Looking Back: Paul Thomas Anderson

At the end of “Magnolia,” Donny Smith, a disgraced former game show contestant in his youth, tearfully laments to a friend, “I have so much love to give.” Throughout his career, Paul Thomas Anderson has examined loneliness, the unfulfilled love, the yearning of so many isolated lives. To consider Anderson’s several protagonists—porn star Dirk Diggler, plunger peddler Barry Egan, oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, WWII veteran Freddie Quell—is to create a collage of anger, fear, the gamut of human emotion. Despite setting his movies in a variety of eras, from the 1890s to the 70s and 80s to present day, Anderson populates his movies with Angelenos stricken with fear and rage. He is one of the best directors working today, but he might also be the best screenwriter as well.

His oft-neglected debut film, “Sydney,” follows four characters: Sydney, an aging gambler; John, a down-on-his-luck twenty-something; Clementine, a cocktail waitress and prostitute; and Jimmy, a casino security guard. Set against the neon fumes of Las Vegas, this film serves as a prototype for many of Anderson’s later themes: loneliness, love, and the unconventional relationships his characters construct in an attempt to ward off the unwanted solace they are trapped in. What is so great about Anderson is that his characters always feel real and unique without being cartoonish, without resorting to the high comedy of absurdity.

The film received honorable mention at Cannes, and it was off this success that he wrote and directed his subsequent film, one that would catapult him into the limelight. “Boogie Nights” follows the evolution of the porn industry throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The cast was terrific down to the smallest roles; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Scotty J. stands out among others including Don Cheadle and William H. Macy. Once again, it is the writing that shines, a script balancing dozens of characters and giving each ample screen time and development. As exotic as the L.A. porn scene might seem, there is no feeling of alienation, nothing separating the viewer from the material. We take everything at face value, and Dirk Diggler’s plight is our own. We never question if these people deserve our sympathy because we want so much to give it.

Anderson’s talents as a writer exceed his talents as a director, which are already numerous and beyond those of any American filmmaker working today. “Magnolia” serves as proof of that. The film is a sprawling look at the lives of several Angelenos; among them, a motivational speaker, a game show host, and a police officer. As large and broad as the movie is, it tends to get muddled down in itself, trying to accomplish too many things at once, often sappy, often overly anxious to please and impress. To Anderson’s credit, however, it is his deft direction that holds the various storylines together, that impossibly out of the cluster of threads crisscrossing one another weaves something coherent, identifiable, and, eventually, comforting.

Here Anderson’s work turns down a different path. The ensembles of his early films disappear and he begins to utilize smaller casts; his films become character studies, more intimate, less accessible. “Punch Drunk Love” is as small and bizarre movie as Anderson has ever made. It’s a romantic dramedy, it stars Adam Sandler in a serious role, and its main villain is a mattress salesman. It is a film of anger, of the pent-up rage that comes with emotional abuse and insecurity. It comes close to high comedy despite the tone, the sardonic humor of Barry’s bizarre situation.

Anderson’s next two films come as close to cinematic perfection as we’ve seen this side of the year 2000. “There Will Be Blood” is an epic tale of an oil tycoon and his battle with a young preacher in the town where he has set up his rigs. The film rests largely on the shoulders of its lead actors, and they deliver, Day Lewis giving one of the greatest performances of all time, and Dano matching him scene for scene. Religion, capitalism, consumerism, morality, family, responsibility, love, trust, power—one can approach the movie from a dozen different angles and the result will be unique. It harkens back to the epics of old Hollywood, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gone With The Wind,” a story playing out on a scale and scope far beyond anything we see made today.

Similarly, “The Master” plays out postwar anxiety and confusion on an equal scale. Its three principal characters, Freddie Quell, Lancaster Dodd, and Peggy Dodd, struggle for power over others and, more importantly, over themselves, the ability to follow their own way and not one of any destiny, any hand of fate. The movie looks beautiful, Johnny Greenwood’s score is as eclectic as any in recent memory, and Phoenix and Hoffman knock it out of the park, with Adams giving a great performance as well, though she’s given less to work with.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film is “Inherent Vice,” an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel. Keeping in mind the confidence he possesses, the calm, steady hand at the helm, Anderson should have another critical success on his hands. If anyone can corral the mindbender of a plot into something resembling logic, it’s him. What we have in Anderson is an absolute mastermind, a true artist, someone who is consistently challenging himself and raising the bar simultaneously. When Doc Sportello wanders through the haze of counterculture California, I will too, because that’s what Anderson does. He creates universes out of stories, locations and characters that feel larger and have greater breadth than they deserve. It is an experience to watch this man work before our eyes, and it won’t be for a long time that our gratitude to him is fully realized—before we realize it ourselves.

By Lucas Dispoto


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