Thursday, February 24, 2011

There Will Be Blood

First, a conspiracy theory. I posit: there must be an extended director’s cut of There Will Be Blood tucked somewhere away in a vault. The disparity in style between the film’s half-hour bookends noticeably differs from the middle sections, with the long take which prevents the puncturing of tension carefully built in the outer sections being nearly completely abandoned in the middle. Shots in the bookends seem to consistently last long enough to convey the mood of the setting whereas shots in the middle section tend to last long enough to convey the scene’s information and no longer. Perhaps it is deliberate, perhaps it is a natural result of their different aims, or perhaps it is simply my own feelings, but I find a stark difference in the approach to the use of time in the middle portion of the film as opposed to the bookends. Those bookends are not quite styled in the manner of Angelopoulos, but there may be a 4 hour film hidden somewhere in the margins anyway. But, then, maybe the middle section should be hidden entirely as it seems to confuse people as to the tone of the film. The opening wordless stretch may not be comedy, but it’s not much of a drama, either. It is a true character study, one which allows the character no input, and the end of the film certainly reveals the relentless character built from early on. To people who feel that the end doesn’t fit with the rest of the film – what was so unexpected? In the intervening period Daniel Plainview is shown to be a stubborn, violent, unpredictable, angry, vengeful man, and his fuse is infinitely shorter when trouble surrounding his family arises. When a business associate presses too much about Daniel’s son he loses control, threatens to murder the man in his sleep, and storms off without considering an apology. And he does not forget the insult. If the words in this scene generate this sort of response, how could Eli’s far more insulting vocal provocation, coupled with physical abuse and public embarrassment, possibly result in anything less  – especially in conjunction with despondence brought on by family problems? Perhaps the extremity of his behavior creates a tragicomic tension that people had not felt to that point, but there is nothing comfortable about his confessions, about his napkin theatrics, about his violent wrestling with Eli, and the film consistently builds from its opening silence toward the grand verbal and physical theatrics of its close. There’s little use in analyzing Daniel Plainview’s feeling toward his son by parsing his late-film diatribe for truth, but it is beyond question that his relationship to his son provokes a visible response which exacerbates his already odd behavior. Whatever the nature of the father-son relationship, I think end flows naturally from those elements presented earlier, even if the pipes seem a little thinner toward the middle, and whenever I dip my finger in the film it always comes out black.

Second, another conspiracy theory: P.T. Anderson. H.W. Plainview. Paul Thomas Anderson. Herb – wait, no. But of course. There are 676 possible combinations of paired initials, and while X.X. may be exceedingly rare, I do not find it reasonable to assume that the son of an oilman being named H.W. is a happy accident. Perhaps Anderson stumbled onto a book called Oil! and become so engaged with the story that he just had to make a film about it. Another possibility is that the title screamed out to him, dictating a moral imperative. I’ll ignore the other possibilities. This film is not the sort of thinly veiled allusion you’ll find in a Polanski film, though, with all sorts of digging through details of contemporary reality by some third party literally tasked with making an account of the person in question. This is, instead, a story distended in time and place from the subjects I would assume it is referring to, which only implicitly relates to the times we are facing at present, which takes a great many cues from the novel it is adapted from, and which even expands on a superficially unrelated religious counterpoint from the novel it is adapted from. But, then, perhaps the two subjects, at least as they are wielded by individuals, are not so different in this day and age anyway. However, taking an old novel about oilmen and staying rather faithful to it with the only caveat being a decrease on the focus of oilmen does not in any way support my initial suspicions that this film would be a scathing attack of some sort or another on the powerful oilmen tasked with running America. Still, I cannot possibly be dissuaded of the idea that Anderson chose his subject knowingly and crafted his oilman protagonist caringly, which is to say scathingly. Plainview is an absolutely terrible man, like many protagonists in sole-protagonist black comedies. His presence gives off an aura of menace, to say nothing of his scowl, and being placed in his company for an extended period of time is enough to create tension. I have never seen a man tread water more menacingly than Daniel Plainview. I didn’t even think the combination was possible. If he were to drown I doubt sharks would eat him. Despite this unflattering depiction of the man who is to find such immense success in oil, the character whose name relates him to a contemporary individual shares little with his father aside from his chosen profession. All of these difficulties in relating the nefarious protagonist directly to the Bush family only makes the potential underlying polemic all the more enjoyable to me – it works in the opposite manner of Jean-Baptiste’s confession of his guilt and simply makes me judge all the more harshly. There’s a potent element of black comedy in covering your tracks well enough to get away with anything. If I were to make a film about a family of oilmen and wanted to make it as clear as possible that it was not about the Bush family I imagine I would make the son unrelated by birth to the protagonist and name him H.W. and give him some physical handicap to distance him from his father’s influence – so why is it that I take this same approach as evidence to the contrary? I will defer to a statement by Jean-Baptiste and happily ignore any irony intended by Camus: “In philosophy as in politics, I am for any theory that refuses to grant man innocence and for any practice that treats him as guilty.”

Third, a look at the humor in There Will Be Blood, which is really just a continuation of the previous conspiracy theory: There are certainly humorous elements which function within the context of each respective scene of the film, feeding off of the complete ridiculousness of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, but these are merely the seepage of the greater humorous subtext lying beneath. Drilling for this subtext is a treacherous affair –you run the risk of hitting pockets of hot air – but if the film is anything more than a barren desert with a few prickly cacti then there must be something black lying beneath it. As completely unnecessary as that diction was, I think it gets the point across. Oil and religion may be the two most inescapable elements in contemporary American society – one controls the base costs for much of commerce and industry, to say nothing of political influence, and the other influences both personal activity and social policy to an absurd degree. It is not inherent qualities of either that matter but the ways in which society leans on them and the power that those who have control of them behave. To use two particular characters to get at a broad range of possibilities, actualities, and nuances directly is an impossible task. The film directly portrays runaway greed, cruel manipulation, and savage brutality – but what does this say about anything aside from the characters who exhibit these behaviors? To interpret these actions as universal characteristics of the entrepreneur or the traveling preacher is simple stereotyping. Indeed, the snake-oil selling breed of faith healer and the misanthropic, power-lusting businessman are essentially the worst imaginable members of their respective groups. Thus, instead of representing the breadth of possibilities the two instead simply represent the extremes. Daniel Plainview is such an extreme version of a businessman that he begins to resemble a business himself. Being bought out of his business to take care of his son is played like a death threat, and his son’s choice to strike out on his own is explicitly labeled an act of competition, a synonym for treason in Daniel’s business lexicon. Yet, throughout the film there is an odd element of humanism to Daniel that seems to contradict these assumptions of pure profit motive. The scenes of Daniel caring for his son are private, done out of compassion rather than public relations, and he sees to intervening in favor of his son’s future bride because he has the power to make things better. All of this seems to have faded entirely by the film’s end, of course. If we think of Daniel as the embodiment of free market capitalism run amok and Eli as the embodiment of an abuse of religious influence then the film essentially plays out like the antithesis of the American dream, with people morphing into mere extensions of lifeless organizations violently clashing in the name of senseless vanity and struggles for power. One need look no further than Pat Robertson for an example of the the polluting effects of the contradiction of the self-made religious icon, and his type becomes both the symptom and embodiment of what seems to me to be Anderson's attempt at American pathology. If the West was long the image for the possibility of making a life for one’s self and the Western the genre for examining moral conflict, There Will Be Blood provides the antithesis with a man who makes his fortune, reaches the sea, and works entirely independent of morality. And, really, what better way to display the absolute inanity of laissez faire capitalism than by showing how a man who is one with his company deals with a lack of constraint. Companies don’t have morals, nor can they theoretically afford to (under the same entirely fantastical assumptions of perfect competition required to have the common faith in laissez faire capitalism make any sense whatsoever). When Daniel brutally pummels Eli there is an overt Kubrick reference, and I think their previously ridiculous bowling alley scuffle nicely inverts the silly scrapped pie fight ending of Dr. Strangelove and produces something fittingly far less frivolous, for its consequences don’t carry with them the happy simplicity of annihilation. This is how I see the film’s black comic subtext, in a statement: The American dream has been contorted to represent an individualistic pursuit of the crushing of opposition, something ushered in without opposition and resulting in the absurd destruction of both mutually beneficial social structures and individually meaningful personal interests – all coupled with the tragic waste of promise represented by the glimmer of humanity in Daniel earlier in the film and contrasted with the absolute desolation of his life at its end and the accompanying tragedy with its accompanying subtextual implications. From its silent and affectationless beginnings the film slowly escalates into a startlingly serious farce, tearing up the hopefulness of dreams forgotten and the hopelessness of farces rendered irrelevant in the face of current times to which the film’s implicit questions of acquiring some sensible social orientation are aimed and pertinent, lest the farce become flesh in Sarah Palin. Or someone just like her.


  1. Some would say the end of this film, that final sequence, is the greatest dream sequence ever filmed.

  2. If it is a dream sequence then I don't recall any stylistic giveaway. His sleep was interrupted, which would be the 'logical' indicator that a dream is possible, but, then, his sleep is shown being interrupted within what is supposed to be the dream, at which point logic need not apply. He has been woken up earlier in the film with no stylistic indication that what is being shown is a dream and the events that occurred thereafter were as real within the context of the film as any other scene. Whatever the case, I certainly don't find his actions out of character nor do I find that the scene clashes with the content from the rest of the film, so I don't think it's all that important whether it actually happens. I think he's certainly capable of his actions shown, especially heavily inebriated, and he probably wouldn't have any regrets. As such, if it is a dream, I think it's the dream sequence whose status as a dream is the least important ever filmed. It's a great sequence, but not one I would rank among the best ever if I were to treat it as a dream, especially if we're using the loose categorization on display here - most of the films I love could be interpreted as a dream by someone, due to their great and many departures from realism. This one may be the 'most realistic' of the spectacles I would point to, which is also to say the least like a dream (and, in my opinion, the question is moot). But, really, whether something is a dream or not is only a matter of plot, and I don't put much weight in that at all.