Monthly Archives: January 2008

The lifeblood of ‘There Will Be Blood’

Jonny Greenwood’s score for the film There Will Be Blood deserves every bit of the attention it’s getting. This terrific piece by Alex Ross in The New Yorker really gets at the core of Greenwood’s achievement:

The movie opens with a shot of dry, bare Western hills. Then we see a man prospecting for silver at the bottom of a shaft. He blasts the hole deeper with dynamite, falls and breaks his leg, and, with a titanic struggle, draws himself back up. Finally, we see him lying on the floor of an assay office, his leg in a splint, signing for the earnings that will enable him to drill for oil. The sequence is almost entirely wordless, but it is framed by music, much of it dense and dissonant. At the very beginning, you hear a chord of twelve notes played by a smoldering mass of string instruments. After seven measures, the strings begin sliding along various trajectories toward the note F-sharp. This music comes from a Greenwood piece called “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” and, although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview.

As Plainview signs his name, another monster chord blossoms, in the violins and violas. This one is superimposed on C-major harmony in the bass, resulting in a less abrasive, more dreamlike atmosphere. The cellos play staggered glissandos—crying, sighing downward slides. Disembodied major triads rise through the harmonic haze, like mirages on the barren terrain outside Plainview’s shaft. The music is at once terrifying and enrapturing, alien and intimate.

As the movie goes on, Greenwood writes rugged open-interval motifs, which evoke the vastness of the land; mechanically churning Bartókian ostinatos, announcing the arrival of Plainview’s crew; primitivist drumming to propel an apocalyptic scene in which a derrick catches fire; and long-limbed, sadly ecstatic, Messiaen-like melodies to suggest the emotional isolation of Plainview’s ill-fated son. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood production in which music plays such an active role. (Unfortunately, Greenwood was judged ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, because the soundtrack contains too much preëxisting music.) When, in the closing scenes, Plainview evolves into an obscenely wealthy ghoul, Greenwood’s score retreats toward silence. In its stead, after a bloody final shot, the robust finale of Brahms’s Violin Concerto ironically fills the air: it sounds more like a radio blaring in an empty house than like music played for human beings.

As the lead guitarist for Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood belongs to that interesting subset of composers who have jumped into film soundtracks from the domain of pop music. Plenty of classical composers have dabbled in film — Sergei Prokofiev, John Corigliano, Toru Takemitsu — to good effect, but travelers from the other side make for a pretty small club. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo does good work. Danny Elfman made his bones with Oingo Boingo before he became Tim Burton’s right-hand man with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Howard Shore started with a jazz-rock band called Lighthouse before Saturday Night Live and Hollywood beckoned. Are there any others?

As for the film itself, well . . . I say god damn. It’s been a long time since an American movie gave me the sense of a wild artistic talent cutting loose and heeding nothing else around it, and I walked out of There Will Be Blood feeling a little bit dazed. As much as I liked Paul Thomas Anderson’s first three movies — Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia — I thought he’d hit a creative dead end with Punch-Drunk Love. I gather than Anderson reached the same conclusion, because everything in There Will Be Blood gives the impression of a filmmaker tearing up his old rule book and lighting out for unknown territory. All he saves from his earlier work is the willingness to follow the lead of his actors: there’s a flavor of wild improvisation to many of Daniel Day-Lewis’ scenes, as there is with Paul Dano’s brilliant turns as a bogus charismatic preacher.

Many reviewers have compared There Will Be Blood with Citizen Kane. Anderson cites Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! as his inspiration, but aside from being set in the early days of the Southern California oil boom, there is very little connection. Sinclair’s novel is told from the viewpoint of an oil tycoon’s son, and the book is a kind of running dialogue between father and son about capitalism and greed. There is dialogue in There Will Be Blood, but no dialogue. Daniel Plainview’s seething anger and lust for money leave no room for outside views, and when the natural world finally yields up the wealth he has been seeking, Plainview turns his aggression and competitiveness on everyone around him.

Jorge Luis Borges called Citizen Kane “a labyrinth without a center,” but There Will Be Blood is a labyrinth with a center devoid of light and warmth — just ravening appetite and a drive to dominate everything and everyone in sight. I’m still not sure if There Will Be Blood is a good movie, much less a great one, but it seizes the mind and shakes it like nothing else I’ve seen in years.

Bondage

The title of the next James Bond movie, as you’ve probably heard but had trouble believing, is Quantum of Solace. Apparently the title is drawn from the same Ian Fleming short story collection that yielded up A View to a Kill and For Your Eyes Only. Lit-bloggers have been falling all over each other in their haste to come up with an appropriately cutting comparison.

To Elisabeth Vincentelli, the title suggests “something that’d be playing at Manhattan Theater Club.” James Wolcott, ever the literary critic, says:

To me, it sounds like the title of a “promising debut novel” by a creative-writing graduate with Jonathan Lethem stars in his eyes and the moppety bed-head hair of a mumblecore actor. My imagination, it’s so vivid.

Personally, when I heard the title I thought some enterprising grad student had turned up a long-lost volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I often wonder how much more popular Powell’s cycle would be if only he’d put a rocket base hidden inside a volcano in The Kindly Ones. But that’s just me.

Mainly, I just worry for the poor movie reviewers. I remember the Bond series back in the Timothy Dalton days, and the way bewildered critics blinked and clawed at their hair when Licence to Kill went out in the U.S. with the British spelling unchanged. Now here comes Quantum of Solace, a three-word title with a big ol’ dictionary word at either end. The poor little things will be in an absolute tailspin.

Meet the public

I’ve done quite a few readings and author appearances for The Last Three Miles, and some have been better than others. But I’m happy to say I haven’t had any conversations even remotely like this:

“I love your books,” one woman said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“They are so relaxing,” she said. “And they really help my digestion.”

I think I am going to put that on the cover of my next book. It’s the best comment I’ve had since the San Francisco Chronicle called my book UNSOLD TV PILOTS “The best bathroom reading ever.”

Another woman picked up one of my books and asked:

“Is this one good?”

“No,” I said. “It’s awful. I wrote it while I was trying to kick my heroin addiction.”

“Really?”

“No.”

“Then why did you say that?”

“What did you expect me to say?” I replied. “Of course I think it’s good. I wrote it.”

“Well,” she said. “I was hoping for your honest opinion.”

Not one minute later, another woman (the audience was 99 % women) picked up one of my books and asked me:

“How much did it cost you to publish this?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Really?” she asked. “What about the other authors? What did they pay?”

“Nothing,” I said. “We all got paid to write our books.”

“Is that something new?”

“No,” I said.

“I thought everybody had to pay,” she said.

“No,” I said. “That’s not the way it works.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard,” she said.

I quickly educated her in how the business works. And after my long speech, she nodded and asked.

“How much did it cost you to get an agent?”

I’ll leave it to you to read about the woman with the attic full of spiral-bound notebooks.

The little sleazes

Robert Frost’s farmhouse in Vermont was trashed by a bunch of teens looking for a place to drink.

Destiny in a mini-skirt

Meet Linda Levy, one of the dark-haired girls who haunted Philip K. Dick.

Gods of geekdom

Since I’m a complete fool for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, I kept pretty close tabs on his pissing match with New Line Cinema, which was the roadblock to any possibility of Jackson returning to Middle-earth for a film version of The Hobbit. And, once the financial dispute was settled and Jackson and New Line became friends again, I paid close attention to the question of who would be the best choice to direct, since Jackson’s plate was too full to permit him to take control of the project.

Much as I admire what Jackson accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, it’s just as well he’ll be restricting himself to executive producer and script supervision duties. The Hobbit doesn’t have the same emotional weight as its outsized sequel, and Jackson has outgrown the project. He’d already outgrown his dream of remaking King Kong when he finally got the chance to do it, and his attempts to deepen the material merely emphasized the silliness of the story.

All along the geek-tower, the consensus has been that the director’s title should go either to Sam Raimi or Guillermo Del Toro, and I’m happy to hear that Del Toro is now the heir apparent. Raimi is a fine director — I wish as many people had gone to see A Simple Plan as went to see the blowsy, overlong Spiderman II — but he’s simply not in the same weight class as Del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are landmarks of dark fantasy. Del Toro’s a strong enough artist in his own right to keep from being overwhelmed by what Jackson has done already, yet enough of a geek fanboy to pay it proper respect even as he follows his own vision for Middle-earth. (As much as I approved of the hugely talented Alphonse Cuaron getting the third Harry Potter movie after two doses of Chris Columbus hackwork, Cuaron’s work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban made the series into something of an artistic grab bag.) And though it must pain Del Toro to know he won’t be able to come up with his own Balrog, he can console himself with the knowledge that he’ll be getting the chance to put Lake Town and Smaug on the big screen.

Dances With Mermaids was too young to see the three Jackson films with me. I look forward to revisiting Middle-earth in the cineplex with her sitting beside me.

American pies

Charles de Gaulle once asked, “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” We aren’t quite up to that standard here, but we do have something like 20 different kinds of pizza. And even more variations in the comments section.

Blue Monday

The old line “When they made him, they broke the mold” might well have been coined to describe Big Joe Williams, a squat, quarrelsome, broad-chested man who even in old age could have broken the mold himself. He is best known for “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Crawlin’ King Snake,” songs that have been covered by everyone from Muddy Waters to Ted Nugent. Joe’s heyday was the 1930s and 1940s, and after his star faded he stayed more or less continuously on the road, and the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s gave him new fans and even a chance to record.

This footage offers a pretty good look at Big Joe’s battle-scarred nine-string guitar, which was the core of his distinctive sound. Big Joe played country blues in a hard, percussive style in which the guitar served as a drum as well as a stringed instrument. On some occasions he was known to dangle a beer can against the strings to impart a buzzing tone to his playing. Big Joe was also fond of using strange guitar tunings to throw off anyone trying to imitate his style. “When I saw him playing at Mike Bloomfield’s ‘blues night’ at the Fickle Pickle,” recalled Barry Lee Pearson, “Williams was playing an electric nine-string guitar through a small ramshackle amp with a pie plate nailed to it and a beer can dangling against that. When he played, everything rattled but Big Joe himself. The total effect of this incredible apparatus produced the most buzzing, sizzling, African-sounding music I have ever heard.”

One of the more curious blues documents is a pamphlet called Me and Big Joe, Michael Bloomfield’s account of times he spent with Big Joe during his days in the early 1960s as a young blues freak in Chicago, before he became known as the razor-sharp guitarist of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Like a Rolling Stone” and Highway 6 Revisited. The two met at a Chicago nightclub called the Blind Pig:

Joe would get a few beers or a little hard liquor in him (peppermint schnapps and Gordon’s gin were his choices) and suddenly you wouldn’t be dealing with a normal man — he couldn’t talk coherently and nothing would make sense to him. Behind larger amounts of alcohol he could get physically violent. But as nasty as he could get when he was drunk, that’s how compassionate and big-hearted he could be when he was sober, and often his ways were a real Southern gentleman’s. His manner could be touching — very sweet, gallant, courtly.

At times the booklet reads like a collaboration between Flannery O’Connor and Hieronymous Bosch, as with this account of a visit with harmonica player Jazz Gillum:

Joe took me to see him on a very uncomfortable summer day, with both the temperature and the humidity up in the nineties — the kind of day when doing nothing makes you sweat; when dirt forms up under your fingernails for no reason at all. We drove out to the West Side and stopped in front of a tiny frame house, just a shanty, really. Wen we walked into the place I thought we’d hit Hell City — as hot as it was outside, it was insufferably worse within. All the windows were shut down tight. Clad in a huge brown overcoat and sweating profusely, Gillum stood outside a woodstove, stoking a raging fire. He was extremely paranoid. He’d written the very successful “Key to the Highway” and had never gotten the publishing money for it, and was afraid I’d come to steal his other tunes. We didn’t stay long enough to change his mind.

There are plenty of Big Joe samplers out there, most of them worthwhile as an introduction to his singular take on blues. (Just don’t get him confused with Joe Williams, the swing-band shouter who’s an excellent performer in his own right.) One of my favorites is Hand Me Down My Old Walking Stick, recorded in London at the end of his career, which opens with a big, raunchy slide note so loud that one imagines coffee cups and papers flying around the studio as the engineers scramble to adjust the sound levels. Whenever he had a guitar in his hands, Big Joe more than lived up to his nickname.

Art and Edmund

It never would have occurred to me to connect critic Edmund Wilson with jazz pianist Art Tatum, but now that I’ve read this article, the idea makes perfect sense.

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