Friday, February 1, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Thoughts

If The Godfather made epic the underbelly of the American Dream, and Citizen Kane made dark the ego and entitlement of privilege, There Will Be Blood has, at last, provided an irrefutable account of the scorched earth between, shinning a head-lamp-light on the corruptible relationships at the heart of the rest of us. As far as protagonists go, Michael Corleone, having risen to the top of his game as a criminal, was always near the bottom; while Charles Foster Kane, starting at the top before catastrophically collapsing upon himself, was (as that final scene in the basement incinerator illustrated) never low. As There Will Be Blood opens, Daniel Plainview finds himself pretty low (beneath the surface actually), scratching and digging away at the skin of the earth for whatever meager nugget of silver he can find, and, over the course of two-plus hours, after a successful life as “an oilman” (back when such a thing was the embodiment of “working class”) finds himself sniffing the top. The wonder of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is that we finally have the Protestant/working-class epic that speaks to the same themes, at the same level, of despair and alienation as those two great films. Plainview is, after all, not a very subtle name, and at the film’s core is that timeless scientific principle: that something cannot be created from nothing and that the energy and costs of attempting to bend the earth (and people) to our will are astronomical and catastrophic.

All of this might seem trite now (seriously…an oilman? after innumerable “message pictures” about the war in Iraq? subtle…) if not for Daniel Day-Lewis, who is a force. Day-Lewis has created a character so forceful that you can practically smell him—all that dirt, sweat, and, oh yes, the oil. That Plainview is ambitious and not above using an orphan to help present a veneer of respectability and honesty is clear (family—that uniquely American prop), yet is the height of disservice to Day Lewis’ performance to ignore the passion and love (?) he shows his son H.W. (the eerie Dillon Freasier). As long a Plainview can keep this boy close, he is able to cling to his own fading illusions of humanity—a species he has no love for but finds himself surrounded and beset by. That we might not want to give Plainview credit for the pain he feels when H.W. loses his hearing during a rigging accident is insensitive; yet it occurs as a result of our own weak and ingrained piety and becomes a tool used against Plainview in the film. As the film progresses and the stakes rise, it becomes clear that, like the best businessmen (Mitt Romney claiming that running America is like running a company—talk about sleight of hand!), Plainview is quite the showman. A fact that results in a confrontation when Plainview encounters the equally preposterous magician, Eli Sunday (played with wonderful exaggeration by Paul Dano), who engages Plainview in an escalating bout of “see-what-I-can-make-you-do”.

Have I said yet that this is a great film? What makes it great is the collaboration between Day-Lewis and Anderson and their critique that has yet to be so pristinely captured on film: the humiliating relationship between (successful) business and religion in this country. It’s transparent how amoral business moguls (oil companies being just one example) have prostrated themselves before religious demagoguery as a way of shoring up political capitol. Look no further than the Republican Party as it is currently constituted and the bitter rumblings emerging from secular conservatives who bemoan the evangelical pandering required maintain their slipping control over the populace. One need only see Bush & Company’s occasional quotes regarding gay marriage and not see a version of the slaps Eli Sunday visits on Plainview in the front of his flock of zombified believers, where, at its conclusion Plainview mutters, “There’s the pipe-line…”—much in the way Rove and Cheney must surely have muttered after one of Bush’s more evangelical turns of phrase, “There’s an election…”. Yet what we have in front of us, both political and artistically, are the facts. And all facts point to Plainview being an atheist, as religion, in all its forms, (ideally) works to condemn everything he’s about (the individual, financial success, winning, being left alone to do as he pleases), yet he must humiliate and degrade himself in front of those other businessmen who hold the keys to our morality. Is it that hard not to imagine Dick Cheney, Rumsfeild, or Rove, given their off-hand but bitter comments about “crazies”, in the same way? Yet it is this relationship that is so corruptible and fundamental to our country (it’s on our money for crying out loud!), that when we watch Plainview beat and run Sunday through the mud from his (at the moment) position of power, is it not hard to substitute Plainview as Cheney, Sunday as Billy Grahm? It is this corrosive, unholy, hypocritical, alliance that Anderson makes so clear is at the root of our nation. Or that in their giant oil-rich mansions Cheney & Rumsfeild would gladly bludgeon the pious who have on the one hand condemned them, while, at the same time, kept their hands in their pocket? Are such men known for generosity or sharing? Not really… And, finally, we have a film that addresses this. Finally…

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