catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 2 :: 2008.01.25 — 2008.02.08


Leaning, leaning

Music is one of the great spices of our lives. It’s poignant because it can often inspire moments of nostalgia or reflection when simple words cannot. Whether our poison lies in 80s music, classic-rock, jazz, blues, classical or hymns, the music helps us process the complexity of our human nature and circumstances.

One example of such powerful music can be found in Charles Laughton’s 1955 adaptation of David Grubb’s 1953 Depression-era novel, The Night of the Hunter. In a chilling exchange between Rachel (the iconic silent era actress Lillian Gish) and the Preacher (Robert Mitchum) we hear and see a visually stunning and brilliant use of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Like many hymns, its words find inspiration in suffering and loss and culminate in phrases that tug at the human heart. One such line is found in the chorus, “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms.”

Regardless of race or creed, I think it’s safe to assume that all of humanity desires to be safe and secure. Rightfully so, we want cars that withstand impact with enough safety to ensure that our families will be safe if worse comes to worse. We want to know that our homes will be secure if someone should try to violate it. Ultimately, we don’t want to maybe, or probably, but certainly. If you parse it down to basic wants, life in many ways comes down to a joystick control. For this reality, this feeling of safety and security, many of us lean on our finances, some on faith and others on people. There’s no question that each of us is leaning on someone or thing, but the question is on whom or what and why.

These words—leaning, safe, secure—find no more a willing set of arms than the American Dream in relationship to people in search of hopeful prosperity. This phrase, the American Dream, is an inveterate spirit in our country. It speaks to something that each of us nurtures deep within ourselves. One of the ways in which we’re able to process this is through our art, which becomes a way for us to discourse about ideas, a common ground. Recently, a movie was released that I think touches subtly but profoundly on this subject.

Emerging from a five-year hiatus, Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love, 2002)  returns to the screen with a most enthralling epic in There Will Be Blood, a portrait painted with the broad strokes of greed and the vivid color palate of a lust for power.

Blood is a loose adaptation of muckraker Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927), and at its most simple it’s a story of greed. Alexis de Tocqueville put it this way: “I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts.” It’s here that we find Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Our tale begins down in the muck and mire, at the bottom of a well scratching for gold.  It’s lonely, aridly dusty and silent. We journey from his lowly days to his glory days as he raises a surrogate son, who emerges as his partner, and he vies for power in a small town against a young fiery revivalist preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Herein we discover that the values which so stimulate the pursuit and realization of wealth and prosperity are also their very undoing.

As The New Yorker film critic David Denby poignantly notes, “Anderson has set up a kind of allegory of American development in which two overwhelming forces—entrepreneurial capitalism and evangelism—both operate on the border of fraudulence.” Blood features beautiful landscapes, both rugged and bucolic, utilizing the skill of cinematographer Robert Elswit as well as the composition of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Anderson has directed, penned and produced arguably one of the more palpable American portraits of recent memory. He does this by directing with skilled precision, utilizing a visual orchestration of opening silence and visual storytelling comparable to a Sergio Leone picture, letting the grimaces and crevices of gritty faces carve out our initial reactions. He offers us a rhythmic anthem of human labor, simple and rugged. Daniel Plainview, like a cancer, slowly permeates those around him, and us, and preys sinisterly upon simpletons with utter ruthlessness.  

The real strength of the film lies in the command of Daniel Day-Lewis, who is simply astounding. He takes over your mind, like a drug, not just with his words, but with his tone, his earthy pale and dirty skin, his eyes. It’s in him that, perhaps in the spirit of Upton Sinclair, Anderson has provided his own exposé of the American Dream in which the volatile human condition is on trial. In the end, Blood exacts this by giving us a captivating character that is a perfect balance of genial demonism. In other words, he’s not too sinister or minister but a combination that leaves you caught in the middle of the human condition’s age-old identity crisis, the ambivalent interchange of faith and family, poverty and prosperity, and man and God.

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