WARNING: Spoilers included
If you're even considering watching 'There Will Be Blood' than I implore you to do so (Wikipedia page, Rolling Stone review). The film mirrors Day-Lewis' lead: engaging, mesmorising, and ultimately shocking. I came away feeling that like any great protagonist Plainview was morally ambiguous, and only come to write this post having since suspected that I hold a minority view. Many people, it seems, take a dim view of Plainview.
Consider this review, which seems to approach what friends complain about:
"a mesmerizing meditation on the American spirit in all its maddening ambiguities: mean and noble, angry and secretive, hypocritical and more than a little insane in its aspirations" (cite)
That doesn't sound ambiguous at all, so I wonder, To what extent does his characterisation depend on an aversion to profiteering?
The plot is a rags to riches tale of an oil tycoon, and the ideological undertone is evident when we see the alcoholism, mental disintegration, and ultimate violence associated with the accumulation of vast wealth. Ignore the fact that commercial pioneers used their profits to fund America's cultural heritage, ignore the sobering and maturing effects that portfolio development typically brings about: Plainview's torment is supposed to tell us something about that elusive quest for growth.
But it's all too easy to use fiction as an ideological weapon, and all too easy to sit back smugly and lament how the arts industry monumentally fail to understand the capitalist process. Even if Plainview is an accurate depiction about the role of capitalism, is he really such a villain?
Exhibit A in the anti-capitalists case is Plainview's treatment of HW. This is a child (orphaned following a drilling accident) that Plainview uses as a business partner, to - supposedly with ruthless efficiency - signal a family firm and thus swing delicate business deals in his favour. These original motives are ultimately confirmed when Plainview bellows "bastard in a basket" to a now deaf HW (following another drilling accident), and reveals all. Does anyone buy this? An alternative history is that a mentally fragile, cruel man hurts his now ex-partner by whatever means he can, belying several years of tenderness and care.
Exhibit B might well be these accidents that routinely emerge and are depicted with devastating brutality. But the initial (and most formative) accident occurs in the first 10 minutes of the film, as we see Plainview himself digging for silver. He falls from his hand built ladder shattering his leg, and crawls back to civilisation with a limp that never leaves him. This physical deformity demonstrates the personal risk and sacrifice that he made. But for what? Profit?
In a telling scene Plainview and HW sit atop a hill, and Plainview outlines his vision of a pipeline running to the sea, freeing the company from their existing distribution network. But realise that he's not competing with consumers for that bounty, he's skimming it from rival producers to the benefit of the end user. The silent story throughout the entire picture is the scores of poverty-ridden consumers who benefit immeasurably from the production of cheaper gas. It's all too easy to presume that entrepreneurs capture rents. They do not, they create profit and this create social prosperity.
I personally found that the moral ambiguity of the film is embodied in the delightfully enthralling relationship between Plainview and local churchman Eli Sunday. The reciprocal nature of their contest suggests ambiguity. The victor is a function of physical strength. Both end up as detestable creatures. But good versus evil? Far from it.
Watching the film reminded me of Viktor Schreckengost (Don Boudreaux, Steve Horwitz), an entrepreneur who created an array of household products that we now take for granted. He was a silent hero, rewarded with profit, yet less famous and less well known than even a minor political figure. Perhaps we return to the fundamental conflict between left and right, which is weather arguments about wealth redistribution should prevent wealth creation. Perhaps the inevitability of bloodshed is a function of economic education.
I'm sure that if I'd read the book, or read a large number of film reviews I'd realise that these 'undercurrents' are actually transparent and obvious public debates. I might well have misinterpreted other people's interpretations. But for those who do see Plainview as an unambiguous villain, I worry that you're letting economic ignorance interfere in your enjoyment of a fine, sublime movie. There will be profit. There needn't be blood.
In early December Andrew and myself went to Ciné lumière for an exciting double-bill. I'll let him comment on the Finnish short, and focus my own attention on the 2004 film, "The Great Communist Bank Robbery". The background:
One quiet morning in August 1959, a car belonging to the National Bank of Romania was robbed in front of a central office in Bucharest. Four armed and masked men and one woman ran away with a huge amount of money, high-jacking a taxi. Less than a year later, a one-hour film on the robbery was already fascinating audiences throughout Romania. After they were caught, only months after the attack, the ‘gangsters’ agreed to play their own parts in this would-be ‘reconstruction’ scripted by Romania’s Political Police.
The 1960 film on the robbery, named "Reconstituirea" was aired for Communist Party members and was a bold move. At that point the Soviet Communists saw a Hollywood infatuation with gangster films as a reflection of the inevitable excesses of capitalism, and therefore there were no gangsters in Romania. As often happened, the "wish it were so" became an actual behavioural assumption, and it was simply considered impossible for bank robberies to take place. Consequently security was very loose, and the taxi was an easy target. Rather than cover up the robbery, however, they decided to turn it into a propaganda event.
It's not clear whether the 'gangsters' believed that participation in the reconstruction would reduce their sentence, but for several reasons the film is cloaked in ambiguity. Much of the content is Communist propaganda, from one of the most closed countries in Europe. Were they the real culprits? Why did they do it? What was the evidence? But "Reconstituirea" is a movie-within-a-movie, as another layer of documentary is added.
We see interviews with the original cameraman. We see interview with the children of bank employees who went missing during the night. We see interviews with a woman who was tortured. We also see interviews with prison guards, whose job it was to extract phantom information from innocent people. Have we reunited the tortured with the torturers? Why do they look the same?
Is the whole thing a charade?
The 'gangsters' were known as The Ioanid Gang, and at the time their fates were uncertain. All were sentanced to secret execution apart from one member, the female Monica Sevianu who was given life imprisonment, and later allowed to leave for Israel.
According to Nick Fraser, Series Editor of BBC Four's Storyville:
Alexandru Solomon's film is both a bizarre recreation of a crime of which the motive is still difficult to fathom and an astonishing evocation of a lost world of Romanian Stalinism.
It may not have been pleasant to live in 1950s Romania, but the images in the film have an eerie beauty.
In the sense that the sound of wooden planks rapping the bare souls of innocent people has "an eerie beauty", and ideological pornographers find solace in the depiction of the high years of history. This nightmarish portal raises many questions, not least how documentaries can exist within political repression. It's fitting that the BBC - an organisation that has voluntarily surrendered it's objectivity and search for truth - finds such beauty in a piece of theatrical brutality. The black and white camera work blends in and out of the original film, the voiceover hangs with an air of timelessness, amnesia, and possible regret. Eastern Europe's tragedy from the heart of the system.
“These people have nothing in common with the construction of socialism in Romania”.
Of course not.
I'm in awe of the current VW Golf advert, extolling the principles of "Night Driving". The site tries to generate a collection of night drives, and whilst I suspect that a particular motoring company, in a one-off advertising campaign, won't be able to generate the social networking the concept relies upon, it's a valiant effort.
Trust is the key to survival. And by trust, I mean getting out of the way and letting me do what I need to do.
I've learnt a lot from Jack Bauer (more here)... back in the States a group of us would regularly watch 24, and all of us were knowledgeable, intuitive classical liberals/libertarians. Obviously correlation doesn't imply causation, however it's intriguing to associate the two: is 24 pro-freedom?
Matt McCaffrey expresses his own view in no uncertain terms, in an article at the Mises Institute:
The show calls to mind the brilliant propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl.
Strewth! So how can I enjoy 24? Am I a hypocrite? Firstly lets appreciate it for what it is: ficticious, entertaining television. Consequently we can forgive the unrealistic protagonist (an omnisicient, benevolent hero), because it's incredulous to believe that Jack is supposed to embody anyone.
In short, 24 has become a spiralling, undisciplined caricature of itself: The Naked Gun with blood-curdling paranoia in place of jokes. This is no longer a knockabout drama serial. It's mad crypto fascist horror. You can still laugh at it, of course. But only just.
This mildly racist critique (apparently Wayne Palmer = R Kelly) thinks that any portrayal of the pitfalls of racial profiling is undone by the steady stream of Middle Eastern terrorists. But it's simply not true that 24 looks to Arabs as their source of fundamentalism: the "baddies" of Season 4 were Chinese, and Season 5 it was an alliance between Chechens and Americans. As the story traced the acts of terrorism to Jack Bauer's own father, 24 spreads out the guilt widely.
The show is dinstinctly American, and provides an attention to constitutionalism that is desperately needed. Some of the debates between Tom Lennox and Karen Hayes have been majestic, but it goes beyond simplistic dualism and demonstrates in action two distinctly radical views: that bureaucracy is a major constraint on effective action; and corruption is inherently tied to high political office.
I think it's far too simplistic to characterise 24 as either being sycophantic homage to government agents; or a neo-con sponsored defense of torture. My claim is that 24 is a complex paradox, where the only bottom line is that it's quality television. As TIME said:
24's ideology--Jack Bauerism, if you will--is not so much in between left and right as it is outside them, impatient with both A.C.L.U. niceties and Bushian moral absolutes
For some inexplicable reason I'm watching Newsnight. The pseudo-intellectual drival is hard to bear at the best of times, but tonight they're having a retrospective of "Ethical Man's" year-long attempt to patronise the British public into environmental indifference. The premise is so ridiculous I don't know where to start, but let me sum it up thusly:
It's not taught me anything about becoming more ethical.
I was provoked into writing this whinge when I saw the panel: a politician, another politician, another politician, and a member of the Green Party. I reached for the laptop, began typing, "For some inexplicable reason I'm watching Newsnight"... and then noticed Bjorn Lomborg on the satellite link up. It took Gavin "wide smile" Esler half an hour to remember he was there, but eventually Bjorn got some airtime. Fair play Newsnight, (if only there were more skeptics who wore t-shirts...)
Lomborg's message was that we should judge actions not intentions, which is the only time the debate approached an ethical position and seems quite sensible (unless you're willing to accept that being "ethical" is mimicking a Newsnight lurch). As a rhetorical tactic it's effective, since it seperates pragmatists from fanatics - pragmatists want solutions and are open-minded to the best means to produce them; fanatics see the ends as just and the means irrelevent. If fairtrade coffee create unintended consequences, the pragmatist reassesses their commitment, whilst the fanatic continues regardless.
According to Lomborg the actual consequence of "Ethical Man's" effort is that he has done £7 worth of good. No-one questioned that calculation. Politicians don't calculate. But it's an elementary and imperative necessity to engage in opportunity cost reasoning. If you don't you're a fraud. Whatever the figure, creating value is commendable, but compared to the opportunity cost it's lamentable. It is visible, obvious, but sick. If "Ethical Man" had devoted his year to global issues such as malaria, malnutrition, or HIV Aids his impact would have been far greater. Take that you smug, self-righteous knobhead - by indulging in such prepostorous nonsense you've been killing babies. The issue is about facing trade-offs, not "sustainability".
A few months ago I sat through "Don't Get Me Started":
TV presenter Selina Scott speaks out for the first time about what has happened to the industry in which she made her name. She goes onto the attack against the cruel, cynical and nasty programmes that she feels have become the norm
Forgive me but I didn't know who Selina Scott was, apparantly she "was the first journalist in the world to expose the cruel ivory trafficking trade in Kenya", she's "produced highly acclaimed documentaries on the royal Heads of Europe" she worked on BBC Breakfast TV at it's launch, she then joined Sky, and then went to live on a farm in Yorkshire, and then sold socks...
Currently she's very much aggrieved by a perceived lack of quality on British TV, explaining all to The Observer (which I confess I haven't read - it should soon become clear why).
Basically, she's a whinge-bag. I think it's ironic and hypocritical to pitch a television program labelling television watchers as morons, rather than produce a better product. It's pretentious, elitist, offensive, and counterproductive.
Over the last few weeks I've been watching (and rewatching) The Lakes. I bought it on DVD, having not seen it since it originally aired. If you ever get depressed by people like Selina Scott then turn to programmes such as this and see where they lead you. Check out the many many more works of genius from writer Jimmy McGovern. Check out what John Simm's done since. And when you've got through that, let me know, and i'll find something else.
I don't really understand the charge that television provides for "the lowest common denominator". This suggests that programmes will reflect the tastes of the most ignorant, deprived, moronic person in the country... but why? It stikes me as silly.
Viewing figures don't incorporate your IQ - it's one man one vote, so surely the Median Voter Theorem might be a more appropriate model?
Tonight I enjoyed the hospitality of the IEA to attend the premiere of the documentary "Mine Your Own Business". Journalist Phelim McAleer speaks to a rural Romanian community who live at the site of a potential new mine, currently being blocked by environmental protestors. He then traces a similar story in Madagascar and Chile to shed light on "the dark side of environmentalism".
The film was better than I expected: intelligent, witty and moving. It exposed the vested interests and ignorance/immorality that lie behind anyone who opposes economic development: the ignorance of those who believe Romanian peasants prefer horses to cars; the immorality of those who believe Africans aren't capable of spending money sensibly.
I had a few quibbles (the main one being that it was filmed in winter) but the decision to compare three seperate continents was academically astute, and the elevation of "George" to protagonist was inspired. Bravo to all those concerned, and you can see the trailor here.
Faith and I approached this Halloween with reticence - no fancy dress party at Kail's to look forward to, just a quiet evening in, fending off ASBOs.... But then we realised that we're living in the village that was the focal point of a classic horror film, "The Village of the Damned". Last weekend two fellow Filterers^ visited and we all watched the movie, sporadically popping outdoors to compare screen stills with real life. Alas intoxication led to some pretty wayward photography, but fortunately the October 2006 edition of The Thunder Child shows some then-and-now photos of famous scenes (one of which, shown below, has our car sat in the driveway!)
I really enjoyed the Ben Affleck film Paycheck - it was a brilliant depiction of the operation of memory. In case you haven't seen it his job involves having his memory erased and after it's been erased following an especially lucrative assignment he discovers that his previous "self" voluntarily turned down the paycheck and left himself with seemingly unvaluable items (BMW key; .45 Caliber bullet; bus pass; can of hairspray; cigarette lighter; crossword puzzle; diamond ring; fortune taken from a fortune cookie; half dollar; janitor's key; keycard to his employer; converging lens; matchbook; pack of cigarettes; pair of tinted sunglasses; paperclip; stamp; watch; Allen wrench; Ball bearings)
In a wonderful scene he returns to his room, bewildered, and tries to piece together what these objects mean. It's just like when you've been on a particularly heavy night out, and wake up the next morning and empty your pockets. Fragments of memory need to be pieced together into some form of narrative, as you struggle to recollect the relevence of each item! We've all come back with some treasure...
However the point I want to make about this film is (what I thought to be) a rather odd sub storyline where Affleck's character practices martial arts. In one scene he's practising (left). A later scene he gets into a fight and guess what - there's a stick lying about. So he picks it up and kicks some ass. Why did the script work that way?
I think it's because the film has international scope, and therefore not everyone watching it will understand English. Consequently films utilise essentially meaningless visual storylines to provide a sense of narrative for people who aren't listening to the words. "Ah!" they say, "he's using that stick, he's good at all that" (obviously they don't say this in English...)
But why a stick? Why this particular storyline? I presume (and again, this is pure supposition) a market that might watch the film, and where English isn't the primary language is in the Far East. And without sounding like a hideously crass stereotyper, aren't those guys all into hitting each other with sticks?
It strikes me as an interesting glimpse into cultural exchange. An American film, an American star but who's the Director?. John Woo! There we go!
I'd like to claim that it's a Marxist assumption that ideas and institutions travel from West to East - certainly in my studies of the diffusion of economic ideas I often encounter a presumption (and it typically comes from Marxists) that ideas travel in that direction. But it's not true. There's a great trade at play, it's not simply a case that "we're all getting more American". This is an example of America becoming more Chinese.
So cultural exchange is more complicated than people tend to make out, as Tyler Cowen says
William H. Marling's How "American" is Globalization? This wide-ranging book is the definitive current source on which cultures are gaining and losing in respective cultural areas. The bottom line of this book? The world is not becoming Americanized. Very highly recommended.