There Will Be Dunces

April 15, 2008

Daniel Plainview and the child in question. Folks, don\'t try this at home.

Partly because it offers a chance to study the impermeable membrane known as the conservative mind, and partly because it gives me an excuse to blog about my favorite movie of 2007, here’s a link to the amusing fracas about There Will Be Blood going on at Glenn Kenny’s site.

The whole thing was touched off by New York Post reviewer Kyle Smith, who was engaged in the tedious winger pastime of pretending to find conservative messages buried within politically neutral or obviously left-wing art. (The ongoing effort to enlist J.R.R. Tolkien in Da War On Terra and this list of the top 50 conservative rock songs are particularly overripe examples.) Since There Will Be Blood draws inspiration from a novel by arch-socialist Upton Sinclair, and since its central conflict is the antagonism between rapacious, amoral oilman Daniel Plainview and a Jesus-whooping fraud named Eli Sunday, one might think the film would offer pretty slim pickings for such wankery, but Smith rises to the occasion by citing Plainview’s relationship with the little boy, H.W., and his longing for a family. Read no further if you haven’t seen the movie yet:

Plainview first shows some humanity when he cradles his infant son while a mine turns into a gushing oil well before our eyes. Without a word being spoken, it’s clear that Daniel’s painful sacrifices are partly driven by his love for his son, whose mother never appears and whom Daniel never voluntarily discusses (although he will later claim she died in childbirth — his wavering glance tells us this is a lie — to a housewife whose property he needs for oil exploration).

Daniel’s rocky climb to the top is forced to a violent halt when a well he builds in the town of Little Boston uncorks so much oil that the treasure itself sows chaos, causing an explosion that turns the rig into a plume of hellfire and nearly kills Daniel’s now nine-year-old son, leaving him deaf.

Shortly after that, a man calling himself Daniel’s half-brother Henry appears on the scene, talking about the family’s home and background in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Never before has the film given us a hint about where Daniel came from or to whom, other than his son, he has a bond; to this point, Daniel has been more machine than man, a human drill.

Despite the serious setback with his son, who has become withdrawn and erratic since the accident, perhaps blaming his father for leaving him in harm’s way, Daniel changes. It’s as if the brother has replaced the son as a reason for his existence. Daniel speaks for the first time in the film about non-business matters, and his soul comes gushing out. Unprompted by Henry, he confesses there is a competition in him that makes him want to see other men fail, and that he hates most people.

Feeling comfortable with Henry is what enables Daniel to send his son away to school; he casts off the memory of his failure as a father and tries to rebuild a kind of family with his newfound kin. When Daniel finds out that his “brother” is an impostor, though, he kills him in a rage. The man has done nothing to Daniel except learn his feelings, but that is enough.

It is the despair about lacking family that destroys Daniel; from the moment he finds out his brother is a fake, he is essentially beyond reason. Being reminded of his son causes him to act churlishly, and (this is more important) in a manner contrary to his own business interests, in a roomful of Standard Oil executives. And in the psychotic episode that concludes the film, he will beat to death Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the corrupt and fraudulent preacher who has been dogging his every step.

As Glenn Kenny and a small army of comment-field snarkers have pointed out, H.W. is not in fact Daniel’s son, but the son of a man killed while working alongside Daniel in his first oil well. The filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson, makes this abundantly clear during the first half hour, which is devoid of dialogue but rich with purely visual storytelling, and it fuels the blast-furnace of guilt and aggression that rages behind the well-composed face Plainview presents to the world. It also explains the borderline abusive behavior Plainview exhibits while trying to figure out how to raise an infant in the middle of nowhere, like giving him a toot of whiskey to quiet him down, as seen above. (Adam Trask employs the same child-rearing technique in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden — please don’t try this at home, folks. ) When H.W. is deafened by the gusher in Little Boston, Plainview has to carry a double burden of guilt — his oil ventures have not only led to the death of the father, but also the crippling of his young son. When a Standard Oil executive mentions the boy during a meeting, Plainview’s explosion of rage reflects not just this guilt but his awareness that the oilmen are trying to leverage the boy’s injury in a bid to buy him out for peanuts. One of Smith’s defenders amusingly cites this scene as evidence that the Standard Oil men are capitalist teddy bears with hearts of gold — since we can assume Paul Thomas Anderson knows as much about Standard Oil’s history as the rest of us, it’s far more likely they showed up hoping to exploit the tragedy.

But if you read the comments on both Kenny’s site and Smith’s page, the New York Post winger clings to his misinterpretation with the same willed and invincible ignorance his fellow travelers bring to celebrating the achievements of George W. Bush. For those who like their fruitcake with extra nuts, the comment field of Smith’s site is a veritable Christmas feast.

I’ll credit Smith with this much: checking up on his mistake (was he off buying Milk Duds when the movie started?) I picked up on a unnoticed detail — while the derrick that kills the boy’s real father looks like a jumble of pick-up sticks, all the subsequent derricks are carpentered with military precision, as though to illustrate a hard-won lesson. While I’ve always seen Plainview and Eli Sunday as colleagues in exploitation — one claws wealth from the ground while the other milks it from his parishioners — I was happy to see a wonderful, tossed-off visual detail in which the erection of a new derrick is mirrored by the construction of Sunday’s new church, with Eli standing in the middle of the work site, his silhouette an echo of the black column of oil that rose from the center of Plainview’s construction. And for all of Eli Sunday’s hellfire preaching, it is Daniel Plainview who creates a real pillar of fire, only to snuff it out so the moneymaking can proceed.

So, nice try, Kyle Smith, but no cigar. If you insist on sticking to your notions about Daniel Plainview’s paternal instincts, you get to imagine yourself in his place during this brilliant scene:

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