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"Oil!" for "Blood"

Say what you will, good or bad , about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” it at least has the positive effect of reawkening interest in Sinclair Lewis’s [or Upton Sinclair's, as  my non-addled mind now recognizes] largely forgotten 1927  novel, “Oil!” I don’t think many film critics, though, have been drawn to read the 500+ page opus. Certainly I wasn’t; my only previous exposure to Sinclair was the junior high compulsory summer reading of  “The Jungle,” which, except for the part where the guy falls into the meat vat, I found pretty dry and pedantic.

Inspired, however, by the example of my colleague, “Herald" critic James Verniere, I dipped into the edition conveniently provided by Miramax Pictures and was hooked. It’s funny, sexy, exciting and surprisingly unpolemical and even-handed. The hero, J. Arnold Ross, called Daniel Plainview in the movie and depicted as a glorious grotesque and the epitome of ruthless, malignant greed by Daniel Day-Lewis, is here an entirely sympathetic character, a “brick” who just happens to end up on the wrong side of the labor/capital dispute and the Teapot Dome scandal.

But the hero of the story is his son, the unfortunately monickered “Bunny,” in the movie called H.W. and a relatively minor character. He’s an early twentieth century Candide getting an increasingly unsentimental education into the ways of power and responsibility. But what’s most intriguing, if not demoralizing, about the story is that its chronicle of evil deeds and folly is identical to the same litany in the present day — oil companies buying the presidency, foreign misadventures in the interest of corporations, a morally and artistically bankrupt Hollywood, a pathetically toadying news media. Throw in some cell phones and the CIA and it could have sprung from today’s headlines -- if the people writing them were still interested in headlining such things.

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