Tuesday, June 17, 2008

There Will Be Blood is a bad Taxi Driver

I just watched There Will Be Blood (2007), the Paul Thomas Anderson film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! about a small Texas village that becomes a boomtown in the crude oil rush of the early twentieth century. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his performance as Daniel Plainview, the story’s tortured protagonist, and the film itself was also nominated for an Academy Award, so I was very much looking forward to seeing There Will Be Blood.

I didn’t get it.

First, let me acknowledge that I do get why Daniel Day-Lewis won the award for best actor. His performance would have been totally compelling even if it were excised from a coherent narrative milieu and plopped down on the screen sans context... which, in my estimation, it pretty much was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Basically, I think There Will Be Blood did badly almost everything that Scorcese’s Taxi Driver did well (with the obvious exception of first-rate performances by both leading men). In fact, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are just better and worse cinematic renderings of the same phenomenon, that is, the manner in which individual and collective decadence slowly comes to drive a person mad, and how the relentless monotony of that slow decay eventually erupts in meaningless violence that is (desperately, ironically) intended to reinstitute some kind of meaning.

Both protagonists, Travis (Taxi Driver) and Plainview (There Will Be Blood), are loners steeped in a world of moral blankness, compulsively executing the demands of a profession that does not allow its practitioners the luxuries of a stable home, a conventional family, or any other of the various kinds of “roots” that ground and validate human existence. Both the taxi driver and the oil man look down on the world around them with a kind of forced moral high-mindedness, indulging its inhabitants and its ways when necessary, but never making themselves at home in it. They both attempt to authenticate their otherwise empty lives by attaching themselves to a child who, for both, represents the vulnerability and innocence that has yet to be sullied by the cruel world they know. But they both inadvertently defile that innocence and exploit that vulnerability, and they both hate themselves for it.

Scorcese and Anderson establish the spiritual isolation of their protagonists through slow, sometimes monotonous, pacing and a constant reinforcing of the milieu in which their loners are alone. For Anderson, this means plenty of long-shots of the sweeping, but barren, Texas countryside and the relentless drumming of larger-than-life oil pipes, two environmental “characters” that are meant to be indifferent to and to dwarf the individual. For Scorcese, this means tight, almost claustrophobic, shots of New York City at night, porno houses, tiny efficiency apartments, crowded political rallies, and the inside of a taxicab—all situated in the world of junkies and johns and red-eyed taxi drivers whose tacit refusal to sleep only makes the surrounding decadence seem more relentless.

And, of course, Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are both revenge films. Travis and Plainview are both angry, self-righteous, slowly simmering powder-kegs of ressentiment, fueled by their pretension of a kind of Everyman morality. The explosion of violence at the end of both films is ultimately a parody of revenge, though, since the bloodshed is only superficially for the sake of an Other (the child). Really, this violence is the failed exorcism of a heart of darkness, and it makes no difference at all in the world. There will be blood, for sure, but for the sake of nothing, accomplishing nothing.

So, how does Scorcese pull this off in a way that Anderson doesn’t? I think it’s because Scorsese gives us a point of view in Taxi Driver—mainly through the voiceover narration of Travis—which not only serves as a thread through which we can trace the arc of the story, but also provides the audience a first-person point of entry into the stratum of undifferentiated sense-data (what Husserl would call the not-yet-explicated Sinn) that serves as the antagonist and eventually drives the protagonist mad. Anderson, on the other hand, opts for the (mere) intimation of a story, concentrating all of his effort instead on the intensification of a character who is never adequately developed. Watching There Will Be Blood gave me the feeling that someone must have made an error or two in post-production, that somewhere there are a lot of missing but critical scenes that got left on the editing room floor. Hence, the film is too much “impression” and not enough “substance,” too much raw Sinn and not enough Bedeutung or Austruck. The result is that Daniel Day-Lewis’ compelling performance is suspended in thin air—groundless and senseless—a lot like his character, but not in a good way.


John said...

I have not seen There Will Be Blood, but I read this comment with interest because you are writing about a movie that has a character "plopped down on the screen sans context" and a story that is the "mere intimation of a story". This is to me a recurring feeling that I have in response not to individual works in whatever sense , but as some kind of semi-conscious response to something in our culture or in some sense "in the air" namely the lack of substantial presence (or lack of resistance to the self in some way?). If you can explain what creates this feeling of hollowing out, or "unsubstantiating" of the ground of reality I will be indebted to you.

"Suspended in thin air, groundless and senseless"-- what is this sense or feeling exactly, of the "an-esthetizing"?

John said...

I have actually recently been trying to wrap my mind around this very "concept", in a blog. It seemed like the best "place" to discuss this.


Chet said...

hold the fuck on! what are you talking about? are you smoking crack down there? has the heat and humidity melted your generally acute judgment.

like i see the analogy between these two films to some degree, but i have to say, it is quite limited. first, i think it is interesting how you abstract the psychological character from the economic and social conditions. the latter distinguish these two in quite different ways. and while they may both be attached to a child, travis does so for redemption, whereas for plainview his "son" is a momentary and troubling bump on the road. moreover, despite his psychotic actions, travis has some moral compass. plainview has none. this is what is so thrilling about him at the end, when we realize that we have been duped by him throughout the movie.

DOCTOR J said...

John- I don't know what exactly creates this effect "in real life", but I think that in film it is created in part by the director expecting the audience to do all of the grunt-work of storytelling for him or her. Or, at least that's what I think happened in this case.

Chet- I don't think I "abstract[ed] the psychological character from the economic and social conditions" in my comparison of the two, but I appreciate your point. However, I think that even though Travis is extremely poor and Plainview is (eventually) extremely rich, the character of Plainview continues to move around in the world as if he were still a hard-scrapping and lowly worker. He never completely removes himself from the life of the "oil worker" (as opposed to our normal steroetypes of the "oil man", who is a kind of fat cat who stays away from the dirt and death of the pipes.)

I'm not sure I agree with your characterization of Plainview's relationship with his "son" as entirely utilitarian, either. I think he attached himself to the boy in search of redemption as well, just like Travis Bickle. And I think that the fact that his relationship with the boy is so complicated is testimony to the fact that Plainview also has some kind of moral compass-- though, like Travis' compass, neither he nor we can read it well. Plainview's relationship with the evangelist, I think, is thoroughly utilitarian in the way you described his relationship with his son. In fact, the film turns on the initial contrast between these two relationships, which motivates whatever sympathy we (the audience) are able to generate for Plainview. Perhaps the reason we feel "duped" at the end (which is an interesting suggestion) is because those two relationships of Plainview, initially distinct, come to contaminate one another-- particularly in the scene where the evangelist forces Plainview to admit that he has "abandoned" his boy.

The problem I see with the film, again, is that Anderson expects the audience to explicate these relationships and the evolution/devolution of the character of Plainview without giving us enough of a story to do that.

Chet said...

yes. you have abstracted the psychological conditions from the socio-economic conditions. you must think, like adriel, that human beings are autonomous subjects. ah young dark wisdom, as john might say (new valence mine!).

plainview does have his nose to the grindstone, but he is inspired. show me an inspired taxidriver. he may be working class, according to his habits, but he is no taxi driver. i'm sorry, but there are only a few people who are taxi drivers because this is their born vocation. but travis bickle is not. he is not so "driven" (haha!). he is merely very confused.

i will concede that perhaps his relationship with his son is more complicated than a purely utilitarian one, however, when the son is struck deaf, you can see how incapable he is of dealing with this situation. he does express some desire, but it is fundamentally a difficulty.

and i will concede that at the end of the film he has gone mad. but the whole exchange with the pseudo-brother also shows the unscrupulous nature of his character.

my primary complaint about "there will be blood" is the ending. i mean where he shatters the evangelist's skull. i mean, it's kind of like p.t. anderson was saying, "see, i told you there would be blood."

i am curious to read lewis' story on which this film is based.

however, i must say that p.t. anderson is a very important american director, the likes of which we do not see every often. he has, to turn a phrase, imaginative muster. to my mind, very few other american directors realize the possibilities of the cinematic tableau. to my mind, scorcese, despite his inarguable merits, is one fo the latter. for him, the film has no beyond, and it has a certain simply diegetic responsibility.

what i mean is this: the beyond is signfied by moments in p.t. anderson's films, like the frogs in magnolia, the drug-shooting scene in boogie nights, all of punch drunk love, and the twin brothers in there will be blood.

diegetic responsibility. these "beyond" moments are where the cinematic narrative extends beyond its obligation to tell a simple story that makes sense. scorcese has an intense sense of that responsibility. one of his diversions from that is the scene with talking about mom's painting in "goodfellas" (or the scene where deniro's character is sitting at the bar and one can witness him turning over the idea of killing murray--although this is still in the service of narrative).

maybe i'll post on this.

Chet said...

sorry, but i have more to say about your response to my comment. that last little bit:

i think that film is beyond the point there it must present character development for the sake of a moral lesson. but i think this is the position from which your judgment is based. as you say,

"Anderson expects the audience to explicate these relationships and the evolution/devolution of the character of Plainview without giving us enough of a story to do that." (it's funny, whenever anyone speaks of character anymore, i cannot think that this concept has been wholly reduced to its application to morality).

i simply do not think this is what anderson expects of his viewers. it is true that "boogie nights" is structured by an evolution/devolution, hinging on new year's eve 1979. but i don't think this can be said of "punch drunk love." and I'm not sure if it can be said of "magnolia." in "punch drunk love," we have a space alien posing as a regular human being. he is clearly very poorly suited to the demands of human-being-ness. noentheless, despite a few tricky moments, he manages to graduate to a meaningful romantic relationship. i.e., evolution. no devolution. "magnolia" .... don't remember enough. i mean, "punch drunk love" is a bildungsroman, essentially. but those are not morality tales, are they? "boogie nights" was a morality tale, admittedly.

look, i've got to post on this . . .

DOCTOR J said...


I’m not sure if you mean to suggest the contrast between diegesis and mimesis is the same as the contrast between “morality” and “amorality” in storytelling—but if that is what you’re suggesting, then I have to disagree. Also, I think you would be hard-pressed to say that there are any films that are completely non-diegetic, if only because of the very “techniques” of the camera and editing... though there are, arguably, non-diegetic elements within film (as you rightly point out is the case with Anderson’s frogs in Magnolia, but which is also the case with the voice-over narrative in Taxi Driver, technically speaking.) Even still, I think that your suggestion is that Anderson’s ostensibly “mimetic” indicators of the “beyond” somehow transcend any kind of moral interpretation, which not only do they not accomplish, but I don’t even think they are intended to accomplish that kind of transcendence.

I am sympathetic with your suspicion that all our talk of “character” in film is somehow reducible to morality (intentional or otherwise). The truth is, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing—or, at least, I don’t think it’s a prima facie reason to dismiss the skill of an auteur. (But, full disclosure here, I tend to “read” films in the way that Aristotle “reads” tragedies, so I think that film is the contemporary medium that, in many ways, gives us access to whatever kind of collective/public moral reflection and moral education is happening, even when it pretends to be escaping those sorts of moral conventions.) So, I would completely disagree with your claim that “bildungsroman stories are not morality tales,” and I think you would be hard-pressed to make that case. You seem to want to reject Scorsese’s “diegetic responsibility” while at the same time lauding what is, in effect, Anderson’s “mimetic responsibility.” That is not to say that I think you are suggesting that Anderson is giving us some kind of pre-fab morality, which I don’t think you are and I don’t think Anderson is doing-- but what is it that you find so compelling about There Will Be Blood? I have to believe that it is much more than (in your words) Anderson’s “imaginative muster” or his “ability to realize the possibilities of the cinematic tableau.”

The thing is, even your own descriptions of Anderson’s other films betray a kind of belief that they have their own (admittedly, non-traditional and maybe even non-thetic) morality. I think the problem here is that you have reduced my criticism of Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which really is just amounts to claiming that Anderson did not tell the story he could have or should have in that film, to a claim that any film that doesn’t include a coherent, didactic and thoroughly sensible narrative structure is a bad film. I don’t believe that reductionist reformulation of my claim, and that’s not what I’m saying.

Also, I don’t know where you get the idea that I believe that “human beings are autonomous subjects,” especially since my main point here is that Anderson didn’t provide enough context for his characters.

I am looking forward to your post on this, though.

kgrady said...

my primary complaint about "there will be blood" is the ending. i mean where he shatters the evangelist's skull. i mean, it's kind of like p.t. anderson was saying, "see, i told you there would be blood."

This is one of the funnier things I have read in quite some time.

Michael said...

I recognize that much of the current debate centers on a comparison between Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood. Although an interesting discussion, I have not seen Taxi Driver for quite some time. Therefore, I am particularly concerned with the criticism of There Will Be Blood as "groundless" or "suspended in thin air."

Few will argue with the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Plainview. But does the strength of the film rest on this exceptional performance alone? I think not. Plainview's character is made powerful in virtue of the film's development of the fundamental themes of greed and love. His character is born of greed and continually remains true to this origin while rejecting the love of his son. The stuggle for power, the conflict between Eli and Plainview (dueling greeds), and the rejection of love for power constitutes the substantial base of the film and the foundation for Plainview's character.

To those critical of the groundless-ness of the film, I would inquire as to what would be considered an acceptable base for such a film? Of course, I am not asking for a new script proposal. However, I fear that making There Will Be Blood "neat and tidy" would answer questions that we otherwise must develop and consider on our own. In my opinion, this is a virute of the film rather than a vice.