Friday, February 22, 2008

I drink your critics! I drink it up!

I need to get this off my chest. I have a question for anyone who can answer it: What the hell is so wrong about There Will Be Blood?

Because I find the reaction from the critics perfectly maddening.

Let’s start with this quote from Roger Ebert’s review:

There Will Be Blood is the kind of film that is easily called great. I am not sure of its greatness. It was filmed in the same area of Texas used by No Country for Old Men, and that is a great film, and a perfect one. But There Will Be Blood is not perfect, and in its imperfections (its unbending characters, its lack of women or any reflection of ordinary society, its ending, its relentlessness) we may see its reach exceeding its grasp. Which is not a dishonorable thing.”

I need to tackle this one-by-one.

On the word “perfect.”

Here’s a crazy notion - films will never be perfect. They will forever remain fallible creations that are just as human as their creators. And that, to me, has always been the beauty of this art form. So why the hell would a world-renowned, Pulitzer-prize winning critic call a film – any film - “perfect?” That might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen Ebert publish. You critics do realize that
Movie Mistakes has listed 7 continuity errors in No Country For Old Men? That’s the most basic level of craftsmanship, is it not? Of course, the greatest films have continuity errors. Citizen Kane is listed as having 13. Godfather has 55. Does that make them any less great? Not at all. They’re all human films. But Ebert should’ve known better than to call any film, much less No Country, “perfect.” That’s absurd. (And ironically enough, Movie Mistakes has yet to find one single mistake in There Will Be Blood. Not one. The only complaint they posted is that oil periodically splashed onto the camera lense. Big deal. I’m sure there are mistakes, although I’ve seen it twice and have not noticed any.)

On “it’s unbending characters.”

When did the characters ever “bend” in No Country? Can anyone tell me that? Let me quote
Anthony Lane: “The movie charts no moral shift in Chigurh, or indeed in the men around him; all of them are set in stone from the beginning...” Exactly. Never once did Chigurh or Moss ever waver in their single-minded pursuits. (While you can’t say that Bell was “unwavering,” he consistently wavered until the very end.) Doesn’t all of this mean that the characters of No Country were flat and weak in their construction? They’re great characters, but in the debate about the best film in the land, they don’t measure up. It’s not essential to me that a character has an arc, but in great films, they ought to have depth. And critics should criticize weak characters. Stephen Hunter of the The Washington Post may be the only one who did his job. He wrote, “You can't say it cuts to the chase. There was never anything to cut from to the chase. It's all chase, which means that it offers almost zero in character development. Each figure is given, a la standard thriller operating procedure, a single moral or psychological attribute and then acts in accordance to that principle and nothing else, without doubts, contradictions or ambivalence. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the laconic vet who finds the stash, is pure Stubbornness. His main pursuer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in Robert Wagner's haircut from "Prince Valiant"), is Death, without a pale horse. Subsidiary chaser Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is Pride, or possibly Folly. Tommy Lee Jones appears in the role of Melancholy Wisdom; he's a lawman also trying to find Llewelyn but not very hard. He'd much rather address the camera and soliloquize on the sorry state of affairs of mankind, though if he says anything memorable, I missed it.”

Why would the critics heap so much praise onto a film with weak characters? I just don’t understand this. While Chigurh and Moss were one-note instruments in their pursuit of money, Daniel Plainview was a full orchestra whose pursuit of money sent him headlong into madness. Ebert pinned the right “unbending” criticism onto the wrong movie. And I would argue that Plainview did a hell of a lot of bending. He bent every time he negotiated. He made concessions to Eli when he bought the Sunday ranch. He made concessions to Bandey in order to get the pipeline through his land. He made an unspoken concession to H.W. and sent him off to a special school to get help, and thus, gave up his most valued prop to earn contracts. And when Daniel was forced to confess in the midst of his baptism that he had abandoned his child, he immediately bent again and had H.W. brought back home. And he bent even more to pay a teacher to stay with him.

On it’s “lack of women.”

This was a complaint that Manohla Dargis
leveled against the film, too, which I never understood. Who the hell says that every great film must have lead female characters? Or male characters, for that matter? Blood, as we know, was primarily about the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview, but the subplots centered around relationships between fathers and sons and brothers. What’s wrong with that? Who said that you can’t write a story that’s only about fathers and sons and brothers? Why can’t critics judge a film for what it is and not what it isn’t? Why can’t they look at it on its own terms and not complain about the absence of, say, female characters, who were never part of the story in the first place? I read the script before seeing the film and my only (very minor) complaint about Blood are the ways in which so many other sides of Daniel were cut. He was an even richer character on the page than in the film. For instance, you’d learn that he was impotent, which, if you really think about it, explained an awful lot.

On “any reflection of ordinary society.”

Is he honestly suggesting that where he felt Blood faltered in this area, the Coens succeeded? Is he mad? Can anyone rationally say that the world the Coens created in No Country was ordinary? What the hell does that mean, anyway? As far as I’m concerned, Anderson succeeded quite well at verisimilitude – the appearance of truth.

On “it’s relentlessness.”

I may be in the minority here, but I didn’t exactly find Blood all that relentless. I found No Country wholly relentless. In fact, I don’t know why Chigurh’s Terminator-like relentlessness wasn’t a bigger complaint amongst critics. Wasn’t that implausible to some? I recall Ebert’s
review of No Country having a complaint about the transponder. I’m almost certain he had a spoiler warning and a logic question about that transponder and how Chigurh kept finding Moss. I took Ebert’s thoughts with me into the theater when I first saw the film. And now, as I want to reread those questions again, they are no longer in the review. I had no idea that Ebert revises his reviews after he publishes them. Isn’t that cheating? Maybe he got complaints.

On “it’s ending.”

I’m wildly confused on what is exactly Ebert’s complaint about the ending. Earlier in the review, he wrote, “It has scenes of terror and poignancy, scenes of ruthless chicanery, scenes awesome for their scope, moments echoing with whispers and an ending that in some peculiar way this material demands, because it could not conclude on an appropriate note -- there has been nothing appropriate about it. Those who hate the ending, and there may be many, might be asked to dictate a different one. Something bittersweet, perhaps? Grandly tragic? Only madness can supply a termination for this story.” And that’s exactly what Anderson gave us. Plainview was, as they say, non compos mentis. And the ending accomplished exactly what, as Ebert said, “this material demands.” And yet, the ending is a complaint.

It’s confounding to me that critics like Ebert and even
James Berardinelli would criticize the ending of Blood and call it “poorly focused,” and yet, they’d give a pass to the ending of No Country, an ending where a character talks about a dream that had no bearing whatsoever on the story. In the novel, this dream was nothing more than McCarthy hinting at what would be his next novel, “The Road,” “a post-apocalyptic novel about a father carrying the fire to keep his son alive in a world of desolation.” This is okay? At least the ending Anderson gives us was wholly rooted in his story.

Timothy Noah published an article in Slate called
What’s Wrong With There Will Be Blood. I thought, “Finally, I’ll get some answers!” But there was not one word that I agreed with, not his complaints about the lack of “grand political themes” that he felt should have played out more (since when is the greatness of a film measured by its political themes?); its failure to answer the question “How does the world we live in work?” (this is a character study, not an economics class); how it’s “promisingly broad canvas shrinks” (the canvas was never broad but focused squarely on Daniel from beginning to end); that Plainview’s corruption was less defined as Joe Ross in the book (the reasons for Plainview’s corruption couldn’t have been more obvious); or finally, Noah’s belief that Plainview’s “evil” was “innate.” That’s not true. Plainview certainly wasn’t evil in the beginning so how did he wind up that way? It was not innate and Anderson never presented it that way.

But here’s the kicker:

Kathleen Murphy and Jim Emerson had a
Greatness Debate about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood. Kathleen beautifully reinforced my belief that people will embrace characters that are not sympathetic so long as they fascinate: “When I call Paul Thomas Anderson's movie something ‘new,’ I mean that he's working a kind of storytelling that doesn't really invite you in, but compels you to feel in your blood an awful process that is, as one reviewer aptly put it, both ‘sickening and elating.’ The unregenerate energy, call it a peculiarly American incubus, that has chosen to possess Daniel Plainview for a time finally leaves him empty and broken – ‘finished’ -- and moves on, seeking another vehicle for the dark, voracious appetite that is manifest destiny.”

But then she really fights passionately for Day-Lewis. She writes, “But Jim, Day-Lewis' performance is necessarily operatic, over-the-top, designed to be a ‘goddamn helluva show.’ His Daniel Plainview isn't small, and he is an authentic American monster. He's blood-kin to Ahab, whose obsession with a white whale mirrors Plainview's hunger for the oil that runs in the earth's veins. Day-Lewis takes this black-hearted creature inside him, and lets him burn his way out. This takes courage, or a kind of madness, a willingness to act out on the grand scale. Isn't your argument for the craftiness and calculation of his creation precisely the criticism -- all art, not heart -- that's been leveled against the Coens'
No Country for Old Men, a film we both admire? You say, ‘Here is a moral tale of one greedy and misanthropic bastard, a moral gnat played with grand flapping flourishes by a big actor.’ I believe Day-Lewis plays the hell out of a ‘greedy and misanthropic bastard,’ never once stepping outside his character to invite sympathy or empathy. What's ‘moral’ got to do with it? Plainview embodies D.H. Lawrence's description of the ‘black, masterless’ men who invaded the New World: ‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.’ The thrumming I hear in the very ground and air of TWBB grows out of Lawrence's insight that, from its founding, ‘America [was] tense with latent violence and resistance.’ We're talking metaphysics here, the stuff that made this country, dream and nightmare.”

And how does Jim Emerson respond? He says, “I have to tell you, Kathleen, when it comes to watching Day-Lewis, I fully acknowledge one fundamental reality over which I have very little conscious or rational control: I do not like him, Sam I Am. I do not like him in a hat, I do not like him with a bat. That response is almost autonomic.”

That might qualify as the most intellectually vapid statement any “critic” has ever said about an esteemed actor like Daniel Day-Lewis. It is offensive to my sensibilities that a man who fancies himself as a fill-in for Roger Ebert will totally dismiss a performance simply because he doesn’t like the actor. I say strip this man of his credentials and find another fill-in for Ebert, because Emerson clearly lacks the capacity to be objective about the true merits of a performance. This kind of automatic, knee-jerk dismissal of a celebrated actor is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty and it’s about as childish as the Dr. Seuss rhymes he used to back up his point.

But, to his credit, he gave one example:

“The movie's (black) heart is the speech Plainview gives to his presumed long-lost brother Henry, about how little use he has for people and how much he hates them. It's a breakthrough moment for Plainview, as he allows Henry into his confidence and his business: ‘I can't keep doing this on my own ... with these ... people.’ And then he laughs, dryly and too loud. It's too, too much: first the contemptuously pregnant pause, then the overemphasis on his disgust with the word ‘people,’ and finally that gilding-the-lily laugh. All Day-Lewis leaves out is the dastardly Snidely Whiplash twirl of his mustache… Day-Lewis shoves me right out of the movie. The emotional void, the disgust, the bitterness -- they're all qualities Plainview also exhibits, but he's a better salesman. If Plainview is trying to bond with his brother over whiskey and misanthropy, or to test Henry to see if he shares Daniel's all-consuming envy and entitlement (‘If it's in me, it's in you’), the oilman and the actor are overselling it egregiously. And that's the fatal miscalculation of this film and this performance: Day-Lewis isn't content to play this character; he stands apart from Plainview, judging him and telling us how we should feel about him, every step of the way. Plainview himself sucks the air out of any room he inhabits (even when he's outdoors), but I feel like Day-Lewis goes him one further, strutting and fretting to upstage his own character.”

I find the last few sentences wholly without merit. Day-Lewis undeniably embodied the man Daniel Plainview heart and soul. And I find any interpretation of Emerson’s about Day-Lewis’ performance in Blood to be worthless because, by his own admission, he doesn’t like the actor. But I do have a few of thoughts about this scene. I’ll grant Jim and Timothy Noah, who also complained about this moment, that it’s a weak scene. But the problem is not Day-Lewis. He played that scene as well as it could possibly be played. The problem is this weak on-the-nose writing, which usually transforms into bad acting even by great actors, and this is a great lesson learned for many aspiring writers. But is this weak scene truly fatal for the film?

When you compare this speech to Sheriff Bell’s dream, I’ll take “I hate most people” any day.

I’m finished.


terraling said...

Whoa! Steady on, anger leads to hate leads to the dark side MM! Unfortunately I can't answer your opening question because I'm in Spain and haven't had chance to see TWBB, but I have seen and really liked - notwithstanding your valid critique - NCFOM. All I'd say is although - ahead of Oscar time - the critics have turned it into an either/or, you are allowed to like both. Don't let them contaminate the feelings you may have/have had for a film.

I thought NCFOM has lots of strengths, although from a writing perspective I find it odd that it is nominated for best adapted screenplay inasmuch as it stuck very closely to what was a fairly filmic novel if I can say that. Contrast that with Atonement, say, where (against the grain) I thought the novel was fairly weak when I read it - the central part of the story was just not especially believable or engaging - whereas the film succeeded in making it much more real and affecting, and as such marks a real achievement.

Anyway, don't let the bastuds get you down...

Burbanked said...

Wow, MM, there's a whole lot of stuff in this piece that I'd like to comment on, so much so that I'm not really sure where to begin. So in order to keep this purely at comments-appropriate length, allow me to address just two points:

I don't think Bell's dream is irrevelant to NCFOM at all. This, in addition to Ellis' "that's vanity" speech, are what I believe define the entire movie's narrative mission. Bell's dream suggests the passing of time from young man to old, the sense that the world changes irrevocably and there is little we can do about it - yet some men, like Bell, still hold out some small "flame" of hope despite the cold and misery and hatred that the world holds. That Bell wakes up at that point in the dream suggests to me either that he has woken up and that sense of hope has evaporated along with the dream, or that he'll use the hope to keep on going. I'm still not sure which, but that's a great thing.

And I don't agree that the Plainview/Henry scene is weak at all. Plainview seems to be displaying one true hint of humanity here - he's opening up to another person whom he believes he can trust - yet in fact all he's espousing are more lies. He tells of how he longs for a time when he has enough money to get away from everyone, to find a sense of peace - yet in fact this isn't possible. He cannot be redeemed, not ever, not even by isolating himself from the world. He thinks he's opening up to Henry here, he's testing the limits of his own hatred and misanthropy, and ultimately he fails. I think that this scene is just another wonderful example of PTA throwing us a narrative curveball. We expect that Daniel is letting the light in here, we think that, by conventional movie storytelling standards, that this is the part of the character's journey that should logically arrive here - but, like much of this terrific film, the real point is a bit more subversive.

I think I've probably blown that whole "comments-appropriate length" theory, so oh well.

Spectacular post, though, MM, just as usual.

nic said...

I hate these damn critics too, because they just seem to generalize the comparison of these two really nuanced films. I love the Coens, I really really like No Country, but I love the ever-fuck out of There Will Be Blood. I have a lot of displaced anger because people are declaring it the lesser of the two. I know I should probably just feel sorry that people can't get into TWBB, but I don't. I just want to stab them.

But my homicidal thoughts aside, I love the point you make about the bendy characters because it hits where I think there's a big distinction between NCFOM and TWBB-- Both of the movies are really literary stories, but those great emotional arcs are fucking day and night in terms of how the characters react to the way the world is assaulting them.

NO COUNTRY is broadly fatalistic for humanity as a whole- you've got a really fragmented narrative across a bunch of characters that are pretty static and kinda emotionally inaccessible. Bell is a lawman like generations before- he's rote; everyone is rote. Passion is sublimated.

BLOOD on the other hand is a much more humanistic, focused emotional battle of a self-made man desperately trying to assimilate the outside world and not ever really making it. HW and all the other non-miserable characters indicate the good is possibly there, even if it does get corrupted along the way. The Passion is visceral.

How closely can you really compare the two? I suppose A Streetcar Named Desire goes right along with Jurassic Park these days. All I can figure is that as a critic, the cool thing is to champion the, broader, pessimistic indictment. Ebert damn says "how pitiful ordinary human feelings are in the face of implacable injustice." with regards to NCFOM. I see No County as a detail study of the implacable injustice. The pitiful ordinary human feelings in TWBB are what I find absolutely mesmerizing.

In part due to the same reactions I keep seeing, I can't help but feel like people just aren't digging deep enough in TWBB, because it's a much more internal than NCFOM which to me is very external. But what the hell do I know? MILKSHAKE, dammit!

Laura Deerfield said...

I agree that it's ridiculous to criticize the characters in Blood, while holding up No Country as perfect.

I loved both films. Both have flaws. But the flaws in No Country are precisely in character development. It's minimal. Mere sketches. Just enough to hold the plot and keep things moving. And in that film, that's fine. I am surprised at how many people find the dream speech at the end irrelevant. I thought it went on a little long, but was a good summation...just hated how abruptly they cut to black.

Blood, however is a character study. An in-depth exploration of an extreme and disagreeable man. It makes people uncomfortable because it's supposed to. To criticize it for not having women is absurd. My only disagreement was that we jumped from the return of his son to many years later too quickly.

Emily Blake said...

I've written my own thoughts about the film already, but I did just want to say one thing about the lack of female characters.

I had no problem with it for the most part because Plainview has other priorities so it's believable that he wouldn't worry about the ladies so much.

But during the confession scene Eli makes him say he's lain with women. And he confesses heartily that he has lain with women.

And I was like, he has? When did this happen?

Burbanked said...

I thought that originally too, Emily, but then it occurred to me that Plainview pretty much commits himself to saying anything Eli tells him to, just so that he can get the land for his pipeline. Plainview's emotional outburst is all lies, anyway, so what's one more?

Craig said...

I agree with your sentiments (was there a coordinated effort to bash the movie this week?), though not at the expense of No Country for Old Men. Both films are terrific and can co-exist peacefully, I think.

Mystery Man said...

terraling - Hehehe... No worries, man. They haven't gotten me down. I just love writing a good, feisty article. For the record, I pay very close attention to the critics, and I love Ebert and James Berardinelli, and the NYT reviewers. I'm the kind of writer who aspires to write 4 star films. And so when it comes to measuring how great is a great film, I've find their insights really lacking this year.

Alan - great comments. For the sake of discussion here's his speech (from the script):

“Okay. Two of 'em. Both had my father. It's peculiar. I'm older now'n he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he's the younger man. Anyway, first one I don't remember so well but it was about money and I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and snowin, hard ridin. Hard country. He rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothin goin by. He just rode on past and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down... and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.”

Our friend, Emerson, labeled the ending "perfect" in one of his articles on his blog. I'm not sure I still see it, and I certainly wouldn't label "perfect" on something that's still debatable.

With respect to that scene in Blood, I'd say that in every film, people want one or two moments where we'd see a character that's really deceptive like Plainview with his guard down like that. If we didn't see a moment where he's just being himself, you'd get criticized. In my first viewing, the audience chuckled at his line "I hate most people." Did they chuckle because they were laughing at him? No, I think they chuckled because in a small way that line resonates with many people nowadays, which makes that scene all the more pertinent for today's audiences. People talk like that more so than they used to. They hate stupid customers in their job, stupid drivers, stupid family members, etc.

Nic - "I see No County as a detail study of the implacable injustice." Absolutely! Great line! I don't know why, but it feels like a grand conspiracy to piss on "Blood," which I don't understand. It's lead me to ponder thoughts about "Blood" resonating too deeply with the critics or that they're hating this film for reasons other than its quality, which has not been revealed yet.

Laura - I completely agree. I view both films as flawed. We haven't returned to 70's cinema yet!

Emily - I think he talked about "lusting after women," but all the same, we never saw that. Good point.

Craig - "Both films are terrific and can co-exist peacefully, I think." I completely agree! Thanks for that.


Laura Deerfield said...

I should note that during the ending speech of No Country, I kept waiting for Bardem to show up and off the old man. So I wasn't sitting there listening to a rambling speech about a dream, but was tense with anticipation. And then he didn't, which made me sit there a minute before it sunk in that he simply wasn't relevant enough to the struggle between good and evil bother killing, that he had never made the commitment, the one he spoke about in the beginning, never become involved enough to make a difference.

If you didn't have that anticipation, if the thought that death was on it's way didn't hover over that speech - then yah, it woulda been a bore.

Mystery Man said...

I don't believe I had that sense of anticipation on my first viewing. I believe I was thinking "WTF" all the way through it. I could be wrong.


Homage said...

This all ties into the notion of a Platonic ideal for any script, or film, or work. It's a really difficult thing, because there's such a fine line between judging the merits of a work and imposing your own expectations on it.

When Ebert says NCfOM is "perfect", I agree with him: I honestly cannot think of any way that that movie could be better at doing what it does. Every frame, every line reading, every scene just goes exactly where it should and does exactly what it sets out to do. It is not a "perfect" movie in the sense that no movie can be made that is better than it (to claim sucha thing would be patently ridiculous); it is "perfect" in the sense that it utterly realises the potential of its own material and intentions.

But when you start thinking too hard about this, you can get to second-guessing just what those intentions are. I didn't love TWbB like I loved NCfOM, but when I read criticism like, "A blown chance to say something big about money and power in America", I'll immediately start to question the critic's judgement.

When you tell me, "this is what the movie could have done and didn't", what you're basically saying is, "I wanted the wrong things from this movie; I am incapable of judging whether this movie achieved the things it set out to achieve, because I was too busy watching to see if it did what I wanted it to".

I miss your point! I miss it up! And now, I have no point!

Mystery Man said...

Ooo... I do love your comments. Thanks for that. I think you really captured the spirit of Ebert's intention with "I honestly cannot think of any way that that movie could be better at doing what it does. Every frame, every line reading, every scene just goes exactly where it should and does exactly what it sets out to do." Of course, we as writers are always looking for weaknesses and ways of doing things better, and in "No Country", we had no character arcs and no character depth, which in our worlds is a big no-no and would have been areas I would've focused on in a revision. I'm wondering if you'd be willing to comment on those two complaints? I'd love to have someone answer that for me.

I hadn't read "A blown chance to say something big about money and power in America" about "No Country" but that would've upset me as much as the complaint that "Blood" lacked "grand political themes."

I loved this last paragraph, too: "When you tell me, 'this is what the movie could have done and didn't, what you're basically saying is, 'I wanted the wrong things from this movie; I am incapable of judging whether this movie achieved the things it set out to achieve, because I was too busy watching to see if it did what I wanted it to.'"

This makes me think a number of thoughts. That kind of comment only validates the idiocy of critics complaining about the lack of women in "Blood." But I question the greatness of "No Country," particularly when it's held up against "Blood." The ending in "No Country" is more debatable than in "Blood" and that leads to a discussion this very question - did "No Country" really give the "perfect" ending? (And as I mentioned, I think the characters have less depth than "Blood." Isn't that an important discussion when debating the greatest film in the land?) Now, to answer your question, if the greatness of a film is measured by whether it achieved the things it set out to achieve, then filmmakers who set out to achieve low-brow dumbed-down misogynistic comedies and perfectly achieved that goal should be granted an Oscar, yes? Is that the only way to measure the greatness of a film? Or should we look at other factors, like character depth?

I am curious to know your thoughts.


Mystery Man said...

I just want to add that in this argument about low-brow comedies getting Oscars, it's obvious that a film must have loftier goals. There has to be a good, defensible purpose to the artwork, and even in this respect "Blood" had loftier goals than "No Country."

I just found this statement they were making about chance vs. fate to be unsatisfying, but I was wholly satisfied by the statements in "Blood" about greed, selfishness, etc. His downfall is the stuff of greatness, akin to Citizen Kane.


Homage said...

I think that apart from our differences regarding Blood/No Country, you and I may be very much on the same page. I'll write more when I have time, but I'd just like to to clear up one thing:

The line, "A blown chance to say something big about money and power in America", is the opening salvo in Slate's piece, "What's wrong with There Will be Blood?". I wasn't put out by it because it was a failed criticism of my beloved No Country; I was annoyed that someone would get it so wrong right from the get when evaluating Blood. As you say, it's the same kind of thinking that slams a movie for lack of female characters or political macrocosm.

To my mind, both films are equally deserving of serious critical attention, but failing that, we can talk about them some more.

Which I will do soon.

Homage said...

What interests me about this discussion - and three people have started it with me in the past 24 hours - is that these are on the face of it such similar movies.

Both deal with destiny, fate and the problem of free will, and both use the exact same landscape as a sort of metaphor/backdrop for that dangerous freedom. (In both pictures, you could go anywhere - but watch it, cause anything could be out there). Both are a work that stands high in their author's canon, though both tread well-worn ground, both for their makers and cinema in general.

(I'm always wary when a movie starts to use the trials of paternal relations as a metaphor for the central character's soul - which Anderson movies do with alarming frequency - but that's nothing. If you tried to sell me No Country on the idea that it's about this psychotic hitman who's kind of a metaphor for the concept of Nemesis, I'd laugh in your face and ask why it hadn't gone DTV. Besides which, its central triad - crazy hitman / loser in over his head / basically good small-town cop - are hardly new tropes for the Coens).

And of course, both have endings that are invariably mentioned as either being great or incredibly confounding.

While Blood thrives on its character arcs - the progress of Daniel, Eli, HW, and how plutocratic capitalism run rampant taints all their journeys - I'd disagree with the notion that No Country is bereft of character change or depth. Just as the dark spirit at the centre of Blood is personified in - and yet somehow, disturbingly, almost apart from - Daniel, I'd argue that the core of understanding No Country is in noting how each character is defined in relation to Anton. And just when you think you've got it worked out - Anton is chaotic fate, Carson is order, Llewelyn is foolishness and Ed Tom is resigned incomprehension - the scene with Carla Jean turns the whole thing on its ear and reminds you that these are people as well as principles.

And they do change - Llewelyn's arc is classic hero's-journey stuff, moving through flight, defiance, confidence, and tragic flaw; Anton is first seen utterly sure of his grim role, but over the movie's course is gradually rendered less and less certain; Ed Tom goes through the tunnel without hesitation, and is rewarded with a glimpse of the light at the end.

I mean, I can say all this because I loved the movie. Obviously if it doesn't give you that same visceral feeling in your gut, it goes without saying that you, and all the folk I know who were more moved by Blood, have just as valid a reading of the picture, one in which it's not as perfect as I found it to be.

Which is another comment.

Homage said...

Your other question - that of success and intention - I'd answer by saying that (and I believe I may be borrowing this from Ebert, largely in spirit if not in letter) the best way we have of judging a film is by gauging its intentions, then evaluating how well we think it fulfilled those intentions.

It's fine to say that, say, XxX (xXx?) is a good film because it aims to be a shitkickin' action movie that moves a million miles a minute, yells at you a lot, and gives you a fun couple hours, and it fulfils those aims. I'd have no argument with that. (Everyone has at least one action movie that they feel this way about).

But nobody's going to seriously suggest that because XxX does exactly what it set out to do, that it's the best movie ever: because what it set out to do is a comparatively easy and well-worn path next to, say, what Safe sets out to do. To bring it back to the language I used earlier: XxX may be the Platonic ideal of what XxX can be, as a movie, but an imperfect gourmet dish is still a more interesting prospect for many than a perfect cheese sandwich.

I think movies should have noble aims. Some people I've said this to find it counter-intuitive, as if I'm saying that all movies should have a moral core and that a movie in which good triumphs over evil must necessarily be better than a movie in which moral lines are blurred. But yes, I think that movies - narrative art in general - have some sort of responsibility to do good in the world, even if that good is just within the field of advancing their art.

So I do think that a movie with nobler aims trumps a movie with simple goals. And while you're in the world of Blood, it seems that a cautionary tale about 20th century capitalism's ability to devour the soul is a pretty fuckin' necessary work. Hell, that IS a pretty fuckin' necessary work, and if you can pull it off to the flawed degree Blood does, while doing such good work the art, my hat's off to you.

For me, Blood seems to be aiming at this, while No Country aims to ask the question, "why is the world such a hard place?". Both are noble aims. Both, I'd say, come admirably close to the Platonic ideal of what a movie with such goals might aim to be. I'm struck often when discussing this pair of movies that we're somewhat spoiled at the moment, and wondering how the rest of the year can keep pace...

Anonymous said...

Doesnt work as a movie...period. Great great great main character, however all the other characters are one dimensional furniture, event the preacher who COULD have been a more complicated protaganist, is instead left in flatland. Then the movie just evaporates in a pointless ending, with a climax henging on the death of a character we didnt really care about anyway...didnt work.

Anonymous said...


fishbaitbart said...

You think There Will Be Blood had loftier goals than No Country For Old Men? Are you daft? There Will Be Blood is a great movie, sure, but No Country For Old Men deals with two of the most importat themes there are: fate and determinism. Do we do what we do because we're being guided by an invisible hand, or is it our decision? Is there a pre-determined end-game for our lives? Can one man really make a difference in this cold, dark world? Important, searching stuff. Not only that, but it's funny too!

Anonymous said...

Wow...someone needs to get a job.

Tina said...

This is great piece of writing skills! Wish I could have one!

Sexy Claudia said...

Why do you think so many people rush out to see horrible movies like Step Up 2 regardless of the review scores?

Karl Hungus said...

Now, I've not yet seen There Will Be Blood, so I can't comment on that. But with regards to the characters of No Country being weak, I would disagree simply because the characterization is purposeful, rather than weak.

As I see it, Sherif Bell is our narrator, and it's his story that is unfolding for us, a story whos main players he simply doesn't understand. Chigurh is a charicature of violence, and the audience doesn't get an insight into him because Bell doesn't have an insight.

Anyway, I am greatly looking forward to seeing There Will Be Blood.

Timothy Barrington-Smythe said...

I am extremely disappointed in Ebert. He is the one critic I always admired. Day Lewis was astonishing in his malevolence in TWBB. Truly magnificent. Complaining about the lack of women is asinine. Women were subservient in that era. What little involvement they had was, sadly, historically accurate. The movie had no need for female characters as women would not have been involved. I fail to see the issue here. Not seen "No Country" yet, but I am very curious to see this "perfect" movie, given how much I liked "Blood".

Anonymous said...

Minimalism in terms of character arc and development aren't, necessarily, indicative of poor craft. Rather, they can be representative of a mastery of the craft; you have to know the rules before you can break them.

And while both films are, to me, two of the best films of the past four decades, TWBB suffers from the grand tradition of political commentary - a tale about oil, wealth, religion, etc. and the other psychoses that have driven American philosophy for so long, is anything but a crude bludgeoning commentary on contemporary society. And while the same thing could be said for NCFOM I suppose, like Requiem for A Dream, it's a grand reminder that dreams are just as susceptible to the staggering limitations of reality as any other fantasy.

To an extent I see NCFOM representing the end of the dream that begins in TWBB.

Great article though. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

A Few Notes:

-My biggest problem with the TWBB vs NCFOM debate is that, to me, one movie is "Drama" and one is "Melodrama". The 'Streetcar Named Desire' vs 'Jurassic Park' analogy was right on. Whatever Themes that the Coens and/or McCarthy were trying to hit on, they only decided to hit on them in the last 20 minutes. To me, it would be no different, say in 'Jurassic Park', if all of a sudden there's a CUT and Sam Neil's character has been eaten, and then Laura Dern ripped off 2 Monologues about how 'Archaeology is dangerous' or how 'Evolution is cruel' or 'Man is too obsessed with Zoology'. NCFOM--whether you are analyzing the Writing or the Filmmaking--was still just an Action/Chase Movie that decided to be 'about' something near the end. And for those who will say "you just dont get it", it's about 'modern evil' or 'determinism' or whatever...I say that if you want to argue about the merits of Themes then TWBB is way more innovative and deep than NCFOM's Themes. TWBB deals with Contemporary Themes while 'determinism's best Story is and probably always will be 'Hamlet'. And while you may say that Determinism is a larger Theme than 'The Pitfalls of Capitalism', I would say: "Yeah, maybe. But if you were going to set out to write a Story about Determinism, why is 4/5ths of it just a Genre movie?" NCFOM is just all-around lazier.

-Cigurh's Coin-Flip Scene and his Sitting-In-The-Chair Monologue were just as awkward, in-your-face as Plainview's 'I hate people' speech. They cancel each other out in their obviousness. It's hard to defend the merit of either, but to me it's a kind of a tit-for-tat sort of thing where you are throwing members of the audience a bone.

Jonathan said...

Personally I think you care a little too much about what critics say. It sounds like you took their words as an attack on your favorite movie. It sounds like you are passionate about your opinions concerning both film, so why do care what Ebert said. It sounds like you judged No Country For Old Men based on what he said and not what you thought. As a filmmaker and fan, I loved both movies. I feel they are very similar in content as far as the human nature. The "No Country" ensemble functions in a way that Plainview does as a single character. Both film where amazing and succesful in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Nice story, I totally agree. The mainstream media and its mouthpieces always miss the point when things are truely great.

Homage said...

"Personally I think you care a little too much about what critics say."


"Why do you think so many people rush out to see horrible movies like Step Up 2 regardless of the review scores?"

(Good) critics are intelligent people whose opinions should not and does not preclude anyone else having their own opinion or experience of a movie. However when everyone's seeing a movie you hated, or everyone's giving terrible reviews to a movie you loved, it's interesting to speculate on what's going on.

"Wow...someone needs to get a job."

I bet you say that to all the screenwriters.



MM, I'm not sure what all that was about. You can have your comments board back now.

Drexel said...

Great article and I wholly agree that Emerson needs to be removed from his position.

Max said...

Ebert knows that no film can be truly perfect; his definition of "perfection" here is a film with no scenes that ring falsely, no moments that are extraneous or "wrong".

By the way, I think writing an article about "critics" disliking a movie is a bit silly when said movie has a 92/100 on Metacritic, and you bash exactly two critics with dissenting opinions. Not everybody's tastes are the same. Let it go.

Max said...

Ah-ha, I found the definition straight from the horse's mouth:

"Now what do I mean when I say a film is perfect? I described Atman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” as perfect, that’s what I mean. A perfect film is serious or funny or anything in between, but in its way it owns wisdom about life, and we learn something from it. Our attention is fully engaged by it. If we are movie critics, our notebooks rest forgotten in our hands. It is cast so well that the roles fit the actors like a second skin. It has dialogue that functions to accomplish what is needed, and nothing more; it can be poetry, prose, argument or bull----t, but we believe the characters would say it. There is not an extra or a wrong shot. The compositions make everything clear but not obvious, and they work on an emotional level even if we’re not aware of it. And when it’s over we know we’ve seen one hell of a film."

Anonymous said...

Bunch of tubby virgin dorks...Cant wait to read about up-coming the 'Clone Wars' movie, that is if you dont stroke out during Indy 4.

nic said...

LOL. This thread has gone to some curious places.

MM- I just found this statement they were making about chance vs. fate to be unsatisfying, but I was wholly satisfied by the statements in "Blood" about greed, selfishness, etc. His downfall is the stuff of greatness, akin to Citizen Kane. Word, dawg. I don't know why really, but something inside of me was hesitant to invoke CK, but now I'll freely throw this out and feel better about it. Plus, this specifically will come in handy when I attempt to be coherent about the argument in the future.

Homage- Some great observations here. You're helping me externalize some my issues with this, so kudos! 'Spoiled' may be just a tad generous-- I think the timing has a lot to do with the criticisms and both films are going to be interesting to approach with some age.


Cinemoose said...

If only the critics did hate this movie we wouldn't be submitted to so much crap about it. The truth of the matter is that the majority of the critics out there love There Will Be Blood, and they shouldn't. They should know better but they don't. It's a case of The Emperor's New Clothes.

Grumnut said...

I'm looking forward to seeing it. Australia's most high profile critics have given it a very high mark (with some reservations). 5 stars is VERY rare from David Stratten.

Anonymous said...

The poster of this story pretty much thinks the movie is perfect, by attacking every criticism of it and not accepting that it has its flaws. So the author is biased and should be ignored.

Homage said...

@ Anonymous:

What, you mean as opposed to all those perfectly objective opinions everyone else has?

I don't think this pic is perfect either, but you can't fault the OP for mounting a rounded defense of a pic that moved him.

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