There Will Be Blood – Puncturing The Hot Air Balloon Of Praise Before The Oscars Go Off The Deep End
[posted by Justin Levine]
With the Academy Awards scheduled for Sunday, its time to address the issue of one the nominees for Best Picture.
If people ask me ask me, “Do you think ‘There Will Be Blood’ is good?” Id say “Yes.” If forced to choose between the adjectives of “good” or “bad”, I’d go with good.
But good works can also be overrated, and “There Will Be Blood” is certainly the most overrated film in recent memory (as is the praise for its director). I’m going to primarily rely on the words of the few fellow “Blood” dissenters out there.
Godfrey Cheshire manages to nail the problem –
When any art tilts toward decadence, an anxious aesthetic nostalgia brings forth young would-be artists who produce florid, half-baked imitations of earlier, better works and critics who exhaust the thesaurus in hailing their derivative creations as nothing short of exalted perfection.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s not just the story of one obviously talented but imitative, unsure and very uneven writer-director who manages to produce five diverse features by the time he’s 37, films that would have had him regarded as an interestingly ambitious wannabe 30 years ago yet today have him headed “into the pantheon,” according to The New York Times. It’s also, necessarily, a story of old-line cinephile culture sucking its own fumes, of critics old and young not only wishing They Still Made’em Like They Used To, but convincing themselves that They Still Do—And Even Better, By Golly!
Ultimately, I think Anderson has nothing to say other than that he wants to make movies like the great ones of yore. And critics, seeing no new Altmans or Kubricks on the horizon, are all too ready to mistake his pretensions for the real thing.
[Read the whole thing.]
I suspect that many “Blood” lovers subconsciously realize that Cheshire is on to something here, which is why the few dissenting critics have generated such heated reactions when discussing this film.
“OK, Justin. But wouldn’t you at least admit that Daniel Day Lewis’s performance was masterful and worthy of the Oscar?”
Well, here again I’d have to go with “very good” but still extremely overrated based on some of the orgasmic rhetoric going around.
As with the misgivings I have with “There Will Be Blood” and P.T. Anderson’s work in general, the problems I wish to convey are on a somewhat abstract level, but Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek puts her finger right on it -
[I]n playing Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis doesn’t so much give a performance as offer a character design, an all-American totem painstakingly whittled from a twisted piece of wood. The care Day-Lewis has taken in building this character borders on obsession: His locution, the precise but laconic way he unpacks his tattered leather suitcase full of sentences, is borrowed straight from John Huston; he even mimics perfectly the grayed, whiskery undertones of Huston’s voice. At first the choice seems brilliant. What voice better represents gruff, manly American determination than Huston’s? Then again, once we notice an actor’s choice, that choice is no longer transparent. And past a certain point — once we begin to notice, and even perhaps marvel at, the way an actor squints to signal mistrust or doubt, or screws up the side of his mouth just so — his choices move to the fore and the character recedes.
And that’s how easily we can lose a great actor like Daniel Day-Lewis to greatness.
I recently received an e-mail letter from a professional actor who was dismayed both by Day-Lewis’ performance and by audiences’ response to it: “Weird how so many people confuse ‘acting that you can see’ with great acting,” he wrote — as concise and honest a summation of the way we want to be impressed by craft as I’ve ever read.
The tragedy of Day-Lewis’ performance in “There Will Be Blood” is that it defies the naturalism that made him a great actor — and I use the word “great” unequivocally — in the first place, as if he’d decided that naturalism is boring, that it no longer presents a challenge for him.
[Again - Read the whole thing.]
Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is very impressive accomplishment on a certain level. It is a type of great performance to be sure, but not the sort that should have critics universally hailing it in quite the manner that they currently are.
I’d liken it to Al Pacino’s performance in Scarface – Very memorable. A very impressive display as a character type that stays with you after you leave the theater. One that may likely be quoted for years to come (“Say hallo to my little friend!” / “I drink your milkshake!”). But at the same time, there was a reason why Pacino was never nominated for an Oscar for this performance, and why critics don’t mention it in the same breath as Brando’s “Godfather” or DeNiro’s “Raging Bull”, etc. It’s the same dynamic at work that Zacharek so artfully articulated. There was a good reason why writers never had to lament about the growing “backlash” to the performances of Brando and DeNiro in those roles.
This isn’t a “backlash” from disgruntled naysayers. This is simply about trying to put things in their proper perspective – a difficult task when considering aesthetic tastes to be sure, but such is the tightrope of any formal criticism.
A “good” movie? Yep. There are certainly far worse out there.
A “profound, important new classic of American cinema” from a director whose work ranks with Orson Wells, John Ford, et al.? Give me a break. I find a very deep cynicism buried beneath the surface of such praise. It is a cynicism born from a generation that grew up more obsessed with the notion of great filmmaking than with telling great stories, and it doesn’t bode well for the direction of Western cinema.
So says I! I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to set you people straight!