Bad Capitalists Or a Bad System

Hollywood Comes to Blows with Upton Sinclair

Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 7, March 16-29, 2008

I was disappointed that Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for “There Will Be Blood,” not because he’s not a great actor (he is), but because the movie was such a betrayal of the book on which it was based. Movies don’t have to follow books. Many don’t. But in this case, what we missed were the things that made Upton Sinclair’s “Oil” a politically courageous book for its time. For our time, it unearths a crucial part of the hidden history of our own working class movement. .

“Oil” could have been made like “Gangs of New York.” That movie explored the racial and ethnic conflicts at New York City’s birth, which so frightened its moneyed class that at the film’s climax the rich shell their own city to prevent the upending of their social order. Both movies allowed Day-Lewis full range for the extreme violence of his screen persona. In “Gangs of New York” his power was magnified by being placed in a (relatively) true social landscape. “There Will Be Blood” diminished Day-Lewis by making his portrayal socially irrelevant.

Actually, a good movie made from “Oil” would have been more like “Reds,” exploring not just social conflicts, but the way they gave birth to unions and left movements in much the same period. “Reds” was painted on a large canvas, moving from Oregon to the East Coast, and finally Smolny Institute and the storming of the Winter Palace. “Oil” covers the same period, and many of the same political arguments. But they play out instead in a concentrated look at just one city – Los Angeles.

Upton Sinclair was not just an author who lived in Southern California or wrote about it. He was a political activist who tried to change it. He founded the L.A. chapter of the ACLU. He went to jail with longshoremen in the Long Beach harbor, for speaking in defense of their strike. He ran for governor seven years after the novel was published. Incredibly, as a socialist he not only won the Democratic Party nomination in the depth of the Depression, but hundreds of thousands voted for his platform to “End Poverty In California.” He gave the state’s corporate elite the biggest political scare they’ve had in any election before or since.

“Oil” gives us a history of the city’s economic rise, even as LA was becoming the economic epicenter of the western United States. But it does more than tell the story of the birth of the industry that has come to dominate this country’s politics, as “The Jungle” did for meatpacking. “Oil” is more politically sophisticated, and recounts the growth of the social movements that challenged the harsh domination of the oil titans.

That’s what is missing from “There Will Be Blood.” The movie history is false, where Sinclair’s was true.

“Oil” unfolds as the story of the political education of Bunny Ross, and of his love for his father, J. Arnold Ross, an oil wildcatter turned tycoon. Sinclair paints his characters in primary colors with a broad brush, in the style of the time. Bunny’s nickname signals his character as a Southern California innocent, always motivated by the best of intentions. His father, Sinclair tells us, is kind and good. He loves Bunny and spends his life trying to make him happy and keep him from harm.

The two characters are the keys to the political analysis Sinclair impresses on the reader. Personal kindness, he says, cannot change poverty, exploitation, war or corruption. J. Arnold Ross helps poor families as he takes their land for wells. He admires and respects his workers, but must stick with the other oil operators when they bring in strikebreakers to bust their union and evict the strikers from their homes. In a not-very-fictionalized account of the “Teapot Dome Scandal,” J. Arnold tells Bunny again and again that bribing politicians, even a President of the United States, is simply what is required in order to do business.

It doesn’t matter whether a capitalist is a good person or a bad one, Sinclair says. It’s the system that grinds one class into poverty, and allows another to reap the benefit. J. Arnold Ross, a loving father and paternalistic employer, commits criminal acts because his social class not only makes it possible, but necessary. His pained justification to Bunny for hiring gun thugs is that if he doesn’t, the other oil operators will combine against him and drive him out of business. Capital operates as a class.

“There Will Be Blood” turns “Oil” on its head. Bunny basically disappears as a character, making only a few appearances to dramatize his father’s cruelty and corruption. J. Arnold, now a villain and renamed Daniel Plainview, expropriates Bunny as a child from his dead father, and then banishes him when he goes deaf after a well explosion. Plainview’s personal degeneration culminates in beating an evangelist preacher to death in the bowling lane of his palatial home. His violence is treated as a defect in his character, a symbol of his evil nature. His crime is personal, not social.

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