Power, corruption and lies

Lead actor and director both shine in a drama dripping with foreboding.

There Will Be Blood (12A)
dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

The director and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey once told me of his disdain for Daniel Day-Lewis's acting. "All that screaming and hyperventilating . . . You may as well have a 'Men at Work' sign when he's on screen," he huffed, before undermining his case somewhat by claiming that Macaulay Culkin was the great screen presence of modern cinema.

There may be scepticism about the full-bodied Method style favoured by Day-Lewis, where a role is worth playing only if it requires you to translate Proust into semaphore, or survive in the Himalayas for a year on nothing but yak droppings. But whatever he undertook to play Daniel Plainview, a Californian oil prospector, in There Will Be Blood, it was worth it. His performance can be summed up as long, overcast periods interrupted occasionally by all hell breaking loose. He doesn't make us like Plainview, or even understand his emotional cruelty, but we absolutely believe in him. Three hours with this monster and we are also likely to experience a cinematic form of Stockholm syndrome.

When Plainview first strikes oil in 1903, it gushes violently, spattering the camera. A baby who gets a dab of the black stuff smeared on his forehead in a sinister baptism wails ominously. When the child's father dies, Plainview adopts him, and young H W (Dillon Freasier) grows into a watchful business partner. They receive a tip about some oil-rich land, which a naive owner is ready to flog for a pittance until his son, the budding preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), squeezes Plainview for a contribution. Soon Eli has established his church on one hill, dwarfed by Plainview's grinding derrick on another. So commences the battle between business and religion.

It is no coincidence that film-makers are drawn repeatedly to stories of men gone delirious with power, from Citizen Kane to Dr Strangelove and The Godfather Part II. The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has loosely adapted Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, knows this timeless rise-and-fall trajectory needs no embellishment. What he gives it is resonance, uncovering harbingers of today's turmoil in the early-20th-century oil craze: Plainview may begin the film as a humble miner, but he ends it staggering around a bowling alley that lends his mansion on the Pacific coast unmistakably presidential overtones.

As if the title were not warning enough, the film is dripping with foreboding, from the cacophonous score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, which often goes against the grain of whatever is on screen at the time, to the face-offs between Plainview and Eli, during which Anderson deprives us of any close-ups that might relieve the tension. The weedy Dano squares up to Day-Lewis manfully and is rewarded with a grandstanding scene of his own, writhing and wriggling as he casts out demons from his congregation. (I bet it turns up as a drama school audition piece before long.)

If there is a revelation in There Will Be Blood, it lies in the miraculous maturing of its creator. I am not being personal when I say that Anderson has always had a size problem. It was as though he chose the canvases for Boogie Nights and Magnolia before he had the paint or the discipline to fill them properly; those pictures had daredevil moments, but the proportions were all wrong. There Will Be Blood, his fifth feature film, is the real deal: everything is scaled to perfection. You could argue that the picture would be mercifully shorter without all those shots of Plainview stalking the dusty California landscape. But that would mean sacrificing the vital sense of how man and earth are intertwined, a relationship expressed beautifully in the ghostly dissolves between shots that give the illusion of people fading into the land.

Discussing scale without mentioning Stanley Kubrick is tantamount to perfidy, so I should point out that the picture strongly evokes that director's work - the long opening sequence, wordless but for primal grunting and clanging, recalls the beginning of 2001: a Space Odyssey, while the perversely anti-climactic pay-off is straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. But this is no simple homage. In its reach and intensity, and most of all its masterful visual eloquence, There Will Be Blood is the best Kubrick film that Kubrick never made.

Pick of the week

Cloverfield (15)
dir: Matt Reeves
New York under monster attack in the first documentary-style blockbuster.

Juno (12A)
dir: Jason Reitman
Oscar-nominated teen pregnancy comedy . . .

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (15)
dir: Cristian Mungiu
. . . and the flipside: a Palme d’Or-winning abortion drama.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis