There Will Be Blood (2007) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Warning: nearly complete point-by-point spoilers
Quick: name the most influential fiction book of all time.
Before you begin, two rules:
There is no one set answer to a speculative question like this. You might, for example, choose Uncle Tom's Cabin, which spurred a generation of abolitionists to a degree of activism that heralded the beginning of the end of slavery. After having given the matter some thought, I think I'm casting my ballot for "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel which exposed the horrors of the meat-packing industry. The public was shocked by Sinclair's terrifying accounts of abused children laboring in unwholesome conditions, and of workers falling into meat processing vats and being ground, along with animal parts, into sausage and lard. The resulting outrage reached all the way to the president, Teddy Roosevelt, who read the book and wrote Sinclair a multi-page letter in response to what he had read.
Boy, was that ever a different time!
After Sinclair exposed the abuses, everyone had a motivation to make some changes. Roosevelt was motivated by compassion. The meatpackers were motivated by an economic crisis: foreign sales of American meat fell by one-half. Feeling the pressure from the public, the President, and the industry, Congress responded with the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration. A single novel had struck a genuinely important blow against some of the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and had instigated sweeping reforms, laws, and agencies that are still with us today.
Sinclair would go on to write umpteen gazillion more books in a long life, but for all that duration and far beyond, every educated American was taught to make an instant mental association between Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle," and knew very little more about either the man or the book. In the overachieving prep school I attended, we were required not only to learn that knee-jerk association and its importance, but also to read the actual book. That was not an easy assignment. Important books are not necessarily interesting ones, and even the importance of the book was lost upon us sixty years after the fact, when the problems had been corrected. We were left reading a dry, humorless, pedantic, entertainment-free book that was only marginally more readable than Moby Dick.
When I was studying "The Jungle" in high school it had seemed like an ancient artifact, about equivalent to those Egyptian sarcophagi, and I assumed that Sinclair had been long ago buried. That turned out to be incorrect. Although I began my university studies in 1966 and "The Jungle" had been written 60 years earlier, the young socialist had been only 28 when he had written his magnum opus, and he had not only lived into the 1960s, but he was still feisty then and making a public comeback after having been ignored for two decades.
Sinclair's form of pessimistic socialism had fallen out of favor in the twenty years after WW2. My parents' generation of Americans was weary of the great war and the great depression which had dominated sixteen years of their lives. That same generation could see that socialism was a doomed system, at least within the Soviet bloc, so they were ready to enjoy the fruits of capitalism: to have babies, buy cars, take their kids to Disneyland, and watch a new-fangled contraption called television. In the heady swirl of post-war prosperity, Americans had no interest in crabby old socialists like "Uppie." But the New Left movement on America's campuses in the sixties, which became a significant political force in opposition to the military draft and America's involvement in Vietnam, resuscitated the careers of some anti-Establishment figures who had formerly been blacklisted or forgotten. Some of the old lefties like Pete Seeger and Upton Sinclair were dusted off and given their microphones back. Sinclair was especially iconic to the participants in America's second flirtation with socialism because he may have been at that time America's oldest living bona fide socialist. Eugene V. Debs had founded the Socialist Party of America in 1901, and Sinclair didn't waste a lot of time before joining up in 1904. He had become a socialist when my grandmothers were in second grade, before Ty Cobb's rookie year, and more than a decade before the Russian Revolution. Yet, miraculously, Upton Sinclair was still alive and relevant again when I was in college.
He was a prized campus lecturer in the sixties. We students, even the Young Republicans, viewed him with awe, as living history. Every single one of us in college in that era had been taught in high school what a great and positive impact he had made with "The Jungle," and he remained a prized campus speaker almost until his death in 1968 at the age of 90.
Of course the war ended, the draft was abolished, and the country got fat and content again in the feel-good eras of the Reagan and Clinton years, so Upton Sinclair was forgotten again.
Here I am in 2008, writing about Upton Sinclair again.
How did this happen?
An ambitious young filmmaker named Paul Thomas Anderson has brought Uppie back to prominence by building his latest project on the shell of an Sinclair novel named "Oil!" Despite my earlier career as an instructor in American Literature, I had never read this obscure work, but I resolved to do so before writing about the film. When any significant film is based upon an earlier source, I have resolved to read the source work or to re-read it freshly, just as I always research the historical evidence behind any film which purports to be in any way historical. I do not claim that this is a technique which is useful to evaluate a film. It is possible to make a good film from a bad novel, even when faithful to it. It is also possible to make a bad film while being faithful to a great novel, because some things that work in books do not work equally well on screen. Similarly, historical inaccuracy has no real impact on the quality for a film. Amadeus is historical nonsense and a great film. So I have to admit in advance that my obsession with these sorts of things is not based on any theory of how to critique a film. Indeed, I have no such theory. I just write about what interests me. If you don't share these interests, you might be better off reading someone else's ruminations about the films.
As it turns out, my meticulous research was more or less a waste of time in this case. Anderson's film script and Sinclair's novel are virtually unrelated. They have in common that they are both about the interactions between an oil man, his son, and two brothers whose family sells its ranch to the oil man. Apart from that tenuous correlation, there is really nothing significant in There Will Be Blood which is derived from "Oil!", to wit:
The time I spent reading the book wasn't a complete waste of time because I enjoyed "Oil!," which is a much livelier story than "The Jungle." It is fascinating to see how the people who actually lived in the twenties portrayed the mores, the campuses, and the intellectual movements of that era, as well as the emergence of radio as a force for education and manipulation. Although "Oil!" is polemical and almost humorless, it does use some dramatic irony and it establishes surprisingly complex characters. While the views of socialism are espoused in earnest, the oil man is given a multi-dimensional personality and is presented as a bright, decent, open-minded man who happens to have some of the wrong ideas. Frankly, Anderson could have used some of that subtlety in his script.
Rather than to describe There Will Be Blood as an adaptation of "Oil!" it might be more accurate to say that "Oil!" inspired Anderson to research the events and times upon which the book was based, and to consolidate some of the era's prominent figures into his two central figures, Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview, who stand as symbols of the three major forces which have shaped modern America: capitalism in Plainview's case, religion and the mass media in Eli's. Parts of Daniel Plainview's biography are based quite distinctly upon Edward Doheny, like Plainview a failed silver miner from a poor family in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin who eventually became, with nothing but an indomitable will and the sweat from his brow, California's first and most prominent oil baron. Doheny gained a measure of Hollywood-style fame by constructing the most expensive home which had ever been built in California, and the second largest behind Heart's castle at San Simeon. Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills was a 55-room home with 46,000 square feet of living space and a two-lane bowling alley in the basement. The film's director, Paul Thomas Anderson, linked the Plainview character directly to Doheny by using the Doheny family's bowling alley as Daniel Plainview's own in the film's final scene. While Doheny himself never killed anyone in that mansion, it was the place where Doheny's son was the victim of a famous murder/suicide.
Daniel Plainview's behavior, however, is not based on Sinclair's fictional Arnold Ross or on Edward Doheny. Daniel may have some items from their résumés, but his personality bears no resemblance to either of theirs. It has been cut from whole cloth by two tailors with day jobs in the film biz: an audacious screen auteur named Paul Thomas Anderson and a brilliantly eccentric actor named Daniel Day-Lewis.
Ol' DDL seems to be the current consensus choice as the greatest living film actor, and that he may be. Or he may be the worst. It all depends on what exactly an actor is supposed to accomplish with his performances, and there are no official criteria for that. Let me approach that subject obliquely, by discussing authors rather than actors. What makes a great writer? Is it the ability to represent reality fairly and accurately, or the knack for creating large, memorable, original stories and characters and presenting them in eloquent ways? If it is the former, then Charles Dickens is a hack of the lowest order, for nothing he ever wrote rings true, or even close to true. His characters are cartoons with cartoon names. His plots are riddled with improbabilities made ludicrous by the frequency with which they occur. But if the latter, then Dickens is a great writer. The general consensus seems to be that Dickens is a reasonable choice as the second-greatest writer in the history of the English language (for surely Shakespeare has no real rival as #1), and therefore the tacit criteria for greatness are originality, memorability, and eloquence rather than consistency, plausibility, subtlety and truth. It seems to me reasonable to argue that Daniel Day-Lewis is the Charles Dickens of actors, at least in his most recent performances. Nothing he does seems remotely credible. No character he creates seems to remind one of any known human being. Daniel Plainview would seem to be an extreme personality type even to those who felt Stalin was a regular guy. But one cannot question that Day-Lewis's characters are original and memorable and eloquent and highly entertaining. If the criteria for performers are like those for authors, Daniel is one for the ages. I'm pretty sure that's the way it will work out. Do you remember the dueling Wyatt Earp movies of about a decade ago? Which had the better Doc Holliday? Was it Dennis Quaid, who created a character that could plausibly have been a lot like the real man, or was it Val Kilmer with his larger-than-life portrayal which skirted the edges of high camp? I don't know the "right" answer, but I know which of the two performances are still remembered, loved, and mimicked. Let's face it, you probably don't even remember that Quaid played that role, do you? He did a good job, but that sort of performance is soon forgotten. Val Kilmer's is the one for the ages. To cite another example, who was the best Captain Bligh? Who knows? But Charles Laughton is the one we remember, not any of those subtle ones. Daniel-Day Lewis is that kind of performer. He takes very few roles, but when he decides to commit to one he does so with a monomaniacal energy and focus like no other actor. When DDL is working on a character, you won't catch him schmoozing it up at Hollywood parties or charming the talk show hosts. He's in character and he stays in character, so bother him at your peril. Quick, somebody remake The Master of Ballantrae while DDL is still working. He was born for that role. (For further reading about this fascinating man, here's an interesting article about how he blurs the metaphorical line between genius and insanity.)
Frankly, DDL carries this entire movie on his back. It's an interesting script, a good script, but it would not be a great movie with Harrison Ford or Dennis Quaid in the lead. It required DDL to push it from good to great.
And even with him it has some problems:
It is not reasonable to expect a film to be perfect, even if one is Ridley Scott tinkering with Blade Runner for twenty five years, so There Will be Blood is not perfect. But it is audacious, original, and sometimes dazzling. Some of the set pieces are spectacular. And Daniel Day-Lewis is fascinating as he creates yet another offbeat character which seems to belong in a 19th century novel. Paul Thomas Anderson may be the only young filmmaker who reaches for the stars the way Welles or Kubrick once did. And by God, sometimes his hand gets mighty close.
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