Filmmaker Retrospective: The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson

3. Magnolia (1999)


Whereas Altman’s Nashville became a summation of his incomparable works up to that point, clearly revealing a pathway having been paved by the films preceding it, so was Magnolia to the Anderson canon. And the comparison to Altman is especially apt here since so much of the film is an act of homage to his legacy, especially in its structural similarities to Short Cuts.

Altman’s riveting, yet dismaying, masterpiece, a city symphony that took in all of the worst behavioral tendencies of America in the 90’s and distributed it amongst a huge cast of characters, normal folk for whom everyday gender violence and sociopathic behavior comes as naturally as breathing toxic air, was able to take the banal or unpalatable and make it enriching through his multidimensional gaze.

The similarities between Short Cuts and Magnolia – the L.A. sprawl, the commonplace grasped with a Ulysses-esque sense of scope, the multiplicity of characters bound by a focus on happenstance – end at those superficialities. (To be fair, even though Magnolia gets a lot of attention for its own purported interest in pinpointing the whirl of coincidence that surrounds our lives, the characters in the film are not so spontaneously linked, but in fact form an tangentially tightknit assemblage, linked by familial bonds and associations with the television industry, a world where Anderson got his start working as production assistant and where his father made his living as an announcer. It is only Anderson’s sly way of withholding information that makes his characters seem so widespread and disconnected, his literary sense of structure underlining their isolation.)

Magnolia forms a thematic trilogy with the previous two films due to its assimilation of refrains, subject matter, and almost identical cast. It’s also one of the most emotionally exhausting studies of collective pain and human frailty in American cinema. Where Altman often witnesses his characters’ pain from a distance, Anderson is down in the dirt with them, face to face.


When it was first released in 1999, a year unusually crowded with energetic, innovative cinema, it tended to be judged, by those who weren’t in its favor, as a rather hysterical flailing by a gifted artist who had tackled an even larger thematic canvas than his previous film with middling success, due to the film’s many immoderations and coups.

There was a sense of the film being taken for granted, if not outright ignored. Roger Ebert, who added Magnolia to his Great Films list in 2008, and had championed the film from the beginning, wrote that it felt altered in his most recent viewing when compared to his memories of its initial release, a sense of what the film was truly about only now coming to the fore.

It remains Anderson’s most ambitious piece, due not only to the sheer amount of filmmaking pyrotechnics on display, which initially obscured what a trenchant work of human insight it is, but also for the sheer amount of symbolism and subtext engaged within the film’s narrative.

Audiences were exposed to an even more peripatetic camera than before, application of a hand-cranked pathé camera to shoot a particular scene, actors given free rein to crack the boards with go-for-broke performances, more than a few battered monologues, a moment where the main characters join in song, and a famous climactic meteorological event which comes as a total left-field jolt into magical realism.


There is a palpable feeling, especially when seen today (where a film of such startling originality being released by the mainstream feels completely ridiculous) that Anderson was making his most personal statement yet. Perhaps too personal, since the three hours of this truly intense experience can be wearying for some or rubbing similar wounds too raw for others. The richness of its dark take on modern life has led people everywhere to come away with differing yet powerful messages from the film.

It has been stated that the death by cancer of Anderson’s father, as well as the sudden loss of Robert Ridgley, whom Anderson had known since he was a child, led Anderson to the subject matter of Magnolia, where cancer and regrets from the past form unseen yet formidably omnipresent clouds over the narratives.

The approach to narrative and characterization here was more in your face than before while simultaneously embracing the esoteric, concerned with the nasty nature of fate in the face of life’s unfathomable happenings. Modern life was seen here as a place riddled with ominous arcana, the main action balanced between an extremely challenging quiz show pitting adults against children, and a sexual seminar which pits male against female, with Masonic symbols and biblical references scattered ubiquitously.

The world here is reeling with opposition, but tempered by a dizzying sense of free-fall, an impressionistic rendering of what the world can feel like in the midst of sudden illness or death. The songs of Aimee Mann, rife with disappointment yet tempered with a knowing wit, narrate the film like a Greek chorus, the best narrative use of pop music in a film since Leonard Cohen in McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Simon & Garfunkel in The Graduate.


The characters in Magnolia form two families (with the names of Partridge and Gator) and outlying acquaintances, every character with a double. There are two dying men (Jason Robards in his final astounding film role and Philip Baker Hall in his most poignant performance), their estranged children (Tom Cruise, as we’d never seen him before or since as the preening sex guru, and Melora Walters, the raging ball of pain and addiction at the heart of the film), their distraught wives (Melinda Dillon, in a role of quiet dignity, and Julianne Moore, one of her finest moments in a role of near impenetrable anguish), two quiz kids (Jeremy Blackman as the current child star being destroyed by exploitation and William H. Macy as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, a heartbreaking performance of a life wasted by the poisonous rituals of young fame), and two characters who go through great lengths to set things right amongst the suffering (John C. Reilly comically sweet as an underappreciated cop, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jason Robards’ nurse, played with warm subtlety and a far cry from the usual idiosyncratic roles he’d usually been given).

To lay the narrative out so schematically makes it easy to see what kind of themes are being dealt with here and how they keep overlapping in every character, recurring through lives.

This is an angry work, a message in a bottle thrown to the heavens, begging for understanding and retribution. Many people didn’t know what to make of it. Many people defiantly hated it. And many people thought, including Anderson, that it was the best film he’d yet made. There are also many people who were, and still are, significantly inspired, moved and changed by it.

Magnolia ended a certain phase of Anderson’s filmmaking, cutting ties with certain elements fans had come to feel as custom. There were certain recurring actors who fell away from what was looking to become one of the best stock companies ever assembled in American film. And Anderson was about to go through some massive changes in the tenor of his work.
But not before one substantial lark, a slight foray into romantic comedy.


4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Punch-Drunk Love

After what must have been a trying, exhausting shoot on Magnolia, Anderson set out to make something small and one-off (an aspiration that had originally been intended for the juggernaut that Magnolia eventually became!) and created a truly peculiar trifle. Barry Egan, the center of this skewed, hallucinatory romantic comedy, is a mish-mash of many elements: a little Jacques Tati here, some Charlie Chaplin there, a huge dollop of Jerry Lewis, as well as the Adam Sandler American audiences had come to see as a modern embodiment of auteur comedian, deconstructed like Alex in Clockwork Orange, placed into a pressure cooker atmosphere that takes away the safety net of comedy to see how this character, prone to mishap and violent outbursts, reacts.

That character trait, of disturbing violence coming out of seemingly nowhere, would continue with Anderson’s next two films, so one can see the directions into other obsessions revving up in small ways. What stands out the most when seeing this film now, laying as it does between two very important works in his oeuvre, is how much of an experimental sketch pad this film feels like.

Punch Drunk Love

There seems to be a concerted effort to keep things at arm’s length, visually and thematically, with an almost non-stop, percussive score by Jon Brion, surely one of the most bizarre ever featured in a major film. That elusive, riddle-like quality would also become a major component of Anderson’s subsequent films, where chunks of the narrative seem missing, or don’t add up, leading the audience to surmise on their own, to connect their own dots.

Who drops off the harmonium in front of Barry’s workplace at the beginning of the film, and why does Lena seem so interested, on top of being the first and only one to call it what it truly is, and not just a piano? One senses Anderson simply having fun with making a strange film, utilizing as many incongruous elements as he can throw into it.

What other film could entail pudding, a harmonium, Hawaii, novelty plastic plungers, phone sex swindlers in Utah, seven sisters, and Shelley Duvall crooning ‘He Needs Me’ from Altman’s Popeye at a crucial moment? This is one to let wash over you, as do Jeremy Blake’s watercolor-like images that continually bathe the screen in eye popping configurations.


5. There Will Be Blood (2007)

there will be blood opening

The opening images are immediately reminiscent of Kubrick, wide vistas punctuated by a dissonant score (Johnny Greenwood here sounding like Penderecki), the first sight of Daniel Plainview chipping away at the earth like Jack Nicholson battering down doors in The Shining, a wordless prologue that brings us into an illustrative world as in 2001, witnessing the dawn of a modern man, Anderson’s blackest character yet, and exemplary of a very dark miasma of greed and capitalism, Bush’s America encapsulated.

Only very marginally based upon Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, this introduced a new period in Anderson’s filmmaking, embracing austerity and authentic period detail. Whereas Anderson had become known for his colorful ensembles, here we were locked into a relentless character study of a pitiless man, vigorously isolated and although hard-working and successful, unable to function as a human being.

Daniel Plainview (an Oscar winning Daniel Day Lewis) is witnessed as a man with no past, unlike the numerous Anderson characters from before whose pasts were inescapable, and in constant battle with the present, eventually intent on ruining his future. Throughout the course of the film we witness his meteoric business successes and his just-as-numerous failures with nearly every human element he comes across.

Once again, the subtext of family is heavily laid down, as this man cuts ties with anything that could possibly form one for him. He is like Kubrick’s apes in the beginning of the film, and we see an evolutionary loop take place as he becomes truly simian in the violent barbarism of the film’s climax. The sudden and scary bursts of violence, as witnessed in Barry Egan, are also here in Plainview, as he locks horns with a most unworthy adversary, the spineless, pretentiously pious Eli Sunday (a never-better Paul Dano).

there will be blood theme

The overwhelming impression the film made upon its release was a forcefully vitriolic one, raging at the state of a country that had been riven by religious terrorism and now engaging in controversial warfare. The spewing, burbling and raining black oil, so dominant throughout the film as a recurring image, seemed representative of blood spilt on both sides, pumped from the very earth we walk on and fueling the industrialist mindset gone mad.

In one instance its dabbed baptismally upon a baby’s brow, in another it’s raining from the heavens upon the land. The ominous biblical symbolism from Magnolia was utilized more pointedly here, making an impressionistic statement about the dangers inherent when faith and power are so tightly linked without the mediating element of common sense or human emotion.

Since the film puts us squarely in the point of view of Plainview, we can’t help but see Eli Sunday’s evangelical performances as the work of showy charlatanism, especially when compared to the incredibly brutal, hard work we’ve seen Plainview endure in seeking his fortune.

This is a relentlessly bleak and merciless film, and was immediately praised as a new American classic, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith. In the long run, it’s in a more classical vein than anything he’d made before, and less disturbing than the all-pervading issues raised by Magnolia (death, sins of the father, child abuse, lifelong regret), which perhaps helps to explain the wider acceptance of this easy to praise, yet difficult to endure, epic.


6. The Master (2012)


As There Will Be Blood pitted two very diverse types of men against one another, The Master also takes a calculated look at male opposites, not locked in battle but in a struggle of mentorship, friendship and acceptance. As a third entry into what was becoming a preoccupation with masculine temperaments – Barry Egan’s lovelorn heroism, Daniel Plainview’s competitive sociopath – Anderson created another man exemplary of a time and place in Freddie Quell, a psychologically damaged WWII veteran turned out into a world he cannot comprehend, where he doesn’t belong.

Quell, in a physically mesmerizing performance by Joaquin Phoenix, is a thoroughly challenging character to identify with and, as with Plainview, Anderson forces us to share this man’s skewed perspective. Many viewers and reviewers at the time, especially Roger Ebert in an uncharacteristic misinterpretation, fought against Quell being the center of the film, in lieu of the heavily publicized expectations that The Master was going to be a penetrating look into the origins of Scientology.

That element is definitely built into the film’s framework, but takes a surprising backseat to the unblinking view it takes of this broken, forgotten man. Many people wanted to forget him too, it would seem, and went looking for a film that wasn’t there, writing off The Master for not coming up with conclusive things to say about the controversial religion in its background, and therefore organized religions and cults as a whole.


But that is far from the film’s point. And what could one filmmaker conclusively say anyhow? The Master says quite enough in its depiction of Lancaster Dodd, a very obvious reference to L. Ron Hubbard and one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s great (and sadly, last) performances, channeling Orson Welles in its grandiosity, revealing a boozy charlatan underneath a magnetic exterior.

Where Freddie Quell and Daniel Plainview depict two very dysfunctional outsiders, men who have been through intense physical and emotional toil, Lancaster Dodd and Eli Sunday stand as their opposites, men who have taken an easier road of performance and charisma, using easy answers and piety to gain their desires and followers. Frank Mackey in Magnolia would be their predecessor in Anderson’s cinematic world, men who feed off an audience and whose thin veneer of authenticity is all too willing to crack.

In both films, burgeoning and youthful America is seen as a place of deep psychological strife, with high hopes and optimism buoying a misplaced people in need of direction and willing to take it where they can get it. The sheer amount of energy put into the authentic recreation of another time, in both There Will Be Blood and The Master, is astounding, honorable and also misrepresentative, for these are admonitory films about the feckless nature of our current era, about how little we have grown as a people while facing the same archetypal issues.

The Master (2012)

Here, once again, is the two-pronged Anderson concern: surrogate families made up of people in thrall to their pasts, represented here as followers in a movement, The Cause, which practices deep meditation into the past, as a form of psychic time travel, in order to confront it and heal ancient wounds.

As the game show in Magnolia leant the film a motif of question and answer – every character is put through a volley of interrogations in different forms – and as There Will Be Blood’s Eli exacts revenge on Daniel during his baptismal in the Church of the Third Revelation, forced to vocally repent his sins over and over, so does The Cause wear down its followers through questioning and repetition, to break through surfaces and reveal the true pain underneath.

Paul Thomas Anderson also does this with his art and exposes us again and again. The results aren’t always pretty, but the storytelling is always hypnotic, and as an artist clearly taking his own, very personal journey through the medium of film, we should be lucky to be mere disciples to a singular American master.

Author Bio: Michael H. Smith has been writing about film for almost as long as he can remember, and he contributes regularly to his blog After Images – Revisiting Films.