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This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at: http://sallitt.blogspot.com

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

I Am Not Convinced That P. T. Anderson Is a Great Director

Okay, all my friends want me to write about my problems with There Will Be Blood, even though I haven't formed my ideas carefully. There will definitely be spoilers.

More than an hour into There Will Be Blood, I was still waiting for the movie to break, for Anderson to show us what he was interested in. Then came the big scene where the oil gusher that Plainview had been chasing all his life comes in, damaging his derrick and seriously injuring his adoptive son H. W. (Anderson uses a subjective effect to show that H. W. has been deafened by the accident. Part of me sniffed suspiciously at the point-of-view effect, given how outside of all the characters we had been up to this point. But I gave Anderson a pass on this, because it was such an economical way of conveying information to us. Not all good directors are style purists.)

The event immediately sets up a conflict that is presented clearly: Plainview seems to care about his son, and puts himself at risk to haul the boy away from the accident site; but he is also crucially interested in the gusher, the key event of his business life. The deafened H. W. clings to his father in panic as Plainview pulls himself away to tend to a fire at the derrick; the scene is painful to watch, but effective and plausible.

Following an admirable scene in which the oil fire is snuffed out by dynamite in a single sustained long shot, Plainview and his assistant crouch by the gusher. The assistant makes a grim comment about the day's events, and Plainview says something like, "Cheer up! This is what we've been waiting for! We just became millionaires." The assistant asks whether H. W. is okay. Plainview stoically replies, "No, he's not okay" - he shows regret, but in a modest quantity, not the kind of regret that a man with a seriously injured son shows. And Plainview continues to contemplate the gusher - he had not forgotten about H. W., and the assistant's remark did not remind him to return to the panicking boy's side.

This behavior is not comprehensible to us at this point in the film. It will become comprehensible much later, when we discover that Plainview sees H. W. as an advertising aid for his business rather than as a son, and cares little for him. In retrospect, Plainview's occasional nurturing gestures toward the boy register as a bit of vestigial good will in the man's nature, good will that he does not value highly or factor into his life decisions. This works for me.

But Anderson does little or nothing to orient us to the mystery of Plainview's reaction. A director concerned with narrative clarity might have used the assistant, the only possible audience identification figure in the vicinity, to certify that the mystery is in fact a mystery (and not a filmmaking error), perhaps by giving the man a shot of his own as he reacts to what would surely seem like inhuman callousness to him. Even if we knew at this point that Plainview does not care much about H. W., there would still be questions in our mind about how much Plainview is blowing his cover, forgetting to pretend to be a normal human being; and about whether the assistant is surprised by the revelation of Plainview's inhumanity, or used to it, or in sympathy with it.

Anderson seems not to be thinking at all about positioning the audience relative to these mysteries. My reaction was confusion.

I see this as a pattern in Anderson's work, not an isolated case. Consider the subsequent scene in which the preacher Eli Sunday confronts Plainview in public, asking for the money Plainview owes to his church. Plainview surprises the audience by physically attacking the preacher, accusing him of not having exerted his healing powers on H. W.'s behalf. Many questions are raised by this action. Will Plainview be accountable for this public violence, or is he now above the law? The nature of his defrauding the church is unclear: does the church have legal recourse? Do the spectators accept Plainview's power to beat whomever he pleases? If so, are they content with their passivity? Again, Anderson makes no effort to create a context: Sunday's public humiliation (the give and take of humiliation comes to be the film's narrative currency) is presented as spectacle.

A third example: now secure in his power, Plainview discovers that his alleged half-brother Henry is an imposter, executes him, buries him, and falls asleep by the grave. In the morning, he is awakened by Bandy, a landowner who seems to be a devout member of Sunday's church. Near the end of their conversation, Bandy hands Plainview's gun back to him: the implication is that Bandy knows that Plainview just murdered Henry. Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent? These are not questions about character nuance: they are central to the narrative legibility of the scene. Anderson neither answers the questions nor makes it clear that he prefers mystery.

As I gradually realized that Anderson did not intend to manage my emotional relationship with the narrative, I began to withdraw from the film.

Though Anderson's style seems a bit recessive in the first hour of There Will Be Blood, he ultimately grabs hold of the material in a big way. The antipathy between Plainview and Sunday becomes a duel, and Anderson imposes the shape of this duel on the story, transforming what might have been an epic social drama into a rather playful Tom-and-Jerry, Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote running conflict. As in Magnolia, Anderson shows a fondness for big, explosive, actor-centered climaxes, which begin to flow freely in the film's second half. Psychological plausibility starts to seem beside the point. When Eli Sunday insults and humiliates his father at the dinner table, there is an echo of the mysterious humiliation of Roger Wade at the hands of the diminutive Dr. Verringer in Altman's The Long Goodbye; but Anderson launches Sunday at his father across the dining-room table at mealtime, seemingly for the effect alone. Plainview's "conversion" in Sunday's church is full of actor's moments that rupture the diegesis. Anderson has stopped caring about grading these big scenes to preserve the illusion of real social interaction.

Plainview ensconced in his Xanadu in the final movement, swilling alcohol like Gatorade, seems a concept left over from a more classical conception of the character as a tragic hero. If we take these cues, the film's ending will have something of the incongruousness of Macbeth killing Macduff, then announcing, "I'm finished." But, in place of the social epic, in place of the tragedy, Anderson has constructed a simpler shadow movie, one pitting a charismatic and powerful evil figure against a slimy and unattractive one, and paying off with the satisfaction of victory and a rather campy pleasure in excess.

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26 Comments:

Anonymous Jonah said...

I had thoughts along similar lines. The difficulties with character positioning that you perceive seemed to stymie the more obviously allegorical thrusts of the story as well (which seem quite profuse in the film's first hour)--none of them could be developed beyond one extended portion of the film, since the character of Plainview doesn't seem to exist (or change) according to a comprehensible (psychological or historical or any other kind of) logic that might sustain allegorical interpretation. That the character takes this weirdly demonstrative turn in the last act, suddenly seeming like a Scorsese antihero, his mockery suggesting a knowingness and taste for irony that's scarcely evident earlier, suggested to me that the Plainview character was largely an excuse for a series of calculatedly bizarre and contrarian riffs on some vestigial and barely-perceptible themes (maybe the ones taken from the novel?).

In the meantime I'm bothered by the nature of the (almost unanimous) praise for this film, which piles up superlatives without seeming to acknowledge the basic difficulties of plot comprehension, character, tone, etc. that the film presents. Reminds me of the way people have often treated Godard's intractable films as if they were completely transparent. Similarly, the available thematic readings of Anderson's film (capitalism and violence, etc.) seem too banal to explain why the film is so doggone weird.

January 5, 2008 at 4:27 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jonah - it does seem that There Will Be Blood goes in an odd, almost improvised direction in its last third or so. Which is not necessarily a death sentence: Hawks' El Dorado goes off its tracks pretty early on, and I love that film anyway.

Here, though, I don't see what's gained. One of the things I didn't say in my post, but that I strongly implied, is that Anderson does not seem to be interested in, and is perhaps not capable of, any kind of depiction of "society" or "America" on any level of abstraction. Society in this film is a bunch of people standing around to fill out compositions - every time Anderson has a chance to situate Plainview in a social context, he seems not even to notice the opportunity.

Anderson seems much more interested in the internal state of his protagonist. And the film starts out with a road map for a Dostoyevsky-style depiction of character (I'm thinking of characters like Ivan in Karamazov, or perhaps some of the more dangerous people in The Possessed). We see Plainview rigorously from the outside for the first two-thirds or so of the film (until the big closeup conversation with Henry: "I have a competition in me"). We are not allowed to understand his mystery, and the clues that we get can be interpreted in various ways, some of them more normal or more favorable than proves to be the case. When the film lets us inside the man, we are likely to be both fascinated and horrified by the extent of his antisocial, amoral impulses, and we have to go back through the film and reinterpret his past behavior according to the information about him that has been revealed.

This is the schema that I perceive operating in the film, but I see two big problems with the way it plays out. First, the artist needs to have good control over the audience's perception of what is revealed and what is concealed to develop this sort of artistic plan. And, as I argued in my post, Anderson doesn't even seem to care about this aspect. So I had lost my connection with the film well before the last section.

Second, the film goes a little wacko right at the point where it's time to make dramatic use of what we now know about Plainview. At the very ending, Plainview almost becomes our surrogate, gratifying our desire to bring down a much less attractive antagonist. How in the world is this supposed to work in the context of the film as a whole? By any standard, the relationship between the audience and the characters seems to become simpler in the last section; and this simplicity goes hand in hand with a winking quality, a cartoonish reflexivity. It's as if Anderson is thinking, "Haven't you always wished that the bad guy would step out of character and say things like this? Well, what the fuck, I'm gonna do it!" Seems to me the results he gets are pretty superficial compared with what he sacrificed.

January 5, 2008 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger M.A. Fedeli said...

First, I loved this film and have probably become a bit of an Anderson apologist. I did like your essay a lot, though, and see exactly where you are coming from. I only have a couple comments and/or questions for you.

First, personally I found the fact that PTA did not show the assistant's reaction regarding the hurt son to be a good decision. One of the things I admired about the film is that it avoided casting too much judgment on the characters. It showed good and bad and allowed us to make up our own minds. kinda like chase did with tony on the sopranos.

As far as the public beatings and the murder of the false-brother... well, if we started asking those types of repercussions questions we wouldnt have westerns or mafia/crime dramas.

i did not think the film was perfect, and maybe some of the decisions i liked hurt the overall narrative quality of the film. but there's just something about PTA that excites me beyond any young director. he's one of my few favorite directors who feels like his films are an EVENT.

Thanks again for the great essay!

you can check out my review of TWBB here:
http://getthebutter.blogspot.com/

January 7, 2008 at 12:03 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks for writing, M. A. I don't at all mind the idea that Anderson doesn't clearly type Plainview as good or evil at various stages in the film. The problem I have with the scenes that I mentioned is not that Anderson withholds information or judgment, but that I felt that he didn't clearly define the zones of mystery that he was creating. Without a clearly presented context, mystery becomes confusion.

My sense wasn't so much that Plainview became more bitter and misanthropic, but that we didn't have an exact sense early on of just how cold he might be. For instance, he seems to have calculated the advantages of adopting H. W. early on, in the 1902 scenes. Only in 1927 do we learn that parental feeling is not his motive.

And then Anderson seems to un-detach himself for the ending. If he's having fun with Plainview's violence at the end, and trying to induce a fun reaction in us, then the pleasure he gives will pretty much wipe out any delicate aesthetic effects of judgment withheld.

January 8, 2008 at 11:45 AM  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

I think the question of whether so and so is a _great_ director is better left to history, or at least until later in the career.

Is P.T. Anderson interesting? Yes. Good? Maybe.

January 12, 2008 at 8:54 AM  
Anonymous Paula said...

I liked the movie, but am slightly mystified by the hype, for many of the reasons you point out.

The, er, "bowling ball" scene near the end is the one that irked me most, and embodies all the problems I had with the film. It felt uncomfortably comic and goofy, like suddenly we were back in BOOGIE NIGHTS. It was over the top in a way it didn't need to be. It was DD-L in full-on scenery-chewing mode, and Paul Dano in "I'm not as good an actor as DD-L" mode.

I was also confused by Plainview's seeming invulnerability to the law. It's not as if the film is set in the Wild West. But I dunno, I guess that's one of the things we have to accept as part of the alternate universe of the story.

January 12, 2008 at 9:37 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Jack - yeah, I agree that Anderson is interesting. He's definitely got strong ideas about how to direct.

'cita - I would have been okay with the premise that there was no law in that part of the country. What I missed was some clarity on that point, and others - at least enough clarity to know that there was information withheld, instead of forgotten or ignored.

January 12, 2008 at 12:02 PM  
Anonymous iamthe3rdrevelation said...

Sloppy slop plop. Sorry, Dan Sallitt. No one should trust your opinion and neither should you. If you can't remember the dialogue correctly, how can you be trusted that you're paying attention to the movie to make a reasonable critique? The film made perfect sense to me all the way through. You need to sharpen your eye. You're so off course that I don't know how to steer you back in line. I don't think film criticism is your forte at this point.

January 14, 2008 at 1:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, dear. I may be wrong - who can tell with these folks - but I believe the rude Aint It Fuckin Cool castaway who posted above was referring to a slight oversight in your (otherwise intriguing) post: though it’s muffled and spoken off-screen, Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds) or someone else clearly protests after Plainview slaps Eli in the first baptism scene.

January 14, 2008 at 2:38 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I did forget about that protest. Seems to me, though, that it doesn't resolve questions we might have about how the community feels about Plainview now, whether the beating is surprising or business as usual, whether they have recourse if they are bothered by public beatings.

But it's true that, when you don't enjoy a movie, you're basically saying you don't get it and are not the best critic for it. I would certainly be interested in reading positive comments about There Will Be Blood that take into account the issues I raised. I confess to having felt frustrated that so much of the early praise for the film didn't sufficiently acknowledge the film's peculiarities.

January 14, 2008 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger M.A. Fedeli said...

Alright, Dan. I went back to watch it again and for some reason I had all of your complaints in my mind. What are you doing to me?

Anyway, the one thing I now find myself agreeing with you more about is the Bandy situation. It did seem a bit of a stretch that the spiritual Bandy would ignore the crime just to get Plainview in the church. Maybe.

Maybe, because maybe Bandy did want Plainview's money (for the church?) and couldn't get it with Plainview in jail. Is that not what Eli would do? Eli is a fake and the film reveals its leanings toward religion as superstition and swindle, so why wouldn't Bandy follow along in the footsteps of Eli, at least in the film's mind? It doesn't make Bandy a bad or calculating person, just brainwashed by the church. That may also be a stretch and full of assumptions, but worth considering.

This leads to my other point which has me disagreeing with you more now after seeing the film again. Why do we need Anderson to orient us to the mystery of Plainview's reaction, whether with the assistants or with something/somebody else? I saw no unmanageable mystery; I saw a man conflicted by various emotions and with that scene also got the first chance to see what he really valued most: oil, over his love for his son, and even now over his business need for his son. Not saying your concerns are wrong, but I felt no confusion at that.

I didn't want to know how to feel or much of how anyone else in the film felt about Plainview. This whole film made me feel like I was alone in a room with him for 2:40hrs. Who he is comes out as the film goes on and as he shows it. That was part of the excellence to me and something I am glad I experienced on my own terms.

Thanks for a good and thoughtful post, Dan. Though we may disagree, you made a lot of interesting points that got me thinking more about the film. And that’s the goal, right?

http://getthebutter.blogspot.com/

January 15, 2008 at 11:35 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Hi, M. A. I'm actually not opposed to mystery at all: I think that it's natural for cinema to show us the outsides of people and leave us to wonder about how they tick. I'm not bothered that the motivations of Anderson's characters aren't always specified - in fact, I strongly suspect that Anderson's strategy in Blood depends on Plainview being opaque for much of the film.

My problem is not the mystery, but what I perceive as a lack of clarity in providing a context for mystery. I actually did not know whether Plainview cared more about the gusher than his son's life, or whether Anderson was making a filmmaking mistake, letting the excitement of the action narrative impair his presentation of the characters. Later on, I figured it out; but I wasn't sure at the time whether there was a mystery to figure out or not.

Here's a parallel fron another movie (which I haven't seen in 33 years, so I hope I'm remembering it correctly). In Mean Streets, the Keitel character leaves his girlfriend Amy Robinson convulsing on the floor - I think he yells to someone to look after her - while he runs outside to patch up a quarrel with Robert De Niro. The film follows Keitel and De Niro outside, and leaves Robinson in mid-epileptic fit. Does Keitel care more about his friendship than his girlfriend's life? Is the epilepsy less threatening than it looks, so that Robinson doesn't need Keitel around? Is Keitel horribly torn by this dilemma? In this case, we get the sense as the movie goes on that Scorsese doesn't think the desertion is a big deal: next time we see Robinson, she's walking with the boys as if nothing has happened. I personally think that Scorsese just made a mistake, let slip the fact that he's not all that invested in women's lives. In Blood, I wasn't sure at all whether Anderson was making a similar mistake. Turns out he wasn't, but by the time I learned that, I'd already gotten a bit frustrated with how Anderson was tending to my needs as a viewer.

In Bandy's case I never found out the answer to the mystery. I definitely think there are possible explanations for his very weird behavior, and I don't necessarily even need to know them. But I wanted Anderson to orient me, so that I knew whether I was supposed to be watching very weird behavior, or whether Anderson was just devising a shortcut to get his conversion scene into the film, regardless of character coherence.

January 16, 2008 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger M.A. Fedeli said...

Dan, great follow-up, really made your thoughts a lot clearer to me. great use of the comparison to Mean Streets too. it's a tribute to great criticism when i can disagree with you but spend so much time considering your position. thanks again for all the replies!

http://getthebutter.blogspot.com/

January 18, 2008 at 1:34 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

And thanks also for your thoughtful comments, M. A.!

January 18, 2008 at 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Dan. Your thoughts helped sharpen exactly what I felt was missing from the film.

Your post was linked on a fansite, and I'd be interested how you might respond to some comments from it. Particularly what this author says:

"Wishing for a filmmaker's obvious "point of view" is too easy, and we get this kind of simple message-making too often. He's trusting us to have our own point of view! Why would you want his when you have all the faculties to do some hard work yourself? When a movie asks for your deepest thought and investment, and when it's so seriously worthy of it, we should all be having a huge fuckin' party."

http://idrinkyourmilkshake.com/comments.php?DiscussionID=24&page=1#Item_0

There seems to be an common sentiment (esp. among IMDB types) that gets expressed when a film deliberately obscures facts, plot points, motives, etc.: The idea that the omission of such is usually (always?) a plus, not a minus; and that any viewer who prefers clarification is something along the lines of a "moron" who "wants every detail spoonfed" (or similar hyperbole).

Your essay clearly states, at least to me, exactly why it's not desirable to leave such details to chance.

January 28, 2008 at 12:57 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I sort of understand why someone who loves the film would dismiss my observation about Anderson failing to orient us properly on a moment-by-moment basis. If it's not broke, why fix it? I guess I need something from Anderson that he doesn't give, and that some other people don't need.

The comment you quote from I Drink Your Milkshake (I figured it was a good idea not to intrude on that discussion) is similar to some of the questions I've gotten here. My post has led some readers to assume that I want Anderson to dispel mystery, and that's furthest from my mind, as Lou Reed said. If ever an art form was congenial to the depiction of mystery, it's the cinema, which is so convincing in depicting the outside of things, and so tentative about interpretation.

But I do believe that the depiction of mystery requires a context of clarity, and that part of the artist's job is to provide that context. I don't think this is the same as wanting to be spoon-fed, but I guess it will seem that way to people who don't think there's a problem.

January 29, 2008 at 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you can take apart any director on the planets work like this - you have a personal disliking of pt anderson and feel the need to look for holes.

get a life

you presume to know the inner workings of the human mind - that bandy and his assistant didn't react in a typical way doesn't mean that their reactions were not plausible.

i could go on and on and on but couldn't be bothered.

to sulk that a film didnt take the direction you wished it would is juvenile - write your own

have you people seen the majority of slop that graces our screens weekly.

pt anderson is one of the greatest directors alive - keeping alive the notion of the cinematic experience.

go look for some holes in fools gold .. or write an essay on why brett ratner seems to be getting films made - but to insult pt anderson is ridiculous - and begging for reaction and attention.

i've made films - i need to know whether you have ... it's not easy to make even a good film - and with his filmography you need to put your energy into insulting someone else.

'you're a fool, tilford'

February 27, 2008 at 4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the party, but I just watched this.
I think the comment above mine is by an idiot. I think there were a lot of problems for such a long movie.
My gosh, 2 1/2 hours and he couldn't even convey to me there was a twin brother? Ok, so maybe it was said somewhere along the way, but to have the whole climactic ending bring up something that must have been blown by in the movie? I though maybe the preacher guy was just a bit crazy, I had no idea about a twin ... and you can be sure I'm not gonna waste another 2 1/2 hours to figure out where/if it was revealed earlier.

I do have a suggestion for the Bandy handing him his gun back and not turning him in part.
I think ... whoever the crazy preacher kid actually was ... was sitting over his shoulder in that scene, kind of controlling him, so maybe there was some sort of financial deal or religious thing he convinced Bandy it would be better this way ... though, there was no real way to understand why Bandy would know about the shooting, cause after all, weren't they just a whole bunch of miles away at a whore house right before that?
I haven't read anything else about this movie, and had never heard of it previous to today, so if this is/has gotten a lot of incredible praise, I think I'd rather not listen to those people.

This wasted my life ... and then I had to go to the internet to find out there was a twin brother and that kind of confusion shouldn't happen. For a while during the final scene, I was thinking maybe the schizo preacher was actually Daniel's son?

I don't know, it sucked and could have been a lot better.

Overall though, I think it was trying to show the religion is a business as well and how they can/do intertwine.

Thanks.

June 19, 2008 at 7:41 PM  
Blogger Perumaal Shanmugam said...

I feel about the same as your excellent review but even more pathetic in general towards the film. I did not want to watch the movie at all, but had to expecting that there was going to be a "Sixth Sense" sort of ending that will make sense at the very end, justifying the enough Oscar craze and the flattering reviews this movie has been garnering.

But hell no. The main thing I have noticed is that the director is purporting or sort of intending to mimic the effect of an epic-Godfather styled story telling but fails miserably. The story is too unfit and the script too loose for such a dramatic effect. It's like trying to decorate a crappy looking mud pot into an excellent magical decorative jewelery box, but never really getting there.

Some of the intense moments are a bit embarrassing to watch really! The moments where Eli shouts and does his bit, and the bits where Daniel is exploding at his son or at Eli is just comical. Why? Why? Why? is the main question I am having.

Trying to sugar-coat a really bad story with this much fluff is just really bad film-making and very uncreative at that. The background music as well - everything is hyped to the point where it is just impossible to just sit and not laugh at the entire movie. It's almost as if the actors would suddenly stop acting so stiff and jump out of the screen and quip to the audience " See that is a really bad scene there " but unfortunately they don't. I can't understand how Paul Thomas Anderson can get the slightest positive nod for this uncreative effort.

To top it all up, the final delirious scene with the lame "I'm finished" and antique-film like credit scrolls just adds insult to the injury.

I would just wish some imagination, creativity, originality went into PTA's head and into the film. "No country for old men" is a fine film-adaptation but "Oil" simply isn't.


And to the anonymous comments posted here with "if you need everything detailed spoonfed ... you are a moron": Unfortunately, if the gaps are legitimate and enough to sustain the storytelling (short of Tarantino's 'missing-reel' phenomenon in Death Proof) it would be great; but these are really gaping holes that ought to have been filled or accounted for creatively somewhere by the director...

June 21, 2008 at 3:28 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Wow, Anderson is still generating blog comments. This was 170 films ago for me....

Anonymous: I guess there are possible reasons for Bandy's realpolitik attitude, including the one you gave. I would be happy even if there were no possible reason, as long as the film seemed to acknowledge that it was presenting a mystery.

I'm tempted to observe that Sunday hiding in the bushes behind Bandy would have been a great, missed opportunity to get into the business of how religion really works when it has to be reconciled with the practical needs of a growing nation. But I don't blame Anderson for not being interested in social structures, and I certainly don't blame him for inspiring so many critics to say that he is.

Perumaal - I too am a little embarrassed by Anderson's love of so many big acting gestures. I suspect that this has something to do with our temperaments as well as Anderson's. He clearly likes bombast for its own sake: that's not a virtue or a vice. His job is to try to integrate that pleasure into an artistic context. We, on the other hand, may be somewhat put off by bombast: our job as viewers is to try to overcome that distaste and look for an artistic context that makes it expressive.

June 21, 2008 at 8:07 AM  
Blogger Anonymous_1 said...

You wrote, "A third example: now secure in his power, Plainview discovers that his alleged half-brother Henry is an imposter, executes him, buries him, and falls asleep by the grave. In the morning, he is awakened by Bandy, a landowner who seems to be a devout member of Sunday's church. Near the end of their conversation, Bandy hands Plainview's gun back to him: the implication is that Bandy knows that Plainview just murdered Henry. Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent? These are not questions about character nuance: they are central to the narrative legibility of the scene. Anderson neither answers the questions nor makes it clear that he prefers mystery."

Although it wouldn't matter if this assertion were true, it happens to be false. Recall the scene where Bandy and his son show up at Daniel's camp, the morning after the murder. Daniel and his ersatz half-brother had been at Bandy's house just days prior, asking to see Bandy. Bandy's son told him that two men came to see him, and probably named them both, since Daniel and Henry are probably well known to the townspeople. Also, the shot shows four horses in the background when Bandy is talking with Daniel. No doubt Bandy, and his son, saw the two horses when they came to the camp when Daniel was asleep. The scene implies that Bandy knows what happened to Henry, or at least suspects.

October 24, 2008 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I think you're misunderstanding me. The handing of the gun makes it reasonably clear that Bandy is hip to the situation. The questions I felt that Anderson didn't care about were "Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent?"

October 24, 2008 at 3:44 PM  
Blogger Anonymous_1 said...

Dan wrote, "I think you're misunderstanding me. The handing of the gun makes it reasonably clear that Bandy is hip to the situation. The questions I felt that Anderson didn't care about were "Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent?"

Okay, then you agree that PTA gives the viewer enough data to conclude that Bandy is aware that a murder has occurred, but you question the plausibility that Bandy isn't interested in secular justice.

It's difficult for our generation to understand just how religious our society was only a century ago. By society I mean the common man/woman, not the minority of artists or intelligentsia that left their historical mark in words and images, i.e. “culture” as history. That a deeply religious man, like Bandy, would consider spiritual justice, dispensed by the Lord, as more meaningful than secular law is completely authentic, within this context. Your point, that secular justice is paramount, is an unnoticed bias, fabricated in our modern society; it’s a bias that I also subscribe to as well. This touches upon one of the central aspects of this movie – transition. Oil not only brought about a physical transition in our society, from agrarian to hyper-industrial, but also accelerated our society’s move from the spiritual to the material, i.e. theological to the secular.

October 29, 2008 at 10:13 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

No, it's not a plausibility issue for me either. What I was talking about was Anderson's tendency to stage situations without either dispelling mystery or amking it clear that there is a mystery. I have no objection (in advance, at least) to the idea that Bandy is exercising his religion by his own standards, nor with the idea that Bandy has lost sight of religion in his subjugation to Sunday. And I don't object to not knowing, either. But I miss the context of clarity that would help me identify mystery as mystery. And I can't help but suspect that Anderson just wanted to get Plainview into that church so he could stage the scene he wanted to stage.

November 2, 2008 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Anonymous_1 said...

Dan wrote, "What I was talking about was Anderson's tendency to stage situations without either dispelling mystery or making it clear that there is a mystery."

So, you stand firmly in the No Ambiguity Allowed camp.

Dan wrote, "And I can't help but suspect that Anderson just wanted to get Plainview into that church so he could stage the scene he wanted to stage."

In other words, the motivations of the Bandy character weren't plausible enough, for your taste, to present a rational narrative to get Plainview into that Church! In your estimation, how should the scene be re-written to provide a valid narrative that gets Plainview into that Church? I'm interested.

November 2, 2008 at 6:48 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

In my last comment I said: "And I don't object to not knowing, either. But I miss the context of clarity that would help me identify mystery as mystery." In fact, I have said something like this in nearly every comment I've made on this post. In other words, I am actually in the Ambiguity Allowed camp.

I speculated about a possible re-edit of a different scene (the discussion after the oil fire is put under control) in my original post. I don't think a rewrite of the Bandy scene (which wouldn't be as easy to redo to my taste) would be any more convincing.

November 10, 2008 at 9:39 PM  

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