_There Will Be Blood_ with Daniel Day-Lewis (contains spoilers)
A masterful, beautifully-executed film by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring the best character actor of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis.
I just saw There Will Be Blood Friday night at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis. Like with its brother-film No Country for Old Men, my heart leaps at its execution. I don't know which film is better, honestly. Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor out there, period; this period film will prove to be one of your favorites.
This film reminds me a lot of Citizen Kane -- sort of a sermon on the abyss of men's souls, but with more of a sociopath as man-of-ambition. I especially like TWBB because that's the period of American history and literature I like, although I may not read "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair.
Where are these men of pure ambition going? They're leading our country, our world -- ruthless people. The part of TWBB I like best is how it presents a world of "men of action" versus the undifferentiated mass of the proletariat. I've read that Upton Sinclair had a socialist political bent, but interestingly I came away with a sense of the passivity of the masses -- if anything, the film's morality is more along the lines of Nietzsche. However, this obsession with the "world-historical" man-of-action informs so many theorists and writers that one must call into question all claims to represent the working man. As Derrida points out, Marx's powerful critique is really about the critique of capitalism, not capitalism's victims, the proletariat.
This is the beautiful aspect of There Will Be Blood. It juxtaposes the profit-seeker, Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis's character, with the "prophet," Paul Dano's character Eli Sunday. They manipulate the weak in the same way, with the same ruthless calculations for their own benefit. Are they benevolent leaders? They go both ways -- equal parts bad and good. They both mislead, misrepresent, and lie in the same amounts.
The good -- Eli Sunday, the film's prophet -- manipulates without accountability; the bad -- Daniel Plainview, the film's profit-seeker -- manipulates without accountability. Are they equivalent? Paul Thomas Anderson seems to ask.
(Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers we have. TWBB's scene-cutting is the my favorite structural part of the film. TWBB is more traditional in its style than No Country for Old Men, the film's brother. Blood has a soundtrack, tells the audience that one part is "1911" and the other "1927." Both films are visionary, but in different ways.
It's so great to see people "do the work," give it their all, and have something to show for it. Films mean more to me now that I've seen these two similar films.
Below I'm going to outline some themes of the film:
"This oil needs to be blessed." -- Eli Sunday's directive to Plainview, which the self-described oilman ignores, which leads to two tragedies: the death of one laborer at the derrick, and the other the loss of hearing of Plainview's son and "business associate" H.W.
The landscape and the violence of men's hearts: Whether it's Eli Sunday leading this "Church of the Third Revelation" in the California highland desert, or the image of a burning derrick at the hands of Daniel Plainview, both men struggle and strive alone in the barren, desolate, burning landscape. The theme of who will rule their space -- the physical and mental spaces of the American West -- is one of the two questions of the film, the other being how Plainview's misanthropy interacts with his growing wealth and power.
"I have a competition in me. A hate in my heart....Sometimes I look at people, and just see...nothing....I don't care for people. I want to make enough money to get away from them." Plainview is the sociopath in action, but in a more realistic vein, unlike a Hitler or Stalin, etc. The film, with both Plainview and Sunday, indicates that while people easily assume that power can be used for Good or Bad, power, in the Foucauldian sense, does what it must with no concern for moralistic judgment. Thus Plainview protects a young girl who is abused for "not praying," then not long after murders a man.
It's especially interesting that the above philosophical statements are uttered to an imposter posing as Plainview's half-brother, and when Plainview figures out the man, he kills him for allowing Plainview to utter his real sentiments to his fake brother. This is the only direct dialogue that gives us some inkling about Plainview's psyche in his own words.
"I am a sinner. I abandoned my son!" Eli Sunday manipulates Plainview to attend his church and humiliate himself, under the pretense of "throwing the devil out of him." The fact that the men interact exclusively at the level of trying to humiliate each other shows their similar natures.
"I am a false prophet and God is a superstition." At the end of the film, Eli attempts to continue his "mission" of the Church of the Third Revelation during the Great Depression by extracting money out of Plainview, who is now a crazy, lonely alcoholic in a mansion, a la Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane. Another humiliation follows, but while the prophet uses no violence, Plainview has utter violence in his heart.
Economics of oil, exploitation: The film shows that economics in America is a matter of exploitation. The film explodes the American myth of the Protestant Work Ethic, the idea that good profit follows good standing with God.
Innocent bystanders -- seeing the active take over the passive. The book is Stendhalian in its study of the man-of-action among the undifferentiated masses of men.
"God sent this man to us." Religion is not a "good" in the film, but another way the powerful can manipulate the passive.
Alcoholism: I guess this was how mental health was dealt with during this era.
Lies -- false witness -- "I'm your friend. Just trying to survive." -- adopted son HW and secrets kept -- secret of Daniel Plainview's half-brother: Just like how in Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz says "There nothing I hate more than lies," yet lives a lie, hypocrisy leads the narrative of There Will Be Blood. Lies and secrets are all around, and exist as the currency with which one may manipulate another.
The capitalist-as-murderer, power-seeking as a form of murder. Put a man in enough power, and people will get killed. Our Current Occupant is a good example. George W. Bush's recent claim that the railroads leading to Auschwitz "should've been bombed" -- an offhand, lazy comment by the man, like his Presidency -- shows his likewise lazy approach to the decision of who lives and who dies.
"You're just a bastard from a basket!" While Plainview really loves his adopted son H.W., he eventually forsakes him when H.W. becomes his "competitor" after leaving his position as partner in his oil business.
"You have sinned and need to be washed in the blood of Jesus Christ." This image is itself violent, showing the parallel violence of religion and capitalism.
Use of classical music: the film's use of string classical music makes it feel sort of comedic and tragic at the same time.
What is the moral space of There Will Be Blood? Viewer watches profit vs. prophet become equalized, but one murders while the other only lies.
To conclude these notes, it's been a fantastic time for American film, with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood coming out only months apart. Both films are case studies in the interplay of power and manipulation, how the cunning take advantage of the passive. Perhaps America is a hunt, from religion, which seeks the minds of people, to capitalism, which seeks resources for profit. Both films present an utterly grim picture of American power, which acts as a powerful critique of the ambivalence of American power in our time, its neither good nor evil, only violent, projection of power the world wide.
No profanes - sacred