Tuesday, January 8, 2008

There Will Be Kubrick

Paul Thomas Anderson has been able to masterfully combine original storytelling with innovative technique that consistently references cinematic history without dissolving into the film school cliché that similar filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have been reduced to. There are several possible ways Anderson has accomplished this, but the most obvious to me is that the filmmaker’s references are consistent with the style and tone of the film, thus not taking the viewer “out” of the film (though one could easily argue otherwise with several scenes of Magnolia (1999)). Where a certain knowledge of cinematic history is almost required to appreciate, and even comprehend, a Tarantino flick, one could become thoroughly engrossed in Boogie Nights (1997) or Punch-Drunk Love (2002) without having ever heard of Mike Nichols, Scorsese, Godard, Tati, or I Am Cuba (1964).

P. T. Anderson's work has benefitted from referencing only unqualified masterpieces of the cinematic pantheon throughout his career.

Anderson’s latest, There Will Be Blood, has been hailed as a breakthrough for the director, especially by Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who argues that Anderson has finally removed himself from reliance on cinematic references and finally constructed a film that stands on its own. Other critics either echo McCarthy’s argument or posit the film as continuing a great tradition of (or explicitly referencing) films that depict the “process” of America becoming what it is today—basically the filmic equivalent of the “Great American Novel.” Compared films include Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), George Stevens’ Giant (1956), John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and, most often, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Both Anderson’s directorial style and Daniel Day-Lewis’ (unsurprisingly) mesmerizing performance are credited with channeling Huston. Anderson even claims to have watched Sierra Madre every night while filming There Will Be Blood.

Whether or not Anderson explicitly references any of these four films in There Will Be Blood is up to debate, and would require multiple viewings of the film. But the assertion that this film is Anderson’s first to “stand on its own” without major references to past cinema is simply ludicrous. In regard to Anderson’s use of referential cinematic techniques to tell his story, There Will Be Blood is no different than any of his previous work.

Anderson has been an outspoken fan of Stanley Kubrick (he even visited Kubrick on the notoriously secretive and exclusive set of Eyes Wide Shut (1999)). There are two notable, explicit references to Kubrick in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and both are references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In Boogie Nights, Anderson has a close-up shot of the lens of the film camera being used to shoot Dirk Diggler’s first movie—this shot is framed exactly like the “eye” of the HAL computer in Kubrick’s film.

In Magnolia, while Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) cares for Earl Partidge (Jason Robards), he stands in a wide shot of Partidge’s bed that is framed similarly to the shot of the older Dr. Dave Bowman (Kier Dullea) in bed facing the monolith (after the space pod) at the end of 2001, complete with the infamous theme music that framed the film.

It seems only natural that Anderson would channel Kubrick once again for There Will Be Blood, and the late master’s fingerprints are all over Anderson’s work. The music over the black screen before the film’s title card resembles the sound of an orchestra warming up over a black screen several minutes before the MGM logo appears in 2001. And the opening shot of the West Texas desert looks and feels like the panoramic shots that opened the “Dawn of Man” sequence. The film’s first ten minutes are without dialogue, and dominated mostly by the haunting score and illustrious cinematography, which seems to channel the mood of the first half hour or so of 2001, also containing minimal dialogue.

The unusual but engrossing score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood often takes the foreground rather than background of the film’s sound design, a device used in many of Kubrick’s films, but most notably in 2001’s use of music to orchestrate the visual nature of the film. Mostly through Anderson’s use of Greenwood’s music, Anderson has created an overall mood and atmosphere modeled after 2001 (thus, his references aren’t always as explicit as in his past films; his style is more or less generally “indebted” to Kubrick’s work writ large).

While I was able to be emotionally engaged with Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and even Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood created a surprising distance through this dense atmosphere. I admired greatly the artistry of all aspects of the film, but the style never allowed me to be engrossed in it. The music and camerawork created a tangible distance between spectator and screen. Day-Lewis’ performance as a emotionally distant (if not completely absent) opportunist only added to such a removed approach. Even the brief moment in which Plainview is forced to show the speck of genuine emotion hidden beneath him—where Eli Sunday entices him to own up to abandoning his son and he screams, “I abandoned my boy!”—is startlingly removed of an emotional punch despite the impressive and believable performance. Put simply, even when I saw genuine emotion on screen, I didn’t feel it.

Critics have credited the film’s story structure as chronicling Plainview’s descent into becoming a corrupt, cold capitalist—and also noted his relationship with Sunday as a timely allegorical connection between big business opportunism and religious evangelism—but Anderson’s style removes us from the psychology of Plainview in such a way that we are able to observe him without really knowing him, motivation and all. Day-Lewis is a joy to watch, but the real source and objective of Plainview’s greed is never revealed or even thoroughly explored—for example, the incredible mansion his efforts attain him at the film's end makes him more uncomfortable and out-of-place than ever. Plainview seems only, as he himself admits, to delight in the failing of others. This delineates Plainview as an unsympathetic villain throughout the narrative rather than a complex character who slowly digs his own soul to hell (as several critics argue). However, as embodied by Day-Lewis, Plainview is still fully realized and a marvel to watch, despite that he is completely impenetrable.

I don’t think Anderson had any intention of making Plainview into a psychologically motivated character, or chronicle his film as a “descent” of the protagonist. And this division of audience from character psychology feels Kubrickian as well. Both Barry Lyndon of Barry Lyndon (1975) and Alex de Large of A Clockwork Orange (1971) are characters who drift distantly through their narrative without the audience truly knowing their motivations and desires, which fits well into the overall atmosphere and style of each film. Likewise, the entire cast of 2001 are incredibly distant, interchangeable pods of characters—so much so that they are never even allowed a closeup.

And that abrupt ending? Straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. There Will Be Blood’s quick cut-to-black after a simple, brief (almost comically understated) phrase, coupled with classical music, is beat-for-beat the ending of Eyes Wide Shut. The use of classical music seems the most startling source of a Kubrickian feel for these final moments, as it marks a significant departure from Greenwood’s moody score. The use of "slide show" credits during the end credit sequence is also emblematic of Kubrick, as the director used "slide show" credits instead scrolling credits in his later career.

The first trailers of There Will Be Blood made it feel reminiscent of several films not made by Kubrick. The traditional comparisons of Anderson to Robert Altman (solidified by Anderson’s presence as “co-director” of Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006) and Anderson’s “In Remembrance” credit of Altman during There Will Be Blood’s end credits) brought to my mind Altman’s westerns, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), notably their panoramic widescreen photography that is similar to There Will Be Blood. Anderson's film also seems to channel Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). The tracking shot of the men running towards the burning oil rig (as first exhibited in the teaser trailer for There Will Be Blood) looked just like the tracking shot of Brooke Adams running towards the train in Malick’s film. Also, the strange image of the oil rig on a mostly flat landscape in There Will Be Blood is reminiscent to the iconic image of the mansion sitting on the mostly flat landscape in Days of Heaven. In this respect, it’s worth note that both Days of Heaven and There Will Be Blood have the same art director, Jack Fisk.

Movie critics have a very short-term memory. Words like “masterpiece” and “genius” are used so liberally by movie reviewers that they have been reduced to clichéd one-word selling points on movie marquees. It’s understandable that many reviewers would want to be the first to call something a “masterpiece” and allow time to prove them right, but contextualizing There Will Be Blood as a natural extension of Citizen Kane—or saying The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or No Country For Old Men have “reinvented cinema”—is an overzealous statement rendered dubious by the absence of the only natural test that could affirm or deny such a statement: time. Masterpieces and modern classics are not created immediately; time is the only judge of truly important pieces of cinema.

Lest we forget, some of today’s classics were hated or ignored during their original release, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Others weren’t even seen in the proper form that made them contemporary classics in their original release, like the compromised first theatrical release of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) and the butchered original release of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984). On the other hand, several films that were praised by critics and showered with awards during their original release have soured over time, like Crash (2005) or Titanic (1997). Critics have the difficult job of articulating the final judgment of a film shortly after a film’s release, and usually after only one viewing. Thus, such untrustworthy, inflated ultimatums that have accompanied reviews of There Will Be Blood are common practice in the rhetoric of a movie critic. Also, many critics watch every major film released, which means they have to sit through all the schlock that was never meant to have a long shelf life in America’s cinematic collective memory (“see Alien vs. Predator: Requiem this Christmas Day!”)—so after having sat through ALL the bad and ALL the good, it’s easy to see how something like There Will Be Blood can look like Citizen Kane.

After reading snippets of numerous reviews of There Will Be Blood before actually seeing the film, including the repeated allusions to classical cinema and the assertion that the film “stands on its own”, I felt like I would be able to turn the film analyst part of my brain off and simply enjoy the story. Instead, I found myself admiring the film without being enveloped in it. There Will Be Blood displays great filmmaking technique on all fronts, but it is not by any means a film that "stands on its own." Like all of Anderson’s films, There Will Be Blood is a movie made by a movie person for movie people.

While watching it, a film student sitting behind me whispered loudly into his fellow film student’s ear, “Look at that shot. How cool is that shot?” As unforgivably annoying as instances like these are (a good film, of course, is more than a selection of “cool shots”), this student’s superficial admiration for Anderson’s technique is fitting. In There Will Be Blood, it is easy to admire the masterful technique of everything we see and hear, but it is difficult to go beyond anything but admiration. This film, like all of Anderson’s work, in undeniably indebted to cinematic history, and Anderson himself never lets us forget we are watching a movie.