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“A masterpiece.” “The sort of movie for which directors become immortalized.” So goes the praise for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. It is not all hype. Anderson has quite unexpectedly produced an American epic that can be compared to Citizen Kane. Nothing in Anderson’s previous films—worthy, but limited by their homage to other directors—suggested his ability to create a film of such scope and ambition.
Anderson’s professional training was minimal. He grew up in San Fernando Valley and got thrown out of high school for fighting and bad grades. He supposedly made it through preparatory school, did two semesters in Boston at Emerson, and then, as legend has it, lasted two days at N.Y.U.’s film school. Instead of formal education, Anderson comes out of the Quentin Tarantino school of contemporary filmmakers. Like Tarantino, who is a friend, Anderson spent most of his early years consuming films on video, a technology that allowed the budding filmmaker access to a diverse selection of material from which to learn his craft.
Anderson was one of seven children. His father, Ernie Anderson, was a television and radio announcer who hosted the late night horror movies on Cleveland television as the character “Ghoulardi,” and later became the voice of the American Broadcasting Company. P.T. eventually named his film company Ghoulardi. Whether in tribute or irony, it speaks to his preoccupation with his father, as do his films.
Like legions of adolescents, Anderson was primarily interested in sex and so he started refining and sublimating that raw material and turning it into film. He became fascinated with John Holmes, the well-endowed porn star of the 70s and 80s. Anderson’s first amateur film—made on video—was Dirk Diggler, a mockudrama version of the Holmes era. It did not launch his career.
With no film school credentials, Anderson took any job he could in television and film production, and set to work in the old-fashioned way as an apprentice. He soon got his foot in the door at Sundance, and with help there put together a short film in five vignettes called Cigarettes and Coffee (not to be confused with Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes). The short would evolve into his first feature, Hard Eight, in 1996, a film noir about his other adolescent obsession: gambling.
As many other critics have pointed out, the theme of fathers and sons is prominent in Anderson’s screenplays, beginning with Hard Eight. A professional gambler, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), is a surrogate father to an aimless young man (John C. Reilly) whom he teaches the gambling ropes in Vegas and Reno. Sydney, a man with a troubled past, is seeking redemption as a caring father.
Unlike Tarantino who found his own directorial style early on, it is difficult to say in Anderson’s early films where homage stops and outright plagiarism begins. Critics had a field day identifying his influences, including Jean-Pierre Melville as well as Tarantino. The stylized dialogue seemed straight out of David Mamet. Still, Anderson was clearly a filmmaker worth watching, and his characters, unlike Tarantino’s, were real people.
In 1997, Anderson returned to the subject of sex (and the John Holmes era). In Boogie Nights, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is the surrogate father figure who spots young Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), discovers the busboy’s hidden talent, and turns him into a porn star. Though derivative of Robert Altman’s style, the movie convincingly portrays the lives of vulnerable human beings. Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore earned Oscar nominations; it may have been his best performance and the role that made her a star. The young Anderson was nominated for best screenplay, and Boogie Nights became a cult film. At age 27, Anderson was a player in Hollywood, and if he lacked a distinct directorial style, he was nonetheless a talented screenwriter with a natural gift for casting and working with actors.
Two years later his film Magnolia would garner him three more Oscar nominations, including, again, best screenplay. This quirky and intriguing film (in its penultimate scene frogs rain down from heaven like a biblical plague) involves several father/son plots woven together, all of them about fathers who fail or exploit their sons. (There is also a father called to account for having molested his daughter.) One father has a genius son, a game show whiz who wins a lot of money. Instead of being a proud and loving parent, the father sees only money and pushes the troubled boy beyond endurance.
The most powerful of the psychologically freighted relationships in Magnolia is played out in a confrontation between a dying and repentant father, Earl (Jason Robards) and Frank (Tom Cruise), the son who hates him. When Frank was fourteen Earl abandoned his family to marry a younger woman, even though his wife was stricken with cancer. The son who had to cope with his mother’s suffering and death has dealt with his grief and resentment by denying all feelings of love and sentiment in life and cutting off all ties with his father, his family identity, and his past. He has reinvented himself as a successful motivational speaker, teaching other men how to get sex from women. We watch him deliver his message in a workshop: a distillate of misogyny, cynicism, and manipulation that he translates into the male power to get what men—and the mighty phallus—deserve. Ranting and raving in this role, Cruise gives us a glimpse of madness—and earned an Oscar nomination.
But it’s Anderson’s insight into father/son psychology that is extraordinary. When called to his father’s death bed, Frank refuses to forgive him. He cannot and will not stop hating his father, but he does not want him to die. In the conflicts that take place in the minds of sons, the wish to kill the father is sustained by the fantasy that he is indestructible.
Magnolia, set in San Fernando Valley, as were Anderson’s other films, is punctuated with the recurrent obscenities that pass as authentic discourse in contemporary American films. With its rain of frogs, and over-the-top moments, the film is “absurd” and “fabulous,” yet it says something of substance about the human condition. Still, though, its style is entirely reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts. Altman was apparently quite flattered, and in real life the role-model father and son became friends.
With Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Anderson took a different turn. The film features Adam Sandler and the talented British actress Emily Watson in an off-beat romantic comedy. Though a box office–failure, it was a critical success, earning Anderson Best Director at Cannes.
For several years Anderson put his own career on hold to help the ailing Altman. Altman had teamed up with Garrison Keillor to make the long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, into a movie. But Altman had just had a heart transplant and no bond company was willing to protect the investors against Altman’s death and an unfinished film. Anderson generously agreed to be the stand-in director and submerged his own ego in Altman’s project—the sort of sacrifice a loving son might make for a dying father. Exactly what role Anderson played in making the film may never be known, but it is clear that Altman needed Anderson’s help. The result may not have been one of Altman’s greatest works, but the surrogate son allowed the father to do what he most wanted—work until he died.
Perhaps Anderson’s act of generosity helped him enlarge his moral and creative horizons. But this is long-distance psychoanalytic speculation. More importantly, Anderson is a self-taught psychologist, whose insights into the human condition are everywhere in his films. Yet, none of what I have described or could see in these first four films led me to expect what he accomplished in There Will Be Blood.
If one reads Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, and sees what Anderson has made of it, the extent of his creative achievement is stunning. Although the screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, what he has written is almost entirely original.
Sinclair is best known for his novel, The Jungle (1906), a muckraker, as Teddy Roosevelt, one of his political enemies, christened it. That novel exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry in Chicago, and is credited with forcing the federal government to create the Food and Drug Administration. Sinclair was a Marxist and a politician who ran unsuccessfully for Senator and then Governor of California, first on the Socialist ticket, and then as a Democrat. Oil! is about the development of that industry in Southern California, but is also a potboiler that encompasses Sinclair’s political agenda. It touches on American leftists’ hopes for the Soviet Union and the apparent divide between young people attracted to communism and to religion as balms for a troubled world. It is about extravagant wealth and grinding poverty, and about Hollywood. And “oil” is about capitalism: “the black and cruel demon . . . luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor.”
The particular capitalist of the Sinclair novel, J.A. Ross, is indeed an exploiter of labor. But he is also an endearing man, a doting father who wants his lovable son to have all of the opportunities he did not so the boy will not make the same mistakes. The beloved son, “Bunny,” is the main protagonist whose pure heart and mind lead him away from his doting dad to communism, good works, and a Jewish wife. But father and son never stop loving each other, even as, in old age, dad turns to séances and Bunny to political activism.
In Anderson’s rewriting, the benevolent father becomes the archetypal American self-made man, Daniel Plainview, who will work his way from the bottom of the heap to the top by brute force and indomitable will. Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview gives one of the greatest performances in film history and was justifiably rewarded with the Oscar for best actor. As he remarked to the audience in his acceptance speech, working with Anderson had made him think a lot about fathers and sons.
Anderson leaves behind the San Fernando Valley and pop culture and ventures into a wilderness of barren flat-topped mountains. The first scenes of There Will Be Blood are almost wordless and bring to mind the great D.W. Griffith silent films. The loud, eerie music that opens the movie first sounds like background music from a horror film, but becomes the howl of that forbidding landscape. Composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, the extraordinary music overcomes the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sound: the former originates in the scene being filmed, the latter, like background music, comes from outside the frame. Greenwood’s music seems to move inside the frame and give life to the landscape the way a Van Gogh painting does. Greenwood’s sound is part of the genius of There Will Be Blood.
And the cinematography opens a door on a world we seem to be seeing for the first time. In the first scene the flat-topped mountains seem to screech as they tilt forward toward us. The camera shows us the figure of Plainview deep in a hole in the ground. We hear his heavy breathing and the sounds of his steel pick ax against unyielding stone. We know nothing of the man except his brute physical strength and his almost desperate determination. It is 1898, and we eventually realize he is a lone prospector looking for silver; this is his mine. We watch as he puts a stick of dynamite in the crevice he has arduously carved, loads his tools into a bucket suspended from a pulley, and lights the fuse. We worry if he will make it out in time. Anderson works that tension as Plainview emerges from the hole but is unable to pull out his bucket of precious tools before the explosion. As Plainview hurries back down his homemade ladder a strut gives way. He falls to the bottom, breaking a leg and losing consciousness.
A weaker man would have died there, his mine becoming his lonely tomb. But as Plainview comes to, groaning in agony, he checks the rock loosened by the explosion and spots the glint of silver. He puts the chunk inside his shirt and begins the impossible task of pulling himself out using only the rope and pulley. After a superhuman effort the camera shows Plainview lying on his back, pushing himself along the ground with his one good leg. Finally, we see him, still on his back, as the ore is melted down and the silver assayed. We have learned everything about his will but nothing about what drives it. Anderson shows us only what the camera sees: the protagonist is always in “plainview,” and yet psychologically opaque.
We do know that this is not Sinclair’s paunchy capitalist, using his money to exploit other people’s labor. This Plainview is dirt poor, investing his own animal strength and risking his life for his hard-earned reward. The scenes that follow are still almost entirely without words. Plainview has a larger enterprise, drilling for oil with other men, but he, too, is in the muck at the bottom of the hole working harder than anyone else, fighting the volatile fumes. And they do strike oil. One of the men seems to be caring for his baby son, and is killed working in the mine. We watch as Plainview, although keeping his distance from the infant, tries to care for it. None of this is in Sinclair’s novel. Is he caring for the child out of a sense of duty to the father? Is he capable of human attachment? Is this brute of a man another version of Anderson’s benevolent surrogate father who will redeem himself by finding a son to love? Anderson refuses to tell us.
In the next scene years have passed. Plainview, a modestly successful oil man, looks for more land to drill; the erstwhile baby is a preadolescent boy and is introduced as H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), partner in the family business. The previously silent Plainview is all talk. In one scene taken almost word-for-word from the novel, he begins, “Ladies and gentlemen, I traveled jist over half our state to get here this evenin’.” In Sinclair’s novel, Ross is described as part “banker,” “general,” and “bishop,” impressing and cajoling his fractious audience of squabbling land owners for their own good. But, while Plainview may mimic Ross in speech, they are very different men. Plainview is the raw-boned, self-made, no nonsense oil man who lays out the deal, one clearly to his advantage— they can take it or leave it. When they start to argue he leaves. He will not negotiate. It is a defining moment: Plainview must have total control, in work, in life, and with all other human beings he encounters.
But he is not satisfied with merely controlling other people. He must dominate them and revenge every slight. When the first great gusher comes rumbling up from the ground like a locomotive and catches fire in the night, it is a vision of Hell; Plainview’s face, aglow in the flames and smeared with the crude black oil, is the specter of Satan. The character of Plainview revealed to us is not about greed and capitalism, but rather power and hatred.
What about his son? Did Plainview ever love him? This is the red thread in Anderson’s tapestry. In the penultimate sequence of this epic, H.W., a grown man who ostensibly loves his father, tells him that he has decided to go out on his own. Plainview explodes into a towering rage at H.W’s. show of independence. He says H.W. will be his “competitor” and, apparently for the first time, tells H.W. that he is not his son, that H.W. is an orphan whom Plainview found in the desert, that he needed the child’s pretty face to buy land, that the boy was a “bastard in a basket.” He repeats the phrase louder and louder until H.W. leaves him alone in the mansion.
Plainview’s bitter truth, which only his burning hatred keeps him from seeing, is that there is no one in the world who has anything of him in them, so there will be no posterity in this world or redemption in the next. But that bitter truth itself is premised on a belief in the possibility of posterity and redemption that Anderson does not leave unchallenged. There is a final confrontation between Plainview and the creepy minister Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who forced him into a humiliating repentance and baptism in order to obtain a plot of land crucial in amassing his fortune. Eli now needs money and, to get it, Plainview insists that the minister say over and over again that he is a false prophet, and that God is a superstition. This is a scene that will offend many Americans: a minister wearing an ornate cross, denying God and doing it for money. But even that is not enough for Plainview. Swollen with rage, he beats Eli to death. It is an ending with no resolution. That is its power.
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