Best of the 2000’s: Discussion #9

The following is the ninth of ten planned online discussions between MATCH CUTS and THE FILMIST regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.

THE FILMIST: Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those filmmakers that people seem to regard purely by his influences, for some reason or another. I think that’s a little fallacious, myself – while his inspirations are obvious, this isn’t a fault. And, with that in mind, I believe that if that is the attitude people are going to take toward his films, then surely we can regard There Will Be Blood as the best Kubrick film by someone who – well, isn’t Kubrick.

MATCH CUTS: Interesting, since most critics reference Altman when discussing Anderson. But Kubrick definitely comes to mind with Blood, especially in the opening moments where it’s just visceral images and sounds, no dialogue. Directors like PT Anderson, even Wes Anderson, always will have their detractors because their films are uncompromising and personal. There Will Be Blood is basically a beast of a film, a shifty, expansive epic that complicates ideas about family, and how religion and commerce fit in with familial relations.

F: It’s certainly Anderson’s best film, so far – something that seems to rise like a foreboding piece of music over the course of its running time, hitting its peak during the explosion of the oil well and H.W. being deaf-stricken, and then into a slower, deeper decline until its inevitable end comes, with Plainview finally and totally throwing off the last of his human relationships.

MC: What struck me while watching this film was how singular it feels, even when Anderson is dealing with sequences occupied by multiple characters, elaborate tracking shots, it’s so completely focused on Day Lewis’ facial expressions, the way his face contorts expressing different emotions. Whereas something like No Country For Old Men is really concerned with the atmosphere and how characters traverse landscapes, Blood seems to resonate from the inside out, the burning from within Plainview, the anger, the conniving need for control and power. I compare the films not only because you have both on your list but they came out the same year.

F: True – and, I think one of the sequences that best showcases this is the oil-well explosion, with everything initially seeming to rotate around Plainview and his rush to move his son away from the blast, even the music, which moves away from the working tones that Greenway had employed previously and into something pulsating, and primevally simple. The comparison with No Country is apt, I think, because the two of them seemed to be brother – or sister – films to each other, with their shared emphasis on, among other things, the quiet, used differently between them though it was.

MC: Blood really uses quiet in a disturbing way, outside of genre conventions. There are no expectations in the form of violence, or narrative, just the sprawling three hour timeline of a man slowly being inevitably consumed by his ambition and vengefulness. It makes the film very jarring, shocking even when the silence turns into some awful moment of aggression.

F: Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is just a wonder, and it needs to be, since Anderson seems to have made the choice to focus so much of the film around his bountifully expressive face. And, it’s the silence that makes so many of those moments stand out – the awkward silence in the diner between Plainview and his business associates, the one just before between H.W. and himself, and so on.

MC: I think people get caught up in the WOW factor with directors like PTA and films like Blood because they are so visually sprawling and innovative, but what I’ve always loved about his films is the danger inherent in every moment, that the world will literally come crashing down, like the frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia, or the scene with Alfred Molina and Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, these moments make PTA’s outlook on the world very tenuous, and they are gripping to experience over and over again.

F: It’s intriguing, the contrast between this and his previous films create, in terms of environment, the urban with the sprawling rural, and so on. What were your thoughts on such a thing?

MC: Well, in terms of location they are very different, and even aesthetically Anderson evolves his roving camera style to a more confrontational series of set-ups mixed with virtuoso camera moves. In that sense, PTA is able to manipulate and adapt his own style to fit the story. With Blood, because it’s a period piece, and because it is dealing with an extreme contrast in tones, PTA utilizes Western iconography to open the film, then gradually compresses the location with buildings and oil derricks. His previous films rely on the sporadic and dynamic movement of modern day civilization, whereas Blood is expressing a classical, menacing, disciplined approach to exploring the environment.

F: He’s a very malleable director, and that’s one of the things I so enjoy about watching his films as he continues to develop, adapting his virtuoso style into different genres and contexts, and so on. One of the other things I so enjoyed about this film was the pitting together of religion and capitalism in a way that was nearly completely Marxist in structure – which isn’t a bad thing. The way it seems that they’ve both been placed in the hands of these idle, greedy little men, and that one is going to inevitably overtake the other, somehow – which is what happens, in the end.

MC: And that they both feed off of each other’s limitations, organically almost. He really pits them against each other in a way the suggests one cannot live without the other. It’s almost like Plainview and Eli are masochists of a sort, and fate guides them together time and time again, until eventually one destroys the other.

F: With a bowling pin.

MC: Yes, a blunt exclamation point if there ever was one. I think my favorite moment in the film is when Plainview first takes H.W. in as a baby, and they are sitting on the train and Plainview rocks the baby back and forth, and Day Lewis’ performance suggests a honest father/son moment, where hope should be springing forth. But of course it doesn’t, and it’s just one of the many moments where Plainview’s relationship with H.W. takes on a complexity, but he always chooses the black gold when it matters the most. The great tragedy is that Plainview cannot envision a world where a man of his stature can be a caring father and a ruthless businessman.

F: That particular inner battle is something that seems to come to its culmination near the end of the film, as he rebukes his son entirely, casting him out as an orphan and a ‘bastard from a basket,’ entirely because he’d chosen to go out and follow his father’s example. It’s telling that it’s not longer after that he does what he does to Eli.

MC: Well, and that suggests that Plainview’s anger finally overwhelms him and culminates in the shocking moment at the bowling lane. But the layers of the performances create this tug of war between being a father and being a successful mogul. The conflict is always raging, even in that final scene with H.W., where Plainview is such a blatant bastard to his son.

F: I’m always left wondering what happened to Plainview after the end credits, because it’s such a stark sequence – is he locked up, is he sent to an asylum, or – ?

MC: PTA lets his lead characters simply suffer in a confined space, and this film more than any of his others suggests that Plainview will be in tormented by his own pitfalls for the rest of his life, even if he gets away with murder.

F: Aw – poor guy, I guess.

MC: Yeah, no one’s feeling sorry for him that’s for sure. But we can’t help but be fascinated by his gaps of humanity.

F: He’s an intriguing character, certainly. One of the most wholly created of the last decade, I think.

MC: For sure. Well, in terms of visual splendor I don’t think there’s a more mesmerizing film of the last decade than Terrence Malick’s The New World, a film that unlike There Will be Blood, seems to progress like the very rivers and canals it so often displays. No filmmaker captures the kind of physical and audible connection man can have with nature like Malick. I said in my review that he taps into nature’s subconscious, as if we are seeing the changes and shifts first hand, experiencing them wholly, anew.

F: It’s funny, just before I sat down and re-watched The New World, I saw Days of Heaven again, and I was struck by the shared motif of long mazes of grass that act as the scene of play and recreation for the natives, and the workers. Malick’s lyricism really takes you full force, here – from the opening sequence that melds fish with the swimming tribesmen to the sudden attack on John Smith in the swamps. And, through it, we watch the gradual separation between a tribes-woman from her culture, as she becomes more and more a woman of Smith’s frame of mind.

MC:  Yes. Watching this on the big screen in 2005 reminded me why I we do what we do, you know, why we spend all of this time writing and discussing films. Because every once in a while, a film like The New World comes along and connects on a level that transcends your usual cynicism or pre-conceived notions, the way the sounds of the swamp, the forest, just merge into this downright sublime vision of the world, it’s heartbreaking in a way. This is our origin story, the first American love story, and with it comes the realization that the beauty somehow gets drained when the terrain, when the relationship gets tainted by our need to explain it, to label it.

F: It’s funny – like There Will Be Blood, this film is without real dialogue for the first ten minutes, past grunts and eres of curiosity. But, where Anderson seemed to be trying to invest in wide-spanning, silent tableaux, Malick fills the first few frames of this picture with the noise and confusion and even a little bit of triumph, arcing over the ships arrival – and following their docking through the trees, with running commentary by the Indians.

MC:  Malick constructs these opening images around the land, the sounds and hums of the location, whereas Anderson focuses intently on the noise and motion of one man’s ambition. The New World is like a collective poem slowly turning sour. But the opening sequence is that first brush of excitement before the long descent. I adore the shot from under water, the low angle looking at the “Naturals” pointing off to the distance. It’s a sister shot to the underwater shots in The Thin Red Line. Both exude the purity of nature before reality sets in and the conflict between men overwhelms the serenity of the land they inhabit.

F: I love those first few moments after the tribesmen have stepped off the boat and into England, near the end of the film – the utter sound, commotion and sheer crowdedness of civilization under a grim and cloudy sky creates a stark contrast with the wide-open plains bordered by the blue and the white that had been our moving grounds for most of the film, and that sequence where Pocahontas does a double-take as she comes upon a black guy in the street – and, the confusion of the tribe leader in the outdoor hedge.

MC: Yes, those scenes are always jarring after nearly two hours of picturesque tracking shots and hand held two shots. For Malick, civilization has always represented the inherit degenerative qualities in man. The moments in England that you described are all very condensed in terms of framing, cluttered with distracting movement and commotion. It’s really the dark parallel to the opening that we discussed earlier. The only noises are those of industry and squalor.

F: And, then Malick returns to the peace of nature in the final closing shots of the film – of a running brook and a river, and an old tree. And, instead of music, only the sounds of nature fill our ears during the end credits sequence, at first.

MC: He leaves us with a reminder of the ridiculous beauty right in front of us, even today. And thankfully he sees the process as worthwhile. His films are all about the experience of facing new emotions, confronting the unimaginable, whether it be murder in Badlands, love in Days of Heaven and The New World, or war in The Thin Red Line. The one constant through them all is the lucid connection we can make with out surroundings, and The New World really is his most romantic film, not just between man and woman, but between the human race and the art of discovering new lands. The film is very focused in this sense, yet very meandering at the same time.

F: This is true – not just between the English and the new American land, but between the Indians and the British world, as well. It’s a shame he only makes one film every ten or fifteen years or so, I think – as you said in a previous conversation, he really is one of the most influential directors we’ve had, yet.

MC: Malick works on another plane than anyone else. He’s enigmatic in the most extreme sense of the word, yet everyone wants to work with him, even big stars will sacrifice everything to be in his films. Yet he’s always able to shred the image of the star and create an environment where the actor becomes integrally connected with the terrain. The landscape, the sounds, the weather, are just as important to Malick as the actors, maybe even more crucial. This fact makes his films exhilarating to watch again and again.

F: This is true.

MC: In 2010 we’ll hopefully get Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, very exciting prospects.

F: I’ve been following that pretty closely, and I have to say, I’m intrigued. I mean, dinosaurs, dude.

MC: We’ll see how he pulls that off.

F: With black magic, of course.

MC: And surely the same attention to the detail of nature in motion.

F: It would seem so, even just from the set pictures we’ve received, so far. And, again – the film is called The Tree of Life, which seems like a pretty large indicator of nature’s role within the story.

One thought on “Best of the 2000’s: Discussion #9

  1. Pingback: “Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Ninth « The Filmist

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