Comment on David’s Review of “There Will Be Blood”

(This is just a comment – I entered it as a post so I could supply links to references.)

Only my wife, Christine, really understands how badly I miss the point of some movies. Sometimes I am clueless to what is apparently obvious to everyone else.

So I was surprised when I read David’s Blog on “There Will Be Blood” and found out that it was a commentary on capitalism and capitalists. Honestly, all through the movie and even in and after our Wednesday night film discussion, the thought that it was depicting capitalism in the US never occurred to me.

Now the most reasonable explanation is that I am dense about movies, but as I thought it over another explanation came to me.

I thought, as David so well described, that it was a character study on a particularly evil person. I didn’t like it very much because it was devoid of any character development. H. W. Plainview started out evil and only got more so. As far as I can tell the movie gave no plausible explanation as to how he got that way or why he was so totally unable to change.

Why did I not connect this to capitalism? I think it is because at best “There Will Be Blood” presented a simplistic caricature of capitalists and capitalism, like one might see as a propaganda film in some anti-capitalistic state. In my opinion, the challenge of capitalism is not that it is all evil and incapable of changing. The challenge of evaluating capitalism is that, unlike H. W., it is complex. Capitalists can, and do, develop and change.

I’m not going to get into a big economic-political thing here. As far as I am concerned I am writing about the movie “There Will Be Blood.” If someone wants to discuss capitalism per se let’s do it over a beer.

So in evaluating this movie as a critique of capitalism lets just consider, for example, Microsoft and Bill Gates. Microsoft would seem to be a good example of the ills of capitalism. After all “The European Union has found Microsoft guilty of abusing the ‘near-monopoly’ of its Windows PC operating system and fined it a record 497 million euros ($613 million).” The company has been forced to change its practices in other countries as well. In addition, in my personal opinion, their monopolistic position enabled them to make and sell crummy software and get ridiculously rich in the process. The first thing I did when I retired was to rid my house of all Microsoft software. (But don’t get me started on Apple – they may make better software but they seem to have a nearly Captain Ahab like obsession to control the people who buy their products. For example, if you are on an Apple go to Netflix and try “instant viewing.” You will see an example of their obsessive need to control.)

But Gates and Microsoft are not at all like H. W. Plainview. In particular the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working to rid the world of diseases (malaria in Africa for example) and is literally tackling World Hunger. While their efforts are not without controversy, their approaches were developed by consulting some of the best scientific minds available. I find it interesting that I refuse to buy Microsoft software, but I know many (not an exaggeration) idealistic, intelligent, and well-trained late 20ish and early 30ish young men and women, who think that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the best place to work if you want to make the world a better place.

Perhaps you will say that Gates is a modern anomaly in capitalism. Perhaps you’d prefer to choose U.S. Steel as the real icon of American capitalism. At one time it controlled 2/3rds of the steel production in the U. S. and its workers suffered from less than adequate safety practices. Yet Andrew Carnegie not only founded U. S. Steel but also established over 3000 public libraries in 47 US States. As I child I was able to use several of these libraries, which were always open on Sundays, so they would be available to us common people.

And it goes on. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil (some of whose employees found bit parts in “There Will Be Blood”.) The company was broken up in 1911 because it was an “’unreasonable’ monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act”. Yet Rockefeller also founded the Rockefeller Foundation. Henry Ford may have developed the dehumanizing assembly line but he also founded the Ford Foundation.

So now I have another reason to dislike “There Will Be Blood.” If it was intended to be about capitalists and capitalism then it missed the mark as much as it missed the mark if it were intended to be about character development. If “There Will Be Blood” had shown us H. W. performing apparently unselfish acts of goodness, and contributing to the development of the communities while he was also exploiting them; and if it had given us a glimpse into the psychology of someone who could do outstanding good along with his astounding evil, then it would have forced us to wrestle with a more realistic picture of capitalism. If “There Will Be Blood” had helped us understand H. W. Plainview and in doing so helped us better to understand and evaluate Gates, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford, then it would have been a remarkably good movie.

Peter Farnum

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2 Responses to Comment on David’s Review of “There Will Be Blood”

  1. David Gilmour says:

    Lost in Illusion
    More Bad “Blood” Marks

    Peter,

    Soon after I’d finished my essay about There Will Be Blood, an activist friend asked why I hadn’t elaborated on some of the labor and politics ideas I’d merely hinted at in the portrait of the ugly capitalist tycoon. Looking at the film itself and how the writer-director took the narrative course, I decided not to delve into the comparison between the film and Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! The socio-political core of the novel really was absent from the film. Out of Oil!, “Blood” was a character study, plain and simple—and a heavy-handed one at that. As I described the unchanging Daniel Plainview, forceful as the representation was, he was a static character. As a symbol of the capitalist, he was, as you say, Peter, a stereotypical figure.

    Any pretense the filmmakers initially had in basing the film on Sinclair’s work was lost in the course of production. In exploiting Daniel Day-Lewis’s talents, the director steered the narrative off the sturdy tracks of the film’s opening sequences. Historical significance faded into histrionics. If the writer-director had followed the story of Oil!, the focus on characters ought to have been quite different: the son H.W. becoming the figure to develop as the wayward heir and apprentice disinclined to follow the father’s corrupting principles. Little emphasis was placed on labor relations. Daniel Plainview did not show respect for laborers, nor did he reward the landowners if he could cheat them out of their land. His gluttony for power showed how power corrupts utterly. But Plainview was a madman from the very start. Upton Sinclair had no such character or idea in mind in his pedagogical socialist work.

    Recently, through another friend’s e-mail, I now pass on for inspection an article from the truthout blog (http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/031408E.shtml) that explains how the filmmakers betrayed Upton Sinclair in their expropriation of his historical novel. In “Bad Capitalists or a Bad System: Hollywood Comes to Blows With Upton Sinclair,” David Bacon details how There Will Be Blood overlooks the history and the political insights that Sinclair took pains to reveal in his socially relevant work. Elaborating on the career of the son, Bunny Ross (“Blood”’s H.W.), and exposing the principles of the father, J. Arnold Ross (“Blood’’s Plainview), the novel dealt with social conflicts, class conflicts and systemic corruption; the film dealt with simple folk and wicked people, and really taught nothing about why the malignant personalities became such willful degenerates.

    David

  2. Neil Bergeson says:

    Peter,

    I think you were correct in your initial assessment of what “There Will Be Blood” is about–a character study of a particularly evil person. We are witness to the slow, downward trajectory of one man’s life brought on by circumstances we see and some we don’t see. Circumstances that the character himself doesn’t seem to understand or even think about, much less make any attempt to do anything about. It all seems fateful, uncontrollable, and sad. And that’s just about the only thing the movie is about. No socio-political discussion here. No effort to enlighten us about anything at all, not even early oil industry technique, which might have held our interest for 15 minutes or so. This is a personal story about one individual done by one of the most talented actors of our time and directed by an at least adequate director. Nothing more.

    However, there ought to be some kind of punishment meted out to Anderson (the director and screen writer) for his claim the this movie is based on Upton Sinclair’s book “Oil!” The movie steals three or four scenes from the first 180 pages or so from a 550 page book but places these events in an entirely different context. A context that does great disservice to Sinclair and the years of work he did to unmask the exploitive behavior of greedy industrialists and politicians who banded together against workers and customers alike. A good discussion of this can be found at http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/031408E.shtml .

    While I was reading the book, early on, after I had seen “Blood” for the first time, I began to get upset with Paul Thomas Anderson and at one point remarked to Bekki that I thought he had wimped out with the movie. Here was a perfect opportunity for him to draw parallels between Teapot Dome and Enron 80 or so years later and to point out how we’ve allowed our government to be ruled by the same combination of forces today as were in control way back then and that something needs to be done about it. That we need to move from just observing the phenomenon and gnashing our teeth over it to some sort of concerted action. In some ways this current presidential election cycle seemed just the right time to bring this movie out as an attempt to help us see how we might do that. But, alas, PTA had other things in mind. As David Bacon says at the end of the Truthout article mentioned above, perhaps someone will come along with enough courage and the right backing to put a movie together that dramatizes Sinclair’s book in a way that helps us understand what might be happening to us, even today. That, as you say, could be a very good movie.

    In a different vein, this movie and David Gilmour have created a problem for me. Before joining the Tacoma Film Club, I was most likely to decided a movie was a good movie if I liked the movie. I saw TWBB twice after having anticipated its arrival for several weeks before it showed up here in Tacoma. I think a expected it to be a good movie and I wanted it to be a good movie very badly. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my favorite actors and I’ve seen nearly all of his films, some more than once, which is a thing I seldom do. But lately, after film discussions at our club meetings, I have begun to realize there are many ways to determine if a film is, in fact, a good film or not a good film, and that whether or not I like the film may have nothing whatever to do with it. David’s essay on “More Medium Than Message” offers a very satisfying method in determining the quality of a particular film. It seems to be a sensible measuring stick–-the degree to which the theme of the film (or book) helps us understand our world, ourselves, our relationships with others and the degree to which it helps us focus on the choices we make in our lives, whether or not we decide to change how we make those choices. And does the film do this in a manner that seems to conform to the reality we experience. I do like that approach.

    Others seem to say, when evaluating a film, that if they had done the movie it would have been done this way or that. Or they say that the movie should have been done this way or that and, as a result, it would have been a much better product. This seems to be judging quality by what is not there as opposed to what is. This is akin to saying that it’s a bad movie because I don’t like it and that seems a bit unfair to me. I am more comfortable with hearing people saying that the movie is/was a bad movie for me, and not suggesting that, therefore, it is a bad movie, per se.

    But I also wonder about the possibility of a movie being assessed based on the intent of those who made it. To what extent did this movie accomplish the goals held for it when it was begun (or at some point after it was begun)? The problem with this approach may be in determining accurately what those involved in its production intended it to be. As has been pointed out to me, the original intent of a movie may change as it develops. Timelines, finances, producers, directors, actors and others all have input on the project as it progresses So, for example, when Paul Thomas Anderson tells us he was wanting to do a film on fighting families for his next project, and he saw Sinclair’s book on an airport newstand, bought it, read it, and began to adapt it, and sent a version of the screenplay to Daniel Day-Lewis, who took several months before really responding, and then we see this film as the finished product, we have to think ‘what’s going on here?’ How did he get from there to here? How did a book about social protest become a character study of an evil person? What is this movie really about? The original intent appears to have been a dramaticaly changed. This approach to movie critiquing may be too subject to sabotage by others and, even, ourselves. We may be back to evaluating a product based on what we want that product to be. But I’m certain that many of us find this to be a perfectly logical procedure to use. I might even agree.

    Well, this comment seems to have gone a bit astray from its original purpose, but it is what it is, I guess. See you a the next meeting.

    Neil

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