As you can imagine, my knowledge of pipes has expanded greatly since starting at Smokingpipes. The world of pipes is fascinating, with deep history, unique characters, and varying schools of design. Consequently, whether by coincidence, or more likely because I'm more aware, I've become more attuned to pipes in life and in film.
One Saturday afternoon near the end of fall, I watched a film I've revered since I was a precocious and temperamental teenager: There Will Be Blood. The box art sparked recognition of something that had not previously registered: Daniel Plainview, the anti-hero protagonist of the film, was smoking a pipe. As I watched the film, the presence and utility of smoking — the way it was implemented as an extension of the character — became pronounced.
Art grows over time. It is never stagnant. Changing cultural attitudes, historical revelations, and experience all work to continually contextualize and recontextualize works and the audience's perception of them. Art that endures, that we internalize and love, evolves alongside of us: it changes us as much as we change it. All that is to say that unbeknownst to me, after months of studying and writing about pipes, the knowledge that I've accrued has so deeply permeated my mind that it was bringing out new facets in a film I had seen dozens of times. I was given a new prism through which to view the meaning and nuance of There Will Be Blood, and that was exciting. Pipes, and smoking in general, help to articulate one of Daniel Plainview's defining characteristics: his sense of utility.
A Perfect Portrayal
Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is a rare perfect marriage of performer and character, and it is somehow a career high for an actor who has a legacy of career highs. Likewise, while writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's working relationship with Daniel Day-Lewis lasted only two films, before the actor's retirement, the duo seemed tailor-made for one another. Speaking with Filmmaker magazine about There Will Be Blood, Anderson discusses how he and Day-Lewis, "were all so in agreement by the time we started to make the film about what we were more or less trying to do" that "most of the stuff Daniel and I talked about was whether or not he was going to leave his hat on, you know? Hat on, hat off? Pipe, no pipe? Small stuff that says everything." It's that last bit that is of interest to me: how the simple presence of a pipe or hat directly informs not just the world and themes of the film, but the character of Plainview himself.
... the simple presence of a pipe or hat directly informs not just the world and themes of the film, but the character of Plainview himself
Film writer Priscilla Page describes the film's introduction of Plainview as a birth: "Daniel Plainview is born in a silver mine. It's where we first see the man, alone in the womblike dark with nothing but his tools and his will to live." She likens the opening of There Will Be Blood to 2001: A Space Odyssey: "In 2001, the apes discover tools when one picks up an animal's bone and beats its skeleton" and "Like the apes, Plainview learns how to use tools — to find silver, to extract oil, and finally, to murder." Plainview's tools are an extension of his drive, ambition, and resourcefulness. He requires them to interact with, and define his place in, the world. What is a pipe, but a tool?
The world of the film is harsh, uncertain, and ever-changing. Industrialization, the oil boom, and the resulting flood of excess capital are just dawning at the start of the 20th century. Plainview is at the cusp of it all, and he wishes to have it all, to bend it all to his will. And he will accomplish that goal by any means necessary. But he can't do it alone; not everything succumbs to the blow of a pickaxe, not everything can be easily accomplished by hand tools, dynamite, and sheer force. It requires a certain presentation, charisma, and finesse. Those traits aren't inherent in Planview. Anderson's words are invaluable here: "A lot of the first oil men started out as gold miners or silver prospectors, and when they made the transition to oil, they were required to be salesmen and speak a lot more than they probably wanted to. I think their natural instinct was to work quietly alone, and I imagine being thrust into situations where they had to sell themselves was endlessly frustrating."
A Narrow Viewpoint
So how, over the course of the movie's runtime, does Plainview go from a lone silverminer to a wealthy oil baron? He creates a facade of respectability, cloaking his disdain for his fellow man and the endless "competition" within him that wants "no one else to succeed." He adopts the infant son of a man who dies while under his employment, he trades his dirty work clothes for suits, and he becomes an "oil man," one who runs a "family enterprise." These are all just tools, of course, both physical and rhetorical. They are extensions of his image, from his hat, to his pocket watch, to, in many ways, his own son. Returning to Page: "At best, he can only perceive other humans — even the ones he loves and cares for — as business partners, as extensions of himself." Everything, at almost all times, is in service of his all-consuming ambition, his single-minded pursuit for wealth, power, and domination.
"[Plainview] can only perceive other humans ... as business partners, as extensions of himself"
One tool deployed in the construction of Plainview's family friendly, down-to-earth, business-man image comes in the form of a pipe. For all the prominent images used to market the film that showcase Plainview smoking a pipe in front of a blazing oil well, the character is actually seen making physical contact with a pipe only twice in the film. Pipes are seen in the background, as set dressing or decor, stacked high in a glass jar on Plainview's desk, but most characters in the film, including Daniel, are seen smoking only cigarettes. Why, then, have I devoted so many words to analyze a character who is clearly associated with a pipe only twice in the whole film? As Anderson says, it's the "Small stuff that says everything." In this case, I believe that Plainview's tenuous association with the pipe, and its scarce implementation, perfectly demonstrate his utilitarian approach to everything that exists outside of himself. As any pipe smoker knows, you develop a relationship with a pipe; it becomes a part of you, and an emotional attachment grows. Plainview is too walled off for that, but he understands how he must appear.
Accessorizing to Project an Image
When Plainview meets with a group of landowners to discuss drilling in their community, years have passed since our initial introduction to the character, and he's presented in stark close up as he begins his monologue. Most of the opening of the film is nearly dialogue-free, but now, for the first time, Plainview speaks clearly, with intention and purpose, marketing himself to a room full of reluctant townsfolk and to us as an audience: "if I say I'm an oil man, you will agree." When it cuts to a wider angle, we see Plainview's profile and what he is wearing: a three piece suit and a wide-brimmed hat. A Tomato-like bent Pot is clenched in his hand. When the camera cuts to a two-shot, Plainview, and his now adolescent adopted son, are brought into sharp relief. They are wearing matching suits, the child a mirror of Plainview. Plainview introduces his son with a gesture of his hand, the same hand that holds the pipe, the same hand and pipe he continues to gesticulate with to punctuate his points. "I'm a family man. I run a family business. This is my son and my partner, H.W. Plainview. We offer you the bond of family that very few oilmen can understand," he says. He's selling an image, a manufactured, manicured, traditionally masculine image. The suit, the boy, and the pipe are all just indicators of an honest, hard-working businessman, an archetype deified in the cultural imagination of the United States, and born out of this time. Plainview is, once again, using tools to extract resources.
A Tomato-like bent Pot is clenched in his hand
The last instance of Daniel Plainview with a pipe occurs after the film's brillant set-piece, near the middle of the film. One of Plainview's exploratory oil derricks hits an air pocket, and a geyser of oil explodes from the earth. The initial blast launches H.W. from his perch where he watches the men work. Plainview and his right-hand man Fletcher rush to the derrick, and Daniel carries the boy back to the mess hall. While trying to ascertain what injuries H.W. may have sustained, the boy, in a moment of heark-breaking realization, says, "I can't hear my voice." The spurting oil catches fire, and now flames engulf the entire rig. Tasked with caring for and comforting his son, or handling the oil fire, Plainview chooses the latter. Plainview and his men begin to untether the derrick, and in a quiet moment within the chaos, as he and Fletcher watch the scaffolding burn, Plainview looks to his right-hand man, who is obviously more worried about H.W. than his own father, and says, "What are you looking so miserable about? There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet! No one can get at it except for me."
The next morning, with his back to the camera, Plainview waves his hands and, as the camera pulls out, two teams of men plunge barrels full of dynamite into what's left of the derrick. The following explosion suffocates the flame. The fire is over, the emergency handled. Plainview stands, and the film cuts to a close-up of his face, covered in oil, dirt, and soot. The same pipe seen at the meeting with the townsfolk now dangles from the corner of his mouth, unlit. At this moment, he seems, if not at peace, at least satisfied, no small emotion for a man as consumed, and trapped by his own ambition as Plainview. He returns to his basest level, to the man we saw toiling away in the darkness of a silvermine at the beginning of the film, driving a pickaxe against the wall in a desperate attempt to make something from the raw elements of the earth. He's dirty, his suit is ruined by the oil and soil, and the natural world has just obliterated months of his hard-fought progress, but he's been here before and may always have been here, somewhere in his mind. He has "his tools" (in this case his pipe) and "his will to live," and that's all he's ever needed.
... the natural world has just obliterated months of his hard-fought progress
While the next shot shows Plainview trying to soothe his son, the emotional rift between them is already set. H.W.'s hearing never comes back. After H.W. makes an emotional cry for help by setting a fire in their family home, a betrayal his father can't accept, Plainview sends his son away to a school, an act that literalizes the separation between the two. It's an act that pains Planview, but in his eyes, what good is a tool that's broken? He can't bear the weight of a distraction, of allowing himself to be invested, or attached. He has to keep his life lean and concentrate only on that which functions. When he finally reunites with H.W., it's only after killing a con man pretending to be his brother, a man Daniel had previously grown close to, and a public humiliation and denouncement at the hands of his enemy, Eli Sunday. It's a haphazard attempt at reforging old tools, to regain his former appearance.
In 1927, Daniel Plainview lives alone in a dark mansion. His body is beaten and broken from his years on the oil fields. He drinks himself into oblivion daily and kills time by shooting a rifle in a homemade, indoor firing range consisting of empty liquor bottles. All pretense of his former self or the tools he used to compile his former self, is stripped away. A now-adult H.W. visits his father. Through the use of a sign-language interpreter, he tells Plainview that he is leaving to start his own drilling company in Mexico. He's a boy who only wants his father's approval, but Plainview can't give it. "This makes you my competitor." H.W. protests, but Plainview won't listen to him. Plainview refuses to see H.W. as anything but an extension of himself. "You're killing my image of you as my son." Then Plainview reveals the truth:
Plainview refuses to see H.W. as anything but an extension of himself
"You're not my son. You never have been. You're an orphan ... an orphan from a basket in the middle of the desert. And I took you for no other reason than I needed a sweet face to buy land."
Though several pipes are arranged in a jar on his desk, Daniel chain smokes cigarettes throughout the duration of the scene. The pipes are nothing but set dressing for his life, just as H.W. has always been. This moment is the final blow to their relationship, Plainview too guarded to be vulnerable, even after all he's accomplished.
Laid bare, at the film's climax, after beating long-time foe Eli Sunday to death with a bowling pin, Plainview tells his butler, "I'm finished." All connections, both material and emotional, are severed: no more tools, no more pipes, no more will to live. Nothing but whatever was or had been at his core, whatever drove him to learn to use tools, to try to live, left exposed to the elements.
If you've noticed any other pipes in film, or any other fiction, let us know. Likewise, if you're interested in any further write-ups about pipes in film, and how they speak to the themes and characters, sound off, especially if you have recommendations!
- "Giant Ambition," by James Ponsoldt, Filmakermagazine.com, Winter 2008
- "Blood for Oil," by Stephen Pizzello, The American Society of Cinematographers, January 2008
- "There Will be Blood," by Priscilla Page, Patreon.com, June 2020
- "Daniel Day-Lewis: An Extraordinary Career of Acting Artistry — Is It Really All Over?" by Peter Bradshaw, TheGuardian.com, June 2017.
- MovieClips on YouTube
- Skip Mac on YouTube
- Alexander DAO on YouTube
- Skip Mac on YouTube