Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blood Lines

(Warning: There Will Be Spoilers)

One of my favorite classes in college was an English course in late-19th/early-20th century American literature, where we studied the "naturalists" (fiction writers influenced by Darwin or Social Darwinism or other related theories) and their works: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, Frank Norris's McTeague. Not exactly the feel-good class of the year, but these novels (along with their British counterparts, especially Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge) left me riveted by their epic scope, intimate details, poetic flourishes and bursts of teeming humanity along the way to inevitable tragedy. I don't believe it's an overstatement to say that Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has the density, mystery and rough poetry of a great novel from the era it depicts. (Of course it's adapted from one: Oil! by Upton Sinclair.) Based on some of the criticisms, it's also a telling example on the inability of some viewers to read a movie.

I don't pretend to be an expert on this by any means: I generally don't get DePalma, I dislike Tim Burton, I despise David Lynch. Obviously the fans of these filmmakers -- all of whom tend to communicate information visually -- bring something to the table that I lack. In a similar vein, perhaps it is partly because of that English class that I "got" There Will Be Blood. I got it every step of the way, so much so that I can read a well-reasoned, thoughtful critique of the film by somebody like Dan Sallitt and still find it completely wrongheaded.

Let's examine a couple of salient points from Sallitt's review, starting with his criticism that Plainview's behavior toward his adopted son is initially "not comprehensible," particularly during the scene where he abandons H.W., who has been seriously injured in an oil fire, to survey the damage of the fire to his derrick:

"It will become comprehensible much later, when we discover that Plainview sees H.W. as an advertising aid for his business rather than as a son, and cares little for him. In retrospect, Plainview's occasional nurturing gestures toward the boy register as a bit of vestigial good will in the man's nature, good will that he does not value highly or factor into his life decisions. This works for me."

I would argue that it's more than a little vestigial. Almost from the moment Plainview adopts H.W. after the latter's father dies, it's plainly obvious that he loves him. Economical filmmaker that he is, Anderson indicates this in a simple early scene, with Plainview gazing at H.W. tenderly as they travel by train. I doubt that at this point in the story (the year 1902, right after he has struck oil for the first time, and when H.W. is still an infant) Plainview is already thinking ahead to how he can use the child to make himself appear more respectable years down the road -- the expression on Daniel Day-Lewis's face suggests nothing of the sort. Nor do I think that we're supposed to take Plainview's words at face-value near the end of the film, when he disowns H.W., reveals the boy's true origins, and calls him a "bastard in a basket." Again, Day-Lewis makes it clear that Plainview is deeply wounded by H.W.'s desire to end their partnership and start his own business, so he lashes out at him. And Anderson makes Plainview's true feelings clear when immediately following this scene he shows a brief flashback of H.W. and Plainview in earlier happier days. That this is the only flashback in the movie underscores the director's intent. Even though this thread of character psychology ultimately "works" for Sallitt, I still think he's misreading it.

Another of Sallitt's criticisms concerns the lack of jurisprudence in the film. After H.W. goes deaf as the result of the oil fire, and Eli Sunday comes to demand his money, Plainview attacks Eli in public, slapping the young preacher around in the mud. "Does the church have legal recourse?" Sallitt wonders. "Do the spectators accept Plainview's power to beat whomever he pleases?" Continuing along these lines, he then focuses on Plainview's murder of a man claiming to be his half-brother, and the actions of Bandy, a backwoodsman who seems to suspect Plainview's crime and demands that Plainview be baptized and cleansed of his sins:

"Is Plainview in any danger of arrest and conviction? Is Bandy unconcerned with the murder, despite his religious bent? These are not questions about character nuance: they are central to the narrative legibility of the scene. Anderson neither answers the questions nor makes it clear that he prefers mystery."

Even if we took for granted that the 1911 rural California police force was a crack crime-fighting unit, were they really in the business of arresting oil tycoons? And would the inhabitants of this turn-of-the-century western town, the majority of whom are probably in Plainview's employ, be inclined to turn him in? (I also don't think we're supposed to take Plainview seriously when he accuses Eli of not using his healing powers to cure H.W.; it's already been established that he finds Eli a fraud, that the real issue is Eli's callousness under the circumstances.) Furthermore, and I don't mean to sound antagonistic toward anyone's convictions, but history has pretty well demonstrated that religion and homicide aren't necessarily incompatible. (Am I remembering the scene incorrectly, or wasn't Bandy packing heat himself?) Within a few minutes, Anderson presents Bandy as I believe he's intended to be: a man with implications of a checkered past, as were many Americans who fled west; and a man more concerned with God's law than that of the secular authorities. Why should the director waste more screen-time spelling out what we should already know?

The last of Sallitt's arguments that I want to consider, and really the heart of the matter for him, is summed up thusly:

"Anderson seems not to be thinking at all about positioning the audience relative to these mysteries. My reaction was confusion."

It is worth noting that Anderson has never used voice-over in any of his movies (other than briefly with Ricky Jay in Magnolia). Narration may bring us inside a character's head but often at the expense of actually letting us see what is onscreen. In There Will Be Blood, Anderson has a protagonist who doesn't initially reveal his every thought and feeling. As he comes to open up later -- beginning with Henry, his alleged half-brother, to whom Plainview admits that he basically hates humanity -- the verbal information we get regarding the character both supports what has been previously presented to us visually and establishes his motives in scenes to come.

The point-of-view in the film is difficult to ascertain: most of it is centered on Plainview, with occasional shifts to H.W. and Eli. But there is a difference between being with a character and seeing things from his perspective. From the opening scene in the movie -- a wide shot of mountains, panning down to a hole in the ground -- Anderson uses a third-person limited omniscient perspective: "limited omniscient" may sound like a contradiction in terms but what I mean is that we have a God's-eye view of the action focusing almost exclusively on one character. This perspective continues in a subsequent early scene, when the camera observes from overhead an injured Plainview crawling out of the hole on his back, clutching a rock caked with silver (his windfall) as the camera pans back up to the mountain tops. It is established that no matter how rich and powerful Plainview becomes, he is ultimately small in the face of nature. (And perhaps God too. While Eli is in many ways a stereotypical character, Anderson seems to leave open the possibility that this preacher, however false a prophet, may be right about the consequences of Plainview denying him to bless the well, given the troubles that follow.)

It is only in a few brief scenes that we definitively see the action through Plainview's eyes, as when he begins to suspect Henry for a fraud -- first while swimming in the ocean's surf, then shortly afterwards in the brothel, where along with Plainview we hear but do not see the goings-on outside his quarters. For the most part, though, Anderson shies away from the subjective camerawork of his earlier movies, remaining slightly distant from his central protagonist in the manner of Dreiser, Hardy, et al, a compassionate deity who opts not to intervene. (His love is reserved for H.W., the only character given the possibility of happiness.) Nor does Anderson ride in to save the day with a happy ending like those of his previous works. Although the final scene is played in tight confines, the point-of-view remains remote, making Plainview's final line -- "Yes, I'm finished" (in a strange way reminiscent of Adam Sandler's first words in Punch-Drunk Love: "Yes, I'm still on hold") -- accurate, and in more ways than one. If Anderson makes a mistake at the close, it is with the sudden injection of Brahms on the soundtrack (a Kubrickian flourish when silence would have been more apt); but this is redeemed by his choosing to frame Plainview not from a low-angle gazing up in awe, but at a distance, diminishing him. Plainview is finished. This movie will live forever.


Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks for your response to my piece!

It's not so much that I thought Plainview should be busted for assault and battery, fraud, etc. - I would have been happy with any number of ways of conveying the social situation, or the personal situation. When I ask for positioning, I don't mean a moral point of view, or a rooting interest.

I guess what I'm really trying to say in that piece is that narrative doesn't just happen, that it has to be managed somehow, even if the filmmaker doesn't want to give answers. The management doesn't have to be strenuous.

Imagine a careless filmmaker who thinks, "Okay, I just want character A to beat up character B in this scene, because I like A better than B. I really don't care about interior or exterior plausibility." This filmmaker leaves us to do the work of creating narrative and thematic throughlines. And we can do the work if all we want is the throughlines: there's usually a way to connect the dots. What we lose is something else: the quality of our travel in the filmmaker's company.

Anyway, sorry if I'm beating this horse to death. I must say that I didn't necessarily register love in that early scene on the train between Plainview and the baby: maybe a little amusement, and a lot of bemusement. If Plainview really loves H. W., wouldn't he have gone back to check on him after the oil fire has been extinguished? And wouldn't his expulsion of H. W. at the end had more effect on the trajectory of his life?

Craig said...

Dan, I greatly appreciate your thoughts; they've made me examine my own more rigorously, and I definitely want to check out the movie again to see if it holds up or falls apart.

"The quality of travel in the filmmaker's company" is a lovely turn of phrase. For me personally, I see cinema as overpopulated with writers and directors who can't stop yakking, who constantly underline their ideas, who always want to tell us how to think and what to feel. I thoroughly enjoyed the quiet company of P.T. Anderson* in this movie (as I did the Coens in No Country for Old Men). This quietude often doesn't lead to clear-cut answers; but it can lead to poetry.

The central mystery of There Will Be Blood, as you have pointed out, is the relationship between a father and his adopted son. Maybe the look Plainview gives the infant is love and maybe it isn't; it certainly doesn't strike me as cynicism or opportunism, no matter what he says out of spite at the end. Again, the flashback that Anderson uses immediately after H. W. leaves for good seems devised to undercut this.

As for the oil fire scene, I can only say that his reaction made perfect sense to me. Maybe he wasn't prepared to deal with H.W. at that moment, or he didn't know how. Whatever the case, I saw Plainview as one in a long line of fathers who have cared about their children yet ultimately cared about their businesses more. He was certainly more successful at the latter than the former, so perhaps it's understandable that he would focus on what he's good at. He certainly pays a psychic price for it.

There are any number of reasons why a filmmaker might withhold information from an audience: 1) he's messing with them; 2) he wants to leave open a number of interpretations; or 3) he doesn't know what he's doing. There is a bit of mischief with Paul Dano's characters (I still can't decide if he's miscast or perfect, only that I'm glad he's there), but otherwise I think Anderson is being straight with us. I never questioned where the movie was going or why, not because I worship at the director's altar, but because I felt like I was in good hands.

*In response to the fine folks at Ed Copeland, I don't call him "P.T. Anderson" because I'm a fanboy; I call him "P.T." because I'm lazy. Sometimes I even call him "PTA," if only because I'm still fond of that Harper Valley song.

Dan Sallitt said...

Craig - I actually can't remember that flashback after H. W. leaves. I'll try to find some way to refresh my memory.

A friend of mine said that Blood reminded her of an O. Henry story. It's an interesting comment - in a way, this makes more sense to me than seeing the movie as a social or personal drama. I'll have to turn it over in my mind.

Craig said...

I hadn't thought of O. Henry, but it's an interesting observation.

Anonymous said...

My reaction to Plainview's relationship with H W was that of a son. He showed many times that H W was a partner by teaching him the oil business and standing by his side when injured. I took the expulsion of H W at the end of the movie as betrayal because he decided to become an oil competitor.
Where Plainview tells W B his status in life is lower than a bastard was a return of kindness. Throughout this movie if you insult Plainview, he will level the playing field.

Craig said...

Plainview doesn't "level the playing field," Jack; he owns the playing field.