What do we want from films? How do we assess them?
There Will Be Blood is a great film. Why? Because it is relentlessly surprising, odd, and beautiful; because it never resolves but relishes its ambivalences and multivalences; because it does things with the conspiracy of sound and image that are astounding; because it presents a very odd sort of story, a story that's not really a story, a story that prefers affect to narrative; because it is a deeply affective film without ever being maudlin or sentimental; because Daniel Day Lewis does not play a role but performs a force of life.
Now take Godard's Band of Outsiders. It is a great film for many of the same reasons—the celebration of multivalence, a story that's not a story, a voice-over and soundtrack that put image and sound at impossible angles.
But clearly the two films enjoy quite different affects. PT Anderson rocks our world, puts our whole bodies on edge, tingling and aching with fear and anticipation, the title brooding over us—there will be blood, we've been warned.
Godard rocks our world, too—or at least my world—, through an affect of another sort altogether. There may be blood here but it is not the blood of bodies; it never, ever, sits heavily with the weight of humanity. On the contrary, it does nothing but skirt, tease, play, frolic, dance, wink without ever being unnecessary. Band of Outsiders performs the most elusive of affects: engaged whimsy, delightful cleverness, playful thoughtfulness.
Both films are vital, which is to say, they are each in their respective ways forces of life, not comments on life. Is there way to say one film is greater than the other? Absolutely not, for that would be to quantify qualities. TWBB's menacing tension is not more important or more essential than BoO's playfulness and whimsy.
Now take Pulp Fiction. Its title relishes its own lack of seriousness, of weight. But does this make it less vital, less important? Like Godard, Tarantino engages film with a wicked cleverness and a touch that is at once knowing and playful. I left Pulp Fiction giddy, my heart pounding, lit up by the relentlessness of the film's play, its joy, its frolic at being free of human sentimentality. This is not an easy thing to accomplish—to shun the pantheon of sentiment and still forge a vital being. In fact, I'd say it's a miraculous accomplishment. Pulp Fiction is not frivolous for frolicking.
I taught Pulp Fiction this past semester. Every time the movie was playing, you could feel the collective energy, a certain giddiness, a certain delight, everyone at the edge of their seat, poised to howl with laughter and glee. It's an exhilarating film.
Perhaps I'm simply stating the obvious. But I want to point out that a film that scathes us with blood is not more, or less, vital or great or important than a film that exhilarates us with wit and play.