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Friday essay: the Rise and Fall of oil in popular culture

The oil rig explosion in Deepwater Horizon (2016), a film about the worst oil spill in US history. © Lionsgate

Friday essay: the Rise and Fall of oil in popular culture

Oil’s pipelines now supply energy to every conceivable part of our personal and professional lives. Oil can take us practically anywhere on earth. Its social and cultural significance cannot be overstated since it fuels even our wildest dreams.

The final chase of Moby-Dick. I. W. Taber/Wikimedia Commons

Energy from petroleum connects us to the rest of the world, whether through fuel-thirsty jet engines or by keeping an uninterrupted power supply to the World Wide Web. And because oil also connects us to a world of possibilities, it drives our imagination. But if oil has changed the world, and the ways we look at it, the way we imagine oil in the stories we tell ourselves is also changing.

My story of oil begins before the discovery of petroleum. Melville’s Moby-Dick is set in the 19th century, when European cities were lit by whale oil. The substance the whalers pursued, while having fewer applications than its fossil counterpart, was every bit as precious in their day as crude oil is in ours.

As Melville frequently points out via his narrator Ishmael, whale oil too came at a human cost proportional to its benefits:

For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

Early narratives of oil perennially evoke the idyll of endless productivity, wealth and ease. Reading the story of oil as rise and fall, I see two distinct narrative arcs. The first is from when significant oil fields began to be exploited. This lasts until late last century. The second, which I will come to, is an expression of global anxieties regarding the sustainability of fossil fuels.

From Giants to Gentlemen

At the outset, early 20th-century “petrofictions” used oil as a shorthand to signal improved living conditions. Importantly, masculine power over nature was a significant feature of these stories.

Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (1926-27) is a famous example from this period, telling the story of oil’s discovery in California by J. Arnold Ross. It is told from the perspective of Bunny, Ross’s adopted son. Milestones in the boy’s passage into manhood, as well as his journey toward political awareness, are marked by gushers as his father’s drilling operations increasingly strike oil.

In keeping with the exuberance and optimism of what came to be known as the “Oil Century,” there were memorable comic interpretations of this epoch. Unlike the small landholders in Oil! who were often disadvantaged when oil was discovered on their land, in the sixties’ sit-com The Beverly Hillbillies, the Clampetts become instant millionaires through a similar discovery.

In early narratives, the pursuit of oil becomes a boys’ own adventure. Oil is depicted as a beast of prodigious proportions that has been tamed by man.

In the film Giant (George Stevens, 1956) after Edna Ferber’s novel, James Dean plays Jett, a ranch hand become oil tycoon. Jett is a young David fighting for mastery over a Goliath of dangerous fossilised matter buried deep beneath the ground.

Giant is specifically about the American Dream’s promise of individual advancement. Oil wealth gives Jett sudden superiority over a band of very rich enemies. One of them sums it up nicely when he says about Jett - who is covered in oil in a memorable scene - “Bick, you shoulda shot that fella long time ago, now he’s too rich to kill.”

Oil has the power to provide the ranch hand with the security afforded a gentleman. This is a crucial aspect of the oil story, one that has saturated the myth of the rise of the industrial West and 20th-century capitalism. Once discovered and mastered, oil promises not just a respite from manual labour. Its crude origins retreat behind a veil of its civilising effect.

In these stories, gushers (oil wells from which oil flows profusely, unpumped) and meteoric social elevation are powerful signifiers of an upward mobility that is largely masculine. And the dangers associated with oil exploration and extraction give these success stories all the more appeal.

Oil’s not Well From Dallas to Iran

The discovery and exploitation of petroleum has made possible the increasingly rapid industrialisation of vast areas of the planet. But the world’s hunger for energy has been attended finally by climate change and signs of impending environmental catastrophe.

Now it seems that oil is consuming us rather than vice versa. Many of the benefits that oil brings tend to be addictive, including comfort, ease, wealth and all the perks of the middle class. This is why energy debates centre around how to change consumer expectations.

Women, hitherto marginal in the boy’s own stories, have more recently figured as victims of oil-based affluence.

For all the display of wealth, the soap opera Dallas (1979-1991) was also tinged with darkness not least because of its frank display of addiction and substance abuse. While J.R. monitors his oil rigs, his long-suffering wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) sinks into alcoholism while his niece Lucy (Charlene Tilton) is portrayed as a hapless weed addict.

Western anxiety over our dependence on oil began to rise sharply with the 1970s energy crisis, itself propelled by political unrest in the Middle East. From that time East and West have become increasingly sensitive to the downside of oil culture. Still, the degree to which women and men are able to tame the “monster” couldn’t be more different.

In Things We Left Unsaid (2012) by Iranian-Armenian novelist Zoya Pirzad, for instance, the character Clarice feels the rage festering in 1960s suburban Iran. Behind the veneer of a middle class lifestyle as the wife of an oil worker, living in the city of Abadan, Clarice becomes attracted to her neighbour who is employed by the same oil company as her husband.

While nothing comes of that particular longing, her desire for emancipation remains unresolved nevertheless. Clarice’s plight mirrors Iran’s own struggle for autonomy from British oil companies.

Kicks on Route 66

The stories that form oil’s second narrative arc are markedly different in one important respect. Towards the end of the 20th century and up to the present day, oil – still portrayed as a dangerous monster – can no longer be tamed.

In contrast to the oppression of women such as Sue Ellen and Clarice, for men with cars and motorbikes, oil is an enabler of speed and a symbol of freedom.

The countercultural On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac and the film Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) present the highway as something more than a struggle with nature. In these films, and in the more recent Mad Max (George Miller) franchise, man and beast have merged into one. In place of giants and gentleman are the guys born to be wild, leaving fumes in their tracks.

In Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) the road movie takes a different turn. It is, in some ways, an affront to masculine ownership of the road. In order to extract an apology for lewd behaviour from a trucker, the women famously blow up his truck. Significantly it is an oil tanker.

That said, Thelma and Louise marks an ambiguous triumph for women. In order to escape pursuit from police, the friends intentionally drive their Thunderbird convertible over a cliff.

‘That oil is a monster’

Because of its ecological hazards, oil’s real impacts need to be hidden to ensure consumers’ continued support to this day. Thus oil is rarely marketed as a product in itself. Instead, oil company logos can be seen endorsing just about anything that matters to us and ads for petrol spruik a lifestyle.

While catastrophic oil spills generally receive a lot of media coverage, the story of oil’s long-term damage to the ecosystem is a lot harder to tell. It is not as visually attention-grabbing as an oil spill. But this world-wide degradation occurs over years, even centuries. It is what literary scholar Rob Nixon refers to as “slow violence”.

We are no longer able to enjoy oil dreams in the ways we did last century. The extraction of oil – whether or not it takes place in precious wilderness areas – is detrimental to the environment and can often threaten indigenous cultural heritage.

The second story arc thus develops into 21st-century anxieties over the unsustainability of future energy sources. Author Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2006, a post-apocalyptic novel that takes place in a not-so-distant future where a grey and lifeless world has succumbed to an unspecified global catastrophe.

The Road was adapted into a film in 2009, starring Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee. © Dimension Films

In this story, two figures, a man and his son, navigate on foot the disused highways that are all that remain of the automobile culture. Pushing a supermarket trolley loaded with essentials, they find their way via old Shell Oil maps, stocking up on edibles whenever they happen on a cache of canned goods.

At this point of the story arc, oil has claimed mastery over the human destiny. In McCarthy’s account, the biosphere has cancelled its promise to support human life after a century or so of mindless consumerism.

It’s a perspective echoed in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2009), where we are told that

Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she’s going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry.

The outsized Frankenstein

The future of oil looks significantly darker this century than it did at the beginning. Loosely based on Sinclair’s Oil!, There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) expresses the terrifying realisation that where we used to exert control over oil, it now controls us. In Anderson’s film, Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview and Paul Dano as Eli Sunday play characters possessed each in their own ways by dreams that destroy them. Plainview’s resounding sales pitch is, “I’m an Oil Man”.

The coercion at the heart of this pitch is also at the core of Scandinavian drama Occupied (2015) based on an idea by crime writer Jo Nesbo. In this TV drama the Norwegian government has ceased all oil production in favour of clean energy. At the behest of the EU, Russia invades Norway and bullies it to reverse its decision.

Russia’s “silk-glove” invasion of Norway is all the more chilling for its minimal display of violent protest. Occupied shows viewers that the oil economy is integrated into the world economy. It is the Frankenstein that has outgrown its makers.

“That oil is a monster. Like the mean old dinosaurs all that oil used to be.” So says the daughter of Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) in the recent film Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg, 2016).

Based on media coverage of the April 2010 disaster when an offshore drilling rig of the same name exploded and created the worst oil spill in US history, Deepwater Horizon reminds viewers that we no longer and perhaps never did have any power over this beast. The oil rig explosion caused catastrophic long-term damage to oceanic life, which humans were powerless to stop.

Towards the end of the film, Williams brings his daughter a dinosaur tooth recovered from the well. Perhaps there will come a time when children marvel at the odd remaining plastic fork as a rare marker of a giant’s passing.