Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Michael Cusumano on There Will Be Blood

***This fairly new piece on There Will be Blood was submitted to me by a writer named Michael Cusumano, who runs a blog called Serious Film. Based in Brooklyn, Michael obviously has some wonderful taste in film, literature and music, as seen on his profile page, and I am looking forward to discovering more of his work. Thanks to him for submitting yet another insightful piece, which notes connections between Daniel Plainview and Charles Foster Kane, on Anderson's most acclaimed work.***

Great Shots: There Will Be Blood
Michael Cusumano

Daniel Plainview lingers in the mind long after most other characters have shrank from memory. Like that other famous fictional tycoon, Charles Foster Kane, he is a character at once straightforward and mysterious. Both men proceed from youth to reclusive old age with a monomaniacal fixation on obtaining wealth and power. If anything, Plainview is more obsessed - Kane had this life thrust upon him as a child, whereas Plainview chose the path himself, personally clawing it from the Earth. But what are they thinking? Do they have second thoughts, considering the closer they get to their goals the more they lose the capacity for happiness? If Kane had Rosebud, one word to sum up all the innocence and subsequent happiness he lost on his way to gripping that snow globe on his lonely deathbed, what does Plainview have?

Unlike Kane, there is no youthful blush of idealism for Daniel Plainview from which we can trace his decline into corruption. Plainview is already completely Plainview when we meet him - totally isolated, locked in a struggle to extract his riches from the land. Nor will there be any round-up of friends and colleagues to comb through their memories once Daniel Plainview dies, regardless of any enigmatic last words he might leave behind. His closest associate, Fletcher, means nothing to him in the end, and is unceremoniously dropped from the movie the moment he is no longer relevant (I always find it a bit sad how his last words in the film question whether he's being pushed aside, and then - poof - he's gone). The two who would no doubt have some great tales to tell about Daniel, Eli Sunday and Daniel's "brother" Henry, are destroyed by him. He leaves behind no noticeable love affairs, at time appearing borderline asexual, romantic love just one more repulsively human thing to keep at a distance.

The only connection of any real depth he forms is that he makes with his "son" H.W., and it is there we catch glimpses of the man beneath the industrialist machine. After the events of the movie, H.W. would no doubt be glad to go his whole life without ever again discussing the man who raised him, although it already tells most of the story that all the people listed as Daniel's family members have quote marks around their titles. It is no accident that Eli is desperately claiming to be family right before Daniel caves in his skull.

Daniel Plainview is a man who in dire need of both giving and receiving human affection, of experiencing the unconditional love of a child for his father. By the end of his life he's warped his mind by solitude and alcohol to the point he can convince himself and H.W. that not only does he not love his adopted son, but he never did, and was only using him as a sales prop, "a sweet face to buy land" as PT Anderson memorable puts it. He says it with such frightening conviction that we in the audience almost believe it as well, that is until we think back on shots like the one above. It's then we can see the full scope of the man's demons. There is no faking the love Plainview has for his child in that moment. It's the loss of the emotion felt here that makes the famous baptism histrionics feel true, rather than gratuitous scenery chewing.

Robert Elswit won a well-deserved Oscar for There Will Be Blood's cinematography. It was the culmination of a brilliant run of work that includes such beautifully shot films as Good Night, and Good Luck and Michael Clayton. If the story of Blood echoes Citizen Kane, the photography recalls Kubrick, specifically 2001: A Space Odyssey. The alien feel and texture of the landscape most resembles 2001's scenes on the surface of the moon, and it's a testament to Elswit and PT Anderson that even the intimate shots like the one above, of people and faces, reverberate with the same grandeur as the shots of gushers and mountains.

If I picked this shot out of so many memorable images from the film, it's because it's moments like this that let visual poetry approach the ideas that the film never broaches verbally, although Daniel's "I see the worst in people" monologue comes closest. We see father and son drenched in oil, with Daniel doing his best to pour love and care to his adopted son to no avail. H.W. is turned away from him, oblivious to his father's efforts. That H.W. loses his hearing is just salt in the wound, mocking his most earnest attempt to care for somebody else.

This is no mere "bastard in a basket." This was his son, only by the time his son gave him what he needed there was not enough of a man left to receive it.

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