Sunday, February 3, 2008

There Will Be Blood-Suckers

We here at NH are, for our intellectual similarities and mutually respected tastes, not of one mind all the time. In the interest of differing sensibilities, sometimes a text of cultural significance warrants a second take. For previous thoughts on There Will Be Blood, check out Steven's post here.

The monstrous personality at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has been characterized, in many reviews, an American primitive, whose highs and lows are tied to the singular drive of accomplishment in his trade. The pivot of this argument may come in the scene that sees Daniel Day-Lewis, as Plainview, explain his apparent misanthropy to his long-forgotten half-brother:
“I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past
seeing them to get all I need. I want to rule and never,
ever explain myself. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by
little... I can't keep doing this on my own with these...
Ever the blunt instrument, Plainview exhibits never so much a cruelty in politely hiding these thoughts from the world as the practical sense that voicing his hatred for human beings would only spur more attention from them. These fears prove well met, as his investment in rural California brings the weight of a church and its leader against him, and he spends the entire film with a barely-masked contempt not only for the concept of “salvation,” but for the people who would save him as well.
Enter Eli Sunday, the teenaged leader of the Church of the Third Revelation, an an angel-faced huckster who pimps his own faith with brimstone-powered showmanship as a worker of minor miracles, intent on eventually growing a personal empire from the ground up. He doesn’t know what to do with the oil that wells up from his family’s ground, but he knows that enough men will want it that he can extort useful means from it and them. Sunday is the mirror image of the less-evolved Plainview’s wanton disregard for everything claimed sacred, the only difference is that the quietly sophisticated Sunday wraps his ruthlessness in a socially-accepted pursuit. Plainview is unapologetic for his willingness to crush a man under his heel for personal gain, but Sunday could claim only to do so in order to humble the man for their acceptance of the great lord our God (growing, conveniently, his congregation and influence with it.)
With the rise of Sunday’s church parallel to his own success, Plainview is eventually vindicated in his mistrust of the supposed “good” to be found in nature, God, and the people who claim to do His work. Eli is able not only to extort Daniel in order to outgrow the dusty nowhere of Little Boston, but the humiliation and subjugation of the great and powerful Plainview through his personal ministry is his greatest victory in the film. When, in the story’s mesmerizing conclusion, he desperately attempts to crack the same whip once again, he finds he has been beaten by the superior will of Plainview, a man who is smart enough to loathe his enemy before proceeding to grind him into nothing. Plainview indulges his hatred once more in fulfillment the film’s titular promise and, unchecked by hope of love for humankind, absolutely crushes Eli (in both the figurative and literal senses.)
The relationship between Plainview and Paul Dano’s Eli has been rightfully singled-out with great frequency as a remarkable pair of performances and an incredible source of recurring, dynamic tension in the film. However, the sentiment that the pair’s relatively small number of scenes together could possibly diminish the final product of this film has certainly been overstated. Dano here is a foil to Day-Lewis, not a costar. And just like the other significant secondary characters in There Will Be Blood, he serves a very specific (and, truthfully limited) purpose to the story. That his minutes seem so limited- in a film that runs, I remind you, for 158 of them!-speaks less to a fault in the narrative’s construction than the outstanding talent of Paul Dano and the chemistry he finds with the veteran Day-Lewis when the two share the screen. They simply leave you wishing for more.
I don’t intend this to be a direct refutation to Steven’s post, as I think he does have some very valid criticisms of the film (especially that it is overlong, and in seemingly desperate need of an editor through the first two acts.) Where we differ most fundamentally will have to be spelled out plainly: I posit that this is not a film about capitalism and how it corrupts men. Sinclair’s Oil! certainly was, with its innocent child narrator a voice for idealistic socialist commentary on the plight of oil workers, the greed of entrepreneurs, and an analogy to the then-topical Teapot Dome scandal, but TWBB is a different work with a different concept. As a character study of the highest order, this film intends not to express how the pursuit of money hollows men, but rather how and why hollow men pursue money. In this respect, it seems to me less an analogue to the commonly cited Citizen Kane than to another great American story of the self-made man…
The similarities are almost countless, but key to my point are a few. Both Daniel Plainview and Tony Montana’s stories are marked by their alienation from humanity at large. Yet, both also show occasional vestigial morals in even the deepest depths of their monomania: Plainview halts Abel Sunday’s abuse of young Mary, and Montana refuses to kill the wife and children of his target for assassination. It may further be explained that such empathies as either man might still possess are hardened by betrayals from within those closest to them, Montana by Manolo’s secret union with Gina and his bitter marriage to Elvira, and Plainview by the false love of an eventually-trusted “brother” and the devastating guilt for his son’s injury. Finally, each also possesses, right through the brutal endings of each film, at least one final hope at finding actual grace in human life with members of their families. Of course, being great tragedies, they manage to fuck these up to, with Montana shattering his sister’s sanity before getting her killed and Plainview Not even allowing himself the forgiveness of his boy.
Too often, the lessons assumed in such stories as Scarface, taken at face value, equate to something like “money isn’t happiness and no amount is ever enough and we’ll just keep working for it until we die and ain’t that sad?” While Most of Upton Sinclair’s canon can probably be summed up as such, I think that is an oversimplification of both “Scarface” and this film.
Daniel Plainview toils and strives and ascends to the highest peaks of his businesses, and eventually lives in extravagance beyond luxury, yet he never seems to really care about the materiality of his work. It seems clear that Anderson's comment is that Plainview's pursuiot of his calling is the only logical and productive outlet for such a clearly pronounced sociopath,even if his greatest victories (like beating Standard Oil) will always prove fleeting and never fully satiate that greater inborn hunger he feels. What's most important about that assertion might be what it suggests about the "American Dream," and of the prosperity that awaits men who brave new frontiers to draw their fortunes, be they in oil or coca, from the blood of those they meet along the way. As his hunger demands that he never stop, it is also proof that the emptiness he feels won't itself be the end of him, but rather bring the curse of eternal life. And so, where Sinclair's work wept for the forgotten stories of such barons’ nameless prey, Anderson’s epic is- in actuality- a song for our history's great and terrible vampires.

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