Sunday, January 13, 2008

Réponse de femmes/There Will Be Blood/Hard Eight

[I took a break from Berlin Alexanderplatz this weekend, but my review of the epilogue and final thoughts on the miniseries will be up Tuesday morning.]

Réponse de femmes is a brief essay-film by Agnès Varda, in which she ruminates on what it means to be a woman, what the essence of femininity might be, and how women are defined (and limited) by society. It's an interesting film, although in its short 8 minute running time it can't do much more than pose questions, which Varda does both in the dialogue and in texts, mostly held up on clear screens by the cast of women. The film's texts wonder about what makes a woman (her body or her mind?), and how the representations of women in society (especially in advertising and the media) are geared more towards male desire than the actuality of women themselves. Varda also poses the familiar dilemma of the Madonna and the whore, although not in so many words — the women in the film complain about the double standard of a society that tells women to cover up and be modest in one breath, while in the next telling them that sex sells and inundating everyone with images of commodified female sexuality.

In that regard, Varda's short treatise walks a fine line itself by having the women in the film appear nude, and never adequately explaining why this nudity is distinct from the more common sexualized, commodified nudity of male desire. The film attempts to draw a distinction between empowered, open sexuality that doesn't hide itself, and open sexuality as an object of male desire. The difference isn't especially clear, though, and Varda isn't able to satisfactorily problematize the question of female sexuality. You put a desirable naked woman in a film, even a feminist tract, and she will be desirable. You have a man watch the film, and the naked woman will become an object of male desire. Varda's film doesn't take into account questions of audience in this manner, although parts of the film's text are explicitly addressed to men, and she also doesn't bother to question the extent to which desire and sexuality can be independent of context. She seems to assume that because these women appear naked in a film that questions and discusses male desire, that the representations of nude women here are any different from similar representations in different contexts. Which is not to say that her film is particularly arousing (it's not), but that there doesn't seem to be much tangible difference in the way that Varda presents images of naked women, as opposed to the more overtly sexualized depictions of such images in mainstream culture.

Despite these problems, which can probably be blamed primarily on the briefness of Varda's essay, Réponse de femmes is an intriguing and playfully witty examination of female sex roles and the (self-)representation of women. It's reminiscent of some of Godard's shorter essay-films, in that it doesn't come to any real conclusions or answer any questions definitively, but it does an excellent job of raising issues and provoking thought.

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film There Will Be Blood is, as most preliminary reports have suggested, an incendiary, confounding, complex film that defies easy encapsulation even as it inexorably draws the viewer into its unique space. The film chronicles the bloody intersection of a holy triumvirate in American culture since time immemorial: religion, greed, and family, though not necessarily in that order. With these subjects at the film's core, and the early days of the American oil industry propelling its narrative, it's very tempting to read the film as an allegory on current affairs, even though the film has not a whiff of overt (or even implied) political content. I think, rather, though it's hard to imagine that Anderson didn't have the contemporary world in mind when choosing to adapt Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! at this particular time, the film is better understood as an examination of archetypal forces and the ways in which they are unified by their seeming conflicts.

The film's central character is the self-proclaimed "oilman" Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who over the course of the film doesn't so much progress or change (like most dramatic characters do), as slowly unleash more and more of the inner depths that are churning inside him all the while. Plainview is dead-center in the film, appearing in practically every scene, and Day-Lewis' smoldering, unforgettable performance ensures that he dominates the film at nearly every moment. And yet he remains an elusive, challenging figure, his true nature only slowly revealing itself as his character draws further and further away from human society, and from the audience as well. "I don't like to explain myself," he says at one point, and Anderson's film never tries to explain him either. He's just there, a fact of life, a veritable American landscape all to himself, and like the landscape (which Anderson also views with a majestic but never merely pictorial eye), he has to simply be taken for what he is.

What this all amounts to is a character study that rigorously denies the psychological dimension in favor of the sheer physical facts of the character's existence. Plainview is an oilman, a shrewd businessman with a simple thirst for wealth and the process of acquisition. The emphasis is always on that process — the means rather than the ends. The "ends" of material wealth, for Plainview, is just an excuse, a distant justification for everything he does, something that he perhaps never even expects to achieve. At one point, some of Plainview's more established competitors in the oil business offer him a very tempting buyout proposition, an opportunity to become instantly rich and skip over the risky hard work of digging his oil fields on his own and then transporting the oil through hundreds of miles of pipeline to the ocean. His response to this offer is to ask, quite seriously, what he would do with himself then. It's not for nothing that the last line in the film, Plainview's final line, is his ambiguous "I'm finished," a line that carries with it multiple layers of meaning, for a man who equates achievement with the end of his life and purpose, and who nevertheless spends his entire life working towards this point. Greed as its own justification.

The film provides two counterpoints to Plainview's archetype of greed: religion, in the form of the boyish local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano); and family, embodied in Plainview's adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who Plainview took on after the boy's father, one of his employees, died in an accident. If the film's view of American entrepreneurism is bleak, it's dim view of these two institutions is possibly even bleaker. Eli is the film's antagonist, at least to the extent that a fiercely unlikeable character like Plainview can be defined as the protagonist simply because he's the central figure. In point of fact, though, Anderson links Eli and Plainview as opposing sides of the same coin, united by a common greed and power-lust, and divided only in terms of the methods they use to achieve these goals. It comes down, then, to means and ends once more, and the process-obsessed Plainview of course puts due emphasis on the difference in means rather than the commonality of ends.

The duel between these two opposing forces is couched in terms of an exchange of humiliations. The struggle for control began when Plainview denied Eli the opportunity to bless the former's oil derrick, thus refusing Eli a moment in the spotlight that he clearly craved. As a result, Eli takes a kind of perverse credit for all Plainview's mishaps, citing the lack of God's blessing as an explanation for all manner of tragedies and setbacks. When he goes too far in asserting this with Plainview, the oilman throws the churchman to the ground, slapping him and literally rubbing his face in mud, covering him in dirt and oil residue. The situation is reversed when Plainview, in the interests of business expediency, is forced to join Eli's church. In the darkly comic baptism scene, Eli forces his rival to abase himself, kneel before the congregation and admit he's a sinner, slapping him all the while in a comic echo of Eli's harrowing earlier humiliation. The tonal difference between the two scenes tells the whole story: whereas Eli's beating was fierce and terrifying, the scene where he turns the tables on Plainview rings hollow, as a tiny meaningless victory at best. Plainview does as he's told, but ends the ceremony by muttering under his breath a single word: "pipeline." This one word amounts to a retraction of his seeming conversion, the victory of money over spirituality — even if Eli's particular brand of spirituality is itself a matter of money. There is no spiritual foundation that can shake the power of Plainview's singleminded dedication to his greed, as the earth-shaking final scene of the film readily attests. God is dead, or at least religion as His earthly representation, but the film posits only men like Plainview as His successor: greedy, isolated from society, obsessed, hateful.

The conflicts and interrelationships between religion and capitalism provide the central narrative thrust in the film, but Anderson also opposes Plainview's all-American money-lust against the concept of the family. Some commentators, such as David Ehrenstein, have noted Plainview's distinct lack of sexuality in any sense, his seeming total disinterest in anything of a sexual nature. It's simply outside of his purview; note especially the scene at a brothel, where Plainview stares angrily straight ahead, while sexuality is admitted into the film only through the sound of laughter and music offscreen, with hazy shadows moving in the background. It's more than just asexuality, though. Plainview's character stands in opposition to family itself, to familial connectedness, and more broadly to all manner of human bonds. His adopted son, H.W., and the man who he briefly believes to be his half-brother, Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), provide the only semblance of family for Plainview, and he has a powerfully ambivalent relationship with each of them, encompassing a spectrum from domination to grudging kinship to rejection.

This is, admittedly, just a sketchy first attempt to engage with the great richness of There Will Be Blood, which is both a viscerally stunning film and one that's remarkably difficult to unpack. On its surface level alone, Plainview is a brilliant and iconic creation, and Day-Lewis' phenomenal performance deserves all the acclaim that's been heaped on it thus far. His measured delivery only heightens the sense of powerful forces seething below the surface of this man, so that the ultimate explosion retains its shock value even as it arises naturally from the boundaries set by the performance itself. Daniel Day-Lewis is of course a powerhouse actor to begin with, but what's more surprising is the breakout job Paul Dano does opposite him, bringing to his character exactly the mix of exuberance, sliminess, and self-righteousness it requires, without ever tipping over into caricature. Both men manage to play completely over-the-top characters as genuine human beings, no mean feat, and the chemistry between them is especially exhilarating anytime they appear together. The film as a whole is undoubtedly Anderson's finest accomplishment to date. From its nearly wordless opening 20 minutes to its risking-ridiculous-to-achieve-terrifying coda, the film's descent into the claustrophobic world of Daniel Plainview is complete, suffocating, and incredibly intense.

Having watched P.T. Anderson's latest film, I felt a sudden urge to revisit his first film, Hard Eight, which I remembered liking quite a bit but hadn't seen since the first time many years ago. This might've been a mistake, since Hard Eight is clearly a film on a whole different scale than There Will Be Blood, a modest first effort for Anderson in many ways. Even so, it holds up remarkably well as a more restrained and low-key character piece. The film opens with a shot that basically establishes the central relationships and character dynamics, without any dialogue or straightforward images of the characters in question. The opening shot begins with a wide view on a truck stop diner as a tractor-trailer pulls away, revealing a hunched figure on the ground outside, leaning against the diner wall. It turns out to be John (John C. Reilly), but for now his outline is just barely visible, and the camera begins to track in on him, revealing as it does the first glimpse of another man's jacket to the right of the frame, walking towards John. This is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), also unseen for now, except in a brief outlined glimpse in the mirrored surface of the diner's glass door as he stands over the figure slouched on the ground. This shot establishes the protective relationship that Sydney forms with John, while keeping both characters as abstracted outlines — hunched-up crying loser and fatherly protector. The film fills in these outlines with a wealth of detail and nuance in the remainder of its running time, but the essential dynamic was set up right from the start.

This attention to details and acute sense of telegraphing characterization or thematic elements through camera movement marked Anderson out early on as a writer-director worth watching, someone who had absorbed his influences (some said a little too well) from a steady diet of 70s American cinema. Hard Eight is, in an interesting parallel to Anderson's latest feature, about surrogate families and father/son dynamics, and in fact family structures seem to be a recurring theme of interest in all Anderson's films. Here, the aging gangster Sydney, long since retired from both his "hardass" days and his big-stakes gambling days, takes under his wing both the down-on-his-luck John and the sad-eyed prostitute/waitress Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). These two hapless losers stand in, in a literal sense, for the son and daughter who Sydney hasn't spoken to in years, but they also represent an attempt to make up for past mistakes and bad deeds. Sydney is an archetypal character, the kind of figure who seems to continually attract Anderson's attention — the archetype who can be filled in with detail, made real and human. His arc is an epic one, the atonement for past sins, told on a small scale and with a quiet grace and black humor that mutes the potentially overbearing tone of the story.

It's for this reason that a few scenes that don't accommodate this muted tone stand out in the narrative, disrupting its flow. Samuel L. Jackson, in particular, isn't suited to this tone, and his performance as the local lowlife Jimmy is in an entirely different key to the rest of the cast. This is doubtless part of the point — his character is an interloper and an outsider who threatens to destroy Sydney's makeshift family — but his performance often feels like it's clipped from an entirely different film altogether. Too often, Jackson's pattering dialogue just feels like space-filling nonsense, a vapid retread of his Pulp Fiction performance from two years prior, with the soul and the specificity drained so the character exists only as a cliché. The problem is compounded in the scene where Jimmy makes a revelation about Sydney's past, and Anderson seeks to drive home the shock through repetition; it does exactly what the rest of the film doesn't, which is to bear down too forcefully on the film's thematic undercurrents.

The rest of the film, though, functions beautifully, and the central relationship between Sydney and John is developed realistically and poignantly, with some crucial help from the actors. In one scene, Sydney tells John, over the phone, that he loves him like a son, and Reilly's reaction on the other end of the line is as affecting (and effective) a piece of acting as could be asked for in this kind of scene: he scrunches up his face and seems to be searching for an emotional stasis before stammering out a reply with as straight a face as he can muster. It both underplays and overplays the melodrama of the scene at once, capturing something real and raw in what might've been a stock bit of overemoting schlock. This skirting of bathos to find emotional connection has been a recurring motif in Anderson's work (excepting perhaps the endearingly oddball dissonance of Punch-Drunk Love), a willingness to engage with archetypal stories and ideas transferred into banal and stereotypically American settings. This is a fine debut from a director who, by all appearances, has only continued to blossom, with his most recent two features pushing him into more ambitious and original directions even as he continues to explore the kinds of thematic concerns and stories that interested him as early as his first film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ed you've written a compelling review - I particularly enjoyed the part where you discuss Plainview's sexuality.

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