Saturday, February 16, 2008

Digression: There Will Be Blood

Finally got around to writing about this, this messy, occasionally brilliant, reckless like it doesn't matter anymore (it doesn't) mythography of capital. I mean this quite literally. Most discussion of this film assumes that it is about a fictional oil baron named Daniel Plainview, loosely based on the life of Edward Doheny and overplayed (either self-consciously and well or sloppily and poorly) by Daniel Day-Lewis. This is not accurate in any meaningful sense. Plainview is not really a character, not a psychological or biographical portrait of a human being, but a mask. There is more than a void behind it (no existentialism here) but far less than a man. 'He' is simply capital embodied in the shape of a familiar archetype, the criminally ambitious Citizen Kane-style tycoon, perhaps more familiar to us as one of Coppola's or Scorsese's gangsters, Hollywood's favorite way (because it still involves a masculine hero) to critique the American Dream. Also misleading is that the film looks and is structured a lot like those '70s-era epics that have become our new classical canon. But while we may get their de rigueur rags-to-riches-to-hubristic-decline narrative arc, Plainview undergoes no fall from innocence. He does not change or develop, except maybe to get a little meaner, a little more desperate, as the film drags on and his cover wears thin. His reaction to developments in the plot have the form of epiphany but not the content. The only glimpse we ever get beneath his skin is when he's covered in oil.

And yet the camera never leaves him. For a film with such epic ambitions, it has a remarkably narrow focus, rarely leaving Plainview's face even when others are conversing in his presence. This is not so we can witness the reveal, Method-actor style, of an entire history bound up in a momentary grimace or facial tic, it is for us to stare long enough at a human-like visage that we are no longer fooled by the illusion it presents. One might expect his relationship with his adopted son is meant to 'humanize' him, but it does no more than prove the opposite. He relates to his child like an alien he was only briefly instructed how to interact with, when not simply using the boy as a tool to convince investors he runs a "family business." While the emotions and interests of others can be temporarily forced into him -- witness the forced baptism scene where Plainview is made to suffer something that appears to be guilt by the craven preacher Eli -- he can only relate to those who share his blood. By the end it is clear that no such person exists in the film.

Nevertheless, we are constantly teased with the notion that Plainview has a past. And maybe -- maybe the archetype does, some string of banalities that would explain nothing. But every possible example we see turns out to have been a lie, and he is driven to murder any relationship that might accumulate the necessary substance to become part of a meaningful biography. Anyway we are watching him for other reasons, for the myth-history of capitalism, the occult specter whose logic 'speaks' his every action, subverts or destroys his every companion, dominates his environment by draining it dry (Anderson claims he was thinking of Dracula when writing the screenplay), destroys a community by turning it into a city, and eventually leaves his body a withered husk, to flake and die like a leaf in wintertime. "I don't like to explain myself." The film's trappings often resemble the Gothic, the genre of secret histories, but it's all appearance; there is nothing to explain.

As many others have said, There Will Be Blood belongs above all to horror.

This is what truly makes it comparable to No Country For Old Men, more so than a certain nostalgic '70s-era aesthetic and level of ambition. It's the fact that the monster at the heart of both is supernatural, though not in the usual sense. Chigurh too is just a generic mask, the relentless , invincible psychopath stalking countless horror thrillers, this iteration something like a south-of-the-border cross between Hannibal Lecter and Michael Myers. But he hides a secret ethical and perhaps metaphysical function, the entire narrative of the film structured around working out its derivation, victim by victim. Its rule, however, Chigurh's 'motive,' is impervious to unveiling by any mere story, which reduces us, literally, to guessing at the outcome of a coin toss.

Though their secrets are different, the real horror is that there are no secrets on the cause and effect level of narrative, that it is mystery and not truth which is constructed through the films' artfully cut withholdings of information; that the 'brute facts' and the logic connecting those facts is artificially, even demiurgically, rendered unclear -- mystified. It's a function traditionally reserved for female characters, but unless they are the victim/protagonist there is no place for them in horror. Chigurh and Plainview, the hollow monsters, as both engine and devourer of narrative, instead take its 'structural' lacuna inside themselves, and in so doing irresistibly draw the camera's gaze. Here the affect of horror, created subtly with lighting, soundtrack, the whole range of traditional cinematic technique (there are no Special Effects allowed) is all that is capable of concealing the underlying absence of mystery with something else. What? Diegetically nothing happens which could not conceivably be explained, and yet somehow we emerge certain that a really adequate explanation is impossible. An invisible force (TWBB) or axiom (NCFOM) is evoked, secretly guiding events. That its repression is also made palpable to us, that it isn't merely a function of plot (Plainview and Chigurh's 'sins' 'acknowledged,' through redemption or punishment) but tied instead to the conventions of 1970s Hollywood realism, is at once the artistic achievement of the two films and, I suspect, their ideological core.

In TWBB one gets the impression from Eli, a grotesque parody of Christianity as both the paradigmatic model for non-capitalist politics and a type of show business, that stories can no longer be seriously invested in. Instead we learn to see Plainview the same way he sees others: "I see the worst in people. I don't have to look past seeing them to get all I need." In the much-criticized final showdown in the bowling alley, this impression of God and his earthly salesmen is rendered painfully concrete. It's the scene where the film's facade of realism, though always unsettled, is strained to the point of absurdity: the priest recants, he is made to suffer for his sins, and behold, his milkshake, it hath been drunk! But not even the grand narrative of entrepreneurial capitalism can survive past the last shot. The realization that has been building over the course of the film, in the form of Plainview's increasingly strained encounters with Standard Oil and the unstoppable expansion of monopoly power it represents -- that the individual capitalist is no longer a suitable vessel for the daemon of capital -- comes at last to fruition, and so with the resignation "I'm finished," the lights go out. The camera apparently hasn't the right to follow. But is it irrational hope to wonder if nostalgia for the end of a distant era can reflect any light back on the end of one still present? Or has Plainview eaten that as well?