2.16.2008

There Will Be Blood, a Viscous Tale

There Will Be Blood is not really a strange film. In fact, I'm tempted to say that the film is anything but strange in that it is precisely filmic. That is, I might say something like Juno is a truly strange film because it is so literary that it's barely a film at all. Juno enjoys a familiar, linear narrative, literally in synch with the workings of predictable natural law—human gestation, the seasons, human frailty. It is a simple story with some very nice dialogue. But I'm tempted to say that it's not really a film per se but more of an illustrated story. I do not mean this as a pejorative; it's just a comment, as neutral as can be. And, as such, Juno, despite its familiarity, makes for a strange film.

There Will Be Blood, however, is not really much of a story. Is it the rise of Daniel Plainview? Kind of. But is it really interested in his rise as much as it's interested in his going, his mode of becoming? Consider the conspicuous ellipses of plot. Consider the fact that it is impossible to predict Plainview's actions; it is equally hard to explain them. His words, his actions, and his expressions do not conspire to resolve anything, explain anything. He is as multifarious as the images themselves, oozing this way and that, breathtaking and pounding. He is more an image than a man. In fact, I want to say he's not a man at all but a force of life, an inflected will to power.

This is not to say that TWBB is without plot, bereft of story. Rather, the film attempts to forge a different kind of story, a filmic story and not a literary one.

The book wants to be linear, reading from left to right. This has yielded a certain linear narrativity, one premised on cause and effect: first this happens, which makes that happen, and so on. Needless to say, any number of writers have jammed this cause/effect circuit, broken the linearity of the book—all the Oulipo games, Burroughs cut ups, Nabokov's privileging of sensual affect over meaning, over significance. But if the book's linearity asks to be broken, film was never linear to begin with. The image wants to sprawl, to belie explanation, to present the synchronous, the allatonce, the multiple.

But film need not jettison story all together. What PT Anderson gives us in TWBB is a different order of story, a filmic story, one that moves but not according to the logic of cause and affect but to the must more obscure laws of the multifarious. The story slides, thickly, like the oil that stains Plainview's hands, like the oil that stains the celluloid.

Oil, like the film, is not a liquid. It will not fill its container so readily. More insistent on itself, oil moves much more slowly than water. But nor is oil a solid; it is not set in its ways. It sprawls and oozes and occasionally spouts, violently. It does not allow for easy footing; it makes everything in its way slip and slide, turns it black, leaves its mark.

TWBB, like oil, like Daniel Day-Lewis' face, oozes this way and that. You think it's heading in one direction but then it, and you, slide another way altogether. At times, it may seem disjointed. And perhaps it is. So be it. But disjuncture is not a pejorative when it comes to film —and when it comes to filmic stories.

So what kind of story is this? It is not the story of a man. There is not first Daniel Plainview and then the camera. All there is is the filmic image, this filmic image, this forceful, viscous trajectory we call Plainview. His name is Plainview, for God's sake! It's right there in our view, plain as can be. There is no narrative backstory needed to explain his actions; what we see is what we get and what we get is a big, oozing mess of affect.

TWBB is a story that moves according to the logic of flow and force instead of cause and effect. I think it is this, this new kind of story, this filmic narrative, that interests PT Anderson. We see it in the glorious, exquisite Punch-Drunk Love, a love story that's so drunk it wobbles, dissolving into nothing but Scopotones made by someone else all together. PTA is forging a vocabulary of story telling that is properly filmic. This is perhaps his interest in Robert Altman as Altman was a great innovator in story telling, multiplying the narrative, giving us multiple overlapping, intersecting, and parallel trajectories.

But after Magnolia and Boogie Nights, clearly influenced by Altman, PTA seems to be exploring new territory all together. Now, the multiplicity is not in separate narrative paths but condensed into one face, into a plain viscous view.