Monday, January 21, 2008

There Will Be Dissent

Here are some (slightly edited)
messages I sent a friend, now that
I've had time to digest both titles.

I'm sorry to inform you that my biggest cinematic disappoint-
ment of the New Year is...There Will Be Blood. I realize I'm part of a tiny minority. I enjoyed much
of the film—especially the supporting performances, the cinema-
tography, and Jonny Greenwood's striking score—but I just can't abide that ham-fisted final act. And I'm a P.T. Anderson/Daniel Day-Lewis fan (though the jury's still out on Paul Dano).

Click here to hear Daniel Plainview's infamous milkshake line.

I'll spare you any more negativity. Instead, I have some-
thing positive to share. Though I had some reservations ab-
out the ending—or endings—to No Country for Old Men, Anderson's overheated oil opera has swept them from my mind.

I now appreciate the Coen Brothers' masterful achievement
more than ever (or as you termed it, "the Coen miracle"). I'm
not suggesting every movie should conclude on such an existen-
tial note, but I'll take it over yelling, screaming, bad food anal-
ogies, flying spittle, and slurping noises (?!) any day of the week.

And here's how I respond-
ed once my friend assured
me I hadn't offended him:

No Country was off my top 10 for a spell, but once I put
it back, it was there to stay.

I did read much of the commentary at Jim Emerson's Scanners site, and there's some great stuff. Then I came across the following:

"No Country for Old Men is one of those movies
I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble
about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at
work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are."

I couldn't disagree more, whether that statement is attached to
No Country, There Will Be Blood—or Inland Empire, which dropped off my list in favor of No Country. Consensus is nice in theory, but we shouldn't all be expected to agree on what con-
stitutes "artistry." That would be boring. It also implies that crit-
ics should evaluate movies using identical aesthetic criteria.

I'm not a contrarian by nat-
ure. Often, I like the same
films as everyone else, and
for many of the same rea-
sons. But sometimes I don't.

The placement of No Country at #10 on my list doesn't mean I "get what movies are" any less than you, Emer-
son, and everyone else who ranked it higher. It just means Away From Her, Into the Wild, and a few other titles moved me more.

And here's Godfrey Chesire in The Independent Weekly:

"Though I've regarded Anderson as something of a fraudu-
lent striver from the first, I go into every new film hoping to
be won over. And I must stress that in the first half of There
Will Be Blood, I was—completely. If there were Oscars for
portions of movies, I'll grant you that the initial hour of
Anderson's opus would deserve that Best Picture trophy."

Funny, but I've liked Anderson since
his debut, Hard Eight—though I found Magnolia bloated and self-indulgent—
yet I agree about There Will be
Blood. Click here for his full review.

Endnote: Coincidentally enough,
I recently came across a James Wol-
cott piece
, in which he quotes The
New York Times: "If you don't end
up liking each one of [Jonathan]
Franzen's people, you probably just don't like people."

Though I haven't read Franzen's Corrections—I've been mean-
ing to for years—there's a distressing God-like quality to these sorts of statements, i.e. If you disagree with me, you're wrong. Yet, as this author reminds, "Criticism is an art, not a science."

I've always believed that. While I'm sure I've committed my share of critical crimes over the years, I try to explain what I think, and not what anyone else should think. For the record, I find Emerson to be a terrific writer and a fine person. I still value the film re-
views he wrote for The Rocket in the 1980s. Chances are good I would've discovered enduring favorites like David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch on my own, but I remain grateful for his wise counsel.

Images from I Drink Your Milkshake, The Original Playlist,
The Cinematic Art, and Film Comment (click the link for Rich-
ard T. Jameson's Hard Eight review). Note that an anachronistic
milk bottle—rather than a milkshake—figures in No Country.


Sam Bass said...

I also was let down by the final act of TWBB, but was completely transfixed by everything that came before, including the much-discussed score.

There was a moment of meta-filmmaking near the beginning that I'm not sure was intentional, and haven't seen discussed anywhere. The first time we hear Plainview's appeal to town residents to grant him a leasehold, the townspeople become raucous and a woman's voice is heard in the din.

I don't remember what she said, but a (disembodied) male voice replies something like, "You're just a woman, you don't belong here!" This almost literally marks the end of female speaking parts in the movie. Did you happen to catch it?

I have to take issue with the Chesire quote. "Fraudulent striver" is an empty criticism. Fraudulent in the attempt to be what, exactly? Does he find the earnestness in many of PTA's characters inauthentic? How? Perhaps he's defined his terms elsewhere, but it rubbed me the wrong way.

Sam Bass said...

re The Corrections:

Speaking of withering criticisms, as Henry James once said, "I liked it, except for the whole thing."

I ran across this quote in a review of DeLillo's Underworld, and I think it applies to Franzen as well. I just don't have much patience for over-explication, I guess.

kathy fennessy said...

No, I didn't catch that, but it's a point worth making. Regarding Chesire's claim, I don't find Anderson to be a "fraudulent striver" either. Also, the first paragraph of his review is unnecessarily convoluted; so much so that I almost stopped reading then and there, but the rest makes up for that lapse.

As for The Corrections, I make plans to read it every time Thanksgiving rolls around, and for various and sundry reasons, it never happens. Maybe this year... That said, I can't imagine why anyone would consider a book in which everyone seems "likeable" to serve as some kind of recommendation.

ratzkywatzky said...

Jim has a history of those sorts of statements--I remember back in the early 80s, (whether it was in The Rocket, or in the Seattle Film Society magazine I'm no longer sure) he put me off seeing The Road Warrior by claiming that if you didn't like it, you didn't like movies. Then, a few months later, he basically said the same thing about E.T. As it turns out, I more or less agree with him about the former, not so much the latter. Still, those sorts of pronouncements are perhaps I sign of someone who truly does love movies. I just found the following statement on Girish Shambu's blog: a quote from a DVD documentary about the making of Hitchcock's Marnie, said by one of the great film theorists, Robin Wood: "Robin Wood, one of my favorites, in the DVD documentary on the making of Marnie:
"If you don't like Marnie you don't really like Hitchcock. I would go further and say if you don't love Marnie, you don't love the cinema."
So I'd go further still and say that if you don't feel like issuing one of these ultimatums from time to time, you don't really love the cinema.

kathy fennessy said...

I agree that the "If you don't love [title], you don't love cinema" argument is "a sign of someone who truly does love movies." It's a case of unchecked enthusiasm curdling into a form of condescension. Just goes to show what a slippery slope that can be. On the other hand, you could counter-argue that it's a necessary corrective to the kind of unbridled cynicism that borders on misanthropy.