FILM - THERE WILL BE BLOOD
will be blood
In bringing Upton
Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil,
to the screen as There will be
blood, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has been faithful to the
author’s socialist intentions. The adaptation also resonates with the
politics of today as the Neo-Cons kill to keep democracy safe for big
The film title has
multiple meanings. One is from the story’s revivalist preacher –
with his Church of the Third Revelation - who promises to wash away sin
in the blood of the Lamb. Another is for the blood shed by the
workforce. Yet a third is the denouement, which I shall not give away.
There Will Be Blood is a relief from the progressive scripts where
no one lifts anything heavier than a laptop or a pistol. Once again, the
commercial screen shows human labour at the point of its exploitation.
More than that, the cost in lives and limbs is central to the plot. The
protagonist’s adopted son is deafened by an exploding drill.
In the lead role of
Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis is transfixing. With his measured
tones and suppressed rage, he leans his body forward like a man always
pushing against a headwind. In escaping from the might of Standard Oil,
Plainview has to match its chicanery and ruthlessness. We are shown, not
told, what capitalists must do, thus spared a lecture in Marxism 101, as
in Pontecorvo’s Burn!
(1968). For instance, Plainview’s quail shooting is a metaphor for his
treatment of the farmers whose land he acquires, for they too are small
and almost flightless, no match for his double-barrels of guile and
greed. Plainview is the personification of capital, realising the
fundamental proposition of historical materialism – we become what we
do, as a species and as individuals.
The land-owners offer
Plainview and his boy the warmth and decencies of folk for whom faith is
indeed, as Marx observed, “an expression of real suffering and a
protest against real suffering”. As secular outsiders, Australians
risk minimising the conviction that quickens politics and business in
The teenage preacher is
something else. He falls victim to the sins of the flesh and to the
vagaries of the stock-market. Yet he remains more than a caricature of
hypocrisy, and not merely another Elmer Gantry, still less a premonition
of recent Televangelists. He and Plainview compete for redemption, each
obliging the other to declare what they fear is the truth in order to
get their hands on the means to earthly salvation.
As a piece of
film-making, There Will be Blood
is astounding. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has provided a soundscape
more than a soundtrack. The noises from human labour and machines are
set against silences of equal potency. The dialogue is minimal. Voices
are rarely raised.
Though shot in colour,
the cinematography revels in the plays of light and shade, employing a
Mannerist use of candlelight and lanterns to focus on moral choices.
Visually, the land is
also a player, the rocky hills like a chorus of mutes. The earth resists
the small farmers and the corporations. But nature also provides the
As Anderson’s subject
demands, he pays his respects to Citizen Kane (1941), though he eschews a device equivalent to
“Rosebud”, the dying word which Orson Welles used as the
inexplicable clue to Kane’s character. The hurt in Plainview’s
childhood is evident in his adult behaviour as he alternatively protects
a child from beatings but beats up and murders grown men. Neither
Anderson nor Day-Lewis lets slip a trace of what had happened in what
script-writing courses call the back-story. The tension is the greater
for our not knowing.
Hollywood faces a
tougher challenge before it can rest of this one-off radicalism.
In 1933, Sinclair
published Upton Sinclair presents
William Fox, which the founder of Fox Pictures had commissioned as a
bargaining chip to win back some of the assets that he had lost in his
failed bid to takeover MGM. The idea was to threaten to expose the
corrupt and crooked dealings of the movie moguls in order to bring them
to heel. Sinclair defied Fox and published.
As if that weren’t
un-American enough, Sinclair then won the Democratic nomination for the
governorship of California in 1934. He promoted his version of socialism
as EPIC, End Poverty in California.
The studios raged. They
raised $500,000 to back the Republican incumbent by deducting two days
pay from each of their (all un-unionised) employees. They made mock
newsreels of hoboes slavering to vote for Sinclair so he could bring
Sovietism to the West Coast.
Here are two scripts
waiting for Hollywood – The Life
of William Fox and another one on how the studio bosses defeated
Sinclair’s run for office. Don’t hold your breathe for the current
owner of Fox, Rupert Murdoch, to make either. Hollywood is yet to film
of Sinclair’s masterpiece, The
Jungle (1906), which exposed the Chicago meatpacking Trust around
Swifts before envisioning a socialist America, which leaves Obama’s
preaching about a new mindset in the shade.
Film reviews are often
printed with a line of stars to summarise the critic’s response. I
visualise my evaluation of movies by clock faces, one for each time I
checked to see how much longer I had to wait before escaping. At 158
minutes, There will be blood earned not a single clock face.
12 February 2008