An oldie, but one I'm quite proud of...

When the king holds court, he is not to be disturbed. And so it is for oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, becoming richer by the second as his derricks pump black gold from the veins of the California earth, when Holy Roller Eli Sunday walks quietly but determinedly up to him midway through There Will Be Blood. Earlier in the film, Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) promises Sunday (Paul Dano) $5,000 for the coffers of the young preacher's church in return for the liquid that surges and pools beneath the land; despite the gusher he quickly hits, Plainview fails to pay up, and Sunday has come for his money. The beating that ensues is one-sided, to say the least: Plainview knocks Sunday to the ground with resounding blows to the face, the evangelist recoiling until he finds himself backed into a pit of muddy, sludgy oil. Plainview literally rubs Sunday's face in it, humiliating him by shoving fistfuls of this unholy ointment into his mouth. He chokes off Sunday's own formidable power, his spooky whisper, until it is a desperate gargle.
Various critics have written of There Will Be Blood's innumerable cinematic influences — Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, even 2001: A Space Odyssey — but the words that popped into my head watching this drubbing were about another film, one that Anderson himself has said was an influence.
The fighting isn't fast or fancy; no one's a quick draw or a sharpshooter. Instead, the fisticuffs are slow and awkward and unfailingly human; it's a sloppy fight, with men crawling on the ground and clawing at each other's legs. The other men stand idly by, watching these Americans make fools of themselves in a land they fail to understand. And though Dobbs and Curtin win the battle, there's no clear winner once the film's bigger picture emerges: The money they get from McCormick leads, almost fatefully, to their ruin.
I wrote that about the barroom brawl near the beginning of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but the description of the fight itself, and the consequences it breeds, seem equally applicable here. There Will Be Blood is, to be somewhat reductive, about battles: capitalism against Christianity, optimism against pessimism, past against present, gangster against Westerner. There may be a clear winner at first sight, but Anderson's epic bristles with layers of meaning, densely allusive and fiercely, almost willfully, strange. In the end, it seems, the film foresees both kings "fast finishing," and watching the violent descent allows a glimpse into America's very own heart of darkness.

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Along the Ground

Between the broken foothills of Signal, Wyoming and the dry, flat plains of northern Texas, cramped towns periodically dot the landscape, not so much erupting out of it as clutching it tight, holding steadfast to dying hopes tied up in the land. Alongside the magnificent vistas of Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), it is possible to find the decrepitude, intolerance and claustrophobia of a civilization releasing its last breath: the film's emotional Ground Zero is the close, grungy home of Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and his wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), shored up by wary glances and quiet desperation, the slate grays and dusty tans suggesting a place on the point of vanishing altogether. Though the gay romance at the heart of the film shatters the mold of the traditional Western — no men in white hats riding in to save the day, no Gary Cooper waiting around at high noon for the gauntlet to be thrown — its borderlands form the site where the genre's enduring themes inevitably clash, where individual freedom and social obligation, tenuous capitalism and Jeffersonian yeomanry, the fierce promise and final devastation of the American Dream, hit up against one another with irrevocable force. The musty, mothballed atmosphere of pained faces and mismatched clutter that Lee conjures in Ennis and Alma's tiny town may lack the grandeur of Monument Valley, but the hard-nosed ordinariness has a heft all its own. Brokeback Mountain is part of a decade-long spate of new, wide-ranging "Westerns," each exploring the notion that the West may no longer be the place recognizable from Stagecoach and Gunsmoke. But in films and television shows as divergent in tone and subject matter as 3:10 to Yuma and There Will Be Blood, Don't Come Knocking and No Country for Old Men, Deadwood, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Assassination of Jesse James, "The West" remains a vital idea, an organizing theme of the American self-conception, embodying hopes and disappointments clung to as fervently as the ground itself.

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Everything, and So Much of It

The lights go down, and in the projector's glow you can still make out the sheen of Brylcreem in his hair, still see, as he launches into the meat of his pitch, the easy confidence of a man who knows what he's doing. But there's something else here, too, some intimation of failure beneath the gleam of success. When he talks about Teddy, an aging Greek who mentored him in the long-ago days of copywriting for a fur company, his frequent pauses create the staccato rhythm of a man trying to catch his breath:

Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound" . . . It's a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called "The Wheel," it's called "The Carousel" — it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again, to a place we know we are loved.

Images of a family idyll — children climbing trees on some sunny weekend afternoon, husband and wife laughing over a shared hot dog — click on and off the conference room's vinyl projection screen. And so Don Draper's life flits gently past, like sand through the gaps in his fingers.

Set between the first wide distribution of the Pill and the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the first three seasons of Mad Men (created by Matthew Weiner) feel like an adaptation of The Tempest set before the characters wash ashore, except that we viewers already know the names of the rocky shoals ahead — Cuba, Oswald, Selma, Tet, Chicago — and watch for them as though still trying to steer clear. Unaware, Don (played with two parts sex appeal and one part menace by Jon Hamm) and his wife Betty (January Jones, at times so fragile and pale she seems on the point of vanishing), a picture-perfect suburban couple, find themselves up to their necks in anomie. Don's troubling grasp of just how painful the past can be is matched only by his wife's own grief, which she burrows into so deeply that she can only express it to a neighbor's 10-year-old son, holding his mittened hand. "Glen, I can't talk to anyone," she says, beginning to cry. "It's so horrible. I'm so sad . . . Please tell me I'll be okay." "I don't know," he replies. "I wish I was older."

For Don and Betty and Glen, as for secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), account executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and the other victims of the Eisenhower Snooze who roam the halls of ad agency Sterling Cooper, what one wants soundly trounces what one already has, despite/because of the fact that what each wants is far more difficult to get, and less easily explained. This is, as Betty Friedan famously termed it, "the problem that has no name." It arises not from poverty but from immense, unyielding comfort, like a bed from which you cannot get up. It is, in short, a feeling that life itself, amid luxuries unimaginable to one's parents, loses some vital part of its value. "I look at you and I think, 'I want what he has,'" Peggy tells Don. "You have everything, and so much of it."

What "everything" might entail is left unexplored, and maybe that's the point: modern America is a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side proposition, full of evidence that we're not making what we can out of what we've been given. The characters' struggle to move beyond the ennui of afternoon cocktails and idle affairs, to rediscover a better past, mirrors our own struggle to move forward with all that baggage on our back. In this country, fifty years on, we're still waiting for the time machine to bring the imagined idyll around again, desperately seeking something, anything, to salve the old wounds. And as goes the country, so goes its television: Mad Men's emotional thermostat seems to be set permanently at longing — longing for what we had (or believe we had) and lost, longing for what we hope to gain, longing sentimentally and longing with distress, longing stuck in the uncomfortable place between nostalgia and regret, where it becomes hard to tell whether the pain we feel stems from having once been happier than we are now, or from never having been happy at all.

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