It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 10th anniversary of There Will Be Blood. It seems like just yesterday DDL’s megalomaniac oil bae Daniel Plainview sauntered, bow-legged, into the hearts of film lovers, huffing and puffing and ranting about frozen desserts. But before D. Plain V. was the deranged, mansion-dwelling robber baron of Blood’s bludgeoning climax, he was a hardscrabble nobody. I’m talking, of course, about the film’s wordless 15-minute opening sequence. It’s a remarkable start to a remarkable movie. But! Is it “Let’s watch this 10 times in a row” good? We’re about to find out.
Having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey recently it’s surprising how hard PTA bites the ominous landscapes of Kubrick’s “Dawn of Man” sequence here. Jonny Greenwood’s atonal symphony swells feel likewise Kubrickian—probably the single biggest compliment a member of Radiohead could ever hope to receive. The shots are more straightforward and economical than I remembered. PTA knows that, dispensing with dialogue, he’s dependent on visuals to carry important story information. Now is not the time to linger or clutter the frame with needless poeticism. That will all come later. The 15 minutes are done quicker than I was expecting—always a mark of quality filmmaking.
The first things that pop out at me this time are the Paramount Vantage and Miramax cards at the beginning. These made me wistfully nostalgic for the mid-‘aughts, in much the same way that remembering my favorite now-closed LA-area bars makes me nostalgic [El Guapo, Bar 107, Cat ‘n Fiddle, etc.] Apparently, my mid-‘20s will forever be defined by cheap pints of Sierra Nevada and the sadly defunct post-‘90s trend of Hollywood studios hanging out their own boutique art house shingles. Mid-‘30s film majors especially will recall Miramax’s gliding-over-a-CGI-cityscape logo from their college-era DVD collections. I guess what I’m saying is: time is a motherfucker.
I already talked about PTA’s ability to convey huge amounts of visual information economically. This time I honed in on two aspects in particular, which act as signposts charting Daniel Plainview’s rise from lowly prospector to self-assured energy magnate. First: there’s a steady movement in Plainview’s facial hair toward respectability—from scraggly homeless beard, to a more reigned-in mostly-mustache-and-some-scruff, to [finally] a burly Freddie Mercury testicle-tickler sitting on an otherwise clean-shaven face. Such designates Plainview’s literal rise out of the pits from lone wolf to big boss. There’s also a progression from solid to liquid vis-à-vis the treasure being sought, from rocky ore, to a muddy petrol soup, to velvety oil.
Admittedly, my mind is starting to wander at this point. Watching this opening again puts me in mind of a funny anecdote from when the film first came out. At the time, I was working [not in an impressive capacity] on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. There were usually employee screenings of the studio’s new releases and I went to pretty much all of them. Sitting down for There Will Be Blood in the Lansing screening room, as soon as the film started it was immediately nothing like what I had expected. There was plenty of blood all right, dripping down the screen. But the vibe seemed way too stylized and operatic. Then, the title came up: a Tim Burton film. I had mistakenly confused the There Will Be Blood screening with the one for Sweeney Todd. See? WHAT AN AMUSING ANECDOTE.
I admit I barely paid attention this go-round. I was mostly just practicing my mandolin with There Will Be Blood playing in the background. Really, I’m anxious to finish this project so I can go watch the rest of the film. But I will say: I don’t think I ever really picked up on just how significant Daniel Plainview’s friend/partner is—the one who looks like [but isn’t] Pat Healey, aka the dude killed by the falling beam whose son D. Plain V. subsequently adopts as his own. I always took it for granted that Plainview was the one in charge. But it’s clear to me now that this dude is Plainview’s equal collaborator—someone he actually respects and shows deference to. After not-Pat-Healey is killed, Plainview seems to never again find an equivalent companion, despite desperately casting about for one [Eli Sunday, the imposter pretending to be his brother, his adopted son, etc.]
I’m definitely at the point now where I’ve seen this series of events enough times in a row that I could easily bullshit my way through the back half of this project and still have very wise and trenchant things to say. But rest assured, reader: I’m watching this 10x for real. This time one quick thing stuck out. Unlike pretty much every other modern movie, Blood doesn’t look like it’s been color-corrected within an inch of its life. Everything seems pretty naturalistic in terms of its palette. Especially as compared to its fellow 2007 Marfa-shot prestige pic, No Country for Old Men, which [while still looking great] has an extremely artificial-looking sepia glow to it.
My mind has been bludgeoned by repetition, spinning off into recursive existential fractals shaped like oil derricks. One such fractal, posed as a question: Why do we film geeks all love these deconstructed Westerns so goddamned much? There Will Be Blood is a terrific movie. But now that I’m performing a fearless and searching moral inventory, it seems like this well-trodden brand of quasi-New Hollywood, old timey horse apples seems [cynically] like the quickest and easiest route to critical respectability. It’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s Days of Heaven. It’s The Assassination of Jesse James. It’s Heaven’s Gate. It’s a million other things. I’m starting to feel a little bit about the genre the way I feel about older, white-haired Caucasian character actors: Guys, let’s not just give this guy a pass just because he’s grizzled.
The big spike they drop into the well is tied with a bowline, which is a knot I’ve been learning how to tie during my recent foray into sailing lessons.
You know when people talk about below-the-line filmmaking and say things like: “You might not notice, but you notice if it’s not there.” Well, when you watch the same 15 minutes of a movie 10 times in a row, you do notice. And one art department-y thing I’ve been noticing a lot during this project is texture. The texture of the papers Plainview signs. Of the sawdust-covered planks of wood flooring at the smelting depot. The canvas tents. The charcoal pencil Plainview uses to mock up his schematic. The lacquered car that D. Plain V. and fake D. Plan V. Jr. ride off on into the future. Such detail! Such work that went into just these 15 minutes—and the fact that there are still 2.25 hours left to go after this, just as densely-packed. Wow. Filmmaking is nuts.
In 2007 when There Will Be Blood first came out, I instantly knew it was one of the best movies of the decade, if not all time. But for whatever reason, I truthfully haven’t seen the entire thing since. The thing is, after watching the first 15 of minutes of it so many times in a row, I feel like 10 is maybe only the minimum number of times you’d need to see each of these scenes to fully appreciate everything PTA and his collaborators put into this project. So check in with me again in the year 2020—I should be done by then.