“There Will Be Blood” at 15
Also: Charles Portis’s life and work, John O’Hara today, and more.
Last year marked the 15th anniversary of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood, which was loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! and stars Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is much better than the novel. In the novel, Sinclair uses the relationship between Bunny Ross (HW Plainview in the film) and his oil-drilling father J. Arnold Ross (Daniel Planview in the film) to give us a rather simplistic story about the evils of capitalism and the purity of organized labor as it fights for justice. In the film, Anderson gives us a story about families—about fathers and sons—and about how ambition (not just in business) can ruin you.
I read a comment on Facebook the other day about how There Will Be Blood “doesn’t go anywhere” and doesn’t say anything. I think that’s wrong.
The film does build slowly. The title should be read tongue in cheek—there will be blood, but you have to wait. The film opens with a wide shot of an empty California desert under a blue sky with Johnny Greenwood’s dissonant soundtrack in the background (one of the best soundtracks in a modern film, with samplings from Arvö Part and Johannes Brahms to boot) before it cuts to Daniel Plainview alone in a dark silver mine. There are no words for the first fourteen and a half minutes. In those fourteen minutes, Daniel Plainview discovers silver, breaks his leg, starts an oil well, sees one of his workers die in the well, and narrowly escapes death himself. He adopts the worker’s son, who is with them on the field and apparently without family to care for him.
When we first hear Plainview’s voice—addressing a town that has struck oil—it is with his adopted son, H.W., at his side. This is significant. The boy has a humanizing effect on Plainview. While Plainview tells H.W. at the end of the film (when H.W. is grown) that he adopted him simply to get mining contracts more easily, that isn’t the whole story. Plainview clearly grows attached to the boy as the film progresses. When Plainview is forced to confess in the middle of the film that he has abandoned his boy to get the help of the local minister in leasing land for his pipeline (without which he will be ruined), Plainview clearly means the confession, even if it is also coerced. He has abandoned his boy shipping him off to school after an accident. When H.W. visits him on the field during break, Plainview hugs him and whispers in his ear: “That does a body good.” He wants to be with H. W., but he wants success more.
By the way, it is not money Plainview wants. He has enough of that. This isn’t some simplistic critique of capitalism. He wants to show that he—and he alone—can get the massive amount of oil out of the ground and to the coast in pipeline. “Nobody can get it there but me!” he says at one point. It’s a film about that oldest of foes: pride.
A similar dilemma plays out with the minister, Eli Sunday, who wants to be an influential religious figure and is willing to do whatever it takes to become one. Like Plainview, he opposes those who stand against him with violence if necessary. In one scene, he lunges across the table at his father (who also happens to beat his young daughter) in a rage. Fame and wealth are pitted against family. Both Eli Sunday and Daniel Planview choose fame and wealth and end the film alone.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is restrained throughout, which make small changes of tone or expression all more powerful. I think it’s one of his best roles. Clips of the film don’t do it justice. You have to watch the whole thing.
Prufrock is a reader-supported publication. Subscribe today to read and comment on all posts.
Speaking of films, Richard Ramchurn writes about new technology that “reads” you as you watch a movie and alters what you see on screen: “Most films offer exactly the same viewing experience. You sit down, the film starts, the plot unfolds and you follow what’s happening on screen until the story concludes. It’s a linear experience. My new film, Before We Disappear – about a pair of climate activists who seek revenge on corporate perpetrators of global warming – seeks to alter that viewing experience. What makes my film different is that it adapts the story to fit the viewer’s emotional response. Through the use of a computer camera and software, the film effectively watches the audience as they view footage of climate disasters. Viewers are implicitly asked to choose a side.” Sounds terrible.
Spotify has removed all Bollywood songs from its app: “Spotify says it's not been able to reach an agreement with the owners of the tracks after the old one expired. Soundtracks with millions of plays, like Malhari from epic romance Bajirao Mastani or Kala Chashma from Baar Baar Dekho, along with other fan favourites were among the deleted hits.”
We recently returned from a visit to our daughter and son-in-law in Victoria, British Columbia, and so this review of a book about British Columbia under direct British rule caught my eye. It also offers a reminder that history is messy: “While avoiding grand claims, her granular narrative nonetheless unsettles some fashionable assumptions about pre-Confederation Canada. The current drive to decolonize society and public policy in this country often understands ‘colonialism’ as an all-shaping, irresistible force. But no such monolith created British Columbia, which was actually the happenstance, fragile result of imperial bureaucrats responding to distant threats, sometimes with but often against the advice of the men on the ground.”
Nicolás Medina Mora writes about McCarthy’s “late style”: “Billed at once as the culminating pinnacle of McCarthy’s career and an unexpected departure from his earlier work, The Passenger and Stella Maris are sibling novels about incest, mourning, mathematics, salvage diving, schizophrenia, New Orleans, theoretical physics, Knoxville, the invention of nuclear weapons, car racing, suicide, vaudeville theater, the weight of history, the sins of the father, psychiatry, the crisis of the European sciences, and the moral decline of the West. At once intricate and beautiful, challenging and moving, the new novels are driven by the unmistakable linguistic combustion that powered the books that cemented McCarthy’s reputation in earlier years. But they also mark a radical expansion in his philosophical scope.”
A 400-year-old mural discovered in England during a kitchen renovation: “The old city of York is encircled by an ancient wall and Budworth's apartment, which he bought in October 2020, lies within that in Micklegate -- one of the city's main streets. The apartment, which sits above a cafe and a charity book shop, is part of a Grade II listed Georgian building dating back to 1747.”
William Stephenson writes about the life and work of Charles Portis: “If Portis was not ‘our least-known great novelist,’ as Ron Rosenbaum once claimed in Esquire, he was certainly among our least photographed. Remembered mostly as the author of True Grit—his only period piece, a western, something that can lead certain misguided fans to make a big show of setting it apart from the rest—he was, up until the time of his death in February 2020, typically grouped with such celebrated literary recluses as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, and J. D. Salinger. Not as celebrated as these others, but all the more aggressively championed by his admirers on that account. He infamously allowed a New York Times reporter to fly down to Little Rock to interview him for a profile, only to declare the entire conversation off the record. The writer Paul Theroux once secured a meeting with him for his travelogue Deep South, and came away from the encounter with a single quote: ‘Be careful.’ A decade ago, the British magazine The Spectator gave its review of one of his books the absurd and long-winded title, ‘There’s so much mystery around Charles Portis that we’re not even clear whether he’s alive.’”
James Matthew Wilson reviews Joseph Bottum’s latest collection of poetry: “Joseph Bottum has long been known for his elegant prose style, omnivorous literary allusiveness, and cultural critic’s eye for what we know, what we think we know, and the sometimes embarrassing gap between those things. His decades of editorial work for The Weekly Standard and First Things guided both those organs through their great ages of growth from political and religious magazines to eclectic and spirited journals of cultural review. Less known is that Bottum’s first book was a collection of poems and that he has published poetry and songs here and there ever since. The Fall and Other Poems appeared in 2001; a book of songs, The Second Spring, in 2011; and now, two decades on, Bottum has published his second full-length collection, Spending the Winter.”
John O’Hara today: “In a 2000 article for The Atlantic, journalist Benjamin Schwarz argued that O’Hara’s greatness had been obscured by the then-current preference for minimalism. For audiences accustomed to the kind of compressed, exquisitely wrought structure that’s sometimes treated as the essence of literary craft, O’Hara’s sprawling novels might be an unfamiliar, and unwelcome, experience. O’Hara’s earliest books, especially his 1934 debut, Appointment in Samarra, include experiments with stream-of-consciousness and other classic modernist techniques. Yet the most obvious influences on O’Hara’s postwar efforts include Booth Tarkington and perhaps Sinclair Lewis, who also offered panoramas of provincial American life. Though they’re sometimes classed together as fellow realists, O’Hara was never so gritty, as we’d say now, as Theodore Dreiser. This was not a problem for a contemporary public that loved big narrative fiction, including the works of the even-less-appreciated James Gould Cozzens. But it’s no recipe for twenty-first-century popularity. Yet it’s possible to appreciate an author without admiring everything he wrote. Thomas Hardy, with whom O’Hara is occasionally compared, went to his grave believing that he’d be remembered as a poet, but it’s the prose work he regarded as secondary that sustains his reputation today.”