The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article A few days ago we learned that the upcoming P. T. Anderson film, The Master - a historical film seemingly concerned with the formation of a Scientology-like cult - has finally been given a U.S. release date (October 12th of this year). I would like to say a few words about why, in my view, the possibility of a new movie from this director will always be among the most exciting propositions of its cinematic year.

Paul Thomas Anderson has been one of the most consistently stimulating writer-directors to have emerged from the ’90s Indiewood boom, in part simply because of his unpredictability. Unlike his namesake Wes, for instance, each new film from this Anderson has constituted a significant departure from his last (with the most recent, There Will Be Blood [2008], coming as perhaps the biggest surprise). Yet this broad range might itself be something of an authorial signature, both for his oeuvre and within individual films. While Altman and Scorsese tend to be cited as the most obvious predecessors, Anderson has often named Jonathan Demme as his very favourite filmmaker, once praising this director’s screwball-comedy-cum-stalker-thriller Something Wild (1986) in particular for being what he called a “gearshift movie”. This seems a useful concept for understanding Anderson’s own work, since it speaks to his love of keeping us forever unsure about what kind of a film we are watching.


A schematic and banal way of putting this would be to say that Anderson is fond of mixing genres - particularly in his first handful of films. Most obviously, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), at heart a romantic comedy, also incorporates a criminal underworld, avant-garde flights into formless colour (courtesy of the artist Jeremy Blake), the surreal central presence of the harmonium, tinges of sci-fi, and an overall feeling it could morph at any moment into the musical Jacques Tati never made. Magnolia (1999) too, on its surface an operatic take on Altmanesque multi-protagonist fare, delights in cramming in pleasures from all kinds of movies: there is the innocent cop Jim (John C. Reilly) who could have stepped out of a romcom, the satire of Frank Mackey’s (Tom Cruise) ‘Seduce And Destroy’ campaign, the indie-flick sad-sack loser Donnie (William H. Macy), the ‘issue film’ tale of abused child genius Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), hints of an urban crime drama via the figure of ‘The Worm’, the double melodramatic cancer storylines - and all this, of course, before we encounter the famous set-pieces which evoke the musical and the biblical epic. Boogie Nights’ (1997) account of life in the 70s/80s L.A. porn scene offers a moralistic rise-and-fall narrative of one man’s seduction into a subculture, but also contains various forms of comic pastiche, and a cast large enough to allow for many different styles of story: comedic and dramatic, intimate and panoramic. Even Hard Eight (1996), seemingly Anderson’s most conventional film, shifts considerably two-thirds through from a touching light drama about inter-generational male friendship into something far more sinister.


The presence and nature of cinematic references has long been a central theme of debates surrounding post-studio Hollywood filmmaking; how does Anderson relate to this tradition? To an extent there is a willful audacity to his eclecticism, and the occasional use of playful intertitles across the first three films (‘So Now Then’; ‘One Last Thing [Long Way Down]’, etc.) only increases the sense of an all-powerful wunderkind self-consciously pulling strings. This might link Anderson with some of his contemporaries in the so-called MTV or VCR generation: filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, who delight in genre-mixing and pop cultural citation to the point where their films’ worlds sometimes appear wholly, depthlessly allusive. Yet, when pressed in an interview about Boogie Nights’ shifts in mood and tone, Anderson has simply claimed that “that’s what real life is like” - a sentiment which makes a definite kind of sense in relation to his work.

As I have suggested elsewhere, although far from conventionally ‘realist’, Magnolia’s cornucopia of generic echoes finally seems less like a meta-cinematic device than an attempt to create a lifelike sense of diversity and fullness. A satirical portrait of a misogynist relationship guru like Frank can stray into the realm of Earl’s (Jason Robards) paternal melodrama; a romantic comedy-style cop can suddenly be shot at and thus thrust into the world of an urban crime flick; a child genius such as Stanley, whose youth feels like an ‘issue film’, may well grow up to inhabit the role of a pathetic indie loser who once suffered the same trauma, Donnie. That these disparate contexts and modes exist in one world, strangely, makes that world feel not especially artificial but rather confusingly heterogeneous, unpredictable, governed not by one but by multiple sets of expectations - that is to say: rather like our own. Even the unheralded singalong and amphibious rainfall suggest less mischievous postmodern games than the emotional logic of a Romantic cartographer of affective landscapes: the song captures the familiar feeling of forging an imagined community from art; the rain is the pathetic fallacy made slimy green flesh - and, in any case, says Stanley (via Charles Fort), just “something that happens”.


Similarly, when Boogie Nights segues from the campy music video-esque fun of Eddie’s rise to the Goodfellas-like (1990) depressive hysterics of Dirk’s fall, or Punch-Drunk Love lurches between romcom sweetness, abstraction, and violence, these transformations simply demonstrate that Anderson is telling these stories experientially in the best way he knows how. That this should involve combining forms consciously wrested from his favourite cinema perhaps tells us he is a product of his media-saturated age, but his particular response to this context is all his own. Anderson has seemed both wary of Hollywood’s conventions and responsive to their power to speak truthfully to him. In one of Magnolia’s thesis moments, Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the nurse of a man dying of cancer, is attempting to contact his patient’s long-lost son so that they may make peace before the father dies; Phil pleads with the person on the other end of the line: “I know that maybe I sound ridiculous, like maybe this is the scene of the movie where the guy is trying to get ahold of the long-lost-son, but this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true - because they really happen. And you gotta believe me: this is really happening…” In, for instance, a Kevin-Williamson-scripted movie, a comparably self-conscious moment would likely serve simply as the effective cinematic equivalent of a wink. Here, by contrast, at once highly self-aware and disarmingly heartfelt, Anderson’s words (and context) suggest instead a film buff, as Mark Olsen perceptively put it, “stumbling towards a maturity beyond the confines of a movie-made life”.


Though we could note the continuity of its Californian setting and familial conflict, There Will Be Blood seems distinct from Anderson’s previous work, and perhaps indicative of the ‘maturity’ into which he has stumbled. Yet it also subtly carries over two other things from the director's preceding filmography: his penchant for wrong-footing the audience, and his interest in making protagonists’ thoughts and feelings felt especially strongly at the level of narration. Following the frighteningly driven oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) as he expands his business in the late 19th and early 20th Century, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film was widely described as an ‘epic’. This word, though, implies grand sweep and, perhaps more than anything, a narrative which depicts its world in social terms. Little could be further from what There Will Be Blood offers (as I have argued at greater length here).

While certainly touching upon large ideas (American capitalism, religion), rather than broadening its scope to stress its story’s national or historical importance, this film’s point of view in fact constantly leaves unusually large gaps in our potential for grasping the social world it depicts. Not only does the film entirely eschew the socialist politics of its source text, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, but it contains innumerable elisions and silences regarding basic narrative events, where we would expect an ‘epic’ to provide details and contexts. The moment when Bandy hands Plainview back his gun after speaking of “sins” he must repent is one obvious case of this: we’re given no evidence that Bandy knows Plainview has killed a man - and, if he does, why not take this crime more seriously? Another is the business between Plainview and the young Mary Sunday: he is kind to her, but for wholly mysterious reasons. Equally: why does H.W burn down the shack? What causes the troubled relationship between Paul and Eli? What happens to the characters during the decade-plus gap that takes us to the film’s conclusion?


Instead of answering such questions, There Will Be Blood is concerned almost exclusively with Plainview whilst also being unlike a character study, since we know very little about his inner life beyond two facts: that he doesn’t like to discuss himself or his past, and that his attitude towards people in general is one of sociopathic disgust. The film does allow us to know him in one sense, however, by emphatically echoing these very personality traits in its own construction. The complete refusal to let us understand the film’s world in social terms, or even sometimes understand rudimentary behaviour, creates a pathologically tight, and thoroughly antisocial, viewing experience. This is also achieved through the movie’s visual style, which contains remarkably few establishing and reaction shots - two classical devices that best allow spectators to understand geography and social interactions. Another repeated motif sees Plainview in the foreground whilst members of a society with which he is unconcerned stay pointedly blurred behind him: women, children, co-workers, townspeople - always emphasising what is being excluded by his frightening view of the world. By superficially resembling an epic yet gradually becoming a story of a sociopath told through what ultimately amounts to a sociopathic point of view, the narration enacts the narrative’s central irony: that, while Plainview preaches community and social development in his sales-pitches, he himself wants nothing more than to escape society entirely.

So - Anderson is now, it seems to me, fascinatingly poised. Will The Master continue along paths opened up by his last, or will he once again surprise us all? For his career in general as for his movies in isolation, it is virtually impossible to guess what will happen next.

This article was published on March 30, 2012.

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