In the larger film community, director Paul Thomas Anderson is widely considered to be one of the greatest living directors in America. While his output is relatively small compared to his peers, each of his films is of such an impeccably high caliber that his impact on the medium is undeniable. Affectionately called PTA by his fans, Anderson is held up by his contemporaries as a shining example of a true artist creating truly important work—high praise for a man who has yet to even win an Oscar for himself.
Filmmakers of my generation look to Anderson like the Film Brat generation looked to Stanley Kubrick—a god walking among us, an elder young enough to accessible, an ideal to which we aspire. It should come as a surprise to no one that Anderson is a profound influence on my own work. I had first heard rumblings of his greatness towards the end of high school, when all the artsy drama kids could talk about was 1999’s MAGNOLIA during its cult resurgence on DVD a few years after its release.
When I entered Emerson College as a second-semester freshman, my roommates sat me down to watch 1998’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, his second feature and his mainstream breakout. I was instantly hooked. Anderson was the first filmmaker where I could actually see how his work was constructed and subsequently desired to emulate it. He was a role model and a guiding light in the crucial moment of my life when my paradigm of what film could be was radically blown open.
To later find out that Anderson too attended Emerson (albeit only for a year) was a moment of untold delight for me—validation that I was on the right path towards a rewarding, fulfilling career in filmmaking.
Born in 1970 in Studio City, California, Anderson is firmly a member of Generation X, whose filmmakers were raised on an endless diet of movies on videocassette. The first to cut their teeth using cheap video and not expensive film, they could afford to make mistakes– and they made plenty of them.
Like his peers Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, he broke out as a professional director in the heady days of 90’s independent film, catapulted into the limelight by a formidable debut at the Sundance Film Festival. But unlike Tarantino and Soderbergh, Anderson came from a family already well-steeped in the entertainment industry.
His father, Ernie Anderson, had been a late night horror TV show host under the name of Ghoulardi—a name that Anderson would later appropriate for his own production company.
At the age of eight, Anderson made his first home movie, and at twelve he began regularly making them with his father’s Betamax video camera. His father encouraged his pursuits, unconsciously enabling them by providing the junior Anderson with a never-ending source of creative character fodder- Ernie’s own eccentric showbiz friends. From this ragtag collection of aging hooligans, PTA drew inspiration and began to forge a distinctive voice for himself.
By age seventeen, Anderson felt ready to tackle his first “serious” project. He recruited the talents of his father and his friends, and raised the money he needed to shoot by taking on a job as a birdcage cleaner. He wanted to make a film about John Holmes, the legendary pornographer with a legendarily large package. He was fascinated by the subculture of pornography, at least as it existed in the late 70’s when it was still relatively underground and unregulated.
Stylistically, he was influenced by Rob Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) and its comedic documentary conceit. All of these elements converged to form THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY (1988), a mockumentary about the eponymous, John Holmes-inspired porn star with a large endowment rivaled only by an even larger ego. Clocking in at 30 minutes (noticeably long for a first work), the short plays like an early blueprint for his breakout feature BOOGIE NIGHTS by featuring prototypes of characters and the same basic plot progression found in the full feature.
Anderson’s friend Michael Stein plays the role of Dirk Diggler, establishing the character as a combative, egotistical force of nature long before Mark Wahlberg got his hands on the part. Bob Ridgely, a friend of Ernie Anderson’s, plays the role of director Jack Horner (later inimitably played by Burt Reynolds in his career comeback).
Ridgley wrings a lot of emotion out of his role, despite hiding his eyes behind giant black sunshades. Other core characters from BOOGIE NIGHTS make their prototypical appearance here, like John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild in the form of an impossibly buff Eddie Delcore and Rusty Schwimmer’s Candy Kane, an early version of Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves.
HARD EIGHT (1996)
Screening his short film CIGARETTES & COFFEE at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival was a transformative event in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. Not only was he invited to workshop his film in the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Directors Lab, but he was also approached by producer Robert Jones, who offered his assistance in expanding the film into a feature.
Naturally, Anderson went to work, developing his short into a larger story that concerned itself with an aging gambler who will do anything to hide his dark past from a pair of close friends he’s come to love as if they were his children. Anderson lovingly gave his story the name SYDNEY, like he was naming a child. His experience in making the film, however, was anything but blissful.
He was hamstrung by Jones’ constant meddling and sizable ego, and further compromised by an inept distributor (Rysher Entertainment) that strong-armed his film away from him only to dump it into theaters with little fanfare. That film exists now as HARD EIGHT (1996)—beloved with immense fervor by Anderson’ cult of followers but completely overlooked by the mainstream film community. Last released as a bare-bones DVD in the early 2000’s, HARD EIGHT is in desperate need of a latent rediscovery and a restoration of Anderson’s original vision.
In a diner in the middle of the Nevada desert, an old man named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) offers a forlorn-looking young man named John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette and a cup of coffee. They get to talking, and John reveals that he’s just lost all his money in Vegas after going there in hopes of winning enough money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Sydney takes pity on this poor soul, offering to take him to Reno and teach him a little trick that will net him some money at the casinos.
Two years later, John and Sydney are nearly inseparable—that is, until a streetwise cocktail waitress and sometimes-hooker named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) enters their life. Initially, the three form something of a family unit, with Sydney acting as the father figure. However, Clementine risks everything when she makes a bloodied hostage out of a cheap john who won’t pay up. Fearing the legal repercussions of Clementine’s actions, Sydney urges her and John to flee the city and lay low for a while.
At the same time, he’s approached by John’s friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a smooth operator who knows a secret about Sydney’s dark past– a secret that would destroy Sydney’s little family unit forever.
Veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall finally steps into the limelight as Sydney, a paternal and patient soul. He’s a helper of people, seemingly trying to atone for some great wrong he’s done in his life. Hall brings a great deal of class and respectability to the film, expanding upon his role in CIGARETTES & COFFEE with an involved performance that might just be his best. Known primarily for his Judd Apatow comedy gigs, John C. Reilly turns in a rare dramatic performance as the anxious, yet loyal John.
Reilly plays the character like a dog who doesn’t know any better, constantly screwing up and depending on Sydney to bail him out. John is a lost young man, deeply in tune with his emotions but unable to properly express them.
Gwyneth Paltrow is convincing as the cynical, disillusioned cocktail waitress/hooker Clementine. Considering her real-life personality, the role of Clementine is an extremely edgy one for her. She courageously lets her makeup smear and doesn’t shy away from the inherent ugliness of the character’s personality. As Jimmy, Samuel L. Jackson is dangerously slick and unpredictable.
The 90’s were Jackson’s heyday, seeing him turn in unforgettable performances for directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. His trademark pitch-black charm is present all through HARD EIGHT, providing yet another variation on that Jackson persona we all know and love.
Over the years, actors like Hall and Reilly have become a core part of Anderson’s repertory of performers. A few cameos contained in HARD EIGHT illustrates the foundations of this repertory, like the appearance of Oscar-winning actor and regular Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a cocky craps player, and THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY’s Robert Ridgley turning up briefly as a schmoozing keno manager.
Anderson’s repertory isn’t just limited to the talent, it extends to the skilled craftsmen he employs to help bring his stories to life. As his first feature, HARD EIGHT naturally sees the first instance of collaboration with several of them. Robert Elswit serves as the cinematographer, shooting on Super 35mm film and helping to establish Anderson’s formalistic aesthetic.
The film is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it wasn’t shot in anamorphic, despite Anderson’s desire to do so (budget constraints). The visual presentation applies the same approach used in CIGARETTES & COFFEE—a classical, economical style of photography that’s short on fuss and long on power.
The gaudy Reno setting and a low-key lighting scheme lends HARD EIGHT a loungy, neo-noir vibe. This is also reflected in Anderson’s constantly moving camera, which is always precise and never frenetic. He utilizes graceful dolly moves, using handheld cameras only sparingly to convey immediacy. More notably, Anderson incorporates several Steadicam tracking shots that create a slick energy and sense of space.
While he would later use the Steadicam to more striking effect in his later films, Anderson keeps its usage in HARD EIGHT relatively simple, following Sydney as he walks through the casino floor, or as he approaches the fateful motel room that will shake up his adopted family unit forever. Overall, Anderson chooses to cover a lot of his close-ups in profile, which subtly conveys a feeling of precision and thoroughness in his compositions.
HARD EIGHT also marks the first time that Anderson works with the musician Jon Brion in a score capacity. Brion collaborates with Michael Penn to create a jazzy, cool-cat sound that accurately reflects both Reno and Sydney’s aged sophistication. The film also contains the first instance of a particular tonal bell cue—dark and relentlessly foreboding.
It works so well that Anderson opts to use it again in his later works, unconsciously creating a musical bridge between his first few films. A couple Christmas songs litter the soundtrack in order to give us a sense of the film’s wintery setting (because we’re in the desert, we wouldn’t know it’s December otherwise). Furthermore, an Aimee Mann song shows up in the end titles, which is notable because Mann would later become a very important collaborator for Anderson in his 1999 feature MAGNOLIA.
Of all the themes that Anderson continually explores throughout his career, the theme of the family unit is the most apparent in HARD EIGHT. The characters have all adopted each other in some fashion, as they all seek the comfort of companionship in a cold world. Sydney and John share a father/son relationship, while John takes the very literal step of inducting Clementine into his family by marrying her.
Sydney’s unconditional love and uncompromising generosity towards his young charges is revealed to come from a terrible secret that threatens to undo their union, thus the theme gives the film its stakes and driving force. The tone is very similar to CIGARETTES & COFFEE, with the first scene of HARD EIGHT lifted nearly directly from the short. Nonetheless, Anderson does a fantastic job expanding the scope and changing the focus of his story while creating a consistent tone.
While the process of production was relatively painless, Anderson’s experience in post-production was a hard lesson in the corporate obstinance of the studio system. He was faced with a difficult distributor in Rysher Entertainment, who wanted him to change the film’s name from SYDNEY to HARD EIGHT out of a fear that people would mistake the film for being about the city in Australia.
Anderson begrudgingly acquiesced to their demands, but they weren’t about to stop there. Producer Robert Jones became a constant source of headache, refusing to give his consent for Anderson’s request to place the credits at the end of the film instead of the beginning (despite the rest of the cast and crew being fine with it). When Jones and the studio balked at Anderson’s 150-minute director’s cut, the young auteur refused to make any cuts and was subsequently fired. Rysher took the film away and re-cut it.
Anderson’s original vision was validated when HARD EIGHT was accepted into Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program—on the condition that his director’s cut was the version to be screened. After the festival, Anderson’s cut was never seen again, and the finished film languished on the shelf for two years after Rysher suddenly (and unsurprisingly) went belly-up. Given how much of a mess Anderson’s experience in post-production on HARD EIGHT was, it’s something of a miracle that his debut turned out as assured and confident as it did.
A dismissive attitude towards the film hasn’t stopped the home video market from reclaiming HARD EIGHT as a lost treasure. Most cinephiles agree that it’s an underrated gem of a film, a work on par with any of Anderson’s best. While it exists today as an outdated transfer on a bargain bin DVD, HARD EIGHT marks the humble starting point of one of our greatest contemporary auteurs.
Until somebody (come on, Criterion) comes along and releases the director’s cut, we’ll just have to content ourselves with a watered-down, abridged version that provides fleeting glimpses into a brilliant young filmmaker finding his footing.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)
For most filmmakers, every one has that singular film that serves as a flashpoint in their own individual development; a film that lets them see the whole medium of cinema through new eyes, informing and shaping everything that comes after it. My flashpoint arrived in the winter of 2005—I had just moved to Boston to attend Emerson College, and my film watching experience was limited to whatever was new in theatres or at Blockbuster.
One night, my new roommates sat me down to watch a film by a director I had never of heard of before—Paul Thomas Anderson. The film? Anderson’s second feature:BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). I was transfixed; riveted by the subtle layers and subtext unfolding before me in such rich, dynamic and new ways. BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of my favorite films of all time—a film that I return to time after time for inspiration and guidance.
Despite having previously made the well-received HARD EIGHT in 1996, BOOGIE NIGHTS became Anderson’s breakout force and announced him to the film community as a bold, new force to be reckoned with. The success of HARD EIGHT had enabled access to the executives at New Line Cinema, who wanted to help him make his follow-up.
With these powerful forces at his side, Anderson turned to his 1988 short, THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY, for inspiration in creating the backbone of a new story. He fleshed this little nugget out into a sprawling meditation on the San Fernando Valley’s pornography industry over two decades of success and upheaval.
BOOGIE NIGHTS begins amidst the glittering disco lights of 1977, before the specter of AIDS took away the notion of free love without consequences and spurred heavy government regulation on the porn industry. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a young high school dropout from Torrance who buses into his nightly job as a bar-back for a disco club out in Reseda.
Eddie is a quiet, unassuming boy, save for his hidden talent: an abnormally large penis, which he uses to generate extra income by masturbating in front of strangers for money. One night, he meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a director of exotic adult films who invites Eddie into his world with a friendly smile and a firm handshake. Eddie eagerly takes Horner up on his offer, quickly ingratiating himself into the larger-than-life world of pornography and finding a close-knit family in the group of collaborators that Horner has assembled around himself.
Eddie takes the stage name Dirk Diggler, and with his inherent natural talent and sexual prowess, soon takes the entire operation into the stratosphere. Diggler and company ride high through the remainder of the 70’s, but a murder/suicide committed in Jack’s house on New Year’s Eve 1979 welcomes the 80’s with a foreboding, bloody omen.
The dawn of a new decade also heralds the arrival of a new technology that promises to upend the industry as they know it: videotape. As video becomes more commonplace, Jack Horner and company find their artistic integrity compromised, and their personal lives significantly altered for the worse. As Dirk strays increasingly further from Jack’s clan, he risks destroying himself upon the very altar of his own success.
Despite dealing with such lurid subject matter, Anderson finds a peculiar kind of dignity and grace within his characters. He shows us that pornographers are people too—just as capable of real love as we are. Before BOOGIE NIGHTS, Wahlberg was “Marky Mark”, a young rapper with a few unimpressive film credits to his name, but the role of Dirk Diggler established him as a genuine acting force that persists to this day.
Reynolds is inspired casting as the patriarch of his little porno family/empire. Like John Travolta in Quentin Tarantino’sPULP FICTION (1994), Reynolds’ against-type performance resulted in a newfound cultural relevancy after a long spell of waning popularity, eventually culminating in an Oscar nomination for his performance. Ironically, Reynolds hated the role and didn’t get along with Anderson during filming. He even went so far as to fire his agent for recommending the role to him.
Julianne Moore counters the two-fisted machismo of Wahlberg and Reynolds as Amber Waves, Horner’s wife and a mother figure to Dirk. She’s heartbroken over her real son being taken away from her by child services, so she turns to Dirk for a surrogate relationship—one that becomes incestuously sexual. Moore turns in one of her most beautiful performances here as a conflicted, inherently sad woman with deep reservoirs of unconditional love, walking away with an Oscar nomination for her efforts.
BOOGIE NIGHTS also serves as an establishment of Anderson’s close-knit repertory of performers—actors who have come to regularly appear in his films throughout his career. These include Luis Guzman (as a nightclub owner and pornstar-wannabe), John C Reilly (as Dirk’s doggishly loyal friend and co-performer), William H Macy (as the disgruntled, cuckolded assistant director), Ricky Jay (as the droll cinematographer), and Philip Baker Hall (as Floyd Gondolli, a smug rival of Jack Horner’s who personifies the encroaching malevolence of videotape).
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On the female side, there’s Melora Walters as a sweet and naïve porn actress, and Heather Graham as the plucky, somewhat-ditzy Rollergirl. Further rounding out the cast is Don Cheadle as urban cowboy Buck Swope, Thomas Jane as cocky bad boy Todd Parker, and Bob Ridgley, who starred as Jack Horner in THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY and makes his last film appearance before his death here as The Colonel, an eccentric dandy who finances Jack’s films.
And last but not least, there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s closest acting collaborator who tragically passed away last week. He left behind an enduring legacy of masterful performances, one of which is found in BOOGIE NIGHTS’ Scotty J, a sexually confused and awkward boom operator who carries a one-sided torch for Dirk.
BOOGIE NIGHTS is the work of a young, ambitious filmmaker with bottomless reserves of zeal and talent. The tone is a distinctive blend of the multiple-perspective affectations of Robert Altman and the volatile, kinetic energy of Martin Scorsese. HARD EIGHT’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, returns to shoot the film in the true anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (achieved this time via actual anamorphic lenses and not a workaround like Anderson and Elswit had done previously).
Bob Ziembecki’s authentic period production design never reads as over-the-top and kitschy, instead popping from the frame in appropriate blasts of psychedelic color. The brilliant performances and Anderson’s bold narrative are aided by a constantly-moving camera that glides through the various scenes like an unstoppable rollercoaster. Even from an early age, Anderson has utilized the camera more confidently and audaciously than any of his peers, effortlessly mixing Steadicam, dolly, and handheld shots into a coherent whole.
Anderson’s use of the Steadicam in particular is worth noting, choosing to cover many of the scenes in long, traveling shots. The most notable of this is BOOGIE NIGHTS’ opening shot, which is, bar none, one of the best openings in recent film history. We start on a neon marquee flashing the film’s title, and then crane down to reveal a lively street scene that establishes both the setting and the time period.
Then, without skipping a beat, the camera operator steps off his platform on the crane and then enters Guzman’s nightclub as Anderson introduces us to all the major players of the story in one unbroken take, a la Altman’s iconic opening to THE PLAYER (1992). Of course, all this virtuoso camerawork wouldn’t be nearly as effective without editor Dylan Tichenor to stitch it all together. The film runs nearly three hours long, but if feels half that length thanks to Tichenor’s breathless pacing and exuberant sense of energy.
A major commercial selling point of BOOGIE NIGHTS was the music—specifically, the glut of 1970’s and 80’s pop hits that likely moved more copies of the soundtrack CD than the actual film itself. Anderson’s ear for music is spot-on, using several well-known cues in interesting ways that fill out the reality and authenticity of the period. The indulgence of the era is reflected in the glitzy needledrops, oftentimes creating an association between song and picture that becomes forever joined in the mind.
One instance of this is a scene where Alfred Molina’s drug dealer character sings along to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” during a particularly foreboding business exchange. It’s an unbearably tense sequence and a master-class in direction even without the music, but its inclusion transforms the scene into a truly transcendent moment.
For the score, Anderson recruits HARD EIGHT’s Michael Penn, who bases his musical palette around an inspired conceit—a carnival. The film opens against black with a somber dirge that sounds like a sad clown flailing around under the big top, a theme that reprises itself later on as a motif signifying Jack Horner’s little family unit.
The strange, carnivalesque nature of Penn’s score reflects Anderson’s bizarre, yet touching display of humanity while highlighting the hidden similarities between two decidedly different performance-based occupations.
Several of Anderson’s thematic preoccupations are present here, coalescing into an identifiable set of tropes. As a member of the first generation to come up under the rise of video, Anderson’s incorporation of the medium is more involved than any other filmmaker of his ilk.
In BOOGIE NIGHTS, the arrival of video is a major plot point, throwing the industry into a state of massive flux and becoming the fulcrum of conflict between Reynolds and Hall’s characters. Videotape highlights the characters as ideological opposites, fighting a war that pits economics vs. artistry—a conflict that can be argued to encapsulate the film industry as a whole.
To the characters of BOOGIE NIGHTS, video is a harbinger of doom and betrayal. Its arrival coincides with the fall of Dirk Diggler and Jack Horner, the fallout on their professional and personal lives being akin to a devastating meteor, or a nuclear bomb. BOOGIE NIGHTS shows remarkable prescience in its insights into video’s role in the video arts. We’re still having the film vs. video argument today, although now the two mediums are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
Because Anderson’s films very rarely have life or death stakes, the driving force and the emotional drama stems from the theme of family—specifically the threat of abandonment or loss. BOOGIE NIGHTS places this dynamic at the core of its story, presenting Horner’s filmmaking crew as a legitimate family, sharing in each other’s big life moments and cheering them on at weddings and awards shows.
Anderson also shows us how Dirk Diggler’s abandonment of his adopted family of pornographers leads to ruin. At the end of the day, he saves himself by crawling back in shame to Horner’s patriarch figure. In ending his story in this fashion, Anderson has created a prodigal son fable for the twentieth century. It’s a parable that illustrates the conceit that tragedy will ultimately befall those who choose to permanently turn away from family.
Anderson’s films often set their stories in his home state of California, and BOOGIE NIGHTS—perhaps more so than his other works—could not have taken place anywhere else but the Golden State. The San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, has served as the epicenter of the porn industry since its inception. Just like porn plays the redheaded, swept-under-the-rug stepchild to the Hollywood film industry, so too does the Valley sit offset from Los Angeles, stigmatized and dismissed because of its sleepy, suburban airs.
Like it or not, the porn industry is very much a part of southern California’s cultural heritage, so who better to paint its portrait than Anderson, the great cinematic recorder of California himself.
BOOGIE NIGHTS is also perhaps the most frank look at another of Anderson’s key recurring themes, that of sex dependence. HARD EIGHT and BOOGIE NIGHTS both flirt with sex as a paid profession: the former’s emotional tensions that stem from the troubles of Gwyneth Paltrow’s weary hooker Clementine contrasts with the latter’s celebration of sex on camera as an act of liberation and expression.
This also highlights a strange double standard when it comes to paid sex—the presence of the camera, for whatever reason, is the final arbiter between what is legal and what is not. The characters ofBOOGIE NIGHTS come to depend on their sexuality, as if it were a drug. Towards the end of the film, Dirk Diggler is back to where he started, reduced to jerking himself off in front of strangers for a couple bucks.
For others, like Cheadles’ Buck Swope, their past as porn stars hangs like a noose around their necks, impeding their progress in real world pursuits like starting a family or taking out a business loan.
BOOGIE NIGHTS caused quite a stir when it released, with high praise for prestigious film festivals like Toronto and New York leading to three Oscar nominations (one of which was a Screenplay nod for Anderson himself). The film was a breakout hit, its success arguably fueled by a bout of 70’s nostalgia that was pervading pop culture at the time. Thankfully, BOOGIE NIGHTS’ legacy has outshined the trends of it day, enduring to become one of the best films of its decade and ensuring Anderson’s future as a major new talent on the scene.
MUSIC VIDEOS & SHORTS WORKS (1997-1999)
During the period between the release of his breakout feature BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and his sprawling follow-upMAGNOLIA (1999), director Paul Thomas Anderson branched out into other forms of cinematic expression. He did what many filmmakers do between features to pay the bills: shoot commercials and music videos.
However, unlike other directors, it can be argued that he wasn’t exactly doing for-hire work. Almost all of his short-form work from these years can be tracked to some kind of investment in his feature work or his personal life.
MICHAEL PENN: “TRY”
For instance, his first music video was made for BOOGIE NIGHTS composer Michael Penn to promote his single “TRY”. The video was shot almost entirely in secret, with Anderson, Penn, and co-producer JoAnne Sellar stealing away during BOOGIE NIGHTS postproduction for a couple hours. They shot in what is allegedly the longest hallway in America, located in downtown Los Angeles. The video follows Penn in one long Steadicam take as he sings to camera and marches through various vignettes.
The piece is indicative of Anderson’s mastery of the camera and sense of movement, as well as his confidence with a Steadicam rig. Complex moves are pulled off with a dance-like grace that makes the entire piece look effortless. Anderson is known to be somewhat of a mischievous director, and “TRY” follows suit with a cameo by his close friend and collaborator, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as a slobby sound recordist.
FIONA APPLE: “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”
The success of BOOGIE NIGHTS led Anderson into an echelon of celebrity that was previously unknown to him. He started dating singer/songwriter Fiona Apple, a relationship that birthed a small run of enchanting music videos. The first of these was for Apple’s cover of the Beatles’ “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”, a track commissioned for director Gary Ross’ film PLEASANTVILLE (1998).
Anderson adopted PLEASANTVILLE’s black and white midcentury aesthetic for his video, albeit with a twist. Conceived as a series of long takes, Apple sings to camera while hooligans in letterman jackets trash a diner in slow-motion around her.
“ACROSS THE UNIVERSE” is a deceptively simple piece, with expertly-executed camera movements that give no trace of the complicated rigging and blocking required to achieve such shots. For instance, in the opening shot we track in directly on Apple, but we don’t see the camera in the mirror behind her (when common logic dictates we should).
The piece is filled with little “how’d they do that” flourishes like this, and like Michael Penn’s “TRY” before it, includes a cameo from one of Anderson’s repertory performers in the form of John C. Reilly as a suit stealing music from the jukebox.
For 1998’s RET Inevitable 1 Festival in New York, Anderson was commissioned to make a seventeen minute short titled FLAGPOLE SPECIAL. The short apparently works as an indirect groundlaying for the Frank TJ Mackey character played by Tom Cruise in Anderson’s MAGNOLIA.
Based on a random conversation Anderson found on an old audiotape, FLAGPOLE SPECIAL was shot on digital video and features John C Reilly and Chris Penn riffing on their frustration with women and coming up with plans on how they would “Seduce and Destroy” them. As of this writing, it is publicly unavailable for viewing.
FIONA APPLE: “FAST AS YOU CAN”
In 1999, Anderson made his second music video for Fiona Apple, for her song “FAST AS YOU CAN”. It’s a much simpler piece, with Fiona performing straight to camera, locked into very precise compositions. While the video is straightforward and uncomplicated, Anderson does add various visual obstructions to the frame, like smudges and smears on the lens in a bid to make things a little more interesting.
FIONA APPLE: “LIMP”
Anderson’s third video for Apple covered her song, “LIMP”, and takes place in a dark mansion as a lovesick Apple roams the house, unable to sleep. The piece is full of the graceful, fluid camerawork that Anderson is known for, but he counters the elegance by chopping it up into a series of staccato, rapid-fire edits as the song’s intensity builds.
During my senior year of high school, I spent a grand majority of my time in the halls of the campus’ performing arts center. The eclectic mix of creativity and awkward hormonal clashes was endlessly fascinating to me, no doubt because it reflected what was churning inside of me. Within the rigid and confining social structures of high school, it was the one place I could go where I could truly be myself.
Towards the end of my time there, the more literary-minded and illuminated types began talking earnestly about their love for this 1999 film called MAGNOLIA—I film I had never heard of. I even acted in a one-act play whose author made no attempt to hide how much it had been influenced by the film.
I never got around to seeing the film myself until my first semester at Emerson College, where I was introduced to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work by way of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). When I finally sat down to watch MAGNOLIA, it became immediately apparent to me that I was watching a masterwork from a highly confident director who was wielding his camera with a degree of energy and power unlike anything I had ever seen before.
The runaway success of BOOGIE NIGHTS resulted in New Line Cinema gifting Anderson the opportunity to do anything he wanted as his next project. Knowing he’d never again be in this enviable position, Anderson decided to go for broke and make a passion project that he described as the All-Time Great San Fernando Valley film. In plotting out his story, Anderson tapped into great reservoirs of creativity and inspiration.
What started off as a small, off-beat character piece soon blossomed into an all-encompassing statement on loneliness, regret, and chance in a small patch of suburb just north of bustling Los Angeles. MAGNOLIA sees Anderson step ever more firmly into Robert Altman territory by weaving together several disparate threads and slowly pulling them taut to reveal a tightly-woven tapestry of life, love and loss.
Simply put, it is the magnum opus of the first phase of Anderson’s career, capping off a long fascination with sprawling ensemble-based stories.
The central conceit of MAGNOLIA is that the film’s story unfolds along a stretch of the titular street, located in the San Fernando Valley—purportedly all within a span of a few square miles. The idea is to communicate the range of humanity that can occur in such a small amount of space, and how we’re more connected than we think. At the center of the film is an awkward romance between Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), a nervous wreck of a woman who’s been hollowed out by excessive drug use and several emotional trauma.
After playing her music so loudly that the neighbors call the cops, she’s visited by John C Reilly’s Officer Jim Kurring—a gentle giant who finds in Claudia a beacon of hope and a potential cure for his romantic ailments. Claudia’s father, venerated game show host Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), also tries to reach her, struggling to find some redemption from the sins of his past as he loses a fight with cancer.
A short distance away, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child genius and famous contestant on Gator’s game show, is struggling to hold on to his job at a local furniture outlet so he can pay for braces he doesn’t need, all to impress a male bartender that’s caught his eye.
As all of this is going down, an old man named Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) lies on his deathbed, attended to by his nurse Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) storms about town trying to make her own wrongs right in the wake of the realization that only now has she come to actually love her husband.
And last but not least, there’s Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s estranged son and a chauvinistic pick-up guru/artist hawking an allegedly “foolproof” seduction technique, bound for an emotional reckoning of his own.
As MAGNOLIA unfolds, all these story threads draw closer together; the major events rippling like waves through the narrative. Destiny has intertwined their fates. MAGNOLIA explores ideas about chance and coincidence, comparing them against a larger, pre-determined arc of the universe. In a move that’s both inspired and utterly baffling, Anderson uses a counterintuitive image to state his case: a random, inexplicable downpour of frogs, materializing as if from nowhere and hurtling towards the earth with biblical fury.
The film goes to great pains to suggest that these seemingly random events might just be the opposite, and that our fates may indeed by pre-ordained and unforeseeable as a sudden hailstorm of amphibians.
While an expanded budget allows for higher-profile actors, Anderson culled his cast mostly from his pool of BOOGIE NIGHTS alumni. Reilly, Walters, Hall, Macy, Hoffman and Moore all deliver some of their best work, thanks to an unwavering dedication to Anderson’s vision and an eagerness to play against type.
MAGNOLIA is perhaps the most definitive example of Anderson’s company of actors, featuring supporting performances from Luis Guzman as an irritable and impatient contestant on Jimmy Gator’s game show, Ricky Jay as the show’s producer and the omniscient narrator during the film’s prologue and epilogue sequences, Alfred Molina as Macy’s Persian furniture store boss, and even Thomas Jane as a young Jimmy Gator.
Of the new talent, Robards gives a heartbreaking performance in his final film role as a man besieged by regret at the end of his life, and Cruise was nominated for an Oscar in what is generally considered a career-best performance as the scene-stealing chauvinist who uses bravado and machismo to bury his crippling daddy issues. MAGNOLIA is the kind of film that lives or dies off of its performances, and thankfully the collective efforts of Anderson’s brilliantly-chosen cast helps the piece soar to exhilarating heights.
MAGNOLIA is not as visually stylized as Anderson’s previous work, but he still manages to achieve a larger-than-life feel thanks to returning cinematographer Robert Elswit’s virtuoso camerawork. The film’s aesthetic is textbook Anderson: a 2.35:1 anamorphic frame given vigor and color by a mix of confidently executed dolly, crane, Steadicam, and handheld compositions.
Like BOOGIE NIGHTS before it, MAGNOLIA uses long tracking shots to convey space and time, pulling its characters along their cosmic journeys. Elswit and Anderson find the opportunity to experiment with different film stocks and cameras in MAGNOLIA’s bookending “chance or fate” sequences—a highlight being Anderson’s use of an authentic, hand-cranked Pathe camera to simulate the look of old silent pictures.
With MAGNOLIA, Anderson’s regular editor Dylan Tichenor has his work cut out for him in keeping track of all these disparate story threads. If Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory established how editing could be used to tie two separate events into continuous time and space together, then Tichenor’s work on MAGNOLIA serves as the arguable evolution—interweaving the sweeping emotions of human experience into a cosmic tapestry.
Anderson and Tichenor’s edit plays like the film equivalent of a symphony, with harmonies and choruses organized into distinct movements. The movements themselves are distinguished via an inspired intertitle conceit that, instead of conveying the passage of time, notates changes in weather and humidity. It’s an interesting idea that we’ll certainly never the likes of again, further evidencing Anderson’s unique worldview.
MAGNOLIA is the first of Anderson’s features to not feature the work of composer Michael Penn, but he does retain musical continuity in Jon Brion and Penn’s wife, Aimee Mann. Brion’s score in particular is worth singling out, as he has created a brooding suite of orchestral cues that are at once both foreboding and elegiac, giving the necessary weight to the burden that Anderson’s characters must carry.
The score ducks and weaves through the piece, oftentimes playing against or running under diagetic source tracks from Mann and Supertramp. The effect is disharmonious, but in a good way, further solidifying the film’s mosaic conceits. Mann is a huge vocal identity within the soundtrack, providing several key songs such as the showstopping “Wise Up”. The song is incorporated in a strikingly original way, playing over a sequence in which the characters sing along to it, staged within their various individual vignettes.
The result is nothing less than one of the most unexpected and memorable moments in recent film history.
The medium of video plays a huge role in shaping Anderson’s worldview, like it does for several of filmmakers in his generation. However, his treatment of the format undergoes something of an evolution throughout his filmography. In BOOGIE NIGHTS, video was a disruptive, transgressive advancement that held malevolent implications for its characters.
By the present-day narrative of MAGNOLIA, video had become commonplace and commodified. Its power harnessed by people like Frank TJ Mackey as a sales tool— a slick, well-lit means to nefarious ends.
Mackey’s “Seduce And Destroy” operation is indicative of another of Anderson’s thematic fascinations, that of sex dependence. Mackey employs a tactical, scorched earth approach to seduction, viewing women purely as targets to be eliminated with the ballistics rocket below his belt. As his character arc plays out, it becomes quite clear that this militaristic, highly-disciplined and aggressive approach to sex is a crutch he leans on, a shovel to bury deep-seated rage about his past and his family.
Indeed, several of MAGNOLIA’s characters’ dramatic troubles stem from sex in some manner—Reilly and Walters’ fumbling romance, Robards’ abandonment of the love of his life for a fleeting affair, or Hall’s continuing infidelity and the implied sexual abuse of his daughter. MAGNOLIA’s thematic exploration of sex dependence overlaps with his exploration of family dynamics, digging deep into his characters’ insecurities and faults to find an inherent desire for the comfort of home and family.
Like any wildly ambitious film, people didn’t quite know what to make of MAGNOLIA when it was released. The film didn’t do well at the box office, but critics hailed it as a profound expansion of Anderson’s directorial skill. People were just as quick to deem it a masterpiece as they were to deride it as an overindulgent failure. Regardless, MAGNOLIA went on to considerable awards seasons success, winning the prestigious Golden Bear award at that year’s Berlinale as well as an Academy Award nod for Anderson’s screenplay.
Now that over ten years has passed, MAGNOLIA’s legacy as one of the 90’s best films is assured. It is an undeniable technical triumph, and a product of a confident virtuoso aesthetic that, for all its complications and flourishes, never loses sight of the big picture.
MUSIC VIDEOS & TV WORK (1999-2000)
With the release of 1999’s MAGNOLIA, director Paul Thomas Anderson had arguably reached the peak of what he could do with his particular stylistic conceits. As he developed ideas for his next feature project, Anderson dove right back into the world of music videos and short-form work as a way to keep his directorial skills active and engaged.
AIMEE MAN: “SAVE ME” (1999)
Like the music video for Michael Penn’s “TRY” following BOOGIE NIGHTS in 1997, Anderson created a tie-in music video for one of MAGNOLIA’s musical muse, Aimee Mann. The track, “SAVE ME”, appears during the closing scene of MAGNOLIA, and was written specifically for the film. To reflect his, Anderson and Mann settled on an idea that would recreate key moments from MAGNOLIA in motionless tableau form, while integrating Mann singing towards camera in the background.
Anderson’s fingerprints are all over this video, with a camera that continuously dollies forward on Mann with a creeping confidence. He also throws in a little visual variety by way of moving the furniture and set dressing around in elegant, almost impossible ways that reveal the hidden artifice of each vignette. “SAVE ME” is a simple, yet moving little music video—and arguably Anderson’s most popular.
FIONA APPLE: PAPER BAG (2000)
The turn of the millenium found Anderson and then-girlfriend Fiona Apple collaborating on a music video once again, this time for her song “PAPER BAG”. The video finds Apple performing at a bar inside of an expansive lobby, surrounded by little boys dressed as grown men. Anderson shoots wide to feature the location’s beautiful architecture, as well as to showcase elaborate old-school musical choreography.
The piece is again an instance of Anderson’s elegant camerawork, incorporating the same whip-pan technique that he made a motif of in MAGNOLIA.
SNL: “FANATIC” (2000)
By the year 2000, Anderson’s work began to shift away from the sprawling, dynamic style that had made his name and towards experimental explorations into comedy and other genres. The first of such projects was done almost as a lark– less of a serious, cerebral project and more of a fun diversion for him and his friends at Saturday Night Live. The piece is a spoof on MTV’s show “FANATIC”, where a mega-fan gets the chance to meet his/her object of worship.
Anderson recruits SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon as “Fanatic’s” overly-aggro host, who tracks down Anna Nicole Smith’s biggest fan (played brilliantly by Ben Affleck in a role that lets him eschew his romantic leading man persona and ham it up with a false set of horrible teeth and giant braces). While Anderson’s “Fanatic” is undoubtedly a fun little side-project, in an oblique way it still fits naturally amidst his larger body of work.
The handheld video format and the reality TV conceit echoes THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY’s presentation and comedic tone, while Affleck’s quest to make Anna Nicole Smith his mother echoes Anderson’s thematic explorations of family and the search for home.
THE JON BRION SHOW (2000)
During this time, Anderson’s regular composer Jon Brion was trying to launch a new music-oriented variety show, appropriately titled THE JON BRION SHOW. Brion was unsuccessful in finding a home for the show at VH1, so Anderson stepped in to finance and direct a new pilot. While three episodes were produced in total, only the one featuring the late Elliot Smith has been made publicly available.
THE JON BRION SHOW follows a pretty standard, generic variety show format, utilizing multiple video cameras to cover Brion as he guides us through the evening’s playlist. The piece is a very rough, yet fascinating look into Anderson’s interests outside of just filmmaking, as well as a nostalgic little time capsule of a very particular sound that flourished during the turn of the millennium.
While Anderson’s output during these years is relatively small, he was able to capitalize on the popularity afforded to him byMAGNOLIA’s modest success with a string of experimental works that allowed him to broaden his scope and expand his aesthetic.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)
By 2002, director Paul Thomas Anderson had gained a reputation for long, sprawling features with multiple points of view. He had arguably reached his personal apex with this style in 1999’s MAGNOLIA, and began feeling a desire to subvert his critics and move away from the types of films that had made his name. During interviews, Anderson began to vocally express his wish to make a short romantic comedy with Adam Sandler—a wish that was laughed off by most critics who knew of his mischievous nature.
So imagine their surprise when he actually follows through on his promise with 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, an off-the-rails romantic comedy inspired by the real-life story of a California man who exploited a loophole in a Healthy Choice/frequent-flyer promotion for personal gain.
On paper, a rabidly quirky Adam Sandler vehicle directed by an arthouse auteur would read as a surefire failure, but Anderson’s fourth feature finds him feeding off the energy of a particularly experimental phase, making for the shortest, most idiosyncratic (but also the most charming) film of his career.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE follows Sandler’s Barry Egan, a neurotic entrepreneur of novelty hotel plungers and a man prone to volatile emotional outbursts and crippling anxiety. Despite being surrounded by seven overbearing and suffocating sisters, Barry is a profoundly lonely man who takes a simple pleasure in running a modestly successful business.
One night, a misplaced yearning for human connection leads Barry to dial up a phone sex line, inadvertently exposing himself to a ruthless extortion scheme that thrives off the guilt of so-called “perverts” like himself. As he battles with fraud, he’s introduced to the calm yin to his powderkeg yang: a pretty Englishwoman named Lena (Emily Watson). She’s socially awkward like he is, and their off-kilter chemistry brings out an adventurous side to each other that they never knew they had.
On top of all this, Barry has also stumbled upon a loophole in a frequent-flyer promotion run by Healthy Choice that nets him an insane amount of airline miles at the cost of several pudding packs. Emboldened by his newfound love towards Lena and flailing rage at his fraudulent tormentors, Barry sets about collecting as many pudding packs as he can to rack up miles and take control of his life.
Sandler, one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood, is rightfully vilified for his dumb, juvenile slapstick comedies. To the complete surprise of the stuffy film elite, Sandler’s performance in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE turned out to be one of 2002’s best—his conveyance of a dark, complicated soul is routinely hailed as his finest hour.
Watson’s casting is equally inspired, her gentle eccentricities becoming the perfect foil to Sandler’s tenuous grasp on his temper. The reliable stock company of actors that Anderson had cultivated in his previous three features is largely absent from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, save for the late, brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cocky sex-line extortionist and Luis Guzman as Barry’s loyal, if somewhat dimwitted, business partner.
Much like the title suggests, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a strange brew of discordant influences and tones, taking conventional rom-com tropes and filtering them through Anderson’s unique worldview. Cinematographer Robert Elswit returns to lend some visual consistency to an otherwise-radically different project for the director.
The pair continues their use of the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as dynamic Steadicam camerawork and bold, deliberate compositions. Anderson also builds upon his core aesthetic with several expressionistic visual abstractions, like unmotivated lens flares, harsh highlights, silhouettes, and animated watercolor-painting interludes courtesy of video artist Jeremy Blake.
Production Designer William Arnold also returns, creating a bright, yet drab, every-world for the characters to inhabit. Arnold utilizes a red, white, and blue color palette to convey Anderson’s curious vision. A film’s color palette should be an active participant in telling the story, and Arnold’s work accomplishes it with a minimum of fuss.
The white, colorless walls of Barry’s apartment and warehouse suggest a bland, directionless existence, so when Barry shows up in a bright blue/indigo suit, the act is indicative of Barry opening himself up to the potential of excitement and change. Watson’s Lena appears primarily in a bright red dress, nicely complementing Barry’s own wardrobe with the color of passion—a passion that will fully consume Barry and give him the necessary courage to overcome his obstacles.
Anderson’s musical choices also mark a direct shift away from his past work while still maintaining a degree of continuity. He retains the services of composer Jon Brion, who utilizes the distinctive sound of the harmonium to create a discordant electronic sound that bubbles furiously and echoes Barry’s severe internal stress. Indeed, watching PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE can be a very stressful watching experience, mainly due to Brion’s jittery, unrelenting score.
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Instead of the wall-to-wall jukebox approach that Anderson employed in his previous films, Anderson employs a much more disciplined approach to his needledrops. He limits them to just one: Harry Nillson’s “He Needs Me”, a rather strange little ballad that captures Anderson’s darkly whimsical tone and becomes the de facto theme song to the piece. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is the end of an era for Anderson, with the film being his last collaboration with Brion (as of this writing).
In Anderson’s subsequent hiatus from filmmaking during mid-2000’s, Brion became one of the unfortunate casualties of the director’s artistic reinvention. I don’t imagine that this could be attributed to bad blood between the two, but rather an amicable parting of ways as the result of Anderson’s evolution of style requiring a sound far different than what Brion could deliver.
Despite creating such a radical stylistic experiment for himself, Anderson can’t help but incorporate his major thematic fascinations into PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s story. The film is fundamentally a love story, and love stories are fundamentally about the search for a mate—- with the creation of a family being the larger implication. Barry’s search for a mate, personified in Lena, is a way for him to escape his own family of seven emasculating sisters and become the head of a new one.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s love story also serves as a convenient conduit for Anderson to explore ideas toward sexuality by way of Barry’s varied responses to his newfound feelings. He confuses sex for love, initially trying to alleviate his loneliness in the companionship of a phone-sex line girl. Their conversation is hollow and transactional despite being laced with aggressively sexual dirty talk.
Contrast that withBarry’s wooing of Lena, a dynamic that is almost child-like in its innocence while simultaneously providing a profound, intimate connection and a foundation for love to flourish. Anderson’s love of California iconography and culture is also present, albeit in a subdued form that accurately conveys the colorless palette of the San Fernando Valley’s suburban/industrial outskirts.
A distinct step away from the kind of films people loved him for, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE was a bold gamble for Anderson—a gamble that ultimately paid off when critics hailed Sandler’s performance as one of the best of the year and awarding Anderson himself with the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. While not his best-known film, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE has attained a cult following that’s kept it within cinema’s collective consciousness.
It may be minor in terms of impact and scale, but PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a major shift towards a new phase of Anderson’s career and in-depth character studies that continue to this day.
ANDERSON’S SHORT WORKS (2002-2006)
After the release of 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, director Paul Thomas Anderson embarked on a little hiatus from feature filmmaking that would last for five years. While he decided on what he wanted to develop as his next project, he took on several small-scale projects to keep his skills sharp and his creativity active.
BLOSSOMS & BLOOD (2002)
Several of Anderson’s works from this period are conceptually supplemental to PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and his collaboration with Adam Sandler. When tasked to find a purpose for his feature’s deleted material, Anderson decided to forego the conventional route of including them as DVD bonus content.
Instead, he whipped several of his leftover elements into a self-contained mood piece called BLOSSOMS & BLOOD. The piece is an artfully-blended mash of deleted scenes, video artist Jeremy Blake’s animated paintings, and the music video for composer Jon Brion’s single “Here We Go”. BLOSSOMS & BLOOD utilizes flares of color and light, as well as a disorienting, experimental sound mix to reflect the abstractly-whimsical tone of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.
Freed from the demands of feature-length storytelling, Anderson is able to crank this particular aesthetic into overdrive, giving us a glimpse into Barry Egan’s inner madness and rapture.
MATTRESS MAN (2002)
The production of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE spurred another set of works for Anderson, and while they are tangentially influenced by the feature, they aren’t as directly intertwined with it as BLOSSOMS & BLOOD is. In 2002, the internet was just beginning to take off as a forum for short-form video exhibition.
Anderson, perhaps consciously or not, took advantage of this nascent technology by releasing a trio of very small sketches based around a singular, slap-sticky joke.
The first, MATTRESS MAN, sees the late Philip Seymour Hoffman reprise his sleazeball character from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE filming a commercial for his mattress retail business. The piece is filmed in analog video to emulate the homegrown, lo-fi nature of regional retailer commercials.
Aside from being hilariously entertaining in the span of a single minute,MATTRESS MAN is valuable within Anderson’s body of work in that it continues his exploration of video as a medium. Whereas MAGNOLIA’s (1999) Frank TJ Mackey character employed slick, well-lit video to sell his “Seduce & Destroy” technique, MATTRESS MAN shows us how in a different set of hands, video can come off as inept and clumsy.
The second piece from this period is BALLCHEWER, which also appears to have been shot during the production ofPUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. It features Anderson regular Luis Guzman and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s Emily Watson interacting with a pitbull. Curiously, this piece looks to have been shot on film in Anderson’s signature anamorphic aspect ratio, leading one to believe it might have been shot on a lark at the end of one of the feature’s shooting days.
The punchline toBALLCHEWER is oblique and a little muddy, making it the weakest of the trio.
The third and final film of the trio, COUCH, continues Anderson’s collaboration with Adam Sandler, who plays a man trying out new furniture at his own peril. The piece is shot in black and white, and told mostly in silence except for exaggerated sound effects.
None of Sandler’s restraint or nuance from PUNCH-DRUNK-LOVE is present here. Instead, Anderson lets Sandler go full-on clown mode, creating a dynamic that feels distinctly out of place with Anderson’s aesthetic. Together, these three sketches form a triptych exploring the fine line between lowbrow slapstick and highbrow art—a conceptual investigation whose promise Anderson ultimately mined better in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.
DEMO JAIL (2006)
Anderson was largely absent from the scene during 2003-2005. His first child (with comedienne Maya Rudolph) was born in 2005, and the same year he served as the standby director on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, directed by his hero Robert Altman (who was ailing in health and was obligated to hire someone to replace him in the event of his death for insurance purposes).
Needless to say, big things were happening in his life that necessitated a short break from his career. By 2006, Anderson’s productivity began picking back up, beginning with a short sketch he directed for (the short-lived) THE SHOWBIZ SHOW WITH DAVID SPADE called DEMO JAIL.
The piece riffs on an old joke within the entertainment industry—that of the wanna-be who forces his awful demo on an established and successful friend. David Spade naturally plays the successful friend, who is trapped inside his intern’s car and forced to listen to the same terrible song again and again.
Shot on video, the sketch itself isn’t particularly good, with nothing in its execution to suggest Anderson’s hand. All in all, it’s rather forgettable, but it does serve as a warning shot for Anderson’s career comeback the following year with his staggering epic, THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)
The year 2007 was a very special year in cinema for me. On a personal level, it marked the tenth anniversary of my own first short films, an occasion I celebrated with a limited engagement of a feature I co-directed at a local Portland arthouse theatre.
On a wider scale, 2007 saw the release of three of my favorite films of all time (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, ZODIAC, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), by three of my favorite directors (The Coen Brothers, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson respectively). Now that we’re some years removed, these three films are generally considered to be among the very best films of that decade.
Watching these films was a religious experience for me; I could only imagine that this was what it must’ve felt like to take in the first screenings of films from the French New Wave of the 60’s or the American crime dramas of the 70’s.
It was the height of a very special time in cinema, where visionary auteurs found homes for their passion projects in specialty studio shingles like Focus Features or Fox Searchlight. The aforementioned three films represented the apex of this movement, and were the culmination of an unsustainable model that would cause the whole house of cards to come toppling down only a year later (an implosion I would unwittingly experience firsthand during my internship at Warner Independent Pictures).
Out of these three pictures, THERE WILL BE BLOOD cut through to affect me on the most fundamental level. My initial impression of the film was that it was a staggering achievement—I walked away convinced I had seen the modern equivalent of CITIZEN KANE (1941), and that a new contender for “best film of all time” had just been christened.
Time has softened my hyperbole, but my conviction remains—THERE WILL BE BLOOD will stand the test of time as one of the greatest films ever made. THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s conception was something of an unexpected lark. After the release of 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, director Paul Thomas Anderson was out of the public eye for five years, undergoing lots of personal and artistic growth, building his family, and finding inspiration from unlikely places as fan anticipation for his next project grew to a fever pitch.
While experiencing a bout of homesickness during a trip to London, Anderson purchased a copy of Upton Sinclar’s novel “Oil!”, mainly because he liked the image of California oil fields on its cover. Transfixed by the novel’s cinematic potential, he began pulling further inspiration from the biography of real-life California oil tycoon Edward Doheny and John Huston’s classic 1948 film THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (which he watched nightly).
He gave his project the lurid title THERE WILL BE BLOOD, constructing it as his own version of the great American epic—a grand statement on capitalism and the perversion of all-consuming ambition, embodied by one of the most original and compelling antiheroes in cinematic history.
In turn of the century Bakersfield, California, ruthless oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in a career-defining, Oscar-winning performance) is very rapidly accumulating wealth from his growing oil enterprise. Along with his adopted son HW Plainview and business partner Fletcher (Ciaran Hinds), Plainview negotiates the purchase of the Sunday Family homestead, located in the barren deserts of a village called Little Boston.
Unbeknownst to the Sundays, the land has an ocean of oil underneath it, just waiting to be drilled by Plainview and his cohorts. His supremely profitable enterprise brings unprecedented growth and prosperity to the inhabitants of Little Boston, turning it into an overnight boomtown.
However, success has its dark side, which Plainview learns as he grapples with Sunday’s son, Eli (Paul Dano)—an aspiring evangelical preacher who extorts Plainview into building a church for him and his flock. The two viciously lock horns in a battle that pits capitalism against theocracy for the soul of Little Boston.
Anderson has painted in THERE WILL BE BLOOD a dark portrait of greed, corruption and power that forces us to confront the ugliest aspects of our American ideals. Day-Lewis’s portrayal of blackhearted Daniel Plainview possesses shades of Bill The Butcher from Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), only more intelligent and sophisticated in both temperament and taste.
He simply looms larger than life, and in the process becomes a legendary screen villains on par with Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula or Heath Ledger’s Joker. As Plainview’s ideological foil Eli Sunday, Dano could have very easily been overshadowed by his co-star’s scene-shredding gravitas.
Fortunately, Dano more than holds his own with an amazing performance as a vain, manipulative so-called Man of God whose intentions are just as slimy as the “devil” he endeavors to destroy. THERE WILL BE BLOOD focuses mainly on the duel between these two unconventional titans, thus eliminating the need for Anderson to recruit any of the members of his personal acting company. Working with a suite of fresh new faces, Anderson’s focus is invigorated.
Despite the changing of the guard in front of the camera, Anderson still relies on most of his usual technical collaborators: producers Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar, editor Dylan Tichenor, and cinematographer Robert Elswit who won the second of the film’s two Oscars for his stunning work.
Anderson’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio is perfectly suited to capture the dusty, earth-toned vistas and sweeping, confident camera moves. While Anderson’s visual language doesn’t change physically, the dynamic of its intentions has.
Elaborate camera moves project a grand scale that evokes the work of John Ford and John Huston and lends the picture an overall air of myth. The grandeur is almost overwhelming, and would risk coming off as supremely pretentious in the hands of a less-capable director. Thankfully, Anderson’s confidence and mastery of his craft assures the tone attains the right balance of gravitas.
Anderson scores a new collaborator in production designer Jack Fisk, who had already become a legend in his field for his work on Terrence Malick’s films. With THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Fisk does what he does best: bringing an authentic, lived-in period vibe designed to place us firmly in the time and place of the story. Fisk’s attention to detail is truly incredible—everything falls within Anderson and Elswit’s established color palette, and nothing rings as false or out of place.
Anderson’s reinvention of his visual aesthetic extends to the music, where he finds an inspired, creative refreshment in his collaboration with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. The music in Anderson’s films have always erred on the side of quirky, but in THERE WILL BE BLOOD the musical character shifts from Jon Brion’s curiously endearing compositions to something more classical and avant-garde.
Greenwood uses harrowing, discordant strings to pervert the conventional orchestral sound into a droning echo of Anderson’s portrait of brutal capitalism. Anderson supplements Greenwood’s compositions with classical source cues like Arvo Parte’s Fratres suite or Brahm’s Violin Concerto in D Major, creating a distinctly Kubrick-ian vibe.
At the center of the film is a tense dynamic between Plainview and his adopted son HW, a precocious and intelligent little boy whose increasing rebelliousness earns him a one-way ticket to an expensive boarding school far away. The elder Plainview is too consumed by his drilling operation to properly raise his son, and in the process inadvertently turns his little business partner into a competitor.
Anderson’s career-long exploration of family dynamics takes a left turn in order to reflect Plainview’s empty soul. Plainview uses HW to project the appearance of an affable family man, even as he takes over people’s land and robs them of their potential fortunes.
In eschewing a conventional plotline or story-arc, the emotional climax ofTHERE WILL BE BLOOD hinges on this tension between Plainview and HW, which comes to a head when HW is a grown man and expresses a desire to move to Mexico with his wife and start an oil company of his own.
Plainview sees this as an act of betrayal and rejects HW as his heir while revealing his true lineage. It’s a pitiful power play that affords Plainview a temporary, petty victory, but it’s clear to the audience that he’s damned himself to a short-lived future of loneliness and regret.
In Anderson’s eyes, tragedy ultimately befalls those who choose to permanently turn away from family. Plainview’s ultimate tragedy is that for all the material wealth he could accumulate, he would always be emotionally and ideologically bankrupt and didn’t have the wherewithal to recognize it.
Anderson’s other thematic fascinations are present in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, albeit in surprising ways. His stories and characters are inherently Californian in nature, meaning that they always reflect some aspect of the Golden State’s rich cultural heritage.
The oil boom that fueled the rise of cities like Los Angeles is depicted here during its infancy (however, the film was shot, ironically, far away from California in Malta, Texas). The fields of steadily-rocking oil derricks profoundly shaped California’s geography and culture, and one need only to look at the expansive oil fields of LA’S Baldwin Hills to see that oil continues to drive California’s economy to this day.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s true genius is in its understated relevancy to our modern age, and how our actions can reverberate over the course of a century. Despite all of our technological advances and progress as a society, we’re still down there in the muck, bludgeoning our way to prosperity.
Anderson’s filmography is greatly interested in sexuality and the human dependency on it. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is notable in this regard for its curious omission of all sexuality. Plainview is driven purely by greed, and hasn’t the slightest care of what other people think of him, much less the opposite sex.
Even the process of obtaining a son comes to him by way of something resembling more of a business transaction than the result of a sexual act. The absence of Plainview’s sexuality in itself is a profound comment on the intricate relationship between ambition and sexual longing, and how non-sexual pursuits like wealth and power can still be fetishized and obsessed over.
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Anderson’s classical, formalist style had been used to subversive effect in his previous work, but his full embrace of it inTHERE WILL BE BLOOD points to his maturing into a very different kind of filmmaker, one whose work is infused with an almost Orwellian sense of self-aware importance (oftentimes mistaken for pretension).
The palpable influence of Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, and Martin Scorsese in previous films gives way here to the unimpeachable greats—John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, John Ford. As a whole, THERE WILL BE BLOOD feels very Kubrickian, its opening prologue running for a full twenty minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken (a surefire nod to the Dawn of Man sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)).
This choice doesn’t come from a desire to deliberately emulate Kubrick, however—instead it comes from a place of supreme confidence in Anderson’s skills as a visual storyteller. In seeing Plainview doggedly persist against a series of debilitating mishaps to get his first oil well up and running, we learn more about the ruthlessness and intelligence of the character far more than a dialogue scene could ever tell us.
Of course, Anderson’s knack for memorable and striking dialogue continues to be put to incredible use here. While there’s less of it, Anderson manages to concoct some of the most-quoted lines in recent film memory. The film would’ve been legendary enough even without the inclusion of Plainview’s “I Drink Your Milkshake” monologue, but its inclusion brings Anderson’s full vision over the top and into the territory of unimpeachable greatness.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD was hailed as a masterpiece when it was released, with critics praising its metaphors for a modern-day thirst for oil, an unquenchable commodity that is widely believed to have driven us into a needless war with Iraq under President Bush.
It is arguably Anderson’s most successful film, with a wide swath of nominations at that year’s Academy Awards (and two wins, but none for Anderson himself). Anderson dedicated the film to the memory of his hero Robert Altman, and in doing so, he closed the book on the first part of his career—a career that Altman had directly influenced—and began an exciting new one, marked by laser-focused character studies and a sense of grandeur unmatched by any other filmmaker working today.
THE MASTER (2012)
It’s symptomatic of a high-concept, tentpole-driven system of studio filmmaking that even one of our most treasured directors must struggle to find funding, despite an unbroken string of critically acclaimed works to his name.
After the collapse of specialty studio shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures who had churned out dozens of dramatically rich prestige pictures (albeit admittedly calculated to snag Oscars) during the mid-aughts, directors like Paul Thomas Anderson suddenly found themselves shut out from a Hollywood game that increasingly favored mindless popcorn fare.
For Anderson in particular, his long-percolating idea about a religious cult inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology was deemed too risky of subject matter for its asking budget. Anderson and his regular producers, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar, struggled to find funding for nearly five years, a fact made all the more excruciating because his previous film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), had generated some of the best reviews and press of Anderson’s career.
For a long while, Anderson’s highly-anticipated project, known by various names asTHE UNTITLED PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON PROJECT and THE MASTER, looked like it would never see the light of day. Enter: Megan Ellison, a hotshot twenty-something heiress with a love for visionary auteurs and their work, as well as the considerable financial resources to help make them.
In an industry increasingly paralyzed by risk and creative bankruptcy, bold figures like Ellison represent a beacon of hope that art and commerce don’t necessarily have to be separate from one another. Drawing further inspiration from LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946), John Huston’s World War 2 documentary about soldiers and PTSD, Anderson centers THE MASTER’s focus on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)—an eccentric, unstable man whose condition was amplified by the shell shock he contracted during the Pacific Theatre of WW2.
reddie can’t hold a steady job, is obsessed with sex, and is slowly drinking himself to death with a potent brew of whiskey, paint thinner, and torpedo fuel. In a drunken stupor, he wanders onto the yacht of a fatherly middle-aged man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is revealed to be an enigmatic and charismatic scholar as well as the figurehead of a new religious following known simply as The Cause.
Freddie and Lancaster share a curious attraction to each other, with Lancaster tickled by the sense that he and Freddie have met once before—perhaps in a past life. Freddie uses Lancaster’s hospitality to ingratiate himself into The Cause’s good graces and inner circle, eventually earning himself a spot as a Lieutenant and Lancaster’s right-hand man.
THE MASTER defies narrative convention in that there’s no traditional story arc for audiences to follow. Instead, Anderson lets the story unfold in a compellingly obtuse way that highlights the leads’ off-kilter orbit around each other.
The result is a strange hybrid combining the starkness and gravitas of THERE WILL BE BLOOD with the eccentric abstraction of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002). There’s no condemnation of Scientology to be found here, like many had simply assumed or believed before seeing it—instead, Anderson’s vision is a portrait of a deeply disturbed individual finding his place within a community.
It just so happens that the “community” also happens to be a cult. The character of Freddie Quell is played with rapturous abandon by Phoenix in his first major role since his staged breakdown-as-performance-art seen in Casey Affleck’s I’M STILL HERE (2010).
He crafts a haunting, Oscar-nominated depiction of a man ravaged by war and self-abuse, commanding our undivided attention in every frame while fully immersing himself in his character (much like Daniel Day-Lewis had done in THERE WILL BE BLOOD).
Likewise, the late Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar in his last collaboration with Anderson before his untimely death in early 2014. Due to his long, rich working history with Anderson, Hoffman had the benefit of the role being written expressly for him, making for an effortless performance that projects a paternal warmth and convincing gravitas.
As one of the last roles of his career and life, Hoffman’s quiet, authoritative presence and un-showy confidence proves why he was considered to be one of the best, if not the best, actor of his generation. And last, but not least, Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, presenting a warm, matronly front as Lancaster’s wife—but behind closed doors, she’s more calculating and manipulative than Lady MacBeth.
In a film devoted to the two titan performances from its male leads, Adams more than holds her own, ending up with Oscar nomination herself for the trouble. Anderson’s regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, was unavailable to shoot THE MASTER, so the auteur enlisted the help of Mihai Malaimaire Jr—currently making a name for himself as Francis Ford Coppola’s go-to cameraman.
The visual style of Anderson’s sixth feature is starkly different from what came before, the chief difference being Anderson’s choice to shoot the picture on 65mm film, making it the first feature to utilize the format since 1996.
This decision informed every subsequent choice down the line, meaning Anderson couldn’t shoot in his preferred anamorphic aspect ratio, and that the 65mm film camera’s sheer bulk limited his ability to execute his signature, dynamic movements.
Anderson reconciled this diluting of style with an opportunity to explore the idea of portraiture. He had always incorporated some aspect of it into his framing in past works, such as the precise profile compositions that dotted HARD EIGHT (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS(1997), but in shooting on 65mm film, Anderson was able to better replicate the look of large-format portraiture photography.
A higher image resolution meant shallower focus and finer grain, and when combined with the deep, stormy blues and greys afforded old-fashioned chemical color-timing, creates a rich picture that draws the viewer into this curious world.
As I mentioned before, the size of the 65mm film camera meant Anderson’s compositions were mostly limited to locked-off tripod shots, which makes for a significantly more sedate experience than any of his previous works. What little camera movement there is takes the form of slow and steady dolly moves, giving THE MASTER a patient, calculated pace that echoes the work of Stanley Kubrick.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s production designer Jack Fisk returns for THE MASTER, faithfully and subtly replicating the look of midcentury California. Every non-organic thing within the bounds of Anderson’s frame—the costumes, the color palette, Lancaster’s trusty yacht—is Fisk’s domain, and his unwavering commitment to authenticity and Anderson’s vision helps to create an engrossing experience that never feels false or out of place.
Anderson supplements Fisk’s authentic midcentury feel by incorporating a few well-chosen needledrop songs from the era, like Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”. Compared to the wall-to-wall disco explosion of 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, the relatively sparse placement of source tracks shows the discipline and restraint of a mature filmmaker secure and confident in his vision.
Increasingly relying on original score to communicate his intended tone, Anderson again works with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who crafted THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s stunning symphony of dissonance. With THE MASTER, Greenwood crafts a lumbering, staccato score that promises mystery and discovery, while echoing the hypnotic techniques that practitioners of The Cause use on their followers.
Throughout the course of his filmography, Anderson’s exploration of family dynamics, sexual dependence, and the cultural heritage of California have evolved in surprising ways. California is notorious for its laidback, inclusive social structures— structures that allowed the rise of Scientology and other fringe religions.
Just as Scientology is distinctly tied to the Golden State in its origins and operations, so too does THE MASTER’s fictional organization claim California (specifically San Francisco and the state’s northern region) as its physical and mental territory.
Despite the film’s storyline taking us to different places like New York City, Phoenix, and Lynn, Massachusetts (the hometown of Anderson’s father, Ernie), Anderson’s treatment of these locales never loses sight of a distinctly Californian approach, utilizing primal iconography like the beach, palm trees, and the desert wherever it can.
Anderson’s continued fascination of family dynamics uses THE MASTER to explore the idea of family in a larger sense: a community, and the sense of belonging to one. As a lost soul without any family we are made aware of, Freddie comes off like a complete mess of a human being.
He travels the world like an aimless drifter, with no real driving force pulling him along besides the pursuit of fleeting comforts like rotgut booze and fast women. It’s not until he’s caught under the spell of Lancaster’s charismatic charlatan that he finds a semblance of peace and companionship.
He’s able to calm his voracious sexual appetite and channel it into what he perceives to be meaningful pursuits in service to something greater than him. Without the presence of a conventional plot arc, the film’s stakes and key emotional conflict stem from Freddie’s presence within the community becoming a liability and a danger to Lancaster and Peggy, an idea made all the more complicated by the chummy father/son relationship that Lancaster shares with Freddie.
In this way, THE MASTER plays like something of a companion piece to THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Both films hinge on the relationship between father and son, with the father being a powerful man of influence and means, while the initially-loyal son bears the threat of the father’s professional demise. The similarities become most evident in each film’s climax, which both take place in the father’s grand, cathedral-like office. THERE WILL BE BLOOD finds the scene bathed in darkness, as Daniel Plainview venomously rejects his son and condemns himself to a life of wretched loneliness. Conversely, Lancaster Dodd’s office is awash in blinding daylight and, while he also releases Freddie of his bond, he does so in a warm, reassuring manner that’s meant to bring peace to Freddie’s inner chaos.
As a continuation of Anderson’s weighty examinations of profoundly flawed men, THE MASTER was received with great enthusiasm by critics. However, the positive reaction was not as universal as it was for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
The two films are stylistically similar, conceived of and executed in a similar mindset and directly influenced by the work of John Huston. Anderson’s works have never exactly lit the box office on fire, and THE MASTER is no exception. However, its winning of the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, as well as the Academy Award nominations for its three leads, ensures THE MASTER’s place as one Anderson’s defining works.
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FIONA APPLE “HOT KNIFE” MUSIC VIDEO (2013)
For his first music video in a decade, Anderson teamed up once again with his old flame Fiona Apple, crafting a video for“HOT KNIFE”, the closing single off of Apple’s new album, The Idler Wheel. It’s unclear at first glance what the shooting format is, since it appears to be large format like 65mm, but notice that it also incorporates Anderson’s preferred anamorphic aspect ratio. I’d suggest that the piece might be digital, but I ultimately suspect that it isn’t because Anderson has yet to use the format in any of his other works. This seemingly simple, deceptively complex look extends to the video itself, featuring a conventional performance that reveals a layered complexity as the song builds. The visual trickery that marked Anderson’s previous Apple videos returns in somewhat subdued form, showcasing Anderson’s discipline and restraint as his craft has matured.
Anderson shoots Apple against a black background, lighting her in the style of portraiture in an aesthetic conceit carried over from his 2012 feature THE MASTER. The color palette is even similar, featuring cream highlights complemented by neutral, desaturated tones.
He mirrors the track’s layered vocals with a triptych of panels, surrounding Apple on both sides with backup vocalists featured in profile. The result is a subtle tapestry that visually echoes the construction of the song itself.
As of this writing, “HOT KNIFE” is Anderson’s most recent of his released work. Later this year he will release his seventh feature, INHERENT VICE, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel. It will be Anderson’s first adaptation of someone else’s story, and will re-team him with THE MASTER’s Joaquin Phoenix while transporting him back to the 1970’s-era Los Angeles previously seen in BOOGIE NIGHTS.
Without knowing too many particulars of the story, it’s not hard to image thatINHERENT VICE will find Anderson continuing his in-depth character studies of compellingly flawed men.
Anderson’s sixteen-year rise from maverick indie upstart to elder statesman of American prestige cinema has eclipsed his peers, and rightfully so. The assertion that Anderson is one of our greatest living directors is one that’s widely agreed upon by the international cinematic community, and while one might think this would all go to his head, Anderson has shown a remarkable degree of modesty, humbleness, and mischievousness that endears him where other pretentious visionaries might fall short.
By merging old school aesthetic sensibilities with new school storytelling techniques, Anderson has directly inspired a generation of up-and-coming filmmakers while securing his own place among the pantheon of great directors.
ANDERSON’S INHERENT VICE (2014)
Over the course of seven features, director Paul Thomas Anderson has built up a reputation for himself as arguably the finest filmmaker of his generation. It’s symptomatic of Hollywood’s current priorities, then, that even a director as lauded and widely-esteemed as Anderson has a difficult time getting a film made.
After finishing his 2007 masterpiece THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Anderson struggled for several years to get his follow-up, THE MASTER (2012), off the ground. This time away from production allowed him to develop several projects simultaneously, one of which was the first novel from cult crime novelist Thomas Pynchon to ever be adapted to the screen.
Titled “Inherent Vice”, the novel’s film rights were promptly snatched up in 2010 by Anderson and his producing partners Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar. Anderson scripted the adaptation himself, with an eye to cast Robert Downey Jr in the central role of Doc Sportello, a stoner burnout turned private investigator.
However, the film’s extended development cycle caused the director to reconsider his choice, and in the end, Downey was replaced by the leading man of Anderson’s previous film, Joaquin Phoenix. INHERENT VICE marks Anderson’s return to the studio fold after the independent production and distribution of THE MASTER, but even the increased firepower afforded by Warner Brothers’ backing wasn’t enough to save the film from its own labyrinthine plotting and an ambivalent audience reception.
After completing two consecutive portraits of powerful, disciplined men, critics decried Anderson for taking a hard left turn into irreverence and mischief– but in the process, he just may have created a new cult classic that’s far, far ahead of its time.
The plot to INHERENT VICE is, in a word, incomprehensible. The story’s various twists and turns are densely layered and delivered almost entirely in stoner mumble and hippie slang. Multiple viewings aren’t encouraged, they’re mandatory in order to fully untangle the sea of knots that Anderson has woven here.
It’s important to note then, that this is not a simple case of directorial overindulgence; in presenting INHERENT VICE in this way, Anderson has faithfully captured Pynchon’s idiosyncratic voice and spirit right down to the letter.
The story is set in 1970, in the fictional SoCal seaside village known as Gordita Beach (akin to the real-life Hermosa or Manhattan Beach communities). The Manson murders have brought the Free Love era crashing to the ground, shattering the collective dream of the 1960’s and leaving everyone too zoned out to pick up the pieces.
Their utopian dreams in shambles, the hippies and the stoners have chosen to carve out their own place within the workforce– one of whom is Doc Sportello (Phoenix) a private investigator who works out of a rented room inside of a doctor’s office.
One night, he’s visited upon by his ethereal ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who pleads for his assistance in tracking down her new beau– a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who has recently gone missing. Doc agrees to help Shasta, partly because he still carries a torch for her.
As he descends into the seedy underbelly of SoCal’s surf culture, he manages to uncover a sprawling criminal conspiracy perpetuated by crooked cops, hedonistic dentists, and murderous white supremacists. Frankly, it’s hard to keep track of all the disparate elements, and the only thing that’s given a modicum of bleary-eyed clarity is the film’s title.
Even then, it’s full meaning is maddeningly elusive. Going by the film’s definition, “Inherent Vice” is a shipping term that describes an item whose decay is an inevitable product of its own internal components (rather than via external forces). Milk will spoil, chocolate will melt.
In the film, Doc wonders what the term means when it’s applied to ex-girlfriends– we can surmise that it is our own inherent vices that turns those girlfriends into exes in the first place. Our weaknesses and indulgence cause us to deteriorate from the inside, keeping us from arriving at our destination in a pristine, perfect state.
Anderson’s approach to INHERENT VICE suggests that the film, then, is about the Flower Power generation’s internal degenerative agents and their attempts to keep their particular way of life alive in the face of a New Conservatism embodied by figures like Ronald Reagan.
Controversial leading man Joaquin Phoenix fully embodies Thomas Pynchon’s eccentric creation in his second consecutive appearance for Anderson. Much like Anderson’s original choice, Robert Downey Jr, Phoenix is a no-brainer for the role, and could’ve sailed by on the strengths of his own eccentric charisma.
However, Phoenix disappears entirely inside Sportello’s signature mutton-chops and birkenstocks. A burned-out hippie in the grand tradition of THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), Sportello is a relic of a bygone age that won’t recognize that it has ended.
Phoenix charmingly mumbles his way through Anderson’s idiosyncratic caper, but years of heavy drug use have done little to dull his investigative edge. Josh Brolin’s Lt. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen is almost the exact opposite– a sharp-witted lawman with a particularly blunt approach to justice. Brolin is effortlessly convincing as the lantern-jawed, masculine ideal of Eisenhower-era America.
The ironclad resoluteness of Lt. Bjornsen is a fantastic foil to Sportello’s squirrelly paranoia, creating a truly entertaining chemistry that fuels the film’s momentum. In the absence of a true, singular villain for Sportello and Bjornsen to track down, the story compensates by focuses instead on the titanic battle of wills between these two characters– each man embodying the ideals of their respective eras and hellbent on staying afloat amidst the tumultuous sea of change that threatens to wash right over them.
A rogue’s gallery of oddballs and eccentrics populate Anderson’s supporting cast, most of whom are working with the director for the first time. As Doc’s ex-lover, Shasta, Katherine Waterston is presented to the audience in a manner not unlike a spiritual vision.
She’s a ghost– drifting in and out of Doc’s life without warning, bewitching him with her perpetual pout. Already a growing presence within the independent scene, Waterston delivers a breakout performance that lingers in the mind, infecting the audience’s memory much in the same way she’s infected Doc.
Better known for her musical career as a singer and harpist, Joanna Newsom lends her ethereal physicality to the film as Sortilege– a character whose purpose within the narrative is never fully explained. She acts as something of an avatar for Pynchon himself, preserving his distinct prose in the form of onscreen narration.
It’s implied several times throughout that only Doc has the ability to see and interact with Sortilege, which suggests that she might be something of a guardian angel– a soothing voice to calm the paranoid storm raging in Doc’s head.
Despite extremely limited screen time, Benicio Del Toro makes a memorable impression as Sauncho Smilax, an attorney specializing in marine law who acts as a pro-bono lawyer, confidant, and friend to Doc. The same can be said of Owen Wilson in his subdued performance as Coy Harlingen, an ex-junkie musician and family man who’s been faking his death for the last few years.
Jena Malone is quickly becoming one of the more interesting character actresses of her generation, as evidenced by her turn in INHERENT VICE as Coy’s wife, Hope– another ex-junkie who found God and a set of false chompers after giving birth to their son.
Her recent dental work ends up as a vital clue in Sportello’s investigation, linking her to Martin Short’s demented, coke-hoovering dentist character Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. Blatnoyd is a member of The Golden Fang, the shadowy crime syndicate that’s seemingly behind this whole mess.
Rounding out Anderson’s supporting cast of note is a quartet of well-known character actors, each of whom effortlessly slip into the director’s idiosyncratic vision of LA in the early 70’s. Reese Witherspoon plays Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball, Doc’s current lover and a strong-willed, independent woman in her own right. Curiously, she’s very much a manifestation of The Establishment, an entity Doc has been battling all his life.
This character trait leads to some gloriously off-kilter chemistry between her and Doc, and makes for some of the film’s most memorable moments. Eric Roberts, also known as the The Man Who Will Act In Anything, displays formidable control of his craft in his brief appearance as real estate mogul Michael Wolfmann.
The mysterious man at the center of this whole caper, Wolfmann is initially presented in photographic form as a rich and successful businessman. However, when Doc tracks him down at a rehab facility outside of town, Wolfmann is strung out and barely coherent, having been placed under the watchful eye of the feds and doped up beyond all recognition.
Michael Williams, a rising talent with high-profile turns in THE WIRE and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, makes an amusing cameo as Tariq Khalil, a former member of the Black Gorilla gang who has just gotten out of prison, only to find his old hood completely bulldozed to make way for one of Wolfmann’s planned suburban communities.
Finally,SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alum Maya Rudolph– Anderson’s real-life partner and the mother of his children– appears briefly as Petunia Leeway, the secretary at Doc’s office. INHERENT VICE is a film that often feels meandering and unfocused– the production process was politely described by Anderson’s collaborators as “chaotic”.
Most of the time, this would be a bad thing, but that isn’t necessarily the case here. Indeed, Anderson’s adherence to Pynchon’s particular voice and his cavalier subversion (or outright disposal) of the genre’s most recognizable tropes make for a singularly unique mystery film.
The cinematography goes a long way towards conveying this notion, with Anderson’s long-time director of photography Robert Elswit returning to head up the production after his absence during THE MASTER. Having shot most THE MASTER in large-format 65mm film, Anderson and Elswit return to the tried-and-true 35mm gauge, choosing a grainy stock that adds a slight veneer of granola crunchiness.
Retaining THE MASTER’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, INHERENT VICE is presented as a gritty, sunbaked take on the traditional noir genre– some have even go far as to call it a “surf noir”. The color palette deals in muted, faded tones that were once previously bright– a reflection of the harsh sobriety that followed the collapse of the chemically-altered dream of the 1960’s.
The lighting is bright and naturalistic, save for the nocturnal sequences, which take on a deep, almost-theatrical cobalt hue. A filmmaker long known for his dynamic camerawork, Anderson’s recent output has seen a noticeable drawdown of flashy techniques in favor of masterful discipline.
INHERENT VICE seemingly deviates from this laser-focused approach by shooting a substantial majority of setups handheld, yet it also reinforces Anderson’s previous aesthetic conventions in a big way.
The film plays like something of an amalgamation of his prior stylistic epochs: his early-career fondness for extended tracking shots and current fascination with the compositional conceits of portraiture are present in their own right (like in the long Steadicam shot that plays under the opening title), but they’re also combined to form a recurring visual motif unique to INHERENT VICE.
Many scenes are presented in extended master shots with little to no coverage, with his compositions accentuated by a slow, almost imperceptible dolly and/or zoom movement forward that’s somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s late-career aesthetic.
Anderson’s foray into comedy in the years surrounding PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) also informs INHERENT VICE, making for his most outright comedic effort in over a decade. There’s a surprising amount of visual slapstick at work here, along with several playful visual gags like a shot of his characters partaking in a pizza dinner party composed to recreate Leonard Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.
INHERENT VICE marks Anderson’s first collaboration with a new production designer, David Crank. Having worked as an art director under legendary production designer Jack Fisk on Anderson’s previous two features, Crank stepped up to the task when Fisk proved unavailable to reprise his role (most likely due to his commitments on Terrence Malick’s forthcomingKNIGHT OF CUPS).
INHERENT VICE takes place in a 1970’s that has yet to see the glittering disco balls depicted inBOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), so naturally the film’s aesthetic hews closer to a late 60’s feel. Crank’s production design is realistic and low-key, projecting a modest and lived-in authenticity that never descends into camp or exaggeration.
In his third consecutive collaboration with Anderson, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood proves himself an invaluable component of the director’s mid-career aesthetic, much like Jon Brion had been for HARD EIGHT (1996) through PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.
Greenwood is inherently suited towards Anderson’s artistic quirks, enabling him to complement and elevate the footage into a higher, sometimes-transcendent realm. For all its perceived imperfections, INHERENT VICE’s strongest suit is arguably Greenwood’s original score– a romantic, mysterious and avant-garde effort comprised of violins, oboes, and musical saws that harken back to the ornately orchestral cues of yesteryear.
While he doesn’t lean on needle drop source tracks as much as he did in the first act of his career, Anderson nevertheless uses his lively period setting as an opportunity to employ some choice art-rock and pop classics from the era.
The most high-profile of these tracks is Can’s “Vitamin C”, deployed as a luridly beckoning narrative agent during the film’s opening sequences. Artists like Neil Young and Sam Cooke also appear on a soundtrack that ably captures the eclectic vibe of vintage SoCal: a broadly diverse palette of crooning country ballads, funky R&B cuts, and psychedelic rock riffs.
The music technically may be from the same era, but it’s a far cry from the bright, cheery pop tunes we heard in BOOGIE NIGHTS. Indeed, INHERENT VICE’s selection of cues highlights the darker, more-paranoid aspects of the decade.
Throughout the film, Anderson recurringly utilizes an interesting musical technique that blurs the line between in-scene music (diagetic) and soundtrack (non-diagetic). Oftentimes, someone will be listening to music within a scene only for Anderson to then transition to the next beat while changing the acoustic dynamics of the track to reflect that it’s now playing over the image.
The effect is similar to stream of consciousness– a cascading flow of ocean waves washing over us and carrying us through into the next moment. Though INHERENT VICE may be a faithful adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, there’s so much overlap between the source material and PTA’s core thematic conceits that the final product also reads as decidedly Anderson-ian.
His recent explorations into the dynamics of power with THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER is manifest in INHERENT VICEvia the ideological war being fought by Doc and Lt. Bjornsen. They have diametrically-opposed outlooks on life, but they’re flip sides of the same coin: they’re both inclined to seek out the truth.
As such, their animosity and one-upmanship ironically resembles mismatched buddy cop comedies or the withering pettiness of sibling rivalries. The off-kilter intimacies of non-blood familial relationships drive Anderson’s characters throughout his filmography, with INHERENT VICE’s contribution being the major subplot that endeavors to reunite Coy Harlingen with his wife and child.
Funnily enough, this subplot ultimately serves as the source of the film’s climactic emotional catharsis in the absence of a tidy resolution to the film’s primary plot. Bizarre, dysfunctional sexual encounters are another prominent component of Anderson’s artistic aesthetic, a conceit that plays out in INHERENT VICE via a visit to a secret “massage” parlor, pornographic neckties, and a love scene between Doc and Shasta that plays out with such a prolonged sense of suspense and anticipation that it would make Sergio Leone jealous.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of INHERENT VICE as it pertains to its place within Anderson’s larger body of work is its engagement with California’s distinct cultural heritage. Much like THE MASTER explored how the Golden State’s relaxed sense of independence made it a breeding ground for crackpot religious cults and delusional charlatans, INHERENT VICE examines how the potent cocktail of mind-altering substances and alternative lifestyle explorations in the 1960’s exploded into countless subcultures and communities.
Indeed, more so than many other films to my memory, INHERENT VICE captures that peculiar blend of paranoia and unease that plagued LA’s utopian communities in the wake of the Manson killings. The sunny LA cityscape has always been a colorful place, culturally-speaking, and INHERENT VICE bypasses the glitz of Hollywood or the glamor of Beverly Hills in favor of the Southland’s drought-choked sprawl.
Distinctly Californian characters like hippies, neo-Nazis and cult leaders clash together in distinctly Californian locales like seaside coffee shops, rehabilitation facilities and canyon-side mansions.
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As his filmography has grown, it’s becoming more evident that Anderson has achieved something remarkable– with the exception of HARD EIGHT, the Golden State has served as a prominent connective tissue between all of his films.
Just as much as the 20th Century could be called “The American Century”, so too could it reasonably be referred to as the “The Californian Century” in that the state was an embodiment of the progressive ideals that drove American prosperity for much of last century.
Anderson’s films mostly take place in California, spanning a wide variety of time periods. The span is so wide, in fact, that nearly every decade of the 20th Century (save for the 30’s) is represented at some point in Anderson’s work.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD covered the birth and growth of the state from the turn of the century to the late 20’s. The postwar boom times of the 40’s and 50’s are the setting of THE MASTER. INHERENT VICE takes place in 1970 but contains flashbacks to the 60’s.
OOGIE NIGHTS’ decadent excess spans both the 1970’s and the 80’s. MAGNOLIA andPUNCH-DRUNK LOVE explore California’s evolving sense of identity during the 90’s and the turn of the new millennium. If you were to watch Anderson’s output in chronological order according to their story’s time periods, you’d come away with a weirdly alternate, yet comprehensive history of the American Century as seen through California’s distinct perspective.
INHERENT VICE is the kind of film that’s not easy to love– it takes multiple viewings to even understand its plot, let alone embrace the idiosyncratic quirks of Anderson’s vision. When it premiered at the New York Film Festival to polarized reviews, word of mouth began to spread that Anderson had made an objectively bad film.
Critics praised the performances of his cast, but they all pretty much agreed that the story was unsalvageable– an overindulgent failure. Box office receipts were consistent with this reaction, confirming INHERENT VICE’s cultural reputation as a huge misfire from one of our most treasured filmmakers.
Any Oscar campaign plans were probably scaled back instantly, but even the mountain of disappointment that greeted the film upon its release couldn’t stop it from earning Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design.
The collective frustration with the film is very real, most likely a reaction stemming from only one or two viewings at best– relatively snap judgments made by people who don’t care to commit to untangling the film’s myriad mysteries.
Like so many films before it, INHERENT VICE might simply be a victim of unrealistic expectations– after all, Anderson’s previous two works were staggeringly confident and majestically executed, and if the director’s rabid fanbase was expecting more of the same, they were bound to be sorely disappointed.
Such expectations tend to deny filmmakers like Anderson their right as artists to grow and experiment, and anyone who expects their favorite artist to deliver the same thing again and again like its some mechanized process surely misses the entire point of art.
Of course, INHERENT VICE could also simply just be a bad film– it ultimately comes down to individual taste. Just like the unattainable mystery at the center of the film, there will probably never be a definitive critical consensus as to INHERENT VICE’s place in the cinematic landscape.
If I was a betting man, I’d wager that it’ll slowly accumulate a cult appreciation not unlike THE BIG LEBOWSKI as multiple viewings increasingly reveal the full scope of Anderson’s irreverent vision.
What’s less ambiguous about INHERENT VICE is its place within Anderson’s body of work. As of this writing, Anderson is forty-five years old and has seven features to his credit. It’s hard to imagine that the hotshot kid who made BOOGIE NIGHTS is nearly fifty now.
By middle age, most successful directors have found an aesthetic that maximizes their personal strengths, inevitably settling into a long period of what one could call beneficial stagnance– yet it’s stagnance nonetheless. Treading water keeps you afloat, but it doesn’t actually take you anywhere.
Midway through his career, Anderson seems to have found his strongest suit only to throw it away in hopes he might stumble across an even stronger one. He’s experimenting; pushing the boundaries of his voice. The results may be uneven, but they keep his perspective fresh and honest.
The irreverent playfulness on display in INHERENT VICE marks a departure from his string of John Huston-inspired power portraits, and while it’s a safe bet that Anderson won’t bring this film’s stylistic approach to his next, he most definitely will continue to refine and rework what it means to be “A Paul Thomas Anderson Film”.
JOANNA NEWSOM “SAPOKANIKAN” MUSIC VIDEO (2015)
In August of 2015, director Paul Thomas Anderson dropped a new music video on the unsuspecting masses. The piece features his INHERENT VICE star– singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom– performing her new single “SAPOKANIKAN” as she walks through the chilly Manhattan streets at twilight hour. On the surface, it’s a simple performance piece that’s so low-tech in its execution that seemingly anyone could have done it. Indeed, upon first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of the prestigious filmmaker’s participation whatsoever.
It could just as well be a scrappy film school student’s work. However, Anderson’s deceptively simple approach here reveals some interesting insights for those who would delve deeper.
“SAPOKANIKAN” is a stark departure from Anderson’s previous work in the visual sense, but it stays consistent with his artistic conceits and thematic fascinations. The piece appears to have been shot digitally, which is a notable factor considering Anderson’s preference for celluloid within his feature catalogue. It also appears that Anderson is operating the camera himself, shooting handheld in extremely guerrilla fashion using only the natural light afforded by their most-likely-stolen locations.
The piece’s spotty, inconsistent focus is further evidence of the extremely lo-fi nature of the shoot. Overall, there’s a great deal of looseness to Anderson’s approach– the piece comes off less like a music video and more like a documentary: very improvisational and naturalistic.
Anderson’s work as of late has demonstrated a fascination with portraiture– a conceit that has generated some of the most affecting close-ups in recent memory. This dovetails quite nicely with the format of a performance video, allowing Anderson to indulge in compositions that put Newsom’s ethereal visage front and center against a twinkling backdrop of fuzzy light orbs.
When it comes to music videos, Anderson has always been picky about which artists he chooses to collaborate with. Traditionally, the artist in question is either a close friend/lover (like Fiona Apple) or has worked with him on his features in some capacity (like Aimee Mann or Michael Penn). Specifically, the artists he chooses to direct videos for tend to be strong-minded and quasi-eccentric female singer-songwriters.
Joanna Newsom, being both a left-of-mainstream singer/songwriter and the wispy, lilting voice of INHERENT VICE’s quasi-narrator/commentator Sortilege, carries on this proud tradition.
“SAPOKANIKAN” is hard to place within Anderson’s artistic trajectory, simply because it seems so off-the-cuff and improvisational. Without any further commentary by Anderson or Newsom themselves, it’s difficult to tell whether the lo-fi, handheld aesthetic was a result of the production’s limited shooting circumstances or if Anderson is moving away from the structural formalism that marked his camerawork in favor of the loose, playful vibe he began exploring in INHERENT VICE.
If recent developments on his feature slate are any indication, it might be the latter– he’s reportedly attached to write and direct a new version of the classic children’s tale, “Pinocchio”. It may very well be several years before we’re able to discern how “SAPOKANIKAN” informs Anderson’s evolving aesthetic, but in the meantime, at least we have a charming promotional piece for one of the music industry’s most enchanting artists.
From the outside perspective of American culture, India is often regarded as a faraway land of personal and creative rediscovery. Many American artists have made the journey in a bid to escape the confines of Anglo-Saxon cultural values as well as their own individual stylistic paradigms– Wes Anderson did it with 2007’s THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and Danny Boyle followed swiftly after with the Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008).
Following the ambivalent reception of his 2014 feature INHERENT VICE, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson made the journey himself, tagging along with his regular composer (and Radiohead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood as he embarked on an ambitious concept album called “Junun”. In a way, the trip was a chance for Anderson to repay the creative debt he owed to Greenwood, whose eclectic musical taste had played a crucial role in the director’s mid-career stylistic reinvention.
The resulting work, 2015’s JUNUN, is notable within Anderson’s filmography for several reasons, chief among them being that it is his first documentary as well as his first substantial foray into the digital video format. The central conceit of the piece traces Greenwood’s creation and recording of the album in collaboration with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and local brass ensemble The Rajasthan Express.
The music, recorded inside of the ancient Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur, takes its inspiration from a variety of Eastern influences and customs while blending in a combination of spoken languages like Hindi, Hebrew and Urdu, as well as hints of Radiohead’s post-modern sound via Greenwood’s avant-garde touch. The 1.85:1 HD presentation is relatively unadorned and naturalistic, perhaps even a little lo-fi looking– apparently, a more polished visual presentation was planned, but Anderson’s camera gear was held up by customs and he had to make do with his own personal camera and one of his producer’s drones.
Thankfully, we live in a golden age of DSLR cinematography, so Anderson’s consumer camera set-up proves more than capable at capturing the majestic grit of the ancient environs or the stunning character of the light– be it either dusty daylight or amber-soaked candlelight. Anderson operates the camera himself, taking his cues from the cinema verite documentary style pioneered by D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers.
He alternates between locked-off tripod shots that studiously observe Greenwood and Company’s creative process, and shot-from-the-hip handheld shots that grab fleeting unplanned images in a bid to establish a sense of temporal immediacy and impermanence. As befitting a documentary about the process of creation, Anderson makes no effort to obscure his own process– on-the-fly ISO changes, various repositions of his tripod and compositions, and even his own off-camera voice prompts are left intact within the final edit.
He also incorporates newer documentary techniques like timelapse footage and economically-achieved aerials via the aforementioned drone.
JUNUN is utterly devoid of most of Anderson’s signature stylistic traits as a director, arguably a case of the director exercising gracious restraint so as not to overpower his regular composer’s own creative message. Indeed, the presence of Greenwood in the first place is the most visible signifier of Anderson’s participation.
His long fascination with the cultural significance of the video format, last explored in 1999’s MAGNOLIA, reappears in JUNUN not as critique or commentary, but simply as an acquisition format chosen for the needs of the shoot. Beyond that, there’s only fleeting instances that bear the imprint of Anderson’s idiosyncratic vision: the brief appearance of a harmonium calling back to PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002), or the frequent cutaways to a pigeon watching from the rafters that serve to highlight the director’s inherent mischievousness.
Though little seen by audiences at large, JUNUN was well-received by critics. After the film’s debut at the 2015 New York Film Festival, Anderson embraced the emergent market of digital distribution, releasing it exclusively on the social film site Mubi before making it available on iTunes. By bypassing traditional markets, he was able to access his rabid fan base directly, and more immediately satiate their hunger for new work. JUNUN stands on its own merits as an intriguing insight into the creative process behind an admittedly fantastic album, but the question remains: how exactly does it fit into Anderson’s continual evolution as a cinematic artist?
From a technical standpoint, the film seems to follow a precedent set by INHERENT VICE, which saw Anderson turn away from the restrained formalism that marked THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER, finding new inspiration in chaos and spontaneity. However, there’s a profound emotional shift also unfolding here– the joy that Greenwood and his collaborators achieve while recording in ancient surroundings approaches an altered state of mind– the act of creation and travel is a transcendent experience for them.
Whereas INHERENT VICE’s characters achieved enlightenment with chemicals and substances, JUNUN’s high is purely natural. Anderson can’t help but be dosed by the infectious rapture of his collaborators, and as a result, delivers a lively meditation on creation and culture that expands his own artistic horizons far beyond the Californian landscape that so profoundly shaped his previous worldview.
JOANNA NEWSOM “DIVERS” MUSIC VIDEO (2015)
The production of INHERENT VICE in 2014 begat a particularly strong working partnership between director Paul Thomas Anderson and cast member Joanna Newsom, who played the film’s ethereal narrator. The momentum of that collaboration spilled over into Newsom’s other career as a singer / songwriter as she prepared to release a new album titled “Divers”.
She recruited Anderson to helm the video for the album’s first single “SAPOKANIKAN” (2015), and when it came time to make the video for the album’s title track “DIVERS” (2015), Anderson again provided his services. With this development, Anderson and Newsom had seemed to cement a platonic version of the creative partnership he shared with former flame Fiona Apple in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Whereas the video for “SAPOKANIKAN” was quite improvisational in its use of handheld location shooting and natural light, “DIVERS” takes the opposite tack, opting for an ultra-controlled and disciplined execution. The video was filmed at the New York City studio of abstract artist Kim Keever, whose particular aesthetic gives the video its central idea.
Anderson places Newsom center-frame amidst a fantastical miniature mountainscape, lit to resemble a baroque Romantic-era painting. As the piece plays, Anderson slowly– almost imperceptibly– pulls the camera back to reveal more of the landscape, while brightly-colored clouds blossom in the sky. At this point, we realize that the visual trickery is all occurring in-camera– Anderson is shooting through the prism of an aquarium with perfectly-still water, and the beautiful, ethereal cloud-blooming effect is actually colored sand being poured into it.
After the relative stylistic anonymity that marked “SAPOKANIKAN” and his India-set music documentary JUNUN (2015), “DIVERS” finds Anderson returning to familiar thematic territory. The fascination with portraiture that marked THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) and THE MASTER (2012) is front and center here, with Anderson’s choice to focus on the close-up contours of Newsom’s facial features acting as an echo of the mountains that surround her.
The decision to use Keevers’ expressionistic aesthetic recalls Anderson’s collaboration with the late digital artist Jeremy Blake on PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s painterly interludes, further establishing the director’s appreciation for the work of artists across other visual mediums.
In keeping with Anderson’s lifelong defiance of convention, “DIVERS” received an unconventional rollout for a music video. Whereas most are now simply released into the online ether and supported by write ups from a handful of tastemaking music blogs, this particular music video instead premiered in local arthouse theaters throughout New York City, only making its online debut after a brief period of exclusivity. Reaction to the video was mostly positive, with many lavishing praise on Anderson’s stunning visuals and unique approach.
At the time of this writing (April 2016), it’s currently unknown what Anderson’s next directorial effort will be. For a while, he was attached to write and direct a new live-action adaptation of the classic fable PINOCCHIO, which undoubtedly would have been an interesting take to say the least. The stylistic experimentation and embrace of chaos that’s shaped his most recent output leaves us perplexed and unsure what his next move will be– which is exactly where the unpredictable auteur would have us be.
It’s hard to believe that the boy wonder who took American independent cinema by storm is now a middle-aged man approaching 50, a fact that only makes his staggering accomplishments in the intervening few decades that much more astonishing. Whatever comes next, it will be sure to intrigue, inspire, surprise, and shock us– and it will further establish Anderson himself as one of the most vital and important filmmakers of our time.
RADIOHEAD: “DAYDREAMING” MUSIC VIDEO (2016)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson has long been tangentially connected to the avant-garde rock group Radiohead via guitarist Jonny Greenwood, so it was only a matter of time until he collaborated with the band directly. In 2016, he did just that, releasing a video for “DAYDREAMING”, a track called off their ninth album– the first since their 2011 release “The King Of Limbs”.
The piece features Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke walking through various locations and environments, stitched together as if it were one cohesive labyrinth. Anderson makes a repeated visual motif out of doors, stairs, and other transitional architectural structures, imbuing them via the magic of editing with the power to effortlessly transport Yorke across space and time.
Captured in cool, neutral tones with what appears to be a mix of conventional celluloid film and digital acquisition, “DAYDREAMING” bears Anderson’s cinematic stamp much more explicitly than his recent videos for Joanna Newsom. Though broken up into a series of vignettes, the video’s editing essentially structures itself as a handful of extended tracking shots, a camera movement technique Anderson staked out for himself as an artistic signature in early works like BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999).
Whereas he almost exclusively used the Steadicam to achieve these types of shots before, here Anderson also uses handheld camerawork, giving himself a wider berth for spontaneous inspiration. His camera consistently pushes or pulls us along the Z axis, beckoning us toward or repulsing us away from a singular point of convergence. Meanwhile, a shallow depth of field works to obscure that distance, lathering the video in a coat of mystery.
“DAYDREAMING” also alludes to some of Anderson’s core artistic conceits, namely the iconography of California and the compositional values of portraiture. While the various spaces that Yorke stumbles through are meant to be taken as generic, geographically-speaking, they nevertheless remain characteristic of the Californian landscape: sunny beaches, crowded laundromats, grungy industrial spaces, and sleepy bungalows. Anderson also finds a few opportunities to dwell on Yorke’s face as he stands still, framing his weathered visage inside of a tight portrait.
The video operates primarily on dream logic, and this dreamlike quality– of being removed from an objective, sober reality– generates a feeling of consistency with Anderson’s other output from this period. “DAYDREAMING” speaks to Anderson’s recent exploration of alternative distribution techniques, in that he unleashed the video on an unsuspecting populace; there was little to no advance notice that there was even going to be a new Radiohead album, let alone a stunning video from Anderson to accompany it.
As a band, Radiohead has shown a preternatural ability to harness the power of the Internet to find innovative distribution avenues. If his recent efforts are any indication, Anderson is quickly mastering these same skills for himself.
RADIOHEAD: “PRESENT TENSE” MUSIC VIDEO (2016)
Following his surprise music video, “DAYDREAMING” for Radiohead’s surprise 2016 album, A Moon Shaped Pool, director Paul Thomas Anderson dropped yet another collaboration with the iconic art-rock outfit out of the warm, blue September sky. In delivering his second video for the album, Anderson has proved himself a cinematic soul-mate to the avant-garde musical character of Radiohead’s new album.
The piece, for the track “PRESENT TENSE”, dramatically scales back any stylistic pyrotechnics in favor of a subdued, intimate performance video. Sitting against a bare-bones backdrop in warm amber light so dim it could almost be candlelight, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood perform the track through its entirety with their voices, their acoustic guitars, and even a Roland CR78 drum machine.
Anderson alternates his camera between two separate setups, framing the two bandmates in static medium shots before punching in for a few shallow-focus closeups that further demonstrate Anderson’s fascination with the visual language of portraits. Yorke and Greenwood give themselves entirely to their performances, achieving a heightened state of mind that calls to mind the similar expressions of artistic rapture evidenced in Anderson’s 2015 music documentary JUNUN.
From “BURN THE WITCH” to Anderson’s own “DAYDREAMING”, the music videos that have accompanied the release of A Moon Shaped Pool have been nothing less than creatively-arresting works of art. “PRESENT TENSE” is a much more subdued effort in that sense, but it nevertheless resonates with the conceptual clarity and restrained profundity that has become a hallmark of Anderson’s mature aesthetic.
RADIOHEAD MUSIC VIDEO, “THE NUMBERS” (2016)
The entirety of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2016 output has been exclusively for celebrated art-rock outfit Radiohead, an association that no doubt came about via Anderson’s frequent collaborations with guitarist Jonny Greenwood on the score for his last three features. The release of prior music videos for “DAYDREAMING” and “PRESENT TENSE” were both surprise events in the spring and summer, respectively, and in the autumn, Anderson released a third surprise video– this time for Radiohead’s track “THE NUMBERS”.
This particular piece recalls the casual, intimate vibe that Anderson created previously for “PRESENT TENSE”, setting up a vignette that finds frontman Thom Yorke and Greenwood sitting on a park bench and performing the song to the accompaniment of a CR78 drum machine. “THE NUMBERS” take the opposite tack in its visual presentation, setting the action during a bright, sunny day in the California mountains.
Strung together in a series of four distinct shots, “THE NUMBERS” possesses more of a formal approach than its predecessor, tracking in on its subjects from a wide establishing frame via an elegant dolly move.
Indeed, the piece is an interesting mix of the formal and casual; a tone entirely appropriate for this current period of growth and experimentation Anderson seems to be undergoing. Nestled somewhere between the classical camerawork of his narrative features and the handheld naturalism of JUNUN, “THE NUMBERS” further implies Anderson’s hand via the backdrop of Los Angeles’ dramatic mountain vistas and the subtle portraiture of Yorke’s face, captured at an oblique angle.
It remains to be seen if Anderson and Radiohead will collaborate on any further performance videos, but it’s a safe bet that the director’s experimentations here will lay the groundwork for whatever form his aesthetic takes in his next feature effort next year.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s output since his 2014 feature INHERENT VICE has been emblematic of a seasoned visionary dropping the selectiveness implied by his “prestige filmmaker” status and rediscovering the joys of artistic expression for sheer creativity’s sake. The 2015 music documentary JUNUN is arguably his most substantial work in this vein, with him embracing the mobility and cost-effectiveness of digital filmmaking for the first time in a bid to capture the recording of the eponymous Jonny Greenwood album.
His ensuing trio of music videos for Radiohead’s 2016 album “A Moon Shaped Pool” doubled down on this approach, with the latter two in particular content to simply sit and observe Greenwood and Thom Yorke perform the respective tracks acoustically in simple surroundings.
JUNUN and the Radiohead videos were executed under relative secrecy, with the former making a surprise debut at the New York Film Festival and the Radiohead videos dropping on the unsuspecting blogerati with no advance warning. 2017 looks to continue this phase of Anderson’s career, judging by the similarly-surprising release of his music video for indie rock band Haim’s new single, “RIGHT NOW”.
Even more surprising is the revelation that “RIGHT NOW” is simply the first third of a longer short film called VALENTINE, so named for the recording studio that the short takes place in. Clocking in at a brisk fourteen minutes, VALENTINE was produced in secret by Sarah Murphy, Albert Chi, and Erica Frauman, and documents the Haim sisters as they perform/record three tracks off their first album since their 2013 debut.
Anderson’s involvement with the project is certainly unexpected, given his relative celebrity in regards to Haim’s own artistic profile, but just like his prior music videos for Fiona Apple and Radiohead, his connection here is highly personal. He had reached out to them strictly as a fan around the time of their debut, but through their correspondence, he came to discover that the trio’s mother had been his art teacher (1).
“RIGHT NOW” came about specifically when the band asked him down to their studio for his creative input on the track– a visit that apparently inspired him to document the song’s recording right then and there (1), subsequently leading to the expansion of the project under VALENTINE’s current scope. Serving as his own cinematographer, Anderson shoots VALENTINE in a manner indicative of the extremely tight prep window, but which nonetheless exhibits his impeccable taste for composition and movement.
He brings his compelling cinematic eye to the 35mm film image, harnessing the soft ambient light of the studio to create a cold color palette of cerulean & steel tones. The piece creates a minimal aesthetic by stringing together a series of long takes that echo the spare, deconstructionist nature of the tracks themselves. Anderson’s camera evokes the sensation of searching as it smoothly tracks, pans, and zooms around the studio and documents the three Haim sisters laying down the tracks using a variety of instruments.
In this regard, VALENTINE’s execution is relatively straightforward and documentary, but its subtle emphasis on the music’s physical construction via its constituent parts evokes the transcendent joys of artistic creation. Indeed, VALENTINE is just as much a celebration of creation as it is a portrait of Haim as a band– to the extent that Anderson doesn’t bother to frame out his film lights from several shots, thus evoking the particular joy that the act of filmmaking brings him.
Anderson typically frames his close-ups in a manner resembling portraiture; a conceit that ably captures the Haim sisters as they lose themselves in the expression of self via their music. Like the musicians featured in JUNUN, the Haim sisters seem to enter a state of heightened internal connection to their creative engines, manifest outwardly in facial expressions one might describe simply as “rapture”.
VALENTINE would follow the release pattern of his recent musical work, dropping out of the sky with little in the way of advance warning and generating an exclusive “cool-kid” vibe by screening exclusively at the Film Forum in New York for a brief period before making its Youtube debut after months of buzz. The film might be understated in its execution, but it is an impeccably-crafted and profoundly resonant hybrid of music video and short documentary.
Haim couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator to kick off the release of their second album, and given Anderson’s history of doing multiple videos for a single album, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were to coax him back for another round. In the meantime, the cinematic community waits feverishly for his next feature– a reunion with THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Day-Lewis set in the fashion world of midcentury London and slated for release this Christmas..
HAIM MUSIC VIDEO: “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE” (2017)
Towards the end of a particularly prolific year of musical collaborations with zeitgeist-y rock icons like Radiohead, director Paul Thomas Anderson embarked on a couple projects with Haim, an indie band comprised of three sisters celebrated for an old-fashioned sound that was nonetheless cutting edge at the same time.
Following the production of their 2017 short film VALENTINE, Anderson and the Haim sisters reunited on a music video for their track “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE”, an infectious, high-energy pop anthem. The piece is vintage PTA, adopting a vibe that’s highly reminiscent of his 1997 classic BOOGIE NIGHTS, but it also evidences the remarkable growth he’s undergone in the twenty years since.
The piece is relatively simple in concept, consisting of the Haim sisters singing to camera while dancing along with the crowd in a large tavern. The execution is anything but, consisting of a series of long takes and fluid tracking shots that almost seem to dance along with the sisters as they sing to camera. Anderson seems to shoot the video in the same way he shot VALENTINE-– serving as his own cinematographer and shooting on 35mm film.
Aside from the unmistakable BOOGIE NIGHTS vibe, “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE” bears the signature of its maker through its San Fernando Valley setting (seen in the opening exterior shot with the iconic Hand Car Wash sign of Studio City’s Ventura Boulevard in the background), as well as the constant use of compositional conceits that evoke the style of portraiture.
Following Anderson’s short-form release model as of late, “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE” dropped out of the sky and landed onto the internet without any advance warning, gifting us with a wholesome little Andersonian snack ahead of his latest feature slated for release this holiday season. The video itself continues Anderson’s string of simple, yet artfully-imagined performance pieces that bring to the music video genre the same kind of eccentric nuance and inspired vision that he’s brought to bear on theatrical features.
“PHANTOM THREAD” (2017)
As one of the most acclaimed artistic voices in contemporary filmmaking, director Paul Thomas Anderson enjoys a level of prestige that’s virtually unmatched by others of his generation. He’s gotten to this level by refusing to be anything other than himself: an idiosyncratic kid from southern California’s San Fernando Valley with eccentric artistic tastes and an unabiding compassion for flawed characters.
Having already made no less than two of the most cherished pictures of the 1990’s — BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999), Anderson had seemingly reached an altogether different zenith starting with 2007’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD. This film marked a titanic evolution in his artistry, sparked by its intense meditation on the nature of power & ambition as perverted by a ruthless oil tycoon.
2012’s THE MASTER fanned the flames with a similarly-intense exploration filtered through the prism of a Scientology-adjacent cult. Anderson’s subsequent picture, INHERENT VICE (2014), stumbled slightly in terms of its reception, but has nevertheless managed to endure in our collective cinematic memory thanks to its stoner dream logic.
Most directors who reach this level of artistic excellence are all too happy to stagnate— it’s safer and easier to go with what’s been working, even if it does tend to yield diminishing returns. Anderson, however, distinguishes himself yet again, having subsequently embarked on a period of intense personal experimentation with several short-form music videos and the verite-style documentary JUNUN (2015).
These projects would serve to refresh his artistic perspective, offering him the opportunity to experiment with new techniques in a pared-down environment. Anderson is — if nothing else — a master of self-reinvention, and much like his experimentation with short-form slapstick comedy in the early 2000’s was followed by THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s staggering creative revelations, this new period of growth was setting the stage for yet another showcase of his artistic ascent.
Of course, he would need the right idea, which he found one day while laid up sick in bed and, in his vulnerable state, struck by the tenderness and care evidenced by his wife, actress Maya Rudolph (1). He found he could plant this tiny seed of emotion into his developing interest in male fashion designers— specifically Cristobal Balenciaga of Spain, whose strict, “monastic” approach to his work/life balance provided the template for Anderson’s emerging concept about a similar figure dressing royalty and socialites in 1950’s London (1).
The resulting film, 2017’s PHANTOM THREAD, would prove unlike anything Anderson has ever made before; its oblique narrative about the erratic romance between a powerful man and his seemingly-demure wife sublimely coinciding with the zeitgeist of the #TimesUp movement and its unveiling of toxic power structures.
The film marks something of a ten-year reunion between Anderson and his THERE WILL BE BLOOD star, Daniel Day-Lewis, building upon the intimacy of their previous collaboration to the point that Day-Lewis actively collaborated with Anderson on PHANTOM THREAD’s screenplay (indeed, the director has conceded in interviews that Day-Lewis should have received some sort of co-writing credit (1)).
The towering nature of Day-Lewis’ performance is to be expected, but his character of the renowned English dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock surprises us at every juncture. By turns sweet and ferocious, Woodcock’s urbane sophistication & disarming charm floats atop a churning, roiling brew of discipline, ruthlessness, and tar-black venom.
Molded in the template of THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Plainview or THE MASTER’s Lancaster Dodd, the conceited titans portrayed in his previous meditations on power, Reynolds Woodcock has chosen to marry himself to his work. Every waking minute that isn’t spent eating is spent on designing his elegant dresses— an obsession that Day-Lewis imbues with his signature authenticity and studied intensity, thanks to a year of apprenticeship under New York City Ballet’s head costume designer, Marc Happel (1).
His elegant, impeccably-dressed urbanity fuels this highly-disciplined lifestyle, drawing a steady parade of short-term female companions that are so easily cast aside like unwanted leftovers.
Indeed, the only woman that’s managed to stay close to Woodcock is his sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville in an Academy Award-nominated performance overflowing with icy pragmatism. She runs the day-to-day operations of House of Woodcock, allowing Reynolds the freedom to focus on the creative; as such, the two are inseparable, never missing a meal together (much to the chagrin of his short-lived lovers). Woodcock’s orderly, monastic life is soon upturned by a chance meeting with a waitress at a small cafe in the English countryside.
This demure and quiet woman is named Alma, but underneath her sweet small-town surface lies a fierce, strong-willed spirit that stands in stark contrast to any love interest that Woodcock’s ever encountered. French actress Vicky Krieps excels in the role, puncturing holes in Woodcock’s ordered lifestyle as she infiltrates deeper into the House of Woodcock’s operation. Their resulting chemistry is unlike any love story we’ve ever seen— one where affection is shown not by kissing or hugging, but by exertions of power.
Woodcock’s hope is that Alma will eventually fit neatly into his rigidly-defined lifestyle, but she refuses to yield to his egomaniacal expectations. Instead, she strips him down so that she may build him back up better than before. She does this by lacing his food with the powder from a poisonous mushroom— just enough to knock him flat on his back with a nasty fever for a couple days, at which point she can exert her own power by nursing him back to health. It’s an admittedly bizarre approach, to be sure, but it’s also a uniquely compelling and perversely beautiful conceit that speaks to the unmatched idiosyncrasy of Anderson’s storytelling.
With a production budget of $35 million, PHANTOM THREAD distinguishes itself as one of the most expensive films that Anderson has ever made — second only to 1999’s MAGNOLIA (1). This relatively-lavish spread of resources, furnished by Focus Features and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, enables him to realize an elegant vision of mid century European class and sophistication without losing his off-kilter edge.
Anderson employs the classical conceits of old-fashioned filmmaking to reinforce this vision, and in the process creates an economy of craft that’s profoundly subtle and uniquely his. As one can tell in the organic veneer of grain present throughout (especially in close-up shots that linger on the texture of various fabrics) PHANTOM THREAD was shot on 35mm film, but this — nor Anderson’s continued insistence on celluloid over digital in his theatrical work — is not what distinguishes the film’s cinematography.
Having operated the camera himself on his recent music videos and JUNUN, Anderson had been slowly improving his technical expertise as a cinematographer; when longtime collaborator Robert Elswit proved unavailable to return for PHANTOM THREAD (apparently a result of a rapidly deteriorating professional relationship), he felt his experience was sufficient enough to take on camera duties here as well. As such, PHANTOM THREAD doesn’t have an officially credited cinematographer. Anderson simply absorbs those responsibilities into his job description as a director, relying on the wisdom of his gaffers and camera operators (as well as his own intimate knowledge of the format) to get him the results he wants (1).
Said results are nothing short of mesmerizing, with Anderson’s melodramatic rendering of color and light recalling the vivid aesthetic of midcentury directors like Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock. Production designer Mark Tildesley assists Anderson’s realization of 1950’s-era London as a world of cold hues, creamy neutrals, and the occasional punch of warmth.
This heavily restricted color palette reflects the regimented order and discipline of the House of Woodcock, further reinforced by the pristine, anonymizing white coats his employees wear. Indeed, Woodcock’s vibrant dresses are the only source of saturated color, and rightfully so— PHANTOM THREAD’s somber color conceits better allow costume designer Mark Bridges’ Oscar-winning work to leap off the screen with breathtaking ferocity.
The 1.85:1 frame gives Anderson plenty of room to fashion his characteristically-compelling compositions: a beautiful wide shot of Woodcock designing a dress for Alma by the light of the moon comes immediately to mind, as does an extended tracking shot that follows Woodcock through a raucous, labyrinthine New Year’s Eve party as he searches for her amidst the crowd.
Even the close-ups possess a resonance that eludes the work of Anderson’s contemporaries, imbued with a profound magnetism by virtue of his framing of faces in the style of portraiture. Just as the appearance of Alma poses a disruptive force upon Woodcock’s regimented lifestyle, so too does Anderson subvert the elegance of his classical camerawork with the expressionistic techniques of New Hollywood filmmaking: BARRY LYNDON-esque slow zooms, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the occasional handheld shot (its relative scarcity making certain scenes like Woodcock’s woozy, post-poisoning collapse all the more visceral).
Anderson’s public-facing modesty over his supposed inexperience as a cameraman belies his profound grasp of film’s technical aspects. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other word than “impeccable” when it comes to describing PHANTOM THREAD’s sterling visual presentation. As his artistry has matured, Anderson has increasingly shown the kind of comprehensive mastery of the medium exhibited by consummate filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick.
Anderson’s ability to speak the language of key technical departments facilitates strong relationships with recurring collaborators like editor Dylan Tichenor and his producing partners JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi. PHANTOM THREAD also continues Anderson’s fruitful partnership with composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who’s Oscar-nominated work here stands in a class entirely above his previous compositions for the director.
The score lends an elegant romanticism to Anderson’s lush images, employing a classy, piano-based theme that reinforces the urbane sophistication of Woodcock’s world. A handful of sub-themes grow and evolve along with the film’s central romance, gradually adding complex string orchestrations aside from other elements.
This approach culminates in the scene where Alma mixes poison mushrooms into Woodcock’s dinner, with a dramatic, bombastic string arrangement instantly recalling BARRY LYNDON’s usage of Handel’s “Sarabande”— and further reinforcing the Kubrickian atmosphere that Anderson has managed to conjure around the entirety of PHANTOM THREAD. Several piano renditions of torch songs and jazz standards like “My Foolish Heart” populate the soundtrack, further capturing the distinct time period and contained lifestyles on display.
PHANTOM THREAD roughly follows the thematic template that Anderson fashioned with predecessors like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER, in that the film’s narrative paints a towering portrait of a powerful, complicated, and eccentric man. Reynolds Woodcock is the natural successor to figures like Daniel Plainview and Lancaster Dodd, each a titan of his own industry, cutting mythic silhouettes that loom over their respective eras.
One could discern these anti-heroes as emblematic of a certain kind of toxic masculinity— one that leverages power and influence in service only to ego, greed, and vanity. They are charismatic in the manipulative manner that these types of people usually are, blessed with a dense, undeniable gravity that pulls other people into their orbit. Anderson’s characters are guilty pleasures, made particularly attractive by dint of their crackling wit and biting turns of phrase.
His gift for writing idiosyncratic and endlessly-quotable dialogue molds figures like Plainview, Dodd — and now, Woodcock — as eminently-watchable, silver-tongued serpents. This is especially true of Woodcock in particular, his ridiculous name a deliberate decision made by his mischievous creator to perpetually torpedo the dressmaker’s practiced self-seriousness. He’s always ready with a quip as darkly comedic as it is poison-tipped.
Day-Lewis’ brilliance as an actor is particularly valuable in this regard, giving him an effortless ability to confidently deliver impossible, bizarre lines like “Are you a secret agent here to kill me? Show me your gun!” or “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it”.
Where Woodcock stands apart from figures like Plainview and Dodd is in the fact that he has a companion who can match him blow for blow. Plainview had no such companion to speak of, even giving up his own adopted son in the pursuit of profit. Dodd’s wife was strong in her own quiet way, preferring instead to work in the shadows and bolster her power by reinforcing her husband’s with an almost-Machiavellian calculation.
PHANTOM THREAD’s Alma possesses a fundamental independence all her own; a resolute defiance that quickly brings Woodcock to heel. The old saying goes: “behind every great man is a great woman”, but Alma refuses to be a passive agent in Woodcock’s growth. She has a variety of qualities with which to check Woodcock’s aggression, but — unlike the male protagonists of Anderson’s power portraits — yelling and screaming are not amongst them. She deploys her compassion strategically, quickly making herself indispensable.
Anderson’s decision to frame the narrative from Alma’s point of view allows the audience to more-fully experience her complex inner life, while at the same time revealing more of the personal sensitivity to the female experience that allows him to craft compelling, multidimensional women characters. Indeed, Alma stands as the latest (and perhaps most vivid) figure in a long procession of memorable heroines throughout the director’s filmography.
With the exception of HARD EIGHT and its Reno setting, nearly all of Anderson’s films have taken place in his native California. PHANTOM THREAD’s British backdrop marks a significant departure from Anderson’s norm— a development that seems to have sparked a notable shift forward in his artistic evolution. The experience of watching PHANTOM THREAD, even after having seen it multiple times, is a breathtaking one.
There’s a unique aura that envelopes the film, as if it has already attained the silver glow of classic cinema. This sheen blinds one from the awareness that it didn’t make very much money at the box office; frankly, its financial performance is an irrelevant footnote in light of Anderson’s monumental artistic achievement.
The word “masterpiece” is thrown around far too often (I’m likely guilty of some misuse myself), but PHANTOM THREAD most certainly qualifies as one when the experience of watching it evokes the same awe and admiration as a timeless film that’s been around for generations.
Unlike many masterpieces of its ilk, however, PHANTOM THREAD would enjoy the luxury of being celebrated in its own time; numerous critics put the film at or near the top of their annual year-end lists, culminating in the aforementioned Oscar nominations for Day-Lewis’ and Manville’s performances and Greenwood’s score, alongside high-profile nods for Best Picture and Best Director (Anderson’s second).
While Best Costume Design was the only one of its nominations to ultimately win a gold statue, PHANTOM THREAD nevertheless continues to accumulate an artistic capital or pedigree far more valuable than any award.
It’s hard to dismiss as mere coincidence that Anderson’s friend and artistic hero Jonathan Demme passed away on the day that PHANTOM THREAD wrapped principal photography (1); Anderson’s own aesthetic evolution had long since superseded Demme’s stylistic influence (once so palpable in early works like BOOGIE NIGHTS), but the latter‘s physical passing in this context feels like a cosmic, posthumous blessing for the former’s artistic development to ascend towards a higher level all his own.
People often invoke Anderson’s name when citing the best living directors, and PHANTOM THREAD serves only to escalate the validity of their claims. With each successive film, Anderson makes it painfully apparent that his talents are of the kind that only comes around once in a lifetime. His elegant eccentricity has inspired a generation of emerging filmmakers to follow their own weirdness, ensuring the continued vitality of cinema’s artistic potential.
Anderson’s artistic future remains as unpredictable as the character of his work, but if PHANTOM THREAD is any indication of what might lie in store for his audience, than said future will be utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before.
“HAIM: NIGHT SO LONG (LIVE AT THE GREEK”) MUSIC VIDEO (2018)
Following their series of collaborations throughout 2016 to support the new album “Something To Tell You”, director Paul Thomas Anderson and the buzzy rock band Haim would reunite for yet another music video, released right in the middle of PHANTOM THREAD’s awards season campaign.
The song— “NIGHT SO LONG” — is a spare, gorgeously haunting piece that calls for a matching visual treatment, which Anderson delivers in the form of a live performance during Haim’s sound check and subsequent concert at the famed Greek amphitheater in Los Angeles. Following in the minimalist tradition of Anderson’s recent music video work, “NIGHT SO LONG” uses its simple construction to better access and capture the transcendent joy or fleeting rapture of musical expression.
Shooting in a low-contrast style with natural light, Anderson — likely operating the camera himself — initially captures the Haim sisters as close-up faces singing into a microphone. There is little to no context, until a hard cut to a wider shot reveals the girls are performing on a stage by the light of the low-hanging sun. Anderson then shows us the empty amphitheater sprawled out before them, before a hard cut drops the veil of night on top of them and fills the seats with a crowd of fans waving their phones.
The piece ends where we started, back on a closeup of the band as they finish their sound check, albeit with the audio swapped out for that night’s live performance— leaving us with an invisible crowd of cheering ghosts while the sisters resign themselves to their introspection.
Anderson’s recent string of minimalist music videos differentiate themselves from the pack by embracing subtlety and nuance over flash, or ideological concepts over technical ones. It’s a testament to his confidence and skill as a filmmaker that he’s able to so quickly and succinctly convey the breadth of his artistic signatures in the space of 5-6 cuts, while still ceding said signatures to the back seat in order to direct our focus onto the band’s own artistry.
The track is a beautiful, yet unexpected closer to an otherwise infectiously-energetic album, as is Anderson’s visual realization of the emotional truths behind it.
Beyond its immediate pop culture value, videos like “NIGHT SO LONG” stand to remind us of their creators’ continually-evolving relationship to the cinematic medium; that even brilliant and insanely-accomplished directors like Anderson are still finding new avenues of expression within it disproves the idea that the cinema is an outdated art from best relegated to the twentieth century. Indeed, as long as there’s practitioners like Anderson, the medium still has plenty of life in it yet.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson is quite obviously well-regarded for his contributions to the theatrical feature space. Case in point: his last three films — THE MASTER (2012), INHERENT VICE (2014) and PHANTOM THREAD (2017) —- were included in a recent (if somewhat premature) ranking by Indiewire of the 100 best films of the decade. However, there’s another case to be made for his short-form output as perhaps his most radical, experimental, and exhilarating work.\
His recent string of music videos for Radiohead, Joanna Newsom, and Haim has created an organic creative space for Anderson to refine and reshape his artistic voice with innovative new techniques unfettered by the demands of three-act narrative structure. Anderson also uses these projects to experiment with alternative distribution strategies, whether it be a surprise online release or an exclusive limited engagement at a repertory theater with serious indie street cred. It seems only natural, then, that Anderson would one day collaborate with Netflix, the current reigning championship of “alternative” distribution.
Shot in May of 2019 — a scant month or two before its release on the streaming platform — Anderson’s semi-futuristic short ANIMA distinguishes itself as one of the most radical, visually-striking works of his career. Described by Anderson and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke as a “one-reeler” (a term from the silent-film era), ANIMA unspools across a dystopian cityscape over the course of fifteen fleet-footed minutes, driven by the idiosyncratic rhythms of three music tracks from Yorke’s eponymous solo album.
The title of both the film and the album is derived from Carl Jung’s theories on dreams and the collective unconscious (1), suffusing an otherwise-simplistic narrative with a rich subtext about the inner chaos that animates us as well as the ceaseless difficulty of pushing back against the conformity of modern life.
Anderson mixes the undeniable influence of dystopian parables like 1984 with the absurdist physicality of silent-era stars like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin to arrive at a wholly unique, bemusing tone. In short, the narrative follows Yorke’s character as he tries to return a forgotten briefcase to a mysterious woman (York’s real-life partner Dajana Roncione). His journey unfolds like a sprawling dream, taking him from the twisting underground labyrinth of the city subway system on through to a cavernous quarry-like space.
The piece culminates in Yorke fighting against gravity itself on an abstractified white plane before he’s able to emerge onto the nocturnal streets of a European city and reunite with the woman on a streetcar just before the sun begins to rise. The choreography, by SUSPIRIA’s Damien Jalet, reinforces the dreamlike nature of ANIMA’s story, forcing the frames’s subjects to contort themselves into impossible shapes that further abstractify Yorke’s surroundings.
After serving as his own cinematographer through his string of short works as well as PHANTOM THREAD, Anderson invites seasoned DP Darius Khondji to shoot ANIMA using a mixture of film and large-format digital acquisition. A fine layer of organic grain blends the two formats seamlessly, better allowing for a subtle emphasis on their differences: the clean stability of the Alexa 65 image versus the constrained tension of film (it’s unclear whether ANIMA’s film segments were captured on 35mm or on the larger 65mm gauge to better match the digital resolution).
Anderson’s first-ever collaboration with Khondji yields stunning results, with Khondji’s decades of expertise melding quite seamlessly with Anderson’s strength of vision and own technical mastery of the craft. ANIMA was shot almost entirely on location, in various urban and subterranean locales around France and Prague. Following in the tradition of George Lucas’ THX 1138 or Andrei Tarkovsky’s STALKER, the dystopian atmosphere is implied rather than visibly constructed, achieved through a painstaking curation of appropriate real-world locations, costumes and color.
One of the earliest images shows a subway car full of people in the same dark overcoat, cut in an ultra-modern, future-adjacent silhouette. The sameness of the costumes underlines the dystopic, conformist environment into which Yorke is dropped, all the while complementing the slate-beige neutrality of the subway stations, underground industrial cavern, and above-grade streetscapes.
By leaning heavily into earth tones in his locations and costumes, Anderson is able to leverage pops of bright color to striking effect— take the candy-red support poles in the subway car for instance, or the electric chartreuse of the streetcar’s signage. Even the simple contrast between pure blacks and whites sears the eye, best evidenced in the middle section where Yorke battles society and gravity alike atop an unsteady blank plane.
Anderson and Khondji utilize a combination of handheld camerawork and classical tracking movements to reinforce the probing, dreamlike nature of ANIMA as a whole, while the lenses required by the choice to shoot in large-format mediums creates a shallow depth of field that facilitates Anderson’s continued exploration of portraiture’s compositional conceits. Ethereal lens flares and impressionistic, looming shadows cast onto stone walls further add to the allegorical, highly-experimental nature of ANIMA’s presentation.
Despite Netflix’s rapid emergence as the entertainment industry’s “establishment” over traditional studio structures, it’s somewhat fitting that Anderson’s most abstract work to date would, following an initial limited IMAX release, make its wide debut on a platform wholly dedicated to shattering theatrical norms.
Like much of his recent short-form work, ANIMA’s audacious technical presentation leaves little room for Anderson’s thematic signatures— Yorke’s quest for connection with the mysterious woman echoes the constant search for a sense of family and belonging so often undertaken by his characters, placing ANIMA most in-line with PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE over any other particular film of his.
That said, ANIMA’s very existence makes one acutely aware of the need for Anderson to tackle a future dystopian setting in his feature work; the world on display here would make for a compelling backdrop upon which Anderson could further the themes of family, power, and idiosyncratic identity that shape his inimitable voice. For the time being, however, the virtuoso visuals throughout ANIMA will have to sustain our speculation about what new direction Anderson’s unpredictable artistry will take.
HAIM: “SUMMER GIRL” MUSIC VIDEO (2019)
It appears that director Paul Thomas Anderson and I are engaged in a strange dance: every time I think I’m up to-do-date with my essays on his work, he goes and drops a new piece that takes the film world completely by surprise. This time, however, I was ready, thanks to a cryptic teaser photo that popped up on Instagram last week featuring Anderson with the Haim sisters in front of the New Beverly Cinema in LA, the celebrated director holding a fresh 35mm reel of film labeled “SUMMER GIRL” set to be threaded up on the projector that evening. Thankfully, the wait wasn’t long for the rest of us.
Set to the new Haim single of the same name, “SUMMER GIRL” positions itself in perfect creative harmony with Anderson’s previous collaborations with the band. As other music videos become increasingly more complex and cinematic, Anderson’s contributions to the medium have simplified into brilliantly-executed performance videos centered around a core visual idea.
On a surface level, “SUMMER GIRL” finds the band performing to camera as they waltz through various iconic locales around LA— we see them chowing down at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax, selling tickets at the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly Cinema on Beverly, and strutting down the San Fernando Valley’s Laurel Canyon Boulevard shopping strip.
All the while, they pull off endless layers of coats, sweaters and t-shirts, as if digging down to the state of endless summer that inhabits their very essence (signified by the bathing suits that are ultimately revealed). That LA doesn’t have easily-discernible seasons is an amusing paradoxical fact that surely must not have been lost on Anderson.
The video’s stripped-down technical execution is consistent with Anderson’s other recent music video work, likely with Anderson himself operating the 35mm film camera. The piece favors shallow focus and natural light, harnessing the golden glow of the late afternoon sun to imbue the Haim sisters with a summery luminescence.
Anderson’s constant use of tracking movements also lend a kinetic, fleet-footed energy, beginning with the documentary-style realism of a handheld camera only to bust out a butter-smooth Steadicam for the climactic vignette. It’s not a particularly flashy video, but Anderson nevertheless infuses it with the intangible aura of a master filmmaker at work; his confidence with technique and his clarity of vision result in an elevated watching experience that stands out amongst the din of an oversaturated market.
Born from a place of melancholy and uncertainty (front woman Danielle Haim wrote the song for her partner as he was undergoing treatment for cancer), “SUMMER GIRL” asserts itself through the prism of Anderson’s eye as an ode to that indomitable California spirit: eternally youthful and vibrant, confident in its own skin, and poised to lead the way into a golden, sun-soaked future.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on taste making online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors.
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