At least once a year, a movie comes along that is hailed as a masterpiece by the critics, and which people who revere "the cinema" feel duty-bound to see, but which no one really understands. Last year it was Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood's film about the Second World War; this year it is There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's epic about an oilman who strikes it rich at the turn of the last century.
In his book about the Broadway season of 1967-1968, William Goldman came up with a good phrase to describe plays that fall into this category: "Snob Hits". These are "difficult" plays that members of the liberal intelligentsia think they ought to see for their spiritual and moral edification, but which they get no pleasure from. Indeed, if the plays were remotely enjoyable, they wouldn't qualify as snob hits, since the audience must be convinced that the meaning of what is happening on stage would be lost on less enlightened theatregoers.
In this regard, it helps if the play is virtually unintelligible.
Almost every scene in There Will Be Blood seems machine-tooled to persuade the snobs that only people with sensibilities as refined as theirs are capable of appreciating it. There's the wordless opening sequence that seems to extend for 45 minutes. Then there's the tuneless score by Jonny Greenwood, an endless sequence of nerve-jangling cymbal crashes. Above all, there's the star turn by Daniel Day-Lewis (pictured). He gives the kind of performance critics describe as "uncompromising" – ie, he deliberately eschews the need to provide the hoi polloi with a point of emotional contact. Like the film itself, he is aloof, inviting the audience to join him in sticking two fingers up at ordinary cinemagoers.
Needless to say, There Will Be Blood has already established itself as the critics' favourite film of the year. It has been garlanded with awards by the London Critics Circle, New York Film Critics Circle, Chicago Film Critics Association, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, Florida Film Critics Circle and Las Vegas Film Critics Society, to name but a few of the circles, societies and associations critics like to form themselves into. Day-Lewis is a racing certainty to pick up an Oscar next week and the film itself may win Best Picture.
Interestingly, snob hits are nearly always forgotten. Some examples from yesteryear include La Notte and Last Year at Marienbad. If the only true test of artistic merit is survival, then the critics invariably prove to be less reliable guides than the general public.