The Master’s Thread: A Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
“We’re all children of Kubrick, aren’t we? Is there anything you can do that he hasn’t done?” - Paul Thomas Anderson, interview with The Independent, 2008
Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger to Kubrickian themes. The filmmaker has always been attracted to larger than life stories, and his two most popular works, the epic 1999 drama Magnolia, and the 2007 Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood, both match the 2001 director’s grandiose style and remarkable skill. Throughout his illustrious yet still relatively short career, PTA – as many of his admirers call him – has constantly renewed his approach to storytelling and characterisation, while remaining faithful to his penchant for the themes of loneliness and family, regularly depicting characters who are on the fringes of society.
Most of Anderson’s films are set in California, where he grew up among his father’s videotapes and semi-famous actor friends. The Golden State is an inherent part of the director’s work, imbued with the sunny yet wistful atmosphere of the San Fernando Valley, particularly well reflected in the wandering souls of Boogie Nights. Anderson’s masterful and lively direction is supported by dynamic camera movements and trademark whip pans, which Robert Elswit, as his preferred cinematographer, sustains through Steadicam and tracking shots. While the director’s style has greatly evolved since the days of his first feature, he continues to be one of the major – and perhaps last – advocates of shooting on film, a testament to his nostalgic and sensory attachment to one of cinema’s last tangible remnants.
Hard Eight, also known as Sydney, is an early example of Anderson’s incredible confidence and grasp of the cinematic medium. A rewriting of his Sundance short Coffee and Cigarettes, the 1996 film opens with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) offering to help John (John C. Reilly), a lost young man scrambling to pay for his mother’s burial. It establishes early on the motif of the absent mother in Anderson’s filmography, as well as that of surrogate families, since Sydney takes John under his wing, providing him with everything he needs to start anew. Gwyneth Paltrow stars as a pitiful cocktail waitress who prostitutes herself to make ends meet, and Samuel L. Jackson, freshly out of Pulp Fiction, features as an unscrupulous antagonistic figure, in this Reno-set neo-noir, shot on location in smoky casinos and sordid hotel rooms. Sydney’s mysterious past threatens to catch up with him as Jackson’s character attempts to blackmail him, and learns the hard way that one should never get in the way of an “old-timer”, as he repeatedly calls the veteran. As Anderson’s least renowned film, Hard Eight qualifies as a hidden gem, more minimalistic than any of his other movies, although it already exhibits his technical abilities and flair for talented actors, interspersed with memorable sequences, from an impressively orchestrated tracking shot, following Sydney around the scintillating casino floor, to a wild Philip Seymour Hoffman cameo, which would surely inspire his exhilarated performance as a lawless mattress-shop owner in Punch-Drunk Love. This first feature, significantly, also marks the beginning of the director’s substantial collaboration with Jon Brion, composer of the tranquil and melancholic opening track “Clementine’s Loop”, a short and emblematic piece which would resurface in Anderson’s subsequent films. “DIGGLER, LIKE THE DIRECTOR’S BEST PROTAGONISTS, WILL STOP AT NOTHING TO GET WHAT HE WANTS, EVEN IF IT MEANS SACRIFICING HIS OWN SANITY.” Boogie Nights, his 1997 follow-up, was developed during the chaotic post-production of Hard Eight. Anderson’s anamorphic debut tells the story of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a dreamy teen who realises his dream of becoming a porn star in the San Fernando Valley of the late ‘70s, taking on the name Dirk Diggler. A recreation of his own 1988 short mockumentary, The Dirk Diggler Story, Anderson’s film takes inspiration from Robert Altman’s compelling ensemble movies such as Nashville and Short Cuts, emblematically American stories pulsating with life and desire. The film’s opening Steadicam sequence is a breathtaking combination of virtuosity and craftsmanship, as the camera flows flawlessly around the dancing cast, recalling Altman’s 8-minute opening in The Player. Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman return for Anderson, who brings in new faces in the likes of Julianne Moore and William H. Macy – although Burt Reynolds steals the scene in his grand comeback as Jack Horner, a director and patriarch at the head of a small pornography empire. Boogie Nights explores once again parent-son relationships, as the protagonist’s continual conflict with his mother is alleviated by Horner and most importantly Moore’s character, who assumes a surrogate-mother role. Their relationship stands out, problematically marked by their systematic “incestuous” intercourse, revealing the era’s sexual frenzy and pre-AIDS carelessness. As Diggler turns away from his friends and sinks into drug-fuelled debauchery, his story eventually becomes one of a crazed downfall, and a cautionary tale on the importance of family. The film’s ending, a two-minute long monologue showing Diggler in front of a mirror, has attained cult status due to its infamous last frame, yet its relevance in Anderson’s filmography goes beyond its visually arresting content: Diggler, like the director’s best protagonists, will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means sacrificing his own sanity.
Magnolia is considered by many, including Anderson himself, as his magnum opus. After Boogie Nights’ success – earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay – the director had the opportunity to make his passion project come to life, in the form of a three-hour-long choral movie, set once again in the San Fernando Valley. The majority of Boogie Nights’ cast returns, with the notable inclusion of Tom Cruise, in the role of a psychotically misogynistic motivational speaker. Anderson’s anamorphic lens is more present than ever, in addition to his spirited direction and quick editing style, all giving rhythm to the overlapping narratives. The 1999 Golden Bear winner features one of recent film history’s most famous sequences: a sudden frog rain, a Biblical reference which ties the nine main characters’ stories together, and consequently helps Magnolia’s troubled souls come to terms with their personal problems. This deus ex machina’s sheer ambition demonstrates Anderson’s fearless filmmaking while pushing the narrative forward, driving the lonely characters to find comfort in each other’s presence, suggesting that fate has a plan for all of us. Most surprisingly, the sequence shows Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), a gifted and precocious child who is forced by his father to star in a game show, watching over the frog rain with a smile, repeating, “This is something that happens”. Stanley appears to know much more than the adults surrounding him, and especially the spectator, further confounded after witnessing a previous scene where every main character is shown singing, on their own, Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”. George Toles expertly analyses this sequence, explaining how Anderson “confronts a crisis of truth telling and attempts to resolve it by replacing speech with music”, an unsurprising feat considering the nineteen music videos, to this date, that he has directed for the likes of Fiona Apple, Radiohead, and Haim. Magnolia would also, however, mark the end of an era for Anderson, who considered his epic mosaic as the culmination of his San Fernando Valley chronicles, a resolution that would take him on new and unexpected artistic grounds. Punch-Drunk Love is probably Anderson’s most idiosyncratic piece. In an effort to challenge himself, the director set out to make a romantic comedy, casting Adam Sandler, in one of his best roles to date, as Barry Egan, a neurotic novelty supplier who falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). The movie sticks to rom-com conventions while also deviating from them, featuring colourful interludes by artist Jeremy Blake, complemented by Jon Brion’s Hawaii-infused music. The anamorphic lens, favouring blue horizontal lens flares, contributes to Punch-Drunk Love’s binary visual scheme: Barry is only seen in his slightly oversized blue pastel suit, while Lena is mostly shown in a distinctively red dress, the two singular colours merging onscreen as the characters meet and interlace. The story is a strange yet simple one, as Barry gets scammed by a phone-sex line headed by foul-mouthed Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while exploiting a loophole in pudding offers in order to accumulate frequent flyer miles. The audience clings onto Barry’s child-like behaviour and naivety, embodying the oblivious and innocent lover, in a world ruled by racketeers and criminals who take advantage of his solitude. Sandler’s character is excluded from society – he is rarely seen in the centre of the frame – and his seven emasculating sisters only perpetuate his suffering, reminding him of embarrassing childhood moments when his nickname was “Gay Boy”. Lena, therefore, acts as a welcome maternal presence, echoed by the recurring song “He Needs Me”, taken from Altman’s Popeye. Anderson’s film was a critical success, earning him the Best Director Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival – but it barely recovered its budget, impeding greatly the development of his next movie, which would only come five years later. “AFTER THE LARGE-SCALE EXPERIMENT THAT WAS PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, THE DIRECTOR MATURED AND DELIVERED, IN 2007, WHAT IS CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE 21ST CENTURY.” There Will Be Blood, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, marked the beginning of a new era for Anderson. After the large-scale experiment that was Punch-Drunk Love, the director matured and delivered, in 2007, what is considered to be one of the best films of the 21st century. Significantly, none of Anderson’s recurring cast appears in this movie, scored by Jonny Greenwood, who would go on to replace Jon Brion as the director’s preferred composer. The Radiohead guitarist’s eerie classical composition mirrors Richard Strauss’ grandiose pieces as they feature in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the introductory sequence of which is celebrated in There Will Be Blood’s mute opening. Indeed, the film’s first fifteen minutes are devoid of speech, apart from Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) groans, as he drags himself through the desert with a broken leg. This opening is a powerful affirmation of cinema’s visual potency, while demonstrating the protagonist’s incredible willpower and unrelenting ambition. Plainview drives the story, as he arrives in California, at the turn of the 20th century, with his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), in order to exploit land for oil. Anderson further delves into parent-child relationships, portraying Plainview as an unaffectionate father who abandons his troubled son, a renunciation which ultimately leads to Plainview’s bombastic downfall: once again, those who turn away from their family are punished. Plainview’s incessant search for underground resources contrasts with his own hidden past, a crucial missing piece in the puzzle that constitutes the self-made oil man, who despises philanthropic spirits such as Eli Sunday, the local pastor. Indeed, Paul Dano’s devout character repeatedly faces Day-Lewis’, determined not to let him exploit the settlement’s land freely. This conflict leads to memorable confrontations between the two, including a famous sequence in which Plainview, down to his knees, is forced to confess that he has abandoned his child in front of a crowd of alienated churchgoers, humiliated by the raving preacher. The opposition between the individualistic entrepreneur and the pious community man is anything but binary, suggesting that Sunday’s religious fervour might be closer to Plainview’s demented capitalistic appetite than expected. There Will Be Blood was both a critical and commercial success, with a particularly resonating political message in the wake of the Iraq War, and it signified the beginning of Anderson’s steadier, more cerebral direction, aided once again by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who went on to win one of the movie’s two Oscars.
The Master perpetuates the filmmaker’s stylistic evolution, focusing once again on the power dynamics in a father-son relationship. Philip Seymour Hoffman returns as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of “The Cause”, a religious movement partly inspired by Scientology, along with Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD. The movie’s premise resembles Hard Eight’s, featuring a powerful and wealthy mentor taking a vulnerable man under his wing. Both characters act as opposing images of one another: Quell has an aggressive temper, suffering from regular fits of uncontrollable fury, whereas Dodd is a much more reliable figure, with an air of Charles Foster Kane, whose self-assurance can nevertheless lead to bursts of exasperation. The Master’s prison scene is a perfect example of that dichotomy, showing Phoenix and Hoffman in adjacent cells, as the former trashes it in an eruption of rage, while the latter stands stoically, waiting to be released. The sequence ends with both insulting each other, but their contrasting behaviour reveals their innate differences, in an opposition as elementary as that of the savage versus the civilised. Whatever their souls are made of, Quell and Dodd’s are the same, only Hoffman’s character knows perfectly well how to mask it. The film’s main female character, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), completes the triangle, acting as a steady and orderly figure balancing out her husband and his protégé’s improprieties. For the first time since Hard Eight, Anderson’s trademark anamorphic lens is absent, as Mihai Malaimare Jr. replaced the unavailable Robert Elswit as cinematographer, privileging 65mm for the majority of the movie, in order to attain a better image resolution – an extremely rare yet judicious choice, which greatly influenced camera movement, due to the device’s sheer size. The 2012 Silver Lion winner would also, tragically, mark the last collaboration between the filmmaker and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Anderson’s 2014 adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is an enigmatic piece. It has perplexed critics and audiences alike, who have found it to be an imperfect yet enjoyable addition to the director’s filmography. The movie follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner and private detective, as he investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), in 1970’s Los Angeles. Inherent Vice notably shows Anderson returning to ensemble casts: the film stars Joanna Newsom, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Martin Short, and Reese Witherspoon amongst others, all contributing to the confused and marijuana-infused Californian atmosphere. The story expands to an incomprehensible extent, as Phoenix’s character teams up with Lieutenant Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a stern, old-school cop from the post-war era, whose temper contrasts with Sportello’s nostalgic ‘60s hippie spirit. Their shared enemy is a mysterious criminal organisation called the “Golden Fang”, mixed up in vague conspiracies, greatly contributing to the film’s paranoid post-Manson killings atmosphere. Inherent Vice’s puzzling narrative proved to be a double-edged sword, since it captured incredibly well Pynchon’s eccentric voice and story – Anderson was nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay – perhaps slightly too well to ensure critical and commercial success. The filmmaker’s looser direction, relying upon handheld camera movements, in addition to Robert Elswit’s grainy 35mm cinematography, perfectly suits the nebulous narrative and setting, which also features many instances of slapstick comedy, usually portraying Sportello in farcical situations, as the adequately dazed victim of Anderson’s tale. The historical recreation is flawlessly crowned by Jonny Greenwood’s ever-present distinctive score, complemented by classic rock pieces such as Can’s “Vitamin C”, playing in the background of the opening, as the green neon title appears on-screen, setting the mood for the hazy adventure. “THE TOXIC MASCULINITY DISPLAYED BY DAY-LEWIS’ CHARACTER […] IS MORE INSIDIOUS AND PERVERSE THAN DANIEL PLAINVIEW’S IMPERIALISTIC MEGALOMANIA, ALTHOUGH BOTH RELY ON TOTAL CONTROL – OR AT LEAST THE ILLUSION OF IT.” Phantom Thread sees Anderson exploring new territory, as he leaves the sunlit Golden State for the frigid interiors of 1950s London, in his latest – and seemingly last – collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis. The British actor takes on the role of Reynolds Woodcock, a monomaniacal dressmaker who falls for a wide-eyed yet resourceful Vicky Krieps, in her breakout performance as Alma, who correspondingly becomes the soul of the designer’s craft. Krieps’ fragile and elegant figure recalls the best of Hitchcock’s duplicitous heroines; Alma slowly seizes power within a relationship and household, both of which thrive on conflict, dominating a Fitzrovian battleground ruled by Reynolds’ sister, Cyril, tersely portrayed by Lesley Manville. The toxic masculinity displayed by Day-Lewis’ character, inspired by fashion icon Cristóbal Balenciaga, is more insidious and perverse than Daniel Plainview’s imperialistic megalomania, although both rely on total control – or at least the illusion of it. The dressmaker’s condition only differs in that Alma beats her lover at his own game, most potently in a monumental closing dinner sequence, admirably punctuated by Jonny Greenwood’s compelling score, which alternates throughout the film between delicately muffled piano pieces and forceful orchestral themes. The absence of a cinematographer in the credits of Phantom Thread only goes to show Anderson’s expertise and his collaborative talent, notably with camera operator Colin Anderson and gaffer Michael Bauman, in the process of creating a fitting period look with a grainy texture, every frame touched by grace and sumptuously adorned by Mark Bridges’ Oscar-winning garments. Phantom Thread’s undeniable success, once more, proves Anderson’s wonderful thematic versatility and, until his next piece, further cements his place as one of the 21st century’s greatest directors. ▲
Raphaël Duhamel studies Film Aesthetics at Oxford University and was born and raised in Paris. * An early version of this article first appeared on www.uclfilmsociety.co.uk under the title: “From ‘Hard Eight’ to ‘Phantom Thread’: A Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective.”