The Continuing Story of my Man-Crush on Robert Elswit, ASC

Part Three: Films that Changed My Life

This instalment of ‘FTCML’ is a little different to the previous two. I’m jumping forward a bit – quite a bit, actually – to rectify an impression I fear I may be making. See, you don’t have to be a child for a film to change your life. Sure, early exposure to certain films set my mind on a particular path. Childhood impressions do tend to be more profound, that’s true. However, even as an adult certain films have managed to get under my much less impressionable skin. P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) is one such film.

Yes, I know. It’s far from perfect. Good. I love flaws. I think I may have mentioned before how difficult protagonist Daniel Plainview is for us, the audience, to fathom. He chops and changes and contradicts himself. Does he love his ‘adopted’ son or not? Is he struggling against his baser nature or is he revelling in it? Who do we barrack for in this film? Surely not Plainview’s chief rival Eli Sunday, who manages to be both a money conning charlatan and a religious whacko at the same time? A critic of the film at the time it was released described Anderson’s rendering of Plainview as ‘unfair’ to the audience, on account of his contradictions. This complaint comes from an expectation that characters in films must have a completely transparent, fully traceable arc from film beginning to film end. It comes from a belief that character’s motivations and intentions must be understandable at all times, or if not must be revealed and explained in full by the end of the movie. While such formulas have their place in cinema, the idea that they are absolute musts is complete and utter nonsense.

There Will Be Blood got under my skin exactly because it is a necessarily incomplete character study of a morally murky creature. How else could Anderson (or any other director) present such a person as Plainview? Is he supposed to overcome his issues related to family, his hatred of ‘these people’, his mistrust of religion, and his greed? Conversely, is he supposed to fully succumb to all of these things for us to feel satisfied? Is it unfair that he finally disowns his son, having agonised so much over sending him away previously? To audiences weaned on cookie-cutter multiplex plots perhaps it is. But must everything be so clear-cut for a film to be worth watching? Since when did directors become psychologists, expected to solve or explain all of life’s ambiguities? Anderson presents Plainview, I suspect, as Plainview came to him – as a cluster of big and little question marks regarding the nature of man, and greed, and religion, and family. A pondering upon philosophical concerns to which there are no definitive answers. What a splendid (and perfectly valid) premise for a film or film character. What an interesting proposal to make to a receptive audience (us). How lucky am I that three years ago I paid fifteen bucks to see a film and the residue of that film is still swimming around upstairs, enriching my brain? Do we always need clear cut resolutions? No! Sometimes we need films that get us looking for the answers ourselves – even if there aren’t any.

Leaving aside my penchant for films that are seductively ambiguous, There Will Be Blood entices me back again and again to simply take pleasure from the cinematographic work of Robert Elswit, ASC (I think I may have mentioned him before). I think Elswit did some of his best work on this film. His use of short focal lengths to isolate Plainview from other figures in the frame is simple, subtle and completely effective. The fabulous two-shot of Eli and Plainview in the now virally famous ‘milkshake’ scene is perfect in conveying the gradual devolution of their relationship. A deliberate focus on simple and limited camera setups results in a film where physical performance – especially gesture – is allowed plenty of room. In these terms the film succeeds in emulating the films from which it takes inspiration, not the least of which is Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Elswit has a clear eye, a deft hand, and an ability to create arresting images without resorting to gimmicky angles or gaudy tricks. Paired with Anderson (they are long time collaborators) he has created some of the most original and beautiful cinema of the past two decades.

It certainly got me writing, this film. This isn’t the first piece I’ve written about There Will Be Blood nor, I suspect, will it be the last. I’m compelled every so often to return to it, to come at it from a different angle, to find something else, something new in it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to get the bottom of the film. I’m trying, as most of us are, to get to the bottom of myself. The films that change your life will have that effect on you. They will mirror something of you and send you off in search of it after the credits roll.