Wednesday, May 28, 2008

I Drink Your Milkshake: The Discourse of the Dynamism of American Capitalism

In an attempt to categorize what he saw as the forging of the dominant American arch, author Walter Allen put forth that the echelon of the American spirit is intertwined with the principles of capitalistic ideals, stating that, “The great theme of American fiction has been the exploration of what it means to be an American. What seems to be overly apparent in the modern American myth is the capitalistic spirit; in other terms, if need be, the technical and economic conditions which determine the projection of those who are born within such mechanisms”. While Allen deals exclusively within the bounds of literature, author Robert L. Carringer believes that the construction of the American myth that is ubiquitous in the modern novel is just as, if not more, omnipresent in the advent of American cinema. According to Carringer, “enterprise, indomitable idealism, a certain naturalness and openness to experience, and relentless will to succeed” make up what he calls “Americanness”, or the collective, representative traits that compose the mythos of the “American archetype” in cinema.

Carringer, however, fails to make the distinction that “Americanness” serves as a unique, and culturally specific, thematic touchstone. Arguably, the first and most noteworthy instance of the “American archetype” is embedded within Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Highly regarded by critics as the greatest American film, Kane illustrates how American cinema views what is regarded to be the representative qualities of the collective “American archetype”. Inherent in both its narrative structure and the use of its cinematic apparatus, Citizen Kane, explored the vicious dynamism of American capitalism; consequently establishing the first US-centric discourse in cinema. While Welles’ influence created a bastion of American films that reflected the discourse of the pitfalls of American capitalism, none of Kane’s progeny matched the grandiosity, potency and relevancy that Wells intended to portray until 67 years later, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2008).

The discourse of the ferocious dynamism of capitalism is personified by main characters Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane) and Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) and symbolized by the uncontrollable surge of success of each of their respective industries (journalism and oil), which is both the source for their triumph and unmaking. Both films are involved in the twinned aspects of industry and relationships (i.e. family), basked in the landscape of the upwardly mobile system of American progress, consequently delving into a microscopic examination on the tragic American tycoon; a character, whose obsessive and compulsive nature consciously obliterates any ties outside the pursuit of capital. Yet, despite all its similarities, Anderson’s film proves to be a postmodern take on Welles’ cultural work. Suffice it to say, the very notion of discourse, and our quest to fully understand it, requires a systematic understanding of the social surrounding that inhabits it. Through a close observational study of both said films, we will see how the discourse of the “American archetype” in the dynamistic spirit of post-colonial capitalism is developed in accordance with its social surrounding.

At the time of Kane’s release, the narrative became synonymous with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In an era that saw the nation’s first financial tragedy (the Great Depression), business tycoons, albeit already having national notoriety, gained overwhelming attention. Citizen Kane was made in a time where business leaders, like Hearst, lacked any semblance of anonymity; a time where business tycoons were more like movie stars, where the public watched and scrutinized every move, and where identity was defined not by the actions, but by the mediated interpretation of said action. The lack of a comprehensive identity in the American tycoon is well represented in the narrative structure of Citizen Kane; where we receive a “mediated interpretation” through a series of subjective flashbacks. While all of the flashbacks recount events that are contradictory to each other, there is one defining commonality: the omnipotent and dominant presence of Charles Foster Kane.

Through the groundbreaking cinematography of Gregg Toland, Kane’s demanding presence was brought to life through innovative techniques. The use of space, or the mise-en-scene, was implemented to give Kane a larger than life presence, using matte paintings, forced perspective , and low angle shots . Moreover, Kane would often be standing in rooms with lower ceilings and smaller door frames, emphasizing the man’s large scale. Welles’ radio-trained voice also played a significant part in his ostentatious character, as his voice would often echo. What is most interesting, however, is that in Kane’s last scene (which marks his unmaking as his second wife leaves him), the techniques once used to emphasize Kane’s superiority are suddenly reversed. The forced perspective is now utilized in a way where Kane looks smaller in a grander context. While Kane pleads with his wife to stay, a thirds perspective shot shows Kane’s last moment of significance before his ensuing downfall. Directly after, Kane destroys the material possessions in a room that suddenly puts him in a neutral context, symbolically obliterating the shallow successes of his life. The final shot of Kane shows a steady, neutral, dolly-shot of a man in defeat, walking alongside with a row of mirrors, projecting numerous Charles Foster Kane’s; symbolically assembling all conflicting views into one motion, showing us the only consistent reflection, and thus, identification of Kane throughout the whole film.

Flash-forward to the 21st century: we are at the dawn of the global market, a sprawling American economy, although suffering a recession, marks the benchmark for any modernized, industrial society. Globalization at a steady incline, where international trade and loan organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank dictate the direction of the global economy. Subsequently, the American economy converges into a vertically integrated market; coalescing much of what used to be individually owned companies under one giant umbrella. Thus, the arrival of faceless accountability; meaning that, for whatever decisions are made, the responsibility no longer lies on a figure like William Randolph Hearst, but now onto a symbol, logo, slogan, or the cheerful, albeit eerie, corporate mascot. In a world where the representation of our ever-growing petrocapitalistic society is faceless and, conceivably, non-existent, a representative scapegoat is embodied through Daniel Plainview: relentless, merciless, uncompassionate, and ultimately evil.

Anderson, a self-admitted student of classic Hollywood auteurs, implemented the same techniques that made Citizen Kane a considerable piece of cultural work. Much of There Will Be Blood seemingly follows the same narrative structure as Kane, up until the final 30 minutes. Unlike Citizen Kane there is no “rosebud” (symbolizing Kane’s youthful innocence, lost when the pursuit of capital divested him of his humanity). While Kane ultimately laments in the final moments of his life, Plainview is portrayed almost as a nihilist. In his final twilight, instead of repenting for the sins he has committed, he denounces his “bastard” son and kills his last known competitor. While Plainview’s final scene is almost identical to the construction of Kane’s ending (the dissemination of familial bonds, destruction of material things, etc.), what makes Blood so remarkably fascinating is the way the same cinematic techniques used to boast Charles Foster Kane as superior is used to only heighten Plainview’s lack of remorse; marking a contemporary variation to the “American archetype”.

The departure of Daniel from his son marks an evolutionary turn for the discourse of the “American archetype”. Similar to Kane, Plainview is first shown destroying his material possessions; the camera goes from one doorframe to a reverse shot of another door fame where Plainview is wielding a rifle (the use of frames and noir lighting is reminiscent of Welles’ style). Cut to H.W. Plainview, Daniel’s now adult son, striding through large doorframes to meet his father. The shot is nearly identical to when Kane first descends into madness (three door frames creating forced perspective), this time; conversely, H.W. is inching closer to his father, now driving toward madness as opposed to away from. Whereas Welles’ used third perspective to put the focus on Kane, subsequently relegating his off-frame wife as a plot device, Anderson uses his surroundings, or mise-en-scene, to create a distinctive rivalry between father and son. The lighting, shot distance, screen time, cut and edit is equally focused on both Daniel and H.W., signifying Daniel’s neutral stance; no longer boasting an all-powerful supremacy. As H.W. gives details for his plan to start his own oil business, Daniel condemns him, revealing that he is nothing more than a “bastard child”, who he only adopted to attract possible investors to trust in a family business.

The film could have ended with the denigration of H.W., but it makes a conscious turn to further paint Daniel into an uncompassionate character, unwilling to feel anything outside of his own self-righteous material successes. The last act of the film focuses on the murder of Daniel’s last known competitor, Priest Eli Sunday. The scene starts with a shallow focus used to bring emphasis to Eli’s stature over the dilapidated Daniel, now struggling to get up from his bowling alley floor. The scene then digresses into neutral territories, with the use of medium, head-and-shoulder shots, as Eli and Daniel talk business. Interestingly enough, the shallow focus and low angle-shots reemerges, as Daniel demands, in return for a business venture, that Eli proclaim, “I am a false prophet and God is a superstition!” Daniel then begins to ridicule Eli, as he reveals that he has no intentions to help Eli out of his financial debt. Daniel is now standing, with the low-angle shot emphasizing Daniel’s stature as Eli begins to dwindle down to the lower half of the frame. Before Daniel murders Eli, his final words to him include the now pop-culture relevant “I drink your milkshake!” a telling line that can serve as the metaphorical representation of the zeitgeist of our times. The American tycoon is no longer viewed or represented as a figure that yearns for a more intimate discovery of him or herself; we now have a archetype that, at the very end of life, still sucks at the very last drop until there is nothing left to drain.

Both scenes represent the conclusion of the discourse of the “American archetype”. In each respective case, we have a man, shallow, fatuous, consumed and defined by material successes, expelling ties with the last representation of familial life. Both Kane’s wife and Plainview’s son serve as symbols of each respective tycoon’s only failure. However, despite how important it was for both Kane and Plainview to maintain the illusion of the model family, both tycoon’s determinedly made a choice to sacrifice the primordial relationship of family in favor for capitalist-oriented, secondary relationships. The fascinating aspect, however, is how There Will Be Blood spawns an evolutionary change in the discourse of the “American archetype”; instead of the repenting Oedipal-like character we have in Citizen Kane, we have Daniel Plainview, a man, with his last dying breath, would rather put his son “in the ground” than to face another challenge to his already extensive capitalistic aspirations.


Anonymous said...

amazing and well-written. I love both films and this was a good way to connect the two. very intriguing thoughts on american capitalism and it's ability to corrupt even the most intimate of ties like family

Anonymous said...

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