Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Paul Thomas Anderson: Top to Bottom (1996-2014) — Part I

To the extent that you watch Paul Thomas Anderson's films these days, you're likely either a full-on PTA-is-the-Second-Coming! true believer or a hopeless romantic, clinging Jimmy Stewart-in-Vertigo-style to the disintegrating rooftop of a high from nearly twenty years ago — that cineaste's elation upon discovery of Hard Eight or Boogie Nights that said, "Here's the next level in the use of Hollywood form and technique to frame everyday drama; here's a filmmaker whose sentimental flourishes and smart-aleck facility with film as panoramist's canvas speak to an audience of fatherless kids and people whose only real families have been the ones they've managed to cobble together."

My verdict: I can't think of another working director who's thrown away his early potential to connect with mass audiences and rival the legacies of the old greats the way Anderson has. Even as his mastery of tone and mood have deepened, and he's largely (thankfully) grown beyond his former kid-who-knows-every-Scorsese-and-Altman-film-by-heart mimicry, he's gotten progressively worse as a storyteller.

It's fine that he eschews the old conventions that make for drab formula retreads and all but, along with them, he seems to have sworn off the most rudimentary knowledge of how to tie character and plot elements together, of how to craft narratives that feel as if they're going someplace, and which sport a sense of resonance beyond whatever personal meaning the story has for him. Entire gaps are missing from his most recent films as if he'd shot first drafts; neither The Master nor Inherent Vice concludes so much as each film simply slams face-first into a wall, then yells out for Anderson to roll the credits.

I blame constant, ravenous ego-fellatio from the critical establishment, most of whom would put a three-hour reel of Anderson taking a dump while humming the melody from an Aimee Mann demo on their year-end top-ten lists. I also blame a pretentious internet groupie squad that elevates every silence, every forced quirk, every absurdly showy camera pirouette of an Anderson film to heights of instant canonization that not even a Stanley Kubrick or a Robert Altman enjoyed. Both groups seem concerned with justifying their own worship of him — a badge-like signifier of their personal tastes — more than they are with any sort of honest analysis.

I don't think the emperor's completely naked here, though. I'm as intrigued by the trailer for his upcoming Phantom Thread as anyone; I'll probably never give up hope that Anderson will someday marry his early gifts for narrative closure and for sketching offbeat America to the intensity of focus he displayed in There Will Be Blood and in The Master's first half. Maybe he needs to start fucking Fiona Apple again.

In the meantime, let's chart the decline:

1. There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood at its best is pure waking dream; less a motion picture written, scored and directed than a writhing, wriggling piece of our national character — as preserved in amber by muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 novel Oil! Anderson is partially adapting here.

There's some of the poetry of a silent-movie epic in its painterly widescreen tableaux of an American West in its bare-plains infancy, in the film's wordless, ritualistic evocations of what it meant to make one's living from the land, in the way that its chunk of the early years of America's oil industry quietly unfolds like the petals of some rare orchid opening — gradually, wondrously. Daniel Day-Lewis, as oil magnate Daniel Plainview, likewise recalls an earlier era of cinematic spectacle with his turn-of-the-century Snidely Whiplash-cum-railroad baron look and his crooked gait and his verbal conjuring of director John Huston (think Chinatown) plus any number of Woodrow Wilson-era bigwigs whose voices he studied recordings of in preparation for the role.

What doesn't work so well is the film's easy assumption of venality and two-bit hucksterism in Eli Sunday, the town's self-appointed young preacher who winds up facing off with Plainview for nothing less than the town's soul. Eli's the paper tiger of Religious Hogwash that Anderson pits against the raging Colossus of Reasonable Agnosticism, and the outcome of said battle is never in doubt; it's forecast from their first meeting. How much more powerful would Blood be, though, had it rejected the taint of postmodern hipster antipathy to Christianity in order to examine — truly, seriously examine — the psychological motivation for Eli's God complex? What if Anderson had given Eli just a smidgen of the same blemished humanity he lent to daughter-diddler Jimmy Gator in Magnolia? What if — instead of the Saturday Night Live sketch we get of Eli "casting out" the "evil spirit" of an elderly woman's arthritis — he'd endowed Eli with a genuine gift for speaking to the emotional needs of his congregation, for applying a measure of spiritual unguent to their lives? As hilarious as that arthritis bit is (and I do love it), it's little more than tent-show revival theatrics; easy laughs. It's beneath the auteurist stature that Anderson, by this point, was so clearly capable of attaining.

Anderson gives Blood a sense of historical weight, though — of scope. It boasts a vision of the world beyond Daniel Plainview and it shows us his influence on that world. America's gain is his loss, his self-enforced isolation, his willful descent into the fate of a Howard Hughes who's spent one too many winters at The Shining's Overlook Hotel.

2. Hard Eight (1996)

Hard Eight, though it takes place in Reno, isn't the only film since Robert Altman's California Split to fully capture that amiably seedy Vegas vibe of impeccably dressed losers and tired cocktail waitresses who turn tricks when their shift is over if they're behind on the rent. But it's the first since Altman's existential shrug of an addiction comedy to wear that vibe like an old pair of slippers, to bleed it from its pores and leave your living room stinking of sighed cigarette smoke and the fuck-me perfume of raccoon-eyed casino floozies. His first time at bat, Anderson managed to capture the finest performances his three leads — Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, and Gwyneth Paltrow — will ever give. He also crafted what's likely the most effortless-seeming, formally perfect narrative he'll ever attach his name to.

Hard Eight personifies the channel-surfing-at-2 a.m.-and-just-stumbled-across-this-movie-on-Showtime movie — a quietly cocksure crime yarn spun by a kid who's been up on cigarettes and coffee and Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur since the night he was born, a kid who lives to turn actors loose on a precisely worded monologue and to gaze at them with CinemaScope eyes. The film sucks you in with its shaggy-dog hook of an opener, teases you with flashes of loneliness and alienation behind the comedy, deftly slips father-son pathos under its cool film noir shadings, then packs a world of unstated emotion into something as simple and unshowy as an antique of a gambler sitting in his hotel suite and watching a video of his surrogate son with his brand new bride, the son so completely swallowed up in the stupid, ignorant bliss of a first-ever romance that the old man'd do anything — we'd do anything — to keep the poor bastard from crashing back to earth.

Samuel L. Jackson lurks on the margins of all this like a cagey Rottweiler waiting for its moment to attack. He's all coarse guy talk and pimpish leering and squeaking leather and far-too-boisterous laughter before he morphs into your worst secret come back from the dead just to royally fuck up your day — the birth of Magnolia's "We may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us."

Hard Eight strides in the bespoke suit and wingtips of its protagonist: calm, self-assured, never calling attention to itself, never using five or six words when two will do; biding its time to spring forth from a darkened room and make an impression on you that you'll never forget, in ways that you never saw coming. It ends on the perfect grace note: its final frame could well have served as its first.

A hard-boiled genre archetype turns to self-sacrifice to nullify a threat to his family — to keep the innocent from crashing back to earth — and he's the purest, truest father Anderson's ever written.

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

What works best about Boogie Nights is also what sticks in your craw about it. Aside from Anderson having lifted lines and scenarios nearly verbatim from various John Holmes pornos, aside from his having carbon-copied the ensemble texture of Robert Altman's Nashville and his having poached the final scene of Scorsese's Raging Bull (while cramming in as many whip pans and blinding camera-bulb flashes and chuckles at gaudy Seventies fashion from Casino as possible), he's diagrammed Nights as a porn-world Goodfellas — a period-piece rise-and-fall charting the seduction of Henry Hill/Dirk Diggler away from an abusive home and into the warm surrogate-family embrace of the Mob/the adult-film industry, as personified by the avuncular charms of all-powerful capo Paulie Cicero/veteran skin-flick director Jack Horner.

From there, Henry/Dirk must prove that he belongs by passing the initiation test of taking his first arrest like a man/successfully shooting his first sex scene, after which he rises to become an indispensable Mob associate/king porn stud, swims in cash and endlessly available pussy, and proudly shows off the tacky accoutrements of his nouveau riche lifestyle before getting swallowed up in the cocaine vortex of a singularly drugged-out era. Come the dawn of the Eighties (oh no! Reagan's elected! the mood of the country's changed! the party's over!), Henry/Dirk is free-falling through the abyss faster than you can say "downfall," running afoul of his former mentor and bottoming out via a brush with mortality. In case you still haven't grasped that Anderson really, really took Scorsese's Mafia opus to heart, he gives us a scene of Dirk crawling back to Jack with hat in hand that's so stupendously, unapologetically literal-minded in its rubber-dong-out aspiring to Goodfellas' emotional heft that it has Horner tending to some food at the stove as Dirk shuffles into view with cracked voice and watery eyes — done, of course, in sheer balls-the-size-of-a-gangster's-level imitation of Paul Sorvino's back-kitchen sausage-frying as Ray Liotta schleps up to him and walks off with thirty-two hundred dollars for a lifetime of friendship.

Anderson isn't trying to slide his influence under the radar of his narrative in hopes that the seams will disappear, though. His opening re-staging of Goodfellas' from-the-street-and-onto-the-club-floor Copacabana shot thumps its own chest as it cries out, "hey, Marty, watch this!" Anderson wants you to notice the template he's working from here. He's inviting you to make comparisons between Boogie Nights and the films that inspired him to try to one-up them with even more outré how'd-he-do-that? camera pageantry, with a bigger and more obsessively detailed sense of time and place, with more extravagant set pieces, with a more deeply ensconced anthropologist's snapshot of a subculture — and, yes, with a more ostentatious stab at assaying a major shift in the American psyche.

The problem with inviting such comparisons is that an audience inevitably asks: what do you actually have to say in relation to the masters you're cribbing from? And the answer for Boogie Nights is: beneath all the visual pizzazz and period-appropriate soundtrack decoration, not much. Originality-wise, it's unquestionably a step or two down from Hard Eight, and what he has to say about the porn world and the misfits who populate it is a whole lot of been-there-done-that for all the fireworks he shoots off to get us there. Surprise: fucking for profit while Hoovering half of Colombia up your nose will lead you to some dark places in life. Newsflash: success goes straight to the heads of idiots with no grounding in reality, and striking out on your own — without a cogent strategy or even a marketable real-world talent — might lead you to beating off in cars with gay-bashing closet cases. It's like a dry run for Magnolia's three hours of the wildest, craziest brushstrokes imaginable just to give us a painting of a bowl of fruit.

And yet, I adore the thing. Boogie Nights soars. It pants, it preens, it zeroes in on desolation in the middle of a party. It watches as the people around it come spectacularly undone and it gets right in their faces — close enough to taste their tears. It's as quotable as Pulp Fiction and it's been one of my go-to movie-in-the-background-of-a-party movies for at least a decade now. It highlights his debt to greater filmmakers, yet Anderson excels when foregrounding his whiz-kid giddiness at I Am Cuba-diving into heretofore cinematically untouched waters (aside from Hardcore, Paul Schrader's 1979 runaway-gone-XXX re-imagining of The Searchers).

That giddiness is fused with his prankster's sketch of what the era actually felt and smelled like in real time, and we get some of the Nineties' best set pieces — Dirk lost in underwear-clad self-worship as cinematographer Robert Elswit's 360-degree-panning camera takes in the posters on his bedroom walls: a dizzying catalog of "Me Decade" iconography that could double as a museum exhibit; Don Cheadle's cowboy-garbed Buck Swope, on his joke of a day job, using a country-and-Western 8-track to try and sell a stereo; Dirk's first sex scene, as it moves from the mundanities of last-minute blocking and scripting decisions to deliciously stilted porn dialogue to Julianne Moore's bubblegum-pink milk nozzles to the first real family embrace that a dishwasher from Torrance has ever known; every excruciatingly drawn-out second of the freebasing, firecracker-throwing "Sister Christian" sequence as it snowballs from Rick Springfield to Dirk's slow-boil moment of clarity to that awful gut-sick moment when you realize you've cast your lot with a fucking coked-out maniac who's likely to get you blown apart with a shotgun.

It's not a true "blue Hollywood" exposé, of course — for one thing, if it were, Dirk's what-the-fuck-am-I-doing-here? moment of bottoming-out would play less as a queasily funny Quentin Tarantino homage; it'd be an outright descent into hell, with the bludgeoned corpses and drawn-out torture and crime-world revenge-plotting of its obvious inspiration: the 1981 "Wonderland Murders" involving real-life Dirk Diggler prototype John Holmes. For that matter, Anderson wouldn't be content to pretend as if adult film were populated with nothing but rosy-cheeked exiles from suburbia rutting for the profit of Mafia-run distribution channels; he'd make at least a token gesture of acknowledging the Tribal hand that kept — and keeps — the biz propped up, from the bulk of on-camera "talent" during its Seventies-to-Eighties "Golden Age" to the majority of its producers and distributors and cultural cheerleaders. Anderson ensures the relatability of his gutter-residing never-could-be's to us through a kind of paternalistic largesse — making them sweet-natured dim-bulbs that one can't hold too responsible for their stations in life.

And then, there's that bit with Robert Ridgely's underworld financier getting busted for corruption of a minor, which Jack Horner treats with the same disbelief-turned-to-revulsion that Middle America would. Certainly, a guy who'd done all the preparatory research that Anderson had would know that such transgressions are nowhere near as unheard-of in the business as Boogie Nights would have you assume; one need only look to the early porn career of a still-underage Traci Lords (despite the industry's ass-covering claims of ignorance), or the ubiquity of jizz-biz hangers-on who make their debuts five seconds after they turn eighteen and expect people to imagine that their period of "discovery" and industry "nurturing" somehow stretched back no further than the age of consent. (For the record, my own time in L.A. brought me within the orbit of a couple of fourth-tier porn girls, the kind who'd done a few shoots "here and there" but had amassed no real notoriety or success from it. I'll never forget the nonchalance with which one of them  a real Rollergirl type if I've ever seen one  informed me of the time she'd been offered a tidy sum to participate with another starlet in a private shoot involving a pair of minors. She declined; it wasn't her "thing," she'd said, but the other girl shrugged and took the money. "It happens," I was told.)

Ultimately, though, Anderson's under no illusions about these people. On his Boogie Nights DVD commentary track, Anderson mentioned what he called the "'you know' girls": starlets he'd encounter on his visits to porn shoots who, when he'd ask what they thought or felt about what it was they were doing for a living, would mumble an "oh, you know..." that trailed away into a giggle or a staring-off into the distance. His prediction: that someday, all the pent-up rage behind those "you know"'s would come bursting forth in a paroxysm of long-simmering realization directed either at others, as in his Rollergirl's roller-stomping of some college kid's head, or at themselves, as in the William Macy character's Shauna Grant/Savannah/Megan Leigh special right through the brainpan. They're fuck-ups, these perpetual margin-dwellers. They're losers, they're geniuses at nothing but self-delusion — cultural relics hopelessly unsuited to the sea change in the national mood. (A Sam Peckinpah character could relate.) It's less a market-minded omission than a sheer act of mercy that Anderson draws the curtain just before the height of the AIDS crisis. Boogie Nights sums itself up, sums up America's post-"revolution" hangover, sums up the what-the-fuck-have-I-done-with-my-life? weariness of an entire swath of society, with a single look on Julianne Moore's face — a look that portends the storm clouds that'll gather and progressively darken above this lot while they pause to do another line and pop in another eight-track, trying their damnedest to keep the orgy going into the harsh morning light of their own declines.

"For the wages of sin is death," so sayeth the Bible, and death, as Boogie Nights' soon-to-be-referencing-Exodus-8:2 helmsman makes clear, likes its bit of foreplay, too: gnawing away at the still-living long before it moves in for the climax of the final embrace.

Part II to follow...

Further reading:

There Will Be Blood: America!

©2017 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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