It started with There Will be Blood.
I had no idea, at that time (2007) who Paul Thomas Anderson was. I simply remembered that the trailer for this film came up a whole hell of a lot when I went to the movies that year. It was usually shown with No Country and the Assassination of Jesse James.
And I remember telling a friend that I wanted to see it and they seemed unsure as to whether it was good.
I saw it once close to its first weekend in limited release and again in wide release after I had moved to Humboldt County a few months later.
At that point, I was hooked. I needed to see his other movies. It was the same with the Coen Brothers after No Country came out. I spent most of the next year seeing the films of these three folks.
But the Coens will come later (see, eventually). We’re talking about PT Anderson who is, unabashedly, my favorite filmmaker.
The second film of his that I saw was Magnolia. This came about both by happenstance and pure boredom. I had been wanting to watch the film but thought I had no means to. I was new in town, living in dorms, and spent most of my time cooped up in my room writing a really shitty screenplay/watching baseball/hanging out with my roommate.
But then, from one of my suitemates, I found out that the library has a small collection of films you can either rent for free or watch in the library. And one of those films, it turned out was Magnolia.
But I wasn’t ready to spend three hours watching it even though I’m more than willing to spend three hours a night six months per year watching baseball games. Weird, I know.
The next thing domino to fall was that it was a Saturday (I think, let’s call it Saturday), and I was bored and I had time to kill. So I went to the library to pick up the copy. I figured I could go back to my room and watch it on my laptop even though that would incur a litany of questions from the roommate who loved to ask questions because my lifestyle choice was so fascinating since I didn’t listen to Janis Joplin and Cypress Hill and think that Smokin’ Aces was the best film ever (I’m making that last one up, but it fits, doesn’t it).
I get to the library and what do you know: the copy they have is on VHS. And it’s one of those double-tape packs so it’s extra daunting. That killed the idea of hiding in my room all afternoon, but the library itself has VCRs.
So I plop down in front of one of the 13 inch TVs, put on giant space-man/hipster headphones that are vinyl and make your ears sweat, and strapped in for 3 hours and 9 minutes of… something. I had no idea what to expect. Keep in mind I had only ever seen There Will be Blood and that is so very very different from his previous efforts.
I can remember, between tapes, going down for a cigarette and just thinking “I gotta finish this. I have no idea what is going on, but I fucking love it.”
Since that day, I’ve seen the movie eight more times as well as his other films: Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and Hard Eight.
There is something at work in his esthetic that I absolutely adore. The fast moving cameras, the dollying and panning and constant running of the camera only for it to stop and really accentuate a moment in time. It brings everything to a halt and your mind is forced deep into the moment at hand.
I love the long shots/composite long shots that he does in Boogie Nights–both at the beginning and at the party. Especially the beginning because, in the first ten to fifteen minutes of a film, you have to stuff every major character in and give them a slight introduction so the audience has something to grab onto.
That’s what that shot does. It pans down from the club sign–Reseda, giving geographic context–and into the club where we meet all the main characters that will have a roll in the story. The shot stops with Eddie Adams from Torrance, washing dishes. The camera stops, and stays with him, and we immediately gather that he is the center of the story.
He does something similar in Magnolia after the three vignettes at the beginning of the film that are brilliant and set up the context of chance and serendipity of the story. From there, he buzzes through every single character you’re going to be spending time with in the story, showing them at their story’s genesis–alone in an apartment, on top of the world of inspirational speeches, doing drugs, studying, panicking, starting their shift.
I love Magnolia because it’s really a portrait of a young filmmaker trying to stuff everything he knows into a single film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Infinite Jest: it’s long, and it’s a constant give and take relationship between creator and audience. Both are ensemble pieces that play out like Robert Altman hasn’t been taking his meds. (Infinite Jest is more affecting, mostly because it’s a book I spent 9 months reading–and when you spend that much time with one piece of media, it’s gonna fucking stay with you)
And on the companion disc to Magnolia is an hour and a half long making of documentary that is absolutely fascinating because it takes the movie from preproduction to premiere, it shows how he works with actors and with his crew–it’s an intimate portrait of how not to suck at being a director.
Hard Eight, his first film, was one that you can tell is a learning experience. It’s a prototype film that gives off glimmers of genius–especially in his ability to get good performances from his actors. The movie itself is best described as “okay:” it has some amazing moments, its story is solid, but it kind of drags ass. I’m curious to see what would happen if he remade it today.
The wildcard in his oeuvre is Punch Drunk Love, a 90-minute Adam Sandler comedy.
But it’s so much more than that and maybe my second or third favorite movie of his. He was actually able to prove to the world that Adam Sandler has a soul.
The whole movie is an off-kilter love story that uses all the conventions of the genre to their logical conclusion and amps everything about them up to 11. Barry is weird and depressed and suppressed by his seven sisters. His love interest is perhaps more curious to see where things go with him than actually interested in him at the beginning.
The camera movements and everything is there, as well as another Jon Brion score that kicks an amazing amount of ass. His use of atonal chords and noises adds to the weirdness and unsettling nature of the film.
I was trying to think if there was a thematic constant to all of his films, and I’m not sure. Hard Eight’s about Vegas and gambling and base-level being-John-C.-Reilly; Boogie Nights is about porno; Magnolia is about people of all different kinds; Punch Drunk Love is about love; and There Will be Blood is about an androgynous/asexual oilman.
If there’s one constant, though, it’s this: they are looks at the ebbs and flows of life. There are the highest highs and the lowest lows. What I like about his take on this idea, though, is that after such a mountainous high, it never gets to be as good; and after a rock bottom low, it never feels so bad. It’s best described as “movement and repose,” because instead of it being fucking perfect again, it’s just “okay,” and that’s fine to lay back on.
In Boogie Nights this was Dirk Diggler’s story: catastrophic rise to fast cars and easy women and awards. Then cocaine. Then decent into madness. Then a leveling out.
In Magnolia, every one is at a different point of this cycle, but it all levels out at the end. And it never feels like a completely happy ending with him.
Even in There Will be Blood when Plainview defeats his enemy, it never feels completely happy.
But my favorite remains Magnolia. It’s a three hour emotional ebb and flow with some amazing cinematography (notice in the bar, with William H. Macy, how the camera comes back to him and sits and then moves as his exhaled smoke moves. I like that little touch and I only noticed it on viewing #9).
He pays homage a lot to Scorsese and obscure cinema. He likes to use the same actors a lot. He’s married to Maya Rudolph and has two daughters. He was raised in the Valley. He’s trying to make another movie but hit road blocks even though everything was in place.