Friday, February 01, 2008

'There Will be Blood'--- But Not Jesus' Blood

Take a look at the cover of this book. Look closely. We have the old italic font, so beloved of Bible printers of the KJV. 'There Will be Blood' does everything in its power to convey to you that this is a story of Biblical proportions, revealing deep truths about humanity and reality. If 'Atonement' is the quintessential post modern film about the human attempt at self- atonement, and self justification, then 'There Will be Blood' is the quintessential post modern film about the real religion of America, the ugly religion of self-will, greed, and trampling of all human feeling, even feelings for one's kin in the 'competition' to be Number One, on top of the heap, the most wealthy and successful person, and so on. 'There Will be Blood' alright, but it is the blood of murder and steamrolling of those who get in one's way, rather than the cleansing blood of Jesus.

Paul Anderson's epic, 2 hour and 38 minute film delivers the goods when it comes to revealing the ugly underbelly of human ambition and self-seeking at the turn of 20th century in America as the industrial revolution gets going. Just how important is oil to America? Well consider this-- were it not for oil, we would not have the car, the plane, etc. The Stanley Steamer might still be with us, were it not for Texas tea. The central character, aptly named Daniel Plainview is something of a plain-speaking prophet, a prophet after profit that is, and the relentless pursuit of one's own gain. In a revealing conversation one night between Plainview and a man pretending to be his brother, he reveals that 'there is a competition going on in me, and I can't abide anyone else succeeding' Not even, it turns out, his own son. Daniel's 'plainview' of reality is that we live in a dog eat dog world, a survival of the fittest world, a world where the weak go to the wall, and at the end of the day its all about the money, all about the money. Religion, including Christianity, is seen as a hoax or a sham at best, and God is called a superstition.

The story centers around two central characters-- Daniel Plainview, fiercely and brilliantly portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano (of 'Little Miss Sunshine' fame) who plays a boy evangelist named Eli, who is on the make, and wishes to use Pentecostal religion as his tool to get attention, money, and in short all he wants in the world. There are two reverse 'conversion' scenes in this movie. The first is of Daniel's baptism, which he undergoes purely in order to get the lease rights to build a pipeline through another man's land in the little community of Little Boston (and once more near Marfa, Texas is the actual locale). The second and more shocking sham is when Daniel has Eli over a barrel in his mansion, as it is 1927 and Eli has run out of funds, and so Daniel promises to give him money or drill on his land if he will only make one little confession-- 'that he is a false prophet, and that God is a superstition'. Just as Daniel had been forced to repeat he was a sinner and needed to be washed in the blood of Jesus, so now turn about is fair play and Eli is forced ironically to confess some truth (namely that he is a false prophet). Daniel Plainview sees right through Eli, but plays whatever game he needs to play to be 'the last man standing', and in the end, when he disposes of Eli, he cries out at movie's end 'I'm finished!' mimicking Jesus' 'it is finished'.

In the world of Dawkins and Hitchens, this is where we have come to-- to the open revulsion and rejection of Christianity, seen as the pablum of the weak minded, and a tool to manipulate them. And what is the alternate truth or reality that is offered in exchange in this film? The brutal one of humanity red with its own blood, Cain and Abel all over again, Lamech times ten once more. A world so brutal that a man even repudiates his only, and adopted child (calling him a bastard in a basket, not to be confused with Moses), which he admits he had used as a pretty face to get people to give him land to drill on.

Upton Sinclair's novel 'Oil' (1927) provides the impetus and a bit of the material for this movie, but by far his most famous novel was 'The Jungle' written in 1906 which was an expose of what went on in the meat-packing business, and caused such a scandal that laws were passed, in particular 'The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906' that irrevocably changed the industry and its standards of cleanness, among other things. Sinclair was something of a crusader who sought to reveal the ruthlessness that often accompanied the attempts to make money through food or oil or coal. He became a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and lived to the age of 90, dying in a nursing home in California in 1968. One thing is for sure-- no one could accuse Sinclair of sugar-coating things, or glossing over the sin and evil during the industrial revolution in the 20th century in America. He would not stand for the usual American mythology of progress and good-willed, public minded success. Success, he believed, normally meant 'There Will be Blood'.

Of the two Marfa movies, this one actually has far more intellectual substance to it. Though Daniel Plainview claimed that he was the 'prophet of the third revelation' (mocking the claim of Eli and his Pentecostal church), sadly the only truth he could reveal was his own wickedness and and brutal soul, and this, while aptly analyzing human fallenness, provides no solution to the human dilemma. This revelation about this blood though real, does not cleanse. It only stains, again and again and again.


Frank Bellizzi said...

The religion of self-ism, and the religion of false Christianity. Daniel and Eli.

But there are other characters in the story who are moved by things that are true and just and pure--or at least the hope of redemption.

pilgrimtraveller said...

Dr Witherington,

I believe the type you term "Italic" is really "Blackletter". This tiny slip doesn't affect your point, but, scholar that you are, I thought you would want to know the correct term. Blackletter types were the first used for printing with movable type. They were used, for instance, to print Gutenberg's famous Bible--hence our association of Blackletter types with Scripture. Italic faces were a later development; the first appeared in 1499 in Venice in Aldus Manutius' shop. Modelled on a slanted and swiftly written calligraphic letterform, italic faces convey a much less imposing and formal feeling than do Blackletter faces. Sorry to be a pedant; keep up the good work.