Monday, February 18, 2008

There Will Be Blood, or On Paternal Strife (AGAIN)

Like Antony Minghella, PT Anderson is continually going above and beyond with his preternatural technique as a filmmaker, crafting undeniable touchstones for high-quality modern cinema in the process. And like Antony Minghella, it invariably leaves me cold.

Obviously there's some remarkable thematic back-and-forth going on, and the film's technical flawlessness is justified by a script that bravely humanises bloated plutocrat and wide-eyed faith healer alike. A lesser author would deal in broad strokes of dastardly, crazed, scheming and devout: Anderson's film is at its best when allowing the back-and-forth of ambition and faith to blur each others' edges.

The film takes a turn around halfway through, though: what had been a slow-burning meditation on how the West was won and where it got us ignites into the director's usual sturm und drang w/r/t the trials of paternal angst. It's an easy sort of autopilot, guiding the proceedings to their conclusion; but by that time, the film seems to have forgotten somewhat what it's about.

Day-Lewis' closest performance to this was his swaggering villainy in Gangs of New York. Like this film, that one dealt with an uneasy adopted father-son relationship in the crucible of America, red in tooth and claw; but unlike this pic, Gangs was more on-target the more twisted and operatic it became.

So it's not that Blood's paternity-is-a-bitch handwringing automatically disqualifies it from having anything interesting to say. Many of the most moving moments in cinema - from Night of the Hunter to 25th Hour - have played on the uneasy relationship between fathers and their (often notional) sons. Anderson himself has given us plenty of these moments: in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Magnolia.

But take a look at the career of, say, Steven Spielberg. Find the last time the fellow made a film whose emotional undercurrent wasn't structured around this particular tentpeg, and notice just how laboured the narrative can become - War of the Worlds, Munich - in its need to work in the same damn subplot into every damn movie.

PT Anderson is often called the new Altman, by virtue of his large-scale, densely-populated melodramas. But as apt a comparison might be Spielberg: he's the new film-geek's filmmaker. Just as Spielberg used his encyclopedic experience of film to further the medium where contemporaries like De Palma were content to turn out highly enjoyable pictures whose every shot was an open quote, homage, reference or steal, so Anderson sets himself apart from the Tarantinos and Smiths of the modern film-geekosphere by using his technical acumen to innovate rather than ape. But so far, he's jumping the gun somewhat in falling to the same faults.

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