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Filmmaker Retrospective: The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson

29 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Michael Smith

Paul Thomas Anderson: 'As a film-maker, you have to convince people to follow your madness'

On October 6, 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Inherent Vice, an unprecedented adaptation of Thomas Pynchon, will premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Every available scrap of information to be found on the internet is being trawled by the ‘unofficial’ fan page dedicated to him: Cigarettes and Red Vines – the Definitive Paul Thomas Anderson Resource. (The reason for the quotes around unofficial are due to the fact that Anderson himself has been known to contribute.)

There’s very little material to work with since neither a poster or trailer has been released. With the quiet days going by and the hours ticking past, ardent fans, barely sated by the scant promotional stills released by Warner Bros., await a trailer as if it’s a miniature premier in of itself. The reticence feels intentional, a calculated effort at sending his fans into a boiling frenzy.

They have good reason to be excited since Anderson’s advertisement campaign for his previous film, The Master, was uniquely engaged with the process of galvanizing an audience through subtlety and mystery, in a time of great artistic blight, when selling a film had lost any sense of creativity.

Months before The Master was released, fans were given a series of petite online teaser trailers that obliquely hinted at the characters and themes of a film that would eventually prove to be as elusive as those hints, and would become one of Anderson’s most hotly debated pictures. They utilized a good amount of footage that wouldn’t be featured in the final product, giving unbeknownst audiences a distinctive look into the creative process, the whittling away that filmmakers take for granted.

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Here was a filmmaker having fun with his audience, engaging them in a tantalizing dance while playing with the form. One couldn’t know that there was so much footage in those early trailers that wouldn’t be on screen when finally sitting down before the film in a darkened theater, turning the promotional process into a series of puzzles and unsolved mysteries, rewarding second viewings and adding miniature addendums to the main piece that answer questions here but raise alarming inquiries there.

The once great pop-art form of film posters has reached an all-time nadir, utilizing sloppy cut-and-paste floating heads and excessive orange/blue contrast imagery to pull audiences in. Anderson’s posters for The Master were thoughtful and visually dense works of art unto themselves, the first simply being an extreme close-up of a bottle half-submerged in liquid, the actor’s names hazy on the label, and the next being a bold cerulean and white depiction of the actors faces recurring as if reflected in a prism.

Both posters thematically communicate the obfuscation awaiting the audience, unapologetically signposting the ambiguous nature of the film. This element of Anderson’s artistry is exemplary of his overall approach to cinema: he bravely wears his strategies and emotions on his sleeve.

Even as the world awaits his seventh film, either with critical eyes or fan boy enthusiasm, it’s somewhat difficult to assess his career in a retrospective manner. Not that there aren’t recurring themes, obsessions and aesthetic similarities within what is becoming a solid body of work worthy of close scrutiny and delineation – hardly the case with Anderson. What makes it tricky is that Anderson, who burst onto the scene as a wunderkind talent, aggressively humane and proudly schooled by his own influences, has revealed himself to be more chameleonic than his fan base at first realized.

PTA magnolia

The proliferation of his first films, Hard Eight (which I will call Sydney from now on, to respect Anderson’s wishes after a studio battle he lost with the production company), Boogie Nights and Magnolia, released from 1996 through 1999, halted with a three year gap until Punch Drunk Love in 2002. That led to an even further lapse, Kubrickian in its five year span, until There Will Be Blood in 2007, and finally The Master in 2012. The latter two films have proved divisive with certain followers of the director.

Markedly different in pacing and style compared to the earlier works, they are ruminative period pieces which hint at a true heart of darkness more keenly felt than in the preceding films. In October of 2012 Owen Gleiberman wrote a Dear John letter to the filmmaker nakedly entitled ‘Why I fell out of love with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson’ and which sees this later venturing into stonier, less melodramatic films as a compromise Anderson is making with his own talents and succumbing to hubris in the light of his being dubbed a ‘great modern filmmaker’.

The piece has a starry-eyed view of Boogie Nights and one gets the sense that Gleiberman is waxing nostalgic, but he is the voice of a certain fraction of Anderson’s fans who are wondering what the man is up to. There are so few directors in this day and age inciting such passionate feelings and curiosity.

Indeed Boogie Nights (a raucous, rambling film about two decades in the history of porn as seen through an unusual surrogate family of misfits) couldn’t be more different than There Will Be Blood (a penetrating, rigid character study of a ruthless oil man and his pursuit of wealth during the turn of the century) when taking stock of the superficialities on display.

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One can look to the career of the other prodigious Anderson, Wes, as a perfect comparison. Wes Anderson is met with equally bated breath for his next film by an ardent fan base, but to be fair, every Wes Anderson film since Rushmore in 1998 to The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014 has been confined within his own stylistic conceits, for better or worse, and even though his films contain multiple worlds and milieus, they fall into a sameness that one can find charming and comforting, or maddening. It’s hard to imagine at this point Wes Anderson making his Interiors, Woody Allen’s stunningly stark left-turn into Bergmania in 1978.

Paul Thomas Anderson is not merely content to deliver creature comforts to film fans, and he is arguably the director of his generation most attuned to getting under the skin of our society, depicting the weather of a country with fierce concern, disappointment and fearful hope for the future while pushing compassionately illustrated characters into the forefront. His filmography feels steeped in the old-school, while a live wire of inspiration threatens to unleash innovative practices upon us.

He is one of the few torch-carriers of the American New Wave, and his films are representative of the tropes of that time – anti-heroes, flawed characters, political metaphors, irresolution, the need to shock or aggravate a staid people, a palpable sense of isolation, of wayward or outlying individuals restlessly seeking new lives or redemption. He has an edgy finger on the pulse of our culture. His work remains consummately engaging, and he is smack-dab in the middle of a period of flux.

His next film, Inherent Vice, hints that we might be circling back to the Altmanesque free flow, a riff on The Long Goodbye with a stoner gum-shoe adrift in an early 70’s L.A., or the gloriously show-offy camera swoopings reminiscent of Scorsese, or the intense rapid cutting and zooming-in on the faces of his beloved actors and characters. But there’s a sneaking feeling that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, that no matter what is written today can be immediately re-written tomorrow, as Anderson prepares to upset expectations once again. He can only make us wonder where he will be taking us next.

 

1. Hard Eight aka Sydney (1996)

Hard Eight

What an elegant and understated place to begin. In contrast to where he would move out from this first film (into grander statements, bigger casts, ambitiously symphonic filmmaking) this seems remarkably austere. For what at its core is a gritty noir-shaded character study taking place in the casinos and hotel rooms of Reno, there is a curious amount of compassion and love on display for characters who gradually, and through engaging, stealthy development, come to form a family.

These are characters that, in a more routine film, would be scheming or backstabbing one another in cynical plot mechanics, like characters in a Jim Thompson pulp. But with Anderson’s take on the genre, there is startling vulnerability on display, and a discovery of support and love between mutually misplaced people.

Anderson’s stylistic touches were mustering here: an older protégé figure and an extended family made up of nomadic misfits, withholding of character’s motives or histories in toyingly suspenseful techniques, an emphasizing of the haphazard methods of fate and coincidence in our lives (colorfully illustrated in a vignette concerning a pack of matches in a pocket), and the sense of the past as a great, prevailing force coming back to disturb the present.

hard eight pic

The cast was impeccable, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly (a major component to Anderson’s first three films), but the film belongs to Philip Baker Hall as Sydney, whom Anderson had fallen for in his role as Richard Nixon in Altman’s Secret Honor (although Hall tellingly plays an underworld figure named Sidney in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run).

His peerless style, comprised of cool stoicism, an unhurried stride, and a way of delivering Anderson’s lines as if they were hot knives through butter, made audiences and filmmakers sit up and wonder where the hell this actor had been hiding, Anderson’s intent all along.

It was a perfect match of actor and role. He holds court in this world of flashing lights and high rollers, but the first time we spot his weakness is in a scene absolutely dominated by an improvisational juggernaut, a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, who would become DeNiro to Anderson’s Scorsese, one of the very great pairings of actor and director in the history of American film.

This was a real gem of a debut and cinephiles took notice. It was a fine introduction into Anderson’s haunting world of deeply deluded characters, crippled by low self-esteem and hounded by pasts they can’t escape, in need of righting old wrongs while making horrible decisions in the present. His people, we would come to find after this introduction, are far away from the normal conduits of love and understanding. It’s astonishing how badly they need it, and how hard they have to fight for it in the worlds they construct or are prisoner to.

 

2. Boogie Nights (1997)

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In stark contrast to how Sydney exhibited a mastery of deliberate pacing, Boogie Nights immediately throws the viewer into a pot of boiling characters, subplots and dizzying tracking shots amidst a wall-of-sound atmosphere.

Richly expanding on his shot-on-video short, The Dirk Diggler Story, about the rise and fall of a John Holmes-esque porn star in the 70’s and early 80’s, Anderson pulled out all the stops here, introducing one of the trademarks of his early cinema: a laid-back yet dizzying approach to the indulgence of his own interests and excesses, and knowing nods to the stylistic traits of his favorite films. The tight control of his first film gave way to sprawl and a sense of a young energy hardly daunted by the scale he was presenting, but ecstatic with a passion for cinema.

There are times when Boogie Nights feels like an illuminating and droll, yet cliché, tale of fame’s downward spiral, and in another moment it’s one of the best hang-out films ever made, with snakelike camerawork snatching the small-talk and big-egos of a series of easygoing parties and business schmoozings.

Boogie Nights (1997)

In another moment it’s deftly cutting together multiple storylines in the most galvanizing fashion (a particularly intense sequence of coke hysteria and personal desperation amongst its many characters, set to Roberta Flack’s Compared to What, springs to mind as most exemplary of Anderson’s mellifluous rhythm) and in another sequence we’re in an extended, amorphous, drawn-out, increasingly tense chamber piece of a drug deal, spiraling out of control.

Boogie Nights works like a film festival, born of a generation who came of age during a string of endless nights in front of the VCR, popping in movie after movie, and fed on the wealth of information available. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino both share this fan boy glory, stoking their appetites, sharing their great affections, their numerous influences. Where other filmmakers would shyly, if not ashamedly, or unconsciously, riff on films that had stayed with them, these boys were heedlessly admitting it with a joy akin to showing off.

There are some who are put-off by such ribald excess but there were more than enough audiences and reviewers who could grasp the level of talent that was emerging. With Boogie Nights, reviewers began mentioning Scorsese and Altman and Ophüls in response to his diversity of palate and grasp of the medium. Anderson also cited Jonathan Demme as a major influence (as can be witnessed in some straight-to-camera dialogue shots and one of the opening scenes in Sydney – dialogue between two men, in a car, in the desert, reminiscent of the first twenty minutes of Melvin and Howard).

Boogie Nights

But once again, amidst all the freewheeling references and deja vu delight for true film fans, Anderson was also asserting himself with extremely personal rudiments, and his work is difficult to discuss without making note of how much of his own life informs the empathy and emotional depth of his creations. Boogie Nights is an epic of the San Fernando Valley, where Anderson grew up, and his memories of adolescence are rendered genuinely within the film’s sun-dappled and neon-lit frames (captured by Robert Elswit’s handsomely sharp, high contrast cinematography).

Whereas Tarantino makes exuberant films of fascinating characters, it’s rare that we as an audience get a glimpse into their inner lives, into what makes them tic, or even more importantly, what makes them human. Sometimes Tarantino’s characters are only skin deep, pop-cultural standards one can comprehend as quickly as one peruses the cover of a video cassete case. Anderson’s people are truly real, and full of needs, troubles and human quirks.

His astounding cast here reunited John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall and Philip Seymour Hoffman from his first film with the huge ensemble of Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Robert Ridgley (who had a brief cameo in Sydney), Luis Guzmán, Melora Walters, Alfred Molina, Joanna Gleason, Thomas Jane and Ricky Jay. Mark Wahlberg was unexpectedly perfect as charismatic, exceedingly well-hung dim-bulb Eddie Adams (aka Dirk Diggler) and Burt Reynolds returned to the limelight with his performance of Jack Horner, aspiring auteur of porn (and said to be modeled, in his mellow tone anyhow, on Anderson’s father, Ernie).

The film was a surprise hit and was nominated for three Academy Awards, two Golden Globes and a slew of other accolades and recognitions. It became one of the most beloved films of the decade. Anderson had the creative freedom to do whatever he wanted. So he made a second epic of the San Fernando Valley.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    Thank you! PT Anderson is one filmmaker I can count on for a unique and thoughtful experience with each visit to the cinema.

  • Stephen C

    Great article.

  • Unkle Amon

    Nice article. PTA is really something.