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.