There Will Be a Nation

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, pointed toward a mythological “birth” of the United States, suggesting that its origins stem from the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. Through sophisticated cinematic techniques (for their day), and a healthy dose of racist imagery, Griffith created a creation story for a nation that was just stepping onto the global scene. Now, almost a century later in There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson updates the creation story of the United States as we know it today, focusing on the twin births, in the late nineteenth-century, of petroleum extraction and a peculiar form of revivalist, charismatic Christianity.

Anderson’s film, which he directed and wrote for the screen (it’s very loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!) is a morality tale, suggesting how the pursuit of oil, and resulting riches, corrupts the human psyche. Environmental Studies scholar Brian Black has written extensively on the impact of petroleum production and consumption on American national character and discusses the psychological and often damaging lure of oil in terms of an “ethic of extraction.” The extraction of oil radically reshaped the US economy, and when the extraction is coupled with a laissez-faire legal system, the modes of extraction affected environmental, technological, and social systems from Pennsylvania to Texas to California. In Blood, we see this as Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is transformed from a shrewd, hardworking silver prospector into a crazed, drunken, and despicable older man who seems to have made his wealth through diabolical dealings in his crude lust for crude oil. Several reviewers of the film have suggested that Daniel was morally suspect from the start, and that his “son,” H.W. (Dillon Freasier) was simply a prop for Daniel’s ambitions. But such a view grossly misses the subtle affections Daniel displays for H.W. throughout the film, at least until the end. In fact, the film goes out of its way to portray Daniel’s fatherly affections through tender touches and playful exchanges. Yet, as his success mounts, so does he lose his ability to connect meaningfully with H.W.—or with anyone else.

Other Anderson films, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), operate like Robert Altman’s (to whom this film is dedicated), offering ensemble casts with multiple characters’ lives interwoven. Blood, in contrast, condenses the multiple characters into one key figure, thereby linking the film with other great classics such as Giant (1956) and Citizen Kane (1941). (That much of Blood was filmed in the same area as Giant (Marfa, TX) but supposedly takes place not far from Hearst Castle is curious.) Daniel Day-Lewis here carries the acting weight of several persons, with Paul Dano as the younger charismatic preacher, Eli Sunday, giving a strong performance as well. This strategy emphasizes the self-made men that Plainview and Sunday appear to be. Naked ambition drives the oil man and preacher man alike, making commerce and religion mere products of showmanship.

But for all that, this film is ultimately not about individual morality. Or, rather, just like traditional religion itself, personal ethics are grounded within larger social myths. Blood cautions against individual greed, yet it also subtly tells a tale of the United States as it became a world player at the dawn of the twentieth century, and it prophetically anticipates a nation enamored by the lust for oil and religion. In spite of all the deeply solitary, even lonely, moments of the film, Blood is—mythologically speaking—about and to a nation.

Just give me the blood, Eli

The great mythological film Star Wars unabashedly borrows mythical language in its famous prologue: “A long time ago…” Yet, a strange sense of a “past” is invoked for a film about laser-shooting, light speed-driving spaceships. Like all good stories, myths begin by telling the time and space in which the forthcoming action will take place. With myths, however, original settings tend toward ambiguity: “In the beginning” sets a time, but what kind of time is it? When, exactly, is “the beginning”?

While an inter-title during the opening minutes of Blood suggests the year is 1898, a definite historical time, the viewer is quickly thrown off by two additional bits of information. First, the date, like the title of the film itself, is scripted in a Gothic typeface, an antiquated script that was no less in use in the late nineteenth century (at least, outside Germany) than today, evoking a King James Bible-like tone. Second is the searing, ominous music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood’s score is brilliant, borrowing much from contemporary avant-garde/classical groups like the Kronos Quartet (who use all classical instruments in imaginative new ways) and Alloy Orchestra (a contemporary group using any and everything possible to recreate sounds for early silent films). In other words, the soundtrack provides at least a late twentieth-century sound, yet is reproduced by instruments available earlier in the century, and thus could have been a possible sound at the time the film takes place. (The exception is the ondes martenot, an early electronic synthesizer developed in 1928, one year after the film ends.) Time-space discrepancies continue through the film’s sights and sounds, culminating in the final devastating shot of the film, as Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major strikes up over a surreal scene.

The 1898 setting also seems odd since what occurs at this time are simply shots of a man in a mine looking for silver. The first fifteen minutes of nonverbal action could easily have been 1875 or 1910 (Sinclair’s book itself begins in 1912). Yet 1898 is crucial in US history as the year of the Spanish-American war—a war that many historians understand to mark the beginnings of US global power. In that war, the United States defeated one of the dominant earthly powers to date, taking, in the process, its first colonies, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. In other words, this was the first US war of intervention and charts the beginning of the nation’s colonization and rise to global power. Couple this with the late nineteenth-century theo-political belief in Manifest Destiny (evoked in Daniel Plainview’s move to California, with a telling scene overlooking the Pacific Ocean—the end of the continent is reached), the economics of oil production (Standard Oil’s monopoly over train systems and multinational operations; see Ida Tarbell’s work), and the dawn of contemporary Charismatic Christianity (see the Los Angeles Azusa Street revival, 1906-1915, and great evangelical preacher Billy Sunday, who must have served as namesake for Eli), and we’re left with a multifaceted story that goes well beyond “history.”

Blood posits intriguing parallels with creation myths as worlds emerge from, and remain in contrast to, chaos. Throughout world religious history, creation myths often tell of the chaos that exists at the origins of the world, generally related through things that are underground, and often times by evoking water (Gen. 1:1-2, for example, relates the “formless void” to “the deep” and ultimately to “the waters”). In the beginning of Blood we find a claustrophobic cosmology, with a yet unnamed Daniel digging deep in a dark well for silver. A few years later he is digging again, and this time stumbles on oil. As the film progresses, Daniel becomes something of a demiurge, imposing cosmic order on the chaotic reserves of oil lying beneath the California landscape.

Oil, sacred substance that it is here, and that it has become to the United States, has the power to bless and curse. It may not mix with water, but it mixes easy enough with blood. Blood and oil are extracted from their respective containers and merge, as liquids are transposed throughout the film. A central scene is Daniel’s water baptism at the hands of Eli. As water is about to be poured over his head, Eli yells “Do you want the blood?!” to which Daniel calmly says, “Just give me the blood, Eli.” The scene reverses an earlier one in which Daniel performs a “baptism” of Eli, throwing him to the ground and smearing his face with oil. And at the very beginning of the film, as H.W.’s father dies and Daniel takes the baby H.W. in, he marks his forehead with oil, as if he is a Hindu goddess, or penitent on Ash Wednesday. Blood becomes water, water becomes oil, oil becomes blood, blood becomes oil.

Ultimately, what this film gets at through its mythological guises is the role of brothers/twins in the foundations of worlds. And like many prominent myths of old, this one is deeply masculinist, relying on homosocial and familial bonds: Fathers sacrificing sons, brothers out for revenge, and men in general trying to subdue each other. Twins and brothers, false and true, shadows and doppelgangers, are spread across the world’s myths: Jacob and Esau, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Heracles and Iphicles, Romulus and Remus, Thomas and Jesus. That Paul Dano plays both Paul and Eli Sunday and that there is animosity between them is apparent enough. Meanwhile Daniel, loner that he is, desires familial connection. He takes H.W. as a son in without a thought, and comes to believe that a stranger who finds his way to Daniel’s house, is his lost brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). Henry quickly replaces Daniel’s loyal right-hand man, Fletcher Hamilton (Ciarán Hinds), until he realizes that he has been betrayed; his brother is not that at all.

One could go on with these twinly/shadowy connections, wondering why “Daniel Plainview” is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor known for disappearing into his roles, even as Sinclair’s novel names him J. Arnold Ross; why “Paul Sunday” is played by Paul Dano; why Paul/Eli’s father is named “Abel”; why H.W. is orphaned in a basket in the desert and taken in by a man of means, a la Moses, later rising up and leaving that kingdom (Anderson’s interest in the Mosaic story cropped up in Magnolia); or even that Anderson’s middle name is “Thomas” (from the Aramaic for “twin”). Perhaps this is all speculation on this reviewer’s part, but Anderson has previously proven his symbolic interventions: for instance, the littering of the number “82” throughout Magnolia, which is later revealed to build toward the biblical reference to Exodus 8:2 and its rain of frogs.

In the end, it is Daniel and Eli who are the brothers, perhaps even twins. Eli himself suggests this during their final climactic meeting. Daniel extracts oil from the earth, as Eli extracts evil spirits from the bodies of people; turning things inside out is the mode of operation. And Daniel is a Cain (just as Eli’s father is named Abel). And the true prophet is the oilman while the preacher man is shown to be a sham. The real revelation, the true extraction from the hidden recesses of the cosmos, is not God above but oil below.

Cinematographically, Blood portrays a horizontal view of the cosmos, punctuated by glances downward. The earth and sky are severed from each other. The film is shot in some big sky country, but we are not shown the sun, moon, or stars. We get the effects of the sun—sweat, bleached landscapes—but not the sun itself. Light is human-made, with the most powerful example being the burning oil derrick at dusk. Perhaps it is Nietzsche, and his character Zarathustra who proclaims “God is dead,” who stands behind the film. That Nietzsche died at the turn of the century is also significant.

The story begins with something like the first chapter of Genesis, with the Divine dominance of cosmos over chaos, but quickly takes up Genesis 4, in which Cain takes Abel to the country and kills him. God’s response to Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper?” must have served as script-fodder for Anderson: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground. Now you are accursed and will be banished from the very ground which has opened its mouth to receive the blood you have shed” (Gen. 4:10-11). Only, outside the myth, it doesn’t seem to have happened that way. False prophets rise and fall, but the oil industry leads the nation on. (See the 2007 Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations and you will find that six out of ten of the largest corporations deal with oil or the automobiles that rely on it.)

Yet, here is mythology as a critique of mythology. This is why this film is worth watching: because it shows how the use of mythological structures and elements can be used against other, perhaps more oppressive stories. Propositional logic (the kind Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens use) offers straightforward, non-fictional language that makes truth claims and offers critiques. That may offer a viable critique of the ideologies of myth, yet here is another, more subtle, and I would suggest altogether more powerful way to approach myth. Let the fires burn themselves out.

To say Blood is mythological is not to say it is false. To the contrary, it aspires to tell us where we came from, and thus goes to the core of our identity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *