America's Pain Inside
US audiences may have rejected films about the war, but a thirst for blood reveals the nation's mood
Long before we'd heard of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, There Will be Blood, released in the UK next month, the US had been charting a fresh century of blood, and bad blood. As yet, the blood-shedding has been far away and masked by the most carefully controlled media coverage of any nation at war. So it has meant a lot to the stability of George Bush that there has been so little blood or outrage on the streets of the homeland. Is it that Americans feel the new pressure to keep that interior calm, or that the ingenious Bush avoided a draft?
One proof of that indifference has been the box-office failure of several movies which set out to cover the war in Iraq: In the Valley of Elah, by Paul Haggis; Redacted, by Brian De Palma; Rendition; Lions for Lambs, a ponderous lesson in civic behaviour by Robert Redford; or The Kingdom, the closest to a straight combat picture.
As if with Marine training, the audience sniffed these subversive elements, closed ranks and marched past the theatres. They acted as if they did not want to know, or see - and so it became all the more possible in the US that a little surge can save us. Don't underestimate the self-protective attitude of many Americans: they don't know where Iraq is on the map and are clinging to that blindness for dear life.
Of course, it is a tricky game, trying to read a nation's mood in its films. Despite the failure of these movies commercially, the electorate preparing its presidential vote remains convinced the war is the chief problem the country faces - as opposed to the ineptness, deceit and anti-democratic instincts of the present administration.
But there is immense anxiety in the land, too, which accompanies a lack of trust in nearly anything. Americans have faced two crises of conscience in the last few years: they acknowledge their government is employing (and lying about) the practices of torture and prisoner abuse and they are not sure what to do about it. This has made for a fascination in cruelty akin to looking in the eye of a deadly snake and wondering just how close you can get without it striking. The sensation is ugly, terrifying and insane, but it is there.
So just because the movie audience has rejected all signs of warfare this year, don't think it isn't preoccupied with dread and bloodletting. The most striking recent films have this violence as their threat: No Country for Old Men, in which nothing less than a figure of Death walks the land, is malign. More than that, this figure endures, and a battle-weary sheriff concedes there is nothing he can do. Paranoia reigns.
Then there is There Will Be Blood - in which Daniel Day-Lewis is gripped by an unstoppable need to do violence. It is a film about oil and it may even be a portrait of the lame-duck president. But it is an exultant display of evil and its quality should not disguise its pessimism.
But the film that captures the mood best is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The lamentations here are many - not least for the way Sondheim's masterpiece has been so spoiled by Tim Burton, by the failure to address the strength of singing the show requires, by the absent fine crust of irony that makes the pies bearable on stage. And by the way on stage the blood was portrayed with red light, red silk, a sound effect - a stylisation to save us from the flood. Burton has no such grace. His film is awash in blood, and it drowns the tragedy of Todd's life.
What it says about the inner life of America is more than alarming. It may be fanciful to read national impulse in the tropes of art. Yet there may be no better way. It seems America is getting ready for a great interior violence. Don't think its civil war was ever settled.
David Thomson is author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
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