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And the Omnie for Best Performance by a Leading Landscape Goes to
Posted Feb 14,2008

Daniel Day-Lewis has earned plenty of acclaim already for his amazing transformation into corrupt American oil prospector Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, so why not give some love to the other star of the film: the arid, gritty landscape of early 20th-century California where all the action takes place.

It turns out that West Texas—the area around a town called Marfa—stands in for California for most of the movie. Before Blood, Marfa’s claim to fame was its contemporary art scene, including an installation called Prada Marfa (featuring 20 left shoes) and a stint as the setting of Giant, the James Dean 1956 classic. This place clearly specializes in putting on big shows.

To find out how much of a stretch it was for Marfa to play oil-boom California, I contacted Stephan Graham, a geologist at Stanford University whose roots are deep in the rocks—and oil—of the Golden State.

So was West Texas a good stand-in for Central California’s San Joaquin Valley—geologically speaking?

“Not really,” says Graham, “It’s only a reasonable stand-in in terms of local topography, climate, and vegetation. Basically, the rocks in the part of California where the movie is set are younger than 30 million years. The rocks in West Texas are on the order of 250 million years old or older.”


But did the movie get the petroleum geology right?

Pretty much. In California, explains Graham, seepages of oil trapped by the folding of rocks near the earth’s surface guided early exploration. And just like in the film, the early wells were hand-dug, since oil pooled at shallow depths. Explosions and gushers like the ones shown so dramatically in Blood were common in the old days too. Nowadays the goal is to avoid such things, says Graham. They're dangerous, damaging to the environment, and expensive.

I will confess that my main motivation for going to see Blood was to ogle Daniel Day-Lewis. But in the end, I developed a strong attraction for Marfa. So did the film's director Paul Thomas Anderson, who, in an interview, talked about how melancholy he and his crew felt after leaving West Texas and how much they had loved being in that rocky, barren landscape. It’s a very American kind of love affair—the attraction of men to what used to be known as the Great West. A place celebrated by landscape painters like Thomas Moran, writers like John Muir, and filmmakers like John Ford.

A veteran of field work in the area, Graham understands the area's appeal. “It's a funny thing.  Most people would view the San Joaquin up into the Temblor Range as unlovable. But it gets under your skin and you develop a real affinity for it.  Probably something to do with open space and a sense of remaining untamed, but hard to put into words that anyone without the experience would appreciate.”

How about “mineral magnetism?”

-Shelley Sperry

Posted by Marc Silver | Comments (0)
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