March 04, 2008

There will be Blood: the loneliness of creating a nation.

I am still digesting 'There will be Blood' which I saw last night at the Odeon in Covent Garden. I am not entirely sure about what to say about the film- save that I agree with Roger Ebert's review that it is a portrait of madness. There is something else though that the film really is about: the creation of the United States- and I think those two themes- madness and creation- are tied together in this film in an interesting provocative way. Madness becomes the impulse towards creation- and authority follows the mad lust for gold or for oil.

In Citizen Kane, Mr Bernstein says to his interviewer that 'It's easy to make a lot of money, if that's all you want to do is make a lot of money.' He is talking about the banker Thatcher but also about Kane himself and the way that Kane didn't seek to make a lot of money but rather spent it. Kane afterall is the generation after the great oil profiteers and all of Kane's ambitions from running newspapers to running for office are aspirations within a civilised society. The interesting thing about this film is that it is set in the generation before Charles Foster Kane- the generation who made the wealth upon which Kane lived. The generation who were out in the oil fields and gold mines physically hewing out of the ground what turned into the fuel for the industrial super power that was the United States by 1920. This film begins with the end of the gold rushes of the 19th Century in the 1890s and ends in the great crash of 1929.

Its hero is a character who creates a civilisation therefore. We are in early California- a sparcely populated area of the United States whose population hovered around the million mark at the turn of the twentieth century. We don't see an officer of the government at all- and law out here is a cursory thing enforced merely in the buying and selling of land. Rather what we see is the two great traditional powers of pre-civil states- the Church and the coin. The Church is represented by Eli Sunday- a charismatic preacher who inspires his flock and purports to drive devils out of them and drive their illnesses away. The coin is represented by Daniel Plainview- our hero- whose hands and money are creating oil fields around the town- and in the Sunday ranch. His power is the sucking out of resources from the land- whereas Eli sucks out the inspiration from his parishioners. The two men are involved in a confrontation; a confrontation that takes us through the whole film. But its a confrontation that in many ways merely exemplifies the real underlying theme of the film- both men are utterly vicious and ruthless, both are willing to humiliate the other and both are unpleasant to the extreme- it is that unpleasantness that lies at the centre of the film.

Daniel Plainview is a hero. He is the kind of man who founds towns and schools- but he is also immoral and angry. He hates almost everyone in the world he confesses at one point. He has no friends- he even alienates, abandons and attacks his adopted son. He is also grows in madness through the film- his meglamonia becomes more and more pronounced as the film proceeds. His anger and loneliness reflect each other. This is the type of man who makes a state- the type of man who thrives when everything comes down to his own talents. Plainview is virtu personified- he shapes history by despising all of its frontiers- in many ways he mirrors the Russian oligarchs of today or the British industrialists of the 18th Century. What the film invites us to do is to judge him as a human being- to weigh him in the balance and find him wanting.

But it also invites us to observe his trajectory- as the inspired prospector turns from man into monster. It invites us to see the personal consequences of overbearing wealth- like Kane, Plainview ends up alone in Xanadu, alone in a palace of pleasures, strolling empty corridors and whipping out in drunken rages at subordinates or indeed anyone who comes near. That madness is born of loneliness: Plainview has created a nation, there is none like him. It seems to me watching the film that as the movie progresses increasingly Plainview has less and less to do with lives around him- the world of civility leaves him behind. By 1927 as the film ends, the world is made for men like his son, the Kanes of the world, who have adjusted to civility and its constraints- who don't murder in their rages, who don't drink whisky by the gallon, who don't hate the world and all who live in it. The last scenes of the movie are crucial because- and I won't let on to what happens, they bring Plainview's last rejection of any collegiality, any claim of affection, they show his final decline into madness- like Gloria Swansson at the end of Sunset Boulevard, the lights focus as the character dies.

Plainview's character evolves as the movie goes on- but he is always lonely and never demonstrates wide degrees of affection- possibly he does towards his son but mostly he seems impassive to others but emotional about himself. He is a competitive man- lives for and through competition- and that is his incentive to develop his oil wells. The same goes for the preacher Eli- who is also fueled by rage- a sublimated rage as opposed to Plainview's overt alcoholic rage. Both though are the type of man who forms a world, who creates a nation. This story is their story and it demonstrates the unattractiveness and the neccessity of that type of person. This review is incomplete because my thoughts about the film are incomplete- but ultimately there is something here of the loneliness, rage and hatred that fueled men who wanted to create power, to create states. That rage promoted by some old injustice, or as in this case inequality in settled society, leads to the creation of great things- at great personal costs. This film is not about present society because its not about civil society- it is about the creation of civil society. Its not about the brutality of capitalism or the brutality of evangelical christianity but about the brutality of both before the state- when gold and God are there to reinforce authority instead of existing within the bounds set by authority.

The roar and coat of the a lion is beautiful viewed from afar through the prism of history, but come up close and the blood dripping from its fangs and the loneliness of its supremacy are far less impressive.


Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Portrait of madness, eh? Think I'll have to see this.

Gracchi said...

Do its well worth a viewing