Might it be, for example, that fictional works might require or encourage us to simulate the mental states of their characters? I believe that the answer is yes: understanding, and learning from a fictional work (it might be a cinematic or other kind of fictional work) sometimes requires that we simulate the mental states of a character within the fiction.
—Currie 1995, 152; original emphasis.
PLAINVIEW: I see the worst in people, Henry. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need.
—There Will Be Blood.
Near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), the ageing millionaire Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) wallows in the empty expanse of his opulent mansion, built with Californian oil boom money. His face and hands are filthy with grime; tanned and lined by hard outdoor work long abandoned but stubbornly remembered. He glares across the desk at his deaf and mute son H.W. (Dillon Freasier).
“You’re an orphan from a basket in the middle of the desert—”
With a shaking hand, his other holding one of an endless chain of fine cigarettes, Plainview brings a tumbler of scotch to his lips.
“—and I took you for no other reason than I needed a sweet face to buy land.”
The son impassively stares as Plainview’s abandonment and rejection is communicated to him through sign language. “Did you get that?” Plainview spits the words so as to cruelly bring attention to his son’s deficiency. He then delivers the coup de grace, growling, “You’re lower than a bastard. You have none of me in you. Just a bastard from a basket.”
After the emotional and familial self-destruction is complete, Plainview is left alone in his office, with only his alcohol, his tobacco, and his thoughts and memories. Watching the flickering of his eyes and the curling of his lip as he sits in unspoken, painful thought, we might imagine what those thoughts and memories are, etched onto his face for us to try to read and understand. In these moments Plainview’s professions of his violent, hateful, and destructive nature are cast into a shaky doubt, opening up our moral and emotional judgements of him as we accept the film’s invitation to imagine its world from his point of view. Such moments give us greater conceptual room in which to understand and evaluate Plainview’s character—his actions, motivations, and his place in the film’s world.
What characteristics of the film open up this room? And how might such conceptual room and increased emotional affinity affect the film’s meaning? Ultimately, how might a film’s meaning and value be affected by the manner in which it invites us to engage with and experience emotions in regard to its characters?
To investigate these questions in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, I will compare its emotional invitations with those of moments that it shares with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston’s 1948 film of violent gold lust. There Will Be Blood appropriates many crucial elements of Sierra Madre’s protagonist, story, narrative, and themes, and therefore it provides suitable points for comparison that illuminate the later film, despite the decades between them and the differences in style and mode of production that have opened up in that time.
Geoff King (2009) provides an avenue for investigating these differences of address between the films in relation to their industrial and commercial contexts: on the one hand the ‘Old Hollywood’ studio system, and on the other what King terms ‘Indiewood,’ a sub-sector of Hollywood production between the independent sector and the dominant major studio sector. King argues that the production and distribution strategies that both characterise and have led to the emergence of Indiewood—for example the decentralisation of production from major studios to smaller speciality subsidiaries, and a concurrent effort to target niche demographics and taste formations by producing more distinctive films at more diversified levels of production—may also explain changes in textual forms as a response to industrial and commercial pressures and opportunities (King 2009, 3-22). From this approach, it seems possible to account for the differences in spectator address between Sierra Madre and There Will Be Blood in terms of these different industrial and commercial contexts, from Old Hollywood’s centralised production and appeals to a mass audience, to within which Indiewood’s need is distinguished by marketing films that appear to offer “a subjective impression of difference, distinction, and superiority on the part of the viewer” (King 2009, 12), for example through complexity and ambiguity of theme and spectator address. Despite illuminating the relationship between economy, culture, and text, this approach is not suitable for exploring how the formal characteristics of these two films invite emotional engagements with characters, which requires close attention to textual form rather than industrial and commercial contexts.
In addition to the films’ appropriations of material across periods of Hollywood filmmaking, both There Will Be Blood and Sierra Madre are also adaptations of literary works, of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (1927) and B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), respectively. This process involves negotiating transitions of character, story, theme, and socio-historical context across mediums (from page to screen) and across periods (from Old Hollywood to Indiewood). I focus, however, on the transition of the films’ formal characteristics that invite our engagement with the two main characters, particularly performances and their place in stylistic structures.
Focussing film analysis on performance involves another, more implicit transition, in which the presence and affective power of the performance must be translated from screen to page in the process of critical analysis and description. Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros understand this problematic process in terms of ‘ekphrasis,’ in this case referring to the description of one medium through another. Stern and Kouvaros write:
[I]n order to turn the film into writing, in order to convey movement, corporeal presence, performative modalities, and affective invitations, a certain refiguring is required, an attention to the fictional impulse at the heart of any ekphrastic endeavour. (1999, 16-17)
The cognitive, emotional, and affective invitations that these films make are deeply rooted in our experience of the texts, of the way that our engagement with their presence affects us. It therefore seems that such an ekphrastic transition and translation—“a rhetorical refiguring of particular forms of corporeal presence”, a “fictionalisation” of the object—must take place to convey on the page a sense of the experience that these films invite from the screen (Stern and Kouvaros 1999, 14). This sense is necessary to understand how the films’ respective meanings and values can be interpreted through the experience of engaging with the texts and their performers.
This process will focus on two moments in which the films’ narratives criss-cross as their rich and powerful protagonists murder their companions in campfire shootings. One shooting calls back to the other, sixty years before it, but makes very different emotional demands of its viewers. The campfire shooting in There Will Be Blood, like the film as a whole, invites us into a complex and morally ambivalent emotional relationship with its violent and murderous protagonist, significantly complicating the moral judgements and meanings made available by Anderson’s film in comparison to Huston’s.
Each film charts the material rise and moral fall of a Great Man of history. Plainview begins as a lone prospector camping in the Californian desert, digging for scraps of silver. Later, with his adopted son H.W. alongside him, Plainview gradually builds his oil company and his wealth by unscrupulously buying up the town of Little Boston. Although H.W. is rendered deaf and mute in an accident, and Plainview becomes locked in a battle for power with the local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), by film’s end he has fulfilled his vision of an independently owned oil pipeline pumping his vast resources directly to the market, securing his wealth.
In Sierra Madre, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) begins akin to Plainview—a penniless hustler on the streets of a Mexican town. With a few strokes of luck he finds himself with the money, the information, and the two partners—Curtin (Tim Holt) and Howard (Walter Huston)—that enable him to trek into the Sierra Madres to prospect for gold. Unsurprisingly, they strike it rich, but Dobbs quickly spirals into ever-deepening and more dangerous greed, suspicion, and paranoia. By the end of both stories, ambition and gain have turned into corruption and loss. A drunken, murderous wreck, Plainview lies sprawled in his mansion, his family life behind him in ruins, only his wealth still standing. Dobbs has also become a crazed murderer, and eventually loses his loot to Mexican bandits who murder him without realising the fortune stashed in his saddlebags, which eventually blows away in a sandstorm. Each man has fulfilled his fantasy, but lost or denied that which both films position as most valuable: the simple desire to raise a family.
This thematic framework—with the possibilities of family set against those of unrestrained power—reflects Deborah Thomas’s account of the melodramatic in Beyond Genre (2000). Thomas demonstrates how melodramatic Hollywood films contrast a social space—which generally represents civilisation—with an alternative space, in which the civilised values represented in the social space collapse. These two spaces entail fantasies related to (usually) gendered discrepancies of power, particularly in regard to the male’s perception of threatened privilege, which see the characters engage in “wishful fantasies of power” or corresponding “anxious fantasies of disempowerment” (Thomas 2000, 13). These fuel the fantasies of the alternative space in which the desire to escape from the repression or threat of the social space sees “fantasies of violent self-assertion replace those which offer a mere appearance of domination” in the domestic realm (Thomas 2000, 13). The consequences of this are seen in the endings of both Sierra Madre and There Will Be Blood, in which the ruthless pursuit of material gain results in the seemingly inevitable destruction of familial and domestic possibility.
The films’ common concerns—the corruption and failure of men, and their destruction of family or domesticity in the face of wealth and power—are clear. However, finer strands of meaning can be identified through close analysis of the films’ emotional invitations, particularly during moments of self-realisation that the characters undergo or attempt to deny. These moments demonstrate the influence that imaginative and empathetic engagement may have on our relationships with a film’s characters, and may affect our interpretation of that film’s meaning. By opening up what I term ‘imaginative space’, such moments in There Will Be Blood encourage the spectator to imagine the origins and experience of Plainview’s violence and pain, which one may feel both with and for him.
Imaginative space is that within which the elements of the fictional world that are directly presented can be used to imaginatively explore those that are not directly presented, but suggested. Such space can facilitate our empathy with a film’s characters as we may imagine seeing and feeling from that character’s point of view, not only in the times and spaces of the film itself, but in all the times and all the spaces of that character’s life which the film suggests and invites us to contemplate. In this way, There Will Be Blood extends an emotional invitation that is meaningfully absent from Sierra Madre by providing greater access to Plainview’s subjectivity, and opening up a comparatively vast and complex imaginative space. By doing so, rather than inviting our contempt, disgust, or at best our pity, Anderson’s film encourages our unlikely empathy.
This paper’s critically descriptive (ekphrastic) passages examine how the amplified imaginative spaces of There Will Be Blood make possible moments of inquiry, understanding, and empathy that are not invited by Sierra Madre. I argue that these moments ultimately lessen the clarity and certainty of There Will Be Blood’s moral judgement of Plainview, in contrast to Sierra Madre’s near-Manichean judgement of Dobbs. This raises a question of the value of such moral positioning in regards to persons whom some would claim to be monstrous, undeserving of our understanding as a fellow human. Despite acknowledging its danger, Terry Eagleton defends the idea of pitying malevolent figures, identifying tragic pity not in the person themselves but in the waste of a potentially valuable life (2003, 81-82). There Will Be Blood aspires to this perspective, asking us to slow our judgement and condemnation in favour of a qualified pity and compassion, based not in the presented qualities of a character but in the wasted potential that we may conceptualise through the access we are given to his life and its possibilities. The film thus favours what Murray Smith (1995) would label our ‘alignment’ with Plainview rather than inviting our ‘allegiance.’ Smith describes alignment as the process through which we are given access to the actions and subjectivity of a character, and the process of allegiance as inviting us to position that character within a hierarchy of moral judgement and evaluation (1995, 83-84). By guiding alignment over allegiance, slowing our judgement while opening up possibilities of understanding, Anderson’s film moves to avoid the dehumanisation that can arise from Manichean moral positioning or the unqualified and absolute condemnation of others.
The films’ endings demonstrate the difference between these approaches to engagement. In Sierra Madre, Dobbs expresses a singular fantasy of wealth, and his moral collapse is total and unselfconscious. By the film’s climax, his melodramatic and punitive destruction has been juxtaposed with the comedic image of his companions who laugh as they wander off to their rewards of domestic fulfilment. In There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, we are not invited to stand back and view such a clear juxtaposition of punishment and reward. Instead, we sit with and watch only Plainview, and are invited to try and understand and empathise with him as he self-consciously tears his life down around him, tragically conflicted between his desires for family and his desires for wealth and power, which from his limited perspective appear mutually exclusive.
Empathy, as distinct from sympathy, is a state of feeling an emotion with another, rather than for them: “[I]n responding empathetically … we may respond in ways that are not in us at all: in ways that mirror the feelings and responses of others whose outlooks and experiences may be very different from our own” (Neill 1996, 179-80). The distinction between the two states may be understood as feeling an emotion for another, in sympathy, or feeling the same emotion as another with them, in empathy. Sympathy is emotion within oneself projected out toward another; empathy is the perceived emotion of another taken on by oneself. Empathetic emotional responses necessitate an imaginative process of perception, inference, and adaptation of these inferences to one’s own position (Gaut 1999, 204), inferences that need not be based in empirical facts of the other’s state (Stadler 2008, 191). As Currie states:
[T]he basic mechanism by which we make emotional contact with (this time real) people involves imagination. We come to understand, not merely in propositional terms, but in an emotionally attuned way, their situations; to feel as if we were in their situations by simulating their situations. (1995, 158)
This process of imagining and understanding the situations and experiences of others in relation to oneself is an important if not vital aspect of cooperative social relations, and points toward the value of the experiences invited by films like Anderson’s. The capacity of groups of people to achieve material goals or, more importantly, to form meaningful social bonds that reproduce communal values, is based in these imaginative connections between individuals. As Torban Grodal claims “Imagination, consisting of hypothetical simulations of possible relations and processes, is a central aspect of everyday life; the difference between art and everyday imagination is not one of kind but of degree” (1997, 11). It is in these degrees that we find the value of the imaginative engagements that can be made possible through narrative film.
George M. Wilson claims that it is through the “continuous, conscious and contemplative apprehension” of the world—in a way not possible in everyday life—“that film is thought of as extending the meaningful perceptual experience of human observers” (1986, 84). This extension of perceptual experience through the conventions of narrative film plays a vital role in enabling everyday imaginative activity to extend beyond the limitations of everyday existence, in which the dark and distant corners of another’s life story and emotional experience are beyond our perceptual reach. This imaginative component therefore relies upon a point of view that provides particular, generous, and reliable access to another’s current subjective state and earlier life experiences. The following examination of a rare moment of intimacy between Plainview and another character in There Will Be Blood demonstrates how the imaginative space that the film opens up requires that we imaginatively construct Plainview’s perceptual and emotional point of view. This understanding, contextualised within the details of Plainview’s life story, is the foundation of the emotional responses invited during the lead-up to and in the wake of There Will Be Blood’s campfire shooting, and in the aftermath of its ultimate scene of estrangement. By contrast, the campfire shooting in Sierra Madre is illustrative of the ways in which Huston’s film does not invite us to understand Dobbs with the same complexity, as its narrative and style do not encourage or enable the same depth and scope of imaginative engagement.
Almost halfway through There Will Be Blood, a man (Kevin J. O’Connor) arrives in Little Boston and announces himself as Henry Plainview, a long-lost brother of whom Daniel Plainview never knew. Plainview accepts Henry’s bona fides, as H.W.—unseen by his two elders—reads through the stranger’s diary. Despite Henry’s social, personal, and professional incompetence, he appears to fill a void in Plainview’s life and is taken on as an unspoken and unequal partner. That night the men sit outside by a fire drinking whiskey. Henry asks Plainview why he left Wisconsin. “I don’t like to explain myself,” Plainview says. Despite the firmness of his reply, in the moments that follow we come to understand this as an ironic denial of his deeper desire or need to confess his inner self; essentially, his need and desire for other people, for family.
After denying his desire for self-expression, Plainview takes a long swig of whiskey, a sharp breath, and averts his eyes; he steels himself. Rather than self-assuredness, his denial begins to speak more of insecurity. He asks, “Are you an angry man, Henry? Are you envious, do you get envious?” He demonstrates a tentative sense of emotional safety as his questions turn to admissions: “I have a competition in me…” He waits, each sentence hanging, testing Henry’s waters more deeply than the last. “I want no one else to succeed… I hate most people.” The pauses are heavy with the gravity of his carefully selected words; ideas and feelings formed out-loud for the first time and with great difficulty and effort. Plainview’s eyes watch Henry’s off-screen, searching his face for a response, perhaps validation, condemnation; it doesn’t matter which. Regardless of what he finds, the act of Plainview’s searching for and attention to another’s response speaks of his need or desire to take part in an active relationship with another person. The action of his body does not undermine or invalidate his words, but augments them and complicates their meaning. It works in concert with Day-Lewis’s vocal performance—the unusual delicacy and openness of its intonation—to temper the distaste for others of which Plainview speaks by suggesting loneliness, insecurity, and heretofore-unrevealed self-examination.
We are given access and encouraged to attend to these revelations by Anderson’s close, intimate, contemplative camera, the long lens and shallow focus of which renders all but the performers out of focus, clinging to Plainview’s expressive and expressing face, a face that speaks of what the camera does not show, both far outside the frame and deep within the man. The questions about Plainview that are raised in these expressive moments with Henry, and those later moments that immediately prefigure the shooting, play an important role in our engagement with Plainview: they invite us to imagine and attempt to understand his point of view, beyond that which he demonstrates in his calculated public performances, and beyond that to which the film gives us direct access.
Plainview then betrays himself even further when Henry asks about H.W. and what will come of the boy following his devastating injury. Plainview slowly empties his glass, as if clamming himself up with liquor, and follows it with a long, restrictive intake of breath, creaking out, “I don’t know.” The exhausted sigh that follows mixes contemplation with pained resignation. Asked about the boy’s mother, Plainview pauses. Framed front-on in close-up, he slowly raises one eyebrow and holds his breath as he weighs up and delicately releases his response: “I don’t like to talk about those things.”
But we know from his guardedness, and the cunning conveyed by his cocked eyebrow, that he thinks about “these things” to do with family, and that they weigh on him; his refusal to speak does not mean he has nothing to say. Plainview then goes on to ask rhetorical questions about H.W.’s future. His voice and posture suggest how helpless even he feels in the face of H.W.’s imposed silence. Day-Lewis’s bodily and vocal performance in these moments suggests Plainview’s inner life, lived off-screen within his mind. In these moments the film’s style works in concert with its on- and off-screen narrative to spark and fuel the imaginative activity of trying to understand Plainview’s inner state.
The imaginative activity that is required to interpret meaning from Plainview and Henry’s whiskey-soaked chat (beyond the limited matter of that directly spoken) is of little consequence isolated within this scene and these moments. Like the meaning of a shot, a moment, and a scene, the meaning of a spectator’s particular emotional responses must be understood as the product of prior moments of emotional significance that have informed one another over the course of the film. This is demonstrated in There Will Be Blood in the lead-up to and aftermath of Henry’s murder. The emotional response to Plainview’s murder of Henry is not only a response to the moment of the murder itself. Rather, it is better understood as a response to the murder informed by the audience’s ability to share in and understand Plainview’s perspective and experience of the murder. The emotional response invited by the scene depends on the film not only making visible Plainview’s perspective of his life’s events but also its terrible failings, as well as our own, insofar as we have shared in and partially adopted Plainview’s.
Prior to the murder, following Henry and Plainview’s discussion, H.W. apparently tries to murder Henry in his sleep by lighting a trail of fuel that leads to the man’s bed. At the time, the incident is unexplained and fairly inexplicable to both the film’s viewers and Plainview, who sends H.W. to boarding school in San Francisco. In H.W.’s absence Plainview pushes ahead with his plans to construct the oil pipeline. Henry accompanies him on a surveying expedition to the coast where they prove the feasibility of the project and sign a deal with Union Oil. At the end of this successful trip, during another moment of privileged access to Plainview, the nature of Henry’s presence becomes suspicious.
Sitting on the beach after a celebratory swim the two men discuss home, the future, and their pasts. Henry raises the issue of food, women. Plainview suggests to Henry that they should, “… take them to the Peach Tree dance.” Plainview turns to Henry, again smiling in shallow-focus close-up. He gets no response, so he tries again, louder, more pressing, his eyebrow cocked as a solid cue to reminisce over a shared past of sexual adventure.
“I said, ‘We could get liquored up, and take them to the Peach Tree dance.’”
Plainview’s suggestion is filled with meaning and nostalgic memory that should be shared by two brothers but is lost on Henry. Henry raises his head and offers a token, confused acknowledgement. Plainview turns away from Henry to his own thoughts, still framed in close-up. His forehead creases, his eyes turn inward, pointed with confusion. His lip and cheeks tremble, on the cusp of speaking the jumble of thoughts that flicker through his mind’s eye, thoughts pointed to by his darting pupils. He shakes his head in disbelief and mouths, “No… no.”
We cut wide. Henry sits to the rear of his brother, shrouded in shadows, Plainview in the light. Plainview’s chest rises and falls with quick breath—but from what? From adrenaline born of the anxiety of newly realised betrayal? Of having left oneself open to a stranger? Of having been tricked? Of having completely misread another’s point of view, and having made a tragic mistake far beyond the pain and humiliation of baring his own soul?
Afterwards, Henry drunkenly celebrates their triumph as Plainview stews in suspicious silence, his face eventually dissolving into the darkness of a fade-out. With a slow fade-in, a leather-coated figure steps from the darkness into the close-up, fire-lit frame as he pulls a pistol. The man crouches down, and we see that it is Plainview. Lying asleep before him is Henry. With only the crackling of fire to be heard above their voices, Plainview interrogates him. Henry confesses that he is an imposter, having stolen Plainview’s brother’s diary and with it his identity. Henry pleads for Plainview’s mercy, begs for his friendship. Plainview’s face contorts with feeling beyond expression. He presses the pistol against Henry’s skull and fires twice, killing him.
After burying the body, Plainview sits and reads through his real brother’s diary, running his fingers along its singed pages. In the ash of the diary, Henry’s deceit, H.W.’s inexplicable arson, and Plainview’s treachery and rejection of his son are brought together, for Plainview and for us. Then, as Plainview flips the pages, a photograph of a baby boy falls into his lap. As he regards the photograph, Plainview moans with grief, tears running down his distraught face as he drinks himself into sleep. In these moments, the simple use of a prop bridges gaps in Plainview’s perception of his world and our perception of him in it. The singed pages and the highly allusive photograph of a young boy allow us to undergo the same process of realisation as Plainview: that our limited perspective of events has led us to drastically misunderstand and misread the motivations and feelings of not only Plainview himself, but H.W. and Henry also. And therefore, as we watch Plainview and explore the possibilities of his point of view as he reacts to the photograph and all the lost potential that its picture of youth and family suggests, we might also simulate his mournful grief. This grief is not necessarily limited only to the matters onscreen. Because we have been supplied with a vast yet partial glimpse into Plainview’s life onscreen and off, we might therefore grieve with him for his entire life, and for the consequences of his choices and outlooks at countless points along the way. Such an emotional response in the aftermath of so shocking a murder constitutes a complicated moral position, and points to one way in which close proximity of emotional engagement with a fictional character can obscure more clarified yet less emotionally attuned and potentially less instructive points of view of that character, and of the fiction as a whole.
Such a clarified point of view is provided in Sierra Madre, which structures emotional distance, and provides clear moral guidance. In comparison to Sierra Madre, the sequence of Plainview’s growing suspicion and eventual murder of Henry in There Will Be Blood is informatively sparse, providing limited specific moral or emotional guidance despite the plenitude of emotional cuing threaded throughout. By contrast, in the lead-up to Dobbs’ shooting of Curtin in Sierra Madre, motives and feelings are expressed out loud and the intent and motivation of actions are clearly signposted. The perceptual and emotional distance of the film audience from the characters enables a clear perspective and evaluation of the scene’s clarified moral structure. Rather than the questions that There Will Be Blood raises, Sierra Madre provides answers in a way that tends not to foster imaginative engagement to the extent of There Will Be Blood, with significant implications for our understanding and judgement of Dobbs.
The staging of the campfire shooting in Sierra Madre is distinctive from that in There Will Be Blood in ways that reduce our emotional proximity to Dobbs and Curtin, and close down the imaginative space that There Will Be Blood opens. As I noted in describing that film’s beachside scene, Anderson frequently frames his characters in very tight, steady, lengthy close-ups during moments of heightened emotional intensity. These close-ups commonly coincide with moments of that character’s silence; we don’t watch them speak so much as we watch them listen.
George Toles writes that close-ups “can seem not to violate or bear down on a character at all, but to reveal qualities (to the beholder’s protective gaze) that no-one else in the world of the film is privy to, or can be made to see with the same requisite intimacy of understanding” (2001, 240). William Rothman also describes the camera’s power to intimately reveal the private face of a character, shielded from view of others in their world (1988, 69-84). These revelations, though, are qualified by the limitations of our interpretive capabilities when confronted with the range of possibilities suggested by a face. Richard Rushton argues that much interpretation of faces is done without consideration of the assumptions underlying the belief that faces “give us access to a kind of hidden meaning that allows us to see what a person is really thinking” (2002, 221–22). Rushton argues that rather than meanings, faces provide us with possibilities of the other, possibilities that are “channelled” by the specificities of the other whose face we have encountered (2002, 228). In doing so, Rushton points to the difficulties we face when interpreting facial performance in films.
Taking these accounts by Toles, Rothman, and Rushton into consideration, then, the privileged access that Anderson’s camera gives us to Plainview in these moments of still, attentive close-up do not provide fixed meanings nor allow us complete knowledge of an interior state represented by an exterior one. Rather, they are contextualised within a wide array of information provided by narrative, the style of its articulation, and the ‘channels’ of Day-Lewis’s facial performance. These invite and sustain our imaginative engagement with the possibilities of Plainview that they suggest. The stillness and extreme proximity of Anderson’s camera invites attentive intimacy, through which we are invited to look, and to look closely, as we try to understand and make sense of these possibilities.
This is in contrast to the engagement strategy of Sierra Madre. Rather than demanding intimate involvement through quiet contemplation, Sierra Madre makes such involvement redundant through noisy explication. Cognitive film theorist Alex Neill argues that our need to empathise with others is based on a desire to understand their situation, and therefore, he claims, “given sufficient information about another, we simply may not need to empathise with [that person] in order to understand [them]” (1996, 188). It is therefore possible that a film may convey so much concrete information about a character that it might cut off the conceptual room required for empathy; the narration stifles the imaginative space necessary. Such a situation can inhibit what Currie identifies as ‘secondary’ imagining, distinguished from ‘primary’ imagining. In primary imagining, one imagines the presented fictional elements of the world as being true in that world; in secondary imagining “we imagine various things as to imagine what is true in the story,” a form of imagining necessary for empathetic engagement (Currie 1995, 152–53; original emphasis). In comparison with that which is opened up in There Will Be Blood, the narrational space that demands and enables secondary imagining is stifled in Sierra Madre by Dobbs’ direct expression of his motives and feelings, and their simple relationships with past and future narrative events.
When Dobbs wakes Curtin at gunpoint the two men are framed in a medium two-shot. Dobbs speaks manically, nearly non-stop, denying us much time to watch, search, and consider. The information provided by the scene and the context of its surrounding sequence is explicit and concrete. For example, the evening prior to the shooting, Dobbs makes his treacherous intentions known. He outlines his plan to steal Howard’s gold and then, the next night, when Curtin falls asleep and the opportunity presents itself, Dobbs makes his move, holding Curtin at gunpoint. Again, there is little room for interpretation:
CURTIN: You mean you’re going to murder me?
DOBBS: Oh brother, not murder, no, your mistake. I’m doing this to save my life, that you’d be takin’ from me the minute I wasn’t lookin’ at ya.
Dobbs then marches Curtin behind some trees, and shoots him.
Finally, any room in which the spectator might form the subtle or complex perspectives that I argue are invited by There Will Be Blood is cut off by the obvious condemnation of Dobbs that punctuates the aftermath of the shooting. After tossing the murder weapon at Curtin’s feet in a small gesture of guilty conscience, Dobbs lays down by the fire, loudly proclaiming his untroubled mind, a proclamation made ironic by the betrayal of his neurotic, guilt-stricken manner. The camera slowly dollies in from a medium shot to a medium-close-up. As the score builds towards its crescendo and Dobbs falls silent the campfire swells, its flames appearing to rise up to consume him; Dobbs stares ahead, eyes wide, as if he can see himself burn.
Despite its obviousness, this scene does require some imaginative interpretation, although of limited scope and thematic influence. It does not demand the generation of images, spaces, events, and interactions that are not directly represented in the film, as is the case with secondary imagining. Rather, we perceive Dobbs’ protests, interpret the display as ironic, and therefore we can conceptualise his guilty conscience. We understand that he is racked by guilt, but we do not simulate the guilt, or imagine the unrepresented life events that may have contributed to his propensity for guilt. Due to the limited imaginative space that the scene opens up, our probing of Dobbs’ subjectivity is rather superficial. What we imagine of Dobbs in this case does not invite an emotional experience that complicates the moral dimensions or thematic meaning of the scene or the film. At best, we are invited to pity or feel sympathy for a man broken by greed and the pain of a denied conscience, but from a position of superiority and clear moral perspective. And ultimately, any sympathy we might have for Dobbs is likely to be overwhelmed or forgotten in the distraction of Huston’s expressionistic, hellish campfire metaphor.
Unlike the narration of Sierra Madre, There Will Be Blood transforms narrative gaps into meaningfully productive imaginative spaces. In these spaces the spectator is invited to closely engage with the details of Plainview’s life, both onscreen and off, and their relationship to his probable states of mind and his actions. In this way the film does not ask us to stand back from Plainview but invites us in to share his perceptual and emotional point of view. By inviting us to engage with Plainview through this imaginative space rather than a more closed narration, the film raises rather than answers complex questions of him, especially of his troubled relationship with his family. Whether incoherent rage and murder, or inconsolable grief and alcoholism, Plainview’s states of mind and actions are associated with the fears, the desires, and the shame that he feels for and towards himself and his family. This complex relationship between Plainview and the film’s social space is a crucial component of There Will Be Blood’s ambiguous moral structure, and the relatively unclear moral standing of Plainview.
In Sierra Madre, on the other hand, Dobbs plainly rejects the fantasies of domestic idyll pronounced by his companions in favour of more material fantasies. He is punished with the burden of murderous greed and paranoia, which circles around behind his back in the form of the three bandits who hack him to death. His fate contrasts with that of Curtin, who is allowed to leave the story’s treachery behind for a life working the Californian soil, a dream he’d confessed earlier in the film.
In There Will Be Blood, Plainview’s desires regarding the domestic ideal of the melodramatic world’s social spaces are more conflicted and transitory. When Plainview reminisces with Henry on the beach, he talks of his small, childhood fantasies of owning a house, which point to the simple satisfactions of home: security, cleanliness, and the raising of a family. He says, “I thought as a boy that was the most beautiful house I’d ever seen. I wanted it. Wanted to live in it. And eat in it, and clean it… And even as a boy, I wanted to have children, to run around in it.” When asked by Henry if he would make his house look like the ideal of his childhood, Plainview thinks, then replies, “I think if I saw that house now it’d make me sick.”
The words point to his changed perspective of wealth, accomplishment, and satisfaction, to a perhaps subconscious rejection of the trappings of family in favour of the unrecognised traps of wealth and property. Despite this shift in Plainview’s point of view, the film still leaves us with this question: What drives Plainview’s downfall? What is the “tragic mistake” that he has made, far beyond the “pain and humiliation of bearing his own soul?” And how does our emotional response to the answer, as an index of our engagement with Plainview, influence the meaning of his story? The delicate flashback of the film’s penultimate sequence suggests a resolution, by playing out the tensions and ambiguities of the film’s world, and Plainview’s place within them.
“”You’re just a bastard from a basket in the middle of the desert, and I took you for no other reason than I needed a sweet face to buy land.”
Following this dismissal and rejection of the now-grown H.W, a drunken, decrepit Plainview thinks back on his life, and we flashback to the oilfields, years earlier.
In the dull light of an early morning Plainview and his workers sit by a fire taking coffee. Plainview and the child H.W. engage in a few moments of give-and-take, the son playfully withholding his father’s hat. Plainview issues a warning through a cocked eyebrow, but defuses its usual menace with the hint of a mischievous smile beneath his moustache. A moment later Plainview tires, and in a flash ends the game by retracting his smile and extending a glare. The moment of tension is released, though, through what is for Plainview an explosion of spontaneous warmth and affection towards his son: a broad smile that spreads across his face in an instant and beams from his eyes. Plainview then takes H.W., bending him over, playfully ribbing him. A jump-cut and Plainview is standing. He tousles H.W.’s hair, but it becomes a dismissal, a rough palming-off, as he pushes him down and away out of frame. Plainview walks towards the derrick in the background, as H.W. kicks dust after his father, waving his hands in dismay and anguish. H.W. walks out of frame with his future wife Mary, leaving his father to walk on to the derrick, its continuous creaking just breaking through onto the soundtrack, making itself felt amidst the haunting and mournful strings.
Typical of Anderson’s film, Plainview’s casual waste of life’s moments in the pushing away of H.W. and in his final walk to the derrick does not invite our bald condemnation. Rather, it invites us to feel the loss and the waste of a man and a family destroyed by what Thomas would describe as material desires of augmentation and fears of diminishment (2000, 26), destroyed by the never-ending pull of that blank space on the map, from Wisconsin, to Kansas, to California; from digging in the desert to decaying in a mansion.
There Will Be Blood invites and enables us to feel this tragic loss both sympathetically and empathetically. This invitation is made possible by the depth of the its imaginative spaces formed within on- and off-screen narrative gaps and its visual and sonic style that fosters deep engagement with its characters’ subjectivities. I have argued that in crucial moments of There Will Be Blood, such imaginative space allows empathetic engagement with Plainview. This empathy greatly complicates the moral perspectives that the film makes possible. Contrasting the cases of Sierra Madre and Fred C. Dobbs, and the case of There Will Be Blood and Daniel Plainview, demonstrates ways in which our emotional responses to a film characters may have significant implications for our interpretation of that film’s meaning, and of its value to us.
Halfway through There Will Be Blood, Plainview confesses to Henry that he sees the worst in people. “I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need,” he says. There Will Be Blood does not invite us to stand back from Plainview and see the worst in him, to judge and condemn him. We are instead provided with the imaginative space within which we can ‘look past seeing’ to imagine his emotional point of view, his place in the broader context of his world outside that directly presented, and empathise with him. In this, There Will Be Blood gives the story of a Great Man’s rise and fall rich and compassionate meaning, as it moves beyond the dichotomous simplicity of Sierra Madre to a space of unnerving ambivalence and valuable complexity. Such complexity is not valuable for its own sake. Rather, its value lies in experiencing complex and difficult perspectives and emotions from which we can understand and learn. Films that create extensive imaginative space and from it foster empathetic engagement are valuable and meaningful because they demand we look past what we can only see, to imagine and feel something much more instructive and much more valuable: the point of view of another, who might be nothing like us.
List of References
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