Paul Thomas Anderson: An Autocritique

From the Los Angeles Review of Books
Paul Thomas Anderson
From Greg Gerke (Los Angeles Review of Books):
The bounty of responses to Paul Thomas Anderson and his films speak to his artistry. After David Lynch and Terrence Malick, he is the star of the American narrative cinema and is certainly leagues more commercial than those two old souls, now name brands. Because he is a contemporary, I confess a competition. It is one-sided, but not drooling. What I have made in the past five years may pale to what The Master is. Many pages and many words that don’t cohere into one principled mountain risk the dyspepsia that graces the internet, our mutual multi-glutinous mouthpiece. Our mediums are different, our means are different, one doesn’t know the other exists — it sounds like many crush relationships, but it is the basis for more than thwarted love or genuine repulsion.

Critics carry the stain of envy into the thoughts they print, especially those emboldened enough to critique without having ever made the art that can exasperate them. E. M. Cioran, the crotchety Romanian, master of despair and champion of the unsuccessful writer and artist said, “To venture upon an undertaking of any kind, even the most insignificant, is to sacrifice to envy.” The plexiglass irony complicating the situation is that Anderson works in the vein I presupposed would fill my life full when I was 20. He didn’t go to film school; for a few years, I did. I left it with only two years completed, in addition to numerous Bergman-enamored screenplays that would never see production. He put in time as a production assistant, while I moved across the country to his coast to find tai chi, tofu, and women who didn’t believe in underwear. Later, I farmed my way across Europe, while Anderson simply realized what Kubrick and John Cassavetes counseled — if one wanted to make a film, one had to go out, get money any way one could, and make a film. Hard Eight, his first, came out in 1996. Two years later, I sat in a meadow at 8,000 feet in Arizona and told myself, by pressing the words into a notebook, that I would be a writer, not a film director. The Rilkean moments of beginning to see were starting to accumulate. I began to make fictions and characters who would not be seen speaking, but whose monologues and dialogues would have to cut the internal ear of the audience.

Anderson kept pushing himself and after Magnolia came a great shift in his world-view and probably his life situation, though I will only call the shift aging. It’s not when sadness entered — babies were born — but when his age squeezed out the adolescent endeared of pre–Cape Fear Scorsese, an overreliance on the steadicam, and such Lite-Brite touches as having Georges Bizet’s famous aria in Carmen become the ending pivot of a scene between a cop and his love interest in Magnolia. In 2005 he served as the insurance director for A Prairie Home Companion because of Robert Altman’s health and age and began to birth his own style: quiet, measured, and magnifying. It is with his last two features (There Will Be Blood and The Master) that Anderson has answered Ingmar Bergman’s call for a young filmmaker to have something to say, announcing this with the first shot of the former, as he fades in to an intricately aligned long shot of three cracked mountains, accompanied by the swelling strings on the soundtrack. Images and sound more and more speak for dialogue, sound manipulation spurs mystery, and his editing produces images often offset and unexpected, if not unique in their rhythms — most triumphantly in the cutaways when Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell remembers Iris and then tries to visit her in the end, as both scenes begin on slight roving movement (an Anderson signature) toward her parent’s house, from left to right in the former scene, with an old blue car in the foreground, and from right to left in the latter, with the same car a little closer to the camera (and in slow motion), so for a moment the audience sees Quell through its windows. In these scenes the alterations of distance, speed, and longitudinal movement bring us into the moody mind of Quell when he pursues one of the few humans he has a genuine bashful feeling for. Yet it is mostly the mugs of Daniel Day-Lewis, Phoenix, and Philip Seymour-Hoffman that tailor the line, paint, swirl, and swish of his mise-en-scène. [Read More]

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