“I’m an oilman…”: P.T. Anderson, comics, and winter

This is going to be a short post, but I like this streak of consistency I have going, so despite my immense drowsiness – and the fact that I’m knee-deep in quiz bowl questions to write – I’m going to take a stab at writing something. First, I recommend checking out the AV Club’s “best films of the ’00s” feature, which includes 4 that I wrote about a few weeks back, and several that I was strongly considering writing about. I guess since it’s December, it’s getting to be a better time to actually talk about the decade as a whole. And while I may still be totally unqualified to do so, I did see one more very, very acclaimed (and deserving) movie not long ago.

There Will Be Blood is just one of those movies that makes you jump around inspired by the memory of watching it, repeating to yourself, “I’m an oilman…” in your best Daniel Plainview brogue. It’s a movie where every piece of style and theme slide together to tell a story that’s written on the face of one hungry man and across the face of the California landscape – and across the history of modern civilization. A story about Oil!, as Upton Sinclair’s novel put it.

We’ve got Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant, anxiety-inducing score; the masterful direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, who holds the film’s mood tight and makes the human drama a counterpoint to the drama bubbling underground; and a cast as tense and earthy as the oil-rich soil beneath their feet. And Day-Lewis even meets his match with a co-star in his early twenties, the prodigious Paul Dano (Dwayne from Little Miss Sunshine) who explodes on-screen as a devout young preacher.

Daniel Plainview’s greed and Eli Sunday’s evangelism aren’t just simple, character-defining attributes, either – they’re conflicted (both men fear their own weaknesses and those of their families), and developed through scene after scene full of rich characterization, played out with the same emotional grandeur that Anderson’s proven himself the master of again and again, all leading to a brazen, intense finale.

You sit there, hear a Brahms violin concerto playing as if nothing’s happened, and realize the movie has hit you like a bowling pin in the face. I’m not sure exactly what There Will Be Blood‘s legacy will be, but I do know that the legacies of everyone involved (especially Anderson and Day-Lewis) will be very much tied up with this film, and I strongly suspect that if you pencilled in a spot for it on your list of the greatest films of all time, you wouldn’t come to regret it.

So that’s my abbreviated take on one of the greatest films of the decade, which I watched a few weeks ago but just came to comment on now. Before I go, let me comment briefly on one of the books I’m currently making my way through: The Best American Comments 2008, edited by Lynda Barry. Maybe I’m a year late, but with great comics, you’re never too late. A number of the usual suspects are present, like Alison Bechdel with some DTWOF strips about politics and child-rearing, and Chris Ware with a typically amazing series of New Yorker covers about Thanksgiving that bloom from 1 panel to 256, telling a layered story of family, history, and gratitude.

Also present are some interesting artists I’ve never heard of: Lilli Carré with the Möbius strip story “The Thing About Madeline” and Jason Lutes with excerpts from Berlin, which just blew me away. Granted, I’m always a sucker for anything about Weimar Germany, but the level of observation in the storytelling and the precision with which it’s laid out are captivating, and I started getting attached to characters I knew nothing about – a ruined businessman, an angry, poverty-stricken widower, and others. I was also impressed by how Lutes uses the formal properties of comics to bring all these disparate stories together, showing people divided by class and age but each affected by the unique conditions of Germany just before the Nazis.

And facial expressions: Lutes does them so well, and I think it’s fascinating how important they can be in comics. So much of our understanding of a character can be gleaned from changes in facial expressions from one panel to the next, and if we train our eyes on one panel, that expression stays frozen in its own perpetual meaning. I love comics!

I also love Rick Geary, who has an excerpt from The Saga of the Bloody Benders featured in the anthology. (The Benders are so interesting – why hasn’t their story been made into a great movie?) I’ve read Geary’s takes on Charles J. Guiteau and H.H. Holmes, and I crave more [hint hint for Christmas…]; in fact, I crave more historical graphic nonfiction in general.

All that said, I’d better get back to some combination of writing other stuff, watching movies, and sleeping. It snowed this morning, marking the first snowfall since October, which means that now the Minnesota winter is really beginning. It also means that I should use the snow as inspiration to write the next draft of my screenplay, Gestation Period, so we can film it this coming January and February. More about that as it progresses. In the meantime, enjoy the snow if you have it, and if not, enjoy this picture.

best films of the ’00s

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