Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There Will be Morality Plays

by J J Cohen

I feel in bondage to this post by Eileen, but don't have a coherent thought to offer. Yet. Meanwhile, a question on a different topic.

So I never get to see movies until everyone else has already enjoyed them, analyzed them, and moved on. Such is the fate of he who depends upon a Netflix queue and who lacks sufficient leisure. Last night I finally saw There Will Be Blood, and I must state that I do not comprehend the greatness my friends promised of that film back when they saw it. I intuit that the narrative works something like a morality play, and so as a medievalist who has read the Pardoner's Tale (or even as someone who once watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre) I should udnerstand its conventions and denouement. I know the story comes from Upton Sinclair, an author not known for nuance. I also know that the film's narrative of oil, greed, and immorality probably resonated differently under Bush-Cheney than it does with a change of White House occupancy. But still. Was the message of that film anything more complicated than: capitalism fosters insatiable greed; religion and capitalism are identical twins; greed will make you drink a lot of whiskey, use cute little deaf boys as props, speak in an excessively deliberative manner, and bash people with wooden bowling pins? Is the take away message something more complicated than "oil = riches = worldly goods = bad stuff, bad bad stuff"?

The Pardoner's Tale is a lot more complicated than that. What did I miss here?


Karl Steel said...

speak in an excessively deliberative manner

No, no, no. It makes you talk like John Huston. For some reason.

I think you might have just wrecked my enjoyment of the movie, Jeffrey. Thanks a heck of a lot. Black roses for you next time we meet.

But, yeah, I could complain that There Will Be Blood is a recapitulation of the lesson of Chinatown [the great state of California and by extension the US of A is founded in greed and desire and rottenness, but, in Chinatown, it's horrifically fertile desire, whereas in TwbB, not so much so]...but with better cinematography and less overt attention to sex.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffery: in this, as with how I feel about bluegrass music, you and I are in sympathetic agreement. I, too, am always way behind on these movies and only catch up via Netflix. You will recall that last year's Oscar's race was mainly dependent on quite a few masculinist epics soaked in blood [especially of the old Western variety]: "The Departed," "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men, " "3:10 to Yuma," "The Assassination of Jesse James," "American Gangster," etc.: quite a year [not counting "Little Miss Sunshine"]. I dutifully watched all of these films, and I hated both "There Will Be Blood" and also "No Country For Old Men." I did not like "There Will Be Blood" for just the reasons you outline here; I did not like "No Country For Old Men" because it was just one long extended joke about how evil is inexplicable, relentless, and always wins the coin toss even when it doesn't win the coin toss [and further, law enforcement is so old-fashioned and hopelessly futile in the face of such evil].

prehensel said...

It had to happen sooner or later. I disagree with Eileen. I liked No Country for Old Men because I didn't read it as a morality tale at all. I read it as the story of Tommy Lee Jones' character, not Javier Bardem or Josh Brolin's (which makes it odd that they're the ones on screen most of the time, I admit). The sheriff's growing old, beginning to give up, living in a world that's not his own anymore. He recognizes the place, but he no longer knows it. It is a job for younger men who know how to handle such things. I don't think (here at least) it's the relentlessness of evil so much as it is the relentlessness of time and generational change. (That makes the dream monologue at the end mean something, I think.)

There Will be Blood was weaker as a movie; I didn't enjoy it at all. Daniel Day-Lewis certainly deserved his Oscar, but the movie as a whole was weak. It had the main theme (Christianity OR capitalism but never Christianity AND capitalism), but to make a one-note movie, you need to pay a lot of attention to pacing and character development. And I didn't identify with any of the characters, which probably makes me a decent person, but make this a bad movie.

Anonymous said...

I'll stand up for bluegrass any day -- no, *every* day -- but I'm with y'all on *TWBB*. It was a one-note movie, and that note was sour. I did not care for DDL's acting, much as I generally adore him. And worst of all, the whole damn film had split ends (not Split Enz) -- a bad case of narrative frizz that kept breaking off at the wrong point.

theswain said...

Does this mean I can drink your milkshakes?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Swain, you can always drink my milkshake, provided you have a very long straw. Was it just me or was that some kind of sex joke? (in the movie, not between us just now).

Oh, and long straws on milkshakes reminds me that Karl should get one because a longer straw would make him less messy. Perhaps.

Karl Steel said...

Was it just me or was that some kind of sex joke? (in the movie, not between us just now).


"Anderson concedes that he's puzzled by the phenomenon — particularly because the lines came straight from a transcript he found of the 1924 congressional hearings over the Teapot Dome scandal, in which Sen. Albert Fall was convicted of accepting bribes for oil-drilling rights to public lands in Wyoming and California.

In explaining oil drainage, Fall's "way of describing it was to say 'Sir, if you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and my straw reaches across the room, I'll end up drinking your milkshake,' " Anderson says. "I just took this insane concept and used it."


If I had a longer straw, I expect that, like a pipeline, the moose will rub against it, it will burst, and the disaster will just be that much worse.

Eileen Joy said...

Marcus: you don't agree with me? What's wrong with you? Oh sad sad day! But seriously, I get your take on "No Country For Old Men"--I also understood it that way, especially given the dream at end, but even if it's a story about the sheriff not recognizing his place in the world any more, it's also a parable about the uselessness of old-fashioned law enforcement in the face of a certain contemporary pathology, and Tommy Lee Jones's character kind of stands in for all Western-style sheriffs [of course, none of them, in any era, ever really stand a chance]. It seemed to me that the move was really about the violent senselessness of everything [and big confession: I'm not a Cormac McCarthy fan, either]. I actually loved the character of Josh Brolin's wife, though--she refused to play the game even though she knew she was going to die; she opted out of the whole nihilist mainframe.

Liza Blake said...

I knew there was something that bothered me about There Will be Blood -- and it's a lack of a Vice figure! Ambidexter could really have spiced things up, methinks -- commit to the morality drama 100% and all the complicated, fun stuff will follow.

dtkline said...

I just saw 'There will be blood' last week as well, Jeffrey, and while I appreciate DDLewis ability to morph into a character, I admire more and more Tommy Lee Jones' quiet acting in 'No Country' (which I thought deserved the academy award last year). I'm on a McCarthy kick right now though, Eileen, so I saw something very different in the movie. I recommend McCarthy's The Road if you haven't read it-- I'm generally not a novel reader but I couldn't put it down.