Paul Thomas Anderson and the pits of ourselves

Excerpted from the book Paul Thomas Anderson, by George Toles. The film discussed is There Will Be Blood.

Anderson briefly confuses us about which man has been struck down and about whether the accident has proven lethal. We are given an unusually long time to contemplate a man turned away from us, cowering from the tragedy in the well. His face hidden for a crucial interval, he becomes the missing term and possible source of deception in the image. His hoarse gasping recalls Daniel’s struggle for air in previous episodes. Finally we are granted a sustained view of Daniel’s eyes daring to peek out and confront the human wreckage next to him. There is no answering shot to exhibit what he sees. Daniel’s eyes transmit shock, and though much of his face remains concealed from us, we receive a sharp intimation of dread, as well. Daniel is illuminated here as a man afraid to look at certain things directly.

tolesAnother ellipsis snatches us away from this dread of looking. In place of the victim we are offered the settled face of Daniel in full daylight, still bearing streaks of oil and garbed in his southwester. He now appears to be staring in a self-possessed, perhaps penitential manner at what we are misled to suppose is the corpse of Ailman. Instead of the corpse we are shown—in a variation of the Kuleshov experiment—the startling image of the toddler, H.W., looking back at Daniel. Unmindful of the tragic circumstances, he seems to be debating whether the presence of this comparative stranger warrants tears. It is the first time that Daniel and the child have acknowledged each other directly. And because the child is a surprise substitution for the image we anticipated (the dead partner), H.W. appears to take over at a stroke whatever accumulated, unarticulated feelings belonged to the relationship that the accident foreclosed. From the standpoint of character psychology, this ellipsis is as significant as any in the film. Within the gap between Daniel’s dread at confronting his friend’s fate and his tacit acceptance of responsibility for his orphaned son, there are two sizable and suppressed emotional burdens. A transfer of energy is dramatized here, which has the force of a strong metaphor: “metaphor as event,” in Mary Ruefle’s phrase. Ruefle, a poet, speaks of metaphor as “the time it takes for an exchange of energy to occur. . . . A poem must rival a physical experience and metaphor is, simply, an exchange of energy between two things”. Daniel transfers (through an obscure mixture of grief, will, need, and calculation) his attachment for Ailman, who has been snatched away from him, to the child, H.W., the “burden” Ailman has left behind. H.W. is what remains of his father, the chief evidence that he existed. Daniel defers and suppresses his grief by immediately taking up the responsibility for the child’s upbringing, seizing the burden almost without space for reflection.

When I rewatched There Will Be Blood not long after my mother’s death, I was astonished to discover that the narrative appeared to be saturated with grief, a condition that had previously struck me as present only peripherally, and rather abstractly, well removed from the issues of character that seemed central. Naturally, I wondered whether my own grief had seeped into the barrenness of Daniel’s isolation and insisted on making room for itself in a psyche that offered it little sustenance. But Anderson’s elliptical method of presenting the various threats Daniel is fleeing supplied evidence that his highly conspicuous wrath may indeed be contending, in secret, against the weight of intractable grief. Anne Carson, in her preface to Grief Lessons, makes an extraordinary claim about grief and rage’s ineluctable kinship in tragedy:

Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away. . . . There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you—may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organization of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience.

The answer Carson provides to the question “Why does tragedy exist?” is ahistorical. We (or you) are the answer. Our rage, we are reminded, explodes from us, but the explosion is nearly always about something else, “displaced grief.” A confusion lies at the core of tragedy. The shouting and heedless destruction brought about by the tragic hero often transpires in a “blind,” like that occupied by Daniel Plainview. We also encounter him in Carson’s judicious phrase, “the pits of yourself.” In the shielding company of an actor we descend into the pit of ourselves to be “cleansed,” by proxy, of our darkness. And this cleansing is steeped in sorrow. Is this Daniel’s actual mission, as he burrows into the earth? Let us say that he seeks to be cleansed of his darkness. He seeks clemency as he drives himself ever deeper into the pit of himself. Carson says we opt for distance, whenever possible, in such descents. We send actors down in our place and watch them sacrifice themselves so we can get charged intimations of how our own nature is organized. Experience doesn’t give us enough clarity when things are happening. We need a substitute, a stand-in, one who is made for sacrifice, who can act it out for our benefit, so we can gain perspective, which entails a deepening intimacy with our elusive self and life. Grief is the crucial hidden term. Rage batters and thrashes about to distract the hero (and perhaps the spectator) from its presence.

Out of grief that can barely be countenanced, Daniel looks toward the tiny child, abandoned by his dead parent, and in the act of gazing at him feels an empty space inside himself beginning to be filled. The emotional place occupied previously by Ailman is shifted, as though in a deed transfer, to H.W. No doubt Daniel considers H.W. as a potential acquisition, an idea he can understand that blocks his view of a need he doesn’t understand. The transaction may even strike Daniel as a bargain. Both Daniel’s rage and grief seem pacified, initially, though both remain near, trembling in the balance as he takes on the task of caring for the “left behind” infant and, more complexly, caring about him. The shot that follows the first prolonged exchanged look between them is a two-shot of Daniel and H.W. sitting beside each other. Daniel, the newly self-appointed father, tackles the riddle of supplying nourishment. He coaxes a reluctant infant to accept a bottle of milk by dousing the nipple with whisky, the succulent poison Daniel thrives on. In Anderson’s shooting script, this scene involves a mother conscripted from a flophouse to breastfeed the boy. In the filmed version, it is a half-drunken Daniel rather than a surrogate who picks the child up after he refuses to drink and then dandles and pats him.

Immediately following this action, and serving as a concluding image for the extended, language-free prologue to the main narrative, is another two-shot of Daniel and H.W., this time aboard a train en route to an unspecified destination. Their intimacy has advanced remarkably in the space of a single cut, and this final perspective on blooming tenderness is granted unusual duration. We have ample time to observe Daniel taking pleasure in gazing his fill without embarrassment as the toddler studies his face quizzically, then reaches up and touches him. Daniel is further delighted as H.W. fondles his mustache, rewarding this gesture with a spontaneous smile. The tension in this lengthy visualization of serenity comes from Daniel’s voice, which intrudes into the train compartment without warning and demands abruptly that we split our attention between father-son and the sound and sense of smoothly manipulative speechifying. The voice is not part of the image’s present tense. It lies ahead of the action by many years and commandeers the train, in effect, by forcing it to pass hastily through time and space, as if to catch up with it. Daniel seems, on the one hand, to have no impediment to his involvement with his son in a present that snugly encloses them, but at the same time this present recedes—as we listen to Daniel’s “alien” voice—into the future. The voice bears us away from openness, mutuality, and Daniel effortlessly loosening up. Yet the image of these conditions persists for a long time in competition with the speaking voice. The image will not let go and simply dissolve.

Daniel and the narrative have instigated a break with the emotion that expands within the long take in the train compartment and are determined to settle elsewhere, at some remove from this still-ripening tenderness. And yet Daniel is equally intent on lingering with his acquired “son,” as though there remained all the time in the world to play with him. The speech, we soon determine, is a piece of salesman theater designed to persuade its various audiences to make a deal with Daniel on his terms. The voice, as we grow accustomed to its honeyed, John Huston-like authority and flow, reasserts control in the narrative. It is a voice equivalent, for all its measured self-possession, of the coiled music we encountered previously on the soundtrack. When we finally get our first glimpse of Daniel’s face as speaker in the newly established future present tense, and (a little bit later) with seven-year-old H.W. seated behind him, we recognize that both of them are engaged in a performance. Both appear masked, now, as they face the crowd, inverting the terms of the open-faced exchange they shared in the just-vanished train.