December 31, 2007

Spending the Day with PTA

One director, five films and 699 minutes of messy, meandering greatness

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of Punch-Drunk Love (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

"I don’t want to make a film where they show up, they sit down, they jack off and they get up and they get out before the story ends. It is my dream, it is my goal, it is my idea to make a film where the story just sucks them in. And when they spurt out that joy juice, they've just gotta sit in it -- they can't move until they find out how the story ends." -- Jack Horner, Boogie Nights (Written by Paul Thomas Anderson)

When I heard that the Museum of the Moving Image was starting 2008 with a Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective, it occurred to me that all this talk about his new There Will Be Blood being the 37-year-old filmmaker's masterpiece seemed a bit abstract. My reaction surprised me, though, because I couldn't disagree with any of the praise. I positively love the film; just as I knew what (and who) entertained me in his chronicle of Daniel Plainview's (Daniel Day-Lewis) ascendancy from penniless speculator to oil baron, and as I knew what struck and haunted me, I didn't know what it was about Anderson himself that informed and influenced Blood -- and my appreciation for it.

So I set up my own one-day retrospective at Reeler HQ, where I viewed Anderson's first four films -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love -- in succession before heading off for another viewing of There Will Be Blood. For better or worse, I kept the following log of that day; spoilers abound, and your mileage may vary.

(Plot summaries from Rotten Tomatoes.)

Hard Eight -- "Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), a mysterious professional gambler, befriends John (John C. Reilly), a young man in trouble, and teaches him the ways of making a living in the casinos of Reno. John gets involved with Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a pretty waitress who doubles as a prostitute, and Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a two-faced criminal. When trouble erupts, suddenly Sydney has to rescue his young friend, but a secret from his past threatens to destroy everything he has tried to build up."

8:30 a.m. -- The first shot in a Paul Thomas Anderson film is a tableau. He has practice guiding viewers' eyes: From the top of the frame and the Jack's Coffee Shop sign; down to the truck driving right out of the frame; and John, the crouched figure outside near the door. It came in handy over a decade later. And when Sydney enters from the right, he's a mystery come to make a proposition: "I'm a guy that's offering you a cigarette and to buy you a cup of coffee." It'll happen again in There Will Be Blood; a man, a plan, a catch.

8:42 -- Thank God he and Jon Brion got over this jaunty, mid-tempo, buddy-movie blues soundtrack. Clearly music clearance was the first thing he budgeted for on Boogie Nights.

-- Here's the first long, showy Steadicam shot in a Paul Thomas Anderson film: Sydney roams through casino to visit a craps table. It'd be easy to write it off as some Scorsese-esque tour, like Raging Bull or GoodFellas. But it's less about time and place than a survey of Sydney's habitat; you get a similar impression of the Steadicam shots in Blood. He can overdo it, too; I have to remember to look for it in Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

9:04 -- A man sitting behind Clementine in the Reno coffee shop curses and storms out. She offers a grimace and says nothing. It's terrifically restrained; Anderson's never done faces well, but he knew he had an expressive talent in Paltrow.

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9:16 -- "Shaka laka doobie doo! I'm gonna light the cigarette, old timer! What are you gonna do?" Ladies and gentlemen, meet Philip Seymour Hoffman. What a phenomenal moment -- virtually any character worth remembering in a PTA film gets at least one histrionic episode all his or her own, and almost all must pay for them in relative physical or emotional terms. Anderson establishes this trend viciously with Hoffman's taunting craps player, who hits the point, wins his bet but costs Sydney $2,000. In Hard Eight, it feels like the cosmos meting out justice. In his other films, it too often feels purely punitive?

9:29 -- He loves depicting vanquished dignity in the most graphic terms possible. Clementine and John hold one of her johns hostage: "He fucked me and he is going to pay me!" And you don't even know -- you can't even know -- if this is her low point.

-- Anderson experiments with a surrogate family; you have no idea why Sydney would want to help either John or Clementine except to make amends for the alienation from his own children. In the film's first real shot of the three together, their juxtaposition is stunning. Maybe they are literally a family; Anderson suggested as much earlier with one ostensibly throwaway line from Sydney -- "A son and a daughter" -- and holding out for a three-shot until their final scene together.

9:52 -- Samuel L. Jackson is miscast, but he, too, plays fast and loose with dignity in threatening Sydney: "You're a hardass. You think you can walk around like nothing happened. ... Mr. Wisdom. Mr. Cool. ... You old hoods think you're so above it, so high and mighty. You think I'm a loser? No! Not with a gun in my hand; not with the facts I know. No matter how hard you try, you're not his father." I know we'll get to the Daddy issues later in the day, but clearly there's plenty of groundwork here for that theme.

10:00 -- But not that much later, I guess: "I love you, John," Sydney says into the phone. "I love you like you were my own son." Christ. It's the Plainviews, except Daniel Plainview abandons his adopted son. Twice. Sydney kills as a culmination of self-preservation and his son's interests. And, like Daniel, it is his sloppiest moment -- he has blood on his cuff as he returns to Jack's Coffee Shop. Nothing that can't be fixed in seconds flat, though.

(L-R) Ricky jay, Burt Reynolds and William H. Macy in Boogie Nights (Photo: New Line Cinema)

Boogie Nights -- "It’s Los Angeles, 1977, and adult film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) meets Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a well-endowed dishwasher in a nightclub. Jack recruits Eddie to be his newest star and Eddie, hungry for fame, quickly agrees, changing his name to Dirk Diggler. Soon Dirk is the hottest star in the porn industry, alongside Rollergirl (Heather Graham), a high school dropout who never removes her roller skates, and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the veteran star who pines for the son she's not allowed to visit. On the fringes, Little Bill (William H. Macy) fumes while his wife cheats on him in public, and Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) tries to escape the stigma of being a porn actor. The good times roll, but before long Dirk falls victim to the pressures of stardom and a drug habit that ruins his career while Jack struggles with porn’s conversion from film to cheaper videotapes."

10:20 -- The opening is genuinely virtuosic filmmaking -- a long take from air to ground, outside-in. Moreover, in contrast to the habitat survey of Hard Eight, or the motel escape later in that same film, Anderson's camera does lean on time and place while introducing you to his ensemble. And one more time, here's Jack Horner -- like Sydney and Daniel Plainview, an enigma with a heady offer for someone ill-equipped to handle it.

10:34 -- Stereo store customer to Buck Swope, salesman: "I don’t think I need all that bass." Buck: "Ohhhh, I think you do." More vanquished dignity as the customer splits, Rollergirl is harassed in high school and Eddie Adams is called stupid by his mother. Help is just around the corner, except it's not, which always confused me. I think I'll have better occasion to explain why in another, oh, 100 minutes.

10:48 -- Jack wants to be business with Eddie, whom he all but adopts (and who soon adopts his porn name, Dirk Diggler). But it's a relationship rooted in affection and exploitation. Sound familiar?

11:16 -- I remember playing Spot-the-Scorsese-and-Altman-Influences the first time I saw Boogie Nights, but it's different this time. The music cues and swerving ensemble tricks are all here, but there is a loyalty to space and technique that reminds me more of Kubrick. Even in its kinesis, it flirts with that austerity: The porn-shoot camera stares back like HAL9000; the machinery of the industry betrays them when it runs out of film. Video also alludes to a rescue before it, too, betrays them.

11:34 -- "Goodbye '70s, Hello '80s!" reads the banner at Jack's house on New Year's Eve, 1979. Retrospectively, anyway, it and the accompanying party -- where ominous male hustlers, self-loathing homosexuality and drug-abuse plunges are the least obvious allusions to the trouble to come -- hint that the Anderson canon is largely about the costs of ambition, not its mechanics. Take Jerome (Michael Jace), a self-described lover who, in seducing Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker), says he works "in the auto industry; I'm a regional manager over at Pep Boys." He's a dreamer like the rest, but at least he's modest; as such, he and Becky are rewarded with married happiness ever after. (Plainview's son H.W. follows a similar route.) Dirk, who had already promised years earlier "to keep rocking and rolling and making better films" after his trifecta at the Adult Film Awards, skips out of their wedding reception early to raise hell with the wretched Todd Parker (Tom Jane). To the extent he judges his characters' excesses, though, Anderson never judges his own. The humanist in him will pull his characters from the vortex; beyond gab, tracks and zooms, it's the most Altmanesque act he can perform. Here and a little less so in Magnolia, it's also schizoid, deeply patronizing and it defies his talent.

11:49 -- Amber Waves' documentary about Dirk reminds me that Boogie Nights was loosely based on the legend of John Holmes. It's an easy inspiration to forget, but certainly worth remembering in the context of There Will Be Blood: The myth of a lonely, self-made Western hero standing against the future and the past. The violence of their respective downfalls is equally notable.

11:57 -- "December 1982." What Anderson borrows most effectively from Scorsese is the management of scope. This is where Magnolia goes so wrong; all convolution, no context.

12:15 p.m. -- So it turns out help wasn't on the way after all. But do the consequences of pornography we see here have political implications? In Amber's unsuccessful custody hearing, for example, there are two photos of Ronald Reagan to then-California governor Jerry Brown. Buck flees the scene of a robbery/shooting covered in blood but a few thousand dollars richer; Rollergirl attacks a man (her old school harasser, natch) who suggests, "This is a fine life you've made for yourself"; the pedophile producer gets his in prison; Dirk, Todd and Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly) hit bottom in a section actually intertitled "Long Way Down (One Last Thing)." As he does in There Will Be Blood, Anderson all but winks as he pulls the wheels off. But Blood takes the smarter route by not invoking accountability; can a filmmaker really choose sides if no one is spared?

Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in Magnolia (Photo: New Line Cinema)

Magnolia -- "In a single day in Los Angeles, a number of interconnected lives are changed forever. A lonely police officer (John C. Reilly) falls in love with a disturbed cocaine addict (Melora Walters). Her father (Philip Baker Hall), the host of the game show What Do Kids Know? has terminal cancer and tries to make amends for his past mistakes. A former champion of the show (William H. Macy) struggles to find love while the current champion (Jeremy Blackman) suffocates under the pressures of being a boy genius. An elderly man (Jason Robards) lies on his deathbed, tended by nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while his trophy wife (Julianne Moore) wrestles with grief and guilt, and his estranged son (Tom Cruise), an infomercial host, teaches workshops on how to trick women into having sex. Throughout all of this, past deeds are lamented and strange forces loom in the air."

1:07 -- For reasons I couldn't begin to enumerate, I was intensely disappointed after my first and only viewing of Magnolia in 1999. When I watched it over the weekend, I went in imagining my expectations had been too high, or my preconceptions too rigid. And almost instantly, I experienced a different reaction this time around: Loathing. How can you not hate (or at least quit on) a film that all but apologizes for itself before it even begins: "I would like to think this was all a matter of chance," the narrator says after each of three seemingly disconnected vignettes imposing Magnolia's doctrine of life, death and coincidental interconnection. "This cannot be, 'One of those things.' This cannot be that." Of course it can't; it's called "filmmaking," and the director does it without asking permission. Spare me the disclaimer.

-- Fun PTA Inside-Joke Trivia: Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the name of one of the Atlantic City hoods that Sydney killed in his rougher days in Hard Eight.

1:25 -- The big ensemble introduction montage: Anderson gropes for Altman's mantle. Aimee Mann covers Three Dog Night's "One," and it occurs to me that it's the first application of irony -- accidental or otherwise -- in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. (The cheeseball period verisimilitude of Boogie Nights can't count, can it?) Within a few minutes it hardly matters; The dying Earl Partridge (Robards) very unironically introduces the first of Magnolia's several Daddy issues. "I have a son, you know," he tells his nurse Phil, thus initiating a manhunt sure to result in a fine crop of Oscar clips.

1:29 -- To wit: When we meet Frank T.J. Mackey (Cruise) in the flesh, it is to the bombast of Thus Spake Zarathustra. He is a evangelist of the macho hetero culture that Anderson attacked in Boogie Nights; his histrionic misogyny routine predates the style of a far more tender but equally rapacious Eli Sunday in Blood. So the perspectives are creeping out, but how obvious do they have to be? If, as Dennis Lim suggests, Anderson is almost biologically incapable of understatement, what constitutes his films' dynamics?

1:36 -- This is some fierce, feral emoting -- the ensemble drama as soap opera. How many times can Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) say "fuck" in three minutes? How long can Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) beg Solomon Solomon (Alfred Molina) to keep his job? How eagerly will young rapper Dixon (Emmanuel Johnson) attempt to convince Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) he can give up a murder culprit? Even these long takes coursing through the bowels of the What Do Kids Know? studio are Anderson screaming at the top of his lungs.

1:56 -- "I live these rules as dramatically as I preach them," Frank says about the Battle of the Bush, revealing an interesting take on how Daddy issues affect the sexuality of Anderson's men: Does an absentee father portend an unchecked, aberrant or perhaps pathological libido? And does an omnipresent father portend monogamous love? What if they're adoptive? Moreover, what does it mean for Anderson's women? Clementine, Rollergirl and Claudia could certainly be doing better.

2:37 -- Michael Murphy does all he can to put up with Julianne Moore. It's perhaps the worst performance of her career, and certainly the worst of any Anderson film: a shrill, mouth-breathing banshee imposing her gold-digger guilt on anyone who will stand in her eyeline long enough to run out the take. Anderson is unusually inhumane here, leaving less room to sympathize with these characters than to pity them.

3:15 -- "I will not apologize for who I am." It's a mantra Frank recites for the audience at his seminar. "I will not apologize for what I need. I will not apologize for what I want." As far as coincidences that cannot be go, Cruise is teaching his book's chapter about How to Fake Like You're a Nice and Caring Person; it evokes Anderson's own arrogance here and strikingly foreshadows Daniel Plainview. He won't be mistaken for Noah Baumbach any time soon, but you wonder how much of himself the filmmaker sees in each man.

3:25 -- When a dying, disconsolate Partridge asks "What did I do?" at the end of his epic monologue, it follows his admonitions to both hold on to love and regret what you want. But when the section segues into the Aimee Mann song and the ensemble begins singing along, "Wise up," the sensitivity collapses into didacticism. More than before, the characters face and endure bear the burden of Anderson's ambition. I'm starting to dislike him.

3:37 -- Claudia dreams of "confessional dating" without the "piss and shit and lies that kill other people." It's once again symptomatic of Anderson's impetuousness. This is turning into an honest-to-God orgy. But maybe Jim's resistance -- like Sydney's challenging John over his amateur hostage-taking (an overreaching dramatic device) in Hard Eight -- is Anderson checking his own impetuousness. Until...

3:53 -- It rains frogs. I don't even care anymore. It does make me wonder if Anderson wants nothing more than an urban ensemble fantasia -- not unlike how Altman reverse-engineered Short Cuts around an earthquake. Yet he tracks in on the tiny note in one of Claudia's paintings: "But it did happen." Has any director ever so desperately appealed to viewers' suspension of disbelief?

4:15 -- I need a break. And a drink.

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Punch-Drunk Love -- "Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a quiet, shy, socially awkward man with an office in an out-of-the-way warehouse. He is dedicated to his job as a wholesale toilet plunger salesman, he keeps a nice apartment, and he is obsessed with special offers on grocery store products. ... (I)t eventually becomes clear that Barry cannot control his often-violent impulses, a trait which is increasingly problematic. When a beautiful woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), walks into his life with an instinctive attraction to him, a nonjudgmental attitude, and unconditional love, Barry undergoes a powerful transformation."

5:42 -- Now this is an urban fantasia. I had totally forgotten about all of this, which is unfair; it's kind of great. He's establishing a habitat again, a wide-angle space where Barry Egan can operate free of rationality. It's another disorienting intro, thought- provoking against the low-concept mystery opening Hard Eight or the primordial wordlessness of There Will Be Blood.

5:55 -- Of all people, Adam Sandler will be the one to show what Anderson can do with a leading man. He's a perfect receptacle for the director's neuroses; their muttering vacuum of confidence -- Barry's aversion to a date, his compliance in sharing personal data with a phone-sex operator, his crying jags -- sets the tone I've been waiting for all day. It's what these films have been missing.

6:02 -- If Anderson is Kubrick, then Sandler is his postmodern Peter Sellers. Daniel Day-Lewis is probably Jack Nicholson.

6:19 -- Anderson is practicing for Blood: Flared lenses, dark to light. Men at work. The pace blows your hair back. There's drama on multiple fronts within the tiny warehouse -- runaway forklifts, interrupted conversations, phone calls -- scored to the percussive arrhythmia of Barry's heartbeat when Lena enters his life. However flimsy the material, Anderson is for once in complete control of it. And it's kind of breathtaking.

6:24 -- What's the worst haircut Philip Seymour Hoffman has had in PTA film? The mullet in Hard Eight? The limp Ben Franklin cut in Boogie Nights? Or the lion's mane here?

6:25 -- Anderson loves a good restaurant confrontation. Every film has one, and this is (very) arguably his best, with Lena's affection giving way to Barry's emasculation at the hands of his sisters. He compensates by trashing the bathroom. They’re ejected from the eatery, and their exit -- against the backdrop of a moving van with cinema history's most strategically placed backlight -- achieves the haunting quality of romance.

6:47 -- See, this is what I'm saying: The stupid, overindulgent emo fantasy of Magnolia works in this context, and Anderson absolutely knows it. To wit: Barry flies to Hawaii to meet Lena. He hunts her down via pay phone in the middle of a parade. The phone booth illuminates at sound of her voice. Their kiss causes a commotion in the hall -- silhouettes and flags and whimsy that harken back to the tumult of the warehouse. And when Barry says, "I have love in my life; it makes me stronger than you could ever imagine," it is the mature counterpoint to Frank's practiced pitch in Magnolia: "Seduce is about finding out what you can be in this world ... I will take what is mine." It might sound condescending, but this is the film during which Paul Thomas Anderson grew up.

7:09 -- The last line: "So here we go," Lena tells Barry. Here we go indeed.

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

There Will Be Blood -- "A sprawling epic about family, greed, corruption, and the pursuit of the American dream. Set in the booming West Coast oil fields at the turn of the 20th century, There Will Be Blood follows the rise of rugged prospector Daniel Plainview who becomes an independent oilman after hitting it rich with the strike of a lifetime. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film is inspired by Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!"

7:10 - 10:44: I eat a half can of almonds and travel uptown for There Will Be Blood. Every screening since it opened has been sold out. The film's per-screen average is a 2007 record. People love the movie. I've seen it twice but love it on the basis of something... else. I need another run-through to get it. Really, I can't wait.

10:45 -- It's kind of fun to sniff out the discomfort of the viewers around you seeing -- and hearing -- this for the first time, though that churning string overture that opens the film should be much, much... louder.

10:55 -- The Kubrick comparisons return; there's 2001 and The Shining all over this opening sequence, particularly in the way man advances into the enveloping treachery of nature almost as a means of compelling himself to invention. Before Anderson's camera worships Daniel Plainview, it calls attention to the transition from pickax to pulley to derrick. It's the evolution of industry, though -- not species. Or a species of industry? I have 150 minutes to think about it.

10:59 -- Daniel looks over his right shoulder when his colleague Ailman is killed in the well; he's rattled but not what you'd call afraid. This same glance will come back later when Bandy finds him passed out on his land, and it will be decidedly more important. I'll get to that.

11:04 -- I love the line early in Anderson's script: "We witness human dignity go completely out the window." It refers to the breakdown at the lease gathering in Signal Hill, but is the most explicit evidence yet of Anderson's obsession with vanquished dignity.

11:25 -- Anderson has never had a face like Day-Lewis's to dwell on in this kind of close-up, and part of Blood's achievement is its filmmaker's and his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit's harnessing of that phenomenon, from gasping, near-death anguish in the silver mine to persuasion ("If I say I'm an oilman, you'll agree") to glee ("Paul Sunday turned out to be a good friend of ours!") to unalloyed disgust ("I hate most people") and beyond. It's harder than it sounds, at least for Anderson; the brilliant, all-too-brief Paltrow close-up in Hard Eight left much to be desired in the three films that followed.

11:31 -- Anderson is a confirmed widescreen brat, but he's never put it to this kind of use. There are a number of tableaus that also recall that first shot of Hard Eight, only with vast expanses of West Texas landscape subbing for a California parking lot. And with Jack Fisk doing the production design. Laborers bound off the train and onto the road in Little Boston, with black smoke billowing against the sunset behind them; foregrounded tent communities stand against the monolith of an oil derrick. To what extent have more seasoned collaborators impacted a more seasoned visionary?

11:48 -- In a series of impressions like this, what justice can be done to the oil strike set piece? This is the Biblical event that Anderson wanted the Magnolia frogs to be, a more graceful, sincere allusion to the Book of Hebrews' warning that backsliding Christians shall be damned to Hell than his dilettantish flirtation with Exodus 8:2 and its legend of the amphibian storm. His visuals are as staggering as his themes: Running at the workers' backs; running at Daniel and H.W.'s front; Daniel's sacrifice of the derrick to fire and his son to the Earth -- indelibly desperate images whose beauty betrays their horror. And they come one after another after another.

12:18 a.m. -- Daniel's skepticism wanes after Henry shows up. As a storyteller, Anderson must relate to his weariness -- his confession that he sees the worst in people -- and the periodic urge to relent. Where does it get him? And watch Daniel's expression after sending H.W. away with Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds); amid land and oil strategizing, he becomes his own Daddy issue.

12:27 -- Beyond the giveaway to Henry's ruse, what is the Peachtree Dance? Is it an actual dance in Fon du Lac? I want to believe it's a euphemism for something else, something nefarious. It's one detail of many here I'll likely never penetrate.

12:34 -- My favorite shot of the film, and the one that, for me, anyway, scuttles the conception of There Will Be Blood as a political allegory. While it was such an exercise for Upton Sinclair, upon whose novel Anderson loosely based his screenplay, the director establishes Daniel Plainview's vulnerability too resonantly for him to support any such strictures. Especially here: When Daniel agrees to be baptized in order to build his pipeline through Bandy's land, he rises, hungover, and peers over his left shoulder. It echoes -- in reverse -- his glance from the well in the film's introduction, when his second narrow escape from death reinforces his invincibility. No such luck here; he'd rather die a heathen than face God, which, in Daniel's value system, ultimately means facing himself. It's his only expression of uncertainty or fear in the entire film -- a direct counterpoint to his disgusted reaction at watching Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) force Satan out of the church. "Animals," Plainview seems to be thinking. "I don't have time to wait for them to learn."

Combined with the well mishap, however, the later shot refutes that. Not only must Daniel make the time, but he realizes he may be vulnerable to an authentic spirituality he knows eludes Eli. When Daniel is on his knees confessing, "I've abandoned my child! I've abandoned my boy!", Anderson makes it as clear as he possibly can that this is not a critique of religion or politics, but rather the real confession of a flawed man. who did what he did for family and love first and money second (hence his over-eager involvement with the fake brother; if Anderson films teach us anything, it's how sloppy love will make us). His primary weakness is not cynicism or economic imperative, though he is certainly prone to both. At his core, Daniel is terrified of being alone. That's what that two-second shot over the shoulder is about: He must face the consequences of actions, not ideas.

12:43 -- What does Daniel say to Eli when he shakes his hand after the baptism?

12:49 -- It wouldn't be a PTA film without a restaurant showdown: Daniel Plainview busts out his napkin, a few whiskeys and faces down Tilford from Standard Oil. That showed him.

12:51 -- His jump cuts get increasingly ambitious, from H.W. and Mary playing as children to her saying her vows in sign language as they're married. It's not as cool as tiki torches giving way to hotel corridor lights in Punch-Drunk Love, but it's another standard in keeping with Kubrick.

1:07 -- "Draaaaaaiiiiiiinaaaaage! Draaaaaaaaaiiiinaaaage!" The final sequence between Daniel and Eli crystallizes Anderson's take on ambition; the real capitalist here is the filmmaker, mining his characters for the last of their dignity, wringing what's left of their pride onto miles of emulsion, exhausting their capacity to renew or reproduce. "You were the afterbirth, Eli," Daniel says, and while his savvy brother Paul's dreams were realized, Eli's failure to moderate his own behavior will cost him his life. Where such judgments imploded whole sections of Boogie Nights and doomed the likes of Jimmy in Hard Eight or Jimmy Gator in Magnolia, they fit in this context; there are too few of Anderson's stylistic fingerprints to smudge the limpid wretchedness of these men. And I'm grateful in the dark, imagining the extent to which he'll keep his hands to himself in the future.

Comments (12)

Great piece. And this might be your strongest point, "If Anderson is Kubrick, then Sandler is his postmodern Peter Sellers. Daniel Day-Lewis is probably Jack Nicholson."

Well put.

I totally owe you a drink for this. and happy new year.

Really great thing! And this... "It might sound condescending, but this is the film during which Paul Thomas Anderson grew up." is not condescending. It's the truth, Ruth. And I love each of the earlier ones.

I hate to point this out and nit-pick, but Aimee Mann's "One" is really, technically, a Harry Nilsson cover. He wrote the song and her version more closely resembles his.

Most of your comments are dead on, especially about "Punch Drunk Love." I do think that is the film where PTA "Grew up," as you say, and I think it's his only film that is truly his own (as opposed to being Scorcese/Altman rip-offs) I thought he was completely overrated for the longest time, but that one changed my mind. It's by far his best, and I would even say it's one of my favorites of the 2000's so far.

As to "Magnolia" I personally think it's his worst. I had a similar experience to you. I first saw it when it came out and liked it well enough (I was in highschool at the time, though), but I recently went back and watched it a few months ago and I was shocked to find that I completely HATED it. It's over the top, overly melodramtic, and everyone tries way to hard (like he whispered "go for the oscar!" before each take). It's like a much more pretentious version of "Crash."

Boogie Nights and Sydney are enjoyable enough, though, although nothing mind blowingly great.

I have yet to see "There Will be Blood" -but I'm looking forward to it.

wow, yet another writer who just doesn't get Magnolia. don't look at it for what you want it to be, take it for what it is. either make a better film or shut the fuck up.

Is it wrong that I agree with every word you wrote about Magnolia and still kind of love it?

I am not about to argue that it's a "good" movie, but even as the film is being completely smothered in Anderson's stylistic tics and excessively grand gestures, a strange, postmodern kind of beauty manages to sneak its way in. It's a complete artistic temper-tantrum, but because Anderson is such a talented artist, even this horrifically overdone mess has little moments of real genius. And that last shot, where Melora Walters looks straight into the camera? Perfect.

But I am nonetheless very, very glad he got that out of his system to make room for the more restrained Punch-Drunk Love and (especially) There Will Be Blood.

Interesting story, for sure. However, disliking "Magnolia" that much!?! I agree with the person above me who said that perhaps you just aren't getting it. Just joking, but seriously...I think there is a lot more to be taken in that you found in your viewing, but I respect your opinion. The movie seems to be pretty polarizing and people either love it or hate it-which to me, shows a good movie. Much better than one that people forget or else are indifferent about.

I'm not sure what to make of your criticism of Julianne Moore in "Magnolia".... "It's perhaps the worst performance of her career, and certainly the worst of any Anderson film: a shrill, mouth-breathing banshee imposing her gold-digger guilt on anyone who will stand in her eyeline long enough to run out the take." Do you mean that it is the least appealing character that she has played? Because if you truly mean that it's her worst *performance*, you'll have to back that up with more than a description of the character. I thought it was a terrific performance, where she played the *role* of someone shrill and unattractive.

Saw Boogie Nights today at the Moving Image screening--glorious movie. I found Airsdale's piece above pretty condescending and weird--it gives the impression that he actually doesn't like Anderson that much (if so, though, why the marathon) and is unwilling to watch the films on the director's terms rather than his own. The hatred of Magnolia seems misplaced and strange.

Interesting piece. I couldn't agree more with several points (especially the Sandler/Sellers comparison) but why chastise Magnolia as a whole and not even try to appreciate the subtleties of such a grandiose film?

Glad you love the masterpiece There Will Be Blood, although Magnolia (despite its flaws) deserves WAY more credit than you give it, that is truly a heartfelt and resonant film. This is the second review of Anderson's growth as a filmmaker that heaps praise on the stylistically interesting though somewhat hollow Punchdrunk Love while decrying the brilliant, perfect Boogie Nights as ambitious but flawed. Both of y'all are fuckin CRAZY. It seems the more problems a person has with PTA's films in general, the more likely they are to view PDL as one of his best. Bizarre.

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