“A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.”
– Jean Renoir
“Self-respect is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has a price.”
– Joan Didion
There Will Be Blood has been acclaimed by some as one of the greatest American films so far of the 21st century. It tells the story of oilman Daniel Plainview’s rise to power in the first half of the 20th century. This film builds on traditional Hollywood cinema — it would make a great double feature with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — even as it adds a strangeness that would feel right at home in an internet comedy video like Too Many Cooks.
There are many different ways to analyze There Will Be Blood. It deals with classic themes: power, religion, and the usefulness of milkshakes as a metaphor. Whether you think it is for or against capitalism or religion is really up to you. But there is one especially fascinating way to view it: as a great chapter in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s history of California.
Aside from Hard Eight and Phantom Thread, all of Anderson’s films take place or have at least one scene set in California. His love for the state began on a personal level. Anderson was born there, in Studio City, Los Angeles. He spent his childhood in the San Fernando Valley, where he made short films on Betamax. He even still lives there, raising his children with partner Maya Rudolph in Los Angeles.
There Will Be Blood owes its existence to Anderson’s love for his home state. He first bought Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, the source material for this film, because he “was homesick and the book had a painting of California on the cover.” It’s well known that Anderson shot some of the film in Marfa, Texas, close to the locations for fellow 2007 Academy Awards darling No Country For Old Men. But Anderson still managed to shoot scenes in California, giving this film a greater degree of authenticity. It’s telling that one of the most famous locations, protagonist Daniel Plainview’s mansion, is a Los Angeles landmark that belonged to real-life oilman Ned Doheny.
How does There Will Be Blood fit into Anderson’s depictions of his home state? In many ways, it’s an origin story for Anderson’s own California-centric cinematic universe. Plainview’s success ensures that Anderson’s California will be a profitable place for every other dreamer in Anderson’s filmography — from the ambitious Jack Horner in Boogie Nights to romantic policeman Jim Kurring in Magnolia. But his relentless drive to create, and the deep sacrifices he makes, foreshadows the other Anderson characters who are willing to destroy things for profit or suffer great costs. Examples include the soulless Floyd Gondoli in Boogie Nights and the misogynistic Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia.
There’s another way to think of Anderson’s body of work. It’s as a family. Boogie Nights is the older brother who slipped you copies of Playboy when you were a kid. Magnolia is the hippie mom who knows that things are bad but will comfort you anyway. Punch-Drunk Love is the awkward cousin who somehow has good fashion sense. With There Will Be Blood, we finally get to meet the grandfather of Anderson’s film family. It’s old, grandiloquent, and funny in a way that you couldn’t describe to others. It’s also perhaps his most respected film, just as grandparents are almost always the most respected members of a family. If you watch it, and in doing so get transported back to a California that is strikingly different as well as surprisingly the same, you’ll find out why.
Previous Anderson films that have been shown at the Cinema include Magnolia and Boogie Nights, both of which were included in a 24-hour, 12-film tribute to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman at the time of his 2014 passing.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest.