Friday, February 22, 2008

Movies watched, February 9 to 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

I just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and while it’s obviously a different story from this one (not to mention that the film is only loosely based upon Sinclair’s novel Oil!), There Will Be Blood does bear similarity in tone, style, and scope, in that it is a kind of saga that spans many years, chronicling the characters’ various ups and downs, as tragedy continues to befall them, and set against the backdrop of a volatile period in American history.

The film’s first 11 minutes contain not a single word of dialogue, only the soundtrack’s strange, almost avant-garde string instrumentations, amidst the sounds of a pickax hitting stone, of oil bubbling to the surface. This first image of oil is intoxicating—it’s beautiful yet dark, hypnotically drawing one into its slippery blackness. Perhaps this is what lured Daniel Plainview in—more likely, though, was the prospect of money.

Daniel purports to have a heart of stone. He sleeps on a hard floor, not out of necessity, but by choice, as if he can’t allow himself any luxury or comfort, so as to keep his hatred burning. And yet one can detect some instances of empathy behind this veil of misanthropy—he says that he abhors most people, yet seems to have some feelings for his adopted son H.W. But to acknowledge this would be an admission of weakness, so he repeatedly abandons the child, eventually claiming that the only reason he even raised him was because he needed a sweet face to sell his product. (This may in fact have been the case initially, but I’m certain that the boy eventually grew on him.)

With echoes of Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood is a film of epic proportions, depicting the rise of an oil tycoon who has forsaken his family, past, and anything that ties him to humanity—perhaps not as perfectly or innovatively executed as Welles’ masterpiece, but an admirably strong attempt.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karl Reisz, 1960

It would seem that in the decades after World War II, England’s young men had little to look forward to besides slaving away in a factory, drinking, and, ultimately, death. In this British drama, Albert Finney (later on of Big Fish, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, etc.) plays Arthur Seaton, a cynical factory worker whose defiant attitude sets him apart as a kind of working class antihero. His antics won’t change the way things are—no protest rallies for this one—but he does manage to disrupt the day-to-day activities of his workplace (though perhaps more to amuse himself than anything else). He lives for the weekend, which he spends drinking and womanizing: “I’m out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”

This routine is disrupted when the married woman he’s been having an affair with tells him she’s pregnant, and that the child is his. At this time in history, it’s not so easy to resolve this predicament, so they desperately pursue quick cures, like drinking a pint of gin while soaking in a hot bath, eventually resorting to the quintessential back alley abortion.
Finney’s character is strangely charismatic—he’s a bit of a bastard yet extremely likable. Perhaps we’re drawn to his fighting spirit, though it’s debatable as to whether this will aid him in escaping the dreary monotony of his current lifestyle. More likely, he’s been doomed to live out his days in this manner—working, drinking, and slowly dying.

Look Back in Anger, Tony Richardson, 1958

Another example of the “kitchen sink realism” (as this genre is often characterized) of 1960s British cinema. But unlike Arthur Seaton, there’s nothing to like about the savagely hateful Jimmy Porter, an amateur musician and scholar who’s settled for the bleak existence of a flea market vendor selling candy. Angry at this sorry fate, and perhaps even angrier about his father’s death (which occurred when Jimmy was just a boy), he seems to take it out on the world, psychologically torturing his wife, Alison. Alison has turned her back on the upper middle class world in which she grew up, but it’s clear that Jimmy not only resents her upbringing, but is envious and fearful of her as well.

The film is based on a play, which seems fairly obvious from the unnatural sounding dialogue. The performance is a bit over the top, and distracts from the dismal reality the film is supposed to be portraying.

The Party’s Over, Rebecca Chaiklin and Donovan Leitch, 2001

Philip Seymour Hoffman acts as a journalist in this documentary, covering the 2000 presidential election via interviews with politicians, voters, protesters, fellow Hollywood actors, and so on. Hoffman says he’s doing the film because he feels uninformed, and wants to learn more about the issues, as well as the election process itself, which are both explored here.

It’s strange to watch this now, simply because of how much has happened since then. The people involved have no idea how significant this election really is. It serves as a fairly depressing reminder of how close we came to electing another candidate, leaving one to wonder how different the last eight years could have been (and then again, how they might have turned out disturbingly similar).

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