296 Spoiling Oil!

With apologies to those of you who liked There will be blood, Schwartz trashes the movie for betraying the book on which it it is fraudulently based, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!

Half an hour into Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There will be blood, shown on Dutch television the other night, I told Loekie how intensely happy I was that the film existed. A few months ago I read the book on which the film is partly based, Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927). I loved that book. Hardly one of its 527 pages didn’t contain an unexpected turn of phrase or plot, a delicious irony, a witty remark. The characters, even most of the walk-ons, tend to have interesting quirks and contradictions. The book is full of technical details and historical background you didn’t know before. The story, about a hard-nosed businessman and his socialist son, is not a cut-and-dried morality tale. It takes surprising twists and tells you compelling things about oil-mining and its politics, about Hollywood, about evangelical cults and even about sex.

Here is one of the passages, on p. 303 of the immaculately edited, typeset and printed book (Grosset & Dunlop, New York, eighth printing, November 1927), that made me gasp in bed. It was published two years before the Wall Street crash of 1929 and 81 years before that of 2008.

Occidental Steel had a bad slump in the market … and [Dad] said it was “jist manipulation.” But right away a lot of other stocks went tumbling,… and then Dad said there were fools who would gamble and bid stocks up, and then they had to come down. But the trouble continued to spread over the country, and there were reports of big concerns, and even banks, in trouble. There was panic in the air…. Bunny had a talk with Mr. Irving, who told him that it was the Federal Reserve system at work; a device of the big Wall Street banks, a supposed-to-be government board, who had the power to create unlimited new paper money in times of crisis. This money was turned over to the big banks, and in turn loaned by them to the big industries whose securities they held and must protect. So, whenever a panic came, the big fellows were saved, while the little fellows went to the wall.

Those aren’t the features of Upton Sinclair’s book that Anderson brought out, but that was all right. You can’t include everything, and he went after some other exciting qualities of Oil! The he-man life of the oil fields, doing business with grasping townspeople who smell wealth and with innocent farmers who don’t. The California of the early 20th century. The photography is brilliant, the script is well-written. I was electrified.

I should have known better from the start. The first sentence of Oil! reads: “The road ran, smooth and flawless, precisely fourteen feet wide, the edges trimmed as if by shears, a ribbon of grey concrete, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand.” This was too lyrical for Anderson, but also too ordered. There are hardly any roads at all in There will be blood, and those there are are not smooth. They’re not even paved. Anderson shows his oilman hero and his son – a son adopted illegally; Sinclair’s was born in an unhappy marriage – bumpily raising dust on a dirt road running beside a railroad track. The difference tells a lot. Sinclair is writing about a country in the grasp of consumer rapture, whose manufactured beauties look like nature itself. Anderson wants rawness and a society-less world.

Still, I was jubilant that a half-forgotten book of this importance and quality had been filmed with such flair. That is, until characters and incidents came into the picture that aren’t in the book. First I doubted my memory. How could I have forgotten that the son lost his hearing in a dynamite blast set off to save a well? How senile can I be, not remembering just a few months after reading the book that the father was conned by a man who pretended to be his long-lost brother? It was only when the father killed the fake brother that I knew that I was being conned by Anderson. One of the things I most liked about Oil! is that Upton Sinclair is tuned into the humanity even of personages who stood for things he hated. The wildcat capitalist father in the book commands respect and elicits sympathy. He was nothing, but nothing like Anderson’s sneak murderer. There will be blood is not, as some reviewers wrote, complementary to Oil! It brutally diverts the thrust of Sinclair’s book in a senseless direction. Oil! is a fictional study of the response of individuals and society to wealth and fame, political corruption and ideology, religious faith and the thrill of sex. There will be blood, after the first half-hour, is an unlikely fantasy about one man’s undiagnosed psychosis.

I have a theory about why Paul Thomas Anderson emasculated Bunny, the oilman’s son, why he made him deaf and practically mute. Why he decided not to make a movie about Bunny’s personal struggles and social ideals but about a monster father of Anderson’s creation. It was because Bunny, the hero of Oil!, was a socialist, even a fellow traveler of Communism. Today, more than in Upton Sinclair’s time, this puts him beyond the American Pale. Americans are not socialists, socialists not Americans, period. (In 1920, Socialist candidates garnered nearly one million votes; in 2008, the three parties calling themselves Socialist got 21,684 votes in all.) Rather than grossing the 100 million dollars in box-office and DVD receipts of There will be blood, an honest filming of Oil!, Anderson must have thought, would put him on the streets, peddling his film the way Sinclair had to sell his novel after it was banned in Boston. I’m not that sure he was wrong.

I am all in favor of poetic license. I even like some historical fiction. What I am not in favor of is pretending to respect history or literature while raping it. If Anderson wanted to make a movie about violence in the early 20th-century oilfields, he didn’t need Upton Sinclair to do it. As it is, Anderson opens his film with a tribute to Sinclair, saying that There will be blood is “based on” Oil!. His mass audience – numbering far more viewers than present-day readers of the novel – will never know that Upton Sinclair has been violated and they have been duped. Worse – allow me a bit of exaggeration – they have been robbed of what could have been a transformative American experience. They might even have been spared the ruin that now threatens us, had enough viewers in 2007 taken to heart the closing words of Oil!, where Sinclair warned against the demons that “lur[e] the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor.” Instead, his own labor has been exploited for just another stylish, dumbed-down piece of wilfully violent Hollywood sham.

© Gary Schwartz 2009. First published on the Schwartzlist on 4 March 2009.


The collapse of the Cologne city archive building sounds at the moment like the worst loss of its kind since the destruction in May 1944 of the 1500-year-old abbey of Montecassino. But we still do not know all. One of the reports said that the earliest documents had been removed from the building in connection with reconstruction work. We don’t know what stood where; part of the archive is still standing. You can always keep hoping, until all hope is gone.

Off to Paris for a visit that started out at five days and has been pared down to two. My priorities are not always as they should be. Why don’t I have an appointment in Paris that brings me there for a month or two every year? Perhaps because I haven’t tried to get one. The occasion for this visit is an editorial board meeting of the unexcelled new art-history journal Perspective.

Next week is the opening of the European Fine Arts Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, followed by CODART TWAALF, the twelfth annual congress of the network organization for museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art that I thought up and ran for seven years. How much can I take in? How much can I contribute?


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