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Fanatics, Mountebanks and Drillers A Bloody Oil Film

A Bloody Oil Film

by SAUL LANDAU


and FARRAH HASSAN

"There Will Be Blood" implicitly warns against fanatics in an era when one form of that breed occupies the White House and other major mountebanks consume countless daily hours of TV and radio time.

"I see the worst in people," confesses self-made oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s gritty California epic, "There Will Be Blood." This statement alone should warn audiences that they should proceed cautiously before identifying with this protagonist. The opening of the film shows a minutes-long, no-dialogue sequence of Plainview mining for silver under harsh conditions and breaking a leg without uttering a complaint. So intensely does he feel the need to find mineral wealth that extreme physical suffering offers no obstacle. The abrasive sounds of mining and the sight of men working invoke John Huston’s "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." "Blood" should remind studios that audiences don’t need flashy cuts or intricately choreographed violence and special effects to get lured into the drama of a movie.

Beyond Daniel Day-Lewis’ resolute, verging on maniacal eyes-the way he sees Plainview-the literate audience might well note characteristics of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Mellon, Andrew Carnegie, Edward H. Harriman, William Randolph Hearst and their modern equivalents, the CEOs of ENRON, Halliburton and Blackwater-men who played vital, supporting roles in the evolving production (drama or dark comedy?) of American capitalism and its expanding empire.

Like the earlier and real 19th Century Robber Barons-or industrial statesman in the greed-is-good texts-the fictional Plainview accumulated his fortune from 1898-1927 through determination, manipulation, ruthlessness (including cold-blooded murder) and an unwavering focus on wealth and power.
He does show human emotion in his concern for his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who he uses to help hustle local ranchers and farmers who might have oil under their land. H.W.’s cherubic face gives authenticity so this vicious fraud can better push his aura of "honest family man" on the yokels. When H.W. loses his hearing after an accident on his father’s newly acquired oil well (ironically named after a sweet-looking, local young girl and friend of H.W., Mary Sunday) and becomes a behavioral problem, Plainview sends him away to a boarding school.

Without H.W.’s presence, Plainview’s already weak relationship with the rest of humanity-sanity-begins to slip. He drinks and grows more obsessed with accumulating oil leases and drilling on them. Picture a wealthy, well-dressed Fred C. Dobbs instead of the grubby Humphrey Bogart character who loses his fortune in "Treasure of Sierra Madre." In B. Traven’s novel by that name, gold obsessed men, which eroded their morality. In "Blood," oil replaces the more lustrous metal as the corrupter of Plainview’s soul! His craving for wealth in the form of this black, viscous goop leaves no space in his mind or soul for love, compassion or God.

In the film’s script, those who believe in God get suckered not only by Plainview’s promises, but by their own preacher as well. The fundamentalist, country preacher uses Jesus as his avenue to wealth and power. Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a baby-faced evangelical whose father owns land that Plainview wants for oil drilling, emerges as another cultural epigone. The stem-winding sermons of the late 17th Century Great Awakening preachers led to a tradition of religious fakers. Sinclair Lewis made Elmer Gantry his protagonist in a 1927 novel by that name, showing how false piety combined with Fire and Brimstone sermonizing could bamboozle a poor, uneducated and anxious flock. Just think of the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Ted Haggards of our era!

Plainview doesn’t fall for this malarkey. He convinces the Sunday family to sell their ranch to him, under the condition stipulated by preacher Eli that oil funds will go toward funding a church to bless the local community.

Plainview despises the hocus pocus in this young character. Indeed, he loathes in Eli huckster qualities that he himself possesses. In one memorable scene during a church service highlighting the seeming disconnect yet parallel lives between the two characters, a self-possessed Eli attempts to exorcise the devil-in the form of crippling arthritis-from an old woman. The film cuts to Plainview, shaking his head in admiring disbelief over the success of the young preacher’s theatrics.
Plainview eschewed God, women and friends. He worshipped the God of oil, the slithery fuel of the industrial empire that cannot unlink itself from personal riches, power and modern war. Preacher Sunday had no drilling knowledge, so he used God’s name to fuel his own empire of spiritual gibberish.

By the turn of the 20th Century, as Anderson visually demonstrates, oil and religion had established themselves as twin pillars of U.S. culture, politics and empire. At this time in history, the Rockefellers oozed their way into Venezuelan oil. In 1895, John D. also bought a railroad in Manchuria, for a piddling $5 million. He quickly discovered, as did the U.S. government, that such a trivial amount of money invested in poor countries would provide enormous political clout. Such outlays in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th Century marked important steps for U.S. entry into the world as an imperial power.

At home, the Robber Barons preached "the gospel of wealth," what steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie defined as the prevalence of uninhibited capitalism that would magically allow the most able and moral people to make fortunes. These noble souls would then use the profits for society’s benefit. This wrinkle on Christ’s teachings served as a justification for the Robber Barons to do anything necessary to maximize profits.

In 1913, coal miners struck against inhuman labor conditions in the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the region’s largest operator of coal mines. The company hired armed goons who killed more than sixty people. The strike lasted into 1914, when the hired strikebreakers on Easter night, at a mining encampment in Ludlow, Colorado, murdered three women and eleven children. The "Ludlow massacre," as it became known, revealed the rapacious lengths to which Rockefeller would go to preserve his control over his operations.

After decades of murdering workers and destroying incipient unions by assassinating organizers and militants, after plundering the land and what lay underneath, after bribing officials to get public favors to increase their fortunes, Carnegie, Rockefeller et al. hired PR people who promoted them as philanthropists and religious men. Some even funded Missionaries to bring "God’s word" to the heathens in Asia and Latin America-a "word" that insisted coincidentally on ruthless capitalism as inherently Christian.

Plainview, in the name of "development," offers to buy-out-uproot-local community members from their generations-old plots of land to benefit the whole community. He assures the Sunday family, "if we find oil, this community will flourish." But the promise of new schools, churches, better roads and shopping opportunities (think of Wal-Mart) cannot disguise the uglier, personal and environmental risks. "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," the 1988 live-action and animated film about the demise of LA’s public transportation system, illustrated a similar point-only a toon could cook up "that lame-brained freeway idea," concludes the film’s protagonist Eddie Valiant, alluding to corporate maneuvers to dismantle the U.S. public transportation system and replace it with freeways for cars.

"Blood" shows the danger in drilling itself. A casual accident causes the instant death of an oil worker; the Mary Sunday well bursts into flames and a menacing black cloud hovers over the town in the aftermath. In case the audience missed the significance, director Anderson uses Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling, pulsating musical score mixed with drumming, thumping and buzzing violins to drill the message home.

The town’s residents stare in horror. But Plainview sees the black gold lining. "There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet," he exclaims, in an ecstasy of avarice. "No one can get at it except for me!"

"Blood’s" reoccurring dissonant sound is juxtaposed by cinematographer Robert Elswit’s sweeping, ethereal shots of pristine California land-all just waiting to be seized by speculators! In the film’s opening sequence, the camera zooms in on a worker reverently smearing a dab of newly discovered oil onto his baby’s forehead, mimicking a priest’s conduct on Ash Wednesday. The pure born had become tainted. Anderson relies on such metaphors to draw cinematic portraits of greed and extremism. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel "Oil," but without the tendentious muckraking spirit, "There Will Be Blood" implicitly warns against fanatics in an era when one form of that breed occupies the White House and other major mountebanks consume countless daily hours of TV and radio time.

In the end the fanatics meet, as older men possessing exaggerated characteristics of their younger days–the religious huckster and the monomaniacal oil baron. As the title warns metaphorically, when such characters dominate the cultural and economic landscape of a nation, "There Will Be Blood!"

Did the film director intend to use blood as a biblical allegory?

"I will leave your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcass. I will water the land with what flows from you, and the river beds shall be filled with your blood. When I snuff you out I will cover the heavens, and all the stars will darken." (Ezekiel 32:5-7 NAB)

SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow. Read his Counterpunch Press book A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. See his WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE on DVD through roundworldproductions@gmail.com

Farrah Hassen is the Carol and Ed Newman Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She can be reached at fhuisclos1944@aol.com