the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, February 09, 2008

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Stealing the Show

The American Woodsman is interested in nothing. Any notion of sensitivity is foreign to him. Those boughs so elegantly sprouted by nature, the fine foliage, the bright color that enlivens a part of the forest, the deeper green that darkens another part – all this means nothing to him. He has no memories to call upon in any particular place. His only thought is for the number of ax-strokes required to chop down a tree. He has never planted anything; he does not know such pleasures. Any tree he might plant is worthless to him, because he will never see it sufficiently large to be chopped down. Destruction is what keeps him alive. Destruction is everywhere; hence every place suits him. He cares nothing for the field where he has done his work, because his work is only toil and no idea of sweetness is associated with it. What emerges from his hands does not pass through all the stages of growth that so touch the farmer’s heart. He does not follow the destiny of his products. He does not know the pleasure of new ventures. And so long as he does not forget to take his ax with him he has no regrets about leaving the spot he has dwelled in for years.

-Talleyrand, Memoirs on the Commercial relations between the United States and England, April 4, 1797

Last night I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” – a searing character study of an early 20th century oil entrepreneur. This morning I read the cover story of the NYT business section regarding the feud between Maurice Greenberg, the creator of the world’s largest insurance company, and his heir apparent. It seems that the protagonist is alive and well. This is not a criticism of Mr. Greenberg so much as a compliment to Mr. Anderson’s prescience in telling this story at this time. Americans prefer to think of themselves as optimistic do-gooders and we extend this veneer to business. Our Gospel is simple: capitalism is the bulwark against evil. It is ironic that our patron saint, George Washington, a formidable real-estate entrepreneur who had the good sense to marry a wealthy widow, fails to be honored for his business acumen. There is something about maximizing profit. Even the most ardent pious patriot knows that this preoccupation bears a resemblance to the pursuit of forbidden fruit. We watch television shows about doctors, lawyers and policeman who strive for truth justice and the American way. Imagine a drama featuring bankers, stockbrokers and entrepreneurs? Our heroes might lose their luster discussing a cost benefit analysis of the latest baby-food. How about a frank talk about the pay-day loan business? (Maybe an episode where the bosses target young soldiers going off to war?) I had a friend who worked for a used car dealer. He saw his mentor sell a worthless car to an elderly customer. The novice pressed his elder about the transaction. The boss sagely quoted scripture that extolled the virtues of Eve’s friend from the tree: “Be as wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove” (Matthew 10:16). Our good book is focused on the “bottom line”. No doubt our first President took this to heart. His first job was as a surveyor. Washington was virtuous but he also knew that the pie needed to be divided.

Anderson’s anti-hero is the embodiment of the division that is in America’s blood. Daniel Plainview divides things: earth from oil, families from themselves and his share from everyone else’s. This film is based on the early 20th century writer Upton Sinclair’s “Oil”. Sinclair is better known for his, literally gut-wrenching expose of the meat packing industry (“The Jungle”). I haven’t read “Oil” but given the film I’d say Plainview would have been equally at home selling adulterated cows to orphans. Audiences might not be able to stomach him as a weekly series (although we did have J.R. Hewing) but as a special feature – he’s a treat to watch. This film is really the Daniel Day Lewis show. Without doubt this is one of the best films in awhile but given Mr. Anderson’s previous work (Hard 8, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) I am holding him to a higher standard. The director is, in contrast to his star, out of top form. There are glimmers of brilliance. The scene in which Plainview’s son confronts him after being exiled is magnificently executed in a long shot. Ditto for the staging of Plainview’s fake conversion. The choice of having him confront the preacher out of ear-shot prior to returning to the pews is equally masterful. But the overall effect is Lewis’ star burning amongst set-piece performances, startling under-drawn foil characters and a drab unmusical background.

Mr. Anderson has a track record that showcases a wonderful ability to manage a parade of virtuoso performances in poignant, carefully sculpted American landscapes. In “Blood for Oil” he seems to have lost himself in Mr. Lewis. It’s understandable. This is one of the great film performances of all time. Given Mr. Anderson’s writing/directing, credit must be due. However there is strong imbalance to the work as a whole. On paper this is a film contrasting Mr. Plainfield with a host of luminaries with a distinctly American flavor. There is the distant looming “big oil” – the free market entrepreneurs who are further down the road to salvation. There is the vain preacher and his foolish flock – on the wrong road – they could be plucked from an unpublished Mark Twain story. There is beloved/hateful son who rises from silent shadows of the sins of the father. Yet Anderson, like his protagonist, has a myopic fatalism. If Plainfield’s downfall is “oil”; Anderson’s is Plainfield himself. This sounds strange. How could a tour de force performance undermine a film? The problem lies in Plainfield being framed by his surroundings. It has been said that “no man is an island” – well the same holds true for actors. The LA milieu of “Boogie Nights” or “Magnolia” stands in stark contrast to the dreary bleakness of Plainfield’s world. The sounding of an artistic portrait should never be mistaken for the note it is trying to strike. The director’s job is to bring majesty to the grimness. Lewis gloriously renders hard-nosed, bitter, striving desperation. Anderson thought that was enough. His previous work gives us WORLDS of appalling desperadoes; not simply one single individual. “There Will be Blood” gives us the jewel of Mr. Lewis’ performance in a cardboard box. With the exception of his young son the secondary cast was forgettable. The portrayal of the landscape was equally mediocre – contrast to the “Days of Heaven”. There was equally a surprising lack of music. How about a Woody Guthrie dust bowl ballad from 1937:

Oh, if you ain't got the do re mi, folks, you ain't got the do re mi,
Why, you better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee.
California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see;
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi.

Although thematically perfect it is chronologically inaccurate. I’m sure a clever musicologist could find a period appropriate ballad echoing the themes of the film. But Mr. Anderson wasn’t looking. Perhaps he thought it might cloud the hardscrabbleness. Mr. Lewis sure makes up for all the shortcomings. He struck a gusher. I’m just disappointed Anderson wasn’t able to cap it. I listened to Anderson speak about the choice of subject matter. He wanted to make a political statement that was so profound as to rise above politics. Unfortunately people will savor Lewis’ dazzling virtuosity and not the implications of the story. The proof is in the pudding. In the New York Times piece about the bitter, vicious internecine struggle over the fate of Mr. Greenberg’s AIG insurance company – the reporter made reference to Greek Tragedy; but not Anderson’s work. That’s the real tragedy of “There Will Be Blood”.

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