Saturday, February 09, 2008

“And if I have no teeth, I will gum you!” – There Will Be Blood

A friend of mine once watched Barry Lyndon with the mindset that it was actually a single, three-hour long Kids in the Hall sketch. And do you know what? He says that it’s a laugh riot!

I can definitely see how Barry Lyndon could work under those circumstances. Its pomp and aloofness could easily be mistaken for the Kids’ signature deadpan skewering. Ryan O’Neal and Patrick Magee prancing about in ornate costumes and powdered wigs could easily remind one of Scott Thompson’s impression of Elizabeth II. And don’t forget that Stanley Kubrick was known for his warped sense of humor. There’s no way the comedic undertone that runs through the hidden ribbon sequence is unintentional.

Oddly enough, if Barry Lyndon is in fact a comedy in disguise, the film remains the same on a thematic level. The final tragedy of Barry’s downfall coming after a rare moment of actual human compassion becomes even more ironic. It makes complete sense coming from the man who made Dr. Strangelove.

But how well does my friend’s theory work when applied to other films? Turning Kubrick into sketch comedy? Sure. As I mentioned, his oeuvre is full of wry, deadpan jabs. How would another film stand up to such a viewing? What if I were to take a similarly epic, serious, critically-adored tragedy and look at it as one big sketch?

There Will Be Blood is as good of a candidate as any. Like Barry Lyndon, it is a three-hour long historical tragedy with a pristine reputation amongst cineaste types. Unlike Barry Lyndon, TWBB has not had several decades’ time to stew, so I have hope of this becoming the DEFINITIVE interpretation of the film!

Obviously, I found There Will Be Blood to be successful as a comedy. Daniel Plainview’s travails seem downright blustery under the right circumstances. His lack of particular motive for his actions (I know that the TWBB/Citizen Kane comparisons have become cliché by now, but where is Plainview’s Rosebud?) make his obsession a bit absurd. The film never explains what fuels his greed, just that he wants to drink our milkshakes.

Barring that lack of explanation, it becomes easier to gawk as he runs his con on Little Boston. He shows up at the Sunday Ranch and claims that he and his son H.W. are – quail hunting? When he finds the oil he is looking for and explains to patriarch Abel Sunday that he happens to have connections in the drilling business, the ruse seems so convoluted that one can’t help but agree with Eli Sunday later on, when he calls his father stupid.

Furthermore, the lack of sympathy for Plainview makes it easier to view him as a comedic villain rather than a tragic hero – he even has a sinister moustache! As Plainview goes on about how much he hates people and sees the worst in them, he is like a heel professional wrestler, badmouthing the home audience in order to draw their boos. His one claim to sympathy is H.W., his surrogate son, but once he abandons him, both figuratively in sending him away to a boarding school and literally by abruptly walking off the train secretly meant to transport H.W. to the school, that sympathy is lost. Until then, H.W. helps serve as a comedic sidekick of sorts, with the comedy coming from the concept of the young boy being Daniel Plainview’s business partner. Also, Plainview’s later outbursts when he defends his honor as H.W.’s father make him out to be like those white trash husbands that are always seen on Cops because of a domestic disturbance call.

As testament to Paul Thomas Anderson’s skill as a director, even his flamboyant touches work as comedy. Take, for example, the oft-mentioned scene where H.W.’s real father anoints his infant son with a splotch of oil. From the moment the man stoops over a lake of oil while holding a small child to the notion of bubblin’ crude being used as part of a religious rite, the whole scene is funny when you think about it. The comedy goes from the impending danger of the man dropping his child into the toxic substance to deliberately rubbing it on his child’s head. I don’t mean to take away from the symbolic power of the scene, but you do see how funny it is, right?

But nothing in this film screams comedy quite like the character Eli Sunday. Even his first appearance is funny, with the double-take required to realize that, yes, Paul Dano just played Eli’s brother Paul moments ago. Identical twins are, after all, an ancient comedic trope; see Twelfth Night for just one example.

We get comedy gold in just about every other scene from there on out. His sermons are funny, his outbursts are funny, him getting beaten by Plainview is funny, him beating Plainview is funny. Sunday’s high-pitched shrieks and cow-eyed gaze take the piss out of any power he may hold as a man of authority. Dano does not play Sunday as silver-tongued deceiver like Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview, but as a petulant child. Hence, the audience is able to see through his rants much more easily, and his maniacal rants-disguised-as-sermons become even more apparent as codswallop. Though really, is there any other way to take his threats to gum an evil spirit into submission?

And it all blows up in the film’s riotous punchline. The film’s coda has already established Plainview wallowing in his fortune like a boozehound Howard Hughes, taking a shotgun to his possessions and waking up drunk in the middle of a bowling lane. I would say that Plainview was falling into self-parody if I weren’t arguing that the entire film is parodic. But in any case, we arrive at the final showdown between Plainview and Sunday, between capitalism and religion, between greed and, umm, more greed. And what does it amount to? Plainview making Sunday admit to being a false prophet, “I drink your milkshake,” and death by bowling pin. Honestly, this scene is straight out of Monty Python. Plainview goes over the rails, Sunday’s sniveling hits its crescendo -- did I mention “I drink your milkshake”? It’s a macabre ending, I’ll admit, but so were the endings to Dr. Strangelove, Pierrot le fou and Life of Brian. And they were also hilarious. It’s perversely funny ending to such a perversely funny film.

I’m finished!


Daniel said...

Honestly, I watched the movie in exactly the same way and, frankly, there was more laughter in the theater for this movie than in any comedy I saw this year, with the exception of the Apatow films. Great moments you didn't mention:

- Daniel's "brother" introducing himself as a "brother from another mother."

- The scene where H.W. pisses Daniel off and then immediately bolts into the night like Wile E. Coyote.

- Plainview having a normal negotiation with the oil baron and all of sudden announcing that he planned to one night sneak into the guy's house and slit his throat. The baron was like, "wait, what are you going to do? Why would you do that?" I suggest trying this conversation tactic in real life.

- Paul Dano playing, in addition to his own twin brother, himself 20 years in the future, but entirely without any makeup or artifice to make him look a day older.

- And finally, my personal favorite, Plainview making fun of his own deaf son for about 10 minutes for not being able to hear or speak normally. I mean, seriously?

Daniel said...

That was not me!

Oddly enough, I am watching this today. Sounds like a riot!

Libby said...


Moses, this review is love.

Moses McCluer said...

Oh god, I forgot about the "brother from another mother" part!

And I made mention of Plainview threatening to cut the guy's throat, but it came off kind of vague in the article.

Daniel said...

This is actually a spot on review. I wonder if I would have thought of the film in exactly this way if I hadn’t have read this first, but…such is life.

As a whole, I definitely enjoyed the film for normal as well as odd reasons. It is probably one of the most unique film-going experiences that I’ve had in recent years.

I have to say, though, for lack of a better word…it made me feel really weird.

The whole film is so eerie and ominous--which is really embodied with DDL as well as the score--but, surprisingly, it really isn’t preparing you for anything in particular. In the end I guess it stands as a severely effective exercise in mood more than anything else--but even that isn’t consistent through out the film...which brings me back to it being, and making me FEEL, weird. And not weird in a typical movie sense like WHOAH LOOK AT THAT CAMERA ANGLE or THESE PEOPLES ARE SO QUIRKY! I mean weird in an exceedingly disturbing way. And when that AURA is mixed with these completely over the top (albeit intentional), ridiculous moments of grandiosity, the unintended humor (as well as the intentional), as well as those utterly macabre moments that are peppered through out the film…this could either be the most brilliant film I’ve seen in years, or, more likely, a remarkably uneven piece of labored genius. I'M NOT SURE YET.

But, yeah

Fucking weird.