There Will Be Blood part 4

In which I wrap up this far-too-long chunk of character analysis.


There Will Be Blood part 3

In which I talk about Daniel Plainview’s family issues.


There Will Be Blood part 2

  has taken a firm stand — Daniel Plainview’s primary motivation, he feels, is greed. There is no doubt that DP is a greedy man — not to mention a pathological liar and a homicidal maniac — but I think he’s more complicated than that, as I will hope to demonstrate as I move forward in my analysis. Yesterday I got as far as the end of Act I, and today I’ll be moving on from there.

ACT II: DP has set up his business in Signal Hill. His success in Signal Hill has attracted a young man, Paul Sunday, to him. Paul has told him about a ranch, his family’s, where oil bubbles up through the ground.

The act begins. DP and HW travel to the Sunday ranch, pretending to be campers hunting for quail (DP’s lies are not restricted to his words — he’s also fully capable of lying with actions). He meets Paul Sunday’s identical twin Eli, and here’s where DP’s Gap presents itself. Everything in the movie up to this point has gone pretty much as DP expected it would, a couple of accidents and an impromptu adoption aside (more on that adoption later). DP is caught short by the appearance of Eli, who he first suspects is actually Paul pretending to be someone else.

DP and HW discover oil on the Sunday ranch. They sit on a hillside at sunset and DP tells HW his plans. In a Disney movie, this would be the place for the “I Want” song — “Just Around the Riverbend” or “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” DP has a vision of his future, involving digging for oil in Little Boston and piping it to the coast, thus avoiding the railroad’s shipping costs.

So here we have another motivation, not just greed but a need to “prove” something to somebody. It seems endemic to American businessmen, and maybe all pioneers, to not just “succeed” but to prove that they are smarter, wilier and more forward-thinking than those in power. For DP, it’s nice that he’ll save some money by not using the railroads but it seems more important to him to show Standard Oil and the railroads that he’s smarter than them.

And so this circles back to DP’s being alone at the beginning of the movie. He, and he alone, dug the hole that found the silver that made him the money to hire the crew to dig for oil — he’s done it all through hard work and sacrifice (some of it even his own) and he’ll be damned if he’ll let a bunch of three-piece-suited businessmen come along and profit from his hard work (of course, he sees nothing wrong with dramatically underselling the local residents so he can do all this on their land).

DP offers to buy the Sunday ranch, telling the father that he needs a place with dry weather for HW’s health. We’ve now heard three sales pitches from DP, each one tailored to the prejudices of the mark. DP is, essentially, a con man with a talent for digging.

The father is on the hook, but Eli steps in, and here DP’s Gap bursts wide open. Eli, it turns out, thinks of himself as a preacher, divinely chosen to lead people. As much as DP was caught short by Paul Sunday having a brother, he’s struck dumb when Eli announces that he has a church. When he has gathered his wits, he looks Eli in the eye and says “That’s good. That’s a good one.” What he means, of course, is that he recognizes Eli as a fellow con man, who has a good con to play.

In any case, soon DP has bought almost the entire town and “shown” the big oil suits how smart he is. He meets a colleague at the train station and advises him to “look east” for more oil. He says he’d rather his friend drill there than those guys from Standard Oil he hates, but I’m not so sure. We haven’t seen the friend before, and given the way DP treats his competition (with one curious exception, as we shall see) I’d be willing to bet that DP is sending his colleague on a wild goose chase just for laughs.

In his most focused speech yet, DP tells the townsfolk of Little Boston that he and his business are going to transform the town. He’s going to provide roads, employment, agriculture, schools, even bread. DP presents himself, in fact, as a kind of father figure — “Don’t worry about anything, folks, I’m going to take care of everything.” He presents his sales pitch not as “I will take all your valuable resources,” but as “I will give you everything you need.” As the movie goes on, we see that none of his promises are kept in any perceivable way. The town becomes busier, true, but it’s just full of dust and workers and smoke — we never see a school built, a local employed or a farmer’s field bloom.

Eli, of course, sees a missing piece in DP’s plan — he sees that DP’s industry will bring money into the town, which will create sin — drinking and whoring — and thus create a spiritual void. He, essentially, horns in on DP’s con, blows DP’s angle, hoping to make his own fortune from the profitable blight that DP brings with him. DP makes gestures toward providing a spiritual cushion — he promises to build a road to Eli’s church and even says a prayer at the opening of the new well, but they’re only gestures — he not only has no spiritual core, he’s making the gesture to steal Eli’s thunder, lessen his impact on the community, essentially treating Eli as another competitor for the town’s attentions.

In any case, the well is dug and the derrick is put into operation. To sum up the plot for the act:

DP, acting on a tip from Paul Sunday, comes to Little Boston, tries to con the Sunday family out of their ranch but is thrown off by Eli, who sees exactly who DP is and is running his own con. DP promises to buy Eli off, buys the ranch, buys most of the rest of the town, convinces the townsfolk that he’s their new daddy and they’re all going to be a big happy family, and sets about building his first derrick (to seal the deal, he names it after Eli’s sister Mary).

Toward the end of the act HW informs DP, apropos of nothing, that Mary Sunday is beaten by her father. After the derrick opens, there is a celebration and DP hugs Mary to him and tells her, in full view of the father, that there will be “no more hitting.” He repeats this a few times, which makes me think that DP was abused as a child. Given that he’s a cold-blooded sociopath, it’s not surprising, but DP has a peculiar relationship with children all through the movie. To all appearances, he seems to have genuine affection for HW, his adopted son (although he denies it later). He confides in HW and tries to teach him the tricks of the trade, and tomorrow I’ll talk about where I think his affection for HW comes from.

DP pledging “No more hitting” to Mary Sunday, of course, will come to have terrible repercussions later, but I’ll get to that in time.
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There Will Be Blood part 1

Faithful reader Kent M. Beeson has asked my advice on how to present a character’s motivation in a screenplay. This is a tricky situation — the best thing to do is not present motivation but rather action, and let the audience wonder about motivation. But motivation does lie close to the heart of the question, the question being, of course, What Does The Protagonist Want?

As Mr. Beeson was composing his question, I, coincidentally, was re-watching There Will Be Blood, in anticipation of a blistering attack from longtime friend and PT Anderson-hater

   . Blood presents us with a protagonist who plays his cards very close to his vest — perhaps so close that not even he knows exactly what he’s holding.

Daniel Plainview is not an easy character to figure out. He devotes a fair measure of his energy to concealing his motivations from other people and those people, it follows, includes us.  We could say with some certainty that, to an extent, Plainview’s motivations are a mystery even to himself. To suss out the motivations for his actions, we have to add up the clues in his actions and see what we get. As this fine motion picture is still in theaters, I urge my readers to go see it before reading the following.

There Will Be Blood, obviously, has a great deal to say about capitalism, sin and and soul of the United States. What I want to do here is forget about all that to the extent that I can. Daniel Plainview may be some kind of metaphor for the American character, but you can’t write a character as a metaphor and an actor can’t play one. The only way to write a good, three-dimensional character is to be as specific as possible and then have the actor play it as specifically as he knows how. Both of these tasks are performed quite well in There Will Be Blood, which I think is why most people recognize its excellence even if they can’t quite figure out what it’s on about.

First of all, let’s see if we can divide Blood up into coherent act breaks. I count six, and they go like this:

ACT ONE: “Plainview makes a name for himself as an oil man.” We see him dig for silver, find silver, dig for oil, strike oil, then set up his oil business. At the end of this act, Paul Sunday shows up in his office and presents to him the discovery that will ultimately make Plainview his fortune.

ACT TWO: “Plainview sets up operations in Little Boston.” We see him travel to this godforsaken town in the middle of nowhere, con some simple folk out of their land, deal with Paul’s brother Eli and his burgeoning church and get his first well underway.

ACT THREE: “Plainview loses his son.” We see Plainview’s well gush, which brings him great wealth but makes his adopted son deaf.

ACT FOUR: “Plainview replaces his son with his brother.” Henry Plainview arrives in Little Boston, claiming to be Plainview’s brother. Plainview takes Henry into his confidence and sends his son HW off to a special school in San Francisco. Plainview is approached by Standard Oil for his land, but he has plans of his own. He and Henry plot out a pipeline, walking 100 miles to the sea, to sell their oil to Union Oil. While at the beach, Plainview realizes that Henry is not his brother but an impostor. He kills him and buries the body.

ACT FIVE: “Plainview gets his son back.” Daniel, having learned his lesson, completed his work and made his fortune, fetches HW back. Eli uses his influence to pressure Daniel into a situation where he (Eli) is able to humiliate Daniel in public. HW grows up and marries Mary Sunday, Eli’s sister.

ACT SIX: “Plainview has the last laugh.” It is some time later. We see Plainview, wealthier and older, disown HW for undergoing what he considers a competitive business venture. Eli, who has beenlaid low by the intervening years. comes to Daniel for a favor. Daniel drinks his milkshake and bludgeons him to death with a bowling pin.

(These last two acts are rather brief, only twenty minutes apiece. This would, ordinarily, suggest that they are, in fact, one act, except that a good deal of time passes between Act V and Act VI, and Act VI is too long, and too explosively climactic, to be considered an epilogue.)

ACT ONE: It is 1898. Daniel Plainview (DP), a grizzled prospector (looking not unlike this guy), digs a hole, alone, in the middle of nowhere, in the desert. In a movie rife with Kubrick references, DP, covered with hair and dirt and swinging his pick, looks like 2001‘s Moon-Watcher with his bone.

Why is he alone? Wouldn’t the job of digging a deep, deep hole in the middle of nowhere be easier, not to mention safer, with a crew or at least a partner? And yet DP goes it alone. Perhaps he’s seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre and knows better than to tell anyone where he’s digging, or it could simply be that he, like Garbo, prefers to be that way. And indeed, we will learn later that DP doesn’t particularly care for people. It is not a “good” or “bad” quality — it is just, we would say, Who He Is.

We could say that this DP is pure DP. Miles away from anyone, his life is not a performance. His actions are simple and direct and uninflected. He’s not asking to be loved or trying to prove his superiority. He’s digging a hole and climbing a ladder and hauling a winch and blowing up some dynamite. PT Anderson, like Kubrick, is interested in examining systems: this is how an atom bomb gets delivered to its target, this is how a group of teenage boys are turned into killing machines, this is how a shuttle docks with an orbiting space station, this is how one gets precious materials out of the ground. We could say that this first part of the movie shows DP in his element. We could say that this is when he is happiest, alone and accountable to no one and on no one’s schedule.

(Speaking of elements, three of the four classical elements get real metaphorical workouts in this movie — Earth, Water and Fire all make dramatic appearances. And I suppose Air gets blown around too, whenever one of the principles needs to sell something to somebody.)

DP finds silver in the hole he’s digging, which gets him enough money to get started in what will be his life’s work, digging for oil. We see him next with a small crew of men, digging another hole in another middle of nowhere. They strike oil — whether through intent or by accident isn’t clear to me. One of the men has a baby boy, HW, who is baptized with the newly found crude.

(This is the first we see of oil-drilling as a kind of belief system, which will become important later.)

A few scenes later, HW’s father is killed in an accident. This is the second accident in the movie — DP broke his leg in the first hole, now HW loses his father in the second hole. To quiet the sobbing infant HW, DP feeds him whiskey. The significance of this becomes important later (and has nothing to do with milkshakes). Oil struck in this hole, DP moves on with HW to greener pastures.

We see DP with HW on a train. HW, though an infant, seems to like DP and DP seems to like HW. So it seems that DP is not a wholly antisocial creature; given the opportunity, he will be nice to a defenseless infant.

Fourteen minutes into the movie, we get our first dialogue. It is 1908 and DP is seen trying to sell his drilling operation, which as grown considerably, to a group of townspeople. The tools of his speech to the townspeople are crucial. He uses words like “family” and “community” and “trust” and “friendship” when what he’s really talking about is stealing these people’s land so he can turn it into an oilfield and make a ton of money. So while DP may prefer to be alone, he apparently has learned somewhere how to work a crowd. Public speaking, the most common of fears, does not seem to slow down DP. When the town meeting breaks down into argumentative shouting, DP gets up and walks out. “Too much confusion,” he says, limping out to his car.

The next thing we see is DP in the kitchen of a middle-aged couple, negotiating to buy their land. He lies to them about HW’s parentage and his status as a family man. This scene, up against the previous one, confused me until I read the screenplay (which can be found here), which indicates that DP, through buying the middle-aged couple’s land, is getting the same oil he would have been getting by leasing the land of the argumentative townspeople of the previous scene. He doesn’t explain it there, but the issue is “drainage,” the same concept he ends up explaining with the “milkshake” metaphor in Act VI. He could, apparently, lease the whole town, which would benefit everyone but involve dealing with a large group of people, or he could lease the land of just the middle-aged couple, get all the same oil eventually, and not have to talk to anyone.

Through this first part of the movie we see that yes, DP is a greedy capitalist, but he is also not afraid of hard work, risking his life and limb, or getting his hands dirty to achieve wealth. He’s even willing, up to a point, to be fair to people — unless there are too many of them with too many agendas, in which case he’d rather just withdraw and make a deal that screws everyone. That is, he’s greedy but his greed is secondary to, I think, his prime motivation — his dislike of people.

In any case, DP gets his well in Signal Hill and takes over the house of the middle-aged couple he was dealing with (this is another tidbit I got from the screenplay. DP transforms the Signal Hill house with so much construction as to make it unrecognizable). It is his success in Signal Hill that brings Paul Sunday to his office. Paul Sunday, a poor but apparently wily young man piques DP’s interest in a tract of land near a town called Little Boston, which brings us to the end of Act I.

So, in plot terms, what we have so far is: DP, alone, digs for silver, which leads to DP making a small fortune, which leads to DP and a crew of men, including the infant HW, digging for oil, which leads to the death of HW’s father, which leads to DP’s adoption of HW. The success of the well that killed HW’s father leads to DP’s business expanding to include, among other sites, a successful well in Signal Hill, which leads to Paul Sunday seeking DP out to offer him his family’s ranch as a potential drilling site. This series of events all lead to DP heading out to Little Boston and the Sunday Ranch, which is where Act II begins.

And this has gone on long enough for one day, I will pick it up anon.

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There Will Be Syrup

Daniel Plainview and his madeleine.

Several loyal readers have written in to ask me to analyze the plot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest masterwork There Will Be Blood. This is a daunting task for your journeyman screenwriter, but, as Blood is obviously an important new movie and will inevitably be seen as a lodestar of the cinematic movement that will, no doubt, spring from it, I figured I would give it ago.

As this movie is still very much in theaters, I strongly caution the unlearned reader against advancing below the cut — vital spoilers are involved in every sentence.

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