The Parnassus Times

April 13, 2008

The List is Life: #82

82.

The Dame;

Anjelica Huston.

Anjelica Huston is Hollywood royalty, so it may seem strange to some that she never really broke into movies until her mid 30s when she was cast in her father’s Prizzi’s Honour, and subsequently won an Oscar for the role. It was not a debut, she had been working in the business since her first appearance (doubling as Deborah Kerr’s hands in the spoof version of Casino Royale) in 1967, but it was her first major role, and when she won that award that so many strive for, for so long, one wonders why she had not begun sooner. Since then, Huston has established herself as one of the great supporting actresses of her generation, equally adept at comedy and drama, in the widest variety of roles playing everything from ghastly witches to nuns. The only shared trait in her work seems to be that of strength, an attribute of the Huston family going back to the time of her grandfather Walter, a pioneering actor of the sound era, a strength that has not flinched one bit as the Huston families legacy has been carried forward in the hands of a woman. Having, since the turn of the century, become almost a muse of director Wes Anderson, playing small but important, revered and iconified roles in his films, she has proven beyond all doubt her status as a legend of the game, one that has continued to build her families legacy onwards and upwards and one who shall be remembered for years to come as one of the best of her era, entirely worthy of her name.

The Dude;

Heath Ledger.

Gone so suddenly and so early, more than certainly on the cusp of the A-list status he had been approaching for so long, it has become popular to speak of Heath Ledger in grand terms. What can certainly be said, was that in 2005 he gave what is almost unquestionably one of the finest screen performances in history. In Brokeback Mountain he worked in complete contrast to Jake Gyllenhaal’s wild angst, and in doing so painted a perfectly captured study of repression. Entirely internalised, his performance was a physical one, sealed lips, through which hardly a word escapes and when it does, is difficult to decipher, hunched shoulders, hanging head, barely able to make eye contact, a curled fist, a microcosm of his character. His work is one for the screen, the sort of performance that would be useless on the stage. Though in his short career prior to this he never showed anything like the abilities he did in earning that solitary Oscar nomination, there was wonderful promise from the very start. In his screen debut in the high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, his performance mixed the macho and mean with the tender and the caring, his eyes saying as much as his words, in Terry Gilliam’s flawed Brothers Grimm, he displayed the internalisation he perfected in Brokeback Mountain. While Matt Damon mugged and overemoted his way through the movie, Ledger’s performance was again a physical one, told more through movement, through the face, than via words. This restraint was displayed through most of his work, in the Australian drugs drama Candy, he starred alongside side Abbie Cornish, and again, contrasted her theatrics, with nuance, and quiet, internal pain; just as he had done 5 years earlier as the emotionally tormented son in Monster’s Ball, a performance that could easily have given in to hysterics, but in the hands of a quickly learning, quickly maturing actor, was held back and made far more interesting. He seemed wise beyond his years on the screen, learning quickly and turning early promise into something more potent, it is a very great shame, that he will never have the chance to show again, just what he was really capable of.

The Director;

Cecil B. DeMille.

Along with D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille was one of the great American trailblazers in the cinematic arena. While both his peers were certainly knew a thing or two about spectacle, during the first few decades of the industries existence, there was nobody anywhere in the world that milked the awe, wonder and possibilities out of the medium in the same way that DeMille did. In the beginning when shackled by silence and black and white images, there was still no denying his epic intentions, his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, 1927’s King of Kings, and into the sound era with his Claudette Colbert starring version of Cleopatra. DeMille understood that there was nothing in the world capable of achieving cinema’s grandiosity and as technicolour set in he took it a step further, Samson and Delilah, The Greatest Show on Earth and that final, mightiest of swan songs, his second version of The Ten Commandments. He died in 1959 of heart failure, it was during that preceding decade that cinema had come under fire from the popularization of the television, the little box that diluted the power of the silver screen, and flew in the face of all that had men like DeMille had established. That his departing and it’s rise came in the same 10 year span can easily be seen as a turning of the tide, but cinema has endured, and every epic that has come since has owed a debt to him in one way or another.

The Picture;

The General (Buster Keaton, 1927)

Buster Keaton began directing films in 1917 at the age of 22, it wasn’t until some 5 years later with Our Hospitality that he really came to the fore as a filmmaker. He enjoyed a successful run for the next few years, turning out films like Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, before in 1927, after 10 years as a director, he created The General. An adaptation of Congressman William Pittenger’s memoir, The Great Locomotive Chase; the film was a box office failure upon initial release, but over time has gained its deserved status as a classic. It is at once both riotously funny and sweetly romantic, Keaton may not have had the ability to touch the human heart with quite the intensity of Chaplin, but he was a master technician and innovator of his craft. Looking back at The General, some 80 years after it’s release, some of the magic on display is bewildering to behold; coming one after the other, Keaton strings together setpieces that not only make you laugh but have you with jaw agape, wondering just how he did it. This film was made some 50 odd years before computer effects came into play, Keaton did everything himself, and it left his crown jewel with not only laughs, not only heart, but awe inducing spectacle.

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March 1, 2008

“I Am the Third Revelation”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s – There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Anderson, US, 2007)

If you were trying to comprehend a monster, trying to boil it all down to it’s core, you could say that Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature film is at heart about the struggle between capitalism and religion, wealth and faith. Yet here is a story of greed, of the corrupting influence of power; a film about the lengths that men will go to in order to succeed and just what that will cost them. There Will Be Blood is a grand epic in the tradition of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Welles’ Citizen Kane, Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre you’ll find hints of George Stevens’ Giant, a dash of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, slivers of Once Upon a Time in the West. The style of the film calls to mind the majestic ambition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, take all of these films into account and you may begin to understand just what you are in store for with this one.

The opening scene is a grandiose statement of ambition. Introduced into our world with a near deafening drone from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s incredibly unique and ambitious score we are faced with the shadowed spectre of Daniel Plainview, a pickaxe in hand, hammering away at the rockface, feiry sparks spitting away on impact. Faced with with such brooding images one cannot help but ponder the idea of a man at the gates of hell, hammering at the entrance in search of his destiny. This scene and the few that follow are punctuated by almost complete silence, hardly a word of dialogue spoken, these are men of the Earth, workers, labourers. They are men of action, not of words; watching them at action is all one need do to understand their world.

A baby baptised with a drop of the blood of the Earth in these early moments sets the tone for the new world that emerges throughout. Oil seeping from the ground brings the fortune that is sought after and as it makes its finder wealthy so speeches and monologuing comes into play.

Now dressed in the fine attire his discovery affords him, Plainview makes pleas to smalltown folk, urging them to accept him and his company. No longer the simple man, hammering at the Earth, now a man of words, a man of complications. A monstrously powerful entity begging to be let in with promises of hope and prosperity, and this is how the film continues on, father and son, side by side, preying on the weak, the seemingly helpless.

Living such a life is as difficult as it sounds and the pain, anguish and fury of an existence of ambition, solitude and determination is etched across the face of this monstrous man. Robert Elswit’s cinematography takes in both these searing close up’s of its stars face plunging in to the shrouded darkness of his tormented soul as well as those grand landscapes of the Western frontier, encompassing the sun parched blaze of his unstoppable desire. The use of shadow throughout the film, draped around and across Plainview from scene to scene, tells its audience a story through visuals for which dialogue is simply not necessary.

Jack Fisk, veteran production designer of similarly beautiful pictures as Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Straight Story and The New World brings his gloriously intricate work to the fore once more. The vast majority of the films running time allows Fisk to wander in the same realm in which he has made his name, sparse, minimal locations, set in isolation against a backdrop of monumentally grand landscapes.

Then comes that unquestionably bizarre final act; the grand landscape remains in a more reduced form, the sparse heart at its centre is one single, solitary man. A man driven into complete isolation in the heart of his grandiose kingdom. There Will Be Blood is based upon Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil! Sinclair was a lifelong, socialist and as one watches this film, the capitalist hatred at its stories heart shines forth, loud and clear. Fisk designs this world with intricate detail, filling each corner with great nothings, a cold world, densely populated, but empty; surrounding the untouchable, detached man at its heart.

The film is edited with a great deal of care, not showy or over the top, not calling attention to itself. In an age of films with a cut every 2 seconds here is a piece of work that switches back and forth as is required; many scenes shot almost entirely in one take, many others cutting back and forth between those grand vistas and the close-ups of the actors faces. It is a film that makes each cut matter, helping to create a film that is, in turn, both epic and intimate.

Mark Bridges costume design work is another mighty fine achievement that adds a great deal to the films visual narrative. The world worn rags of the films opening scenes, covered in the dirt of the Earth, work in perfect contrast to the perfectly authentic high class attire that all too quickly replaces it.

To go back once more to that wholly unique score, in deciding not to hire one of the plethora of great film composers, but rather the guitarist of Radiohead, the British alternative rock band (a tag that hardly does their avant-garde experimentalist nature justice) Anderson immediately signalled a very strange intent. When one hears just what Jonny Greenwood has done, it all seems to make a great deal of sense.

Thinking back to previous films in a similar mold to this one, it is tough to precisely nail down the type of score that would befit such a piece of work, however electronic synth wails and tribal drums would more than likely come somewhere near the bottom of the list. While there are deep droning epic horns factoring in to lend ominous gravitas, this is a score that can generally be described as little else but bizarre.

The theme plays in the background throughout many of the films key moments and it lends proceedings a nightmarish, hellish tone; working almost as a character in itself, it is a standout piece of work that gives troubling insights into the characters mindsets. That it is somewhat strange is without question, and many will, and have, found it alienating and out of place, but if you can embrace it as the rich work of leftfield innovation that it is, then it can be incredibly rewarding and symphonically improve the viewing experience.

Keeping in line with basically everything else in his film, Anderson’s screenplay is nothing short of inspired. While the novel from which it takes its inspiration is a socialist parable revolving around the son of the oil man and his sympathies with the workers. Paul Thomas Anderson has taken little more than that novels opening act and turned it into one of the most searing pieces of social commentary ever put on film. Taking us 100 years into the past the 37 year old has shone a very bright and very damning light upon the way of the world, as it is today. Honing in on obsession, greed, that neverending quest for power, on isolation and faith, on Gods, old and new; Anderson has created a deep and thoughtful work that lingers in the brain long after its conclusion and provides its audience with almost unending routes for thought.

As a director his work is no less astounding; the film is almost impossible to describe. It shares that unique artistic vision that only the very greatest directors in the mediums history have achieved. While it’s themes and nature is inherently classical, epic and grandiose, it is directed with creative flourishes that put in the realms of innovative artistry with such names as Kubrick, Leone and Malick. It is unlike practically all that has come before it and along with the previous film in its directors canon, the similarly unique Punch-Drunk Love, it tempts the viewer with the possibility of a genuinly new cinematic voice.

Finally, on to the cast, and though the headlines have been dominated by one man, there are numerous fine supporting turns populating this movie.

Dillon Freasier as the young H.W Plainview gives a very fine, subtle and mature performance. As a worldly child who has seen and learnt more than anybody of his age would normally be expected to, the young boy in his screen debut gives a very knowing turn. Little looks and subtle glances convey his internal confusion and hesistance to follow what he’s been taught, a great deal of anger boils beneath the surface and the child actor captures that internal angst without ever resorting to over the top theatrics.

Kevin J. O’Connor plays the mysterious long lost brother in the films second act. Perhaps to date best known for his role as Beni, the annoying, whiny sidekick in The Mummy; O’Connor here reigns his turn in, playing a quiet man who never gives too much away, always wary, always careful of each word he says, working his way, with innocent simplicity, closer and closer into the nearly impossible realm that is Plainview’s inner circle, into a position of trust.

Paul Dano, as the twin Sunday brothers Eli and Paul, gives performances of complete contrast. His Paul is simple, intelligent, knowing, and of the world. He doesn’t say a great deal and refuses to be outsmarted when engaging Plainview and his assistant (the sadly underused Ciaran Hinds) in a probing war of words. His hunched shoulders and soft spoken nature exude a shyness, his eyes display nothing but confidence; Paul Sunday is an enigma at the heart of this film, and a fascinating character; so simple yet so complex.

In the much larger role of Eli, Dano is let loose of the restraints that shackle his twin brother. Here is a young man so utterly convinced of every word he says that it is difficult to tell if he is genuinely assured of his words, utterly insane or perhaps simply the worlds greatest liar. Dano plays the part with a quiet, cocky intensity that from time to time lets rip in fiery bursts of passion that put on display for all to see the entrancing charisma of so many of his ilk. His snide air of righteousness helps establish himself as a genuine opposition to the dark monster at the films heart, a monster he encircles and plays throughout the films running time.

Then there is the monster itself. Daniel Plainview towers over this world like an all conquering superpower. He is a monstrously ferocious man and, as is to be expected when you cast Daniel Day-Lewis in your lead role, he is fully embodied and filled with ferocious life. Day-Lewis’ turn has not been without its critics, many condemning it to be nothing more than a phoning-in of his similarly towering turn as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. The Butcher was a simple and straightforward man, he was a relic of an ancient world, single minded in what he wanted and entirely old school in the way he went about achieving it. He gave no quarter, he showed no mercy; he was a charismatic monster of a man who could make even his enemies fall in love with him, could charm anybody and who all cowered before. Day-Lewis in turn played him with broad, giant brushstrokes, larger than life, utterly unflinching in his infallibility.

Plainview is almost the exact opposite, here is nothing more than the most modern and thoughtful of men. Daniel Plainview is not a tyrant defending his kingdom, he is a conqueror with an unquenchable desire for more. He is not a brute, not a butcher, he is a businessman, an unreadable, slithering snake. The sort of person that is willing to do whatever he has to do to get what he wants, including kneeling before his enemy. He will cast off the weak, discard those he cannot trust, he shares with the Butcher only the absolute single minded nature with which he pursues his ultimate goal.

Day-Lewis turns in what is arguably his finest turn to date, certainly his most complex. This is a performance of nuance, made up of the slightest gestures, of small glances, played from the eyes; eyes that give a small window into that beast. Plainview is never totally knowable, while he thirsts for absolute power, while he detests and does away with weakness, he gives hints, small glimpses of true feeling beneath the monstrousity. His son, his brother, a photograph he comes across from childhood, a forced confession of sin, all reveal depths of humanity inside, all threaten to crack the shell of the tyrant in his journey towards a neverending roof.

In those early scenes of human simplicity the two-time Oscar winner displays his primal human spirit, as he goes forth in search of further conquests he displays a well spoken, even at times caring and inspiring man, a man capable of sweet talking whoever need be sweet talked if it will help him achieve his aims. Then comes that final scene and monstrously bizarre is a term that only partly does it justice. Plainview comes flying off the wheels and Day-Lewis fills his lungs with absolute hatred, spitting venom from his mouth with a smile, from icy cool to hotter than hell he displays rage and disdain like rarely before seen. Vengeance is his aim and vengeance is his goal, reason seems to have gone out the window, all is abandoned save the unstoppable desire to destroy his enemy. Here is a brief and blazing portrait of the absolute madness behind the insane quest to conquer all, and Day-Lewis and Anderson, innovative as ever, play it with the absurdly pitch black comedy that it deserves.

This is a masterpiece of a motion picture, almost without fault, and endlessly ponderous. Repeat viewings will be incredibly rewarding and topics of conversation will be multiple and broad. Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a film both classical and modern, an era defining epic that shall without question be remembered as the work of a genius in the years and decades to come; shining at the heart, Daniel Day-Lewis is the beacon of fire, the searing soul of this work of absolute majesty.

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