There Will Be Blood – Paul Anderson – USA – 2007

There Will Be Blood – Paul Anderson – USA – 2007

adrin neatrour writes: Film as installation: first there was drive in now we got walk through movies. There Will Be Blood – Paul Anderson – USA – 2007   Daniel Day-Lewis, Dillon Freasier, Paul Dano, Kevin J O’Connor
Viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle   30 June 08  Ticket: £6-80

Film as installation: first there was drive in now we got walk through movies.

There Will Be Blood (TWBB) is a Hollywood gloss on Upton Sinclair’s big novel, Oil!  One of the most politically radical of America’s 20th century writers, Oil! is written on a broad historical canvas taking in the Great War, the Russian revolution and the tide of socialism in Europe and setting it against labour and political strife in the oil fields of Southern California.

Oil!  Chapter X11 The Monastery: ‘It had become clear to him that the present system could not go on forever – the resources and wealth of the Country carried off by the greediest.  And when you asked who was going to change the system there was only one possible answer – the great mass of workers who had learned that wealth was produced by toil.’

Anderson’s solution as to how to film Oil! is to replace Marx with Freud, to deflect the shaping of the narrative away from  political concerns inwards into psycho familial dynamics.  Upton Sinclair’s observations that chiliastic religious fervour de-energised and deflected American labourers from more pointed class concerns is taken up by Anderson, but then twisted and deformed to serve his own purposes in  providing TWBB with a final gothic  tableau:  the death of Eli bludgeoned to death by Daniel Plainview in private bowling ally of his mansion.  In TWBB religion justifies the final cryptic setting for this contemporary take on American Gothic involving the oil business –  fire – murder – blood.

Anderson has styled TWBB as  modern American Gothic, and it is Gothic script which provides the only opening title of the film, the date 1898  (white on black field)  which opens up the first of Anderson’s photo tableaux.  Sinclair’s novel is not stylistically gothic.  Rather it is informal and conversational in form and politically didactic in content.  Anderson’s solution to the transposition of the written to the filmic is to make of the film a series walk through photo installations, a set of tableaux as beloved of nineteenth century artists or current practitioners such as Bill Viola

So TWBB opens with the silver mine installation (birth)  and proceeds through a series of linked set-ups, the business meeting (sharp practice),  buying the farm to exploit the mineral wealth below its surface (underhand mendacity); the oil well blow out (the demonstration of the forces of nature), the dismissal of the son (rejection), the murder of the false brother (Cain and Abel), the humiliation of Daniel at the Temple by Eli (shame and humiliation) and the final tableau, Daniel’s slaying of the Preacher Eli ( Death: revenge on God and his two faced priests on earth)  The tableaux are spread over time, each temporal sequence introduced with the date in Gothic.

It is the camera work that indicates that what we are watching has been conceived as a photo installation. The film is characterised by a large number of long tracking shots that take us through each of the tableaux. I wondered at first what the tracks were accomplishing: they didn’t seem to have an obvious purpose either moral or instrumental. In fact the tracking shots in TWBB are a simulated replication of the effect the audience would get if they were walking through a photo installation.  The film is simply an installation in film form. The big production value centrepiece of TWBB the Biblical column of fire caused by the oil blow out reminded me of one of Viola’s walk through installations that featured a  cascade of water.  The hyperrealisation of natural phenomena, overdetermines response of the viewer to create awe (Fear and Awe) without engaging the question of meaning.  Anderson has adapted Oil! as a walk through installation.    TWBB has been made to fill out the gaze of the audience as it moves through the film.  TWBB is filmed to be cool  and to satisfy  all consuming but ephemeral vapid ambulatory curiosity.  It has not been written and shot for audience engagement with either context issues or emotions.  

To complete the installation effect, two other characteristics of the film production  are fully articulated.  The sound design concept is central to the walk through experience.  From the opening establishment shot of mountains accompanied by a crescending siren effect TWBB is only rarely (for instance when cutting to the deaf  mute point of view) without a sound accompaniment that fills out and points to the angle of the gaze; and meaning that the gaze should construe.  The score literally presses down and in and onto the film. With the its surround technology the sound is an active physical presence that preempts audience reaction to the visual stimuli.  By turns it is  ominous, the biosuggestive,  cosmic and of course weird.   The object of the sound concept is the colonisation of the viewers understanding, or at least the denial to mind of coherent response to the offered stimuli. Like the adverts on TV the sound track to TWBB is an enforcer; it is not a deepener of insight or reflection.

In similar manner, the mis-en-scene,  sets and costumes. are designed to fill out the gaze’s field of vision with confirmations of authenticity.   Attention to detail, another aspect of photo installation work, ensures all the detailing of the sets has a hyper real perfection so that nothing interferes with the smoothen path of the spectator’s trail through the film.  Anderson’s objective is total immersion in the encounters with the installations mediated by the richness of the interiors and costumes of the turn of the nineteenth century.  TWBB is populated by a series of players whose screen persona is characterised by a sort of Biblical patina invested with fake mythological persona.  DDL looked at times like a gremlin sorcerer out of the Lord of the Rings.  

The fragmented temporal structure serves Anderson’s purposes by being coherently inchoate.  TWBB time fragments intrerconnect but not in a way that compels specific readings; rather in such a way that the individual viewer can construct there own understandings as to what has happened.   Anderson\s replacement of Sinclair’s out front Marxism with back door Freudianism results in subjectivities determining meaning.  The viewer instead of  looking at the failure of organised labour in the US, instead can muse on the meaning the death of Eli in the bowling alley or the deafness of HW. In Anderson’s recourse to ever more heavy handed symbolism, an increasing vacuity and emptiness characterises the film.  By the final credits I had a feeling that I had been watching a shell of a movie in which  the core of the drama was missing: as indeed was the case.  I left the cinema saying to myself, not Oil! but So What!
adrin neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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