Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Jonny Greenwood in "There Will Be Blood" (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Jonny Greenwood
Film: There Will Be Blood (2007)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Score category (2007):
-Atonement (Dario Marianelli) *Winner
-3:10 to Yuma (Marco Beltrami)0
-The Kite Runner (Alberto Iglesias)
-Michael Clayton  (James Newton Howard)
-Ratatouille (Michael Giacchino)

With each passing year, it seems like 2007 has become solidified as one of those great, amazing years for cinema. Yes, every year has their own share of masterpieces that will resonate for the next few decades. However, one can easily see this transcend into the Oscar race - specifically in the Best Picture category. If nothing else, it's a singular bunch that continue to be talked about in some capacity. Still, the race was always going to be between directors Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men and director Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Both were alterations on western themes and featured amazing antagonists, including what is considered to be Daniel Day-Lewis' best performance as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. Despite being very similar and being a very close race, to decide between the two is like apples and oranges. Both are the heights of their creators' work, and both competed nicely at that year's Oscars.

In general, There Will Be Blood maybe is better if one argues in favor of discourse. While it has been neck-and-neck with No Country for Old Men for most of its life (down to the same shooting locations), there's something to Anderson's pseduo-adaptation of Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" that has resonated more with audiences. It could be that the opening minutes are bold yet quiet, choosing to symbolize Plainview's baptism via oil, as well as the introduction of his tragic adopted son H.W., who becomes the first casualty in the face of big business. However, Anderson's film has a certain difference from The Coen Brothers' 2007 hit as well. Despite having more ominous and lingering shots, it is a far livelier movie that constantly is beaming with classical-style score. If nothing else, it is one of the most distinguished scores of 2007 and the decade in general. 

It was also the start of a partnership between Anderson and composer Jonny Greenwood. The composer got his claim to fame as the guitarist from Radiohead where he experimented with sound and helped to make them into one of the most unique yet successful rock bands still operating. While he had done various projects before, There Will Be Blood was his first major work as a composer. He has worked with Anderson on three additional projects: The Master, Inherent Vice (my personal favorite), and Junun, and all have reflected the collaboration at their best. It's like the thrill that one used to get when Danny Elfman made a new Tim Burton theme. This time, it was in the world of art house cinema, and it helped to personify one of the most unique voices in the medium. However, There Will Be Blood's success story came to everyone but Greenwood. Whereas Anderson got another Oscar nomination for screenwriting, and the first for Best Director, the Best Original Score column didn't come calling Greenwood's name.

Before diving into the reasons why it was disqualified, it would make sense to describe why this was a profoundly exciting partnership. Speaking as There Will Be Blood is a tale of how greed can corrupt a man, it makes sense then that the underlying themes of the score are in fact of corrupting traditional-sounding melodies. Many audience members could be quick to notice how unpleasant or idiosyncratic the melodies could be. The strings pierce with a certain violence more akin to Bernard Herrmann's work in Psycho. This isn't the sound that we're used to in a western, let alone a film that basically tries to chronicle the early 20th century oiling boom. It may pierce ears and make some cringe, but once you get accustomed to it, it begins to make sense in its neurotic way.

Plainview is supposed to be an unpleasant antagonist, even in his own story. While one could easily turn to the famous "I drink your milkshake" scene as his ultimate corruption, this has been apparent all along, only growing more obvious with each passing minute. He becomes paranoid and harasses a man who claims to be his brother. He disowns his son strictly because he goes into an opposing competition. He lies to the church to get funding and access to the oil underneath their feet. He is a conman whose sole interest is getting oil, and he lies almost like a prostitute just to get his kicks. There's a desperation in his soul, and the chords clanging together manage to reflect this very well.

The score, before being chopped and screwed, may sound more traditional in the western genre. It's the style of Max Steiner, whose strings romanticized the west and brought scale to the vision. The issue is that this California through the eyes of this man isn't a place of romance. It's one that needs to be mined for all its worth. It needs to be turned over until every drop of oil is removed. Suddenly, the Steiner-esque score shifts into a more melancholic melody before turning straight up delusional, creating a nightmare scenario driven by one man's desperation and greed. The score may be, in polite words, eclectic and not everyone's cup of tea. However, there's no denying that it carries with it a certain ambitious authenticity. Speaking as this is a category that sometimes rewards ambitious use of music, most recently with The Social Network, the Best Original Score category should've had this one in the bag for at least a nomination.

Then, there is the most fickle rule book of them all. Best Original Score disqualified Greenwood because the score featured a track from one of his early experimental works. The track in question is "Convergence" from Bodysong, which appears unaltered in There Will Be Blood. It works within the context and does excellent work towards building the mood. However, the rule book for the category suggests that its use violates a score being entirely original by using pre-existing music in the work. While The Master wasn't nearly as successful at Oscar nominations, Greenwood was again disqualified for similar reasons. However, this piece of judgment very well may be the poster child for Oscar favoritism, which doesn't take much effort to show how less than 10 years later, this rule has been broken with far more recognizable work. I doubt anyone who disqualified Greenwood had even seen Bodysong. Yet I'm sure that they've seen most of what I'm about to mention.

I wrote an entire piece last awards season about why the Best Original Score needs to have an intervention. Considering that the Greenwood's score is secondary to "Convergence," it doesn't make sense how it interferes with judgment. However, this past year's nominated selection included John Williams' 30th nomination and umpteenth for Star Wars with the sequel The Force Awakens. By very virtue that every Star Wars film opens with that iconic theme (you know the one), it should be disqualified after the 1977 edition. Even the years prior, Thomas Newman got back-to-back nominations for uncanny valley-level of plagiarizing themes from Skyfall (James Bond) and Saving Mr. Banks (Mary Poppins). Marvin Hamlisch won this category for The Sting simply by altering Scott Joplin's ragtime hits. Comparatively, The Godfather saw Nina Rota get disqualified for reasons similar to Greenwood, only to get a nomination for The Godfather Part II, which built on themes of the original.

This summary is a modicum of my frustration with Best Original Score's flexible rule book. Whereas I can argue about most scores not getting nominated (Under the Skin for instance) and have the valid excuse of not being popular, There Will Be Blood is a baffling exclusion solely because of how well known it was during the 2007 awards season. If Greenwood's work had been judged upon its own merits, that would be one thing. However, it was disqualified for reasons that don't influence some major talents. I accept that his work since maybe doesn't have the same accessibility (though I personally argue has been better). It does seem likely that he is doomed never to get a nomination, even if Anderson delivers another gem on par with There Will Be Blood in terms of critical success. Considering that Inherent Vice remains my favorite of the music collaborations, I am sure that has some potential.

To be fair, I am not opposed to Dario Marianelli winning for Atonement. It is a fantastic score, and I would argue that I like it a little more than Greenwood's. However, The Runner-Ups is about recognizing those who weren't ever nominated, and Greenwood remains a strong offender despite being on par with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for most exciting and ambitious work of the modern era. True, this doesn't mean best. However, it does deserve to be recognizes alongside the more traditional sounds. While Anderson is leagues away from even being on The Runner-Ups, it does seem unfortunate that one of his key collaborators will be a longtime resident (there's a good column on The Master that may happen someday). For now, this piece services as a reminder of the favoritism that goes on, even in categories that casual Oscar fans don't pay attention to. The only difference is that this film was primed to win Best Picture.

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