Sorry for the big delay in replying, GT. I’ve been really busy lately, and to be honest Xixax is way down my list of priorities at present. You do deserve a response for all the time you’ve spent formulating replies, but I’m afraid I’m not going to go into detail here on every individual point about the film that we disagree on. That would take forever, and would cause the debate to spiral out in a million different directions, probably with little valuable argumentation actually getting done as a result.
Instead, I want to return again to a main difference I see between the way we look at films in general – the question of form and content. I want to do this both because hopefully this will make it a little clearer why and how I value There Will Be Blood, and also because I think it would be a more useful and interesting thing to argue about than our personal interpretations of individual scenes or characters…
Before I get into my main point, though, I just want to touch briefly on one thing that again relates to the basic way we look at films: You say that your particular method of appreciation of films isn’t romantic, and then you immediately come out with this:
Art should symbolize inner feelings one can have.
This is one of the most succinct summaries of romanticism’s aesthetic dictates that I’ve ever come across. Of course I’m not saying that films have to be about YOU in order for you to like them (as you suggest I argued), but this comment just confirms that the critical schema you’re operating on is a romantic one that demands that art moves you and lets you relate to it personally. That in itself is cool I guess, but by the same token that schema also states (as you do later) that great art is universal, and should be able to move everyone, because feelings are above and beyond culture and ideology:
those comments relate to very basic feelings all humans have. You made the analogy how my feelings can't be the same as your friends across the world. That has to relate to experience, not basic feelings.
This conception of feelings (and their stimulus in art) as being asocial and apolitical just flat out isn’t true, I think, but it’s not the main thing I want to talk about – it’s just indicative again of how different our points of view on art are.
The main thing I want to discuss can be basically encapsulated by this sentence from the other thread:
Interpreting standard business scenes from the camera angles is probably looking too much into what is just a lot of standard scenes.
You have consistently objected to the fact that the only thing people have been able to praise in There Will Be Blood (myself included) is its ‘form’, not its ‘content’, and your entire argument basically stems from your belief that its ‘content’ isn’t actually very impressive.
You essentially separate ‘form’ and ‘content’ as different considerations by implicitly suggesting that ‘content’ is something you start with (the script, presumably? In fact, many of your problems with the film might be said to in fact be problems with the script), and that this alone is what provides the themes, the characterizations, the “great intellectual ideas” you crave. Then, your way of thinking implies, ‘form’ is just placed on top of it, and must try to do its best to communicate what is already there in the ‘content’, and that – if what is there isn’t up to scratch – then nothing in the ‘form’ can make it a good film. As you say:
Content and style are equal in my book, but that goes with specifications. […]
You might say you believe content and style are equal as far as There Will be Blood is concerned, but I'm trying to point out how the content is severely lacking in the film.
I on the other hand would actually now like to go further than my previous comments about how closely linked ‘form’ and ‘content’ should be considered to be, and suggest that in a film, form IS content.
Obviously, the only way we have access to a film is through how it has been made – that means how it’s shot, framed, cut, lit, and everything else that usually constitutes ‘form’. In fact, all that we are experiencing when we watch a film is the result of ‘form’, and everything that we might be tempted to call ‘content’ is only communicated to us THROUGH form, so how can we possibly separate the two?
You object above that I’m overinterpreting a “standard scene” by understanding it to a great extent through its camera angles – and that this constitutes privileging form over content. But I would counter that there IS no scene without the camera angles. For one thing, since we would not see the scene in the first place had it not been filmed (that is: it wouldn’t exist as a scene at all), we absolutely have to look at HOW it was filmed to account for our experience of the scene. Next, the camera angles are a major part of what makes that scene THAT scene, and to look at them separately, as if they are somehow tacked-on and irrelevant to the meaning of the scene and how we understand it, is thus nonsensical. A scene is equal parts camera placement/ movement as it is dialogue, staging, acting, décor, sound, lighting – everything. All these things are what make a film a film, and where we get a huge part of our meaning of the film from.
I looked in detail at the camera set-ups and framings of a number of scenes in the film because it is in large part through these things that There Will Be Blood (and any other film) actually MAKES its meanings, not just COMMUNICATES the meanings that already exist in the script. That is why I bring up the nuances of Day Lewis’ performance in the brothel scene, or the framing of the pipeline in the scene when H.W. returns, or the consistent marginalizing of the social world into the background. Equally, it is why I give so much importance to the elisions and ambiguities in the storytelling. These ‘formal’ elements are at LEAST half of the way it creates its ‘content’ – and the rest of the ‘content’ (inherent in the script) is only able to communicated to us through these devices. If all we want to talk about is what is in the script, then we should be ‘script fans’ or ‘script critics’ – but we’re not: we’re film fans and film critics, and that means appreciating the fact that films create their significance – and acquire their value – (and indeed ARE films) because of how they are made, not how they are written.
You say that:
The fact that Daniel says the things about himself later that he does hate people separates him, but it's one of the very few actions that distinguishes the personal Daniel from the businessman. The film shouldn't be reliant on pieces of dialogue to distinguish the animosity he feels from his ability to glad hand local citizens.
You’re right that a film shouldn’t just rely on dialogue to communicate its meanings – and There Will Be Blood doesn’t: it does it through the narrow point of view it establishes via its narrative and narration, and through its camera angles, framings, movements, not to mention its music, its acting – everything that you might call elements of its ‘form’, but which is in fact in equal parts its content. You say later that to have Daniel flat out say that he hates people is a lazy way to get across that meaning, and if it was the only way that this is done then I might agree, but it isn’t; as my entire essay is dedicated to showing, it is doing this (and many other things that I haven’t had time to go into) in a multitude of other (non script-related) ways throughout.
In a chapter called “’How’ is ‘What’” in his brilliant book Film as Film, Victor Perkins says that:
“Asserted meanings cannot be ignored; but equally they should not be overvalued. What matters is the extent to which these bold statements are refined by the pattern of detail built over and around them. In any [good film] we find subtlety and complexity not (where it’s nonsensical to look for them) in the initial scheme, but in the organization of details whose relationships simultaneously complicate and clarify the movie’s viewpoint. At this level of coherence significance is locked into the picture’s form. […..] Synthesis, where there is no distinction between how and what, content and form, is what interests us if we are interested in film as film.”
This is a perfect description of what happens in There Will Be Blood: the ‘asserted meaning’ that Daniel hates people is refined in many ways: by the ironies that this creates with the position of social reformer we have seen him enact previously, with what this then means for his relationship with the social world around him, and through the complex way the story has been told 'formally'. You also say elsewhere that the film should have started making itself about Plainview’s isolation and misanthropy earlier than it does:
Most of his dealings with the townsfolk are too business ordinary to be self reflective of him. The film could speak more about his personal isolation if it decided to devote more study to his deeper conflicts from the outset, but it does not.
But my point is that it already HAS done this through its construction. The “pattern of detail’ of all the things I've been pointing out in its 'form', and more, is what makes this film THIS film, and it is this that we must assess if we are to assess the film AS a film. I felt that there was something very strange and very wrong going on with this character long before he came out and announced it later on, and – looking back – I can plainly see why this was and what it was, and can see the intricateness and the richness with which this was already being communicated. This is what makes the business scenes more than just ‘standard scenes’, because they are not just what is written, but also what is filmed, and what is filmed is telling us a great deal more than you allow for. Each scene creates its significance, and its meanings, and its themes, in many more ways than are accounted for by the words on a page from which they grew. And, as I have repeated now ad nauseam, what these 'formal' properties create is not in fact just ‘style’, but the very content of the film itself.
There Will Be Blood’s characterizations, its themes and its intellectual properties (what you might call its ‘content’ – all the things you say you want from it) are all intimately wrapped up with its form – as is the case with all films, or at the very least all good films. We should thus look to its 'form' to determine its full significance, its richness, and its value. The fact that it repays such scrutiny, that its ‘form’ holds such rich ‘content’, is what makes it, for me, a great film.