Friday, January 25, 2008

There Will Be Bullshit

I saw There Will Be Blood last week, and I think it's a great movie. However, 90 percent of the reviews tell us the film represents a symbolic battle between God and Greed/Capitalism. Maybe I'm the wrong guy to tackle a criticism of this point of view, because I'm as far from impartial as you can get. I detest symbolism. Detest it with every breath in my body. I think it's a bullshit way to read a text. When you look for symbols, you lose the text and burrow up your own asshole. Anything could be a symbol for anything else, and the whole exercise becomes a pointless waste of time. People who look for symbols in books, movies, and songs hate books, movies, and songs. Symbolism leaves out detail and aesthetic pleasure. If Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday (and, yes, I'm aware that their names are loaded with allegorical and symbolic connotations, but those names come from the Upton Sinclair book which very, very loosely inspired this film) represent Capitalism and God, can you explain to me your reasons for believing this? In my reading of the film, admittedly based on a single viewing, Plainview cares very little for money, and the reason for his greed is a hatred of people, which he explicitly spells out in a very interesting conversation with a man who may be his brother. He wants to grab up all the oil for the sole reason that no one else can get it. He spends most of the film living in a shack, and when he finally buys the big house, he's indifferent to it. Greed fueled by misanthropy instead of a hunger for money and the American dream lifestyle. Hardly sounds like a sterling representative of capitalism. The preacher seems to care very little for God, and his unsettling creepiness, manipulative nature, selfish thirst for glory, and questionable motivations are hardly emblematic of Christian theology. If you stay close to the text, this movie is a rich, strange, American original. I'm glad it's found an audience, since Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film, the equally rich, strange, and American Punch-Drunk Love was overlooked.


Anonymous said...

I would tend to agree with the sentiment here 100%: symbolic, and allegorical, readings of film (1) usually suck, (2) almost always suck when conducted by the nitwits at Entertainment Weekly. The only thing I would add, however, is that many movie's are created with the intention that they be read exclusively, or predominantly, on an allegorically. Which brings me to my third point: I am not terribly interested in these movies.

"There Will Be Blood" is an interesting example, since what made the first 2/3 of it so interesting (compelling, intriguing, great) is what made the last 1/3 of absolutely no interest to me (i.e., the leap from realism, or at least people acting like people with other people, to the cartoonish and allegorical).

I know the ending of There Will Be Blood is now some hotly debated blop blop, and I don't want to give it away, but I will say that I think P.T. Anderson intentionally wants it to be read symbolically (elsewise there is little excuse for the abrupt departure from the acting and aesthetics of the prior 120 minutes), that the crowd of college kids I watched it with liked this leap to the symbolic so much that they gave it a standing ovation, that I--once upon a time--very much liked this sort of actor-ly overindulgence/cartoonishness/theatricality in the service of a Big Idea (whoo-ah! she's gotta Big Ass!) and that i just don't anymore, and that's ok too.

I will say, though, to get back to your main point about symbolism, that it is interesting that all of Anderson's acclaimed work makes this move: in Magnolia, the same sort of humanism/realism is abruptly interrupted with heavy-hand Book of Revelations hogwash; in Boogie Nights, Alfred Molina crawls out of some comic book while the rest of the cast/scrip crawls into the well-worn (and sometimes scene-for-scene) grooves of the Goodfellas/American Dream narrative. I never really liked either of those movies, because they were movies that I really liked until the very end, at which point I always thought he dicked them up, proving he really didn't know what he was doing to begin with. Now that he's done it three times, he definitely knows what he's doing, and I respect that, even if I don't really care for it. (The only movie that Anderson doesn't do this in--that anyone cares about--is Punch Drunk Love, which is why that might be a great movie that will forever be a "minor" work.)

That said, I still agree with the film-watching robot: even movies heavy on parallel symbolism still should deliver something human within them, and critics who can't see that--or aren't interested in talking about it in terms of emotional response or craft-- aren't critics I want anything to do with. Telling me Land of the Dead is about consumerism is as useless as reducing Daniel Day Lewis to a stand-in for capitalist greed. The point of good art is to capture the nuance of living within these Grand Themes, not to be visual cue cards for some J-school halfwit's PoliSci exam.


Dr. Mystery said...

It's funny. I try to be really exact when I write something for myself or write a paper for a professor (it takes me 12 hours sometimes to write four pages in this way), but my only writing for a (small) audience--the blogs--contains my sloppiest and most emotionally overzealous first-drafty stuff. I agree with you completely that symbolism is intentional and intended in many works, and I would also agree that I mostly don't care about that stuff. Really skilled artists can sometimes work effectively with allegory, but the work should also be interesting on its own terms, too. I can even find value in work that uses symbolism, if the other stuff in it affects me. I have a different take on Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, however. I think the Biblical symbolism and metaphors in Magnolia are red herrings, meant to be coincidences that our need for order causes us to label as Book of Revelations signs. It goes back to the prologue about coincidence and chance narrated by Ricky Jay. It also spookily predicts the Tom Cruise of Tomorrow, Today! And the rain of frogs, no matter the symbolic connection I may be ignorantly choosing to ignore, was a thrilling thing to see in a mainstream film. Hey, it rained lizards somewhere last week. (SPOILERS AHEAD, FUTURE TICKETBUYERS OF AMERICA), I see the ending of There Will Be Blood as a straight line, a cathartic explosion of pent-up rage and confusion on Day-Lewis's part that had been building since the beginning, and the logical extension of his misanthropic need to take something away from someone else. There is too much visceral, messy, human stuff in that final scene for me to see it as symbolic: the booze, the stubble on his cheeks, the debris scattered on his bowling lanes, the way the water from the mop bucket splats against the camera when Day-Lewis chases Paul Dano, the messy way he beats him to death, the way the blood pools around his head instead of splattering everywhere, Day-Lewis's slump to the ground, and his words, "I'm finished," meaning so many things, so many literal things. The fact that Dano hasn't aged at all in 17 years, and the tricky business with his possible identical twin could lend credence to the symbolism label, but, to me, it added an unclassifiable supernatural strangeness to the whole thing that made it even more interesting. So I felt a ratcheting up more than an abrupt departure. However, the fact that I can see where you're coming from leads me to see that I may be misreading these two films to fit my own aesthetics. Also, Boogie Nights diminishes for me a little bit with subsequent viewings, while Magnolia seems to improve. I don't know what that means. I think Punch-Drunk Love is still my favorite, though There Will Be Blood may end up joining it. I'll see how it looks a few years from now.

Spacebeer said...

I would like to note that am is totally correct about Anderson dicking up the ending of Boogie Nights. Literally.

*Ba-dum, ching!*

I'll be here all week, folks, tell your friends!

Anonymous said...


and, film-watchingrobot, you are in the good company of everyone else i've spilled my "thar will be blood" theory on, all of whom also feel that the end is a narrative straightshot-from-cum-proper cinematic climax of (here all week people) the beginning. so, yeah. i can see that. but i can see the other as well. and that's why this movie is good.

conor j said...

Just saw the movie, so I could finally read your post. The actualization (or cinematization) of any allegorical elements (I mean is U. Sinclair known for his nuanced take on the complexity of humans) is where PTA got this movie right. All the sensual stimuli--the gloopy oil, the textures of faces, the sounds (and loss of hearing), the struggles and grunts take it far beyond the level of A plus 2 equals 3B. I'd tend to see the allegorical element more as the hypothesis, the production as the experiment, and the final edit as a polished report of the findings. In other words, the story obviously does pit this "religion"/community vs. greed thing against each other. And I think you're spot on about saying it's not about capitalism for Plainview, but maybe it is to some extent for about that for the town of Little Boston who are victimized by Plainview, and ultimately Paul Sunday.
The final scene clearly just settled the allegorical score, found its surprising results. It was wonderful and original that it took place in this indoor privately owned bowling alley! after we've been mucking around in mud and oil for two plus hours. A game of leisure, it was Plainview's place of comfort to pass out and eat steak with his hands. But it did pit Plainview vs. Sunday in this not-quite but almost funny "super-hero" comic book style battle, and I felt that they were both the same men--or largely similar. Desperate, lonely, having betrayed what they were once most loyal to and most guilty about betraying (Sunday's God, and Plainview his son), and the only difference was that one could only cower in the face of his belief system crumpling, while the other could only act with rage upon that. And he did, and we were all "finished".

P. Dano, and T. Cruise in _Magnolia_ were obviously similar, and PTA is obviously trying to make deluded people face the truths they most fear with his characters.

It would be interesting to go back and really look at the film from the view of all the middle and less extreme people--the townspeople, the son, even the big oil guys who are just doing there job and trying to buy him out in a way...because this seems to be where PTA's sympathy lies--he just doesn't explore it too much. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character in Magnolia, or Don Cheadle's in Boogie Nights. He likes to say how fucked up the powerful are over and over again, and maybe I like _Punch Drunk Love_ so much too because it was so sweet and about these middle-type people who try to make due and aren't total fuckheads.

Great movie though. Goddamn it was good. And I agree with these postings too.

--sorry the writing's pretty rough...

steigrrr said...

i keep trying to comment on this late at night, but i get too sleepy and give up. but today i had a snow day (ice day, rather), so i have time to sit on my couch and do this.

first of all, i really liked punch drunk love a lot, also, despite the fact that i typically can't bear adam sandler. that's what i always liked about paul thomas anderson: his ability to make actors i usually hate more than bearable. i particularly liked the scene in which barry tells lena (are those names right?) he wants to take a sledgehammer to her face, she's so pretty.

now for there will be blood: i thought daniel day lewis's characterization was cartoonish from the beginning, and found myself consistently wondering why he seemed to be in a different movie than everybody else.

also, i kept thinking of it as less of an allegory than a very apt metaphor ... oil being the primary reason for the current war in iraq. but the root of that war's continuation also being apparent personal contempt for everyone else in the world on the part of the bush dynasty (i haven't read the book, but is the kid's name "h.w." in there?)

i only saw it once, as well. but i looked up the upton sinclair book afterwards, and as it turns out, its context was something called the teapot dome scandal in the 1920s. the department of the interior gained control of oil-rich land in wyoming and california, which was intended to be used as reserve for the navy in case supplies of oil in the world diminished. the guy in charge leased it out to two different oilmen without competitive bidding in exchange for substantial monetary gifts.

one of the oil men was the head of sinclair oil, who at one point owned a fancy "chateau"-style house in new york. regardless, in some ways the movie is about political corruption? maybe?

see, it's not about colonization, because it's well beyond that at this point. the people from whom plainview wants to all but steal land are white and christian. they, themselves, are transplants from someplace else. and they don't seem to have a particularly strong attachment to the place they're inhabiting. it's just convenient.

but also, my take on the general metaphor of the film was along the lines of conor's reading about the near invisibility of the "common man" in the story. to my mind, both eli/paul and plainview are liars and swindlers, and want the land for personal power and gain rather than money. they are exploiting the regular folks who comprise the community through their manipulation of ideas like "family" (since plainview represents himself as not only an oil man, but also a "family man") or "god," but those concepts are totally empty of meaning. (plainview does abandon his son, and sunday is a false prophet.) i kind of see it as an indictment of the "powers that be" in the world who do their best -- working in cahoots as much as they are in conflict -- to keep people ignorant so that they can stay in charge.

so i guess i'm saying it's like he's equating plainview with the bush administration's "america" and he's equating sunday (although he's christian) with islamic fundamentalists. AND he's saying that the two are not so different, because (as dr. mystery suggests) their goals have little to do with prosperity or freedom or families or morality or "god": they are about personal, individual power and control. is that too ridiculous a stretch?

(as an aside, i also think it's interesting that h.w. is planning to expand the oil business globally and move into mexico.)

i have all kinds of other ideas and moments that stuck out to me or that i couldn't figure out, but i've written a ridiculous amount already.

Dr. Mystery said...

Steigrrr, Conorrr, and otherrrs,
Part of what I love about this movie is that every single person (or at least every person commenting here) has a different take on it. (By the way, that's my favorite line in Punch-Drunk Love). I can see why you think Daniel Day-Lewis is in a different movie than the rest of the cast (though I think Paul Dano is much more cartoonish), but I find that a strength, not a weakness. This is a generalization, but one I have found to be true: Oilmen have BIG, BIG, BIG personalities, especially the old-timey wildcatters. Rural farm people generally have small, modest, quiet personalities. I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions on both sides. I also started looking for parallels to the Bush administration when I heard the kid's name, but I quickly let that go because I knew I was going to have a bad time if I tried to make that connection. I tend to only get enjoyment out of a work if the characters represent nothing but themselves. I'm interested in the author's (director's, etc.) background, the setting (and filming location, when appropriate), historical background, and the text. I don't find the Bush administration misanthropic. Bush II is certainly helping out his buddies and making sure anyone who shares his ideology benefits, at the expense of everyone else. Plainview hates everyone and everything around him, except, arguably, for the boy and the work. I don't find Bush a sympathetic figure, but I must admit to liking Plainview quite a bit. I've got a split empathetic/misanthropic personality that will never be reconciled, so I sheepishly admit to liking his speech and mostly agreeing with it, even though I also mostly disagree with it. I also thoroughly enjoyed his beating Dano to death with the bowling pin because I'm no longer going to hide my love of the aesthetic pleasures of screen violence on the basest, most prurient level. I liked the specifics of this movie: the settings, the movement of tools and bodies and gushing oil, the physicality of all the characters, the score, the very subtle movements of Day-Lewis's eyes contrasting with the rest of his big, wild, loud performance, the framing of the shots, the movement of the cameras. I'm losing words now, but what I'm trying to get at is my selfish, personal, specific interest in the film and how that differs from each other person's specific, selfish, personal interests. So I find what you say about parallels to Bush very interesting without wanting to go there myself because it would take me too far from my experience of the movie.

steigrrr said...

really good point about oil men having big personalities, and that being the reason for day-lewis' weirdness. i'm persuaded.

and i completely understand the pleasure of the specifics of characters and rest of the movie, and also how making comparisons to bushes and their ilk could ruin one's enjoyment of anything. (although i do think the president is a misanthrope with little to no empathy whatsoever ... his favors for insiders and buddies are simply markers so he can call in favors when he needs them in the future.)

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