Of all the indisputably great American directors, do Paul Thomas Anderson’s films demand multiple viewings the most? Scorsese and Coppola made unflinching crime epics that you wanted to see again because of how much fun you had the first time. Kubrick brought so much intensity and terror and wonder to the screen that you couldn’t tear your eyes away. Spielberg’s powerfully emotive style left you ready to be moved all over again the next time you came back.
But I would contend that none of these guys made films that absolutely demanded you see it again. After every PTA movie (with the exception of one, which I’ll get to), I have walked away not entirely sure if I liked it or not – just that I needed to see it a second time. From his early shorts on through Inherent Vice, it’s quite evident the filmmaking talent on display is absurd, but for some reason I always need to reevaluate the movie before I feel like I can have a rational opinion on it. Simultaneously enigmatic and entertaining, impenetrable yet completely absorbing, PTA’s work has forced us to keep coming back. Call him the L. Ron Hubbard of cinema. Let’s take a look at his career arc.
With two shorts that would serve as precursors to longer feature films, PTA cut his teeth on small, low-stakes productions. The first, The Dirk Diggler Story, came way back in 1988. Growing up in San Fernando Valley, California with an actor father, PTA was immersed in show business culture at a ripe age. The Valley was also the capital of the porn business, and PTA took an interest.
Before he even graduated high school, he started working on his first short with a bunch of friends on no budget. What he created at such a young age does not prophesy the genius to come later. The premise and ideas are there, just not the execution; which, who could expect an 18-year-old with almost no resources to come up with anything worth watching?
The Dirk Diggler Story was a This Is Spinal Tap-style mockumentary that documents the story of fake porn star, Dirk Diggler. If you’re in on the joke, it’s actually quite funny. However, it helps seeing Boogie Nights, his 1997 release, first.
The other, much more impressive, short is a 20-minute interlocking ensemble that works even if you don’t see the companion piece, Hard Eight. It’s called Cigarettes and Coffee (1993) and it remains one of the most compelling shorts I’ve seen (although I wouldn’t consider myself a short-film aficionado).
Philip Baker Hall captivates from the opening scene, just as he would three years later in PTA’s first movie. Something about the setup – following three different conversations in a diner – just draws you in, even though there isn’t anything too flashy going on with the camerawork. After twenty tense minutes, we arrive at the thought-provoking conclusion. After watching Cigarettes and Coffee, it’s evident how PTA could shop around this short and get financed for his first film — the prodigy’s talent was undeniable.
No Final Cut
Looking back now, Hard Eight does not feel like definitive PTA. That doesn’t mean this neo-noir isn’t promising, most filmmakers can’t imagine something this sure-handed as their debut. What’s so remarkable is the patience at which this film moves, and then how the drama ratchets up so naturally.
A prime example: Around the midway point, Sydney — Philip Baker Hall’s too-old-for-this-mess gambler — is called up by John (John C. Reilly), a younger man whose life was turned around by Sydney. It’s a frantic midnight call, so Sydney hurries over to John’s hotel room. As Sydney moves into the room, we see his face change, knowing something awful has occurred, but PTA doesn’t let us see what has happened. For a long time. It seemingly takes a full minute before his camera swings around to show us the “problem”. Most new directors would get jumpy once their game-changing dramatic moment arrives, but not Anderson.
In that scene, we see Sydney’s disposition shift slightly. He has watched the idiocy of Reno around him, how money and the gambling life changes people. Since he cares for John and Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), he can’t stand seeing their lives damaged by it. That’s the brilliance of Baker Hall’s performance: you can understand how he used to be an old “wise guy” back in the day, but now he’s mostly decency and heart. Mostly, though. His shadowy past still outpaces him. Sydney’s nuance is what makes him such a fascinatingly watchable character.
Of course, the minor performance here that begat another working relationship was Philip Seymour Hoffman as “craps player”. Although the name doesn’t sound like much, PSH’s eccentric, wild man act sticks in your mind despite its limited screen time.
PTA’s early affinity for slow zooms and tracking shots is on display here as well. The bravura opening that follows Sydney as he encounters John outside the diner uses a lengthy, excellent tracking shot that establishes Sydney’s mystery and apparent goodwill. You could almost see the movie just titled “Sydney”, which it almost was, if PTA had his way. At this point, he didn’t have final cut, so the studio recut and retitled his movie, locking him out of post-production.
This wouldn’t happen on his next film, Boogie Nights, released the following year. Before Hard Eight had even been released, Anderson’s next script already had the industry buzzing. It was the Dirk Diggler Story from almost a decade prior, this time blown out to 185 pages — or, three hours of screen time. The subject — the porn industry in the 70s and 80s — didn’t take much explaining to get people interested. According to Anderson’s agent at the time, “Paul visualized the whole movie. He had everything, all the camera moves, the lighting”. Not surprising, considering the precocious ambition at hand.
The movie that we get remains PTA’s most accessible work, and probably his funniest as well. It’s straight-up, pure entertainment. Each character is so delightfully, carefully, and memorably portrayed. Baker Hall is back with a minor part (“I like simple pleasures…”), as is Seymour Hoffman as Scotty J., an emotionally immature oddball. Don Cheadle’s many “looks” provide endless amusement. As Reed Rothchild, John C. Reilly does maybe his best work. That’s also probably true of Burt Reynolds’ performance as Jack Horner, for which he was Oscar-nominated despite distancing himself from the film upon release.
But, just like the movie itself, it’s not all good times for these characters. As the dark second half brings us down from the high we gleefully rode up in the first half, each member of the story falls into their own struggles. Little Bill (William H. Macy) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) are two obvious and devastating examples. Of course, Boogie Nights would not be complete without its star, Dirk Diggler, whose rise and fall provides the emotional thrust (pun for sure intended) of the plot, thanks in part to Hollywood newcomer Mark Wahlberg, who could not have been more believably cast — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t always enjoy his stuff.
Enough about the acting, though. PTA’s direction here is breathtaking, right off the bat with the spellbinding opening, which features a long tracking shot introducing us to an array of characters in a few minutes, set to 1977’s disco hit “Best of My Love”. It’s like he’s legitimately trying to one-up freaking Orson Welles here. In reality, the more accurate influences on Boogie Nights were Robert Altman, due to its ensemble nature, and Martin Scorsese, due to the decades-spanning, Roman Empire rise-and-fall theme, and the attention-snatching visuals.
Essentially, Boogie Nights is alive in a way most movies just aren’t. During the pool party scene early on, the camera dips under the water in tandem with a swimmer, just as the music (the music in this movie is insanely good, by the way) swells. This is the kind of moment that demands you sit up and pay attention, because greatness could be taking place in front of you. Yet even with the high comedy and entertainment, it wouldn’t reach greatness without allowing its subjects to spiral the drain.
What becomes clear throughout Boogie Nights is that the porn industry back then was like a shadow of Hollywood. They had their own actors, directors, and producers; their own awards shows too. While the real Hollywood may have been shooting them a dubious side-eye, they were becoming a family despite how the outside world looked at them. There is another tracking shot at the end that follows Horner through his house as they are setting up for a shoot. It’s oddly touching, watching this strange family coalesce after all that has gone wrong before. PTA perfectly captures why they feel accepted among each other.
Major and Minor Self-Indulgence
Let’s just get this out of the way now. Magnolia is long. Way too long. Even PTA himself thinks so, according to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast interview with him. The three hours here do not fly by like they would have on Boogie Nights (which was cut down to 155 minutes). Because it’s so heavy and constantly balancing on the tightrope of melodrama, the viewing experience doesn’t lend itself to multiple trips back like pretty much all of his other films do.
PTA wrote Magnolia after he lost his dad, so you can imagine his raw state as he constructed this narrative, featuring several interconnected storylines of broken people trying to find the right way forward. In that aforementioned WTF podcast appearance, you can tell PTA knows his emotional state led to the creation of an overlong, slightly overwrought movie that grasps a little too tightly for profundity.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t treated to some fascinating stuff along the way. Tom Cruise submits the single most interesting performance of his career, so much so that it’s kind of remarkable he agreed to do it. The other PTA regulars are around: Baker Hall, Hoffman, and Macy each carry their own particular plot thread with aplomb. Those three actors are some of my favorites and sometimes it’s difficult to know if this is solely because of the way PTA uses them or if I would’ve enjoyed their work with anybody.
Despite functioning as a more traditional drama at times, there are still those offbeat PTA notes. In pop culture, the raining frogs would probably be more connected to Magnolia than the Bible if this movie lived up to everything it was trying to do. Even if it falls short, the one thing you can’t say is that he didn’t go for it all; this was in no way a minor work.
Which you can definitely say about his next feature. It’s easy to watch Punch-Drunk Love and say this is the guy that made There Will Be Blood? Everything about it seems so small and inconsequential compared to what came before and what he would make afterwards. This is PTA’s unabashed lunge at a love story featuring Adam Sandler.
While that may sound like a waste of time for a director of his stature, Anderson injects his own brand of wit and stylistic flair to make things interesting. Visually, it’s actually quite stunning. He’s been working with cinematographer Robert Elswit for everything besides The Master and the continuity between these two has paid off time and again. Here, the empty, unsettling long shots and rich Technicolor tones make for a unique palette that ensures you can’t toss this off as another worthless rom-com if you were to watch it with the sound off.
Sandler’s neurotic loner Barry Egan awkwardly finds love throughout deliberately bizarre plot devices, like phone-sex lines and an exorbitant amount of pudding. Like I said, not your run-of-the-mill comedy. Anyway, PTA pulls a deeper sort of male frustration out of Sandler in this role, while still allowing him to do a variation on his angry-man bit. Emily Watson is so noteworthy in her role, you wish she would’ve been given more screen time.
All in all, Punch-Drunk Love doesn’t move any mountains. It’s a surprisingly uplifting. yet ultimately somewhat forgettable entry into the canon of one of the great directors of our time. Even though Punch-Drunk Love still deals frankly with themes of isolation and alienation, PTA was perfectly fine lightening it up for awhile after the heavy, dark emotional depths of Magnolia and before what will likely go down as his peerless masterpiece.
Some of the greats somehow turn the trick of appearing simultaneously immense and intimate. Think Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Saving Private Ryan. There Will Be Blood is no different in that respect. After a five-year hiatus after the box-office dud and modest critical praise for his previous effort, PTA would return with a sprawling, triumphant, and devastating portrayal of an enterprising turn-of-the-century oilman.
Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, PTA fashioned his own take on the greed and obsession of that era. It also clashes capitalism and religion in thoughtful, but also violent ways. Daniel Day-Lewis plays that oilman, the driven and ruthless Daniel Plainview, while the consistently underrated Paul Dano is Eli Sunday, the demonstrative yet shameless preacher. Clearly, these two stand in the place of much larger systems, but their battle remains remarkably personal from start to (bloody) finish.
It all has a timeless feel, like it could easily exist in black-and-white, like it almost does in your mind when you recollect your experience watching it. PTA allows his camera to sweep in the vast expanse of early 20th-century California land, just waiting to have its ocean of oil tapped underneath. He’s heavy on long shots and extended takes and sparse on closeups and insert shots; it’s as if he’s keeping us at an arm’s length the entire time. Quite overtly, There Will Be Blood is more Kubrick than Altman (interestingly, PTA worked with Altman on his final film in 2005, right before he began filming Blood). This kind of visual language suits him well.
Of course, Anderson did have plenty of help, surrounding himself with insane talent in every corner. Elswit’s photography nails every beat, particularly the gripping fire scene where the catastrophe lasts long enough for night to fall. Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood teams up with PTA for the first time here, providing an ominously off-kilter and minimal score for the film to sink into like a finely-tailored suit.
No, I’m not forgetting about Day-Lewis’ career-defining (and that’s a high bar to clear) role as Plainview. Everything from the voice to the speech pattern to the physical movements is so perfectly tuned to what kind of person/monster Plainview is. Day-Lewis performs all of it full bore, with a singular intensity impossible to snap. He’s so good in this, it honestly makes me want to quit attempting to describe it, so I’ll just leave it at this: For my money, it’s the best performance of the last decade.
The amount of memorable scenes here is unreal. Let’s just take one: the baptism scene, in which Sunday forces Plainview (who has just abandoned his adopted son) to get baptized in order to gain access to more land to continue drilling. There is a stunning mix of regret, shame, and self-righteousness present in those few minutes of screen time, with the power dynamic shifting multiple times. Here both capitalism and religion pin family and relationships under their weighty, merciless lust for money and power. Dano and Day-Lewis necessarily play up their parts to frighteningly strange, larger-than-life levels.
And that is what ensures There Will Be Blood will remain at the top of so many best-of-the-century lists. Sure, the outrageous ambition and crystal-clear vision are wonderful, but it’s the unique idiosyncrasies that make it impossible to replicate or improve upon. Whether in performance, dialogue, shot composition, etc., the uncanniness of There Will Be Blood sets it apart.
Similarly, The Master‘s unsettlingly strange tone, pacing, process, and methods define PTA’s next effort. Before it opened, cinema fanatics were blind with excitement when they heard the great P.T. Anderson would be taking down Scientology with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing founder L. Ron Hubbard. The film we got was not that. The Master‘s impact comes not from taking cheap shots at a religion that many already find patently ludicrous, but from narrowing the focus in on the relationship between two men. That doesn’t sound epic, but somehow PTA makes it a towering artistic achievement.
Yet, it’s easy to see why audiences didn’t react that positively to it. Its plot – an aimless war veteran and all-around miscreant (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes enamored by the teachings and personality of a charismatic leader of The Cause (PSH) – doesn’t follow the normal beats whatsoever. It’s hazy, shifty, impossible to grasp. This is post-WWII America, when the fog of war has cleared, leaving those left to search for meaning after witnessing obscene atrocities.
I can’t think of an actor who encapsulates this more than Phoenix as Freddie Quell. Here he stands like an odd bird – emaciated, spine bent, arms akimbo. Speaking almost unintelligibly out of the side of his mouth, he’s a lost soul who wants to be a part of something, but can’t seem to conform in any way when given the chance. Conversely, PSH’s character, Lancaster Dodd, is all confident, strong-willed charm. He is gregarious and highly defensive at the same time, quickly losing his temper if challenged (hey, kind of like Scientology itself!). Strangely attracted to Quell’s discipline-free persona, Dodd examines his urge-driven actions with interest and a hint of jealousy. Easily the most intense few minutes I’ve seen over the last few years is the “processing scene” between these two. Both actors submit a tour-de-force in the same damn movie, showing us two sides of man.
In many ways, The Master feels in step with There Will Be Blood. PTA has a certain mastery of a similar tone and visual style in both films; the guy just knows how to impeccably frame his shots. Like TWBB, The Master takes on themes and subjects like religion, individualism, and the complex relationship between sons and father figures. Additionally, both films are weighted by two self-made Californian men (Dodd and Plainview), which further draws out PTA’s obsession with life in California (besides Hard Eight, all of his films have been set there) throughout the last century-plus.
My second time through The Master was vastly different from my first. After I saw it in theaters, there were things that intrigued me, but also things that repelled me. While the performances were top-notch and there were a number of mesmerizingly good scenes, the meaning and purpose seemed to be intentionally obscured. When I came back to it almost two years later, the atmosphere of the film started to seep in. This was a new narrative style that was — and is — difficult to describe. I now wonder if we will look back on The Master as a ground-breaking masterpiece in ten or twenty years.
Two years after his towering, idiosyncratic works, PTA takes another left turn with Inherent Vice. However, just like with his previous two, I wonder how differently I will view this entry after another viewing. What you might expect to be a good-time, humorous romp of a movie turns out to be just as slippery as PTA’s most challenging stuff.
The source material is renowned (and reclusive) author Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 stoned LA detective story, “Inherent Vice”. This is the first time a Pynchon book has been committed to film, and PTA stays pretty faithful to the confusing plot mechanics and inventive language of the novel. Phoenix is back as the lead as Doc Sportello, a lovable, constantly baked PI. The rest of the cast shows off just how much actors and actresses are drawn to a movie when PTA is in the director’s chair – no matter how small the part. Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, and Benicio del Toro all appear in their first Anderson film.
Towards the end, you start to see that PTA is not after your typical, noir-infused detective tale. Again, he’s going after something more melancholy, meditative, and elusive. More and more, I’ve been thinking about this idea of ‘esoteric vs. exoteric’ as it relates to PTA. Are his movies esoteric (arcane, mysterious works that are intended for a small group of people to understand) or exoteric (supposed to provide insight for the general public)? Both? Neither? I still haven’t figured out what drives him to create films that can be so many things at the same time: accessible and inaccessible, entertaining and intelligent, highly watchable and highly demanding. Maybe I should just see them again.