Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hydraulics of Cinema History

It’s hard to understand, and I’m not sure I do, how Paul Thomas Anderson can have made a film so apparently straightforward as There Will Be Blood, so almost transparent, out of materials so crude, at a date so late as this, that is so powerful in its effects. I can see why people are going back to 1940s films for comparisons; so why doesn’t Anderson’s movie seem nostalgic? It isn’t quite transparent, although it lets you see it that way or want it to be; it conveys historical self-consciousness, not through what usually goes by the name of irony, but in all but invisible ways that serve similar functions. Daniel Day-Lewis’s manipulation of his voice, for example, into something artificial that’s broadcasting all the time, makes clear that his character, Plainview, has at some point we never see poured himself into a mold. He’s beside himself from the beginning, remote-controlling himself from an undisclosed location. Day-Lewis method-acts a method actor character. Everyone has only residual spontaneity; they’ve paid out everything human before the plot begins. Plainview’s child, H.W., shows the process in motion, soft matter being shaped into a businessman. Dealing only with calcified objects—including Lewis's dusty novel—Anderson can afford to evoke the fluctuating life inside these objects. (This is a film about hydraulics, of course, like Written on the Wind and Chinatown, that suggests that psychic and kinship logics underlie and even explain economics.) Because the forms are not “revitalized” but treated as dead, the emotions seem to be outsize because they have to be to penetrate the crust that has formed over everything. Anthony Lane’s review of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men just misses a similar point, complaining that the Coens taxidermize classic U.S. film genres (New Yorker, Nov. 12, 2007). They do, and that’s what allows their films to be so creepy. Similarly Stephanie Zacharek in Salon (Dec. 26, 2007): "There Will Be Blood" only pretends to be elemental and raw: It's really tempered and wrought,” etc., etc.--when its "really" being elemental and raw would cover over the lethal reification, the difficulty, and with it the counterforce.

One of the tropes of There Will Be Blood is the lengths to which people will go in the attempt to recover, or cover over, a loss; thus the apt comparison to Citizen Kane. Anderson gives the content of the loss in the opening scenes, before we know what the film is about and what to look for, so that we have the equivalent of an unconscious memory of it. Plainview (we don’t know who he is yet, we can’t even see him clearly) in a mine shaft, under great duress, checks the silver particles inside a stone and says “There she is, there she is,” self-soothingly as you’d say “There, there.” “She,” when people will ask throughout the film where his wife is, and the closest anyone comes to mentioning his mother is “I’m your brother with a different mother.” While their absences are conspicuous, we’re liable to miss completely “her” presence in the rock, as does Plainview himself, in a way. The grammar conceals the particular in the conventional, but it’s a scene of necrophilia. Every scene but the last two take place inside the ravenous deprivation of the desire to raise the dead or live with them. The last ones correspond to a historical jump that marks, more importantly than a number of years, a shift in eras. There, with the thematization of modernity, it’s as though the film’s self-consciousness comes forward, alligning itself with the audience to look back at the preceding film, and confesses itself to be a long, cold perspective like Stanley Kubrick’s. The very last scene reminds me of the final interior scenes of 2001, which take you as though to the place where the film was made (not a very habitable place)—here, after all the film's obsessing over the turn of the 20th century, in the end it might as well be 2501. From there you’re offered a view of what has been given to see and what has been giving it to be seen, but it’s likely to be more than you can absorb.

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