April 2008

Arts & Letters


By Gideon Haigh

Upton Sinclair’s ‘Oil!’ & Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘There Will Be Blood’

Upton Sinclair never had much faith in the movies. When the great American socialist's novel The Moneychangers (1908) was adapted for the screen, he was appalled to find that what he had written as a denunciation of JP Morgan was populated by millionaires performing selfless acts of charity. He later bankrolled Sergei Eisenstein's ¡Que Viva Mexico! (1932), but panicked when the rushes looked too arty and turned it into an artless, contentless box-office bomb. "My own experiences with the moving picture industry have been varied," he said weightily, "and have so disgusted me that I have given up all idea of ever using the medium to express my ideas."

Forty years after his death, the mighty muckraker's luck appears to have changed. Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (released nationally in February), acclaimed as "the first great American film of the twenty-first century", is based on Sinclair's Oil! (1927), which itself has been resurrected in an attractive new edition (Penguin, 562pp; $24.95). Nor was Anderson first with the idea. Seeking the screen rights, he found they were already owned by the left-wing journalist Eric Schlosser, whose best-selling McJeremiad Fast Food Nation (2001) is a kind of homage to Sinclair's best-known book, The Jungle (1906), his novel of the toils of Chicago meatpackers; Schlosser became the film's executive producer. Sinclair, meanwhile, is enjoying a bizarre afterlife as a character, the epoch-making American leader who never was, in Harry Turtledove's alternative-history trilogy American Empire (2001-2003) and Chris Bachelder's quirky satire US! (2006).

If you're thinking that a high-minded firebrand of the pre-war American Left mightn't have much to say to modern international audiences, you'd be right. After all, Sinclair's other enthusiasms, from telepathy to teetotalism, from fasting to Fletcherism, haven't exactly stood the test of time.

Anderson has explained how he commenced a faithful adaptation of Oil!, arrived at page 150, and decided that the novel would be a better "inspiration" than master text. He remixed its formula of blood, oil and religion as something more accessible, dangled the key role of a crackpot plutocrat before Daniel Day-Lewis, and set it all to an ear-dinning soundtrack by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood. In fact, what it took to turn Sinclair's old-fashioned fiction into 2008 Oscar bait is disarmingly instructive about the changing nature of political art.

In Oil!, the tycoon J Arnold Ross is a surprisingly sympathetic figure, with "features serious but kindly, and a benevolent, almost fatherly voice", to whom the safety of his men is a matter of "personal pride" and the quest for oil a manifest destiny: "This is an oil age, and when you try and shut oil off from production, it's jist [sic] like you tried to dam Niagara Falls." Sinclair modelled him on the oilman Edward Doheny, a figure of legendary financial nerve and personal courage who once fought off a mountain lion with a knife.

Ross's susceptibility is his conviction that "grease is cheaper than steel": when he needs something done, he thinks nothing of bribing public officials. It was Doheny's weakness, too: evidence he gave during the Teapot Dome scandal of passing $US100,000 to the US interior secretary in return for lucrative oil concessions helped send that official, Albert Fall, to jail.

In the course of prospecting Southern California, Ross finds oil on land where the family Watkins lead a hardscrabble existence, and wins the trust of their God-fearing patriarch, Abel, by saying he is a member of the "Church of the True Word". In fact, as he admits: "The poor old crack brain. I had to get some way to shut him up." Later, he mischievously elaborates on the church's teachings and, with Abel's bright son Paul in mind, comments that one among them incarnates the "true spirit of the Third Revelation". But before he can go further, Paul's brother Eli cries, "I am him who the Holy Spirit has blessed!" Ross shrugs, asks him to consecrate the new well, and becomes a benefactor of his Third Revelation Tabernacle in Angel City, learning to appreciate how Eli's holy rolling placates insurrectionary workers.

Paul evangelises in a different cause. After visits to Moscow as a soldier and a political pilgrim, he returns to the US extolling the Russian Revolution as "a spiritual miracle - a hundred million people proclaiming their own sovereignty, and the downfall of masters and exploiters, kings, priests, capitalists, the whole rabble of parasites". For while Sinclair's socialism did not run smooth, it came to run deep. Condemned for his apostasy in supporting America's involvement in World War I, he had rejoined the cause in 1920 with twice his former ardour, describing Lenin and Stalin as overseeing "the greatest intellectual and moral awakening in the history of the human race".

Oil!'s central character, however, is Ross's son Bunny, whose soul is subjected to a three-way tug by his father, Paul and Eli. Eli is never really in it, and with his radio rantings at an audience of boobs steadily becomes a figure of fun. Big-hearted Bunny inevitably falls under the spell of big-brained Paul, who finally renounces the ballot box as an avenue to reform: the imperative of breaking "the stranglehold of big business" is "a fighting job" that "can't be done by democracy", and legitimate "because nothing could be so immoral as capitalism". Martyred by a fascist thug, Paul perishes while incanting Bolshevik slogans. But despite believing the "Bolsheviki revolution" to be "the most terrible event that had happened to the world in his lifetime", Ross cannot deny his son, granting him a million dollars in common stock to endow a labour college for worker education. Mount Hope College is dedicated to resistance of the "evil Power which roams the earth and [would] enslave and exploit Labor".

If all this seems a teeny bit contrived, it positively oozes nuance compared to There Will Be Blood. Ross has become Daniel Plainview, a veritable vampire of oil, black in tooth and claw (although the relationship to Doheny is preserved, for Plainview finally makes his home in the magnate's Greystone Mansion, in LA). Bunny is now HW, an orphan who Plainview has surreptitiously adopted for public-relations purposes and cruelly maltreats when the boy is deafened by a gusher.

Capital omnipotent reigns: the trade unions who strike successfully and the wobblies who agitate noisily in Oil! are nowhere to be seen. Capital doesn't even need the propaganda assistance of Bunny's starlet girlfriend, Vee, who in the novel jeopardises their relationship by appearing as an anti-Bolshevik princess in ‘Devil's Deputy', Schmolsky-Superba Studio's "Million Dollar Heart Drama of the Russian Revolution". The bribery is gone; so even is the sex, which in May 1927 was enough to have the book banned in Boston.

Paul materialises in an early scene before merging almost imperceptibly into Eli, both being played by the same actor (Paul Dano) - a transformation not obvious until the credits. Where Ross in Oil! ends up whimsically enjoying Eli's fire-and-brimstone broadcasts, drawing from Sinclair the dire prediction that radio will beget "the greatest slave empire in history", There Will Be Blood climaxes with a final sanguinary, scenery-chewing confrontation between Daniel and Eli. The former cajoles the latter into admitting that he is the false prophet of a sham faith, then proceeds to justify the title.

Sinclair's most provocative contentions - such as that capitalism will naturally tend to corrupt the polity and make a handmaiden of organised religion - have by this stage long been discarded, along with all of the novel's "useful idiocy". For - gosh! - how to explain communism to the punters? Hey, let's stick with the easy false prophet and leave the harder, bigger one alone. What's left is a bunch of garbled messages of ... well, what exactly? That hydrocarbons make people do bad things? That capitalism is a means by which psychopaths get to live in big houses? That if you're looking for an actor to play a moustachioed maddie, Daniel Day-Lewis is your man? (See also Gangs of New York.) Your guess is probably as good as Paul Thomas Anderson's.

For there is no hint of why oil might have become so valuable, or why its headlong pursuit might consume a man: Daniel Plainview might as well be fly fishing obsessively for all the sense his mission makes. At least in Oil! humanity's growing energy dependence is briefly addressed. Ross states that "the world has got to have oil"; Bunny thinks, with lofty-lefty condescension, "you looked at the world and saw enormous crowds of people driving to places where they were no better off than at home!" Anderson simply rejects ideas in favour of portentous close-ups of Daniel Day-Lewis smouldering his way Oscarwards.

That this bloviating wimp of a film has been so uniformly lauded tells us something about how we like our politics nowadays. Where Sinclair's anti-capitalism was stern, strident and wrong-headed, Anderson's is diffuse, evasive and feelgood; where Sinclair made noisy common cause with communism, Anderson offers not a single left-leaning character. Plainview's tragedy, we end up feeling, is that he couldn't find a suitable therapist to deal with all his anger issues. It is a kind of petrochemical triumph: nobody else has so effectively turned Oil! into gas.

Cover: April 2008
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