Thursday, November 18, 2010

Distant Relatives: Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood

Robert here, with the inaugural post of my new feature: Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.

What has become of the American entrepreneur?

There are many reasons why we're drawn to tales of industrialists, inventors and entrepreneurs.  For starters, their influence is almost inescapable.  Tales about them are vis-a-vis tales about us and the world in which we live.  If we don't see theirs as stories about what we are, then surely they're stories about what we'd like to be, that ever elusive American dream that we want to achieve, and their eventual corruption and fall from grace (common in movies, not in reality) gives our schadenfreude a nice shot of adrenaline.  Films like Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood play out an examination of a complex relationship between the psychology of an individual and the sociology of the world that loves and hates them, and at times we see ourselves as both.

Downhill from here.
Charles Foster Kane and Daniel Plainview are both men of their times (by that I mean their films' times).  Kane is a representative of media influence growing in a world that was shrinking where a "journalist" moving into politics no longer seems even remotely strange.  Men like Kane ran the world.  Not to be outdone, Plainview, ambitious industrialist, rules in a place where the power is split between his business of oil and the business of God.  Notice how the town of Little Boston seems to have no mayor, council or politicians?  In fact the only men with any power are Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday (both of whom come with a slate of political promises).

Success. Betrayal. Abandonment.
"I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and as human beings."                                                 
Charles Kane comes with his promises too, though once he passes the point of misanthropic no return, somewhere between "it would be fun to run a newspaper" and people will believe "what I tell them to" we don't get to hear, nor care much about what those specific promises may be.  The only important ones are his youthfully optimistic "Declaration of Principles."  We know they'll eventually be abandoned.  Beware businessmen who fancy themselves champions of the people.  Plainview's promises on the other hand, of roads, schools and bread seem to be fulfilled, or at least there's no indication that they're not and in what might be his most humanistic moment, he wields his power to stop the abuse of the Sunday children.  Is it possible that Plainview's symbiotic relationship with his constituents yields greater results than Kane's supposed charitable one?

It's surprising how similarly the paths of Kane and Plainview develop.  Both begin with a stroke of luck, in Plainview's case, striking black gold, for Kane a rich foster father.  From there it's right down to business where both are intensely good at what they do and have little to fear from competition.  Their first real encounter with reality comes courtesy a supposedly uncontrollable event (the death of a political career and the injury of a child) that amplifies their fears, flaws and inability to control their world.  With their lack of power exposed, the next deterioration comes in the form of betrayal by a long time friend or trusted "sibling" emphasizing a reality in which absolutely no one can be trusted. The final blow is the abandonment of a loved one who can no longer bear their dominating presence, leaving them alone with their worthless success.  The subsequent outburst of violence by our entrepreneurs acts as one last attack against a world that they can no longer claim absolute dominion over.

The capacity to kill

Now we come to the real major split in the paths of Kane and Plainview.  Kane's violent attack is directed toward his house, his possessions, his makeshift prison.  His relent comes with the sad admission that he cannot attain the love that he's always wanted.  He's failed and he knows it.  Plainview's outburst however is not directed so inwardly.  He rages against his competition for power.  Plainview succeeds.  We don't know what comes after the credits roll, but it's almost impossible to read his statement of "I'm finished!" as a concession of regret or submission.  In fact it might be a declaration of his own perceived victory.  

Baptism didn't help.
So how did we get from stubborn regret to defiant murder?  There's an important step between Kane and Plainview in the form of Michael Corleone.  Corleone, who had his own fair share of youthful optimism, betrayal and abandonment, displays the same moral character as Plainvew but the same recognition of loss as Charles Kane.  So the more recent evolutionary step hasn't been the "hero's" transformation into a killer but the development of his self-defined triumph."  The question becomes: can we accept that a bad person doesn't get their just desserts?  Certainly there's no real sense of joy at the downfall of Kane and Corleone, but at least a sense of justice.  There's a satisfaction.  In the case of Daniel Plainview, the only conclusion we're left with is his own perception of success... so justice no longer matters.

Hallucinogenic reality

As a final contrast between Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood, consider what each film's structure says about it's subject.  Citizen Kane is a mystery, a puzzle, where pieces must be found and assembled in order to eventually reveal the person that is Charles Kane.  Structurally, There Will Be Blood isn't a puzzle.  Everything shown is chronological and straight forward.  But the high-contrast cinematography and anachronistic music present Plainview's life as something of a bizarre hallucinogenic experience, slightly elevated above what we perceive as normal reality.  When you consider how society regards its movers and shakers, we're no longer really interested in what makes them tick as much as we are in the details of the strange worlds they inhabit.

Of course, there's no limit to the number of cinematic entrepreneurs that the medium has produced over the decades.  The discussion should include more than Charles Kane, Daniel Plainview and Michael Corleone.  But what seems to never fade is our fascination with how their quest and success for the American dream drives them to sorrow or vice or madness.  What hasn't changed is the sense that one must abandon themselves if they want to be great, and to some extent it's true, and intriguing how many people still line up to board that particular train.  Is There Will Be Blood evidence that we don't expect justice any more?  Not necessarily, but keep an eye on the stories of these men in the future to see if their fate is presented as important as the frailty that got them there.


angel said...

Great analogy...

Volvagia said...

Here's a few GREAT ones:

Withnail and I stacked against The Red Shoes (interactions between sexual and asexual individuals)
Brazil stacked against Metropolis
No Country stacked against The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Devin D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Devin D said...

I more often link There Will Be Blood to It's A Wonderful Life, but this was a solid piece.

Kelsy said...

Oooh, fun series.

Amir said...

i havent read the post yet,
but i really love the idea of this series.
looking forward to reading this one and the rest of it.

Ruth said...

Both excellent films. I studied Kane in year 12 and There Will Be Blood this year at uni. I've never considered their similarities however. Excellent :)

No Bad Movies said...

Nice piece !


The ending of There Will Be Blood continues to haunt me. On the one hand I think it's OTT but on the other it leaves the film with such a declarative idiosyncratic "end" and it is "The End" and yet it lingers as if the fade to black and credits is only the ending of the film that's unspooled and not your ending with it. Sticky.

I haven't seen Kane in a long time but the piece amply reminds me of their similarities. The funny thing is I don't remember this movie coming up when PT Anderson was interviewed about hte movie (could just be my faulty memory) but I definitely remember that he loves GIANT... which doesn't seem as similar outside of the oil.

Volvagia said...

And, as you're talking about "steps between", here's mine:

Between The Red Shoes and Withnail and I is the book The World According to Garp (The Mom)
Between Metropolis and Brazil is THX 1138.
Between Sierra Madre and No Country is Paris, Texas.

Anonymous said...

Hey Robert,
I really like your opening, " Films like Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood play out an examination of a complex relationship between the psychology of an individual and the sociology of the world that loves and hates them, and at times we see ourselves as both." Reminds me of our fascination with icons like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. There are people who love one and hate the other. There are people who love them both and others who hate them both but everyone it seems is at least a little interested in them and their meteoric rise to iconoclasm whereas they, as well as their products, have gone so far as to become ingrained in our very social fabric. I think once someone or something becomes a part of the lexicon it's pretty obvious the collective 'we' put them/that there.

Great comparisons too, btw. There Will Be Blood is an epic film that contains some powerful themes and even more memorable scenes and performances. Films like this remind us of the true talent of acting that don't require powder puff makeup and perfectly diffused lightly to make a star a star.

O.K. So that was way off topic.

@volvagia nice points.

Volvagia said...

Is anyone out there? Anyone? And about my lack of a film stepping stone between The Red Shoes and Withnail and I: I have not come across one yet. Some 50s romances may be "ace friendly" but I would not associate them as actually being about asexuals in the same way as The Red Shoes and Withnail and I. (The other option is painting Withnail and I as the stepping stone to Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, which almost makes a bit more sense in regards to the three fiction's more logical view of the difficulties of asexuals, while the perception in Garp seems to be a stones throw from Sheldon Cooper (a well performed, but ultimately inconsequential character that you never perceive as being BOTHERED by his orientation. But using a novel as a stepping stone to a movie seems a bit more natural for a series that's trying to link two movies than using a movie as a stepping stone to a comic book.)


volvagia -- i think you might get more response if you tried to stick a little closer to the topics at hand. It sounds like you're responding to an article other than this one.

and while I'd readily agree that daniel plainview is one of the very rare "asexual" iconic film characters, even when asexuality has nothing to do with a topic, you tend to go there. So it can be a little distracting/confusing as to what you're talking about sometimes.

I'm not complaining (there's room for all preoccupations in film obsessions) but just asking for focus on topic at hand.

Volvagia said...

And a note about the two movies I selected to deal with asexuality: I'd say those two films are over half of the history of asexuality in the cinema. The only other one I'd count is McCabe and Mrs. Miller (which I personally find morally unhinged due to the way McCabe died). But that movie is much more interested in the construction of business than the strongly comic implications of some of the things it's putting forward. (McCabe's sexual orientation when viewed against his business (And I think there's a very interesting comedy in the idea of an asexual running a brothel) would be at the top of my list.)

Volvagia said...

I'm responding to flaws in my own comments, for one and two: That's the other major thing: Citizen Kane is about a straight guy. No one's going to say that Orson Welles hates all straight people. TWBB is a slur against MY sexual orientation, an orientation trying to find it's footing. I'm most likely not seeing anything new PT makes, however brilliant it may be. I may watch Hard Eight at some point, but anything past Blood is on my avoid list due to moral issues with the director. (So if you hate that Woody Allen married his step-daughter...don't boycott everything, just the material that follows...and Manhattan.) As you can surely tell, I am angry at this movie. Top flight cinema, yet absolutely disgusting.


volvagia -- excuse me: WHAT? just because a fictional character is not likeable or even morally reprehensible like Daniel Plainview does not mean the director is attacking every character trait held by the character. Plainview's sexuality (whatever it is... and I'd agree that it's probably asexual -- i first heard Sasha Stone say this in the Oscar symposium right here that year and thought it was a brilliant read of the character) has almost nothing to do with the great concerns of the movie.

If you ask me, it's just an interesting flourish in DDL's interpretation. Sexuality doesn't relate to that text much at least not in any straightforward way whereas the film is greatly interested in other defining human characteristics like: ambition, faith, ethics, familial devotion, etcetera.

Volvagia said...

It's not just "DDL's flourish." He was kind of written that way. Who wrote the script? PT Anderson. I don't know what his stance is, but I don't want to risk supporting someone against my orientation. Would you willingly go to a film made by someone who's homophobic?


volvagia -- i don't believe in rejecting art unseen just because someone who made it has feelings i don't share. You'd have to toss out the complete compositions of Wagner for example. You'd have to toss out all Mel Gibson films. You'd lose pretty much... well, you'd lose way too much art in every field. People aren't perfect nor should we expect them to be when we go their films.

i think it's a slippery slope.

especially when you're dealing with strange conjecture as you are here.

and especially when you're dealing with an artist the calibre of P.T. Anderson. Judging by the characters in his films, I'm not too sure that he's all pro gay for example ;) but i would never in a million years stop going to his movies because he is a genius.

/3rtfu11 said...

The PSH character in Boogie Nights shows me PTA is compassionate towards gay people. It’s the only example of Mark Wahlberg engaging in a non-comical fashion intimacy with another man, an actor who backed out of Brokeback Mountain because he just couldn’t handle it.


/3rtfull -- um. ewww. if anything that character is evidence against PT. the character is just so pathetic, don't you think? Or at least he is the way PSH plays him.

/3rtfu11 said...

The actor is gross but the character is sympathetic. The character PSH is playing is a hopeless and lonely gay loser. There are many of us like this character albeit not as frightening as our first glimpse of PSH in the film.