March 05, 2008

I have this, you want this, now dance for me.

I saw There Will Be Blood last night at the Apollo.  My original plan was to see In The Valley of Elah at the Spa Centre (because I love the Spa Centre), but when I arrived there I was told that there wasn't a film that evening as the medium Stephen Holbrook was on.  Why he couldn't just perform in the normal theatre - like Jimmy Carr, Dave Spikey and other entertainers would - and let me see the darn film was beyond me.  Fortunately I remembered that there was a 7.50pm screening of Blood (it was now 7.56pm), and I hightailed it to the Apollo to make it on time.  I even got there in time to see the second half of the Dark Knight trailer, which I've seen about 3 times now (my favourite bit is when the Joker says to a woman, 'A little bit of fight in you, I like that' and then Batman interjects with 'Then you'll love me!' before clocking him one) , and the whole of the Never Back Down trailer, which looks ridiculous fun (it's like the Karate Kid but with MMA!).

I thought it was good, very good.  Something about P.T Anderson, or perhaps his critical prestige, turns me off to the thought of him - but this is a great movie.  About this movie, my chum Jim MacDowell has already written:

In short, this is a film that (like other recent bold American movies such as The New World [2005] and INLAND EMPIRE [2006]) demands we meet it on its own terms, and requires a deeper engagement than a mere two viewings can provide us with. This fact alone should tell you that this is a fascinating and major work. If I am not yet liberally throwing around words like ‘masterpiece’, then it is because its great complexity also means that any critical evaluation of it - maybe short of a book-length study - must necessarily be considered a work in progress.

I'm not convinced that I see the same scary aesthetic beast as Jim does, but I definitely agree that it requires a mightily deep engagement.  I just wanted to write something short, about one of the film's concerns that I was struck by.  It is the little pieces and little ideas that help us to chip away at understanding something (hear the lament of one unable to identify or handle big concepts!).

Let's look at two of the film's key, and for my experience most powerful, scenes - two scenes, both located towards the end of the movie, that rhyme with one another.  In the first, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) attends the Church of the Third Revelation, the main hub of spritual (and all of any importance) activity in the Little Boston community, to publicly renounce his sins and be baptised by the young minister Eli (Paul Dano - who is ON FIRE right now).  We've seen Plainview at the church once before, in a scene where he maliciously mocks the proceedings to Eli ('that's one goddamn hell of a show you've got there').  His 'change of heart' now is precipitated by a demand from a local man called William Bandy, who owns the last remaining plot of land that Plainview wants to run an oil pipeline through.  In full view of the whole congregation, Plainview yells that he is a sinner, and - after pressure from Eli - screams that he abandoned his son (we know that this would be particularly annoying for Plainview as, in an earlier scene, he reacts extremely violently to a fellow oil prospector mentioning his relationship to H.W, his son).  

The second scene I have in mind is the final one, set 14 or so years later (dated 1928) in Plainview's mansion-esque abode.  Eli visits Plainview with the intention of finally selling him the Bandy estate.  The large temporal ellipsis means we have less information about the characters at this stage in their lives - but notably, Eli is drinking whisky (we've previously seen him criticise alcohol consumption) and he references 'these financial times' (which led me to consider the date's proximity to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression) which all displays a failing struggle to stay afloat in a society where money has become super-important.  Plainview agrees to make the deal if Eli proclaims that, 'I am a false prophet, God is a superstition!'.  In an inverted reflection of the previous scene, Plainview coaxes Eli into repeating the phrase louder and louder - "like you would in your sermons". 

These two scenes both investigate the things that people will do when they are desperate for something, and - on the other side of the coin - the type of things that those who 'have' will force those who 'have not' to do.  In both scenes we see a protagonist giving up - loudly, in public and without dignity - one of the central beliefs on which they base their self (in Eli's case his religion, in Plainview's case his atheism and, more importantly, the belief that his personal affairs should not be the concern of others).  The reason in both cases boils down to money.  Perhaps more disturbing is the glee that the other character seems to take in forcing this submission, and their active role in rendering it more and more humiliating.  There is a question of whether Plainview comes off 'worse' than Eli in this exchange (after all, we already know the intensity of Eli's sermons) - but I think that the direct rhyming scheme here seems to colour both human beings with the same brush: when someone wants something that another has or controls, the empowered individual both relishes and exploits that interpersonal power.  Do we really enjoy finding out quite what a desperate someone else is prepared to do?

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