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American Crude: There Will Be Blood, Take 2

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American Crude: There Will Be Blood, Take 2

I caught the latest Paul Thomas Anderson debacle at a press screening on November 28, well before the critical drum circle had risen to its current “Burning Man” pitch. In the clear light of late autumn drizzle, There Will Be Blood appeared to be no more and no less than what it truly is: a bomb, and an overwrought one at that. It may be a tonier work than the detestable Boogie Nights, but Anderson’s underlying crudeness and his overkill “sensibility” haven’t evolved an iota. (Yes, Virginia, I can hear the jihadists singing in the comments section already.) A friend who hated the movie as much as I did asked afterwards, as we dodged rain in the Oaktree Cinema parking lot, “Did that amount to anything beyond a couple of games of one-upmanship?” I confessed I hadn’t thought of Blood in those terms. Still, her question perfectly encapsulated the anorexic one-dimensionality of the picture, and I had to agree.

First things first: I adore Daniel Day-Lewis. Always have. And while it might be nice to hitch my RV to the Dodge pick-up truck of hosannas greeting his Blood work, I must counter that Day-Lewis, in rendering the Texas-for-Central California scenery to mucilaginous mush, turns in the worst performance of his career to date. Granted, Scorsese-phobe that I am, I haven’t subjected myself to Gangs of New York, yet I fail to see how it could be ghastlier than the one-note, one-scale Sean Connery brogue that Day-Lewis affects as wildcatting oilman Daniel Plainview, a frontier charlatan gobbling up all available land, circa the early 1900s, in order to drill, to uglify the landscape and thus line his pockets with filthy lucre.

Second: Anderson remains as naïve as ever about big business. (By extension, so must the uncritical critics who are lauding/anointing this trash—anointing it with oil?—as the best film of the year.) Blood has two or three set-pieces devoted to the tycoon’s flamboyant lack of scruples, the most noteworthy and memorable being a Sunday prayer meeting in which Plainview falsely converts to Christianity in order to secure a land deal. I have to ask what is so insightful or novel about showing us that a businessman will say or do anything to get what he wants. Anderson serves up this chestnut of predictability (i.e. espousing religion to fleece the faithful) as if it were nouvelle cuisine, an exotic dish we’d never tasted, instead of trite gruel worth spitting in the screen’s direction.

Third: I’m quite fond of Paul Dano, although, no, I haven’t seen Little Miss Sunshine and don’t intend to. Dano left indelible impressions both in Fast Food Nation, an uneven yet worthwhile film, and in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, a sublime, almost completely unheralded masterpiece from Rebecca Miller. In Ballad, Dano and Day-Lewis played adversaries, as they do in There Will Be Blood. The antagonism between them in Miller’s movie rang true: Dano’s slacker punk Thaddeus deflowered Jack’s teenage daughter Rose (an exquisite Camilla Belle); you could feel, perhaps share in, Jack’s rage. When he struck Thaddeus, the violence grew organically out of the situation. Dano and Day-Lewis, despite the vast differences in their experience, their training, their ages, were believable, perfectly natural with each other. In Anderson’s movie, since nothing makes a damn bit of sense anyway, and as Dano is miscast, and therefore not remotely convincing, as an evangelist, the conflict between the caricatures they’re asked to play feels like some sort of dubious parlor game. More on that anon. Suffice to say, I had looked forward to seeing Dano in an extended role, in a “grown-up” part, as opposed to his usual now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t, anti-establishment young curmudgeons. But because the writing is so flat, so unsurprising, and because all Anderson as a director knows how to do with actors is to get them to be loud or louder, Dano flails around discombobulatedly. He’s never disgraceful, exactly—he just can’t inhabit the skin of a backwoods preacher. (Then again, Anderson has conceived the role so disingenuously, so shallowly, that even an actor with a few more rabbits in his hat would be unlikely to stoke a flame into this emberless fire.)

Dano, nonetheless, relishes playing Eli Sunday; that’s obvious enough when Plainview smacks Eli around in a dirty puddle, sullying him with black goop, and hours later Eli remains caked with dried mud whilst seated at his family dinner table—perhaps the lessons absorbed from his humiliation will lend his complexion a rosy glow. Just because Dano relishes the challenge of the role, however, doesn’t mean he’s up to it. Circling his clapboard pulpit, Dano’s Eli lacks the charismatic qualities of a true, faith healing huckster. Dano reads his lines tentatively in the early scenes, as if from cue cards, and although the actor livens up as the action becomes more outré, a scene in which the black-garbed Eli “casts out demons” from an elderly villager’s arthritic hands doesn’t transcend the meaningless exorcism theatrics. (Again, bad direction.) Furthermore, Eli’s short hair, while suitable to the time and place, isn’t particularly flattering; it emphasizes the moon-shape of Dano’s face, his brutal nose, the odd sheen of his cheekbones.

There are, in this 158-minute film, a few effects, mainly photographic, that go right: a white cloud overhead reflected in a pool of oil; a neat, economical cut of a boy and girl playing outdoors, then standing at an altar, as young adults, exchanging their vows. In a prologue of Plainview’s solo silver-mining expeditions, Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit evoke a sense of the physical difficulty, the loneliness, the extremism of the pursuit. Down in the pit, a bearded, grimy Plainview hacks away at a rock wall. When he emerges above ground, into brightest day, it is into sunlight as harsh and punishing as the dark inside the earth.

Minor virtues, welcome as they are, cannot begin to salvage There Will Be Blood. Anderson directs nearly each shot of the baked brown earth, the dusty rubble of the landscape, as if staging a requiem, which may account for his overuse of a florid, funereal score by Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead, writes music as if he learned everything he knows about composing by taking a brickbat to hornets’ nests. Endless pizzicato, in other words, complete with slide-down-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach glissandi for a crazed string quartet. What’s worse, Anderson rosins up the soundtrack with this horror bowing even when there’s no connection between it and the images on screen. (The awful sounds match the Gothic typeface Anderson insists on for title credits, but that’s all.) Of course, Anderson wants us to be prepared, well in advance, for the inevitable. When rickety 1902 oil-derricking equipment collapses, two men are buried alive in the well of a gusher, an event that finds the director still slathering it on, as in his days of Boogie Nights, lingering over the icky misfortunes of the newly dead.

I cannot thoroughly go into what makes this film such a stale milk-dud without revealing the ending. So herewith you have one of the ever-popular “spoiler alerts.” After decades of conniving, wheeling, dealing, and stealing, Plainview ends up as an old, drunk, embittered businessman, a dispenser of gratuitous cruelty who, having attained every material good, in reality has nothing. He’s empty inside. What a revelation! (Perhaps here Anderson shows steadfast faith to his source material, Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! Be that as it may, the director has found no angle to “make it new.”)

So wealthy has Plainview become that he’s had a bowling alley installed within the bowels of his impressively gloomy mansion, and it is here that Blood’s dreadful, self-consciously “iconoclastic” finale unfurls. Plainview and his much younger, physically smaller enemy Eli Sunday reunite in what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of hoisting a jackhammer to swat at a fly. The men indulge in a mind game, of which Plainview has an easy victory, and then arrives the thwacked-by-bowling-balls climax, wherein Plainview torments Eli from lane to lane before beating the evangelist face down into a pool of blood, the “holy” man’s head bashed with a nine-pin. A servant, oblivious to the corpse on the floor, motions to remove Plainview’s dinner plate: “Are you finished, sir?” “Yes, I’m finished,” quacks Day-Lewis. Cue the third movement from the Brahms Violin Concerto (its resplendent orchestral sweep defamed to the level of a punch line) to accompany the closing credits. The end!

It’s a tacky, indefensibly stupid conclusion to an aggressively pointless film. And in it, Anderson nakedly reaches for mythmaking, for old Hollywood (i.e. the 1970s), for what Pauline Kael might have termed the visceral poetry of pulp. Only it’s a sham. Anderson wants us to applaud his swashbuckling bravado, yet how can we when it isn’t a fair match? It’s redundant for Plainview to kill Eli. There’s no sting in seeing the faith healer destroyed because he was never a threat, merely an annoyance. It’s a cartoon version of the Chinatown finale, but instead of being shaken by the ruthlessness of evil, Anderson’s flippant, ironic-celebratory undercurrent means we’re supposed to feel triumphant. Which I suppose is how a schizophrenic or a bully—or a smug hipster—thinks a movie should end. Anderson dedicates There Will Be Blood to the memory of the late Robert Altman who, in death, now conveniently serves as the patron saint for phonies everywhere. Much more so than Altman, Anderson’s studied pose here reminded me of what I wrote in 2004 on seeing another atrocious film, David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. Somewhere, Russell had been quoted as saying, “I think the most daring thing about [Huckabees] in a way is its optimism.” Between Russell’s so-called optimism and Charlie Kaufman’s pessimism, it now bears repeating, we are stuck with a cinema of absolute zero, the illogical regression of which moves the medium ever closer to a series of blank screens. Three years later, I take the stunning moral and aesthetic failure of There Will Be Blood (as well as the bowling ball subtlety of the praise that surrounds it) to be dismal proof of precisely that.

House contributor N.P. Thompson writes about film for Willamette Week and Northwest Asian Weekly.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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