Are you ready to bow down and worship another genius? Come on, it’ll be fun, trust me! Trusssst in meeee…
Alright, I’ll confess. I’m bringing out the Kaa eyes because the next auteur on this list can be a bit of a hard swallow for some people. He’s an auteur for sure (that rhymes, yay), and has had some mainstream success, but there’s definitely a chasm between what I see in him and what some others…well, don’t.
Film aficionados will know this man well. His new projects are always highly anticipated, and often meet the hype. It is, of course…
Paul Thomas Anderson is often cited by aspiring filmmakers as the ideal modern American auteur, and they’ll get no argument from me. He credits himself as either “P. T. A.” or “P. T. Anderson”, but is not to be confused with directors Wes Anderson or Paul W. S. Anderson…just to make things that much harder for you.
PTA is hard to put into a category, there’s no one else quite like him. He’s a bit of a prodigy, making his first successful film at 26. His movies always display unconventional choices that will initially draw some in but push many others away. Over time his movies often gain a following and are eventually cited as great examples of contemporary craftsmanship, not unlike the late works of Stanley Kubrick. I personally find his musical choices, editing decisions, and shot selections to be best described as “haunting”. They stick in your mind, for better or worse, and even if you’re not entirely satisfied with the film, they beckon you to revisit it. For me, these choices just work on a gut level. They’re admittedly totally screwy decisions at times, but they’re clearly coming from a place of true conviction.
If you’re someone who loves digging deep into the roots of a grand tree, then you can see Anderson’s very first film “The Dirk Diggler Story” here. It’s a rubbish mockumentary, shot on a cheap video camera, that would later serve as the inspiration for Boogie Nights. Good luck getting through it, though, because I found little evidence of the PTA that I love within it’s thirty-one minute running time.
Anderson’s first proper short film comes five years later. The story goes that he enrolled in film school and immediately found it repulsively sanctimonious and creatively constricting. As a test of whether the lecturers truly knew what they were talking about, he stole a page from pulitzer prize winner David Mamet’s then un-produced screenplay Hoffa(1992), and handed it in as his own during an assignment. When the page came back with a “C+” scribbled at the top, he immediately defected and recouped his money for the first semester. It would be better spent, he figured, making his first professional short film.
Thus, in 1993, we got Cigarettes and Coffee, a film set in a diner that connects three stories using a twenty dollar bill. It’s not the most exciting short imaginable, but it has a sense of untapped potential about it. That potential was noticed at the Sundance film festival, where producers and filmmakers saddled Anderson up with the necessary means for adapting it into a feature film.
The feature adaptation of Cigarettes and Coffee was originally titled Sydney, but the studio subsequently renamed it Hard Eight. It’s a stylish crime-related drama paying tribute to film noir. PTA himself describes it as “simply imagining a classic gangster character at the end of his life”. It’s not without flaws, but as a directing debut it’s about as good as you could expect it to be. It even has a tonal kinship with Quentin Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs. My favourite thing about Hard Eight is its intriguing premise. It begins with a man named Sydney who approaches a young drifter at a diner. Sydney tell the drifter that if he follows him to a casino, he’ll show him how to turn fifty dollars into a fortune.
From there on it’s best to simply watch the story unfold. Not until the final act do we understand Sydney’s propensity for random generosity.
It’s odd that a film like Hard Eight has been so forgotten, but it’s really worth checking out. The film’s trailer tries to make it look like a rip-roaring casino thriller. It’s not that at all. In fact it takes its sweet time, refusing to give you goodies until the end.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s most popular film, without a doubt, is Boogie Nights. I can’t lie…it’s my favourite as well. Most people will have already seen it, but if you haven’t…consider yourself lucky that you get to watch it for the first time. It’s a speed injected snapshot of the naivety in the 70’s, viewed through the lens of the porn industry. The hilarious quotes, set pieces, unforgettable moments, and general exuberance will win you over from the very first shot. It also has one of the best movie soundtracks ever.
Mark Wahlberg plays Dirk Diggler, a new pornstar talent known for having…the full package, so to speak. Anderson based the character on famous 70’s pornstar John Holmes, but Wahlberg’s performance is its own special thing.
Diggler is recruited by veteran pornographer Jack Horner, played by Burt Reynolds, who turns him into a star overnight. Horner has a fantasy that he’ll be the first person ever to make porno films that people watch for the story as well as the sex. An ambitious idea, indeed. One might even say foolish.
I’ve always thought of Boogie Nights as intentionally fairy-tale-esque. It portrays the 1970’s as a time of suspended consequences. Sex was disease-less, drugs were not addictive, and a career in porn was as valid as any other. HIV, drug addiction, and stigma don’t hit until the 80’s…and boy do they come in full force.
This is why every character in the film appears to be a blithering idiot. It’s completely appropriate to the world they’re living in. A ludicrous statement like John C. Reilly saying “people tell me I look like Han Solo” floats by without question. Of course he does, why shouldn’t he? It’s bizarro, and leaves only you, the audience, to be the integral straight man in a dual reality double act. That’s a stupidly complicated way of saying…it’s really funny.
After the double whammy of a solid debut and a genuine hit, Anderson had the credibility to begin making more serious and thoughtful works. The first of these is Magnolia.
Magnolia is a lot of things, but it’s primarily an homage to Robert Altman’s ensemble films, like Shortcuts. It’s a collection of smaller stories that are all tangentially connected and prefaced by a narrator who recounts numerous wild and unexplainable coincidences. This creates the assumption that every one of these stories will, at some point, interweave in an elaborate way. PTA, however, is not someone you can so easily predict. There is indeed an unexplainable event coming, but it may not be the kind that you expect.
Returning to the subject of Anderson’s “screwy” decisions. There is a recurring image of the numbers 8 and 2 littered throughout Magnolia. The film consists of 10 characters, 8 + 2. Magnolia is an 8 letter word, the 2nd and 8th letters being “a”…and on and on it goes. The references are everywhere!
It makes for a fun little game, no doubt. Have a drink every time you find the numbers 8 and 2 together. Also, here’s a fun tip…once you’ve seen the film, look up Exodus 8:2 in the bible. It will suddenly make sense.
I do really like Magnolia. It had the potential to be dry or pretentious, but mostly avoids that. It seems to be a film constructed from pure emotion, intent on transferring it to you though sheer force. Thus, the camera moves with vigour. It constantly darts and races, pushes in and pulls out. Every player is giving it their all and as the orchestral score swells underneath, a sense of lurking dramatic importance will start creeping into your subconscious. I’ve never fully understood what the film is trying to say, but the experience of watching it is enough for me to recommend it.
I’ve already recommended Punch-Drunk Love as a great Valentines day film. Oh, look at that, we just had Valentines Day again! That’s why I was feeling the cold chill of vast enduring loneliness gripping at my heart. Well, who cares if I don’t have someone who loves me…I have Punch-Drunk Love!
I absolutely, unapologetically, love this film! My experience of watching it for the first time was, in and of itself, a matter of ‘love at first sight’. It is simply unhinged loveliness clumsily wrapped up in a bow.
I’ve described the film before, so I’ll quote myself for expediency’s sake:
“Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan. Barry Egan is a strange man with weird mannerisms and even weirder ideas. He most likely has asperger syndrome, autism, or something similar. He doesn’t connect emotionally with others the way the rest of us do, finding the world to be a big, loud, and scary place.
However, he also has a hidden secret. Inside him he has a hulk-like violent rage, which reveals itself occasionally in a damaging and disorganised manner when he feels threatened. One day, a dodgy crook, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his gang of thugs begin to blackmail him for utilising their sex hot-line, continually exploiting his fragile psychological state. That is…until Barry falls in love, and finds it to be the help he needs in order to channel his emotions.”
Anderson got the idea for the film after reading an article about David Phillips, a man who bought 12,150 cups of pudding in order to obtain 1.5 million air miles. Due to the miles bonus tag being stamped on each individual cup of pudding, rather than the larger packet, he was able to acquire this lifetime supply of air travel for just $3,000. PTA wondered what sort of odd person would go to such trouble just to exploit a technical loophole. He then imagined that person as the lead in a romantic comedy, and Punch-Drunk Love is the result.
I still think Boogie Nights is PTA’s best film, but Punch-Drunk Love is just a hair’s breadth behind it. As strange as it is (and it is strange!), it is in fact a romantic comedy. The story is told mostly through visuals and music, as opposed to dialogue. The soundtrack intentionally flips between chaotic noise and beautiful harmony. If you want to understand the movie, pay attention to when the music changes. That’s the key to understanding Sandler’s character. He cannot handle interactions with other people, especially his seven overbearing sisters, but the world suddenly becomes a wonderfully serene place when he finds something he loves. The first introduction of love into his life comes in the form of a small wooden harmonium that someone randomly leaves on the street outside his business.
There’s no explanation for its appearance, nor the deafening car accident that precedes it. It appears to be handed, literally, to the audience so that we can understand how limited our perspective is. We see and hear everything through Barry’s eyes and ears, and the harmonium acts as a metric for us to understand that filter.
Barry falls in love with his harmonium, and learns to play it whenever he needs the world to be manageable again.
Barry then meets a woman named Lena, and eventually finds that same love and connection in her. Whenever she is present in his life, he is able to function normally, and that is love.
Having experienced this specific feeling myself, albeit unrequited, I find that Punch-Drunk Love speaks to me in a way that no other romantic comedy can. As film and audience we are made for each other. If you’ve ever had a situation where you met that special someone who could make your painful world kind and beautiful, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
It is most important for you to know that Punch-Drunk Love is not just a love story, but instead a story about love itself. It attempts to boil down what love is and depict it on the screen, crystallized. It’s dangerous, exciting, delicate, confusing, and…the main word…haunting.
The next two films are Paul Thomas Anderson’s unadulterated serious dramas. They’re each worthwhile in their own way, but they’re also slow, long, and dense. I certainly recommend them as films, but don’t watch them on a night when you just want to have some fun. If you’re game for some important intellectual heavy lifting, then you’ll be rewarded.
When I first saw There Will Be Blood, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of it. I knew that parts of it were great, but others seemed to linger aimlessly. Having watched it a few more times over the years, I’ve come to admire it a lot more than I originally did. I now love it in its totality, and I’m hoping to talk you into loving it as well.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a ruthless silver prospector who turns his eye towards the oil industry at the beginning of the 20th century. He bargains, persuades, lies, and strains his way through the grimy gauntlet of a booming industry in hopes of building his own empire.
After striking oil near a small Californian town, he meets Eli, a young evangelical preacher who believes that the town’s newfound wealth should be used to fund his church. From their very first encounter, Daniel and Eli are, pardon the pun, oil and water.
Hence we have the classic awkward dance of Americas two core pillars, religion and capitalism. Daniel is a materialist who’s singularly obsessed with accruing money, while Eli is deeply spiritual and preoccupied with attaining power. They despise each other’s nature, and yet they’re both fundamentally the same person.
To make matters worse, they need each other. Daniel cannot get the oil out of the ground without the manual labour of the local inhabitants, all of whom worship at Eli’s sermons. Meanwhile, Eli cannot expand his church without the profits from Daniel’s oil well. Will either of them yield? What compromises can they make without surrendering their entire reason for existing? All we can know for certain is that eventually…there will be blood.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in this film is legendary. It’s often cited as his best and it won him the Oscar at the 80th Academy Awards. The film itself was considered a likely winner for Best Film, but ended up losing to No Country For Old Men.
From a production standpoint alone, the film is undeniably impressive. The white hot Californian desert clashes so beautifully with the rich deep blackness of the crude oil seeping up from the ground, giving the whole film a gritty texture. Anderson sourced early hand made 19th century lenses and attached them to the front of his modern 35mm camera in order to create a unique look that truly invoked the era, complete with blinding lens flares and vaseline smears. The music score by Johnny Greenwood, full of violin bows scratching slowly over strings, is designed to make the barren landscapes and filthy goals of immoral men seem that much less bearable. You’ll be checking under your fingernails for dirt after having seen it, that’s how vile it is. A gorgeously repugnant film, just as it should be.
There Will Be Blood is generally considered, amongst film critics, to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s definitive work. One of the lecturers at my University described it as “the one true masterpiece that can make 2001: A Space Odyssey look feeble by comparison”. I wouldn’t go that far, myself, but I do think it’s a film everyone needs to see at some point in their life. It is a real epic. A rare contemporary film that feels like a classic as you’re watching it. Find it and watch it, please.
The Master is…shall we say… a film that requires repeat viewing for total comprehension. It’s incredibly slow, and to be quite honest…not much happens. It’s really just a character study rather than a developing plot.
The film starts off following the erratic behaviour of Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran. We watch him stumbling around, starting fights, chasing women, and slowly drinking himself to death by creating his own dangerous batch of moonshine. At one point this homemade drink accidentally kills a migrant worker and Freddie jumps aboard a departing ship to avoid capture by the police. Unbeknownst to him, he’s just set foot upon a vessel belonging to a growing cult known as “The Cause”. Its leader is a man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and the two men strike up an odd friendship over a common love for Freddy’s “drink”. Lancaster sets his sights on transforming Freddy into a responsible man and valuable follower, but that’s easier said than done.
I know I made it sound plot heavy, but that’s really just the setup. After Freddy joins The Cause, the film wanders about merely exploring the two character’s mutual affection for one another. Lancaster loves and secretly admires Freddy for his rogue nature, while Freddy feels attached to Lancaster for being the only person who has ever truly stayed with him and fought for the redemption of his soul.
“The Cause” is obviously based on Scientology, and Lancaster Dodd is clearly L. Ron Hubbard. Everything from Thetan levels to The Million Year Contract has a fictionalised version in the film, but The Master is not a history lesson on cults of the 1950’s. Do not expect to know more about the inner working of The Church of Scientology after watching it.
What’s impressive is the solid character portrayals. The performances are great. Pay attention to Phoenix in particular.
Watch the way he brutally contorts his face upwards in a permanent grimace, displaying just how much the war has damaged him. Hoffman, on the other hand, does a dependably stellar job of being a warm father figure, but will suddenly snap into a violent rage when questioned.
I haven’t even mentioned Amy Adams yet, who plays Hoffman’s wife, Peggy. Her usual wide eyed innocence is subverted here. Over time she reveals herself to be manipulating Hoffman’s behaviour through her subtle words and not-so-subtle sexual dominance.
By the end of the film, ask yourself…who is the real master to which the title refers?
There’s one other neat fact about The Master, however trivial it may seem. The entire film is shot in 70mm, twice the size of regular 35mm. Add to this that it consists mostly of closeups, and you’ve got yourself a striking optical effect. It’s best viewed at a proper 70mm screening, but the quality comes through on home media as well.
I do recommend The Master, but of course keep in mind that its a slow burn. Think of it like a play rather than a film. Watch when sober and focused, that’s all I can say.
And finally we come to the only Paul Thomas Anderson film that I will not recommend. A sad note to end on, for sure, but I have never been able to understand or enjoy Inherent Vice. It’s an adaptation of the Thomas Pinchon novel, and is a total mess as far as I’m concerned. I was really looking forward to seeing it after the trailer got me all excited.
It looks great, right? Like a mixture of The Master and Boogie Nights. Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but no. I was so bored watching this, I can’t even tell you. Maybe you’ll find something in it that I couldn’t. For your sake I hope you do. And to think that until now Anderson had an unbroken streak in my book. Oh well.
So what makes Paul Thomas Anderson such a lauded auteur? Well, for starters he writes, directs, and even partially edits all of his films. Secondly, he challenges the norm of what a film is and what it can be. Thirdly, he gets astonishing and unexpected performances out of his actors. Fourth, and most importantly, he has an uncanny ability to saturate his films with the precise emotion that he wants to evoke. His stories can appear unstructured or enigmatic, but you always know that he’s in full control. There are no arbitrary decisions.
The themes of PTA’s films vary depending on the story. Hard Eight is a film about regret, Boogie Nights is about naiveté, Magnolia is about death and tragedy, Punch-Drunk Love is an autobiographical romance, There Will Be Blood is about the callous backbone of American industry, The Master is about healing, and Inherent Vice is…well, who the hell knows. What unites them is style and craftsmanship. Anderson is notorious for living and breathing his vocation. He has a fascination with the history of film and film technology. His films will often emulate old obscure titles, both in terms of aesthetic and story.
One thing I’ve noticed is PTA’s love of repetition. He uses it constantly as a way to unearth meaning. Whether it’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman shouting “Shut up” eleven times…
…or Julianne Moore’s quadruple use of the words “too many things” while strung out on cocaine…
…the use of repetition is noticeable in every one of Anderson’s movies. So much for brevity being the soul of wit. Much of the time it’s even right there in his writing.
Other times it’ll be thrown out as a suggestion to help spice up a scene. It’s one of his strange signatures, which I personally love. The most famous example is this scene from The Master, where Lancaster Dodd uses repetition and concentration to extract the truth from an otherwise flippant Freddy. It’s a powerful shift that shows you how impressive such a simple tool can be in the hands of a great artist.
Whatever you think of The Master as a whole, what you’ve just watched is the main reason why so many actors jump at the chance to work with PTA. He knows how much power can reside in a simple scene when the script is perfect. He has, himself, said that he’s more proud of his writing than his directing, a fact that’s apparent in his later work. Behind the scenes footage shows him constantly updating the script. Honing it. Distilling it.
After Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson is probably my favourite filmmaker. Everyone should see his movies. I’m not just telling you to eat your vegetables, guys. There’s so much humanity captured on film here, that it would be a real shame for you to miss it. Anderson puts a piece of himself into every project. You can just feel it.
Strolling down the Paul Thomas Anderson lane is an enriching experience. If you’re someone who typically has disdain for “art” films, then this guy can be a wonderful gateway to more sophisticated stuff. He certainly was for me.
No one has any idea what Anderson will do next in his career. This is a constant. His films often drop into cinemas unannounced, barring the occasional trailer, and are made in absolute secrecy. His next movie, listed on IMDB, is an untitled project about the fashion industry. Daniel Day Lewis has just signed on to star in it. Aside from that, I can only sit and stir in anticipation. Come on, become a fan! Let’s sit and stir together.
So, last week I did a stupid thing. I started a twelve part series. So far so good, but now I have to do the other eleven parts. Why do I keep doing this to myself?
It’s alright. I do it because I like it…and because I have a lot of time to kill. And because I’m hoping that someone out there will find a kinship with my taste in movies. Everyone who’s a real cinephile will know that their favourite moments in life consist of someone saying “I’ve never seen that”, to which your response is always “What?! Sit down, we are watching it now!”. It’s self contradictory behaviour, of course. Being forced to watch something will automatically make you like it less. Humans hate having their free will robbed from them. That’s why I’m trying my best to cultivate a passion in you, rather than just order you around. I’m hoping to seduce, not command. Is it working yet?
Hopefully you spent this last week trying to source and watch as many Alexander Payne films as you could. I’m telling you, if you haven’t then you’re missing out…
…I mean, whatever, it’s your decision, take it or leave it…but you should really take it! Damn it, this is too hard! Alright, forget it, I’m a Nazi giving you orders. But I’m an entertainment Nazi!
So I have your best interests at heart, you know? “Schnell!” We march on with…
I started with Alexander Payne because I felt like he was the most accessible auteur. Ergo, his style would appeal to a majority of the public. David O. Russell is also fairly accessible, but part of his catalogue will only satisfy a few. He is also a controversial figure, someone whose behaviour I struggle with at times. He is notorious for treating his cast and crew terribly, shouting at them and tearing up the set when he gets angry. He even got into a fistfight with George Clooney that resulted in a headlock. Temper tantrums are just the beginning. One of his film projects, Nailed, became indefinitely suspended and eventually shut down altogether because he couldn’t be bothered to pay his crew.
On the other hand…his films are really good!
Russell’s stories are like dense dramatic literature rewritten by a comedian. He can’t help but be funny, even though he’s clearly interested in larger ideas about identity and personal crisis.
His first film was a small creepy comedy called Spanking the Monkey.
I say “creepy” because it’s about a young man who’s inability to successfully masturbate leads him to begin a sexual relationship with his mother. Sorry to spoil it for you, but…did you really want to stumble upon that on your own? Yeah, it’s really that weird.
The film was a success, both artistically and financially, so it must be doing something right. I suppose shock value is a necessary ingredient in any directorial debut, otherwise no one will bother talking about it. I don’t fault Russell for exploiting this, it obviously worked for him and he’s never gone back to the well of comedic perversion since, but I just don’t enjoy Spanking the Monkey. I mean, you know…the film.
David O. Russell’s funniest film, easily, is Flirting With Disaster. It’s a stellar screwball comedy, as fast as it is funny, concerning a neurotic middle aged man who drags his family and acquaintances on a journey to find his birth parents. The cast is great, with Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Alan Alda, and more. It’s the O. Russell masterpiece that I recommend above all others, and yet most people don’t even know about it.
After some initial success, Russell was given the opportunity to write and direct a big budget studio picture. He conceived of something that few others could have, a black comedy heist film set during the Gulf War.
…Actually, he stole the idea from another writer.
I told you, he’s controversial! The original script was called Spoils of War. Russell read it, rewrote it, and renamed it Three Kings. After a contentious back and forth, the original writer, John Ridley, ended up with a ‘story’ credit. Hey, it’s better than nothing.
Three Kings was the first David O. Russell film that I ever saw. I remember liking it, even at a time when I mostly watched lowbrow action films. It has a an unusual visual style, which was achieved by shooting the film on something called Ektachrome film stock. This particular photochemical choice mimics the look of actual Gulf War photography, with a high contrast and a striking clash of cloudless sky blue with scorching pale yellow.
There’s no other movie that looks quite like Three Kings, which makes it rather special. Not all of you will like it. The humour is sometimes clunky and at other times too subtle. The moral pivot of the main characters also feels a little unearned. I’ve re-watched the film in recent years, and it didn’t hold up as well as I thought it would. Perhaps I mostly have a nostalgic connection to it. Oh well, it’s worth watching at least once.
Then…there’s I Heart Huckabees…
This is not only the worst David O. Russell film, by quite some distance, it’s one of the worst films ever made! What’s it about? Great question! Ask David, because I’ve seen it and discussed it in my film theory class and I still can’t figure it out.
As far as I can tell, I Heart Huckabees is about existentialism. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play existential detectives(don’t bother asking), who are hired to help Jason Schwartzman solve large questions about the meaning of existence. There are philosophical debates, awfully executed green screen fantasy sequences, and even a mud orgy scene. I think David thinks it’s a profound plot, but I was counting down the minutes till it was over. None of it makes any sense, and on top of it all it’s not even funny or entertaining.
The worst part about I Heart Huckabees, though, has to be what transpired on set. Footage was leaked onto the internet of David O. Russell going absolutely mental during a spat with Lily Tomlin.
It’s a deplorable example of inexcusable behaviour…which you can watch here. Who am I kidding? It’s hilarious – but also enraging. A man getting payed a lot of money to do whatever he wants should not be acting violently towards the people who are all there to help him realise his vision! Plus, it’s not even worth it. The film is dog shit.
There was some discussion after the controversy of Huckabees about whether David O. Russell would ever work again. Sure enough, he struggled to get films made for the next six years, but as the saying goes, “when it rains, it pours”.
Russell has had a positive resurgence in the last several years due to the award winning success of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy.
While The Fighter and Joy (especially) are flawed pieces of work, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are tremendous achievements. The former is a romantic comedy that tackles bipolar disorder (a disease that Russell’s own son suffers from) while the latter posits the wacky semi-historical foiling of an art heist in the 70’s.
They all vary in many ways, but there’s a recognisable Scorsese influence that binds them. The characters are often unhinged, sometimes suffering from mental disease, addiction, or just general eccentricity.
Their intense nature is exaggerated through the cinematography, too. Quick whip pans, zooms, and choppy editing, combined with close tracking shots and narration helps to shape a story told through a kinetic point of view.
Russell’s movies are almost never boring (I Heart Huckabees being an exception). He slavishly keeps his pacing up tempo. That’s particularly evident in American Hustle, where some scenes contain blatant jump cuts (cuts that don’t vary the camera angle more than fifteen degrees). It’s the mark of a director who will sacrifice content for timing during the finishing stages of production, and that’s enormously important. He will kill his darlings in order to keep you entertained.
The problem with jump cut editing is that it implies that the director is not planning ahead during production. Someone like Steven Spielberg, for example, always “cuts in camera”, meaning that he plans every shot and every scene down to the second. The editing process, therefore, should rarely consist of more than slotting the clips into place. David O. Russell clearly doesn’t do this, preferring to let the films best moments arise organically. An enormous gamble, sure, but on the up side you get things like this…
…which are all improvised moments pushed to their hilarious extremes. Louis C. K. has even spoken about how his character’s main contribution to the plot, a childhood story about ice fishing, was never even part of the script. The development of these films is fluid and whimsical, but on the whole what you get seems to work.
David O. Russell’s career is as unpredictable as his temper. He’s currently slated to oversee an untitled mysterious TV series. Beyond that it’s anybody’s guess. Can he be a bastard? Yes. Would I want to have lunch with him? Probably not. Can the man make great films? Abso-fuckin’-lutely.
I completely understand if the above information makes you want to skip over this guy, but the dilemma of Russell is that you simply can’t afford to. He has an innate genius, which at times tips over the fine line into madness. You do have to suffer a lot of missteps and shenanigans in order to remain a fan, I admit. It’s a bit like being a sports fan, where every week there’s a new story about your favourite footballer’s shocking weekend behaviour.
Thankfully, though, he hasn’t had a blow up in a while (as far as we know), and I’m therefore recommending this artist to you. I vouch for his works, deviations fully declared. Here’s my guide to help you test him out:
Give it a go. See if he’s for you. If not, there’ll be a new artist next week.
The Academy Award Nominations are fast approaching. It’s the time of year where all the ‘serious’ films come out, and even infrequent moviegoers start to speak like film historians. I’ll start hearing words like “genius” and “masterpiece” from someone who once recommended that I go see Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because it’s “actually really interesting” (yes, I know someone who’s like that. I do my best to smile and nod.)
I will admit, however, that one of the good things about the Academy Awards is its instructional element. It can serve as a guide to those who otherwise find themselves too busy or disinterested to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even after the awards are over, films have their Oscar nomination stamped all over their marketing, increasing their chances of recognition amongst the public. Although I disagree with the Academy from time to time, I’m glad that someone out there is exercising their ability to do this.
But what about the other eleven months of the year? I know I’m sounding sanctimonious (as usual), but I think far too many people choose which films to watch for the wrong reasons. Typically, people will see a film because of who’s in it. That’s not a revelation, I know, and movie studios have been aware of it forever. Budgets almost always fluctuate in accordance with casting, not writing or directing. A movie star will have a certain radiant charisma and/or reputation that helps draw an audience in and can even charm them into liking a bad film more than they otherwise would have. We’re all susceptible to it, myself included, but I still contend that it’s a mistake on the viewer’s part.
If you find yourself thinking “Oh, I might see that film because George Clooney’s in it, and I like him”, then you might just end up wasting money and time on Batman and Robin or Tomorrowland. The trick, rather, is to think about films like books. You don’t choose which books to read based on an incidental plot feature or, as the usual saying goes, by judging it on its cover. You usually fill out your bookshelf based on authors, right? Well, there’s a film version of that as well. It’s called…
Auteur theory is a concept that originated in French cinema. It’s a vast and largely debated topic, but essentially boils down to the notion that a single filmmaker can be (and should be) responsible for directing all aspects of a film in order to succeed with one coherent vision. Hence the word “auteur”, the french for “author”. It rejects the profit-driven notion of films being made by a committee, as is the standard on large scale studio pictures.
I don’t want to get into the weeds of this thing, but I largely agree with auteur theory. Most filmmakers are at their best when liberated from studio interference. Then there are some that only seem to make good movies when pressure is applied to them in terms of budget restrictions and/or financial pressure. It depends on the artist, but I’m usually uncomfortable with corporations and powerful colleagues telling a painter that they can’t use certain brushes. The result is often unsatisfying.
And so, I’ve decided to provide you with a guide, of sorts, to some of my own personal favourite auteurs.
There are several auteur filmmakers that you will already be familiar with. Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese all qualify as auteurs because they shepherd their films from script to screen and oversee every shred of the production. I love and admire them just like everyone else, but they’re still compromising within a studio system. A pure auteur, conceived in the saintly womb of obsessive control, is one that writes their own dialogue, casts their own actors, and frames every shot. They keep their budgets relatively low in order to minimise hassle with the investors.
You may be familiar with some of these, but my hope is to introduce you to the ones you’ve never heard of. There is no real order, best to worst or vice versa, so the choice is yours to find your favourite.
Often, auteurs will have a dominant theme or genre that they operate within, and I’m attempting to pinpoint each one respectively in order to help you find the best filmmaker for you. Not only am I listing their movies, but I’ve split them into three levels of accessibility. This will give you a ladder to climb if you find that the first ‘rung’ agrees with you. Please be aware that I’m not ranking the films, I’m just designating some films as more or less harsh for a layman’s palette. Also, I’ve tried to pick auteurs who have made at least three films, but less than fifteen; worthy, but not daunting.
And so we begin with…
I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most accessible auteur on this list, Alexander Payne. Payne is an interesting case, because his films are well known to many, but he is not. For the layman film-goer he remains an invisible hand, frequently shunning personal publicity.
His most famous film is probably Election, which was described as a ‘high school teen comedy’ in the 90’s. It’s really not, though. If anything, it’s an examination of personality types and the absurdity of who wins and loses within politics and society. It is, however, a comedy. All of Payne’s films are comedies, but with varying degrees of deadpan social dissection baked in. Election, interestingly, also has an uncanny resemblance to Americas most recent Presidential Election. The three nominees, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy, are eerily similar to Clinton, Sanders, and Trump, forcing us to face the reality of politics’ predictable unending cyclical nature. Have fun trying to decipher which is which.
Payne loves to skewer his main characters, who are mostly anxiety-ridden middle aged white males. I suppose it’s a blatant case of “write what you know”. As with all great artists, his canvas is as much of a therapy tool as it is a workplace. His stories are always set in his home state of Omaha, Nebraska. They involve characters who are comfortable, if a little unfulfilled, in their quiet boring lives, but eventually find themselves on a perspective-altering journey that is both literal and figurative. By the end they find out that the world they were so comfortable inhabiting was, in fact, incomplete. The fruits of life were always within their grasp, they just never had the courage to reach out and cease them. Examples of this include About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.
Sideways is especially brilliant, and no one fulfils the Alexander Payne character type better than Paul Giamatti. The man can make make me laugh with mere eye motion.
He plays Miles, a depressed struggling writer with a cultured passion for wine, who takes his impulse-driven successful actor friend, Jack, on a week long bachelor romp through the Californian countryside. Of course ‘hilarity ensues’, but so does a lot of introspection and personal growth. By the end, a few subtle moments of facial expression and body language sums up Miles’ pivot towards a more proactive lifestyle. If you haven’t seen Sideways, wedge it into your schedule immediately.
About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska could easily be boxed together as a trilogy. They’re Payne’s slowest films, giving you time to sip on and savour every shot. All three feature significantly older main characters struggling to deal with the latter stages of their existence. Sudden loss of a loved one or a slow onset of dementia causes old secrets to reveal themselves, in the form of romantic affairs or a forgotten personal history. They’re not films for those who want a fast laugh, they’ll make you think deeply with the odd chuckle interspersed. The comedy springs naturally from behaviour and character, as it should, and not from strategically wacky dialogue. Of course Payne, being an auteur, frequently demonstrates his ability to frame a shot for maximum visual comedy.
You don’t have to be “old” or “artsy” to enjoy these films, you just have to be patient and open minded.
Occasionally, Payne will dive head first into politics. He won’t ever take a stance, but instead tries to dissect a debate and slam its uttermost extremes together, juxtaposing them to extract humour. Citizen Ruth is a bravely light hearted spin on the abortion debate. If you’re passionately invested in the topic from either side, then you may find it offensively diplomatic. Others may see its ‘cast of caricatures’ as a little too on the nose. I liked it, but it’s definitely not my favourite of Payne’s work. Worth watching, though, and it sports a perfect ending.
So now you know a bit about Alexander Payne. He’s a great introduction to auteur filmmaking, and I hope that you remember his name for future releases. He tends to pump out films at a rate of one every three to four years, with the occasional long hiatus. His next project is a film called ‘Downsizing’, set to be released in 2017. It appears to be a more straight forward science fiction slapstick comedy about people literally shrinking themselves. The cast is both impressive and eclectic, with Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, and Matt Damon, so I’m not sure what to expect.
I’m recommending that you start your “journey of Payne” (there’s got to be a better name for that) with Election and Sideways. If you don’t like both of these films, then Alexander Payne is clearly not for you.
If, however, you’re glad that you saw them, you should definitely move on to The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Nebraska. Beyond this point you can have a crack at Citizen Ruth. If you like them all, or even most of them, then it would appear that Alexander Payne is one of your new favourite filmmakers. Be a proud fan. Welcome to the club.
…and just like that, it’s Halloween again!
I’ve spent this last week diving into my own personal collection of horror films. I re-watched some classics like Poltergeist, The Thing, Halloween, and Alien. It was fun to see the good ol’ boys again. The thing that differentiates a merely good horror film from a ‘classic’ is its re-watch-ability. I’ve seen Alien thirty times at least, and it never stops being scary.
Actually, that’s not true.
Horror films aren’t endlessly re-watchable, if I’m being honest. You can usually get five or six toe-curling viewings out of a good horror, and after that you basically know every scary moment by heart. The tension is lost as well, because you know where the story is going. The only thing that really remains is your love for the characters and the atmosphere.
I meet people all the time who refuse to watch horror films, and all I want to do is this:
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a great horror film. Watching one that makes you shake involuntarily by chilling your very bone marrow is an invigorating experience. It’s a rare one, too, unless you scare easily or you’re a horror virgin. There’s so much garbage out there calling itself ‘horror’ that you have to do your homework before making a selection. Speaking of which, I’ve found it hard to pick out three new horror films this year. There just haven’t been any good horror releases in 2016. Last year was jam packed by comparison. There was Crimson Peak, We Are Still Here, The Witch, and my personal favourite…It Follows.
If you’re a layman who’s eager to pick out a good horror this year, then It Follows and Crimson Peak are excellent choices. Beyond that, there are some fantastic modern horrors for you to check out; The House of the Devil, Cabin in the Woods, Insidious, The Evil Dead Remake, Drag Me To Hell, and Trick R’ Treat are just some of the great chillers and splatter-slashers made in the last ten years. Also, if you’ve never seen one of the Scream movies, make sure you get on that shit right away! There are four of them and they’re equal parts scary, funny, and genre-educational.
Unfortunately for me, I’ve seen way too many of these horror movies. I’m always struggling to find adequate fresh blood for this time of year, so this time I’ve decided to search outside of ghouls and goblins.
The first film I chose was The Invitation. I’ve wanted to see this one since I first heard about the great response it was getting from critics. It’s not a ‘Halloween’ film, or even a ‘horror’ films per se. It’s more of a tense paranoia thriller, but it’s a damn good one!
It starts off with a couple arriving at a reunion for friends who haven’t seen each other in years. The night begins pleasantly, but as the hours tick by things begin to seem oddly out of place. The hosts of the party appear to be hiding something, or perhaps our main character is simply overly suspicious. Only in the last few moments of the film do we get the real answer.
You should watch this one, I recommend it! I just can’t tell you any more about it without spoiling the whole thing.
Session 9 is a weird one. It’s a tiny movie from 2001, made for a small budget and shot on digital video tape instead of film. It only made about $300,000 upon its initial release, and has since become a tiny cult favourite.
The film concerns a group of asbestos removalists who take on the job of cleaning an old abandoned mental hospital with a creepy history. As you might imagine, the dark hallways are hiding something far more dangerous than a carcinogen.
I do wish this film looked more professional. I’m not a fan of video tape, and I wish people like Michael Mann would stop using it. In this case, however, it did add a certain ultra-realism to the film. I felt like I could reach out and actually touch the walls, which I suppose works for a horror film.
Most importantly, though, the film had some really creepy moments where I began to feel damp behind the ears. One scene, in particular, stayed with me for all the right claustrophobic reasons.
The underlying story is almost entirely confusing until the very end, when the whole thing suddenly falls into place. Make sure you stay with it until then, because it will make sense eventually.
The final film I’ve chosen is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. I’ve not seen it yet, and will be watching it tomorrow night. I don’t know much about it, other than that it comes highly recommended. Many film historians put it high up on their list of horrors, next to The Shining and The Exorcist. How can I argue with that?
Anyways, that’s what I’m up to this time around. I hope you all have a great night. I do hope you’ll try and find a really scary film to watch, or even two or three. Happy Halloween!