This micro-strand is a spin off of a recently posted Criticwire Survey, in which I was invited to discuss my relationship with the work of the American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Inspired to expand further upon that response, and with The Master almost upon us, now would appear to be the perfect opportunity to revisit PTA’s entire body of work, and from a wholly personal point of view to boot.
This is the third in an occasional series focussing on Anderson’s body of work in the run up to the UK release date of The Master in November. For the first part, which took in Anderson’s sophomore effort Boogie Nights, please click here. See here for Part 2, which looked at Punch-Drunk Love.
There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature is one important to Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second. It was declared to be our film of the decade when that period drew to a close, with it’s release seeing the coining of the term “best/most interesting/finest XXXXX since There Will Be Blood” as a mark of quality for any film that has followed in it’s wake.
Misinterpreted readings of comments made by Anderson on the press trail for There Will Be Blood led to rumours circulating that the American filmmaker’s follow-up to this tale of oil would be a horror film. Upon hearing of said rumours Anderson simply responded that “I thought I just had made a horror film…”. While bracketing There Will Be Blood within any genre framework would be largely pointless, given that outside of perhaps the unhelpfully broad stroke of ‘drama’ approaching the work from a catch-all perspective would be reductive to the max, not to mention rather difficult. But alas, it’s Hallowe’en, there’s something in the air, let’s take a look at Anderson’s opus from the perspective of the great horror picture.
A lack of genre leanings within PTA’s work comes as something of a surprise when one takes a glimpse in to the filmmaker’s background. His father, Ernie Anderson, a notable television talent in Ohio was best known for a creation called Ghoulardi, a horror host on late-night television in the vein of Vampira. Through his Ghoulardi guise Anderson would present low rent Horror flicks and Science-fiction B-movies, with his status eventually prompting the fateful move to Los Angeles that would plant the young Paul Thomas Anderson within the city in which his talent would eventually blossom. It’s probably a fair assessment of Anderson’s upbringing to say that it was the behind the magic side of things that inspired his later work more greatly than the films which his father was presenting. The entire concept of Boogie Nights revolves around the backlot, even if it is a non-traditional one and yet it’s the appropriate sections of Magnolia which hints at There Will Be Blood most clearly. For while Magnolia tells of the workings of network television in a complex, multi-layered manner, it’s this exacting precision which is transplanted over to There Will Be Blood. Everything about the film feels legitimate. The raising to the ground of the oil rig, as it burns makes for an awe-inspiring sight, and all the more for it being real. A rig was built, a rig was burnt. No CGI, no gimmick. The enactment of process is one of the films key elements. This approach is made clear in the films opening sequence, which sees a lone Daniel Plainview at work, mining for gold and silver, an act itself which sets a tonal precedence for the film about to follow.
It’s important that we see Plainview on his own at the start of the picture. Gold (or silver) maketh the man. That leads to oil, which, if you’ll excuse the dramatic way of putting this, in turn leads to blood. The act of mining, be it for oil or mineral is wholly associated with decay, with both the internal destruction of Daniel Plainview and the few actual on-screen deaths all occurring in, or spiralling from the pit. While a number of deaths take place throughout There Will Be Blood, it isn’t until the films closing moments that blood is actually seen on-screen. One gruesome end, which incidentally, is the equal of anything in a Final Destination or a My Bloody Valentine 3D, sees the claret cancelled out by coats of oil, while another is cloaked in darkness. The death of one (Kevin O’Conner’s Henry) reminds us that for all of Plainview’s treachery and power, he still has to bury the bodies by hand.
It’s the inevitability of the films second death scene (of one of Plainview’s workers) that fits the conventions of the traditional horror genre the greatest. We even see a “test run” of the danger that lies ahead for the unfortunate victim, in an earlier sequence in which the scenario plays out sans casualty. Each death brings with it the close to a chapter of Plainview’s story. Death #1 brings with it a surrogate son, while Death #2 marks the placing of faith firmly within the tale. Death #3 introduces William Bandy, the progression of the oil path and Plainview’s own placement within the church, while the films final killing, Death #4 brings with it the natural conclusion to the religion-capitalism debate that runs through the film.
A number of other conventions closely associate with Horror cinema are also present. Plainview’s drilling rig and it’s dramatic construct sits above the township below like a Dracula’s castle, while the presence of an orphan and a pair of spectral twins help to encourage the eerie feeling. It’s the importance of faith, a long-standing tradition within the oeuvre of PTA that places There Will Be Blood that makes the greatest case for the film as a worthy companion piece to the likes of The Exorcist or Faust.
But alas, while there are hints of the supernatural in There Will Be Blood it differs from the aforementioned works in one key way: Anderson debunks. Instead of dwelling on the unexplained and using the subject matter as a source for raising fear, Anderson instead uses the platform to enact his most scathing commentary. While the faith seen elsewhere in PTA’s work is largely one of an emotional faith as opposed to a theological faith, with There Will Be Blood he is very much on the attack (Magnolia and Boogie Nights both have third acts that hinge on hope, while Punch-Drunk Love is possibly the most fantastic film about faith of the modern American cinema). Anderson isn’t a filmmaker who is particularly associated with religion ala Dreyer, Scorsese or Dumont, but between the faith subtexts of the earlier films and the large refrains on Christianity and Scientology here and in his latest film The Master it’s becoming increasingly clear that notions of faith is a key theme within the director’s work. Anderson riffs on a number of biblical images in There Will Be Blood, from the baptism of oil enforced upon Eli Sunday to the inversion of the Job tale that forms the midsection of the Plainview tale. But even then, Charles Laughton’s The Night Of The Hunter, perhaps the greatest Horror movie of all time, comes to mind, with the skewed preacher and the warped-Americana of Laughton’s picture resembling the off-kilter and exploratory world of Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.