately I absorb the same vibe from both of them: a restraint in unleashing narrative drama, but a heavy, cosmic visual drama embracing and bolstering the story.

Interestingly, I feel in both films a slight letdown at the climax, a sense that Hathaway falls back on convention as the story peaks. It's as if he knows that he's obligated not to understate at this crucial point in the plot, but he doesn't have an overdrive mode to make up for the sacrifice of his usual meditative gravity. Still, if Hathaway has never thrown away the book and completely reshaped a project in his own image, there's quite a lot to value in his long, successful career. Home in Indiana, almost unknown, is close to the auteurist ideal of the pedestrian project lifted to art by sheer directorial grace and control; and the less disadvantaged From Hell to Texas is one of the most beautiful of Westerns.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ford at Fox: Museum of the Moving Image, January 12 to February 24, 2008

I didn't spot the schedule for the Museum of the Moving Image's Ford at Fox series until the last minute. Some of Ford's most successful 30s work is coming up this weekend and next: I particularly like 1933's Pilgrimage, playing on Sunday, January 13 at 5 pm and Saturday, January 19 at 2:30 pm; and 1932's Air Mail, playing Sunday, January 20 at 2:30 pm. If your prejudice against Shirley Temple doesn't run too deep, you may also be pleasantly surprised by 1936's Wee Willie Winkie, screening Saturday, February 2 at 2:30 pm. Among the later, better-known work, I'd draw attention to the wonderful 1939 Drums Along the Mohawk, which I think is still slightly underrated - it screens Sunday, February 3 at 2:30 pm.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder is generally considered one of Preminger's best films (I'd rank it behind only Daisy Kenyon, myself), and yet a fair number of Preminger fans don't value it highly. After seeing the film again on Friday night at Film Forum, I think I understand why the film might throw a curve to auteurist viewers.

Preminger is often at his best with melodrama. The upheavals of big dramatic stories give Preminger an opportunity to create a style that works in counterpoint to the upheavals. Often Preminger maintains the same shot or the same mood across a major dramatic change that would cue a matching style change - cutting, or music, or variation of shot size - for most directors. (Those who saw Angel Face at Film Forum yesterday will remember one of the strongest examples of this Premingerian principle: the film contains two shocking transitions from everyday life to horror, both occurring within a single stationary medium shot with no style cues.)

There's a melodrama within Anatomy, but it's contained within a box: it belongs entirely to the characters involved in a court case, and is never shown directly. The foreground of the film is held by the lawyers working on the case, and they have only a modest emotional investment in the life-and-death issues showcased in the trial.

The usual way to make a courtroom movie is to make the audience invest in the events of the trial, and to pin the drama to the outcome of the case. There are potential problems with this format: one is that the outcome always depends on the arbitrary decision of a jury, which is like resolving a drama by throwing dice. Another is the tendency for a courtroom drama to turn into a whodunit, with the audience's interest directed toward plot surprises that connect only vaguely to theme, character, etc.

Preminger's way of approaching the courtroom drama is, as far as my memory of film history extends, unique. The lives of the characters involved in the trial are held at a distance: we don't necessarily even like them, and the law team doesn't get overly exercised about their fate. As a result, the tone of the film is kept light throughout: Duke Ellington's jazz score is used to give the storytelling a jaunty, relaxed quality, and the bad luck that befalls the law team in the last shot of the film doesn't even dent their good moods. The only real character/theme issue in the foreground of the film, the regeneration of the alcoholic character played by Arthur O'Connell, is given a very modest weight: no suspense is generated on the behalf of this story thread. The hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, has little at stake in the movie: his law career is somewhat revived, but he didn't seem to need the revival much; he is physically attracted to his client's wife, but the attraction is passing. There is a sense in which Anatomy can be regarded as a comedy, as a film intentionally working in a lighter emotional range, something like Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

Maybe all courtroom dramas should really be comedies. Emotional distance is built into the format. What makes Anatomy such a good film is that Preminger and the excellent screenwriter Wendell Mayes intuited what a courtroom film might really be about, on a moment-by-moment level: performance, self-presentation. And it is in the realm of performance that the film becomes Premingerian: the lawyers' transitions from sincere expression to fraudulent manipulation are not signposted in the usual ways, but occur smoothly, sometimes imperceptibly, within the continuity of the courtroom procedure. Once we look past the surface drama of whether the hero's client will be acquitted or not, we penetrate to the real substance of the film, the rather droll business of watching nice people do some fancy playacting to move the legal machinery to the advantage of their totally guilty and unsympathetic client. Preminger and Mayes are not so much cynical as philosophically detached: they do not indict the system that gives a murderer the chance to manipulate it to go free, and they do not pull our sympathy away from the lawyers whose job is to wheedle and con a favorable verdict out of a jury. The filmmakers are fascinated and somewhat amused that nice people like Stewart and O'Connell have to act so dishonest in the execution of a perfectly respectable job; and there is no indication that their admiration for the American legal system is damaged.

Anatomy is yet another demonstration that the standard auteurist line about Preminger's objectivity, his refusal to take sides, needs to be qualified. In general, Preminger guides our sympathies quite clearly, pro and con, throughout the film. There is no point at which we lose our emotional connection with Stewart's mission, and no point at which our sympathies are enlisted on behalf of the unpleasant client Gazzara, or even the chilly prosecutor played by George C. Scott. What's distinctive about Preminger is not that he doesn't ask us to take sides - he does, quite clearly - and not even that he shows the unappealing side of appealing people and causes. It's that he doesn't bother altering the form of the film when the moral/dramatic pendulum swings.

Is anyone out there familiar with the novel by Robert Traver on which the movie is based? I'd like to know where some of that great dialogue comes from - especially the hilarious deadpan humor of the trial judge, played by Joseph N. Welch. ("I've always heard this Upper Pennisula of our fair state was a queer place. If it's customary here to allow a man charged with first degree murder to wander about at will, I don't suppose it behooves an outsider to point out that the law makes no provision for such quaint liberalism.")

Friday, January 4, 2008

2007 Lists

I like making lists, but only when the parameters are meaningful. There is always something arbitrary about making a list of theatrical premieres in your home city, and even more so lately, with an increasing number of good movies eking out a bare one-week run in specialty venues. I'm fonder of lists of world premieres, because they better reflect the state of production at a moment in time. But only the most ardent festival-hoppers can make a stable world-premiere list at year's end; the flow of 2007 films into New York theaters will continue unabated throughout 2008. Now is actually a good time for a list of 2006 world premieres, but no one would care.

I keep my lists of world premieres online and update them every few months, so you can check them any time you want. Here's a list of my favorite films that received their first one-week theatrical run in New York during 2007. (I exclude films that were made too long ago to feel contemporary.) The director's name follows the film title. This year's list wants to stop at nine, so I will oblige it:

1. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)
2. Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran)
3. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)
4. Vanaja (Rajnesh Domalpalli)
5. Flanders (Bruno Dumont)
6. Hannah Takes the Stairs (Joe Swanberg)
7. Stephanie Daley (Hilary Brougher)
8. Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev)
9. Summer '04 (Stefan Krohmer)

A pleasing list of honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Bug (William Friedkin), Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols), Drama/Mex (Gerardo Naranjo), Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino), Love for Sale (Suely in the Sky) (Karim Aïnouz), Offside (Jafar Panahi), We Own the Night (James Gray), Whole New Thing (Amnon Buchbinder).

Films with a lot going for them: Close to Home (Vardit Bilu and Dalia Hagar), Comedy of Power (Claude Chabrol), Delirious (Tom DiCillo), Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), Fay Grim (Hal Hartley), Glass Lips (Blood of a Poet) (Lech Majewski), I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang), In Between Days (So Yong Kim), Joshua (George Ratliff), Longing (Valeska Grisebach), Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso), No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen), Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud), Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs) (Alain Resnais), This Is England (Shane Meadows).

Films with something going for them: The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien), Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa), Dans Paris (Christophe Honoré), Daratt (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel), The Host (Bong Joon-ho), I'm Not There (Todd Haynes), Juno (Jason Reitman), The Man of My Life (Zabou Breitman), Once (John Carney), Private Property (Joachim Lafosse), Quiet City (Aaron Katz), Honor de cavalleria (Quixotic) (Albert Serra), Red Road (Andrea Arnold), The Rocket (Rocket Richard) (Charles Binamé), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), White Palms (Szabolcs Hajdu), Wild Tigers I Have Known (Cam Archer).

Films that some people liked more than I did: 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu), 13 Lakes (James Benning), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik), Atonement (Joe Wright), Away From Her (Sarah Polley), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet), Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis), Dam Street (Li Yu), Falling (Barbara Albert), The Go Master (Tian Zhuangzhuang), I Love You (Volim Te) (Dalibor Matanic), Into the Wild (Sean Penn), Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence), Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach), Poison Friends (Emmanuel Bourdieu), Radiant City (Jim Brown and Gary Burns), Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz), The Situation (Philip Haas), Southland Tales (Richard Kelly), Sunshine (Danny Boyle), Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng), Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez), There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson), Zodiac (David Fincher), Zoo (Robinson Devor).

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I Am Not Convinced That P. T. Anderson Is a Great Director

Okay, all my friends want me to write about my problems with There Will Be Blood, even though I haven't formed my ideas carefully. There will definitely be spoilers.

More than an hour into There Will Be Blood, I was still waiting for the movie to break, for Anderson to show us what he was interested in. Then came the big scene where the oil gusher that Plainview had been chasing all his life comes in, damaging his derrick and seriously injuring his adoptive son H. W. (Anderson uses a subjective effect to show that H. W. has been deafened by the accident. Part of me sniffed suspiciously at the point-of-view effect, given how outside of all the characters we had been up to this point. But I gave Anderson a pass on this, because it was such an economical way of conveying information to us. Not all good directors are style purists.)

The event immediately sets up a conflict that is presented clearly: Plainview seems to care about his son, and puts himself at risk to haul the boy away from the accident site; but he is also crucially interested in the gusher, the key event of his business life. The deafened H. W. clings to his father in panic as Plainview pulls himself away to tend to a fire at the derrick; the scene is painful to watch, but effective and plausible.

Following an admirable scene in which the oil fire is snuffed out by dynamite in a single sustained long shot, Plainview and his assistant crouch by the gusher. The assistant makes a grim comment about the day's events, and Plainview says something like, "Cheer up! This is what we've been waiting for! We just became millionaires." The assistant asks whether H. W. is okay. Plainview stoically replies, "No, he's not okay" - he shows regret, but in a modest quantity, not the kind of regret that a man with a seriously injured son shows. And Plainview continues to contemplate the gusher - he had not forgotten about H. W., and the assistant's remark did not remind him to return to the panicking boy's side.

This behavior is not comprehensible to us at this point in the film. It will become comprehensible much later, when we discover that Plainview sees H. W. as an advertising aid for his business rather than as a son, and cares little for him. In retrospect, Plainview's occasional nurturing gestures toward the boy register as a bit of vestigial good will in the man's nature, good will that he does not value highly or factor into his life decisions. This works for me.

But Anderson does little or nothing to orient us to the mystery of Plainview's reaction. A director concerned with narrative clarity might have used the assistant, the only possible audience identification figure in the vicinity, to certify that the mystery is in fact a mystery (and not a filmmaking error), perhaps by giving the man a shot of his own as he reacts to what would surely seem like inhuman callousness to him. Even if we knew at this point that Plainview does not care much about H. W., there would still be questions in our mind about how much Plainview is blowing his cover, forgetting to pretend to be a normal human being; and about whether the assistant is surprised by the revelation of Plainview's inhumanity, or used to it, or in sympathy with it.

Anderson seems not to be thinking at all about positioning the audience relative to these mysteries. My reaction was confusion.

I see this as a pattern in Anderson's work, not an isolated case. Consider the subsequent scene in which the preacher Eli Sunday confronts Plainview in public, asking for the money Plainview owes to his church. Plainview surprises the audience by physically attacking the preacher, accusing him of not having exerted his healing powers on H. W.'s behalf. Many questions are raised by this action. Will Plainview be accountable for this public violence, or is he now above the law? The nature of his defrauding the church is unclear: does the church have legal recourse? Do the spectators accept Plainview's power to beat whomever he pleases? If so, are they content with their passivity? Again, Anderson makes no effort to create a context: Sunday's public humiliation (the give and take of humiliation comes to be the film's narrative currency) is presented as spectacle.

A third example: now secure in his power, Plainview discovers that his alleged half-brother Henry is an imposter, executes him, buries him, and falls asleep by the grave. In the morning, he is awakened by Bandy, a landowner who seems to be a devout member of Sunday's church. Near the end of their conversation, Bandy hands Plainview's gun back to him: the implication is that Bandy knows that Plainview just murdered Henry. Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent? These are not questions about character nuance: they are central to the narrative legibility of the scene. Anderson neither answers the questions nor makes it clear that he prefers mystery.

As I gradually realized that Anderson did not intend to manage my emotional relationship with the narrative, I began to withdraw from the film.

Though Anderson's style seems a bit recessive in the first hour of There Will Be Blood, he ultimately grabs hold of the material in a big way. The antipathy between Plainview and Sunday becomes a duel, and Anderson imposes the shape of this duel on the story, transforming what might have been an epic social drama into a rather playful Tom-and-Jerry, Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote running conflict. As in Magnolia, Anderson shows a fondness for big, explosive, actor-centered climaxes, which begin to flow freely in the film's second half. Psychological plausibility starts to seem beside the point. When Eli Sunday insults and humiliates his father at the dinner table, there is an echo of the mysterious humiliation of Roger Wade at the hands of the diminutive Dr. Verringer in Altman's The Long Goodbye; but Anderson launches Sunday at his father across the dining-room table at mealtime, seemingly for the effect alone. Plainview's "conversion" in Sunday's church is full of actor's moments that rupture the diegesis. Anderson has stopped caring about grading these big scenes to preserve the illusion of real social interaction.

Plainview ensconced in his Xanadu in the final movement, swilling alcohol like Gatorade, seems a concept left over from a more classical conception of the character as a tragic hero. If we take these cues, the film's ending will have something of the incongruousness of Macbeth killing Macduff, then announcing, "I'm finished." But, in place of the social epic, in place of the tragedy, Anderson has constructed a simpler shadow movie, one pitting a charismatic and powerful evil figure against a slimy and unattractive one, and paying off with the satisfaction of victory and a rather campy pleasure in excess.