Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Annotation 3: I DRINK YOUR MILKSHA- err, OIL! by Upton Sinclair

by Upton Sinclair
@1926, renewed 1954
Penguin Books

The movie There Will Be Blood is 'inspired' by this book.

Inspired, wow, that is a whole new level of adaptation that I was simply not aware of. I shouldn't lie that way. I was aware that inspired works happened occasionally in the past - When F.W. Murnau of UFA was not permitted to adapt Dracula by the then living Stoker family, he was 'inspired' to create a loose and loving copy cat named Nosferatu. Looking at that renewed copyright, and realizing there was no way for Paul Thomas Anderson to make this film a proper adaptation until 2029, he decided to take a few elements from OIL! and tell a similar, yet very different tale. More on that later.

The story of OIL!, as I've discovered is fairly along the lines of the social issues that concerned Upton Sinclair. Novels, you see, were supposed to inform us of great social ills and serve as education into how bad the problem is. I'm told some early novels also supplied solutions, but can there really be easy solutions to political and social unease? Sinclair, for one, does not believe that to be so. His stories have a strongly honest and slightly cynical view of the world, because the 20th century wholly belonged to Big Business, and they are not nice people. In this iteration of the Big Business story, we meet James Arnold Ross, his son who's nicknamed Bunny and Bunny's friend, Paul Watkins. James Arnold Ross, often referred to in the text as 'Dad' is an oil man.

Like most western business pioneers, J. Arnold Ross has his own set of ethics which he scrupulously maintains, unless it does not suit his business goals to do so, of course. After Bunny meets Paul in a Mrs. Groarty's kitchen, he takes his father to the site of the Watkins family ranch, ostensibly to quail hunt. Sure enough, there are plenty of quail available, but as Ross and his son discover, there's an untapped wealth of oil as well.

Upon learning that the Watkins belong to a new and rabidly fundamentalist version of Christianity, J. Arnold Ross and son offer a deal to old Mr. Watkins that he can hardly refuse, but frame the monies in such a way that as they get paid out, old Mr. Watkins is incapable of spending every last cent on missionaries and charities, as he was wont to do. This irritates Eli Watkins - Paul's twin brother, and a rising evangelist in the little town of Paradise Falls, CA. However, as his father signs the deal, there is little for Eli to do about it. As the novel progresses, he becomes a larger and more prominent radio broadcast evangelist, who never really gets his comeuppance. You want him to suffer for his hypocrisy, especially in regards to sex, but he never ever does.

Not so with the Ross family. They become titans of industry, only to get their power diminished when they become part of a large corporate oil empire. As the book progresses, we shift away from the local politics of oil work and strikes and shift into the grander scale of Federal subpoenas, and fleeing the country so as not to testify before congress. All the while, the tone of this book is very folksy. That is to say that Bunny who serves as our narrator, is upbeat in his depiction of events, while his father speaks with the Californian equivalent of the countrified accent.

Horrible events, like murder and corruption are given a light touch, and you almost feel an involuntary giggle at the sheer unabashed evil that grows out of this highly capitalist endeavor of drilling for oil. When J. Arnold Ross takes up with a charlatan of a seance mistress, you actually are rooting for the old man because he has found love again. This is a very strange but pointed book, and distinctly illustrates the views of the radical communists, the capitalists, and the greedy locals who all want their slice of the American Dream, once they realize they have oil lands to lease.

Since the book is protected from adaptation until 2029 (at least not without paying an exorbitant licensing fee to the Sinclair family, ironic no?), Paul Thomas Anderson chose to take a few key events, a few key characters and weave a gripping portrait of an oil tycoon from the turn of the century in There Will Be Blood, the movie loosely and lovingly based off this fine and gripping novel. What I find remarkable about that movie, is its even better than the book! By choosing to economize the narrative, and boil it down to simply the story of J. Arnold Ross (now christened Daniel Plainview), and set the entire series of events from his personal perspective, Anderson creates a highly evocative, enthralling family epic. It feels like a film Orson Welles should have made at the height of his powers. In the film, the confrontation that was always simmering under the surface in OIL! between Eli Watkins and Plainview comes clearly into focus. They are both evil men, with evil agendas. Watkins is more sinister because he wants to control everyone, including Mr. Plainview. Whereas Plainview, who is but an oil man, wants to get a cheap deal on some oil land and plunder it for all its worth and run away with the profits once he's sold the stake off to a big corporation. l

In the movie, your still rooting for Plainview, but wow the denouement there is very highly satisfying. Also incredible are some of the lines from the movie. The book is well written, but there aren't so many iconic lines in the narrative. In the movie the following lines sparkle in one's memory, like crystal pieces:

'Good evening, my name is Daniel Plainview, and this is my son and business partner, H.W.. I'm an oil man, and so I shall speak plainly'

'I abandoned my son! I abandoned my child!'

'You see Eli, it's like so. Your oil is a milkshake, and this, is my straw. When I drilled for oil here, my straw also drank your milkshake. You see? There's nothing left, because I drank your milkshake. I drank your milkshake! I drank it all up!'

And so on and so forth.

I recommend reading the book, as it's a textbook example of how business men operate and their pyschology. But my heavens, that movie was a hand's breadth away from winning best picture at the 2007 Oscars. I highly recommend the movie There Will Be Blood as well.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Choose your own Topic: Quality vs Demand

When this discussion came up in class last night, I was instantly reminded of the line Robert Graves bestowed upon Claudius - soon to be 4th Emperor of Rome - when the Senators inquired if this is something he felt he was truly up to accomplishing.

'Long have I been called a half wit, and yet many people I have known, who have possessed all their wits are no longer here. Yet I remain. It makes me think that its not the quantity of wits that matters; rather the quality.'

It's in the context of what the fourth Roman Emperor* said that I would like to consider this discussion, which turned quite rousing in class last night. Certainly, it can be contended that as a service in the public good, a library must purchase those books that the patrons wish to read. Also, Alisa's position concerning classic titles which do not get checked out is certainly valid; it is depressing to see books that never shift off the shelf.

However, the Library is still a service for the public good. To really get down to the nitty gritty of this discussion, I think we all need to consider what the public good is. Let's contemplate the national parks for a moment. I raise this because Ken Burns' brilliant and most recent documentary 'The National Parks: America's Best Idea' is currently airing Wednesdays' at 9 on WFYI. In it, we see the travails of John Muir, Stephen Mather, Teddy Roosevelt, and all the other stake holders who played a part in creating what ultimately would be the national park service.

The parks are public land, they are entrusted to the public every generation to care for and maintain so that successive generations of Americans can enjoy the glorious vistas of nature that have been safeguarded by the government. This promotes a quality refuge, regardless of the demand.

Fortuitously for the Parks, everyone visits them at one point or another. The quality is preserved, so that the demand to see them will always be sated.

This brings up an important question in my mind: What is the demand of the library? Is the library supposed to be a free version of a bookstore given over to providing infotainment? Is it a study hall where people are supposed to be sober and quiet and read the great books of the ages? Does one need to buy the pot boilers or the super expensive books? What is the actual demand on this very public resource?

I am not going to claim that what I write next is an answer. However, as a seasoned debater, I would love to propose the following idea in the context of an argument which everyone should feel free to disagree with however vehemently.

I think in order to come to an answer we must ask ourselves what WE - the librarians - want the library to be. As has been made clear by the depressed state of our nation and economy, people flock to the libraries for any imaginable reason. What we provide them at the library must be the issue discussed.

To be essentially a 'public bookstore' which caters to the demands of the patrons is a highly attractive state of being. You only order inexpensive books, which will fly off shelves and encourage literacy in the community. But at a great cost. While a large percentage of these texts are literature and/or useful, there are those books that do not add anything to the national conversation, and if anything widen divides clearly seen in our current culture.

While there is definitely a demand for reading materials to be met, I would suggest that maybe we could consider where to draw the line. After all, this is a public service much like the parks. You do not see parks permitting politicians to get up on their hind legs and smear people in front of their incredible sights. So too, I would think that a political book that is essentially trashy should probably not be purchased at a library, as it does not serve the public good.

Further, there's the idea of promotion. The book sits dull on the shelf, what is the harm in breathing life into it? See if there's a film that ties into the text and make a film/book reading series with a discussion component free and available to the public. The Children's film series is always quite popular, so I imagine such promotion would go over very well.

Ultimately, while there will always be the constraints of Director commands, patron desires, and public opinion I suspect that if we do our own brand of PR and attempt to convince the masses through subtle but direct means which they enjoy like programming, we may yet be able to raise the quality of the demand that the patrons want.

Then again, it may prove to be a longer more difficult struggle than anyone thought.

At the end of the day, something must be done. This, was but a possible suggestion.

* The first series of Emperors, if memory served all had the same super long name which ran: Augustus Germanicus Tiberius Claudius Nero.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Like Water For Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate
By Laura Esquivel
1992 Doubleday (English Translation
Genre: Romance
Read-Alike Authors: Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, Joanne Harris

Spicy, Flavorful and dramatic are the three words which are instantly conjured when I think of this book. Romance is something I have not often contemplated reading. However, I resolved that very nearly every book I read this semester will be new to me, and so I figured it wouldn't hurt if I found a book that may have some magical realism applied to it.

Wowie-Zowie, that was awesome. I have great familiarity with magical realism from the books of Marquez, Borges, etc., but I have never read a contemporary author who manages to apply it so artfully. I think in large part the magical imagery in this books - tears flowing like a river, bodies literally coming a flame with passion - are greatly aided by the fact that Ms. Esquivel here is a scriptwriter. To write the screenplay, one must be able to put everything into visually descriptive terms, so as to reduce the need for dialogue, explanation or narration of any sort. Here she applies her skills to great effect in the service of the story of 'her great aunt Tita'.

Whether or not this actually occurred is obviously beside the point, as we are discussing a great and towering romance. But it's not simply a romance. This book is also a cook book, filled with 12 recipes from the writer's familial cookbook. These are all described as folk recipes, and generally untested. But to read each recipe, you can tell a lot of care was taken into researching how the older generations of Mexican Ranchers cooked.

Tita is the second daughter of Mama Elena, who has 3 daughters one out of wedlock. Its the tradition of their family that one daughter - usually the illegitimate one should not be married, rather she should take care of the family all her life. This is Tita's role to play, and she does not really cherish the opportunity. She falls for a young man named Pedro, and desperately wants to marry him. Unfortunately, her plans are foiled and Pedro marries her sister Rosaura. In a private moment, Pedro informs Tita that he's marrying Rosaura to be close to her.

This leads to a cycle of tears, revenge and secret meetings between Pedro and Tita, who has also fallen for a handsome American doctor named John Brown. Though there were moments, where I felt the story was becoming a little sordid for my personal taste, it was quite engrossing throughout.

The book was also adapted to film for Miramax back in 1994. I have not yet viewed the film, but I understand it to be as fun and dramatic as this romance/cook book with dashes of magical realism hidden throughout.

Highly recommended.