Friday, January 25, 2008


I'll end this little trilogy of film commentaries by blogging about two films I saw last Sunday, both of which are nominated for Oscars: Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, both 2007. Schnabel won the Golden Globe for director and the film is nominated for direction and for adapted screenplay; Anderson's film is up for Best Picture and his adapted script and his direction are also nominated. The film is up for a total of 7 awards.

Both of these directors impressed me mightily in the past. In his film Basquiat (1996), about the outsider artist who became the toast of the town in '80s NY, Schnabel presented Basquiat, played by Jeffrey Wright, as an enigmatic, likeable fellow driven to be simply himself, no matter what. Anderson I mainly think of for two films, Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997), both overlong and too meandering in their scripts, but both boasting truly arresting scenes, generally based on the director's ability to scrutinize his characters, to keep them on camera until they actually reveal something about themselves. In these two new films, the theme of individuality, of will, is a dominant concern, so much so that seeing the two on the same day made for some points of comparison that I hope won't appear too facile.

One thing that struck me was an immediate contrast: in Blood, women are an afterthought in this all male world; there isn't a single significant female character -- the girl H.W. meets when they're children and eventually marries is barely on screen. Diving Bell, on the other hand, features Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a protagonist almost drowning in the attention of women: the mother of his children, his girlfriend, his speech therapist, the nurse who develops the system by which "Jean-Do," completely paralyzed but for his left eye, can blink out dictation for the book the film is based on, and the stenographer who patiently, valiantly takes down his words, one letter at a time. There are significant male characters as well -- not least being Bauby's father, played by Max Von Sydow (not a little of the film's grandeur comes from having the incomparable Max on screen).

But what this contrast means, in effect, is that we end with two radically different but comparable visions of the male will, which is something that both films present as the core of what matters in each. In Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview is a figure one would call heroic; he has what could be called an indomitable will. He is as relentless and unsparing toward himself as he is toward everyone he comes in contact with. One of the best scenes in the movie is when he finally opens up a little; thinking he has been found by his half-brother, he seems even more ready than the other man to claim kin. As he says, "I don't know how much longer I can keep on, dealing with these . . . people." And the word is accompanied by such a hearty laugh of exasperation and even surprise at his own ability to speak the word so conspiratorially, as in an "us" against a "them," that it's a perfect example of how Anderson lets his characters get comfortable in front of the camera, lets them become people we know, whether we like them or not.

It's hard to say whether Plainview is someone we could ever like, or even fully understand, but he is the film and so he engages us from start to last as a force of nature, as a living emblem of that will to succeed and to mine the resources of the land, to do it no matter what happens to "people," so much so that he makes us understand a bit better what was meant by "manifest destiny." And, lest we forget that there was always an implicit will of God in that phrase, Plainview's alter-ego is Eli Sunday, a young ecstatic who wants to build his own church and whose will crosses Plainview's several times, ultimately to Eli's undoing.

That final scene, which lasts a good while, plays a bit as though Mephisto and Faust finally decided to have it out; or is it Satan and Michael? The problem with those comparisons is that in both cases we know who "the evil one" is. In this case, both are. Anderson's point might be said to be that both forms of supreme will -- in service to commerce and "progress" over all, or in service to "the Word of God" -- are America's twin delusions, the devil in our ear urging us into every form of folly and vanity. The film's final line: "I'm finished" resonates beyond the story -- who or what is finished? -- but also seemed to me for a moment to be a line from the filmmaker himself: "you can go now, sermon over, I'm finished." The image that accompanies that pronouncement, then, might speak volumes about what Anderson wants to say. I confess that my own reading has much to do with a certain acceptance of the character of Plainview, bearing in mind for some reason Robert Lowell's line about Mussolini: "he was one of us only, pure prose."

Bauby is one of "them," the well-heeled, well-to-do, staggeringly successful beautiful people (he was editor of Elle magazine) and his various muse figures are all lovely and winsome -- and not a few have intense identifications with la Vierge, the Madonna. That element might be enough to offer contrast between the male will of "Jean-Do" and the otherworldliness of these women that echoes with the matter of fact brawn of Plainview and the yearning for beatitude of Eli. Whether Eli is genuine in his belief or not is ultimately up to any viewer to decide; the sincerity of the women in Diving Bell is more definitely manifest and so the contrast works against Bauby (easy to conflate with "baby"). In other words, I find it hard to take Eli's side, whether he's genuine or not, and though it's not easy to accept the women's view either it's easier to grant them their ideal. Particularly as that ideal foists upon "Jean-Do" the kind of necessary sympathy and company that make his unimaginably solitary ordeal bearable. The women dote upon him, as he sits there with his one working eye staring like some kind of exposed mollusk at whatever goes on around him, the rest of his body unresponsive, a fully grown fetus that will never again be animated by the man within even though his presence in any scene is manifestly that of a man with a certain incontrovertible dignity and pathos. He is, in a word, irresistible to these madonnas, each enacting a pietà in their every interaction with him.

Watching the film, which features many, many shots of faces encroaching into the viewer's "personal space" as they receive the eye's focus, brings back memories of any number of benign adults -- females particularly -- as they bent down to make contact with oneself as a child. Even if such memories don't float easily on the surface of one's consciousness, the experience of watching the film keeps one almost floating in an amniotic fluid of support. In contrast to Plainview, we see in Diving Bell a man who needs women, but ultimately we also see an indomitable will to achieve something manifesting itself in the book Bauby writes. He dies ten days after its publication, having lived to hear the reviews read to him. His first statement of dictation is "je veux mourir" -- I want to die. Between that statement and the end there is, it seems, only pure prose.

(It just occurred to me that Daniel Day-Lewis, who deserves the best actor Oscar this year, won it before for playing Christy Brown, in My Left Foot (1989), a man born with cerebral palsy who learned to write and paint with the only limb he could control: his left foot.)

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