Following the Thread — IV
Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: There Will Be Blood
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
There Will Be Blood is a gorgeous and intense epic that makes a huge leap into the Big Topics. While Boogie Nights has sex and exploitation and Magnolia has family and betrayal There Will Be Blood holds complicated ideas about god, America, commerce, history, truth, loyalty, greed. Many of these Big Topics have always been present throughout Anderson’s film, because his characters live in a world that is very close to ours, but never as explicit as this.
Punch Drunk Love was a move towards a solo character focus, with Anderson thinking more about a man in the world (yes, they are all men from here through Phantom Thread) and less about building densely populated and intensely interconnected worlds. And There Will Be Blood is the full-bodied commitment to that shift.
Tom Cruise’s maniacal libertine Frank Mackey in Magnolia is deeply self-conscious and madly driven. Drive, a theme we also see flashes of in Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, is embodied with frightening and mesmeric power in Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. I don’t want to call it ambition because ambition has a goal, has an end, even if it is intangible or self-designed to be out of reach. Daniel Plainview is not ambitious, he is driven, propelled forward by something inside that won’t let him rest until he’s beaten everyone who’s ever challenged him (figuratively, emotionally, and, in some cases, literally).
Frank Mackey and Dirk Diggler are given just enough personal narrative for us to nod to ourselves “yes, I know why this man is like this.” They both have troubled relationships with parents, the underlying reason for 90% (citation needed) of any of our adult life problems. [Interestingly, Melora Walters’ Claudia in Magnolia also has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with a parent and it results in alienation as opposed to drive. My impulse here is that this difference highlights how the expectations on and limitations of women affect how we process trauma, and also PTA’s reliability male-centric stories.]
We find out a little about Daniel Plainview’s family history: dead parents, a sister he never sees, a brother who he believes is alive, invites into his life, discovers to be a fraud and promptly kills. But they are never put forth as a justification for who he is or why he does what he does. His relationship with his own family, his son, is a pantomime made real in moments of love and pain but always usurped by the force that is Daniel Plainview.
There is a way of looking at this movie that has his drive destroying his life, tearing apart his relationships and leaving the man who has everything drunk and twitching with violence in the gutter of his own bowling alley. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Daniel Plainview gets exactly what he wanted. His drive is for power over his environment. He wants power over the earth and he gets it. He wants power over the people around him, over their roles in his life and over their lives themselves and he gets it. And when he has these things he’s finished.
Besides DDL’s flawless performance that radiates this powerful identity, placing the story in this particular moment of American history colors Daniel Plainview’s individualism. As we can say “ah, yes, I understand” about Dirk Diggler because his mother treated him badly, Daniel is brutal and remote in a ways that fit a familiar context of American manhood we associate with this bygone era. The turn of the century was a lawless place where people died young and often. While the particulars of his behavior are dated, his toxicity is timeless. In other movies about towering men we are often left wondering about their human wreckage but the time period, performance and storytelling of There Will Be Blood focus our gaze so explicitly on Daniel Plainview we (or I) don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the periphery.
This movie also has PTA flexing timeline muscles in a new way. All the way back to Hard Eight he hasn’t shied away from time jumps with a date title card to move the story forward. While in Magnolia he put great faith in the viewer’s ability to see and understand concurrency, here he moves quickly through time assuming we will keep up. This accelerated pace and time fluidity will also play an important part in The Master, but more on that later.
Next: Part V: The Master
As as side note, I wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson saw Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of oil soaked workers before making this movie? They are terrifying and beautiful.