by Marc Glassman
There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson, director & script inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! Jack Fisk, production design. Robert Elswit, cinematography. Jonny Greenwood, score. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Dillon Freasier (H.W. Plainview), Ciaran Hinds (Fletcher)
Youth Without Youth. Francis Ford Coppola, director, writer & producer based on the novella by Mircea Eliade. Starring: Tim Roth (Dominic Matei), Alexandra Maria Lara (Laura/Veronica/Rupini), Bruno Ganz (Prof. Stanciulescu), Alexandra Pirici (Woman in Rm. 6)
The New Year has dawned not so merry and bright with two ambitious failures by top American auteurs. Taking Bob Dylan’s dictum that “there’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all,” Paul Thomas Anderson and Francis Ford Coppola have gone all out to turn their new films, There Will Be Blood and Youth Without Youth, into modern epics. Each has adapted important novelists—Anderson chose American socialist Upton Sinclair while Coppola picked the Rumanian mystic Mircea Eliade—and attempted to put forth their beliefs on screen.
Dramatizing philosophy is never an easy task to do, especially if the intention is to appeal to a wide audience. In the process, both abandoned good storytelling techniques in an effort to make the case for Big Ideas. While applauding both directors’ commitment to such causes as attacking rapacious capitalism, hypocritical religious practices and Fascism while extolling Jungian psychology and socialist humanism, it’s hard to believe that any but the most naïve and uninformed of viewers will be swayed by these two films.
That isn’t to say that these aren’t laudable efforts. Two of the finest British actors of the ‘80s, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tim Roth, give wonderful performances as the leads in, respectively, the Anderson and Coppola films. Working with fine production designers and dedicated technical crews, both directors were able to render the past quite well—Europe from the ‘30s through the ’50s in Youth Without Youth and California from the 1898 to 1927 in There Will Be Blood. And the stories are quite intriguing; after all, both are based on exceptional pieces of literature.
In Youth Without Youth, Coppola may have taken on a harder task than Anderson. Mircea Eliade is an esoteric, if important, philosopher and novelist. He genuinely believed that the soul could migrate from body to body over the centuries. Like Jung, he was a mystic, with enough grounding in contemporary cultural thought to be considered outré but still academically interesting. For an aging Coppola, decades removed from the overwhelming successes of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, the notion that youth may be invigorated or the soul transferred to another must be seductive, indeed. And so we have this film, which Coppola produced and financed out of the profits from his winery business.
The story in Youth Without Youth is bizarre, to put it mildly. Tim Roth plays Dominic, an aging linguist, in suicidal despair about his incomplete life and work, who is suddenly struck by lightning. Instead of dying, he recaptures his youth, becoming inexplicably a man of 30, equipped with telekinetic power. Evading the Nazis—this is the late ‘30s—Dominic spends nearly 20 years in Switzerland until he meets, once again, the love of his life.
Back in the 1890s, Dominic had loved and lost Laura; now, in the ‘50s, he meets her double, Veronica, just moments before—of course!—she is struck by lightning. Veronica’s powers differ from Dominic’s, though: she finds herself migrating into the past, speaking in ancient tongues and, in fact, becoming those characters. The two explore languages for a summer until Dominic realizes that Veronica, who is also the ancient Rupini—trust me!—is becoming older under his ministrations. Coppola finally poses a tough question: must they lose each other again? Unfortunately, by that point, nearly two hours have passed, and with that, most of the audience.
There Will Be Blood is by far the greater achievement, which just makes its oddly didactic conclusion that much more difficult to understand. Day-Lewis plays aspiring oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, a tough, laconic man, who is initially interested in two things—oil and his son H.W. Told about unexploited oil fields in rural California by a rouge member of the Sunday family, Plainview literally buys their ranch and most of the environs surrounding it. Fighting off the fervent evangelic movement started by Eli Sunday, Plainview appears to be a good, practical man bent on bringing prosperity to the region.
Then tragedy hits. The well comes up with a gusher of oil but the crashing sound of the liquid bursting through the earth shatters H.W.’s eardrums. Daniel can’t stand a cripple and sends the boy away—but not until he has hurt H.W. terribly. Focusing his anger on Eli and his pious Christianity, Daniel is alone until a brother, Henry, arrives unexpectedly.
At this point, two-thirds of a long film has elapsed. Many questions are ready to dealt with: who is Henry? Will he try to exploit his brother? What will happen to H.W? Will Eli and Daniel inevitably confront each other?
And again, up to this critical juncture in the narrative, there has been much to admire in There Will Be Blood. The nearly wordless evocation of the dusty, rocky California in the beginning of the 1900s has been astonishingly accurate and poetic. Day-Lewis, channeling the great actor-director John Huston, has created an angry, charismatic, charming rouge out of Plainview. (Anderson had screened Huston’s masterpiece Treasure of the Sierra Madre repeatedly for himself and interested cast members.) The other performances had been solid.
Then, suddenly, the film goes awry. Day-Lewis goes crazier and crazier. The confrontation between evangelical Christianity and good ol’ American capitalism becomes a fight to the death. Father vs. son, that eternal struggle, loses any hint of subtlety.
What happened to P.T. Anderson, the director of, arguably, the best American film of recent times, Magnolia? Huston ended his diatribe against capitalism, Sierra Madre, with ironic laughter. Anderson? With blood—and a crazy, unmotivated conclusion. Still, There Will Be Blood is an important film. It might have been greater–but Day-Lewis’s performance makes it well worth seeing.