GIANT Ambition

By Ponsoldt, James | Filmmaker, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

GIANT Ambition


Ponsoldt, James, Filmmaker


With a commanding, possessed performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and a subject that lies at the root of our modern nation, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a transfixing journey into the American character. By James Ponsoldt

In 1989 as Communism was crumbling in Poland, Krzystof Kieslowski was a guest on a talk show called 100 Questions (100 Pytan Do; viewable on the Facets DVD collection of The Decalogue). A room full of Polish journalists interrogated Kieslowski about his monumental, recently completed Ten Commandments-inspired compilation, The Decalogue.

The line of questions was amiable until a reporter (Adam Horoszczak) asked Kieslowski, "One of the journalists at Cannes referred to a scene in 'A Short Film About Killing' (Decalogue V), where the priest administers the Last Rites, and asked you whether you believed in God. You answered that you believe in a Supreme Being but you don't need intermediaries. In France this answer is not shocking, but in predominately Catholic Poland, it may seem peculiar. Do you believe in the power of The Decalogue to motivate our befuddled, tired and demoralized society?"

The tone in the room shifted. Journalists leaned forward to hear the director's reply. Calmly Kieslowski answered, "No, I don't. I don't believe in anything at all. I don't believe film has any motivational power or role. I absolutely do not believe in this. But I do believe that maybe because someone has come in touch with these films, they will want to reflect."

The journalists, who seemed flustered by Kieslowski's seeming refusal to declare himself a dissident, goaded him until he stated, Tou don't understand. You assume that I wanted to accomplish something. Well let me tell you - I did not want to accomplish anything. Because you can't accomplish anything through film.... I don't believe you can change anything through film."

Now let us consider Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, There Will Be Blood.

It is an important film.

Anderson has never lived under martial law, but he lives in America while the U.S. has been engaged in a war in the oil-rich Middle East for almost five years. But this is not what the director cares to discuss.

In his first film since 2002's ethereal romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson looked backwards and chose to adapt Upton Sinclair's 1927 muckraking examination of the California oil industry - and a father-son rift - Oil!

What results is an intimate character study of an insular, demonically driven man. There Will Be Blood is one of the most fullyformed, mature films ever made that deals with America's fossil-fuel economy, the myth of Westward expansion, and the tensions that exist in a capitalist society whose leaders cross party lines by claiming to have an allegiance to, first and foremost, God and Christ.

Daniel Plainview is the black hole at the center of There WiIlBe Blood. He is the film's Kane, its Kurtz - though, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, he is a complete original. Plainview is a man who seems literally to emerge from the Earth, who has little personal history. When he first appears on screen, in great silence, he is digging the hole that will either make him wealthy or become his grave. This miner possesses a brutal determination that is most terrifying when it is felt in quiet glances. Midway through the film, after an accident that causes his well to bum and his son to go deaf, Plainview stands in front of the flames at night, covered in oil, and seems almost to vanish into the blackness. The iconic image brings to mind both the fire in Days of Heaven and the nightmarish imagery of Hieronymus Bosch, and it is impossible not to feel that the heart of our protagonist has grown pitch-black.

Is this a place for faith? This is a harsh world, where turn-of-the-century oil derricks can resemble a hangman's gallows, and men, up to their chests in oil wells, are crushed by falling equipment and die miserable deaths. …

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