Monday, May 26, 2008

Drainage: "There Will Be Blood," Revisited

I had another viewing of "There Will Be Blood" this evening, and I have to tell you, either I am going completely crazy, seeing things that don't exist, pulling tragic pieces of evidence out of the thin, smoky air--or, there's something going on in this script besides oil, greed, and the Bible. There's something big and deep, and it's hardly palpable enough to grab onto.

Why do I say all this? I don't know. Every since I saw this movie, it has haunted me. My lack of understanding and yet desperation toward knowledge, toward meaning. It haunts me the same way "The Waste Land" haunted my English 507 lecturer. She'd pain, she'd toil, and she'd beg us for answers. It was stupid, of course, because she was the one with all the answers, but she was so desperate that she began turning to her students for just a drop of understanding. We all wrote papers, and we all tried. But, of course, an undergrad's paper on HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME isn't going to carry any real relevance. It may gesture to something that, in its purest state of being, holds the meaning of everything--in the poem, in the world, in the universe, in time, everything. The name of God, even. But these types of things cannot be refined enough. They can't be made into something hard that we can see and touch. It's almost as if T.S. Eliot was in touch with something golden, something completely disarming. Srsly. This is how I feel about Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood." I'm not a PhD trying to milk anything from anyone. According to most people, film students in particular, I don't know dick about film. Fair enough. A Family Video/Sundance 608 education can only take you so far. But I do feel that there's something that lives inside "There Will Be Blood," and it's something that cannot be distilled into an essay. I won't attempt to solve the story, to so much as pretend that I have any real inkling of what's going on here. I can only ask questions and pose astronomically ridiculous theories, and I have to get them out in writing somewhere. So here goes.

FYI, this column contains SPOILERS. If this concerns you, I suggest you see the film and then read my weirdo interpretations. There's nothing worse than a spoiled milkshake.

QUESTION: Is Eli Sunday real?
-Everybody else seems to think so. Sometimes, I do, too. I can't, however, abandon the idea that Eli Sunday is not real. That he is, in fact, some strange manifestation, an imprint of Daniel Plainview's past, of a self that Daniel used to know but now blames for the damage in his current life. Eli rarely appears in a scene without Daniel. Even the church scenes involve Daniel to some extent, and Eli's only scene without Daniel is the scene in which he attacks his father at the dinner table. Eli's outburst is strange, but it does seem to resemble one of Daniel's earlier outbursts...on Eli. Both Daniel and Eli shove their victims to the ground and focus their energy on that victim's face. It could be a coincidence, but I can't accept that. Similarly, both Eli and Daniel receive baptisms during the film. Daniel is baptized by Eli in the Church of the Third Revelation. Eli is "baptized" by Daniel after asking about the $5,000 he is owed--his face thrown into the dirt as Daniel promises to "bury [him] in the ground"--rather than, perhaps, to raise him up to the Lord. Anyway, I have a lot of difficulty organizing my thoughts on this theory. Mostly, it's still a work in progress.

QUESTION: Is Daniel Plainview the devil?
-A lot of people have been throwing around Biblical interpretations of "There Will Be Blood," in many cases, as if it's a regular Jesus allegory, complete with magical lion or street-crossing turtle. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea. Many folks have become preoccupied with the name of Eli's church. They've also become obsessed with Eli as the false prophet, Paul as the real prophet, whether or not Paul exists, and whether or not Eli is (??I don't get this??) the father of illegitimate daughter Mary, and that this sin is somehow responsible for his crazy repent in the end (right before he gets bludgeoned). I, however, choose to focus on a seemingly cliche argument in the way of Biblical interpretations. It is not, cliche, however. Hear me out. Daniel is the devil, though not in the traditional sense. He is not the fiery, red-tailed demon, the one that masquerades as a snake or slips through your lips in the form of a lie. He's not Milton's Lucifer either, but rather, he's a new variety of super villain. He is the devil in the sense of Oil Man--tall, gritty, dripping black goop from every pore. His strengths? Cunning, knowledge, manipulation. His weaknesses? Envy, greed, women, an inability to trust. His face is like leather. His hands are stained black. He limps through the night like a broken scarecrow. He sleeps on the floor, and he sleeps hard.

In the Stephen King short story "The Man in the Black Suit," a young boy is met with the devil while fishing in the woods. The devil is described as a tall man dressed in a black suit. The man has a large mouth, bad breath, eats a fish raw, and he says terrible things. He tells the young boy that his mother is dead and that he is going to eat him. Later in the story, the devil chases the boy out of the woods and all the way home. I could not help but think of this story during the ending scene of "There Will Be Blood." When Daniel tells Eli that he is just an "afterbirth," that he "slithered out of [his] mother's filth." When Daniel says, "I told you I would eat you," while chasing Eli around the bowling alley. The way he's gnawing into a piece of meat while Eli confesses out loud, "I am a false prophet. God is a superstition"--this all makes me think of the devil in King's O. Henry winning story. The chase, the eating, the horrible propositions. This linked to Daniel's greed, his insatiable envy, his disdain for the human race. His limp, his snare. I believe he is the devil.

QUESTION: Why is Daniel's past left a mystery?
-Whenever presented with a character, especially one as complex as Daniel Plainview, it is not only important to question that character's present motives, but also those motives derived from the past. But what is Daniel Plainview's past? We learn very little about him. We know that he was born in Fon du Lac, WI, that he had one sister and, perhaps, a half-brother. We know his parents are dead, that he lived on a farm, and that there was a house near the place he lived that he very much loved at the time. We know that now, to see that beautiful house again would make him sick, but we don't know why. We see Daniel's sympathy toward the Sunday daughter Mary, the way he reacts when H.W. tell him that Mary's father beats her if she forgets to pray, but we don't know why. We assume that Daniel is unmarried, but we don't know, and we don't know if he's ever been married. We assume he's never had any children of his own, but we don't know. We do know that he adopted H.W., and most of the time, it seems that he did so only to create the illusion of a family business, but aren't there moments that suggest that, somehow, Daniel did love H.W.? Flashback scenes especially, those shown near the end after Daniel reduces H.W. to the "b*stard from a basket." We usually cannot tell, however, whether Daniel's love for H.W. is actually love, or if it is a desperation for that family business--the one that cannot exist without an actual family, the one that has made so much money on oil. In any event, Daniel Plainview's past is left mostly a mystery. Any time he is questioned, he responds "I don't want to talk about those things," or he creates a hasty subject change. He manages this by commanding every situation he takes part in. This must mean something, though, about his past. What causes him to avoid talking about himself? What is the cause of his perpetual state of distrust? Of his sympathy toward Mary Sunday? His need for a family member? His seeming sexlessness? The greed? The envy? Most movies would, of course, reveal these things to us in the form of intermittent flashback, or, perhaps, all in one ending reveal. Paul Thomas Anderson, however, has chosen to leave these things unanswered, and this dangling ambiguity, this blurred imperfection, is one of the things I love most about "There Will Be Blood." The story seems to thrive on letting its audience wonder. Not all audience members will choose to wonder. Not all of them will understand that they have to wonder in order for the movie to come together. It is in this instance that "There Will Be Blood" could be called everything from 'disorganized' to 'blatantly pretentious.' I think, however, that it is more a mystery than anything. It's more mystery than it is Bible talk. More mystery than it is Capitalism. More mystery than period drama, than character sketch, than anything. It's the mystery of Daniel Plainview, because he goes crazy, he commits murder, he says and does terrible things--but we have no idea why.

QUESTION: Did any of this really happen?
-It's the age-old enigma. It was all a dream! Seriously, though. I think that, if "There Will Be Blood" is the case, it would be okay, since we never actually find out that it was all a dream, that it is left painstakingly ambiguous, and that the only people who truly think that it's a possibility are me and maybe a couple of other weirdos like me that are just looking for a way out of this ceaseless state of PERPLEXED. Think about it. You don't have to agree with me, because you'll probably think I'm crazy, but at least let this insane idea skim the surface of your ability to analyze.

Those first few scenes. The horror movie-esque drone from the orchestra, that red-hot view of those hellish mountains. And then we see Daniel Plainview, silver-miner, geologist, hacking away, all alone, countless feet below the ground. He finds a rock. He spits on it. He loses his tools to an explosion. He falls off the ladder, into the mine. Blackness.

This blackness is so strange to me. It's different than any other moment in the entire film. When the picture comes back, we're met with Daniel, flat on his back, gasping for air, at the bottom of the mine. My question for you is: Could it be possible that everything that happens FROM THAT MOMENT ON happens only in the mind of Daniel Plainview? Is it possible that Daniel does not survive the fall, that he's broken his back, and that what happens next is a mere glimpse into what could have been? A dream tainted with the plight of his past--his broken faith, his nonexistent family, a lack of women, impostors left and right, and, this brings me back to my first question in this column, Eli Sunday--a projection of his former self, all the things that have gone wrong so far condensed into that severe, human manifestation that comes just before death. I notice all of these things due to the prevalence of parallelism throughout the movie: paralleled phrases, actions, events. Toward the end, Eli shouts, "Daniel Plainview, your house is on fire!"--mirroring the actually house fire started by H.W. nearly thirty years earlier. Daniel repeats the phrase, "Three wells producing. Five thousand dollars a week," in the end, while talking about Paul. He described himself with that same phrase earlier in the film, while talking to prospective sellers. Both he and Eli experience their own 'baptism:' Eli's in the mud, Daniel's in the church. The only scene in the film that ever escapes the command of Daniel is the scene in the Sunday home when Eli attacks his father, accusing him of letting Daniel take over their family--a scene commanded by Eli and yet, somehow, owing all of its furor to the sadistic Mr. Plainview. Similarly, there are multiple moments in the movie in which Daniel, even when surrounded by other people, seems completely alone. When he attacks Eli after being confronted about the missing church donation, the men standing around the scene do nothing. At one point, a phantom voice says Daniel's name, but that is all. It's almost as if they are merely the backdrop of a dream, and they have no lives or feelings outside of the scenes Daniel has set in place for them. Also, in the very last scene, the scene where he kills Eli, the butler comes downstairs with a particular calm about him. Even after seeing Daniel hunched there, beside the splattered brains of Eli Sunday, he says only, "Mr. Daniel?" to which Daniel replies, "I'm finished." One of the greatest last lines ever. Because maybe, just maybe, he is finished. This is the end of a long battle with himself, those last burgeoning moments before death when your life flashes before your eyes, and you're made to question everything you've ever done and said and stood for. And upon murdering Eli, some means is brought to a hostile end. And how are we to know? Who are we to question what happens right before you die? And with that end comes another quick cut to the black screen, a jovial jaunt on the violin, and the same four words that anchored us into this mess, "THERE WILL BE BLOOD."

To conclude this crazy array, I just want to mention something I read recently. Right now, I'm reading a book by one of the strangest, smartest writers I've ever read. His name is Haruki Murakami, and the book in question is filled with the ominous and the unexplained. Even more so, however, it is filled with some very intelligent musings. One of those musings is this: "Works that have a certain imperfection to them have an appeal...There's something in it that draws you in...You discover something about that work that tugs at your heart--or maybe we should say the work discovers you." This is the way I feel about "There Will Be Blood." All of these things, these bewitching elements of the unknown, the missing links in the final pattern, these are what make the movie great. Besides the fact that it's a beautiful period drama with an excellent leading man, and that it won Oscars and will be remembered for years to come--it's the imperfections in "There Will Be Blood" that cause us so much wonder. It's the questions with no answers that keep us searching, and it's a piece that keeps us searching that gives reason for applause.

Anyway, I want your theories. If you're reading this, and you've seen this movie, I know you have theories of your own. Please share. In the meantime, I drink your milkshake. Slurp. I drink it up.


Gomez said...

This was really interesting. I never thought about the blackness in the first scene but that seems entirely plausible to me. Rather than offering any of my own solutions (I have none, at this point anyway) I'll instead bring up another thing that's gnawed at me since I saw it: what does the title mean? It doesn't seem clearly relevant to the story, so why did P.T.A. choose it? The construction "there will be" implies future tense, of course, which confounds me. WHEN is there going to be blood? After Daniel transforms into the devilish character he becomes at the beginning of the film? After the two near-supernatural personalities of Daniel and Eli meet? Inevitably, in every human life? Quite simply, when you go to the theater to see it or pop in the DVD? The possibilities are endless and fascinating, like the other examples you gave.

Kameron D Kiggins said...

Wow, what a great review!

More than any other movie, the lingering hauntedness TWBB reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The messages are profound and mysterious (in the mystery religions sense of "mystery"), but trying to "understand" it makes my head spin.