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.
With his last breaths, Partridge confesses, “I let my love go…” as though he might still be saved. Watching these confessional scenes, I am always struck by the intense longing to be healed in Anderson’s movies, to be absolved of transgressions and accepted and reintroduced to the world in a state of holistic wellness. Even the cynical Plainview is needled into an admission of moral failing, crying out “I’ve abandoned my boy!” to a heaven he seems for a flickering moment to fear. Before Barry Egan can accept the love of Emily Watson’s Lena, he must cleanse himself and confess to the trouble he brought on by calling a phone-sex line, like Lëvin presenting his diaries to Kitty in Anna Karenina. Triggering regret is central to the “processing” cross-examination practiced by The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, who repeatedly poses the question “Do your past failures bother you?” The same desire to be absolved or cured of life drives Magnolia’s Aimee Mann sing-along, the chorus of which chides “It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up”—“it” presumably being the endless drubbing of existence itself.
Anderson describes himself as shaped by a casually Catholic upbringing, and in his films ideas about sin and expiation jostle against his distinctly Californian passion for the panaceas of personal therapy and self-help. The two perspectives can be said to meet in the redemptive—if often unfulfilled—potential of personal relationships. In Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall’s card-counter Sydney becomes mentor and protector to John C. Reilly’s hapless John Finnegan in order, we learn, to redeem past trespasses committed a lifetime ago Back East. The relationship triangle that develops between Sydney, John and John’s wife, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), represents the first of many makeshift family units in Anderson’s films. Later examples include Julianne Moore’s coked-up “adoption” of Heather Graham’s “Rollergirl” in Boogie Nights, Plainview taking on the orphaned son of a deceased prospecting partner in There Will Be Blood, and foundling Quell’s apprenticeship to Dodd in The Master. Such restorative attachments are one response to the epidemic of spiritual hunger and spiritual crisis in Anderson’s American West, where the promise of Manifest Destiny had trailed off into the sea.
Like the uprooted retirees of Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust, Anderson’s Californians are those for whom “sunshine isn’t enough.” This air of stark staring panic is at its thickest in Magnolia, which itself fairly reeks of desperation, a folly groaning under its own weight, as if made by someone working frantically to incorporate everything that he has ever thought or felt, someone who suspects that this might be his last chance to work on a canvas of such size.
The result is both too much and not enough. The script’s games of doubling—two dying television-business veterans with animal surnames, two hysterical women with drug-abuse issues, two whiz kids of different generations—reflect an active conceptual intelligence, but at times Magnolia feels like a baggy omnibus made by filmmakers of wildly varying levels of talent. The handling of the botched attempted suicide by stricken game-show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), after facing accusations of molesting his own daughter, is particularly maladroit, as Anderson recoils from the implications of his own material. (His cop-out solution is to spare Gator’s life, but withhold the benediction of the film’s concluding morning-after montage.)
Magnolia has one true inspiration, however, in the character of Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who ranks as one of Anderson’s most indelible creations. Mackey is a teacher of the “Seduce and Destroy” technique, a sort-of male-supremacist pickup-artist guru seen reciting his incantations of “Respect the cock and tame the cunt” to a howling seminar audience of would-be alphas. The character, who Anderson has said was based in part on Secrets of Speed Seduction Mastery author Ross Jeffries, appeared some years before terms like “negging” and “kino” entered popular parlance. (A burlesque scene showing Mackey practicing his art was lamentably left out of the movie’s final cut—it’s the funniest thing Anderson has ever shot.) From the perspective of 2017, the creation of Mackey seems downright clairvoyant. Here we have a standard bearer for men’s rights activism, complete with “trigger liberal snowflakes” talking points, operating before his time, in the late, louche Clintonian period.
Such confidence men play a larger role in Anderson’s movies after Magnolia, as he focuses less singularly on spiritual hunger and more on those who profit from it. We see this in Punch-Drunk Love, a transitional film, where Anderson trades in the emphatic camerawork and long sequence shots of his Scorsese-aping early movies for a greater emphasis on observed downtime ambience: the buzz of warehouse fluorescence in the lonely a.m. hours, Barry Egan’s listless pacing in circles in a half-unpacked apartment that will never ever be a home. In the antagonistic characters played by Sandler and Hoffman, a lonesome sad-sack with an anger-management problem and a blackmailing grifter who preys on the lonely, Anderson hits on the dynamic that has shaped the rest of his films to date. Plot cedes ground to character, and charge is generated through the encounter of contrasting opposite numbers—here the passive and predatory, clumsy and charismatic, victim and bully, naïf and operator.
The strategy is further developed in There Will Be Blood, a saga of industrial wealth and entrepreneurial faith. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview is another of the director’s immediately iconographic protagonists, with his broad-brimmed hat, bristling dark mustache, and anthracite twinkle in his eyes. No man, it seems, can stay off Plainview’s list of enemies forever, but he has no foe so despised as Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a smooth-faced boy preacher who presides over a small congregation at the Church of the Third Revelation in the backwater town of Little Boston, California—the name suggesting that the baggage of New England Puritanism has arrived intact out West.
Eli is based on the character “Eli Watkins” in the source novel, Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which drew on the events of the Teapot Dome scandal, and in particular on the character of one of its principal players, oilman Edward L. Doheny. The sobriquet “Sunday” is Anderson’s addition, almost certainly inspired by Billy Sunday, a former Chicago White Stockings outfielder who retired from baseball in order to preach the revealed Word and who became the model for the modern superstar evangelist.
In the film’s extended 1927-set postscript Eli reveals that he has been attempting to launch himself as a radio personality somewhat in the style of Aimee Semple McPherson. The Pentecostal preacher was a figure with whom Anderson was no doubt familiar—a Los Angeleno legend in her time thanks to the radio broadcast of her weekly sermons, including episodes of faith healing, from the Angelus Temple in Echo Park. Eli Sunday joins the ranks of Anderson characters—Frank T.J. Mackey among them—who seem to spring fully formed from the mythological womb of American capitalism and evangelism, that matrix which begat the megamillions and the megachurches.
In The Master, Anderson turns to a postwar America where he finds not bumptious triumph culture and liberal consensus, but a landscape dotted with psychically damaged wanderers, fumbling after a coherent identity following their pyrrhic victories. Joaquin Phoenix’s Quell is a feckless alcoholic drifter who stumbles into the orbit of Dodd, a self-styled prophet in the mode of L. Ron Hubbard during his early years spreading the gospel of what would become Scientology. Their codependent relationship, an ongoing barter of authenticity and phoniness, reflects the dynamic at the heart of Scientology as a new American religion of self-creation; but it also obliquely suggests another postwar cult that took Hollywood by storm, that of “Method acting” as taught by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. As we watch Dodd coach Quell through psychic exercises meant to dredge up past traumas, we might well be in the Actors Studio, with Phoenix consciously summoning the ghost of Montgomery Clift—the damaged-goods Clift, who’d had his dashed-in face sewn back together after a drunk-driving accident. Both stars offer full-body performances. Phoenix’s dark, scraggly Quell, his arms frequently held akimbo, pigeon chest falling in, a jagged sneer for a grin, a stiff strut that suggests an improperly wiped ass—a perfect inverse foil to Hoffman’s Dodd, a hale, flavicomous, overgrown cherub with inscrutable intentions.
A study in contrasts, these men are also more alike than they know—a point that Anderson underlines in a scene where they face off in neighboring jail cells, reduced to a state of animalistic barking. It’s a memorable scene, and indeed Anderson excels at making standout scenes—though they often have the feel of compartmentalized units, isolated from any larger construction. This accounts, perhaps, for the vaguely unsatisfied feeling that his films always leave me with. They exhibit clearly their creator’s relish in seeing the sparks that result from grinding antithetical characters against one another, but when the grinding is over you’re left with a handful of dust.
Parting company for the last time after a long stint as mentor and protégé, Dodd addresses Quell with a quietly sung rendition of the romantic standard “(I’d Like to Get You) On a Slow Boat to China.” Writing in Film Comment at the time of its release, Kent Jones noted that the The Master “threatens to come apart at the seams,” but that “the courting of danger is exactly what makes [Anderson’s] films so exciting.” This left-field burst of homoerotic serenading is the sort of thing he’s talking about, and such last-minute gambits are a trademark of Anderson’s films—the most famous being the ending of Magnolia, a downpour of frogs prophesied by billboards reading “Exodus 8:2.” Where some see derring-do, however, I find a hint of desperation—I get the feeling that Anderson, having painted himself into a corner, is turning to the grand gesture to make his escape. This is, on one level, entirely appropriate. Desperation is the emotion with which Anderson, as a dramatist, is most comfortable. These bet-the-house moments, on which he is prepared to stake the entire integrity of his film, mirror the in extremis commitments of his damaged characters. Yet some of the exhilaration comes precisely because the risk of artistic failure is treacherously real. The first half of There Will Be Blood, an often-silent meditation on the dirty process of dredging mineral wealth out of flinty ground in mean, godforsaken country, is one of the most compelling pieces of sustained filmmaking in Anderson’s oeuvre. But the film’s resolution, with Plainview cudgeling adversary Sunday into the hereafter, is as disappointing as the first half’s reveal of Daniel’s embittered core had been beguiling. That Plainview does his own killing is at least true to the character; he is hands-on in all his business endeavors. That he should adopt the mantle of preacher (“i am the third revelation!”) in his final triumph over Sunday, who has turned would-be entrepreneur, is certainly in keeping with Anderson’s dialectical screenwriting, in which seemingly antipodal figures reach a state of synthesis. But the finale feels less dangerous than diagrammatic; like Dodd’s burst into song at the eleventh hour of The Master, it’s only as moving as the solution to a formula can be. Both movies are much better in their establishing chapters, limning out their subjects’ individual psychologies through bold images that seem to spring naturally from their interior states. (To put Anderson in the ring with a certifiable cinematic visionary, there are times when There Will Be Blood approaches the at once elemental and insinuating quality of Claire Denis’s 1999 Beau Travail, but he has never found an ending as unexpected and effortless as that film’s frantic dance of self-destruction.)
Inherent Vice (2014) set in Los Angeles circa 1970, and a capper to Anderson’s chronological trilogy on cultish American creeds, effectively dissolves any thought of solution in the fabulations of the Human Potential Movement era. Anderson again here works from his diptych mode: after the Victim and the Conman, the Capitalist and the Preacher, and the Bum and the Demagogue, we get the Hippie and the Square—Phoenix’s burner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello and Josh Brolin’s Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, an LAPD flat-top with an active Actor’s Guild membership. Both are independently investigating a missing-persons case involving dirty dealings in Los Angeles real estate, LAPD malfeasance and a conspiracy between Big Dentistry and the Aryan Brotherhood—just a few of the cults running rampant alongside the Manson clan and “Chryskylodon,” an Esalen Institute-esque asylum with drug-cartel ties, which specializes in reintroducing the dopers they hooked to straight society.
Anderson is perfectly at home in the Los Angeles of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, readily adopting its whodunit bones and rumpled romanticism. Inherent Vice, like most of Anderson’s films, focuses primarily on damaged men—that Emily Watson’s character in Punch-Drunk Love emerges as anything more than a cypher is a testament to the actress. This is to be regretted, for Anderson has filmed scenes of heterosexual coupling distinguished by rare emotional complexity and intimate detail: notably a draining bout between Vice’s Sportello and “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), and the first shoot (two senses of the word apply) with Diggler and Moore’s “Amber Waves” in Boogie Nights. Sportello and Shasta shared their moment together at the magic hour of the Sixties, but she’s gone over to the straight side now, and the movie unfolds in the aftermath of the various sub-cults that had seemed to comprise a spontaneous counterculture having been infiltrated by establishment powers pushing a religious revival of their own—the Nixonian spin on the old “return to normalcy.” Sportello’s snooping finally puts him on the trail of plutocrat puppet master Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), a robber baron of a very different breed than Plainview, one who always keeps his hands clean at the end of the day.
As a guttural howl of protest at the owner class reasserting its foot-on-throat dominance, Inherent Vice isn’t a patch on Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981), a film that may well have been a source of inspiration, and it never achieves real comic liftoff. But it does maintain a lovely, lilting, layered tone. It is Anderson’s most beautiful movie, achieving an abiding air of bittersweetness, or what he has called a “faded postcard” effect. Watching it, you can practically smell the funk of hash, patchouli oil and spoiled leftovers. “I never remember plots in movies, I remember how they make me feel and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen,” Anderson told a festival screening audience at the time of Inherent Vice’s release.
The feeling in this film is that of missed-turn-on-the-freeway melancholy, of having overshot your desired destination and instead winding up scratching your head in the parking lot of a sad strip mall and wondering what you did wrong. It’s an attempt to bottle the essence of that moment when the soft, vulnerable underbelly of the “All You Need is Love” doctrine got sliced open by Manson, and groovy credulity crumbled into paranoiac heebie-jeebies. Time marches on, and it’s not going to stop—the only certainty is that there will be new salesmen, new mantras, new catchphrases, new palliatives and miracle cures and restorative tonics to return us to bygone promise, to imagined greatness.
The plaintive appeal of a better yesterday, like the charm of a faded postcard, is felt through many of Anderson’s films. His is a history of twentieth-century America in a state of perpetual downfall. In Boogie Nights, an Eden of free sex and drugs, artistic ambition and the warmth of shot-on-film pornography gives way to addictive depression, industrialized production and the harshness of the video eye. The demobbed Quell in The Master is looking for any port in a storm when he stumbles onto Dodd’s yacht: the landlubber life of an upstanding civilian on the home front, with its deathly dull domestic opportunities, has nothing to offer him. Punch-Drunk Love’s play with the impersonal architecture of the San Fernando Valley, including a gag in which Barry Egan gets lost in the blank, featureless corridors of his lady love’s apartment building, suggests the anti-modern Tati of Playtime (1967). In There Will Be Blood, the single-minded pursuit of lucre makes a monster of Plainview—though it’s never entirely clear that he had much soul to lose.
Did America? You’ll never go broke among the intelligentsia suggesting that our national life is a hellscape getting hotter all the time, and likely Anderson’s reputation hasn’t suffered from the fact that his filmography can be read as an extended critique of consumer capitalism as it has impressed itself onto the American soul, engendering a sense of longing that can then be taken advantage of by the predatory quacks, mountebanks and snake-oil salesmen who roam the land. “As long as American life was something to be escaped from,” goes the winsome voice-over by Joanna Newsom that runs through Inherent Vice, “the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.” Anderson’s republic is one of dupes and hucksters, which is how it’s been understood by such diverse figures as Melville, Twain and P. T. Barnum, and how a great many of its citizenry understand the social world they inhabit, even while disagreeing who’s being suckered by whom.
Artists here are held in as much suspicion as any other class, so it is only appropriate that Anderson himself should so often be discussed as either sage or charlatan, though the collected evidence suggests a gifted, fallible filmmaker whose reach often exceeds his grasp. His career to date reveals a series of uneasy negotiations between the multiplex and the art house, an attraction to overly general, even abstract themes, counterbalanced by a lucid attention to detail in execution. These managed contradictions suggest that he’s working after the model of John Sturges or George Stevens, those mid-century middlebrow prestige directors par excellence. (Stevens’s 1956 Giant, for example, provides a clear model for There Will Be Blood.) Increasingly, however, after achieving maximum bombast in Magnolia, Anderson can be found toiling like a sapper to weaken the foundations of his own films, digging into irrelevant nuance at a scale that can only be described as pompous, writing obscure lowercase messages on billboard backdrops.
The connections Anderson has fitfully made with a wide audience may be traced to his working in a country where a significant portion of the population seems to believe our best days are behind us, and in a medium whose devotees likewise imagine a happy past being superseded by a degraded present. Anderson’s own happy past might be set in seventies New Hollywood. From early on, his ensemble dramas were likened to those of Robert Altman, while since There Will Be Blood Anderson has inclined more towards Kubrick, whose shadow lies over Anderson’s generation as Hitchcock’s did over the previous one. Too fixated on the great to bother with the merely good, he wears the mantle of national bard, singing sad tidings of our destiny. Asked for his thoughts on Pynchon’s worldview in a 2014 profile, Anderson mused: “Has America really lived up to its potential? Let’s keep hoping.” The same may be said for the extraordinary apparatus that is the film industry in Southern California—and for P. T. Anderson, hometown boy.