Patterico's Pontifications

2/22/2008

There Will Be Blood – Puncturing The Hot Air Balloon Of Praise Before The Oscars Go Off The Deep End

Filed under: Movies — Justin Levine @ 11:34 am



[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! 😛

32 Responses to “There Will Be Blood – Puncturing The Hot Air Balloon Of Praise Before The Oscars Go Off The Deep End”

  1. Thank God, I’m not alone! I’ve never understood the high praise this director gets.

    Viktor (6c107f)

  2. yeah, we all heard this on Handel’s show. Come up with something new. We all know you’re just bitter because you were not offered the part of Scotty in Boogie Nights. Next time, use more tongue, less teeth.

    gabriel (6d7447)

  3. Gabriel –

    I’m duly impressed that you were up at the 5am hour to hear my rant some weeks ago. A gold star for you on that count, but I don’t feel the need to come up with something new until the old opinion sinks in with people a bit more. Still a long way to go on that front.

    Justin Levine (b5c8e2)

  4. Well at least temper your comments with the knowledge that you don’t like any of Anderson’s work. Keepin it real yall!

    BTW, what does Bill say about Zeiglers little tirade? I think there are some real pieces of truth, and some embellishments but the over all consensus in my view is that you don’t want to mess with the a good think like the J&KShow, especially given its ratings. If JK is really as shallow and vindictive as he’s portrayed, I could understand not wanting to comment, but for us diehard KFI listeners it sure was fun to get some of the inside scoop for once.

    gabriel (6d7447)

  5. Lewis did a fine job of acting but my 25 year old son and I agreed- the excuse for the plot was thin and DDL’s break into madness was too quick. It was as though the script writers need a quick end to it all. Overall- A grade of “B”

    John425 (eae6ea)

  6. Gabriel – I thought my post already made it clear that I don’t like any of Anderson’s work, beyond the fact that I thought “Blood” was mildly good (and with the caveat that I still haven’t seen ‘Hard Eight’). That is why I quoted Cheshire. He doesn’t just get what’s wrong with “Blood”, he gets what’s wrong with Anderson altogether.

    [I’ll be happy to comment more on KFI/Ziegler at another time and in another forum. But this is not the appropriate one.]

    Justin Levine (b5c8e2)

  7. Do see Hard Eight. You’d probably like it much better than PTA’s other work. Much smaller in scale but still with all the elements that make him a great director.

    It’s a shame that you can’t appreciate his work. He’s one of the best directors working today, if not *the* best.

    But that’s your loss, not mine.

    I do suggest you go back and see all of his work again. You may well find that you like his films better on the second (or third, fourth, fifth) time around. They certainly repay multiple viewings.

    Joe M. (5d215f)

  8. Oh, and don’t worry–there’s little chance that TWBB will win Best Picture. That’s near a sure bet for No Country for Old Men.

    I seem to recall another blogger on this site complaining about No Country.

    Shame.

    Joe M. (5d215f)

  9. Joe M. –

    Trust me. With writing as bad as his is, Anderson’s films do not merit multiple viewings. Though as it so happened, I got sucked into seeing Boogie Nights twice (long story involving friends who were enamored of stories involving the porn industry).

    As to your suggestion that Anderson might be THE best director working today….Jesus. I just don’t know what to say to that. Better than Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Fincher, The Cohen Bros., Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, David Lynch, Terrance Malick, Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Peter Weir, Ridley Scott? (That’s just off the top of my head.)

    I just need you to respond in concrete text for all to see and read: “Yes Justin, I think P.T. Anderson is better than each and everyone of the directors you just listed.” Just do that for me so that I can get some exercise by having to pick my jaw up off of the floor.

    Justin Levine (b5c8e2)

  10. I like There Will Be Blood, but I don’t think it’s nearly as good as No Country For Old Men. It’s an atmospheric triumph with some good acting, but whole thing feels kinda souless.

    Leviticus (555b80)

  11. but *the* whole thing feels kinda souless.

    Leviticus (555b80)

  12. Really interesting post, Justin. Haven’t seen TWBB but I did enjoy Boogie Nights. The pornville characters reminded me of Midnight Cowboy in that you liked them in spite of their seediness. PTA’s Magnolia was uneven but magnificent.

    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.

    Zacharek’s quote is really interesting and reminds me of Jack Nicholson, both good and bad. I love what he does on film, but maybe I’m not supposed to notice the little visual choices. It worked in Cuckoo’s Nest, didn’t work in a few later films. Sometimes Jack is just Jack.

    Vermont Neighbor (c6313b)

  13. Vermont –

    Thanks for the comment. But even your own observations point out the gap that will never be bridged between some of us in film criticism-land. I thought Magnolia was just plain AWFUL. I very weak imitation (dare I say rip-off?) of Robert Altman’s ‘Short Cuts’, but with writing that was much more shallow and performances that were much more 2-dimensional. John C. Reilly gave the only great performance in it. Everyone else overacted in bouts of crying hysterics. William Macy – “I HAVE SO MUCH LOVE TO GIVE!!!” Julianne Moore – “I SUCKED MEN’S COCKS!!!” Give me a break. People just don’t talk like that. Rather than flesh out real character and emotion through actions and re-actions, Anderson gives us character templates who screech their mindsets upfront like nails on a chalkboard.

    It also had silly faux-‘resolutions’ that come out of the blue. A kid is forced on to a game show by his domineering father. He is so scared of standing up to him that he ends up wetting himself on stage. Then, near the end of the movie, for absolutely no other reason than the fact that the film has droned on for 3 hours and Anderson has to go somewhere else with the story, the kid suddenly wanders up to his dad in the hallway and matter-of-factly proclaims “You need to treat me better”. There was absolutely nothing in the plot that explained why or where this kid was suddenly able to summon up this courage and express his needs. And when he does so, its with dialog that has all the subtlety and gracefulness of a wet sack of cement. But that is a typical example of Anderson’s character ‘development’ I suppose.

    Compare that to the the interaction in Altman’s “Short Cuts” between Chris Penn and Robert Downey, Jr. or any number of actors in that film. THAT is an example of real character and dialog. Anderson also knows that he has nothing in his writing to connect all of his characters and their manufactured emotional crises – so he again rips off Altman’s use of a Southern California earthquake and gives us raining frogs instead. Its fine to have a surprise in a story that may come out of left-field. But not as a deus ex machina device to try and cover up shallow writing.

    Agree with you about Nicholson though. Even though “Cukoo’s Nest” no doubt later inspired Jack to just give into the “Jack” personality on screen, he still manages to actually act in that film. I had almost given up hope on him until I saw “About Schmidt” – proving that he can still actually act when he wants to (and brilliantly in that film, I might add).

    Justin Levine (b5c8e2)

  14. It dont matter any how im not planning to watch the osars

    krazy kagu (4ca035)

  15. About Schmidt… Fawning praise and here it comes. Love that movie. Jack was his very best.

    Your directors list is interesting food for thought. Woody has to be dealt with though on two levels. Classic Woody and recent Woody. And maybe Tarantino is my own Paul Thomas Anderson. He tries to be Peckinpah, if you put Peckinpah in a cable channel suit and tie and machine gun it to death.

    Alexander Payne has a unique voice. Sideways was just great, but I kind of marvel at how we get more and more movies where the leads are somewhat despicable. Everyone in Sideways was morally challenged. Paul G., stealing money from his mom. His best pal, cheating days before his wedding. Sandra Oh, smoking pot in front of and having a boyfriend stay over with her kid.

    It was probably the 60s; the loosening of values. Go back to Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter or Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd. No candy coating… we watched and knew. Today, it’s different.

    Vermont Neighbor (c6313b)

  16. Hmm…a swooning, almost hypnotically positive and charged opinion shared by a large number of people towards a person? A person who, quite frankly, seems to be carbon copying certain traits of famous and influential people (some deceased) for personal gain?

    Justin, I think your post may be about much more than just TWWB, PTA and filmmaking. It probably says a lot about our current culture and the corresponding difficulty in recognizing true originality. We are far too comfortable with being comfortable. To those who are challenged constantly, originality presents itself as a magic gift. To those who are comfy, originality just upsets the balance. Many apparently feel that tests are the most fun when you already know all the answers.

    As for your PTA opinions, thank you. After I saw Boogie Nights, my friend asked what I thought about it. I told her it seemed like Good Fellas with Porn Stars instead of Mobsters. Exactly like Good Fellas. I hope Marty’s getting residuals.

    Apogee (366e8b)

  17. Apogee – You NAILED it regarding Boogie Nights ripping off Goodfellas. It has the exact same structure, only substituting the porn biz for the mob.

    1. Young person lives in disfunctional family.

    2. After being alienated from his true family, he hooks up with a surrogate family structure that revolves around vice (i.e., mobsters, porn actors, etc. take your pick).

    3. He manages to quickly succeed in the business that the vice is involved with – thereby impressing his new surrogate family and leading to riches and a lavish lifestyle beyond anything he could have dreamed had he stayed with his biological family.

    4. The success leads to complacency and carelessness, along with increasing drug use and arrogance. That, plus the changing times and personalities surrounding him elevates his vice lifestyle into a new level of dangerousness and destructiveness that doens’t allow his lifestyle to sustain itself.

    5. He alienates his friends and acquantences in his surrogate family, become even more hooked on drugs and destructive behavior, until he finally reaches rock bottom by becoming broke and involved in unsavory crimes that he never imagined himself doing.

    6. He manages to pull himself together in the end. No longer at rock bottom – but still a far cry from the good ‘ol rich, headdy days when he first joined his surrogate vice family. He manages to make peace with his new middlin lifestyle. No longer living in the fast lane. Leading a life that many other average Joes would envy, but he still ends mildly depressed and yearns for the days when he was on top of the world.

    Sound familiar? Boogie Nights doesn’t just borrow from Goodfellas. It is an out-and-out RIPOFF! Anderson even utilizes Scorcese’s editing patterns and swooshing camera moves.

    I could make the same movie myself – I’ll just set it in the world of underground cock fighting, and have the hero surrounded by topless Brazillian babaes before he snorts away all of his success and has the drug lords come after him to shut down his cock fighting empire. The script would write itself. Anderson only got credit for that film because people are obsessed with the porn biz and he exploited that fact to help make Boogie Nights a succcess.

    Justin Levine (d671ab)

  18. Thanks Justin,
    Not to belabor the point, but as a quick example for those still in disbelief – compare the scene in GoodFellas where Ray Liotta (Henry Hill) takes Lorraine Bracco (Karen) to the club to see Henny Youngman with the introduction scene in Boogie Nights of Dirk at the California pool party. Same incredibly long steadicam shot showing the transition from the regular “outside” life into the “fast lane insider” life. Both travel around and down – full immersion into another world – BN is far more literal, as you would expect. Just the tip of the iceberg – or skimming the surface, if you will.

    As to my other point – your post has struck a chord with me regarding Obamamania and its possible explanations.

    Apogee (366e8b)

  19. People don’t talk like the people in Juno either, but that apparently hasn’t stopped the academy from fawning all over a poorly written, overly tripe, soulless piece of shit like it as well.

    As for PTA and Altman/Scorcesse, he freely admits ripping them off, its more of an amosshe than any thing else. Furthermore, PTA was hired to stand by for Altman in Prarie Home Companion because Altman admired his work.

    gabriel (180095)

  20. Gabriel – Yes, and PTA dedicates TWWB to Altman. So who do you admire more, DePalma or Hitchcock? It’s nice to admire people’s work, and of course there are no truly 100% original films, but what Justin seems to be saying, (and I agree) is that without PTA there will still be a Scorsese. The other way around is questionable.

    Apogee (366e8b)

  21. Once Halley Berry received her Oscar and declared all was balanced in the universe I never felt a need to watch the Oscars again 😉

    Never have been much of a movie buff. Too busy with other things I guess.

    voiceofreason2 (ae70e4)

  22. Yeah, the only movie made in the last twenty years that I thought was worth two hours of my life was “Miller’s Crossing” by the Coen brothers*. We recently rented the new “3:10 To Yuma”. What a bloody incoherent waste of a good story. The original with Glen Ford and Van Heflin was much better. (If that’s what Justin is talking about when he mentions remakes.)

    nk (669aab)

  23. I agree with most of your points, Justin, but you’re a nutjob if you consider Brando’s performance in Godfather to be the bellwether of naturalism. People have been parodying Brando’s ham sandwich for thirty-five years since. When’s the last time you saw a stand-up comic say, “Here’s my impersonation of Jimmy Caan in The Godfather”? Likely never, because Jimmy, Al and friends were actually good.

    Also Pacino was great in Scarface. That’s the wrong pic to skewer if you wish to delineate where Al started to go wrong. Try Devil’s Advocate instead. That’s more like it.

    DubiousD (6c5a81)

  24. Justin @ 9:

    Greatest working director has been a meaningless phrase ever since Akira Kurosawa retired.

    No Country is going to do very well at the Oscars.

    Mike Llaneza (842b9c)

  25. Brando’s godfather is a study in understatement and restraint compared to Pacino’s scarface. If i had a nickel for every time a would be comedian said “say hello to my little friend” or “you filthy cock-a-roach” , well, yuou know what i mean.

    stepskipper (4fc107)

  26. Dubious D –

    The mere fact that a performance can be parodied doesn’t make it bad performance devoid of naturalism. The key is – when you parody it, are you able to capture the exact flavor of the performance? If so, then there might be something wrong with the performance. You can stuff cotton balls in your mouth, grimace, and say “Look at how day massacred mi boy!”, but I doubt you’d be able to convey the true emotion that Brando managed to pull off there. Also – do you notice how nobody even tries to parody Brando’s final scene in that film, when he is playing with his grandson? There’s a reason for that.

    If you think I was “skewering” Al Pacino in Scarface, then you simply didn’t read my post very closely. Read it again. Nor am I skewering Daniel-Day Lewis in this film. There is a difference between skewering a performance and skewering a decision to nominate someone for an Oscar and proclaim a performance to be “the best of the century”.

    Justin Levine (b5c8e2)

  27. Brando’s last scene was his best, probably because it was improvisational. It’s when Brando was forced to read lines that he came across as too “theatrical”. DeNiro made a much more naturalistic, more believable Don Corleone in G2.

    Thanks for the clarification on Scarface.

    DubiousD (f65da6)

  28. Hey, are we done skewering Paul Thomas Anderson yet ?-

    Burt Reynolds as porn producer Jack Horner was a scream. Amazing, I thought. Entertaining, seedy, seamless, no-nonsense and strangely paternal. I wanted him to win the Oscar that year.

    Vermont Neighbor (c6313b)

  29. If ever Burt deserved an Oscar it was for Boogie Nights.

    DubiousD (e64481)

  30. Justin, I totally agree with you. When you said this:

    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.

    I was strongly reminded of an article I have read by Orson Scott Card (the novelist) where he talks of running into writers who scoff at his naive (in their minds, at least) question of “what is your story about?” because they think (and say) that it doesn’t matter at all what the story is about, what is important is finding a style. Card disagrees, and so do I. Truly great film and writing is great because of the depth of character, and the way the audience cares about either the characters or the story. If great cinematography, etc. can help communicate that depth, that’s great, but “form over substance” is not a great attitude to have when making a movie or writing a book (or, for that matter, picking a presidential candidate, to reference something else in the news).

    Linus (78d551)

  31. I think style actually evolves from storytelling. Frank Capra had a style; Hitchcock had a style. Both teamed with strong collaborators, Robert Riskin and John Michael Hayes.

    Vermont Neighbor (c6313b)

  32. “We recently rented the new “3:10 To Yuma”. What a bloody incoherent waste of a good story.”

    -nk

    I agree. That movie was a waste of talented time. Explain to me why a ruthless bandit (who kills a guy with a fork) spends the whole movie trying to escape his captors only to kill his gang when they try to rescue him and get on the train he so strenuously avoided in the first place?

    Stupid ending. Yikes.

    Leviticus (3c2c59)


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