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Earnest Goes to Camp: Daniel Plainview, Susan Sontag, and That Ending!

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Earnest Goes to Camp: Daniel Plainview, Susan Sontag, and <em>That Ending!</em>

If nothing else, There Will Be Blood has been a boon to the T-shirt industry; I can’t pass a novelty shop without seeing “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE” scrawled in Gothic script over oil-black cotton blends. The ubiquity of that phrase suggests the film has infiltrated the mainstream, but really, it’s only one particular scene that’s tapped into the zeitgeist. I’m speaking, of course, about the film’s notorious coda, a twenty-minute stretch of affected Grand Guignol that has become an autonomous entity in its own right.

That scene, which culminates in Daniel Day-Lewis’s misanthropic oilman Daniel Plainview beating to death his longtime rival Eli Sunday with a bowling pin, represents a jarring tonal shift in the film, severing it from the realism of the earlier scenes and serving as a litmus test for viewers. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either the moment the film cements its status as a masterpiece or the point where it goes completely off the rails. Certainly, critics have responded with ambivalence. Populist net critic James Berardinelli complains the last act is “poorly focused” and calls the conclusion “strangely hollow,” while Slant’s Ed Gonzalez deems the coda “ridiculous,” describing Day-Lewis’s performance in it as “a Howard Hughesian drag act.” In his otherwise glowing review for the New Yorker, David Denby calls the scene “a mistake,” even as he concedes that it’s “astonishing.”

The question then becomes how to reconcile this seemingly disparate coda with the rest of the film. Critics remain conflicted about how to read the finale, with many failing to engage the scene on its own terms: Denby, for example, goofily dismisses the scene as a “rebell[ion] against canonization,” as if Anderson were trying to sabotage his own film. While there’s little question as to the scene’s deliberateness, few critics have delved into the way the finale works. I would like to argue that the stilted affectation of the final scene represents not simply an intentional aesthetic strategy but a purposeful descent into camp. Specifically, I’d like to examine the scene in conjunction with Susan Sontag’s conceptualization of that sensibility as formulated in her essay, Notes on “Camp.”

Attempting to define the exaggerated sensibility of camp (or “Camp,” as she refers to it) that had exploded in the early 1960s, Sontag arrives at a series of observations for understanding the phenomenon. Chief among them is the notion that camp is an unsuccessful attempt at earnestness: “...the essential element,” she writes, “is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” It is “art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ’too much.’” Implicit in this description is camp’s striving to be something more than it is. Excessive in both ambition and execution, camp defines itself by its theatricality; as explicated by Sontag, camp embodies “the theatricalization of experience.”

It is the theatricality of the final scene—Plainview shuffling back-and-forth on a lane to maintain balance, Plainview bellowing “DRAINAGE!” as he froths saliva, Plainview hurling bowling balls at Eli as he madly lumbers toward him—that places it squarely in the category of camp. Anderson remains coolly detached with the camera, filming in the same crisp, classical style he uses in earlier scenes; consequently, we find ourselves at an aesthetic distance from the action. Sontag speaks about distinguishing “between naïve and deliberate Camp,” i.e., inadvertent and self-aware camp. Innocent (and thereby effortless), the former provides the greater pleasure, she contends; the latter is too slick, too calculated to participate in naïve camp’s ebullience. TWBB’s finale, however, brilliantly upends her assertion. The scene is unabashedly outlandish, but whereas deliberate camp typically aims toward shallow parody, here the goal is more akin to alienation. The scene’s lunacy is secondary to its aesthetic function; camp defamiliarizes the film we thought we knew.

Of course, jarring as the scene may be, Anderson prepares us for it throughout; the entire film straddles an uncomfortable balance between genuine earnestness and camp. Certainly, Daniel Day-Lewis’s fastidious performance, with its overt nods to John Huston, veers precariously close to hamminess. (Sontag calls camp “the glorification of ’character,’” which is understood as “a state of continual incandescence—a person being one, very intense thing.” I can’t think of a better description for Day-Lewis’s performance—and I mean that as praise.) Glenn Kenny asserts the film is “not a historical saga” but “an absurdist, blackly comic horror film,” and sure enough, the first three-quarters of the film are peppered with odd, sometimes uncomfortable, moments of comedy that anticipate the finale. Plainview’s baptism blends daffy slapstick with wrenching confession, while Eli’s over-the-top preaching elicits laughter and discomfort. Nevertheless, these moments are embedded, almost seditiously so, in a film whose surface resembles a classical Hollywood narrative: seamless editing, a clean linearity, and a tight chain of cause-and-effect. Though a more subversive structure undergirds its exterior, the film’s contours hew to the strictures of a traditional studio film—at least until that last scene.

On a purely rhetorical level, the final scene’s shift in register serves as an expert narrative strategy. By infusing the proceedings with camp, Anderson defuses the possibility for tragedy. As Sontag writes, “[Camp] incarnates a victory…of irony over tragedy. ... Camp and tragedy are antitheses.” In distancing this capstone from the realism of earlier scenes, the film denies the viewer any opportunity for catharsis. So emotionally dissociated are we from these events that we leave the film not purged but jarred. In alienating Plainview from us, Anderson denies us any identification with him, even as he refuses to pass judgment on the character. Perhaps appropriately, the only release experienced in the scene belongs to Plainview, who usurps the audience of any relief. In its embrace of camp, the final scene functions less as a denouement than as one final purgation—not absolution but ablution. Exorcising all those “hatreds” he’s built up over the years, Plainview finally collapses in exhaustion. His final declaration—“I’m finished!”—concludes both his character’s arc and the film, the two now inseparable. In its heightened theatricality, the film finally matches Day-Lewis’s larger-than-life performance; the scene doesn’t depict Plainview’s madness so much as emanate from it.

In its final moments, There Will Be Blood presents us with the monster that Daniel Plainview has become, and the result is repulsive, terrifying, and—ludicrous. Sontag writes that “the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” and as we witness the man Plainview has become, we come face to face with the ridiculous. Even as his overblown characterization yields chuckles, however, the scene still summons dread. Heir perhaps to the capstone of Rosemary’s Baby, in which Roman Polanski deflates any sense of horror with a gonzo scene of cult hysterics, TWBB’s finale paradoxically renders its “monster” laughable even as it unnerves us with his wild unpredictability. Our laughter at Plainview’s maniacal behavior is tempered by agitation, a fear of what this man might be capable of doing; when he shifts from hurling bowling balls at Eli to bludgeoning him with a bowling pin, Plainview becomes an object of comic horror. Camp has robbed him of his stature, even as it has elevated his monstrosity.

It would be reductive, of course, to simply boil down this final scene to camp, and Sontag would agree: “...to say all these things are Camp is not to argue they are simply that.” The sensibility preserves an ambiguity in interpretation: “the Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. ... It is the difference…between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.” And certainly, even as the coda remains pure artifice, its very archness conveys meaning. The final scene is burlesque, fever dream, vile pageantry; it is high comedy and low drama; it is the fulfillment of the title’s promise and a premonition of it. Are we even to situate this madcap folly in the film’s reality or simply relegate it to Plainview’s imagination? The distinction hardly matters in a film where objective reality and subjective experience finally collapse; by the end, Plainview, overblown and bellicose, is the film. If, as Sontag suggests, “Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness,” then There Will Be Blood demonstrates that affectation can be nuanced expression. Ironic, perhaps, but artifice begets honesty, and the finale’s about-face to the ostensible classicism of earlier scenes reveals not glib detachment but focused disclosure. Hardly reducible to a sloganed T-shirt, the final scene looses meaning from the confines of convention to finally inhabit a world beyond the film, one which grants Daniel Plainview enormity while refusing him appraisal. In other words, it does exactly what camp attempts (but usually fails) to do in Sontag’s eyes: accomplish “something extraordinary.”

Matthew Poland is a Brooklyn-based cinephile.