Speaking to the Yearning for the Past
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Photo Courtesy - Taste of Cinema
Paul Thomas Anderson movies have all the ingredients of great movies. Still, there is a nagging feeling of incompleteness at the end. This, many would say, is not a bad thing – a piece of art can leave you dangling or intrigued and void can be a very rewarding sensation. But being left intrigued is not the same as being left dissatisfied. That means that the product misses some link coherence that is needed for proper communication of pleasure. In other words, this is not a realized piece of art.
This might be a harsh thing to say about somewhat acknowledged masterpieces like, Boogie Nights (1997), The Master (2012), There will be Blood (2007), Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017) – Magnolia (1999) is exception and is a great movie in its completeness of communication. Good thing about Paul Thomas Anderson is that he is insanely imaginative, hugely talented, masterfully skilled and has age on his side. More importantly, he is not afraid to engage with ever-new vistas to transcend himself. His fascination with details may often diluted overall result.
Let’s first talk about what makes his suffocating limitations stark and tolerable at the same time.
Intense Individuality and Universal Themes
Solitary creative process of Paul Thomas Anderson is, in a way, redeemed by the highly social nature of his topics. Very often we find him commenting upon historical shifts shared by a country, if not humanity. He has been termed as ‘national bard, singing sad tidings of our (American) destiny’. He could talk with great intimacy, eliciting suspicion of an autobiographical origin, about gambling, sad comrederie and demise of short-on-film pornography, the ‘Long Goodbye’ to innocent optimism of 60s and early 70s, frontier capitalism and the travails of a religious cult. All patently personal takes, but talked to a moment in the collective memory of a people. Sheer sociality of the topics hid monolithic understanding of a monk. His lonely pursuit of peeling the layers of a personal emotions on the one hand and decoding collective feelings, on the other, has been highly rewarding exercises and has given many great cinematic moments. He is condensed in his detailing and expansive in his scope. Whatever limitations his solitary eye has, it finds resonance in a sufficiently large number of people due to pan-humanity span of his canvas. He has been great at this and has generated great interest in his work with their chiming topicality. So, he is good at working on his material, he has an eye for finding cinema-worthy strands in the ether of collective consciousness. This is not the only good thing about this supremely talented filmmaker.
90s have given rise to auteurs with distinctive voices. They have all delivered to keep cinema moving and lending it a solid fooling in the comity of arts. Directors who emerged in the wake of Francis Ford Coppola, Cassavates, Brien De Palma, Kubric directly learning from Spielberg and George Lucas have given cinema its new idiom for the new and challenging millennium. Coan Brother, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, Alexander Payne. are the flag bearers of this, I daresay, golden era. They all have wide range but all of them have their voice, style. Mostly, these directors have their specifc strong points. None of them is any lesser due to that specificity. Paul Thomas Anderson is a master of all and that is why has the strongest potential to reach and redefine the top of the auteur totem pole. And, to our utter frustration, is the least realized. But first, his extra-ordinary mastery over the tricks of his trade. While Sophia Coppala is great with creating a mood of delicious melencholy and has impeccable with music, Fincher is a ‘visual virtuoso’ and creates a dystopian palette with gusto, Linklater a verbal stylist. Payne establishes character of great depth. Tarantino uses his geeky knowledge to great results and is a director of great verbal panache. Soderbergh mesmerizes with reinvention. Paul Thomas Anderson has perhaps the longest list of specialities. His dialogues are able to create the desired impact. He very effectively deploys verbal sophistication to achieve a posh banter or rebuke, he can be a profane joy like Tarantino or rustle up a Woody Allenesque intellectual rant at will. His camera work and ability to create a beautiful frame is up there with Francis Ford, Scorcece and Coen Brothers. He handled camera for Phantom Thread and created a work of abiding beauty. He uses formats to cram desired details onscreen and is one of the best user of wide formats. His choice of music is rarely a boastful announcement of the director’s esoteric taste. The music is always at the service of what is happening on the screen. That does not mean that he does not bring his A game there. Johnny Greenwood (his usual music composer) has acquired a legendary status especially after the hauntingly mesmerizing score for Phantom Thread. Like his contemporaries, Paul Thomas Anderson is a bit show-off in camera movements, high pitch editing, musical score and cinema trivia. Somehow, it is felt that this showmanship services the deep humanism of his movies and supports the scene if not entire story. His mastery has the widest range among his peers.
A Vessel of Great Acting
Paul Thomas Anderson has always drawn great performance from his actors. In his movies (which are still in single digit), Paul Thomas Anderson has given actors with lengthy and distinguished career their most iconic roles. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Masters) Daniel Day-Lewis (There will be Blood & Phantom Thread), Mark Wahlberg and Julliane Moore (Boogie Nights), Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread), Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice & The Master) and most notably perhaps Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia a gloriously inappropriate Tom Cruise. His films provide a gorgeous frame to what has been termed as ‘toxic masculinity’ of his protagonists. The director has taken his actors to the depths and heights of their strength. He gave them canvas, time, histrionic fission, proper competition and the whole ecosystem to reach their crescendo. He deployed the tool of opposite characters in the same shot to heighten the impact. Fumbling Adam Sandler, Krieps and Phoenix found their vulnerable beauties pitted against formidable and certain Hoffman and Daniel Day Lewis. Lewis got the high pitch he needed to dig up the maniac energy in There will be Blood and poise, time, dialogues and counterpart for his unmoving hauteur in Phantom Thread. In Magnolia, the director used Tom Cruise’s concentration, energy and his charisma (which proved wonderfully amenable to dubious interpretations). Tom Cruises’s cheesiness was kept at a level where it was both loathsome for its gigantic inappropriateness and endearing for its vulnerability. All these actors got great scenes, with aforementioned supportive ecosystem, and they hungrily seized them to great impact. This success in giving great scenes to his actors has made him a vessel of great acting for top thespians. However, this success has often come in the way of him becoming a fully realized artist. More on that later.
Speaking to the Yearning for the Past
It has been noted that Paul Thomas Anderson has been speaking to an America that thinks that the best is in the past. Some scholars think not without merit, that this association with this perceived past glory of America adds to his cult following. 1960s & 1970s of Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice, ‘Frontier rapaciousness’ of There will be Blood, 1950s of Phantom Thread and post World War II confusion of The Master, despite their depravations and quirks hark back to a time loss of which is deeply mourned by many Americans and any auteur who could bring back the authentic pulse of those times is worthy of a high place in cinematic pantheon for many.
He is also great at addressing great themes in these seemingly period dramas. Power play of a romantic relationship and lonely strains of a genius in ‘Phantom Threads’, vulnerability and pull of a sect in ‘The Master’, feeling of loss at a dying ethos in ‘Inherent Vice’, family and forgiveness in ‘Magnolia’ and, believe me, in ‘Boogie Nights’ and finally ills of capitalism in ‘There will be blood’ are huge themes that have been explored with adroit and sympathetic touch by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Hope of Cinematic Growth
It is fascinating to watch Paul Thomas Anderson to graduate from self to universal. His sunny California Valley milieu, his childhood concerns if not afflictions, with gambling, pornography, solitary toil of a genius, vulnerability of sickness, forgiving & family, sense of loss at the death of hippie ideal are very starkly present in his oeuvre. Normally, not always and not always with very good results, creative journeys move from autobiographical to universal. Artists who manage this well leave behind some thing remarkable. Paul Thomas Anderson, who is still relatively young, has proved himself to be worthy traveller. In his technique he graduated from the showy Scorsese like camera movement and feverish editing to a more sedate but technically challenging vistas in ‘Inherent Vice’ and most notably in ‘Phantom Thread’. He based ‘Phantom Thread’ in 1950s London and still chuckles over the name ‘Woodcock’ in his interviews. This is a far cry from the sunny California. He was accused of working only in high pitch and was called master of bombastic bravura. In ‘Phantom Thread’, in many ways a film where we see maturing and settling of his voice, he found the strength in subtle and slow. This growth fills one with hope that the unrealized feeling of his works and the lack of satisfaction that they leave in their wake would soon be a thing of past.
That nagging feeling
Paul Thomas Anderson has great sense of history and has all the tools to tell his story. He is capable of establishing a character in simply few shots of him dressing up for the day. He can create a California beach, its timeframe and even its anxieties, by a still frame that just lingers a bit longer. Ironically, his strengths are the main reason that his work looks unfulfilled, unrealized. In any lesser movie, ending (his great bane) would not have jarred at all as they jarred in ‘The Master’ and ‘Phantom Thread’ and most remarkably in ‘There will be blood’. He hilms are so relete with strong moments that may be conveying a story requires much stronger ending than he has managed so far. Audience do need a pay off.
New York Times critic Janet Maslin has accused Paul Thoma Anderson for torpedoing his films by botched up endings. David Denby half mockingly wondered that the directors misfires at the finish line as "some part of him must have rebelled against canonization."
His frightening mastery of creating memorable scenes also comes in the way of him providing a fluid story-telling experience. I better quote from Nick Pinkerton in The Point (A magazine founded on the suspicion that modern life is worth examining). This was the best profile of the great director that I came across during my research.
“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.”
About his technique of putting opposite characters to get cinematic traction too has been beautifully analyzed by Pinkerton and I again quote at length as this perhaps can’t be put any better-
“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.”
‘Inherent Vice’, a great movie by any count, could not lift itself to its comedic potential. Drug-addled haze has been used to great effect in Michael Douglas starrer ‘Wonder Boys’, The Big Lebowski and his idol Altman’s ‘Long Goodbye’ and many more. In ‘Inherent Vice’, we are stuck in the strain of transcendence rather than enjoyment of transcendence.
‘Magnolia’ is an exception. The ending with its absurdly beautiful ending resolved the insanely varied strands in a memorable coda of forgiveness and cinematic payoff. Though Janet Maslin used the ‘torpedo’ metaphor for Magnolia, Roger Ebert, who indulgently watched the rise of Paul Thomas Anderson has put only ‘Magnolia’ among his famous pantheon of ‘Great Movies’, not even ‘There will be blood’ got that honour (Ebert was no longer there for ‘Inherent Vice’ and ‘Phantom Thread’). Ebert recognized Paul Thomas Anderson as a genius and said early in career that he loves camera and is a bit of a show off. Ebert has been a personal touchstone for my movie appreciation journey. His less than total entrallment with Paul Thomas Anderson was the first warning bell in my mind that led me to my research.
Coen Brothers (Those of Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men – That pipped ‘There will be blood’ at the Oscars) scores heavily over Paul Thomas Anderson by their diabolically skilful and complete story telling. In 2018, among the Academy Nominees for direction, ‘Phantom Thread’ was the most powerful and beautiful movie but the winner ‘The shape of the water’ and even other nominees like ‘Dunkirk’, ‘Lady Bird’ or ‘Get out’ were better with communicating their core themes and took their story to logical conclusion.
All this does not take anything away from Paul Thomas Anderson. In fact, much of his cult following may be because of his slow burn incompleteness. He is never short of great in any of his frames. His skills in individual departments are perhaps most multifaceted and deeper than any. Most importantly, he is growing and tackling these issues. But the fact remains that his skills as director need better consummation from the writing department and one hopes that he finds in him the generosity and playfulness to find a worthy writing collaborator. His ceding of little control may be necessary sacrifice for fuller blooming and a deserving realization of his mind boggling skills. Some talents cannot be allowed to remain unrealized.