Author Topic: There Will Be Blood: A Psychopathic Film? (Children With Angels)  (Read 3218 times)

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Gold Trumpet

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There Will Be Blood: A Psychopathic Film?
by Children With Angels



There Will Be Blood has become a darling for journalistic film critics (and, though passed over for the big awards at the Oscars, the Academy), topping many end-of-year ‘best of’ polls, and receiving the kind of blanket hyperbolic praise that rears its head for modern films very rarely. Not only have a number of critics deigned to compare it with the accepted cinematic canon (Citizen Kane [1941] has been a touchstone), but, unusually, references to literary masterworks (e.g.: The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick) have also abounded. Seldom, it seems to me, has such near-unanimous praise been heaped upon a stranger or more idiosyncratic Hollywood movie.

The critical mould that a great majority of the film’s admirers seem to want to place it in (and which likely motivates many of the literary comparisons) is that of the American ‘saga’, or ‘epic’. Tying it to such a self-consciously grand image certainly helps the kind of fawning that has taken place over it. It bespeaks great ambition, breadth, and bold artistic chutzpah - precisely the kinds of things that great American art is supposed to do so well. It also, I would say, suggests that the film is prominently engaging with large, capital-I, issues.

We can see why the shoe has been considered a good fit: Blood has a period setting, tying it overtly to historical cinematic and literary American traditions; it is also two and a half hours long, giving it a pleasingly bloated quality; it features a bullying, powerhouse central performance from an actor who seems currently above reproach; it contains references to serious (and timely) themes such as religion and capitalism, lending it an air of social importance; its narrative spans about thirty years, giving the story a sense of scope and historical import; finally, it is filled with expansive shots of a lost America, which again helps create an impression of the sort of scale - not to mention a kind of tainted nostalgia - that we associate with great American artists like Fitzgerald, Melville, Whitman, Twain, or Keuroac (not to mention Welles, Coppola, or Malick).

Yet something doesn’t feel quite right to me about this conception of the film. Yes: because of the elements I have mentioned, in many ways it feels like a large picture (one of my favourite responses to it was text message from a friend upon his leaving the cinema that read simply: “That film is huuuuge!”), and that largeness can easily leave us reaching for words like ‘epic’. But this way of thinking about it does not account for either why the film feels quite as strange as it certainly does, nor why, whilst watching it - rather than experiencing the sense of inclusive, democratic expansiveness I would associate with the ‘epic’ - I feel a terrifying claustrophobia: a world closing in rather than one reaching out.

My problem with calling the film ‘epic’ is not a pedantic one of terminology: I can’t claim to be an expert on what does or doesn’t technically constitute an ‘epic’ work of art, and neither do the reviewers who have been bandying the word around. Rather, my objection stems from the connotations that I think the word is usually meant to convey - connotations that I think suggest a misunderstanding of what the film is trying to achieve. It seems to me (I speak as someone who has seen the movie five times and still feels slightly perplexed by it), that Blood is not first and foremost a film about a time and place (California in the late 19th/early 20th century), nor an allegorical film about themes or ideas (oil, religion, capitalism, greed) - two things that I believe are often implied by ‘epic’ in this context. Rather, I think it is primarily about the way in which one lone man sees the world, and I feel that its particular power, as well as its sometimes tantalising oddness, stem from this central fact.

One of the main things that stops it from feeling like an ‘epic’ to me is how little interest the film seems to have in what we might broadly call society. Though the term is clearly multi-faceted, whether or not we refer to a work as ‘epic’ (particularly in relation to the concept of an American ‘saga’ that has also been attached to Blood) might, I think, have partly to do with whether it includes within its vision a good deal of the particulars that together constitute a picture of its world’s social make-up. Melville’s obsessive detailing of the minutiae of port-town life and whaling society in Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s portraits of the oppressive social mores of 1930s Hollywood in The Last Tycoon, Kerouac’s briefly-glimpsed but multitudinous snapshots of all those back-alley towns and communities he visits in On the Road; all these narratives, whilst not intending primarily to be dissections of the societies they portray, are concerned with giving the reader enough information to form a palpable sense of the times, locations, and various social interactions that they depict. In short, we are allowed to know their social worlds to a reasonable extent, and understand how they work. To quote that great American democratic visionary Walt Whitman slightly out of context, they “contain multitudes”.

Little could be further from the truth for The Will Be Blood. This isn’t to say that Jack Fisk’s astonishing production design, for instance, doesn’t feel entirely authentic and accurate to its socially-specific period (for a contrast, look at the overly artfully bleached-out and sparse mise-en-scene of The Assassination of Jesse James… [2007): this isn’t a question of anachronisms or a lack of feeling for the setting, neither of which could ever be said to be problems for Blood. Instead, it is the way that the tightness of the film’s focus mans it constantly leaves gaps in our potential for understanding the world it depicts - elisions, ambiguities, and silences, where we might expect an ‘epic’ to provide details, contexts, and clarifications. These gaps range from basic ambiguities in the narrative itself to relationships between characters, to silence on broader questions of how the society of Little Boston operates, and all reflect how disinterested the film is with understanding its world and its society more generally.

One of the most wilfully opaque narrative decisions is Anderson’s technique of casting Paul Dano as both Sunday twins, Paul and Eli, and then waiting till virtually the final scene to clarify that the brothers are definitely different people. At least upon first viewing, the film offers us the possibility of drawing the conclusion that Paul may be some kind of alter ego for Eli, and that Eli is thus either schizophrenic or in some other sense delusional. Paul’s characterization in his only scene is certainly not differentiated significantly from Eli’s: both are softly spoken, both share that strange, vacant smile, both display a strong, stubborn, calmness. The first major piece of evidence against the dual-personality hypothesis comes in the scene in which Eli launches himself ferociously upon his father, shouting, “It was Paul, Abel… You’re a stupid father to a stupid son!” However, the fact that Eli is in a state of frenzy at the time, having just been beaten and humiliated by Plainview, only contributes to the possibility of seeing him as mentally unstable, and thus possibly the kind of person who is capable of constructing a dual personality (this is also helped by the fact that we have already seen him act in a diametrically opposed manner to his usual placid self in his first church scene, at which point he seemingly becomes ‘possessed’ in some sense by the Holy Spirit). It is not until Plainview explicitly brings up Paul to Eli in the final scene that we can be absolutely positive that the two are in fact different people.

The possible confusion surrounding this aspect of the story could have been very easily cleared up in a number of ways (the most obvious of which would be either to show the two in a scene together, or to have another character mention Paul), but the film intentionally decides against this. It is important, however, that this ambiguity is not overtly stressed as an epistemic gap by the narration, in the manner of ‘dual personality’ movies (a classic example would be Psycho [1960], a more recent one would be Fight Club [1999]): we do not feel that the film is trying to ‘fool’ us into one hypothesis before eventually turning the tables, and the final scene’s confirmation of their existence as twins does not feel to us like a twist. The fact that for most of the movie we simply lack the necessary knowledge to definitively resolve the ambiguity is instead merely indicative of the strangely narrow point of view that the film as a whole establishes.

There are many other noticeable, but similarly unstressed, silences in the film’s narrative that mean we lack as full an understanding of its world as we are used to receiving. The largest of these is the huge jump forward in time to 1928 that sets us up for the film’s last section. Clearly a great deal has happened during this elided period, but we are left unsure of the specifics: what has Plainview’s relationship with H.W. been like during these years? Seemingly they have grown further apart than ever, and Plainview’s command for H.W. to “tell me where you’ve been” suggests that he has been away from his father for some time (getting married?), but we know little more than this. Similarly, Eli’s movements in the intervening years are an intriguing mystery: we learn he has been working in radio, and that he now drinks, but what are we to make of his confession that “the Devil has taken hold of me in ways I never imagined”? There is the definite suggestion here that he has fallen some way from the pedestal he preached from in Little Boston, but the specifics of this fall are left very unclear. Again, these absences are not necessarily flagged up as such - as mysteries that need solving - rather they simply make us notice again how little of the film’s world we truly have access to.

Moments at which we lack much sense of character psychology and motivation are also numerous. The moment when Bandy hands Plainview back his gun after speaking of the “sins” that he must repent is one obvious case of this. The assumption here is that Bandy knows that Plainview killed Henry the previous night, but we are given no confirmation of this, or of how Bandy could know of the murder (we don’t see the grave displayed ostentatiously near Plainview, for example). We also don’t know why Bandy should be so accepting of the killing, content merely for Plainview to cleanse himself through baptism rather than be brought to justice: is Plainview considered above the law? Does Bandy put the good of the town’s flourishing economy above the need to condemn a murderer? Is he so lost to his faith that he believes baptism absolves crime?

The business between Plainview and the young Mary Sunday is another intriguing story element that we are given little character motivation for. Their relationship as we see it consists of three main events: Plainview names his first derrick after her, then in the next scene takes it upon himself to warn her father not to beat her anymore, and then later, after Plainview’s forced baptism, Mary hugs him warmly from behind and he responds by gently patting her hand. What exactly is the nature of their relationship? What motivates Plainview to act the way he does towards her: is it for H.W., who previously told Plainview of Mary’s treatment at the hands of her father? Is it out of a desire for power - here over Abel Sunday? Is it because of his hatred of religion (we are told Mary’s father beats her “when she doesn’t pray”)?

One further noticeable narrative absence relates to Plainview’s right-hand-man, Fletcher Hamilton. He appears in a number of scenes, usually on the periphery, and is clearly an important person for Plainview and his business (particularly in the 1911 portion of the film), yet we are allowed to glean very little about him, and indeed only hear his name once (in the Paul Sunday scene). There are moments when it seems that he has the potential to be a voice of conscience or sensitivity for the story that could contrast with Plainview’s (e.g.: in the oil-fire scene he enquires about H.W.’s wellbeing and seems momentarily shocked by Plainview’s apparent flippancy towards him; in the scene in which H.W. is being forcibly manhandled by a doctor he receives a close-up that shows him looking uncomfortable with what is going on; later, he is the one who makes sure H.W.’s living conditions in the deaf-school are acceptable), but these suggestions are allowed to exist merely as small hints, and are never developed.

This is in fact representative of the entire film, since - especially for such a large work - it invites us to get to know comparatively few of its characters, and does not take time to make Little Boston feel understandable as a place or a community. We find ourselves in different locations (the derrick, the church, Plainview’s shack, a restaurant, a dusty plain) with little sense of how they relate to one another geographically, or of how their inhabitants exist with one another socially. The congregation at Eli’s church, for example, are given so scant attention as to potentially appear like little more than a group of mindless drones. Were the film more concerned with making us understand its world - the relationships between its community, and its society more broadly - we might reasonably expect it to give us more insight into, not just Fletcher or Mary or Paul, but all of the aspects of the story that I have been highlighting as conspicuous silences, which finally add up to simply the social make-up of Little Boston itself.

I could go on, but by now it should be clear what I mean by the film’s lack of interest in making us understand its world in social terms. The next question, then, is what we make of this. It could be argued (and, indeed, has been in a trio of thoughtful blog posts on the film that I have read, by Zach Campbell, Dan Sallit, and Darren Hughes) that the film’s disinterest in such things can be seen as a limitation. Viewed negatively, we could see it either as simply incompetent storytelling (which I certainly don’t think it is), or as evidence of a short-sighted or blindly insensitive attitude on Anderson’s part towards the society he is depicting. The latter argument has the potential to be persuasive: I certainly don’t think that the film is first and foremost trying to be ‘political’ (i.e.: about the effects of capitalism and religion on society), and the attempts to understand it as such - as primarily a vague allegory of sorts - by critics, though seductive to a degree, have not been fully convincing. However, that the film consciously limits our view and understanding of its social world can be seen more positively if we view it as an entirely appropriate way of telling a story about its central character.

Before it is concerned with anything else, There Will Be Blood is concerned with the strange, terrifying character of Daniel Plainview. Yet the film also feels oddly unlike a character study in the traditional sense, since we are seldom ever allowed any access to Plainview’s inner life - his past, his motivations, his desires, and so on. In this sense, the comparisons with Citizen Kane are actually more meaningful than they might at first appear. Like Kane, this is a film that is absolutely obsessed with its central character but which also provides barely any actual insight into that character, keeping him locked at its centre whilst allowing him to remain in many ways impenetrable. I would argue, however, that there is one very important sense in which the film does allow us to get to know Plainview, and that is through its narration: the way its story is told. I believe that the film is constructed in such a way as to make us view and feel its world in a comparable way to Plainview himself: in short, I would suggest that the film itself is borderline psychopathic.

Considering we spend two-and-a-half hours in his company, we know comparatively very little about Plainview. One thing that we do know is that he doesn’t like to discuss himself - this we gather through his evasions of questions about his personal life from various people (the wife of a man he is buying land from at the start of the film; the head of Standard Oil; Henry, etc.); as he says to Henry at one point: “I don’t want to talk about those things”. Another thing we know about him is his animosity towards people in general. In the extraordinary speech when he briefly lets his guard down to Henry during their campfire drinking session, he says: “I see the worst in people… There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by little... I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone. I can't keep doing this on my own with these... people.” This could hardly give a clearer picture of a man with only the loosest possible sense of personal involvement with the social world around him. This is of course one of the film’s central ironies: while Plainview preaches community values and social development in his sales-pitches, he himself wants nothing more than to escape society entirely (and he eventually seemingly achieves this goal). These two things that we come to know about Plainview - his lack of desire for self-knowledge and his lack of interest in other people - are two things that the film emphatically and powerfully conveys through its own construction.

All the elisions, absences, and silences that I have been identifying can be seen as operating within the same essentially anti-social impulses as Plainview’s character, as well as his hatred of depth - of sharing anything about himself. All are areas of the narrative that we might reasonably expect to be able to know and understand better than we are permitted to, and all relate to Daniel’s relationships with others, or to the lives of those around him (i.e.: the society he inhabits) - neither of which he has any desire to gain connection with or insight into. This is not exactly a question of our knowledge of and access to the film’s world being limited to the access and knowledge granted our main character in the manner of, say, Fight Club, whose narrative only works as it does because we are experiencing it almost exclusively through our protagonists’ consciousness. Rather, the narration instead simply reflects in some respects the psychology or personality of its main character.

We can see a precedent for this in Anderson’s previous film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), a simultaneously sweet- and violent-natured film about a simultaneously sweet- and violent-natured man, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Two of the strangest narrational strategies of that film - the breaks into moments of beautiful, amorphous colour, and the occasionally cacophonous and strung-out percussion on its soundtrack - spoke of two aspects of Barry’s personality that he was having to continually repress: a romantic desire for escape, and a vexed and violent unhappiness. These elements of his personality were only allowed to occasionally erupt unfettered in Barry himself, but they were continually being communicated in the film’s own construction. So it is in Blood for Plainview, who has to repress his intense misanthropy and psychopathic tendencies in his daily dealings, and so, instead, we are made to experience them formally through the way the story is told.

The constant, insidious oddness of the film’s relationship to its narrative and characters is probably the most important way in which this happens, but another - as in Punch-Drunk Love - is through the film’s score. Johnny Greenwood’s discordant strings and sometimes unpredictable percussion and time-signatures do a wonderful job of making us feel an uneasy sense of dread, even when played over seemingly innocuous shots of landscapes, or of prospectors arriving at a train station. The uncomfortable tone that the score (sometimes single-handedly) creates often can’t be immediately understood as being aligned with the emotional state of any particular character, or with any generally appropriate-seeming mood for a specific situation or action (as is usually the case in film music). Later, however, when the full extent of Plainview’s disassociation from the world around him has become apparent, it is possible to see this music as having been entirely appropriate to the ocean of loathing and isolation that lurks beneath his surface, and which only erupts - like the oil he drills for - in brief, violent, bursts.

The film’s much-commented-upon predominant lack of female characters can also be understood in terms of the film’s psychopathically narrow point of view. It is certainly possible to understand Plainview psychologically as impotent, or in some way asexual: indeed, what clearer symbolic image of the hysterical compensation for fears about one’s manhood could be thought of than a man who builds giant phallic objects that drill rhythmically into the ground, occasionally eliciting gushes of liquid…? (Sirk’s Written on the Wind [1956] comes to mind as an obvious parallel in this respect.) Whether this is true or not though, we can certainly say that he seems to have very little interest in women whatsoever, either sexually or otherwise (one brief line about remembering taking women to “the Peach Tree Dance”, and an unverified accusation from Eli about “lusting after women” notwithstanding). While one plausible reaction is to judge the lack of women in the film negatively, another is to see it as one more way in which the film communicates economically and powerfully the terrifying worldview of a mind so cut off from everything that a healthy and appropriate response to living in the real world demands: in this case, engaging with the ‘other’ fifty percent of the world’s population.

Another reason why I can’t agree with those who see the film’s lack of overt interest in the social world, or in women, as a short-sighted failing on Anderson’s part is because, though these elements of the film’s world are certainly not foregrounded, we are nevertheless subtly encouraged to notice the way in which they are pushed into the background.

Take the first scene in which we hear Plainview’s voice clearly, for example: when he is giving his sales pitch to the townspeople of Coyote Hills. The scene begins with a close-up of Plainview, delivering his prepared monologue. We can’t see at this point who he is addressing, but can only guess from his repeated phrase “Ladies and gentlemen,” that it is a large group of people. During a pause in his speech, we get a ripple of indistinct, discontented voices from offscreen, demanding answers (the main line we pick out is, “What is your offer, sir?”). We still though, at this point, don’t cut out to see the people he is sharing the room with. He responds to the crowd by continuing with his promise of what he can give the townspeople, asserting why he is the best man for the job, while we continue to see only him and, now, H.W., who is standing behind him, fulfilling his important economic function of representing “bond of family”. The first view we get of the community is a sudden cut to a long shot that allows us to see predominantly only their backs, as they erupt into an indistinguishable cacophony of bellowed recriminations, a mass of messy, complicated, unknowable humanity, with Plainview as its removed, silent centre. As the shouting continues, we cut in close to Plainview again, this time from a side view that allows us to see a few of the townspeople behind him, yelling their various indecipherable questions and accusations, noticeably out-of-focus, beyond Plainview’s understanding, and ours. This shot is held for a moment, the screen made up half by our protagonist’s giant face, and half by the blurred rest of the world (i.e.: other people). Plainview assesses this situation, before getting up and leaving, disgusted by the appalling spectacle of human demands and complications represented by this town’s society; “too much confusion,” he announces.

This motif - members of a society that Plainview is unconcerned with in a particular instance being held pointedly out-of-focus in the frame behind him - in fact recurs throughout the film. It happens for children in the following scene, in which Daniel sits with a married couple at a table in the bottom-right foreground (he is convincing them to let him drill their land), while their blurred children play on the floor in the top-left background. Slightly later it happens for women, when he arrives at the Sunday Ranch for the first time and conducts a conversation with Abel (essentially a precursor to another business meeting), the two of them standing on either side of the foreground while the Sunday women (Abel’s wife and two daughters) look on, out of focus in the very centre of the frame in the background. (We might also think, in this respect, of the moment when the Sunday family’s women are forced to skulk away after dinner so that the men can talk business that will dictate their futures privately.) Women and sexuality are very noticeably reduced again to background blur and sound in the brothel scene. This pointed marginalizing happens again, for Plainview's co-workers, in the scene in which he beats Eli in the oily mud: as he slaps and forces mud into Eli’s mouth on the bottom-left foreground, two of his colleagues stand by, blurred in the top-right background, watching; we can only imagine what they must be thinking about this display. All these moments not only continue to communicate the pathologically narrow point of view of the film, but also allow us to notice what is being excluded from this view. Anderson’s favoured technique of tracking the camera in slowly on his scenes as they progress - which he does a great many times in this film - also speaks of this: constantly closing in, constantly narrowing the focus, continually excluding the outside world. I would argue that this is something that the film as a whole achieves: a constricting, claustrophobic view of its world that simultaneously lets us recognise it as being a constricting, claustrophobic, and - ultimately - hugely harmful view of the world, and of social relations.

There is a great deal more to be said about the subject, but I hope that I have made it clear both why I think that some of the connotations of a word like ‘epic’ are not quite applicable to There Will Be Blood, and why the film might strike us as being as strange and idiosyncratic as it does (or, at least, does this viewer). I also hope, though, to have proposed a persuasive case for why the strangeness of the film is not merely strange, but in fact represents a method of storytelling that is entirely appropriate to its subject matter. Whether you want to call the film as a whole ‘psychopathic’, I think it is undeniable that much of what makes the film feel odd and challenging has to do with the point of view that it sets up, and that - if we were forced to anthropomorphise this point of view - psychopathic is as good a word as any for its tendencies.

Although I am unsure that it is perfect, this is nevertheless a complex and impressive movie that I am positive will be the subject of a great deal more critical debate in the months and years to come. It is a debate that I very much look forward to, since I suspect (even if perhaps for slightly different reasons than others of its supporters) that Anderson and co. may have made a film that deserves as much attention and discussion as some of the most fascinating works in the cinematic canon.


(courtesy of AlternateTakes.co.uk) View the original article at: http://www.alternatetakes.co.uk/?2008,4,206

Gold Trumpet

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Re: There Will Be Blood: A Psychopathic Film? (Children With Angels)
« Reply #1 on: April 26, 2008, 04:06:20 PM »
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My problem with calling the film ‘epic’ is not a pedantic one of terminology: I can’t claim to be an expert on what does or doesn’t technically constitute an ‘epic’ work of art, and neither do the reviewers who have been bandying the word around. Rather, my objection stems from the connotations that I think the word is usually meant to convey - connotations that I think suggest a misunderstanding of what the film is trying to achieve. It seems to me (I speak as someone who has seen the movie five times and still feels slightly perplexed by it), that Blood is not first and foremost a film about a time and place (California in the late 19th/early 20th century), nor an allegorical film about themes or ideas (oil, religion, capitalism, greed) - two things that I believe are often implied by ‘epic’ in this context. Rather, I think it is primarily about the way in which one lone man sees the world, and I feel that its particular power, as well as its sometimes tantalising oddness, stem from this central fact.

If the film is not concerned with a time and place, then why does much of the film deal with oil business itself? The first half of the film is more about Daniel the businessman instead of Daniel "the lone man". The motives he does to take advantage of the Sundays and Little Boston has more to do with common tactics of trade back then than it does with his personal defeats. The film is actually very interesting for its account of how oil business men do their work. The film is actually pretty detailed about the business of oil in the 1900s.

 I think if you wanted a film that focused solely on Daniel the lone figure it would have discarded most of his business transgressions beforehand. It reminds me of the 1980s movie, Runaway Train. When Akira Kurosawa wrote the screenplay, he didn't have the huge prison break at the beginning. He figured he could introduce the action without it. There Will be Blood takes a very long time to introduce Daniel's search through his personal demons. If the film really is about his existence in isolation then a lot of the scenes were unnecessary.

Also, in an argument against me, you referenced the importance of the reunion scene with H.W. to show Daniel's ties with capitalism and power because the scene focused on the oil pipeline instead of focusing on how he embraces H.W. That is an analogy to his tie with capitalism is important which makes it a comment on greater ideas. His figure is somewhat the representation of an old time businessman.

The possible confusion surrounding this aspect of the story could have been very easily cleared up in a number of ways (the most obvious of which would be either to show the two in a scene together, or to have another character mention Paul), but the film intentionally decides against this. It is important, however, that this ambiguity is not overtly stressed as an epistemic gap by the narration, in the manner of ‘dual personality’ movies (a classic example would be Psycho [1960], a more recent one would be Fight Club [1999]): we do not feel that the film is trying to ‘fool’ us into one hypothesis before eventually turning the tables, and the final scene’s confirmation of their existence as twins does not feel to us like a twist. The fact that for most of the movie we simply lack the necessary knowledge to definitively resolve the ambiguity is instead merely indicative of the strangely narrow point of view that the film as a whole establishes.

There is almost no criteria at all to think dual personality has anything to do with the film. You clearly say how the film is unlike standard dual personality films, but you just bridge your arguments with the few mentions of Paul there is in the film. Eli is an unstable character, but Paul is such a non-presence in the film that his character can't be a symbol for anything. He really is just an illustration that the film mentions to help develop Eli Sunday's character. It's just to build a conflict within him.

Other films about dual personality with no easy cliches have been done. When Luis Bunuel did That Obscure Object of Desire, he had two actresses portray the same character. They came in at different moments during the main character's story. You could say both actresses represented different ideas of the main character's desires. You could also say they represented two personalities of sexuality within the character they portrayed. Either way they were meant to reflect some idea of a dual personality. Luis Bunuel just had no interest to explain himself. The point is that both actresses showed up continually through out the film. Paul Sunday makes just one apperance at the beginning. For the film to have any iorta of a dual personality context it has to make Paul Sunday a much more prominent character. A few mentions isn't worth any serious consideration.

In the end it just looks like what really happened: While making the film, PTA had cast Paul Dano as Paul Sunday and another actor as Eli Sunday. When the actor playing Eli was fired, Paul quickly filled in for him because it was conveniant to do so. Brothers look similar so they just made sure Paul and Eli had different hairstyles. They didn't make it into a worthwhile idea to look at beyond the story.

One further noticeable narrative absence relates to Plainview’s right-hand-man, Fletcher Hamilton. He appears in a number of scenes, usually on the periphery, and is clearly an important person for Plainview and his business (particularly in the 1911 portion of the film), yet we are allowed to glean very little about him, and indeed only hear his name once (in the Paul Sunday scene). There are moments when it seems that he has the potential to be a voice of conscience or sensitivity for the story that could contrast with Plainview’s (e.g.: in the oil-fire scene he enquires about H.W.’s wellbeing and seems momentarily shocked by Plainview’s apparent flippancy towards him; in the scene in which H.W. is being forcibly manhandled by a doctor he receives a close-up that shows him looking uncomfortable with what is going on; later, he is the one who makes sure H.W.’s living conditions in the deaf-school are acceptable), but these suggestions are allowed to exist merely as small hints, and are never developed.

I believe in almost all films there are minor characters. He is just a minor character. There are always instances where relatively unkown characters are given screen time to contribute facial reactions to poignant scenes. I certainly don't think his presence (or lack of presence) is worth a whole paragraph of description. You just described a normal phenemonen within all films. I doubt it builds much to a greater thesis.

This is in fact representative of the entire film, since - especially for such a large work - it invites us to get to know comparatively few of its characters, and does not take time to make Little Boston feel understandable as a place or a community. We find ourselves in different locations (the derrick, the church, Plainview’s shack, a restaurant, a dusty plain) with little sense of how they relate to one another geographically, or of how their inhabitants exist with one another socially. The congregation at Eli’s church, for example, are given so scant attention as to potentially appear like little more than a group of mindless drones. Were the film more concerned with making us understand its world - the relationships between its community, and its society more broadly - we might reasonably expect it to give us more insight into, not just Fletcher or Mary or Paul, but all of the aspects of the story that I have been highlighting as conspicuous silences, which finally add up to simply the social make-up of Little Boston itself.

I think the structure of There Will be Blood is based on the fact that only Daniel Plainview, H.W. Plainview and Eli Sunday are major characters. I don't believe there is much greatness with the fact that the film skimps on the characterization of most other characters. Daniel and Mary Sunday have some idea of a relationship, but her importance as a character rests mainly on her relationship with H.W. and his development to grow beyond Daniel. The importance of supporting characters is to help build up the environment, conflict, themes and characterization of the main characters. Highlighting their significance in specific terms of individuality isn't that important.

The supporting characters build up the fact Little Boston is a simplistic town of hiigh morals as it regards religious belief. Some epics are more thorough with their characterization and portraits of the environment and its characters, but other numerous epics are just as specific with focusing on fewer characters and fewer ideas of landscape and environment. For the story of There Will be Blood it is relevant to keep the portrait of Little Boston as narrow as it is. Going deeper into the town's story would take away from the focus on the main characters. It would make their story more irrelevant. I think most filmmakers would make the same decision as Paul Thomas Anderson does. 

The problems with Anderson's choices has to do with the decisions Anderson makes to limit the characterization of the two most important characters. I contribute H.W. as important as well, but his story is to support the development of Daniel into complete digression. If the supporting characters of Little Boston were more developed it would be to assist the development of Eli Sunday as a more interesting character.

I could go on, but by now it should be clear what I mean by the film’s lack of interest in making us understand its world in social terms. The next question, then, is what we make of this. It could be argued (and, indeed, has been in a trio of thoughtful blog posts on the film that I have read, by Zach Campbell, Dan Sallit, and Darren Hughes) that the film’s disinterest in such things can be seen as a limitation. Viewed negatively, we could see it either as simply incompetent storytelling (which I certainly don’t think it is), or as evidence of a short-sighted or blindly insensitive attitude on Anderson’s part towards the society he is depicting. The latter argument has the potential to be persuasive: I certainly don’t think that the film is first and foremost trying to be ‘political’ (i.e.: about the effects of capitalism and religion on society), and the attempts to understand it as such - as primarily a vague allegory of sorts - by critics, though seductive to a degree, have not been fully convincing. However, that the film consciously limits our view and understanding of its social world can be seen more positively if we view it as an entirely appropriate way of telling a story about its central character.

I think one of your main problems is that you assume that all critics of the film want There Will be Blood to exist as an entity that fits into certain barriers of recogniton. First you assumed I wanted the film to be a social comment film when I said that the film needed to take more recognition of its social climate. I don't at all. The film already takes some consideration of its social climate by making so many characters exist as funnels of the religious climate. I just wanted the film to take full consideration of all the characters who have social commentary residuals within them. While you may disagree, it is obvious to me that Daniel does. I consider it illogical to have Daniel make the assertions he does and not represent what historical realm he fits into. All the other characters do. The film can make clear, thoughtful assertions about the characters and still be ambigious about their actions, resolutions and overall meaning.

The film has areas all around it that give it ties to different types of films. Whether it is a history of the businessman in the early 1900s or a viewpoint of old Christianity, the film has so many loose ends that it isn't just about ambiguilty. It is about lack of recognition to make a competent structure for a film or find a tonal viewpoint.

Before it is concerned with anything else, There Will Be Blood is concerned with the strange, terrifying character of Daniel Plainview. Yet the film also feels oddly unlike a character study in the traditional sense, since we are seldom ever allowed any access to Plainview’s inner life - his past, his motivations, his desires, and so on. In this sense, the comparisons with Citizen Kane are actually more meaningful than they might at first appear. Like Kane, this is a film that is absolutely obsessed with its central character but which also provides barely any actual insight into that character, keeping him locked at its centre whilst allowing him to remain in many ways impenetrable. I would argue, however, that there is one very important sense in which the film does allow us to get to know Plainview, and that is through its narration: the way its story is told. I believe that the film is constructed in such a way as to make us view and feel its world in a comparable way to Plainview himself: in short, I would suggest that the film itself is borderline psychopathic.

Citizen Kane isn't a very good analogy. Yes, the basic ideas of how Kane's past is looked at without being explained is somewhat there with There Will be Blood, but Citizen Kane isn't good or famous because of that. The film is considered to be great because of its construction. It's famous because it puts into one film numerous examples of filmmaking techniques from all national cinemas over the period of film history. When Pauline Kael wrote her book on Citizen Kane in the 1970s, she specifically said that Kane himself as a character was a void. There was no answer to his character and all endeavours to look for it were hollow efforts. I remember she even said he wasn't a character. I believe that is why most comment about the film is about its technique and not its content.

There Will be Blood doesn't have a similar place. It doesn't mold the history of Westerns into one film. Doesn't even try to, but it does try to be fascinating on a level of content. Daniel Plainview is suppose to be a fascinating character, but comparing him to Charles Foster Kane I believe is false. Both have different make ups. I believe Daniel resembles Nosferatu and could be considered a humanistic version of that monster. Looking at There Will be Blood in the realm of mythic monsters in film and literary history could be more interesting.

All the elisions, absences, and silences that I have been identifying can be seen as operating within the same essentially anti-social impulses as Plainview’s character, as well as his hatred of depth - of sharing anything about himself. All are areas of the narrative that we might reasonably expect to be able to know and understand better than we are permitted to, and all relate to Daniel’s relationships with others, or to the lives of those around him (i.e.: the society he inhabits) - neither of which he has any desire to gain connection with or insight into. This is not exactly a question of our knowledge of and access to the film’s world being limited to the access and knowledge granted our main character in the manner of, say, Fight Club, whose narrative only works as it does because we are experiencing it almost exclusively through our protagonists’ consciousness. Rather, the narration instead simply reflects in some respects the psychology or personality of its main character.

I'm not sure how convinced I am that is an adaquate portrait of a character's isolation and disillusionment. First, half of your argument is based on words that the character says about himself. You build up the structure of the film by speaking about it's purposeful vagueness in key scenes as indicative of his isolation. You remind the reader that the film is scurried with different absenses and silences, but the main point of interest in describing Daniel is based on his own words of him spelling out his own feelings. It seems contrary to the point of the storytelling.

I already made the argument that a good portion of the film is of Daniel more as an oil businessman. Don't you think an oil businessman more interested in his own profit would also show similar tendencies that Daniel does? That person may not have the same look of venom in their face, but I very much doubt they would warm up to foreign values of religion that sincerely. I imagine they would put up a nice face and smile when told so but resent the town for any likely delays in the drilling of the oil. The fact that Daniel says the things about himself later that he does hate people separates him, but it's one of the very few actions that distinguishes the personal Daniel from the businessman. The film shouldn't be reliant on pieces of dialogue to distinguish the animosity he feels from his ability to glad hand local citizens. Relative to Eli Sunday, his viewpoint is personal, but most of the film is just about his business deals. It doesn't distinguish his deeper conflicts enough.

Also I believe a lot of your ideas about his isolation come from a default perspective. The film doesn't characterize his personal history much at all. But because it chooses to overlook certain standard characteristic viewpoints you believe it speaks to his personal isolation from everyone else. I do agree his isolation becomes a theme later on, but I don't believe it is a very interesting one for most of the film. Most of his dealings with the townsfolk are too business ordinary to be self reflective of him. You could say that reflects how business and capitalism has eaten up his soul, but I don't see that when all of the scenes are of him in matters of business. He wouldn't act any other way in those situations anyways. The film could speak more about his personal isolation if it decided to devote more study to his deeper conflicts from the outset, but it does not. The demons arise late into the movie and out of nowhere. References in his dialogue says there is a deeper history to it but not enough context is given for me to find it very thought provoking.

We can see a precedent for this in Anderson’s previous film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), a simultaneously sweet- and violent-natured film about a simultaneously sweet- and violent-natured man, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Two of the strangest narrational strategies of that film - the breaks into moments of beautiful, amorphous colour, and the occasionally cacophonous and strung-out percussion on its soundtrack - spoke of two aspects of Barry’s personality that he was having to continually repress: a romantic desire for escape, and a vexed and violent unhappiness. These elements of his personality were only allowed to occasionally erupt unfettered in Barry himself, but they were continually being communicated in the film’s own construction. So it is in Blood for Plainview, who has to repress his intense misanthropy and psychopathic tendencies in his daily dealings, and so, instead, we are made to experience them formally through the way the story is told.

Punch-Drunk Love represents an opposite extreme. First, the film is appropriately simple. It understands it is dealing with a film of limited character interest in Barry Egan. It doesn't have an large perspective dealing with numerous characters who represents numerous angles of a story or environment. The pure scope of There Will be Blood with the numerous references to different ideologies and past histories means for a film of great endevaour with care to all interests. There Will be Blood wants to be about a lot of things, but skirts the issues on many subjects. In Punch Drunk Love we get a simple film about one character's viewpoint of a situation. There is little to interpret about other characters because their perspectives are from Barry's point of view and have more to do with telling his struggle.

In that film we also get an idea of the dual personality within Barry Egan from the beginning. There isn't a focus of him of anything but the character who is dealing with his specific character flaws. Daniel Plainview is open for interpretation before the film finally settles on his problem toward the end. With Barry Egan we understand the track of his story will be told on a certain rythm level. The film is understanding about how much of Barry Egan will be gaged so it finds the best way to do so. There Will be Blood would have been better if the story was simplified a lot more and told from a more understanding angle of Daniel.

This motif - members of a society that Plainview is unconcerned with in a particular instance being held pointedly out-of-focus in the frame behind him - in fact recurs throughout the film. It happens for children in the following scene, in which Daniel sits with a married couple at a table in the bottom-right foreground (he is convincing them to let him drill their land), while their blurred children play on the floor in the top-left background. Slightly later it happens for women, when he arrives at the Sunday Ranch for the first time and conducts a conversation with Abel (essentially a precursor to another business meeting), the two of them standing on either side of the foreground while the Sunday women (Abel’s wife and two daughters) look on, out of focus in the very centre of the frame in the background. (We might also think, in this respect, of the moment when the Sunday family’s women are forced to skulk away after dinner so that the men can talk business that will dictate their futures privately.) Women and sexuality are very noticeably reduced again to background blur and sound in the brothel scene. This pointed marginalizing happens again, for Plainview's co-workers, in the scene in which he beats Eli in the oily mud: as he slaps and forces mud into Eli’s mouth on the bottom-left foreground, two of his colleagues stand by, blurred in the top-right background, watching; we can only imagine what they must be thinking about this display. All these moments not only continue to communicate the pathologically narrow point of view of the film, but also allow us to notice what is being excluded from this view. Anderson’s favoured technique of tracking the camera in slowly on his scenes as they progress - which he does a great many times in this film - also speaks of this: constantly closing in, constantly narrowing the focus, continually excluding the outside world. I would argue that this is something that the film as a whole achieves: a constricting, claustrophobic view of its world that simultaneously lets us recognise it as being a constricting, claustrophobic, and - ultimately - hugely harmful view of the world, and of social relations.

Constructing a feeling of claustophobia is overrated when dealing with an epic. With an epic you have numerous objectives to deal with. The construction of the film has more to do with overall presentation then it does with the angles a filmmaker chooses in presenting the story. Of course you do believe the film makes the right content and technique choices, but I believe the glarring content mistakes keeps any good filmmaking choices from rising to the top. I also believe focusing on the camera angles makes for over interpretation of the content level. In the paragraph beforehand, you describe a scene where Daniel is dealing with townsfolk and walks out on a meeting. You make allusions to him being appalled by the arguing at the meeting. Maybe so, but the businessman in him could have seen it as a worthless venture. The film doesn't really distinguish if he was really appalled or just realized there were better ventures to move onto. Interpreting standard business scenes from the camera angles is probably looking too much into what is just a lot of standard scenes.

The camera angles and feeling of claustophobia would have mattered more if the film was more simplistic. The presentation of the scenes would have been more important because the film would have found a way to present the story where the perspective was totally simple. In the film Keane the entire importance of the film is bridged on the relationship of camera angles to the main actor. It describes everything. In There Will be Blood you have a story of such huge size that it takes on numerous levels of interpretations. You highlight the loose ends as keeping the film from easy interpretation, but the film would have been better if it took on what Punch Drunk Love did. The loose ends aren't just compliments of a unique structure but opportunities to see inconsistencies with the storytelling. I don't believe in the Nashville phenemonem where a film of large unique structure should remain descriptionless because of its sheer size. There Will be Blood has holes for interpretation where the argument can be made against what the film chose to do.



 

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