The Movie Club

The Year’s Best Dick Joke

Nathan’s ode to the ever-present, never-quite-visible Beowulf-ian phallus made me laugh harder than anything in this Movie Club so far (unless it was Wesley’s Into the Wild-inspired craving to “buy six cars, fill them full of gas, and drive them all at the same time”). The whole experience of seeing Beowulf—I caught it at an “all-media screening,” the kind of crammed, raucous event that gets as close as a press screening can to the populist thrill of the sticky-floored multiplex—was a joyous affirmation of Scott and Wesley’s argument for good old-fashioned analog theatergoing. Imagine an entire faux-Raybans-sporting audience shrieking with something between derision and delight as every object imaginable (Severed human limbs! Gold coins! Roasted squirrel on a stick!) was digitally shoved in our faces to remind us that, yes, this really was 3-D. But I do feel compelled to point out that there was one hide-and-seek penis sequence in 2007 that trumped even Beowulf’s: the Bart Simpson nude-skateboarding gag in The Simpsons Movie. When Bart’s wanger peeped out for a second from behind an artfully arranged lineup of fences, ladders, and hedgerows, only to disappear once more, it was another of those moments when you’re grateful to be part of an audience, whooping as one.

Grindhouse understood that moviegoing pleasure, too. Robert Rodriguez’s half, inferior as it was to Tarantino’s, even paid tribute to the pops, scratches, and shitty projection that (especially back in the pre-digital days, but as Wesley points out, even now) make seeing a film “in person” a little bit like live theater: A bunch of people gather before a proscenium stage where something can actually happen, whether it’s a print melting or an actor forgetting his lines. In the future, when our grandchildren watch movies by implanting tiny microchips in their scalps or climbing into individual holo-pods or whatever unimaginable form the technology will take, maybe the human warmth of hunkering before a flickering TV screen (where at least others can join you if they want) will be remembered with the same fondness as theatergoing is now.

Every advance in technology has had the effect of isolating consumers of culture from one another: Movies took us away from live actors, video took us away from other filmgoers, and now iThings are depriving us even of our fellow couch potatoes. When the novel began to take off as a form of mass entertainment in the 18th century, it was decried as an isolating and corrupting influence, in language surprisingly similar to that used to critique TV and video games today. All this is not to say that something important isn’t lost in the retreat into private, small-screen viewing—I think it most certainly is. But I agree with Scott that the top-down distribution system won’t be going anywhere too soon.

Wesley’s call for a higher service standard at the multiplex is both righteous and touching in its futility. Imagine a suit from the studio patrolling the local UA franchise, clucking at the overcranked volume and gooky armrests, shushing the wrapper-cracklers and nail-filers! I’m afraid they’d gladly chuck us all into Sweeney Todd’s meat grinder, as long as a tasty pie of profit popped out the other end. (“What’s that on the skewer?/It tastes like reviewer!”) Behold the state airline travel has reached as volume becomes the industry’s sole concern, and feel lucky you’re not watching movies in a veal pen.

Scott, I went and read Richard Schickel’s fine review of There Will Be Blood as you suggested, and it brought me no closer to understanding the film’s ending than before. That’s not to say that the coda isn’t great as a stand-alone piece of filmmaking. Schickel’s claim that it’s “the most explosive and unforgettable 10 or 15 minutes of screen acting [he’s] ever witnessed” will get no argument here. Day-Lewis and Dano are both unbelievable, and the bowling-alley beatdown is mind-blowing. But there’s something about those last 20 or so minutes that feels parachuted in from another movie, one that’s coyer (cf. Day-Lewis’ punning last line, “I’m finished”), broader, and more overtly comic than anything that’s come before. In Roger Ebert’s just-posted piece on the movie, he calls the ending “inappropriate” but makes a case for it nonetheless, on the grounds that “only madness can supply a termination for this story.” For Slate’s Tim Noah, the movie starts to go south much earlier, in the scene where Day-Lewis’ Plainview suddenly opens up to his (maybe) long-lost brother about his hatred for humanity. I liked that scene (or any scene involving the wonderful Kevin O’Connor, who seemed to have arrived on set straight from a 19th-century tintype), but the tonal shift it marked did make me sit up and go, “Wha?”

Then there was the penultimate scene, in which Day-Lewis delivers that cruel “bastard in a basket” speech to his now-grown son and, essentially, disowns him. It’s the emotional climax of the most important relationship in the film, yet it takes place between two men who, in essence, we don’t know yet: Plainview in his new barking-mad incarnation, and H.W. in his suddenly grown-up body. This sounds like a strange request to make of a movie that’s already close to three hours long, but maybe I needed another couple of scenes to figure out who these people were. And that meant-to-be-transparent movie convention by which a different actor steps in to play someone we’ve seen only as a child has always fascinated and thrown me. Each time Saoirse Ronan turned into Romola Garai and then Vanessa Redgrave in Atonement, I’d waste at least five minutes of screen time speculating on the casting process: Did they start with Redgrave and work backward from there? Did they digitally age a photo of Ronan and match it with a headshot of Garai?

Anyway, if I harp on the ending of There Will Be Blood, it’s only because it was one of the ragged edges that caught and tugged at me this year. And it’s always ragged edges where something interesting is happening.