Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Ratnakar Sadasyula on There Will Be Blood

***I was only fairly recently introduced to Ratnaker Sadasyula, a talented writer and film historian hailing from India, so I have only just begun reading his work. I can say that this really fascinating piece on There Will be Blood from his Seeti Maar-Diary of a Movie Lover is an extremely intriguing read. It originally appeared at Passion for Cinema and Ratnaker has been kind enough to let me reprint it here. I also wanted to mention that Ratnaker is hosting his own upcoming Blogathon, dedicated to Ridley Scott, that everyone interested should check out and contribute to.***

There Will be Blood

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth-" C.S.Lewis.

Spoilers Alert: Some key moments and scenes are discussed in the post, and could act as spoilers.

Did P.T. Anderson chance up on this quote from C.S.Lewis, at some time? Ostensibly, “There Will Be Blood” was based on Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil” about the struggle between a oil baron and his left leaning son. Again have not read the book, so can’t really comment much on it. But if one takes a look at There Will Be Blood, the movie is primarily about the conflict between the ruthless, oil millionaire Daniel Plainview( Daniel Day Lewis) and the preacher Eli Sunday( Paul Dano). One a self made millionaire, who made it rich striking oil, another is a crusading preacher, fiercely proud of his moral superiority. Eli is obsessed with the teachings of the Lord and the Testament, Daniel is not an atheist, but the only God he truly believes in is Mammon. And while Anderson does not explicitly take sides, he clearly shows a soft corner for Daniel, as can be seen in the climax scene.

Anyway my interest in There Will Be Blood, had less to do with C.S.Lewis, though i liked Anderson’s Boogie Nights , Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, and always been an admirer of Daniel Day Lewis. But my fascination for the movie was because of Daniel Plainview’s character, which referenced the Robber Baron concept. While i generally enjoy reading about the success stories of businessmen, i was always fascinated by some of the more legendary characters, or the “Robber Barons”, people like J.D.Rockefeller, J.P.Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, J.J.Astor, in effect the people who built America in a way. The actual origin of the term Robber Baron, came from Germany, to refer to the feudal lords, who illegally collected tolls from merchant ships traveling down the Rhine. In retrospect, it was later applied to the powerful business tycoons, mostly seen as the bad guys, swindling money, adopting illegal means, manipulating the system for their own ends, ruthless in their approach to their opponents. Most of them ran their business through monopolies and cartels, ruthlessly crushing out any form of opposition. But were the Robber Barons, really the bad guys? Or were they visionaries, who saw the future ahead? Were they actually more sinned against, than being the sinners? After all they were they not the very same men who built the great railroads, the telephone lines, the banking system that made America. Well the truth as they say is relative, or somewhere deep in between. Or again this could be my own view, somehow always have a sneaking admiration for these men, who started from nowhere, made it big, and earned their millions.

"Photography is truth. And cinema is truth twenty-four times a second"- Jean Luc Godard.

P.T.Anderson always has this love for the visual feel, or more specifically for the Steadicam moment. I have not seen Hard Eight, but Boogie Nights had one of the best shot scenes ever, where the camera drops in from top right on to the porno film community, as it slowly glides over the members present. Another great scene in the movie, was the one where one of the characters, Little Bill, finds his wife in bed with another guy, goes back, gets the gun and shoots both of them. Anderson again used the same tracking technique in Magnolia, where again the camera tracks and switches between the major characters at a TV studio. There Will Be Blood, has probably one of the best opening scenes of a movie, for almost close to 10 minutes, the characters, the story, the background everything speaks to us only through visuals. Anderson simply seemed to have let the camera take over, explore the characters, and let the viewer understand through it’s visual motifs and metaphors. Starting off with a hill in close up, and sky, covering the frame, then slowly a miner’s pick going up and down. It is the younger Daniel Plainview, prospecting in the desert, somewhere in New Mexico. Daniel relentlessly digging for the silver, the Mule dropping dead in the heat, Daniel discovering the ore, hauling it on his cart, falling down, getting up and finally lugging the cart across town.

Not one single piece of dialogue is spoken, but the entire visual sequence, setting up Daniel’s character here, some one so single minded in his pursuit of his goal, that nothing seems to stop him. Consider this you are in the desert, your cart has broken down, your mule is dead, its raining fire, you had a bad fall down, and yet all that seems to matter is getting the silver out. Again no dialogue, as Daniel watches the goings on at the lease office. The scene cuts back now to California, where Daniel and other workers are at an oil well, we know nothing of what really happened to the silver well, but going by the scenes, it could be assumed, he has sold it off. Again here, Daniel passes out, due to the fumes from the Oil Well, and we see one of the workers trying to wake him up. We feel that he is being revived, and yet the camera tricks us, closing up straight on a newspaper headline about an abandoned oil well somewhere in Pennsylvania, and before we know it, the men are working on a derrick that could pump out the oil. Another superb camera shot, the drill falling down the hole, and the camera angle zooming in, coming straight at the viewer. Leading up to one of the best shots in the movie, the huge log piece falling down, and impaling Daniel’s co worker, Ailman. Just love the way, the camera intercuts between Daniel’s expression of shock, the close up shot of the log hurtling down, and then Ailman being impaled, the blood splattering right on Daniel’s face. And then later on Daniel, taking Ailman’s infant son, HW, into his own protective care. It is only when Daniel begins to address some of the people around, that the silence is broken.

I don’t recall the last time, when the first 10-15 minutes of a movie, passed off without any dialogue, just pure visual imagery. Yes i could recall the opening shot of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and the opening scene at an abandoned railway station in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. But in recent times, very few i would admit. For the first 15 minutes of the movie, it is the camera that speaks, that takes control, as it switches back and forth between the characters, establishing the relation, the background. Take the scene of Ailman being impaled by the log falling, no dialogues, no shouts, just the close up visage of Daniel’s shocked face, and later covered with blood. You feel the sheer terror of it all. The hard, miserable conditions under which the prospectors work, the dangers they face, everything coming through perfectly. Silence speaks quite eloquently just through the images, but yet the sound of silence can be terrifying. Especially when it involves some one like Daniel Plainview, who seems single minded in the pursuit of his ambition.

As Daniel addresses the people around him, we get to know he is richer now, the grubby visage, has given way to a more clean shaved, smartly dressed person, with an overcoat and a hat, the sign of a rich man. We do know that Daniel has made money through some of his oil wells, but for all his ruthlessness, it is apparent that Daniel, has no respect for the fly by night operators.

"You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, you can lose it all if you’re not careful. Out of all men that beg for a chance to drill your lots, maybe one in twenty will be oilmen; the rest will be speculators-that’s men trying to get between you and the oilmen-to get some of the money that ought by rights come to you. Even if you find one that has money, and means to drill, he’ll maybe know nothing about drilling and he’ll have to hire out the job on contract, and then you’re depending on a contractor that’s trying to rush the job through so he can get another contract just as quick as he can. This is… the way that this works."

Something i always felt about the “Robber Baron” industrialists of the earlier era. These men were ruthless, broke the rules, operated using illegal mines, but fraudsters they never were. Yes they were money minded for sure, but they were not the fly by night, get rich quick kinda quacks, whose sole intention was to make money out of an existing trends. Every economic boom sees two kind of people, one who know the field in and out, and leverage the knowledge to gain out of it, and another who know nothing about the field, and use the boom mainly to make a quick buck. I still respect the former, whatever their means be, as for the latter, i have nothing but sheer contempt. For me Daniel Plainview, was the former kind, the man who rose from dirt, through his hard work, his enterprise to make it big in life. As Daniel further addresses the group, we can clearly see that he is some one who knows what he does, his sales pitch emphasizes to them, that he is the best suited person owing to his vast experience. Actually though it is here that the people in the room to whom he offers the royalty , who seem not to really understand his offer. He warns them about the “crooks and gamblers who are near”, in spite of which the people squabble among themselves about their share of the royalty. Something which Daniel is disgusted with and walks off with his now adopted son, H.W. But it does make me wonder , do we in our distrust of business, or maybe our hatred of the big businessman, at times fail to separate the wheat from the chaff, falling prey to hucksters who promise the moon, while refusing to heed the sane advice of people who have been there and done it?

Daniel’s hurry to dig the wells and get the royalty agreement done with, is not due to his desire to make a quick buck. Being an experienced “Oil Man”, he knows that sooner or later most of these wells would run dry, and he wants to get done over with it. Sure it is a purely commercial decision, but here the decision is not motivated by a get rich quick mentality, it is a smart decision taken on ground realities. I believe that the most successful business in life are those which understand the ground realities and take a decision on that basis, rather than building castles on thin air. Daniel gets one of the persons, Mr. Bankside to agree to the royalty. Another brilliant camera shot of the mixture of oil and water, gushing straight up at the camera. While Boogie Nights & Magnolia had some great visual shots, the visuals in There Will Be Blood were of an another class. Long range, wide screen, close up shots of the “black gold” rushing in at the camera, taking us right into the environment.

It is the meeting he has with Paul Sunday( Paul Dano in a double role), that brings in the main point to the story. Paul has already heard of Daniel’s success in digging the oil well, and he offers him a deal at his place, where oil is available, and adds in that Standard Oil, has taken the land there for good effect. The scene now shifts to the Californian Desert. In fact if one sees the locations at which the story shifts base, Pennsylvania, California, it was due to the fact, that most of the early oil strikes, took place in these 2 states. Paul has the gut feel of oil being there, due to what he has seen. In fact the dialogues involving Daniel negotiating royalty are interesting, in that they give an insight into how the industrialists often negotiated with land owners, something that is proving to be a real thorny issue, at most places in India. Again the camera sweeping up, showing the wide range shots of the desert, the train tracks riding along. It is clear from his encounter with the Sunday’s family, that they are religious minded, to the extent of questioning Daniel’s own beliefs. As in when Abel Sunday asks Daniel which church he belongs to, he replies back “Church of the World”.

Daniel was not referring per se to a Church by that name, it was more of a metaphorical statement by him, implying his interest in more worldly matters. But the meaning is lost on Abel, who actually believes that there is a church by that name, which he does not know about. Daniel drops in the hints, which Abel however is unable to decipher.

"We are told in the Book, not to discuss our faith with strangers, even if they are so nice and helpful. But according to our faith, we believe that we get to know a man through friendship and business- and we talk about faith later."

Clearly as I mentioned earlier, the only God Daniel truly believes in is that of Mammon. And he is more interested in the manners of the world, rather than any spiritual one. One of the best moments comes later, when after discovering the oil, Daniel negotiates with the Sunday family for the price of the land. He offers to take their ranch too. The particular dialogue when Mother Sunday, refuses to sell, the land, and then Daniel, assures her he is just taking it for a lease, is significant. Very rarely in a movie, you get to see the “give and take” involved in land deals, between the business men and the land owners, at such a close level.

What we have here is not a bad evil businessman taking over the land of an innocent family, it is two parties negotiating here. For all his religious persuasion, Eli Sunday is smart when it comes to negotiating with Daniel, he is no innocent boy in the woods. Especially the part when Eli negotiates a share of the mining rights with Daniel, ostensibly for his Church. Unlike Abel Sunday who is more religious, Eli is worldly wise, he manages to get the benefits for his Church, negotiating like any other proper businessman. Eli straddles two worlds, the religious and the materialistic, and he does it quite well. He smartly negotiates the best business deal with Daniel, all in the name of the Lord and the Church. Again the way Eli’s character is set up here is excellent, the fact that he is materialistic, worldly wise, something we observe when he covets Daniel’s car, implicitly.Eli also happens to crave for recognition, as in the part when he asks Daniel to ensure he is introduced to every one around during the inauguration of the Well.

One of the best scenes, not easy to watch, considering it’s rather graphic depiction, shows one of the workers, Joe being drowned head down in the oil pool. It is rather gruesome, especially the part when his flesh is ripped while being pulled out from the well. But this scene, actually is the catalyst for the conflict between Daniel and Eli. Eli already slighted at being ignored during the opening of the Well, feels that Daniel’s lack of faith, and that he has not blessed the dead man. At the basic level, beneath all his religious posturing, Eli is a man, who wants to be at the forefront, some one who needs to be seen as important. That explains why for a man of God, he tries to make his presence everywhere, be it negotiating with Daniel, faith healing some of the town’s citizens, or insisting on Daniel introducing him at the ceremony. Eli is as much of an egomaniac as Daniel, maybe even more so as when Daniel asks him , what the 3rd revelation is, he replies “Me.. I am the 3rd Revelation”.

Fact is that Eli’s egomania is a bit more dangerous, Daniel is a ruthless businessmen, seeking for his own self interest and money. Eli however believes he is the 3rd Revelation himself, he believes he is God. And when person believes he is God, and begins to act as if he is God, that can be the worst thing to happen. Something Daniel tells in plain terms to Abel

"I think Eli is a lunatic. And i think you are a weak little man. And i am glad to have your land and make a living off it where you couldn’t."

Another great scene in the movie where an explosion renders Daniel’s adopted son, HW, deaf. The camera work is top notch here, the shots of the well exploding, the flames, the oil spilling out. Again this scene proves to be the further catalyst igniting the conflict between Daniel and Eli. Daniel feeling Eli could cure his son, of his deafness, using his powers, in real, though it is just his frustration showing out. Many have considered the movie to be one where Daniel towers over Eli, and shadows him. I guess the impression was formed by the famous “I drink your milk shake scene”. To me Eli is the more dangerous of the lot, he is an egomaniac who believes himself to be God, and that can be the most potent combination of all. Look at the scene, where Eli takes on Abel, hitting him, frustrated at losing out on the money.

"Be quiet! Shut your mouth, Abel. It was your stupid son! It was Paul who told him to come here. I know it. He went to him, and he said “My stupid, weak father will give away his lots. Go and take him.”-and you let it happen."

Eli is the one who takes advantages of Daniel’s troubles to browbeat him, to confess him into being a sinner. And Daniel plays into Eli’s hands by his own actions, his murder of the person claiming to be his step brother Harry, which gives Eli the chance to humiliate him in the church.

There Will Be Blood is epic in it’s scope, the wide screen landscapes, the period settings, the larger than life persona of Daniel Plainview. It is not an easy watch, some of the scenes are really gruesome, especially the death of the work. Visually it is a work of art, the close up shots, the zooms, the awesome montages of the oil, water and the fire, creating a surreal imagery of nature’s power. But where it really scores overwhelmingly is in the conflict between Daniel and Eli, two obsessed, ego maniacal men, one seeking to control the land, and another seeking to playing God. One proud and arrogant about himself, the another convinced that God is on his side. Commerce vs Religion, two of the most potent forces that control the world. It is this fascinating morality play, that makes this movie so memorable.

And there is Daniel Day Lewis, literally towering over the cast, with a performance the defines superlative. Be it the scene where he breaks down attending to his adopted son after the blast, the scene where he confesses to being a sinner, or the famous “I drink your milkshake” scene, Daniel Day Lewis is just outstanding. Paul Dano is equally brilliant as Eli Sunday, the worldly wise preacher, who believes he is God, countering Daniel Day Lewis effectively in every scene with him.

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