I drink your agency!

September 14, 2009 at 5:25 am

| Gabriel |

A few weeks ago I read (well, listened to an audiobook of) Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and was both impressed and surprised by it.

First, although a few scenes are almost identical, overall the book is very different from There Will Be Blood, although both are well worth reading/watching. The central character in the book is the son, not the father. The father (J. A. Ross in the book) is a basically sympathetic character completely lacking the seething misanthropy that characterized the father (Daniel Plainview) in the movie. In the book Paul is a central character whereas Eli is a footnote, the opposite of the movie where Eli is important and Paul is almost a phantasm.

Second, all of these changes in character and plot are directly related to the change in theme. The film is all about the clash between Wirtschaft und Gemeinschaft as personified in a decades long fight between a miserable bastard of an entrepreneur and a miserable bastard of a preacher. So Daniel Plainview flat out says “I hate most people” and he means it. In contrast, the book is about the clash between capital and labor and is manifested despite the good will of all the major characters. J. A. Ross the entrepreneur and Paul Watkins the proletarian are both sympathetic characters and in fact are friends with each other. Their opposition is not personal, but political, and these political differences are driven pretty directly by opposing material interests. In the book, as in Marx, class cohesion is emergent from the structure of economic relations and not reliant on the personal ideologies of the various individuals involved. Consistent with this highly structural approach was making the protagonist the son, Bunny, instead of the father. Bunny is a fairly passive character who develops very gradually and the only break with structural determinism in the book is that Bunny slowly rejects his father’s ambition that he continue in the oil business and instead founds a socialist newspaper and later, college.

I thought this choice of making the action occur despite the character’s inner motivation was both in keeping with the semi-Marxist tone of the book and surprisingly effective as a dramatic device. Of course when you recall that the book came first, the question is not just why did Sinclair write a materialist dialect novel, but why, in the course of adapting it, did Anderson make it more conventional by emphasizing agency and personality? I have to think that the answer is that despite the careful wardrobe and set decoration to evoke pre-war California, the movie is thematically very much of our era. By era, I don’t mean “post-1989 when socialism was dead” (although that too) but even more importantly the post-1970 era. In politics this means the new social movements who changed the focus of politics from social class and redistribution to identity and self-expression, even while the Berlin Wall was still standing. In art in general and film in particular this means to be deep it must be dark, with The Godfather and Taxi Driver being the paradigmatic cases. To the contemporary ear, a film in which a basically decent capitalist is driven to corrupt the state and exploit workers by the impersonal dynamics of class struggle, might as well be written in Sanskrit. Much better to have a nihilistic anti-hero as opposed by a fundamentalist charlatan, both of them driven entirely by their internal character.

A few tangential notes on the book:

  • All the “I’ve seen the future and it works” stuff about Russia is cringe-inducing in retrospect, as is the not too subtle consistent description of the Bolsheviks as “working men” which is meant to imply that they weren’t combatants at all, but civilians, and thus all violence done to their faction during the Russian civil war was a war crime (even as the violence they did to other factions is regrettable, but understandable).
  • While the book is very deliberately and explicitly to the far left on economics, it’s interesting how in many ways the book is, by today’s standards, extremely culturally reactionary in a more taken-for-granted kind of way. There are many references to various liberties and vices, all of which are used as examples of upper class decadence. This is clearest in the case of the three (count em) rich women not only sleep around, but justify their behavior with elaborate self-serving treatises on free love. (In contrast, the only romantic relationship between two leftists is only consummated within marriage). Likewise, the description of an election night victory party (for the candidate bought by the oil men) opens with an essay on jazz that is, ahem, racially-insensitive. I take this as an example of how hard it is to project today’s political alignments into the past.
  • You have to love a book that describes sociology as “an elaborate structure of classifications, wholly artificial, devised by learned gentlemen in search of something to be learned about.”
  • Between the socialist politics of the book, his lengthy satire of the lives and works of Hollywood (Ross’ business partner is a satire of W R Hearst and Bunny dates an actress), and the inclusion of the Eli character as a (tangential) satire of Aimee Semperson McPhee, you can see why the Hollywood moguls and McPhee worked so strenuously to oppose Sinclair’s run for governor of California a few years after the book was published. This gubernatorial run had an important place in Hollywood history in that it set the ground work for the radicalization of the WGA, and by further extension, the blacklist.

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