Directors don’t have a consistently identifiable “prime” in the way that, say, boxers do. Film history offers plenty of instances of late bloomers and early flame-outs. Inasmuch as we can identify a period of peak power in cineastes, however, it is when experience has been gained and age hasn’t begun to demand its compromises. Paul Thomas Anderson has by now entered this period, along with his rough contemporaries Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan, the Hollywood directors nearest to him in age, clout and aspiration.
If you were in the process of discovering the world of cinema in the late Nineties, as this author was, Paul Thomas Anderson was impossible to ignore. His feature debut Hard Eight (1996), a tightly scripted and modestly scaled genre film, went largely unnoticed, but follow-up ensemble drama Boogie Nights (1997), a three-ring circus of show-off camerawork and substance-abuse-fueled seventies melodrama, couldn’t be missed. A decade on, another period piece, There Will Be Blood (2007), starring Daniel Day-Lewis as turn-of-the-last-century wildcatter Daniel Plainview, cemented his reputation as a major director—the historian and chronicler not only of the fates of driftless individuals but also of the sad secret life of the United States.
Anderson has never lacked for ambition—and as with any extravagant artistic undertaking, this has engendered debate as to if the work is brilliant or Brummagem. Taken together, his films offer a wide-angle narrative of the twentieth-century American experience, suffused with popular indigenous themes such as lives of quiet desperation and beating against the current ceaselessly into the past. This loftiness of intention is legible not only in the content of an Anderson film, but also in its form. Even his “small” films like Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love (2002)—the only of his movies shy of two hours—are amped up by his visual sense and knack for graphic impact. Think of the succinct image of alienation that opens Punch-Drunk Love: Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan rammed in the far corner of a widescreen frame, hunched over his desk in a bare warehouse, a strip of blue paint on a blank wall perfectly matching his boxy blue suit. Anderson has said that John Sturges’s commentary track on the LaserDisc of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), the first MGM production shot in CinemaScope, taught him everything that he knows about film directing. He favors big and consciously “cinematic” formats, including wide-gauge 70mm and anamorphic Panavision lenses, and at a time when the widescreen is often used as an unconsidered default, he is among a handful of filmmakers who really composes for it. Yet the boldness and sweep of Anderson’s aesthetic is connected to what can make his films such frustrating experiences. The talent and imagination are undeniable, and so too is the tiptoe exertion that accompanies their inevitable reach for the transcendent—a strain we register as viewers at precisely the moments when we should be feeling the transcendence itself.
Anderson’s American chronicle expresses an unusual Pacific-leaning bias. California is the epicenter of the Anderson universe, playing a crucial role in nearly all his films, with greater Los Angeles given pride of place. (The forthcoming Phantom Thread, set in London in the Fifties, will be an outlier.) Anderson is himself a first-generation Californian; his father, Ernie, was a native of Lynn, Massachusetts who’d been stationed in the Pacific while serving with the U.S. Navy during World War II—like Joaquin Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell in The Master (2012). Ernie Anderson made himself a cult star in Cleveland in the mid-Sixties as Ghoulardi, a beatnik, Van Dyke beard-sporting late-night horror movie show host who took potshots at the unhip bedroom community of Parma, Ohio. Then he headed west where he made a modest fortune as the voice of ABC, raising his family in Studio City in the San Fernando Valley, something like the Parma of Los Angeles.
Many of Anderson’s movies exude a fascinated repulsion-attraction towards his home town’s less scenic precincts, the cityscape that Pauline Kael, reviewing Alex Cox’s Repo Man in 1984, referred to as “the LA of freeways and off ramps and squarish pastel-colored buildings that could be anything and could turn into something else overnight.” Anderson has a marked affinity for retail-operation showrooms: the “Super Cool” stereo store that Buck (Don Cheadle) dreams of in Boogie Nights; the furniture wholesaler Solomon & Solomon (one of many Old Testament references) in Magnolia (1999); the rival small businesses run by Punch-Drunk Love foils Egan and Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), proprietors respectively of a novelty toilet-plunger concern and D & D Mattress; and the downtown department store in The Master where Quell has a brief stint as a portrait photographer. These settings are the backdrops of Anderson’s youth, reflecting the strong autobiographical bent of his films: the deathbed vigil over Jason Robards’s cancer-stricken Earl Partridge in Magnolia came not long after Anderson had witnessed his own father’s slow dying.