Tuesday, July 7, 2009

There Will Be Blab

I appreciate Mark Kermode's explanation of the term "film grammar" in this video blog entry, but I think he's drinking from the wrong milkshake in some of his bolder claims about There Will Be Blood (TWBB).

Does TWBB "redefine the grammar of film" as so defined? Does it "generate a new language" of modern cinema? No, I don't think it does. It is a marvelous film, but I don't think these particular superlatives apply to it.

In terms of film grammar -- the construction of a narrative from the sequencing of visual images -- I don't think it does anything unconventional apart from minimizing spoken dialogue. This places a greater burden on the visuals to produce and carry the story forward, which they do quite successfully. Contrary to Kermode, who claims that audiences understood what was going on because "it was inventing a language that actually made sense," I would say that the audience understood what was going on because the film was using a language that already made sense.

In those famously laconic opening scenes, we are given a moment in which Daniel Plainview signs his name to a bill of sale for supplies, which is a pretty conventional way of showing us a character's name without speaking it. The wordlessness, the nature of the materials purchased, the character's solitude, and his continuing presence on the screen tells us clearly (and conventionally) that he is a central character, if not the central character, that he's a loner, and that he's driven forward despite dirt, grit, and danger -- there will be no one to call in that hardscrabble landscape should there be blood.

Incidentally, the movie's title, the bleakness of the landscape, the darkness of the soundtrack, and the presence of menacing-looking tools inform the audience -- quite conventionally I must say -- that there will, sooner or later, be blood.

Soon enough we see that he's a miner, and very committed to doing very difficult mining tasks alone. Maybe old-timey oil drillers scoff at my suggestion that these tasks look difficult, dangerous, and ill-suited for a one man crew, but I think I'm a conventional movie-goer taking in a conventional set of messages there.

And so on. It's conventional. It's great -- conventional is not a synonym for mediocre -- but it is conventional.

Granted, Kermode does say this is only one answer to what he means by his claims about TWBB's reinvention of film grammar, implying there are more answers to come, and opening the possibility that the others hold up.

If you have not already seen There Will Be Blood, I highly recommend you do so, but be warned: there could well be some blood.


Adam said...

Interesting discussion and points. I love TWBB, but I'm torn. A part of me would love to think that Paul Thomas Anderson did indeed create a new grammar of film through this movie... but another part of me, like you, doubts that that happened.

Incidentally, that latter part is probably the same part of me that recognizes Daniel Day Lewis as the main driving force of the film and that if he hadn't been in it, the whole thing would have been dramatically less amazing.

Dale said...

Adam, yes, I agree it's hard to imagine this film without the stunning performance of DDL, but fortunately this is the one they produced. I prefer not to think of what a lesser actor would have done with the role.

The scene in which Plainview drags Eli through the mud was largely improvisational -- which is to say the guy playing Eli was not expecting all that. This makes me love the scene all the more, but it also means I've made a mental bookmark: when Hollywood discovers me and starts casting me in important feature films (it's only a matter of time), I should be wary of starring alongside DDL.

It also makes me wonder: if they did the mud scene before the final scene -- you know, THE FINAL SCENE -- wouldn't you have been a little terrified if you were the guy playing Eli? (I am apparently too lazy to look up his name but I do admire his performance here and beyond.)

As for film grammar, there was certainly some flouting of convention in the use of the soundtrack. Quite often it didn't "square" with the action in conventional ways.