Note: Herein I discuss the film in such a way as to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it.
There Will Be Blood is a movie that begins by making good on some of the remarkable formal promise that Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrated in certain key sequences in his last movie, Punch Drunk Love. (He’s developed quite a way with titles, too.) In the earlier movie, Anderson was discovering an ability to produce riveting sequences without dialogue or camera movement, simply by sound, composition and cutting. It was a refreshing improvement on the allusion-heavy style he deployed in his first films, which quoted Altman and Scorcese to no end. (An example of this would be the fully Scorcese-esque tracking shots in Boogie Nights.)
There Will Be Blood suggests even further independence of technique, that PTA is emerging as a formally unique artist (sometime, I have to investigate my overreliance on the concept of formality in movies). It begins with a truly striking landscape shot, over which we hear an orchestral swooping, out of a horror movie. This unmotivated shot leaves much to infer, leaves the viewer in what I’d term a rich state of ignorance. What follows is also powerfully restrained, as we see Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Plainview, discovering oil while mining for silver in circumstances of extreme privation and physical risk. He lights a fuse, dynamites a wall, blows his tools up while trying to winch them out of the mine, climbs back down, and at a beautifully unexpected moment the rung of a ladder slips away from the wall and down he plunges. Back to the ominous landscape. Cue orchestra. Shiver.
Such moments are staged so freshly that you have the sense, in a way similar to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (though perhaps not as fully achieved), of a film finding a magical way to make the experience of other times, other forms of consciousness, palpable. It’s something the best period films do, and even if it’s always all a fake, there is something about the way movies can record being-in-the-world that makes them a special vehicle for this. The first two-thirds of There Will Be Blood are peppered with revelatory material, non-judgmental observations of Plainview’s Nietzschean will to dominate. Plainview rejecting a town whose members are too excitable; Plainview bargaining with a sheep-like farmer; Plainview saving his son from a spectacular oil fire that manages to suggest both Kuwait and the Old Testament. Yet the movie never makes its moral judgment too plain–it never fully betrays its origins in the Upton Sinclair muckraker, Oil!.
Until the last third of film, that is, when Plainview’s paranoid, psychotic nature becomes drastically clear. He humiliates a preacher, kills a man who had pretended to be his half brother, and after becoming a Howard Hughe-grade recluse, piles up furniture in his living room and shoots at it, viciously abuses his own son, and in the movie’s final scene, he manipulates, bullies, kills the younger preacher, with whom he has contended for the entire movie. Not only kills, but kills by beating him to death in Plainview’s own private bowling ally, with a bowling pin. Suddenly, Day-Lewis has become Joe Pesci–and P.T. Anderson again the Scorcese disciple. It’s acting out as acting. (The cut from the establishing shot of Plainview’s neo-Gothic mansion to this bowling alley says so much more than the craziness that follows.) Plainview’s descent into homicidal behavior, though, seems much less menacing than the more ambiguous behavior that came before, when it appeared his love was as dangerous as his hatred.
How does one take this overstated ending? If you’re me, terribly. Anderson gives away much of what he has achieved with it. He re-roots the movie, so unique before, in the American genre tradition of the psychotic picaresque, aligning Day-Lewis with the great Method scenery chewer of modern American film, Al Pacino. Anderson’s love of movies and desire to point his movie at something, like a sharp stick impaling religion and capitalism together, seem to overtake his purer filmic qualities. The movie loses its internal cohesion. It’s probably still a great film, but less great.
Or maybe not. The day after I saw There Will Be Blood, I spoke about it with a great friend of 3qd occasionalist Descha Daemgen, let’s call him Tittymouse, who loved the ending. In revealing Plainview’s character to be basically evil, in making itself into an allegory about the unholy alliance of oil and God, said Tittymouse, the film was making visible its desire to critique, and blasting out of a specious naturalism into a more obvious pastiche of genres. This seemed a more honest filmmaking style to Tittymouse, in that it brought our attention to the artificiality, the constructedness, of the movie, rather than “fooling” us by maintaining its tone. I see Tittymouse’s point, though I feel there is something important in our disagreement.
For Tittymouse, and those like him, there is no knowledge that can be higher than the knowledge that accepts and signals its own insufficiency. So postmodern effects like pastiche and artificiality, the showing of seams, are to be admired. For me, and those like me, I think, the immanence of a piece is more interesting than its signaling of its theoretical sophistication. In Tittymouse’s worldview, the work is important not for itself but for its expression of certain favored themes in post-Heideggerian Continental philosophy, basically about the impossibility of knowledge of the object. Because of this, elements like the ending of the movie, that rupture the self-consistency of the film, are admirable. The auteur of the film is irrelevant, in this post-death-of-the-author mode of understanding. But to me, a movie shouldn’t be a representative of a school of thought. It should be a movie.
(I’m being a bit unfair to Tittymouse, ventriloquizing him this way, making him say what I want him to say and then arguing with it. But he’s partially a literary character, so it’s okay.)
There’s something more interesting to me about seeing a work as immanent, independent of philosophical thought. You can see it from a productive zone of ignorance, if that’s not too vague. What I mean by that is that ignorance is what allows you to develop a personal, fully (emotionally) engaged response to a work, while obsessive knowledge, or an obsessive relationship to relating things to other things, makes for a good critical stance but does a kind of violence.
Maybe another way to get at this is with an anecdote. I once went to Dia: Beacon, to look at look at those most consecrated of artists, with a friend, Jimmy, who was then the director of a major gallery. I had expected him to pontificate interestingly on the brilliance of all those titans of contemporary art, the Smithsons and Serras and Lewitts. Instead, he said, “This stuff is alright, but it’s not that interesting to me, it’s not what’s happening now.” He was pretty much nonplussed by the stuff–as the director of a downtown gallery specializing in much more contemporary art, he was electrified by his own peers and not the generation before. Jimmy’s response surprised, intrigued, and has stayed with me. Rather than a curatorial, reverential relation to artworks, he had more selfish, disrespectful and, in a way, ignorant relation to them ( I say this in a good way, actually). That was hugely enabling. He wasn’t worried about the place of a particular in the history of art, as embodiments of conceptual revolutions, or rather, he was, but only to the degree that he was. The zone of ignorance is productive.
And that, in a way, marks the difference between two worldviews, that are cleaved quite deeply. You want a work to be immanent in the moment you encounter it, or you want it to somehow symbolize and perform historical transformations. You either see it as a thing or a representation. You’re either with us or you’re with the Tittymouses. And I think your response to the last scene of There Will Be Blood will tell you which.