erik lundegaard

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.

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Posted at 08:47 AM on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 in category Movies  

COMMENTS

rb1044 wrote:

I would say it is "nostalgic" to a point. A point in time in America were the "wildcat" oilman was even possible. To a time when America was starting to find its way to the top of the industrial world. The story is a tragedy explaining what we sacraficed to get to where we are.
Comment posted on Wed. Nov 26, 2008 at 04:13 AM

Scott Ellington wrote:

MAD MEN explores our nostalgia for a simpler time with merciless acupuncture needles that knit together (sorry) our modern myopia with unexpected cues to our sexist/racist/classist roots interspersed with both bold and subliminal product placements for brands that are/aren't still in use.

It presents mid-20th Century American history as a dark mirror of modern excuses for how far we've yet to go to approach the kind of progress outlined in the Constitution. So too does Wall*E.

I'd call this device negative emotional proximity that compresses the temporal distance in our heads to reveal a disquieting antipathy for constructive change.
Comment posted on Tue. Dec 09, 2008 at 03:38 PM

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