Thursday, February 1, 2018

Paul Thomas Anderson

Anderson on the set of Hard Eight, 1997

Anderson on the set of Magnolia, 1999

Anderson working with Robert Altman on the set of Prairie Home Companion, 2006

Anderson with his partner, Maya Rudolph

From the debut of his short film “Coffee and Cigarettes” at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, Paul Thomas Anderson firmly established himself as an auteur to watch. An ambitious film that focused on five characters interacting in a Las Vegas diner, “Coffee and Cigarettes” set the mold for his later films: multiple storylines, dazzling camerawork and a detailed emphasis on dialogue and character. Anderson was a brash and gutsy filmmaker who enjoyed tackling big themes - love, hope, family and redemption, all often combined in biblical fashion - while paradoxically allowing them to unfold intimately onscreen. Though his first feature-length movie, “Hard Eight” (1997), failed to connect with audiences and critics, Anderson planted himself on the Hollywood map for good with “Boogie Nights” (1997), a surprisingly affectionate, albeit dark, look at the porn industry, as seen through the eyes of an eager and ambitious rising star. He followed this breakthrough success with the polarizing ensemble drama, “Magnolia” (1999), and the wistful romantic drama, “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), both of which underscored the fact that Anderson was at the top of his game. But with his Oscar-nominated epic “There Will Be Blood” (2007), Anderson took a giant leap forward that planted him firmly in the company of Hollywood’s most elite filmmakers. Anderson’s next several films, religious cult tale “The Master” (2012), first-ever Thomas Pynchon screen adaptation “Inherent Vice” (2014), and 1950s-set fashion drama “Phantom Thread” (2017), proved Anderson to be one of the most eclectic and original filmmakers of his generation.

Born on June 26, 1970 in Studio City, CA, Anderson was raised in a showbiz household. His father, Ernie, was a successful voiceover artist, best known for being the announcer on “The Love Boat” (ABC, 1977-1986). At nine years old, Anderson stumbled across his father’s pornographic video tapes, sparking an interest that later came to fruition later in life. His dad, meanwhile, gave him a Betamax camera when Anderson was 12, which he used to make amateur films. Never one to be interested in school, Anderson was forced to leave the upscale Buckley School after the sixth grade due to fighting and poor grades. He managed to graduate from Montclair College Prep, only to drop out from Emerson College after two semesters as an English major. It was during high school, however, that Anderson made his first substantial film, “The Dirk Diggler Story” (1988), a 30-minute tale centered on a well-endowed porn star, a la John Holmes, trying to break into the business; a precursor to what eventually would become “Boogie Nights.”

After high school, Anderson spent the better part of two days at New York University where he took a screenwriting class and subsequently dropped out due to the school’s stodgy and formulaic approach. Knowing he was going to leave NYU, Anderson submitted pages from David Mamet’s 1992 crime drama “Hoffa” as a gag, just to see what would happen. He received a C-minus. Anderson soon returned home to Southern California, where he began working as a production assistant on a television game show for kids called “Quiz Kid Challenge” (syndicated, 1990-91). After meeting actor Philip Baker Hall while working on a PBS special, Anderson directed the actor in “Coffee and Cigarettes” (1993), a 20-minute short about five people whose lives suddenly intersect in a Las Vegas diner. Anderson was admitted to the Director’s Lab at the Sundance Institute, where he expanded on the short into the feature “Hard Eight” (1997), a crime thriller about a hard-bitten loser (John C. Reilly) taken under the wing of a pitying small-time gambler (Hall).

“Hard Eight” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996 to mainly mixed reviews, thought Hall was given near-unanimous kudos for his portrayal of an older, wiser gambler nearing the end of the line. Anderson ran afoul with the studio after they recut his film without his permission, distributing a movie not in line with his original vision. Anderson made sure to voice his discontent on several occasions, telling interviews, “It was the most painful experience I’ve gone through.” Meanwhile, Anderson went to work on his next filming, writing a mammoth 300-page script for what ultimately become his breakthrough film, “Boogie Nights,” an expansion of his 1988 short, “The Dirk Diggler Story.” Though centered in the world of pornography, “Boogie Nights” was a coming-of-age story about a San Fernando Valley youth (Mark Wahlberg) with a rather large member who enters an adult film industry in the midst of undergoing the transformation from film to video. Under the guidance of producer and father figure, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the new star - dubbed Dirk Diggler - enjoys enormous fame, only to suffer a downfall brought about by drug addiction. Well-acted on all fronts - both Reynolds and Moore earned Oscar nominations – “Boogie Nights” firmly established Anderson as an auteur on the rise.

Anticipation was high as to how Anderson would follow “Boogie Nights.” In an almost unprecedented move, New Line Cinema practically offered him carte blanche, including the coveted final cut most directors are denied. After meeting idol Francis Ford Coppola, who told him to use the moment to make whatever he wanted because it would be his last opportunity, Anderson vaulted headfirst into his next film. Inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann, he wrote the script for what became “Magnolia” (1999), a sprawling, engaging and sometimes befuddling look at several unconnected lives in the San Fernando Valley that collide through chance, human action and perhaps even divine intervention. Comparisons to another influence, Robert Altman, were inevitable; Anderson deftly layered multi-character narratives into a tapestry of near biblical proportions. Once again using his acting favorites Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Melora Walters, Anderson succeeded in delivering an ambitious story about fate and redemption that went on to earn several award nominations, including three Oscar nods for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Cruise), Best Original Song (“Save Me” by Aimee Mann) and Best Original Screenplay.

For his next film, “Punch Drunk Love” (2002), Anderson managed to keep his loquacious impulses under control in turning out a taut romantic comedy-drama about Barry (Adam Sandler), a socially inept small business owner henpecked by his seven domineering sisters who force him to constantly question his own manhood. In a moment of loneliness and vulnerability, Barry contacts a phone sex operator who ultimately threatens to blackmail him. Desperate to do something, Barry enlists the help of one of his sisters, who fixes him up with one of her coworkers (Emily Watson). With his emotions going haywire, fluctuating from lust to doubt to uncontrollable anger, Barry becomes willing to do whatever is necessary to change and hopefully have a shot at true romance. Anderson specifically wrote the role of Barry for Sandler; a bold move considering Sandler’s pedigree in low-brow comedy. Nonetheless, Anderson earned wide critical praise while winning a Best Director at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Anderson also received special kudos for his ability to transform Sandler from frat boy to sympathetic romantic lead.

While Anderson firmly established himself as one of Hollywood’s most creatively interesting filmmakers, no one was prepared for him to make a film with such sprawling scope and rich texture as “There Will Be Blood” (2007). Loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, a sympathetic look at the plight of oilfield workers in turn-of-the-century California, “Blood” told the tale of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a down-and-out silver prospector who heads out to dusty Little Boston on a mysterious tip-off that leads to striking a rich vein of black gold. But in the hardscrabble little town, a charismatic preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) stands in the way of Plainview tapping into a lucrative ocean of oil on the preacher’s land. What ensues is a battle of wills, as both men struggle to resist the humiliation and deception of the other. “Blood” stood in stark contrast to Anderson’s previous work, particularly in light of genre and period. Hailed by many critics as being the best of 2007, the film went on to earn eight Academy Award nominations and won two: one for Day-Lewis as Best Actor and the other for Anderson’s long-time collaborator, Robert Elswit, for Best Cinematography. Meanwhile, Anderson took his time making his next project, “The Master” (2012), a period drama about a sex-obsessed veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and a postwar world. He eventually meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause,” and helps him spread his teachings across the country. While not explicit, the film was considered a loose interpretation of L. Ron Hubbard’s early days in spreading Scientology, though Anderson incorporated other elements into his script, including early drafts of “There Will Be Blood.” Hailed by most critics, “The Master” was yet another awards contender for Anderson and was among the favorites to receive nominations at the Academy Awards. Anderson next became the first person to adapt a novel by the notoriously reclusive author Thomas Pynchon to the screen. The comedy-drama “Inherent Vice” (2014), based on Pynchon’s 2009 novel, followed hippie private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) through Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1970s, with Josh Brolin co-starring as straitlaced police detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. The elliptical comedy-drama received mixed reviews, but Anderson scored an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Anderson’s next film, a drama set in the London fashion scene of the 1950s, was the original “Phantom Thread” (2017). The film reunited Anderson with Day-Lewis, who announced during filming that it was going to be his final film.

The Master? | The Point Magazine  Nick Pinkerton, December 15, 2017

Directors don’t have a consistently identifiable “prime” in the way that, say, boxers do. Film history offers plenty of instances of late bloomers and early flame-outs. Inasmuch as we can identify a period of peak power in cineastes, however, it is when experience has been gained and age hasn’t begun to demand its compromises. Paul Thomas Anderson has by now entered this period, along with his rough contemporaries Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan, the Hollywood directors nearest to him in age, clout and aspiration.

If you were in the process of discovering the world of cinema in the late Nineties, as this author was, Paul Thomas Anderson was impossible to ignore. His feature debut Hard Eight (1996), a tightly scripted and modestly scaled genre film, went largely unnoticed, but follow-up ensemble drama Boogie Nights (1997), a three-ring circus of show-off camerawork and substance-abuse-fueled seventies melodrama, couldn’t be missed. A decade on, another period piece, There Will Be Blood (2007), starring Daniel Day-Lewis as turn-of-the-last-century wildcatter Daniel Plainview, cemented his reputation as a major director—the historian and chronicler not only of the fates of driftless individuals but also of the sad secret life of the United States.

Anderson has never lacked for ambition—and as with any extravagant artistic undertaking, this has engendered debate as to if the work is brilliant or Brummagem. Taken together, his films offer a wide-angle narrative of the twentieth-century American experience, suffused with popular indigenous themes such as lives of quiet desperation and beating against the current ceaselessly into the past. This loftiness of intention is legible not only in the content of an Anderson film, but also in its form. Even his “small” films like Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love (2002)—the only of his movies shy of two hours—are amped up by his visual sense and knack for graphic impact. Think of the succinct image of alienation that opens Punch-Drunk Love: Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan rammed in the far corner of a widescreen frame, hunched over his desk in a bare warehouse, a strip of blue paint on a blank wall perfectly matching his boxy blue suit. Anderson has said that John Sturges’s commentary track on the LaserDisc of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), the first MGM production shot in CinemaScope, taught him everything that he knows about film directing. He favors big and consciously “cinematic” formats, including wide-gauge 70mm and anamorphic Panavision lenses, and at a time when the widescreen is often used as an unconsidered default, he is among a handful of filmmakers who really composes for it. Yet the boldness and sweep of Anderson’s aesthetic is connected to what can make his films such frustrating experiences. The talent and imagination are undeniable, and so too is the tiptoe exertion that accompanies their inevitable reach for the transcendent—a strain we register as viewers at precisely the moments when we should be feeling the transcendence itself.

Anderson’s American chronicle expresses an unusual Pacific-leaning bias. California is the epicenter of the Anderson universe, playing a crucial role in nearly all his films, with greater Los Angeles given pride of place. (The forthcoming Phantom Thread, set in London in the Fifties, will be an outlier.) Anderson is himself a first-generation Californian; his father, Ernie, was a native of Lynn, Massachusetts who’d been stationed in the Pacific while serving with the U.S. Navy during World War II—like Joaquin Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell in The Master (2012). Ernie Anderson made himself a cult star in Cleveland in the mid-Sixties as Ghoulardi, a beatnik, Van Dyke beard-sporting late-night horror movie show host who took potshots at the unhip bedroom community of Parma, Ohio. Then he headed west where he made a modest fortune as the voice of ABC, raising his family in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley, something like the Parma of Los Angeles.

Many of Anderson’s movies exude a fascinated repulsion-attraction towards his home town’s less scenic precincts, the cityscape that Pauline Kael, reviewing Alex Cox’s Repo Man in 1984, referred to as “the LA of freeways and off ramps and squarish pastel-colored buildings that could be anything and could turn into something else overnight.” Anderson has a marked affinity for retail-operation showrooms: the “Super Cool” stereo store that Buck (Don Cheadle) dreams of in Boogie Nights; the furniture wholesaler Solomon & Solomon (one of many Old Testament references) in Magnolia (1999); the rival small businesses run by Punch-Drunk Love foils Egan and Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), proprietors respectively of a novelty toilet-plunger concern and D & D Mattress; and the downtown department store in The Master where Quell has a brief stint as a portrait photographer. These settings are the backdrops of Anderson’s youth, reflecting the strong autobiographical bent of his films: the deathbed vigil over Jason Robards’s cancer-stricken Earl Partridge in Magnolia came not long after Anderson had witnessed his own father’s slow dying.

With his last breaths, Partridge confesses, “I let my love go…” as though he might still be saved. Watching these confessional scenes, I am always struck by the intense longing to be healed in Anderson’s movies, to be absolved of transgressions and accepted and reintroduced to the world in a state of holistic wellness. Even the cynical Plainview is needled into an admission of moral failing, crying out “I’ve abandoned my boy!” to a heaven he seems for a flickering moment to fear. Before Barry Egan can accept the love of Emily Watson’s Lena, he must cleanse himself and confess to the trouble he brought on by calling a phone-sex line, like Lëvin presenting his diaries to Kitty in Anna Karenina. Triggering regret is central to the “processing” cross-examination practiced by The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, who repeatedly poses the question “Do your past failures bother you?” The same desire to be absolved or cured of life drives Magnolia’s Aimee Mann sing-along, the chorus of which chides “It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up”—“it” presumably being the endless drubbing of existence itself.

Anderson describes himself as shaped by a casually Catholic upbringing, and in his films ideas about sin and expiation jostle against his distinctly Californian passion for the panaceas of personal therapy and self-help. The two perspectives can be said to meet in the redemptive—if often unfulfilled—potential of personal relationships. In Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall’s card-counter Sydney becomes mentor and protector to John C. Reilly’s hapless John Finnegan in order, we learn, to redeem past trespasses committed a lifetime ago Back East. The relationship triangle that develops between Sydney, John and John’s wife, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), represents the first of many makeshift family units in Anderson’s films. Later examples include Julianne Moore’s coked-up “adoption” of Heather Graham’s “Rollergirl” in Boogie Nights, Plainview taking on the orphaned son of a deceased prospecting partner in There Will Be Blood, and foundling Quell’s apprenticeship to Dodd in The Master. Such restorative attachments are one response to the epidemic of spiritual hunger and spiritual crisis in Anderson’s American West, where the promise of Manifest Destiny had trailed off into the sea.

Like the uprooted retirees of Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust, Anderson’s Californians are those for whom “sunshine isn’t enough.” This air of stark staring panic is at its thickest in Magnolia, which itself fairly reeks of desperation, a folly groaning under its own weight, as if made by someone working frantically to incorporate everything that he has ever thought or felt, someone who suspects that this might be his last chance to work on a canvas of such size.

The result is both too much and not enough. The script’s games of doubling—two dying television-business veterans with animal surnames, two hysterical women with drug-abuse issues, two whiz kids of different generations—reflect an active conceptual intelligence, but at times Magnolia feels like a baggy omnibus made by filmmakers of wildly varying levels of talent. The handling of the botched attempted suicide by stricken game-show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), after facing accusations of molesting his own daughter, is particularly maladroit, as Anderson recoils from the implications of his own material. (His cop-out solution is to spare Gator’s life, but withhold the benediction of the film’s concluding morning-after montage.)

Magnolia has one true inspiration, however, in the character of Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who ranks as one of Anderson’s most indelible creations. Mackey is a teacher of the “Seduce and Destroy” technique, a sort-of male-supremacist pickup-artist guru seen reciting his incantations of “Respect the cock and tame the cunt” to a howling seminar audience of would-be alphas. The character, who Anderson has said was based in part on Secrets of Speed Seduction Mastery author Ross Jeffries, appeared some years before terms like “negging” and “kino” entered popular parlance. (A burlesque scene showing Mackey practicing his art was lamentably left out of the movie’s final cut—it’s the funniest thing Anderson has ever shot.) From the perspective of 2017, the creation of Mackey seems downright clairvoyant. Here we have a standard bearer for men’s rights activism, complete with “trigger liberal snowflakes” talking points, operating before his time, in the late, louche Clintonian period.

Such confidence men play a larger role in Anderson’s movies after Magnolia, as he focuses less singularly on spiritual hunger and more on those who profit from it. We see this in Punch-Drunk Love, a transitional film, where Anderson trades in the emphatic camerawork and long sequence shots of his Scorsese-aping early movies for a greater emphasis on observed downtime ambience: the buzz of warehouse fluorescence in the lonely a.m. hours, Barry Egan’s listless pacing in circles in a half-unpacked apartment that will never ever be a home. In the antagonistic characters played by Sandler and Hoffman, a lonesome sad-sack with an anger-management problem and a blackmailing grifter who preys on the lonely, Anderson hits on the dynamic that has shaped the rest of his films to date. Plot cedes ground to character, and charge is generated through the encounter of contrasting opposite numbers—here the passive and predatory, clumsy and charismatic, victim and bully, naïf and operator.

The strategy is further developed in There Will Be Blood, a saga of industrial wealth and entrepreneurial faith. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview is another of the director’s immediately iconographic protagonists, with his broad-brimmed hat, bristling dark mustache, and anthracite twinkle in his eyes. No man, it seems, can stay off Plainview’s list of enemies forever, but he has no foe so despised as Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a smooth-faced boy preacher who presides over a small congregation at the Church of the Third Revelation in the backwater town of Little Boston, California—the name suggesting that the baggage of New England Puritanism has arrived intact out West.

Eli is based on the character “Eli Watkins” in the source novel, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which drew on the events of the Teapot Dome scandal, and in particular on the character of one of its principal players, oilman Edward L. Doheny. The sobriquet “Sunday” is Anderson’s addition, almost certainly inspired by Billy Sunday, a former Chicago White Stockings outfielder who retired from baseball in order to preach the revealed Word and who became the model for the modern superstar evangelist.

In the film’s extended 1927-set postscript Eli reveals that he has been attempting to launch himself as a radio personality somewhat in the style of Aimee Semple McPherson. The Pentecostal preacher was a figure with whom Anderson was no doubt familiar—a Los Angeleno legend in her time thanks to the radio broadcast of her weekly sermons, including episodes of faith healing, from the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. Eli Sunday joins the ranks of Anderson characters—Frank T.J. Mackey among them—who seem to spring fully formed from the mythological womb of American capitalism and evangelism, that matrix which begat the megamillions and the megachurches.

In The Master, Anderson turns to a postwar America where he finds not bumptious triumph culture and liberal consensus, but a landscape dotted with psychically damaged wanderers, fumbling after a coherent identity following their pyrrhic victories. Joaquin Phoenix’s Quell is a feckless alcoholic drifter who stumbles into the orbit of Dodd, a self-styled prophet in the mode of L. Ron Hubbard during his early years spreading the gospel of what would become Scientology. Their codependent relationship, an ongoing barter of authenticity and phoniness, reflects the dynamic at the heart of Scientology as a new American religion of self-creation; but it also obliquely suggests another postwar cult that took Hollywood by storm, that of “Method acting” as taught by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. As we watch Dodd coach Quell through psychic exercises meant to dredge up past traumas, we might well be in the Actors Studio, with Phoenix consciously summoning the ghost of Montgomery Clift—the damaged-goods Clift, who’d had his dashed-in face sewn back together after a drunk-driving accident. Both stars offer full-body performances. Phoenix’s dark, scraggly Quell, his arms frequently held akimbo, pigeon chest falling in, a jagged sneer for a grin, a stiff strut that suggests an improperly wiped ass—a perfect inverse foil to Hoffman’s Dodd, a hale, flavicomous, overgrown cherub with inscrutable intentions.

A study in contrasts, these men are also more alike than they know—a point that Anderson underlines in a scene where they face off in neighboring jail cells, reduced to a state of animalistic barking. It’s a memorable scene, and indeed Anderson excels at making standout scenes—though they often have the feel of compartmentalized units, isolated from any larger construction. This accounts, perhaps, for the vaguely unsatisfied feeling that his films always leave me with. They exhibit clearly their creator’s relish in seeing the sparks that result from grinding antithetical characters against one another, but when the grinding is over you’re left with a handful of dust.

Parting company for the last time after a long stint as mentor and protégé, Dodd addresses Quell with a quietly sung rendition of the romantic standard “(I’d Like to Get You) On a Slow Boat to China.” Writing in Film Comment at the time of its release, Kent Jones noted that the The Master “threatens to come apart at the seams,” but that “the courting of danger is exactly what makes [Anderson’s] films so exciting.” This left-field burst of homoerotic serenading is the sort of thing he’s talking about, and such last-minute gambits are a trademark of Anderson’s films—the most famous being the ending of Magnolia, a downpour of frogs prophesied by billboards reading “Exodus 8:2.” Where some see derring-do, however, I find a hint of desperation—I get the feeling that Anderson, having painted himself into a corner, is turning to the grand gesture to make his escape. This is, on one level, entirely appropriate. Desperation is the emotion with which Anderson, as a dramatist, is most comfortable. These bet-the-house moments, on which he is prepared to stake the entire integrity of his film, mirror the in extremis commitments of his damaged characters. Yet some of the exhilaration comes precisely because the risk of artistic failure is treacherously real. The first half of There Will Be Blood, an often-silent meditation on the dirty process of dredging mineral wealth out of flinty ground in mean, godforsaken country, is one of the most compelling pieces of sustained filmmaking in Anderson’s oeuvre. But the film’s resolution, with Plainview cudgeling adversary Sunday into the hereafter, is as disappointing as the first half’s reveal of Daniel’s embittered core had been beguiling. That Plainview does his own killing is at least true to the character; he is hands-on in all his business endeavors. That he should adopt the mantle of preacher (“i am the third revelation!”) in his final triumph over Sunday, who has turned would-be entrepreneur, is certainly in keeping with Anderson’s dialectical screenwriting, in which seemingly antipodal figures reach a state of synthesis. But the finale feels less dangerous than diagrammatic; like Dodd’s burst into song at the eleventh hour of The Master, it’s only as moving as the solution to a formula can be. Both movies are much better in their establishing chapters, limning out their subjects’ individual psychologies through bold images that seem to spring naturally from their interior states. (To put Anderson in the ring with a certifiable cinematic visionary, there are times when There Will Be Blood approaches the at once elemental and insinuating quality of Claire Denis’s 1999 Beau Travail, but he has never found an ending as unexpected and effortless as that film’s frantic dance of self-destruction.)

Inherent Vice (2014) set in Los Angeles circa 1970, and a capper to Anderson’s chronological trilogy on cultish American creeds, effectively dissolves any thought of solution in the fabulations of the Human Potential Movement era. Anderson again here works from his diptych mode: after the Victim and the Conman, the Capitalist and the Preacher, and the Bum and the Demagogue, we get the Hippie and the Square—Phoenix’s burner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello and Josh Brolin’s Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, an LAPD flat-top with an active Actor’s Guild membership. Both are independently investigating a missing-persons case involving dirty dealings in Los Angeles real estate, LAPD malfeasance and a conspiracy between Big Dentistry and the Aryan Brotherhood—just a few of the cults running rampant alongside the Manson clan and “Chryskylodon,” an Esalen Institute-esque asylum with drug-cartel ties, which specializes in reintroducing the dopers they hooked to straight society.

Anderson is perfectly at home in the Los Angeles of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, readily adopting its whodunit bones and rumpled romanticism. Inherent Vice, like most of Anderson’s films, focuses primarily on damaged men—that Emily Watson’s character in Punch-Drunk Love emerges as anything more than a cypher is a testament to the actress. This is to be regretted, for Anderson has filmed scenes of heterosexual coupling distinguished by rare emotional complexity and intimate detail: notably a draining bout between Vice’s Sportello and “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), and the first shoot (two senses of the word apply) with Diggler and Moore’s “Amber Waves” in Boogie Nights. Sportello and Shasta shared their moment together at the magic hour of the Sixties, but she’s gone over to the straight side now, and the movie unfolds in the aftermath of the various sub-cults that had seemed to comprise a spontaneous counterculture having been infiltrated by establishment powers pushing a religious revival of their own—the Nixonian spin on the old “return to normalcy.” Sportello’s snooping finally puts him on the trail of plutocrat puppet master Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), a robber baron of a very different breed than Plainview, one who always keeps his hands clean at the end of the day.

As a guttural howl of protest at the owner class reasserting its foot-on-throat dominance, Inherent Vice isn’t a patch on Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981), a film that may well have been a source of inspiration, and it never achieves real comic liftoff. But it does maintain a lovely, lilting, layered tone. It is Anderson’s most beautiful movie, achieving an abiding air of bittersweetness, or what he has called a “faded postcard” effect. Watching it, you can practically smell the funk of hash, patchouli oil and spoiled leftovers. “I never remember plots in movies, I remember how they make me feel and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen,” Anderson told a festival screening audience at the time of Inherent Vice’s release.

The feeling in this film is that of missed-turn-on-the-freeway melancholy, of having overshot your desired destination and instead winding up scratching your head in the parking lot of a sad strip mall and wondering what you did wrong. It’s an attempt to bottle the essence of that moment when the soft, vulnerable underbelly of the “All You Need is Love” doctrine got sliced open by Manson, and groovy credulity crumbled into paranoiac heebie-jeebies. Time marches on, and it’s not going to stop—the only certainty is that there will be new salesmen, new mantras, new catchphrases, new palliatives and miracle cures and restorative tonics to return us to bygone promise, to imagined greatness.

The plaintive appeal of a better yesterday, like the charm of a faded postcard, is felt through many of Anderson’s films. His is a history of twentieth-century America in a state of perpetual downfall. In Boogie Nights, an Eden of free sex and drugs, artistic ambition and the warmth of shot-on-film pornography gives way to addictive depression, industrialized production and the harshness of the video eye. The demobbed Quell in The Master is looking for any port in a storm when he stumbles onto Dodd’s yacht: the landlubber life of an upstanding civilian on the home front, with its deathly dull domestic opportunities, has nothing to offer him. Punch-Drunk Love’s play with the impersonal architecture of the San Fernando Valley, including a gag in which Barry Egan gets lost in the blank, featureless corridors of his lady love’s apartment building, suggests the anti-modern Tati of Playtime (1967). In There Will Be Blood, the single-minded pursuit of lucre makes a monster of Plainview—though it’s never entirely clear that he had much soul to lose.

Did America? You’ll never go broke among the intelligentsia suggesting that our national life is a hellscape getting hotter all the time, and likely Anderson’s reputation hasn’t suffered from the fact that his filmography can be read as an extended critique of consumer capitalism as it has impressed itself onto the American soul, engendering a sense of longing that can then be taken advantage of by the predatory quacks, mountebanks and snake-oil salesmen who roam the land. “As long as American life was something to be escaped from,” goes the winsome voice-over by Joanna Newsom that runs through Inherent Vice, “the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.” Anderson’s republic is one of dupes and hucksters, which is how it’s been understood by such diverse figures as Melville, Twain and P. T. Barnum, and how a great many of its citizenry understand the social world they inhabit, even while disagreeing who’s being suckered by whom.

Artists here are held in as much suspicion as any other class, so it is only appropriate that Anderson himself should so often be discussed as either sage or charlatan, though the collected evidence suggests a gifted, fallible filmmaker whose reach often exceeds his grasp. His career to date reveals a series of uneasy negotiations between the multiplex and the art house, an attraction to overly general, even abstract themes, counterbalanced by a lucid attention to detail in execution. These managed contradictions suggest that he’s working after the model of John Sturges or George Stevens, those mid-century middlebrow prestige directors par excellence. (Stevens’s 1956 Giant, for example, provides a clear model for There Will Be Blood.) Increasingly, however, after achieving maximum bombast in Magnolia, Anderson can be found toiling like a sapper to weaken the foundations of his own films, digging into irrelevant nuance at a scale that can only be described as pompous, writing obscure lowercase messages on billboard backdrops.

The connections Anderson has fitfully made with a wide audience may be traced to his working in a country where a significant portion of the population seems to believe our best days are behind us, and in a medium whose devotees likewise imagine a happy past being superseded by a degraded present. Anderson’s own happy past might be set in seventies New Hollywood. From early on, his ensemble dramas were likened to those of Robert Altman, while since There Will Be Blood Anderson has inclined more towards Kubrick, whose shadow lies over Anderson’s generation as Hitchcock’s did over the previous one. Too fixated on the great to bother with the merely good, he wears the mantle of national bard, singing sad tidings of our destiny. Asked for his thoughts on Pynchon’s worldview in a 2014 profile, Anderson mused: “Has America really lived up to its potential? Let’s keep hoping.” The same may be said for the extraordinary apparatus that is the film industry in Southern California—and for P. T. Anderson, hometown boy.

Paul Thomas Anderson - The Los Angeles Review of Books  Martin Woessner, December 23, 2016

LIKE ME, the esteemed film scholar George Toles thinks that Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t really come into his own as a director until he made There Will Be Blood (2007), his fifth feature film. But as I read Toles’s intriguing new book on Anderson — part of the increasingly influential “Contemporary Film Directors” series published by the University of Illinois Press — I began to realize that he and I value the film for very different, perhaps even incommensurable reasons. A film that had me thinking about history and geopolitics had him thinking about psychology and personal trauma. What had me thinking of Walter Benjamin — “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” — had him thinking about Freud, and not necessarily the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, either.

In Toles’s account, There Will Be Blood mines “the buried emotional core” of its ruthlessly single-minded protagonist, the heartless oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). For him, the film is an intimate portrait of one man’s “jammed consciousness.” But I still see it as a broader indictment of the ideologies that have shaped modern American society as a whole: capitalism, evangelism, industrialism, and, of course, violence. I want to punch Daniel Plainview in the face, or put him in prison. Toles wants to put him on the analyst’s couch. Did he and I see the same film?

Toles views all of P. T. Anderson’s work as a filmmaker through a psychoanalytic lens. His book — which, unlike much academic film criticism, is full of literary shine and sparkle — surveys almost all of Anderson’s cinematic work to date, but it focuses primarily on three of the director’s later films: Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the aforementioned There Will Be Blood, and The Master (2012). Inherent Vice (2014), an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same title, arrived in theaters too recently to make it into the manuscript, which is a shame, partly because the film challenges some of the assumptions Toles makes about the arc and coherence of Anderson’s career; but also because a Distinguished Professor of English who has spent a career working with the filmmaker Guy Maddin — a mad genius whose films, like Pynchon’s prose, freely mix history, myth, and fantasy in ever surprising ways — would be just the right person to parse the meaning of a Pynchon/Anderson mash-up.

If you have ever seen a Guy Maddin film — some of which Toles either wrote or co-wrote — you will have a sense of what to expect in Paul Thomas Anderson. Close attention is paid to psychosexual dynamics, and to how they determine not just conscious thoughts and actions, but also subconscious drives, desires, and feelings. Mother figures and father figures loom large, especially in inescapable fever dreams of memory that shuffle between feelings of guilt and shame on the one side and euphoric ecstasy — or release, if we want to be more graphic — on the other. Those long, dark winters in Winnipeg, where Maddin lives and where Toles teaches at the University of Manitoba, must leave a lot of time for introspection. Maybe too much time.

Toles thinks that Anderson’s films simultaneously invite and resist such psychological scrutiny. He discusses framing and editing and performance, all the usual subjects you would expect to find in a work of film studies, but what really interests him is feelings. To get at those feelings, Toles trains his focus on Anderson’s conflicted characters, whose hearts seem to have been confiscated by some previous trauma or by the fear of an impending one. Each character becomes a case study awaiting diagnosis: Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who wants to punch people in the face, struggles with a case of thwarted desire; Daniel Plainview, fleeing his own personal pain, would rather mine for gold or drill for oil than unearth his own deeply buried, fiercely guarded personal secrets; and The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) displays a stunted emotional growth, exacerbated by a fondness for what today we might call “artisanal moonshine.”

Unavoidably, Anderson himself comes in for a fair amount of psychological scrutiny, perhaps because he has, at least in Toles’s opinion, rather obvious mother issues. “One of the main strands of argument in my book,” Toles writes, “is that Anderson continues to ‘guard’ the story of his mother,” even as that story “is always working its way, with obdurate, ghostly force, into his narratives about fathers (real and surrogate), and carries the real burden of the narrative mystery.” Oedipus is never too far away.

Fathers, both real and surrogate, are prominent in Anderson’s early films — Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999) — but they are hardly role-model material. The first is a professional gambler with a wise-guy past, the second is a pornographer, and the last is perhaps the most questionable of the three: a television producer. (Anderson’s own father worked in television and radio, mostly as a voiceover artist and disc jockey.) But mothers, even in their absence, play a powerful role as well, and Toles is surely right to suggest that these early films are in fact guided by a feminine sensibility, one that finally gets a voice, literally, in Aimee Mann, whose plaintive music weaves the disparate storylines of Magnolia together into a cathartic, emotionally effusive chorus. Whether or not this had to be done in the style of an extended music video, and with that deluge of frogs to go with it, is of course another matter entirely. (The less said about those, maybe, the better.)

It is Anderson’s post-Magnolia work, though, that fascinates Toles, in part because it refuses just such “confessional effusion.” It trades Aimee Mann for Jonny Greenwood; frenetic prolixity for static-charged silence. The “increasingly taciturn, oblique, and mysterious screenplays” of Punch-Drunk LoveThere Will Be Blood, and The Master exhibit more than anything a suspicion of the “from-the-gut candor” — to use Anderson’s own words, quoted by Toles — that animated the early films. There would be no simple cathartic release here, no refuge in the embrace of a community that recognizes and feels your pain. In addition, there would be no easy reliance on the comforting tropes of genre or traditional narrative structure. Viewers would be made to feel as alienated, as disoriented, as lost as the characters on the screen in front of them. “Anderson’s plan for the viewer in Punch-Drunk Love” — a turning point in the filmmaker’s career, Toles thinks — “is to keep him or her confined in an uncertainty comparable to Barry’s own.” We never know what to make of this strange, off-kilter film, just as Barry doesn’t know what to do with the feelings and emotions unleashed by Lena’s (Emily Watson) unexpected interest in him. And that is precisely the point, because eros — if you follow this line of thinking — is a kind of “delirious instability.” It is not so much the glue that keeps one’s world together as it is a sledgehammer that breaks it apart.

Toles moves from the “sledgehammer of eros” in Punch-Drunk Love to what we might call the pickaxe of the soul in There Will Be Blood. What I viewed as an epic tale of grand historical and possibly even philosophical sweep, Toles sees as an intimate narrative of failed introspection. Daniel Plainview, in whom I saw the maniacal face of capitalist greed and bitterness, becomes, in Toles’s interpretation, a tragic, almost sympathetic character. He is a “a figure overmastered and done in by an essential stuntedness, and by a vast, buried hurt. He is too fearful to face up to the latter, so he settles for lying bluster instead.” Poor guy.

For Toles, There Will Be Blood is not a film about the origins of the contemporary world, and all of the blood and oil and menace — both physical and psychological — that brought it about. That’s too literal an interpretation. “One feels that the search for oil, this fantastic residue from the far depths, is an unrecognized search for one’s buried origins, hurt, and attachments,” he writes. “It is as though the pit must be made to speak in place of lost and estranged others who cannot, and also be made to speak for the unreachable core of the man drilling, who is intensely driven but does not know by what.” There Will Be Blood isn’t about blood at all, apparently: it is about the search for that “buried emotional core.”

At this point in the book, oil drilling and mining become a recurrent theme and metaphor. In the part of it devoted to The Master — a film that swaps mining camps and oil derricks for naval vessels, but no matter — Toles even likens the moviegoing experience itself to these processes. It isn’t such a stretch to imagine our entrance into the darkened theater as a descent into some kind of cinematic mineshaft, where the dreams and desires of others will be unearthed before our very eyes. But this isn’t what Toles has in mind, exactly. For him, cinematic mining is actually self-mining: the pickaxe gets turned the other way around, especially when it confronts films such as Punch-Drunk Love or There Will Be Blood or The Master, which do not conform to established genre expectations. Their form and their content seem to resist interpretation. Something seems to be missing in these films, populated as they are by uncommunicative protagonists, and edited in ways that keep the viewer both temporally and spatially displaced. In these instances, our hermeneutic blade hits impenetrable bedrock, only to bounce back and dig into the softer stuff of our own messy souls:

We partly fill in the gaps with inferences about character psychology, story logic, environment. We consider how the parts are arranged, notice repeating patterns, and find the most fitting ways to think about the plot. But mostly it is ourselves (a roiling mass of feelings and contradictions) that we mine to fill the gaps. It is our imagining self, our living presence, that seals the cracks and most powerfully animates the movie picture.

Admirably, Toles lives by what he preaches, and traces of his own “roiling mass of feelings and contradictions” can be found scattered throughout his book. His conviction that Daniel Plainview is a grief-stricken character worthy of our sympathy, for instance, stems mostly, as he admits, from his own experience of grief at the loss of his mother not so long ago. We feel another’s pain by drawing upon memories of our own. But all of this raises the inevitable question: How are we to know that the feelings we have mined from the depths of our souls or psyches do justice to the work of art that we are trying to interpret? How do we know our mining will produce some nugget of interpretive gold?

It has to be said that Toles is an intrepid cinematic and psychological miner. He finds a great many gems in Anderson’s films by working carefully, measuredly, over key sequences in each of them, unearthing insights that less diligent, less experienced viewers such as I all too easily overlook. And he does it with both grace and flair. Still, we should remember that mining is dangerous work. The deeper one digs, the more the dread of eventual collapse mounts; the more one longs to see the sky again, breathe fresh air.

The opening shot of The Master may not give us the sky, but it does offer a whiff of fresh, salty, open-sea air. It transports us to the back of a boat where we see the ship’s wake churning a beautiful blue-green sea. Our protagonist this time is a sailor, not an oilman, and he is on a journey — one that, we soon realize, has no clear, definitive destination. The film, which seems to jump randomly between various moments in Freddie Quell’s life, from his time in the Navy to his flirtation with a newly emerging midcentury cult that seems to have a lot in common with Scientology, does not make it easy for us to follow his path. But we suspect that we will see that churning sea again before it’s all over — and we do.

Among the very few cinematic precedents for Anderson’s work that Toles invokes are the films of Terrence Malick — especially Days of Heaven (1978). It’s safe to say that Malick hasn’t come across a body of water or a sky that he didn’t want to capture on film. Days of Heaven, which was filmed on the vast prairies of Alberta, Canada, has its fair share of river scenes and picture-perfect sunsets. But this interest in waterways and skies — if not, in fact, in the entire natural world itself — is not what Toles thinks Anderson owes to Malick. Nor is it the work of Malick’s longtime art director and production designer Jack Fisk, who worked on both There Will Be Blood and The Master. Instead, it is Malick’s structuring of Days of Heaven and, 20 years after it, The Thin Red Line (1998) that seems to have exerted a definitive influence. Both films exchanged “carefully delineated psychology” for “fragmentary episodes” that offered little more than “evocative glimpses” of a coherent, dramatic narrative. Both films resist our expectations concerning character, genre, and plot. Days of Heaven both is and is not a tragedy; The Thin Red Line both is and is not a war film.

The same kinds of things can be said of The Master, of course. It is neither this nor that in more ways than one. It is full of “fragmentary episodes” and “evocative glimpses.” Having seen it again recently, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I still don’t know what to make of it. Surely Toles is right to suggest that the film is determined “to thwart our desire to get inside its narrative.” But this doesn’t stop him from trying to do just that. He puts on his miner’s cap and digs, searching for the film’s meaning, its source. (It’s worth pointing out here that Freddie’s surname, “Quell,” means just that — “source” — in German.) The Master may indeed represent, as Toles suggests, another quest for an “archetypal mother” figure, symbolized this time around by a mermaid made out of sand that Freddie first ogles, then humps, and finally cuddles, tenderly. But couldn’t it also be about many other things as well, including, perhaps, the inability of a certain kind of Scientology-like psychologizing — “The Cause,” as it is called in the film — to unlock the secrets of such a confounding, enigmatic, tight-lipped character?

The founder of “The Cause,” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the embodiment of intellectual bravado — “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher” he declares at one point — who tries as best he can to quell Freddie Quell, to cure him of his corporeal animality, which gets expressed in all manner of physical outbursts, many of them violent and self-destructive. In Toles’s analysis, the sex that Freddie finally has — with a woman not made of sand, it is worth pointing out — represents not just a release but also a kind of redemption. But it is unclear if this redemption results from Freddie’s embrace of “The Cause” or his rejection of it; if it shows him having been mastered, or having become his own master. Either way we read it, though, the scene certainly stands in stark contrast to the vicious, visceral, decidedly unambiguous ending of There Will Be Blood. (Such a giveaway, that title.) Maybe it proves Toles right. There won’t always be blood, I guess, but there will always be feelings. On that we can agree.

List of films reviewed:

Magnolia  1999

The Master  2012