There Will Be Blood and the Ends of Petro-Modernity
This is an essay from a few years ago which got spiked: it was commissioned as a piece on There Will Be Blood, to mark its tenth anniversary, but I think the editor wanted something less critical, perhaps, certainly less of a mix of ecology and psychoanalysis. They didn’t tell me, either way; they just ignored my emails. I’ve watched a few films about oil recently and have had some new thoughts, so I’ve added to it and edited parts of it a little. As always, if you like it please share it with anyone who might be interested, please take out a monthly subscription, or buy me a coffee. Thanks for reading!
One day he said, “I struck oil. It was I who struck oil. But the contents of the oil wells have only just been sampled. There is oil enough, material enough for research and exploitation, to last fifty years, to last one hundred years—or longer.”
“I struck oil” suggests business enterprise. We visualise stark uprights and skeleton-like steel cages, like Eiffel Towers. And there are many, I have reason to know, who think of the whole method or system of psychoanalysis in such terms, a cage, a mechanical construction set up in an arid desert, to trap the unwary, and if there is “oil” to be inferred, the “oil” goes to someone else.
These lines, written by the American modernist H. D. in 1952, reflecting on her course of analysis with Sigmund Freud, suggest a striking association between two of the symptoms or hand-maidens of the twentieth century: the extraction of oil and psychoanalysis. Expending energy, time, and labour to speculatively plumb the depths in order to extract, and then transform raw, dark material—so dense and opaque as to seem timeless—into something useful and productive. Of course in both cases the extracted material is imperfectly useful: think of Freud’s claim that psychoanalysis can only hope to turn neurosis into ordinary human unhappiness; think of the the deleterious effects of the concentration of wealth in the oil industry, think of catastrophic carbon emissions from fossil fuels.
In 1929 Brecht argued that in order to explore the new relationships emerging between people as the twentieth century advanced, one first had to explore the new subject matter that was causing those relations: the first thing to do was to identify the this subject matter, which was primary, and then to map out the new relationships, which were secondary. The new subject matter that Brecht was concerned with in particular in 1929 was the extraction and use of petroleum, which had lead to what he termed “the petroleum complex”:
Both the individual and the masses display certain modes of action, which are clearly specific to the petroleum complex. But the new modes of action were not what created this particular way of utilising petroleum. On the contrary, the petroleum complex came first, and the new relationships are secondary. […] The subject matter (the situation, as it were) develops according to definite rules and simple necessities, but petroleum creates new relationships. […] Petroleum balks at the five-act form, today’s catastrophes do not proceed in a straight line but in cyclical crises, the ‘heroes’ are different according to the different phases, are interchangeable, etc., the graph of human actions is complicated by human error, fate is no longer a coherent power.
We act as we do because of the basis of our current society, and our society over the past century, lies in the extraction and utilisation of petroleum. Petrol has created new social relations and roles: the oil tycoon, for example. A new artistic form must be found to properly represent these new relations; the five-act schema of an Ibsen play, for example, “is nowhere near adequate even to dramatising a simple newspaper report,” Brecht tells us. Instead, the petroleum complex demands attention to the cyclical crises of capitalism, attention to error, awareness of the sense that any mystified force beyond the human—such as fate, or destiny—is no longer appropriate for understanding our condition. From out of these thoughts, Brecht was formulating his conception of epic theatre.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was released at the end of 2007, about seven months before the still-unbeaten peak oil price of $147.27 USD per barrel was reached in July 2008. Arguably, it can be read as a film “about” peak oil. It is an enormous film, which has been understood as both historical epic (though not epic in Brecht’s sense) and as melodrama. Its enormity is felt thematically, visually, stylistically, in terms of length, in terms of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano’s performances, in terms of acclaim and the volume of words generated about it. For those unfamiliar with the film: it follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in his obsessive will-to-power journey to become an incredibly wealthy oilman in Southern California, between 1898 and 1927. It can be understood as a work exploring the confrontation between the aggressive competitiveness of both the capitalist—Daniel Plainview—and the American-style self-proclaimed prophet—Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano—with the eventual (Pyrrhic) victory being claimed by capitalism and the petroleum complex. It is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (published 1926–27), though while Sinclair’s novel articulates a defence of, or argument for, socialism, Anderson’s film does not deal directly with the political implications of organised labour uniting for a common good, instead focusing on the libidinal drive of one man in his incessant pursuit of wealth and power.
Throughout the film, which runs a little short of three hours, Plainview is responsible for a number of deaths, both as an industrialist whose employees are killed by workplace accidents and through murder with his own hands. In his conversations with potential clients, who are usually presented as gawping and uncertain yokels who happen to live where there’s oil, backwards folk he’s gently exploiting (gently, at least, until they pose a direct opposition to his will), Plainview presents himself as a “family man,” with his non-biological son H.W. (adopted from a deceased worker near the beginning of the film) in tow. He claims to offer “the bond of family that very few oil men will understand,” but at another point emphasises that there’s not “a drop” of his blood in his kin. At one point a man claiming to be his brother arrives, who Plainview kills after realising that he is not, in fact, his blood relation, but rather someone seeking money or employment. Plainview yearns for the tie of biological relation, from which he has cut himself off. He ends up alone and tremendously wealthy, having apparently alienated or killed all connections or rivals formed during his aggressive rise to power. He is rich, but at what cost? This is the question the film would suggest, but it doesn’t quite pose it, in part because it is too wrapped up in its infatuation with the strength of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, which often feels as if it is going to exceed the film, as if he’ll burst out of the frame. Plainview’s final words in the film, after he’s bludgeoned Eli Sunday to death with a bowling pin (neatly bringing together an archetypal form of twentieth-century American leisure and brutal violence—see Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone), are “I’m finished.” We are left feeling that he’s not finished just in the sense of his career, his personal rise to power, but that Plainview as a character-type is finished: the oil tycoon who pulled himself up from nowhere to build an empire, the hero as capitalist-industrialist, is finished.
Over the past few decades, a number of important studies on the relationship of oil, democracy and the rise of capitalism have been written. Andreas Malm, in Fossil Capital (2016), writes that fossil fuels are, by definition, a materialisation of social relations: humans have never engaged in the systematic and large-scale extraction of oil in order to satisfy the problem of sustenance, for example, but to reinforce the necessity of waged or forced labour. Ten years earlier, Timothy Mitchell highlighted in Carbon Democracy (2006) that Californian petroleum workers had led the struggle during and in the years following the First World War for better pay and conditions, as well as for a public ownership of the oil industry, for its profits to be used for the good of all. In There Will Be Blood, part of Plainview’s pitch to the people of Little Boston is that his oil wells will lead to development of the community, they will fulfil needs that the local church is unable to: capitalism provides where religion cannot. Mitchell also emphasises the fact that the switch from coal to oil as the major source of fossil fuel energy in the second half of the twentieth century was motivated by the growing union power of coal mining communities, and their ability to switch off energy supplies as an act of political resistance during any potential general strike. Oil extraction requires a smaller workforce than coal mining, and its fundamental liquidity makes transportation easier. As a condition of modernity, the petroleum complex promotes the development of our particular historical brand of Western democratic capitalism, complete with military interventions into South American and Middle Eastern politics, while also containing the seeds of its own destruction, in the apocalyptic forecasts of global climate breakdown.
We might compare There Will Be Blood to some other oil films: Werner Herzog’s documentary-fiction Lessons of Darkness (1992); Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) and its remake by William Friedkin Sorcerer (1977); Dougls Sirk’s Written on the Wind and George Stevens’ Giant (both 1956). All of these films can be read as more or less explicitly critical of the petroleum complex. In Lessons of Darkness, Herzog decontextualizes footage from the first Gulf War showing the Kuwaiti oil fires, stripping the images of their immediate political content and context, and provides a characteristic voiceover ruminating on the indifference of the environment to the activities of mankind, seeking to create a cataclysmic sense of the uncanny by dislocating footage from the Middle East and presenting it as if it had arrived from another planet. The soundtrack to Herzog’s film includes music by Mahler, Schubert, Wagner, Verdi and Prokofiev, which add a sense of imposing tension and gravity to the footage of men in protective gear, described by Herzog’s voice-over as “creatures,” working to extinguish the enormous fires (which, at the time led to predictions that the environmental impact of the fires would rival that of a nuclear winter). This is either anti-imperialist critique or merely aestheticised violence against nature: it is characteristic of Herzog that this film feels irresolvably ambivalent—but whichever it is, Herzog’s film highlights the strangeness, the scale of horror, and the threat of destruction that the global reliance on oil production presents.
The Wages of Fear, meanwhile, depicts a more realist version of the globalised oil industry: European workers are employed by an American oil company operating in South America to carry truckloads of nitro-glycerine over poorly maintained roads to a burning oil well 300 miles away, in order to protect the oil company’s investments. The job is determined to be too dangerous for the unionised employees, and so is outsourced to two Frenchmen, an Italian and a German, who will be paid $2,000 each. This operation is a success from the oil company’s perspective, despite leading to the loss of all of the workers’ lives. The Wages of Fear was censored before its release in the United States, because it was understood as expressing overly anti-American sentiments, but it is not just the Americanism of the oil company that is under attack here: it is the disregard of workers’ safety for the sake of protecting investments, and the fact that the enormously wealthy oil company only extracts resources from the local community rather than, for example, bothering to pave the roads which lead to its wells. The Wages of Fear was remade in 1977 by William Friedkin, and released under the name Sorcerer. Friedkin’s American version of the same essential plot turns it into a work which grapples with existential questions about individual greed and desperation: labour politics and any questioning of neo-colonialism retreat to the background, resulting in a film about the inescapability of fate; the impossibility of escaping from the world structured by the petroleum complex.
Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind deals with the social relations produced by the concentration of wealth in oil. It concerns the two children of an oil tycoon, Marylee and Kyle, both self-destructive alcoholics with sexual hang-ups and a hint of incestuous tension between them. Their desires are triangulated through a geologist employed by their father’s oil company (played by Rock Hudson), who falls in love with Kyle’s wife, while Kyle’s alcohol problems are implied to be leading to his infertility. Throughout, the heirs of oil money are shown in garish Technicolor as damaged, insecure, sexually perverse and neurotic, while Rock Hudson, the senior employee of the company, is shown to be wholesome, erotically ‘healthy’ and the real source of the oil company’s fiscal success. Of course, Sirk’s melodramatic style is so heavily extravagant and steeped in irony that Rock Hudson’s heterosexual intellectual and sexual virility and general sensibleness comes across almost as exaggerated, but this serves only to set off more starkly the corrupting influence of hereditary wealth from the petroleum complex. This is not a critique of capitalism or of oil production per se, but rather of the social relations it produces. Whereas There Will Be Blood deals with the rise and fall of the oil tycoon character-type, Written on the Wind shows the social and personal degradation that is unintentionally engendered by these individuals. Written on the Wind was released the same year as Giant, another Rock Hudson vehicle—this time casting the discovery of Texas oil as an event which degrades the established patterns of American rural capitalism: cattle ranching cowboys transition from accumulating wealth from the size of the land they own, to extracting the resources buried underneath it, and, in the process, move from a life defined by traditional structures of feeling into a confusing and vulgar world of emptiness, sleaze and alcoholism. Like Written on the Wind, Giant is also concerned with inheritance and corruption: it is deeply ambivalent about the march of modernity which accompanies oil extraction, but where Written on the Wind expresses Sirk’s cynical European irony at American wealth, Giant is a melancholic and nostalgic film about the loss of a way of life.
There Will Be Blood is, like Giant, also a nostalgic film. It is nostalgic for Golden Age Hollywood and it is nostalgic for the petro-modernism that helped deliver that industry by producing concentrated wealth in Southern California in the early twentieth century and extracting the raw materials used to produce photographic film. It is telling that by the end of the film, Eli has become a radiovangelist, hoping to take advantage of the new technology to boost his career. By focusing on the relentless pursuit of power and wealth by Plainview, who is stripped of blood relations and genuine familial ties and mirrored by the corruptible nature of his religious opponent, Anderson’s film implicitly promotes a Carlylean vision of history, in which the world is shaped by the actions of heroes relentlessly pursuing their own interests. Plainview’s main frustration throughout his rise to power is an equally driven opponent, and the struggle between them is one that is only ended by physicality and strength.
Anderson’s film is nostalgic in terms of its production, too, eschewing the tools of digital filmmaking for 35mm and (according to an interview with Anderson published in Millimeter magazine in 2007) “old-fashioned” techniques.It was shot on location in Marfa, Texas—the same location used for Giant. We might note that, despite claims in the closing credits that There Will Be Blood was “100% carbon neutral” (a claim made possible through the purchasing of carbon-offsetting), UCLA’s 2006 report on Sustainability in the Motion Picture Industry tells us that filming on location is “comparable to moving an army,” and that in preparation for this army’s arrival, roads have to be paved and diesel generators hired, both with notable environmental impact. This kind of killjoy analysis of the environmental impact of filmmaking did not exist in the Golden Age of Hollywood, certainly, and in a sense what is “finished” at the end of There Will Be Blood, released just before the oil price peaked, is a world in which the approaching calamity of ecological collapse was unknown, or ignorable.
And yet, carbon emissions continue to rise and humanity ploughs onwards towards certain calamity. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, published in 1920, Freud begins to formulate his theory of the death drive, the instinctual urge he sees in all animate life forms to return to an inanimate state of being. All life—life as such—is for Freud in this text, just a complicated detour on the way to death, a circuitous path kept to by the conservative nature of instinct. Seen this way,
the theoretical importance of the instincts of self-preservation, of self-assertion and of mastery greatly diminishes. They are component instincts whose function it is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself. […] The organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.
In Freud, the death drive is linked to the repetition compulsion: the manifestation of the power of the repressed. We repeat traumatic events compulsively because this repetition gives us some mastery over them, or because they bring some satisfaction to an unconscious and repressed instinctual drive. Repetition is distinct from remembering: it is not a conscious re-enactment but an unconscious repetition that can begin to take on the feeling of fate or destiny. In his late work, Civilization and its Discontents, published a decade after Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud notes that the satisfaction of the urge to destructiveness and aggression, even when it is uncoupled from sexual gratification, is accompanied by an “extraordinarily high degree of narcissistic enjoyment” because it presents the ego with a fulfilment of its wish for omnipotence. For Freud, the death drive is enacted in the inclination towards aggression, which is “an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man.”
Without wanting to put too fine a point on it: the actions and trajectory of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood can easily be interpreted as an enactment of the aggressive side of repetition compulsion, in the service of the death drive. His final lines in the film have a sense of satisfaction to them; he has reached the end of his life in his own fashion and on his own terms. Ultimately, it is only by killing Eli that he is able to attain the mastery over him and omnipotence that he seeks in all of his relations; he kills Eli to take final control over that relationship, and as compensation for the breakdown in his relationship with H.W., who, at the end of the film has broken his ties with Daniel to set up his own oil company in Mexico (the globalising creep of the petroleum complex). But the death drive is universal, Freud thinks, and it constitutes “the greatest impediment to civilisation.” Petro-modernity contains the germ of its own collapse; the conscious knowledge that a civilisation based on the extraction and burning of fossil fuels from the earth will ultimately lead to catastrophe cannot penetrate to the unconscious and cannot overwrite instinctive drive in the organism to die on its own terms, to return from animate matter to inanimate matter.
There Will Be Blood is a film about time, or about a time: the age of the American frontier, of the Western, of the burgeoning petroleum complex. The climate emergency is the return of the past in the present at the expense of the future. The vehicle of this emergency—the human addiction to fossil fuels—has its own timescale. The temporality of oil is so vast as to effectively appear timeless when examined from a human scale. Oil is made up of organic compounds that were once algae and zooplankton whose remains settled at the bottom of a lake or ocean and were gradually buried by accumulating sediment. Over time, and under heat and pressure, these organic compounds and hydrocarbons form oil or gas. This is a process that takes hundreds of thousands of years. In the process, once animate matter returns to its prior state of inanimate matter, enacting the impulse of the death drive that Freud saw as originary and present in all living organisms. Freud thought that the unconscious was timeless: that the mental processes which took place there could not be ordered temporally, could not be altered by time in anyway, that time could not be applied to them. We are already living in a state of environmental catastrophe: we have run out of time to mitigate emissions in such a way as to halt the climate breakdown, and instead will be forced into a process of adaptation to the disasters. We are still living in and among the repercussions of the time shown in There Will Be Blood, depicted with nostalgia by Paul Thomas Anderson; a time which refuses to die, despite its passing away. We continue to extract and utilise oil as if we had all the time in the world; as if time itself was not a concern for us.