Paul Thomas Anderson is quickly turning into one of the most interesting directors of his generation, with a steady output of quality. The range in subject matter taken on by by this filmmaker is simply impressive, he has previously delved into the pornography business of the 70's and 80's with Boogie Nights and in 2012 came The Master which deals with the formation and attraction of spiritual cults. In between, Anderson gave us the wildly creative Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, arguably his finest film.
Paul Thomas Anderson seems to harbor a fascination for origins, the nascent, that which is just beginning to form and take shape. The Master captures perfectly the threatening sense of an expanding reality that the US lived through in the post-war/early cold war era, as the idyllic narrative of old America gave way to a growing feeling of disconnect, experienced first by the returning vets. Freddie Quell, returning from WWII service, has a void similar to that so brilliantly explored by William Wyler in The Best Years of Our Lives and Hemingway in his masterful Soldier's Home.
The old answers; God, family, nation no longer apply. New ones must be found, there is a restlessness in place of the placid security and predictability of old. This surge into new mental states, new cultural mappings, a new hybrid spirituality and the relentless questioning of authority that followed, produced monumental changes and soon enough there was counterculture, hippes, experimentation with drugs, serial killers, collective suicides and rock & roll.
After being approached by Paul Sunday, a young man who has left his village, but knows there is oil there and sells this piece of information to Daniel. Daniel travels there to buy land for cheap, but Paul's twin brother Eli demands a sizable amount for his church, where he is a pastor. Here is the other half of the equation, the oil and the marvels of industry and the new way of life, frankly, that it promises, doesn't concern itself with the mind or the spirit. Technological progress, material progress, it doesn't address the meaning of life, what is right and what is wrong, how one should conduct oneself etc. This is Eli's product, and the souls of the village are the well that he draws from. He too, dreams of empire, of influencing, of giving the people what they need. He, too, wants to pump life into the veins of society by a network of pipelines ("I have been working in radio").
A thousand men, say, go searchin' for gold. After six months, one of them's lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That's six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin' over a mountain, goin' hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin' and the gettin' of it
But none of that is depicted in Anderson's movie, he contends himself with the embryonic, and having explored the initial void with him, we understand so very well what came to fill it. It doesn't need to be on the screen. Lancaster Dobbs, charismatic cult leader, claims to be "writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher", a supermarket of life tenets and a precursor to the information age where all this and much more is at our fingertips as we all strive to put it together in a way we can live with, and that hopefully also will express something of our own personal identity and uniqueness.
If The Master is a contemplation on the coming into being of a more open, less dogmatic, but also more chaotic and perhaps, ultimately, frightening world - There Will Be Blood concerns itself with the first seeds of modern industrialism. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as oil prospector Daniel Plainview (his first name an anagram of 'denial' and his last name perhaps an invitation not to look for metaphors, but rather treat this as a grand tragedy, simply man and his fate) whom we first meet in 1898. He works alone, or I should say toils, for it was a hard life, the life of a prospector. And dangerous, there was a price to pay for the modern world. Although he was speaking about gold, a different prospector from Hollywood's rich history comes to mind. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Howard says:
Their two worlds collide with tremendous force in this movie. The result is a powerful examination of man, his aspirations, the price we pay when we stray from what is truly important, namely to know the truth about ourselves and our conditions here on earth. You have a duty downwards, as it were, to survive, to wrest a living from earth and cling to existence. But then there is also an above, where the stars have always waited for us, haven't they? A look out into the infinite, a different duty, to determine exactly who and what you are on this earth. What are we willing to give up, what price are we willing to pay? Again, Anderson has gone to the formative stages, this time of modern life itself. Its attraction, the beauty of struggling to improve one's station, to progress - but also the perils of it. All this in the gripping tale of two men and their fates which doesn't really need any reading into to be enjoyed, it is powerful enough as pure drama.
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