Is "There Will Be Blood" an Epic?
In the great battle for the American epic, an astute reader suggests "There Will Be Blood."
Once again, here are the parameters I gave for an American epic:
I define “American” as about Americans and set in America; I define “epic” as long (150 minutes of screen time, 5-10 years of onscreen time), grand, nostalgic, and with a hard-to-define “sweeping” element.
So "TWBB" is about Americans and set in America. It's 158 minutes of screen time and over 10 years of onscreen time. It's grand. It "sweeps."
Is it nostalgic?
Not really. It doesn't mourn the loss of that time — for either us as a nation or those people as characters. Doesn't mean it's not an epic; it's just not an epic by these parameters I've set up.
Which raises the larger question: Does an epic, by its nature, have to be nostalgic? Many of them are but do they have to be? Another adjective, which I didn't use in the above description, is "romantic." Epics are often romantic — see: "Un long dimanche de finacaille" or "A Very Long Engangement" — and "TWBB" isn't that, either. It's harsh. It's brutal. So are "The Godfather" movies, but those films also seem romantic and nostalgic to me. There was a nostalgic tone to both Little Italy, and to the Corleones at the height of their familial power — when Vito controlled, with judgment and respect, when Michael was an outsider, when the family was together. Coppola romanticized his Corleones. They were big and grand and almost everyone against them was racist in some fashion. When you went against the Corleones, you almost always had to spew a racial epithet; then you got yours. Nothing like that in "TWBB."
But my definition of "American epic" is just that. Mine. It doesn't mean much beyond that — particularly if it doesn't make sense to you. The American Film Institute, for example, defines an epic this way:
...a genre of large-scale films set in a cinematic interpretation of the past. Their scope defies and demands—either in the mode in which they are presented or their range across time.
By their definition, which involves no specific time parameters, or inclusion of nostalgia, "TWBB" would be an epic. Maybe it is.
But even if I'd included "TWBB" in the discussion, I doubt it would've made my top 5. Unlike some people, many people, I was disappointed in that film. Maybe my hopes were too high when I first saw it. I recognized its artistry but it felt limited — nothing resonated beyond the screen for me. By the time we knew the main character he was already morally lost. It was in seeing him act immorally that we finally knew him to be immoral. But what we don't know, and what the film doesn't help us with, is whether he was always this way or became this way. Since we don't what he was, we don't know what was lost.
Writing that out, one wonders if that's not a truer definition of humanity than the nostalgic, Edenic one we cling to.
Regardless. The main point of this post is to raise the question that has been gnawing at me for the last month: Just what the hell is an epic anyway? You may choose your parameters, as I did, but dissatisfaction always seeps through, as it has for me.