~ an essay
Finding Everyday Inspiration, Day 12 – Critique a Piece of Work
The film There Will Be Blood is a tour de force. The tale crafted is one of mythical proportions. It is a spiritual & fictional retelling of Oil! by Upton Sinclair. The film serves as a parable, an origin story for the modern tenets of American industry and spirituality. And yet it is very much a singularly human story of an individual, namely Daniel Plainview, adroitly brought to life by Daniel Day-Lewis (the 🐐). Here is my essay on this film, detailing some of its grander notions and its storytelling prowess.
Survival & Ambition
Daniel Plainview starts the film as a lone explorer, trying to make it in the world. Through the opening sequences, there is no dialogue, only ominous music. This is a reflection of Plainview’s own mindspace in these days. Mining for silver in small holes, he appears determined, stoic. He falls and breaks his leg after setting off some dynamite in one of his wells. A near death experience. And yet when he awakens in painful stupor, he checks his finding before tending to himself. He’s made a discovery. Here, we find Daniel searching for the wealth of the old world (silver); but we know his destiny lies with the wealth of a new one (oil). Through the events of the film, we witness the birth of this new world, the evolution of it brought on by men like Daniel. With his broken leg, we watch him slowly drag his way back to camp to cash in on what little silver he has gathered. You can’t help but respect him here, and admire his indomitable spirit to survive.
This is a primary ethic of ours, that of Western individualism. We exist in communities, but we wholeheartedly believe we can make it on our own. Whether it be through hard work, luck, strength of will and spirit, we know it can be achieved. One man with a pickaxe and an idea can become a powerful millionaire — as clear a measure of “success” that we have, then in 1898 and now. It is not only possible, but encouraged and lauded. The lone man, in the wilderness, can not only survive, but thrive, and strive towards the greatest things this country has available to him. Such a principle as this is a double-edged sword. It does breed strength, it hardens one to the often adverse conditions of life and elicits the necessary fortitude to continue progressing. This kind of ambition spurs one to attempt to make dreams reality. But it can also turn life, and relationships, into a vicious, zero-sum game of winning and losing. Interactions become transactional; the flourishing of the community is second rate to the lone success of self. This is the kind of dynamic we know and are now used to. It is certainly the precepts of capitalism.
What of the self is lost in the obsessive hunt for greater things? At what point in Plainview’s journey does his will to survive turn to a domineering ambition to thrive to the detriment of all of his professional and personal relationships? Learning what we do about his nature, it was all in him from the start. Despite everything he gains, everything he goes through, he begins and finishes in the same vein — alone.
The work / the salesmanship / the misanthropy
Daniel says at one point in the film, “I believe in plain speaking.” Such a concept is another Western principle, i.e. ‘say what you mean and mean what you say.’ We do like that. And it is very easy to do this when you understand exactly what path you are, when you know exactly what you want. Plainview is such a man. I think perhaps the only moment of genuine joy we see from Daniel is when he wipes his hand across some of the sludge of his initial discovery, and later when he proclaims “No one else can get at it except for me!” These are the greatest moments on his path to winning the game, the game of oil. And he takes minute pleasure in the work of this game.
Plainview clearly has a mind for business. His entrepreneurial aims are backed up by his relentless focus to plan and execute his work efficiently and effectively. Carrying his small notepad, speaking concisely to partners — he gathers information, analyzes opportunities, calculates the potential for gain and loss / returns on his investments. He looks his workers and prospective clients in the eye, sizing them up for their potential to further his aims. I think he understands what is necessary in both, but only for his purpose. These aspects make him an excellent businessman; they also illuminate his inner self. It is these same characteristics which decay his humanity, if it was ever there at all. Life, in his steps to success, has become transactional in this way. Daniel doesn’t trust anyone, he only trusts the work he is doing.
Plainview’s brand of salesmanship is grounded in the complexity of this work and his commitment to it. When trying to sell the common man his services, he prepares his pitch from the standpoints of efficiency (“I’ll promise to begin drilling in 10 days.”) and quality (“These are my men, I know them and I make it my business to be there and see their work.”) of his operation, touting the generosity of signing bonuses and % stakes offered. These first two are truly the focal points of his pitch, because he knows them best. This is where he derives his passion and is the method which would appeal to someone like him. The third point he brings up, both in chronology and vitality, is the human element. The “This work we do is very much a family enterprise,” “This is my son and partner H.W.” and “How old are your kids ma’am?” come later. Plainview is a good salesman, because he is hyper-competent in his work. But a better one would perhaps start with those appeals to the pathos of the family, and making decisions from the basis of the progression of your children and community. Of course, Daniel’s faculties for the necessary empathy are lacking; his appeals to humanity appear to be simulacratic because they are. The reasons for his success, and for people choosing to work with him, has everything to do with the way he works — the competence and the passion associated with his work ethic — and almost nothing to do with his ability to connect with the person across the table. And as far as commerce is concerned, there is nothing wrong here. To make a return, no real connection need be made. The audience is complicit insofar that they are also taken in by his sociopathic charms. You would probably find yourself giving over your precious land to Mr. Plainview’s machinations, and it’s entirely because you wanted to make money. You would, or should, harbor no illusions about this man’s efforts to better the community and people around him.
Plainview’s manners of communication are lacking because he doesn’t have any time to waste. “If I go up there and I find that you’re lying, I’m gonna take more than my money back. Is that alright with you?” We already know what he thinks of people before he tells us, in his drunken conversation with his faux brother. And it certainly gets worse over time. His cold, misanthropic tendencies, the antipathy, the sociopathy — these things make Daniel Plainview detestable to us. But how much of both his successes and failures are a result of these characteristics, and in what degrees? Commercial enterprises such as the one he is enraptured within, the oil business, reward such fervent competitiveness and unemotional calculation in an outsized manner. From the outset, Plainview is harsh in his assessments of other people. Outside of the sales pitch, he treats people as assets, pieces on a board to be positioned — even his adopted son. He only respects them if they can provide tangible value to him, if they can aid him in his mission and what he is building. If they can’t, they are nothing to him, sometimes worse than nothing (such as Eli). On the business side, everything is a battle. The oil game is zero-sum, you either win or you lose. And Plainview not only hates to lose, he does not wish to see others succeed, by his own admission —
“I have a competition in me, I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people… There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money to get away from everyone. I can’t keep doing this… with these people.”
He doesn’t just want to surpass his oil game rivals, he wants to destroy them and if possible, humiliate them. It appears throughout to be more about the game than the money. For Plainview, what started as a means to survival turns into an ambitious and absurd pursuit of something which cannot ever be fulfilled.
Plainview has no real connections beyond his ambitions. An exception could be made for his family. He holds something like love for his adoptive son, H.W. — he raises him, he struggles when he abandons him, at least part of his show in the church is not an act. The decrying of his grown son at the end seems to come from a place of disappointment and betrayal. He is going to make something of himself in Mexico, a respectable decision to make, and Plainview can only see as becoming a ‘com-pet-tit-or.’ He accepts his long-lost half-brother, Henry, into his operation and life. He trusts him, up until the point when he discovers he is an impostor. Such a betrayal likely didn’t deserve the fate of death but Plainview delivers it dispassionately. Alas it is both of these relationships, holding up his only hopes for contentment, which end up fraying alongside Plainview’s sanity. And of course, in irony, neither of them are truly his blood.
And yet, from the eye on the pages of this fictional history, by every standard we have as a society, Daniel Plainview is a success. He was an effective oil man. He is a forefather for the industry that helped to build this country. Everything we have around us, in commerce, infrastructure, the new and old wealth — is a byproduct of people like him. We must face this disconcerting truth as we watch him hobble around in a bowling alley howling about milkshakes (I think one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever).
Spirituality x Commerce x Madness
An overarching theme of There Will Be Blood is an illumination into the disquieting similarities between our spiritual life and our material one, as a country and as a society. Modern America’s origin story is built along these parallel lines — the progress of our commercial and spiritual industries occurred in tandem and are still pillars today. Through Daniel Plainview, the prosperous and sociopathic oil man, and Eli Sunday, the manipulative and vindictive proselytizer of evangelical Christianity, we are given two exaggerated paragons to show us the tao of the United States of America.
From their first meeting, between Daniel and Eli, there is a duel to turn the other’s presence into their own advantage. Daniel seeks the land holding the wealth of oil, and he must work the people there to obtain access to it. Eli wishes to grow his congregation, and afford the newfound prosperity the community will soon experience in part to his own Godly machinations. Daniel insincerely plays the game of believership with Eli to get what he wants — “What is it that brought you here sir?” The good lord’s guidance. And Eli, despite knowing his materialistic intentions, deals with Daniel because he sees the opportunity to further his stature in the community by securing funding for the church. “It’s very expensive to drill, to get it up and out of the ground. You ever tried that before?” He knows in order to unlock the value of the resources under the community, they must go to oil men like Daniel Plainview and risk being taken advantage of. And despite their conflicts throughout the film, we see the enterprises they wield are not truly at cross-purposes.
What is the motivation of each? For both commerce and religion, it is growth. It is about gaining more people, more land, more resources, more of the community. Both the company and the church are necessarily more beholden to their shareholders / their congregation, a subset of the population, than they are to the public at large. This is by design. The telos of their operation is this stratification of in- and out-groups. It necessitates growth and competition. As a result, a market-based, egalitarian economy based in the hearts and minds of the populace is born. Each industry requires good salesman to succeed. And they do. For good or ill, each is offering some type of demanded value to those who choose to fall in line and invest of themselves their monetary and spiritual capital.
It seems to be that both capitalistic industry and organized, institutional religious practice prey on two prominent aspects of the human psyche — greed and fear, respectively. The believer puts stock in two worlds, in a manner of speaking, that of the material plane and the spiritual plane. Material greed is innate within us to some degree. The drive to acquire, to win, to accumulate the wealth and status of success. Fear is even more ingrained. We are bound helplessly to the fear of death and of meaninglessness. Death can’t be the end, there has to be something else. We need certain things to be true in order to go on. This boils down to simply the hope that tomorrow will be better than today, for us as individuals, and it must hold true even beyond our final breaths. Thus, on these waves of ideology, the twin pillars of capitalism and Christianity come to define our country’s path and ascension in the world order.
So what is wrong with all this? It’s hard to say, there’s so much at work, so much history to unpack. We can’t deny what our venerable country has been able to achieve into modern eras, in spite of questionable foundations. There Will Be Blood is able to convey the general truth of this reality with precision, laying the groundwork just with the demeanors and actions of Daniel and Eli alone as archetypes. At the same time, we are showcased the dark, beating heart at the center of these pillars, their institutions, their leaders — the hypocrisy, the selfishness, the hubris at work within these two. They each get lost in their own pursuits, each succumbing to their own demons and to madness.
Daniel’s primary pitch to the people of Little Boston becomes one of cultivation. He claims he wants to build up the community, with respect to education, farming, employment, wealth. He knows he can improve their standard of living and his operation he’s bringing to town actually will. These are the boons capitalism brings — all the ships do rise in some respect. “This community of your will not only survive, it will flourish.” Such technological advancement and the feats of commercial development do provide a public good. They do drive socioeconomic progression for the population at large. And I think this film does an excellent job of showcasing the full expanse of this new enterprise. We see the inner workings of how the oil rush begins, people like Plainview making discoveries, employing entire towns of working men, devising the methods to new investment, maximizing their own profits, at points soothsaying the common man to gain access to new lands to continue to grow their business. Along their empire-building odysseys they come up against the necessity in becoming involved in the communities they work within, to spread that wealth and exclaim the providence they deliver. And there is progress as a result of these efforts. This country was built upon these capitalistic innovations, the emergent monopolizers and perhaps sociopathic barons of yesteryear. We have to respect that fact.
Eli’s role is the community is just as pivotal. He brings salvation, spreading the word of The Holy Book, fulfilling something we cannot name, quelling those fears we all have in our hearts. His lively sermons provide spiritual nourishment for those in the community, a visceral method of conveying the holy words they try to live by. Eli is a willing and effective vessel upon which the congregation of God-fearing fathers, mothers, and children can imbue their own worldview. And they come to depend on him for it, they need him to show them the way of the Lord. That is Eli’s power, to be a channel for an entire community’s existential understanding of itself. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and clearly one he revels in.
But with each of these men, we have to come back to motivation. In the most intrinsic inner workings of these two paragons(?) of the pillars we’ve been discussing, what do they seek? What are they really after? There is certainly dishonesty in them. Comparing what they say and what they do, there can be no doubt. I think, at its core, it is very simple. Each of them wants power / fortune / position, each of them wants to win, each wants to get the most they can have. There are, in all likelihood, few altruistic aims in their heart. Their environments and the people around them are simply instruments to get to this endgame. The means to an end, and an end that we can see is illusory. All that really matters is the game itself. And both Daniel and Eli, as the leaders that they are, have free reign to define the terms of the engagement, the parameters for success or failure, winning and losing, within their respective games. Each derives this benefit from the wide divide of their own knowledge (material and spiritual in nature) versus that of the masses (i.e. I know oil / God, and all of you do not). For Daniel, with contractual exchanges, the dictates of the distributions of wealth among owner and laborer, and the debt of goodwill to the community for the schools and farmlands that are built only through his operation. For Eli, it is much more simple — it’s a choice between salvation or damnation. His flock follows dutifully, they believe more vehemently because of his performances — “That was one goddamn hell of a show!” And he knows that is just what it is, performance. They believe because they want to. His vivacious sermonizing is thus manipulative but shrewd, because it works. They need salvation, there’s only one choice , and he gives it to them with everything he has.
The doctrine of universal salvation is a lie.
Is it not?
It’s a lie.
I wish everyone could be saved,
but they won’t! No they won’t!
You will never be saved if you…
Reject the blood!
Both men are working with what they know, striving to better their position. But we should not be so naive as to think they are doing it to save lives other than their own. It would seem then, that any public goods produced as a result of these thought leaders’ ambitious, self-interested plots are merely secondary. Secondary advantages to secondary beneficiaries — those of the community vs. the one man. The wages and the raised standard of living from new industry / the existential, effusive peace of mind afforded from heartfelt prayer — they are produced, they certainly exist. But we know they are not the prime directive for either Daniel or Eli. They are the necessary offshoots, the windfalls necessary for them to garner support and continue their singular mission. You might say, this doesn’t matter, the people do benefit. But I think it does, motivation and intention do matter, or at least they should. Of course, this whole recursive system of incentive and reward in place, and which they both are operating within, appears to be working as intended.
I said at the beginning I believed There Will Be Blood to be an illumination on America’s origin story. If these are indeed foundational characteristics in both our economic system and our religious institution — core features and not aberrations of the empires built by people like Daniel and Eli — and are ones which persist today, we might be able to draw some conclusions. ~ It would seem then that there is a self-perpetuating corporate system of income inequality in which most new wealth is generated primarily to the benefit of a select few, and upon the backs of the workforce en mass. It would also seem an institutionalized monopoly on spirituality would be borne upon the masses needing their God, in which the proper ways to behave in a modern society, and the associated rights and democratic voting tendencies afforded to those of the spiritual and secular world alike, are relayed from the dogma inside a book from on high. The picture being illuminated here should look familiar.
So the common American man, looking to survive in society at large, must look to ride the coattails of the baron and the priest, without end, without choice? Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, in drawing up their devious blueprints for their personal ambitions, are each in their success complicit architects of the future of such systems? Perhaps I have descended into my own form of madness here at the end of this essay. Obviously, to assign such self-interested hypocrisy and hubris across the board, generalized to the leaders of these corporations and institutions still in power today, would be a gross misjudgment. Right? ~
~ art by Jason Heatherly