4
Jul
2010
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Paul Thomas Anderson
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"It's dangerous to confuse children with angels."-Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson), Magnolia

"The book says, we might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us."-Narrator (Ricky Jay), Magnolia


The introduction that accompanies each installment of this column references my desire to discuss not just the thematic consistency of a particular subject's work, but also to weigh in on the technical elements and personal style of each subject. To some extent I am limited by my desire to keep these columns shorter than novel length (I recognize they are almost always too long already), and I tend to gravitate more toward an examination of thematic consistency for two reasons. Firstly, I feel that this is the element that any given viewer is most likely to pick up on when seeing a particular work by a director. Walking into a movie by, say, Martin Scorsese, it is much easier to pick up on the consistency of his protagonists than on his shot composition or the fact that his Catholicism plays prominently throughout his work. Knowing very little about cinematic technique, or for that matter, Scorsese's biography, it is still easy to see thematic trends when watching several of his movies.

Secondly, I think that it is easier to talk in the abstract about the themes that interest a director than it is to refer to shot compositions that may be difficult to describe or impossible to display in clip form (though I do try to intersperse as many relevant clips as possible throughout each column). For those reasons, Whose Film Is It Anyway? has become more of a look at thematic trends than at the whole of what constitutes auteurism, a trend that I will attempt to buck from time to time, both to give service to the other tenets of the theory, and to keep things interesting. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

In discussing Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur, many challenges arise from the first. Anderson is a director that has made just five films, but they differ in ways that might make them seem on the surface as if each exists in an entirely separate cinematic universe. When I began to formulate my thesis for this column, I considered potential ties that bind Anderson's work. What I initially came up with was that each of his films is excellent (with the exception of Hard Eight, which due in part to studio cuts, and likely in part to first time insecurities, feels only half-formed), many of them are epic in scope, and they all feel wholly different while being undeniably the work of Anderson. Yet these are all surface observations and not worth wasting 2000 words on. Before I delve into one of the many thematic elements that a deeper analysis reveals tie the works of PTA together, I want to look at just two of the technical aspects he uses throughout his works.

The first is his propensity for long, uninterrupted takes, especially tracking shots which he generally uses to establish a mood and introduce a large variety of characters. Anderson keeps his camera moving throughout most of his films, but these tracking shots in particular get at some of what he is exploring in each of his movies. In Hard Eight, the long tracking shot that follows Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall) and John (John C. Reilly) through a Casino not only ties the two of them together inextricably, but also sets up the sense of cool detachment with which Sydney faces the world and nicely contrasts that with the naïve wonderment inherent to John's perceptions. Boogie Nights opens with a three minute long tracking shot that not only introduces nearly every character in the expansive cast, but also places each one of them in their position in the world at the moment the film starts. Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) owns every room he walks into and commands respect. Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) appears at his side, like the matriarch she will try to be throughout the film. Rollergirl (Heather Graham) is wearing her roller-skates, weaving through the dance floor, switching partners. Scotty J. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) seems like he isn't quite at home in his own skin, and a boy who for now goes by Eddie (Mark Wahlberg) looks like he just wants something more.



The tracking shot in Magnolia comes later in the film, as Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is guided through the television studio. This shot also lasts for nearly three minutes, and is a thematic tour de force as the young genius is shuffled around to fit the interests of everyone else, while every adult in sight ignores his real worth. In Punch Drunk Love, the film opens with a shot that follows the painfully neurotic Barry (Adam Sandler) through an awkward interaction with the woman destined to be his romantic interest (Emily Watson), back through his well ordered office, and finally, in a mad dash to rescue/steal a harpsichord seated curbside. The scene shows the dichotomies in Barry's personality as he attempts to be calm, polite, and ordered, but is inevitably drawn into frenzies by the emotions he attempts to suppress. And the tracking shot that follows Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, who won a much deserved Oscar for his performance) through an oil explosion in There Will Be Blood manages to solidify what drives the man while simultaneously underscoring the deep, lasting problems that come along with an association to oil.



I will give the second technical consideration I want to mention short shrift because in spite of my better efforts, I want to explore one of Anderson's many themes at some (limited) length. Yet Anderson's use of music to set tone is incredibly important to an understanding of his work. He collaborated with composer Jon Brion on Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love, and in each case, the music perfectly underscores the tone that Anderson is aiming for. He also used the music of Aimee Mann in Hard Eight and Magnolia, including having her write some original songs for the latter film. Mann's use in Magnolia is especially important, as her songs in many ways inspired Anderson while he was writing the script (to be clear, Anderson has also written all five of his films). In fact, one line of dialogue in the film (when Claudia says, "Now that you've met me, would you object to never seeing me again?") is lifted directly from a Mann song.

The same can easily be said of the way music is utilized in Anderson's other two movies, though in different ways. In Boogie Nights the soundtrack overtakes the score, filled wall-to-wall with popular music from the era, and giving an undeniably nostalgic tone to each scene. Not only does the music take you back immediately to the era in which the film is set, it also provides an insight into each of the characters, who often comment on the soundtrack as it plays. And, in the film's best scene, the non-stop barrage of pop music actually adds to the tension that gradually builds into a crescendo of panic and regret. In There Will Be Blood, the score by Jonny Greenwood adds a constant sense of existential dread to the proceedings.



To call Anderson's work dense is intended as a compliment of the highest order. Each of his movies, and especially his three epics (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, which are so called both because of their scope and because of their run-times, as each clocks in near the three hour mark) are simply packed with characters that are fully realized, allusions it would take chapters to unravel, and a near cacophony of potential themes to explore. Instead of devolving into a laundry list of the themes he considers, I would like to look at one that can be seen to some extent in each of his films: the relationships between parents and their children, and how the failings of the former can affect the entire lives of the latter.

Much of Hard Eight, Anderson's first and least fully formed effort is dedicated to this theme. Sydney is established in the opening scene as a father figure for John, buying him coffee, offering him a cigarette, and pledging to teach him how to make money gambling. John, in return, is devoted to Sydney as if the man was his father. Yet, when it is revealed near the end of the film (obvious SPOILER warning) that Sydney killed John's real father and has been mentoring him as a way to assuage his guilt, the cracks in his efforts, and in the effects they may have had on John's sudden violent outburst are made more clear.

The failures of parents is crystal clear in Boogie Nights from the first. When Eddie comes home late from work one night, he is screamed at and degraded by his mother until he finally runs from the house, and is driven into the porn industry, assuming the name Dirk Diggler. Her cruelty leads to much of his earnest insecurity throughout the movie, and also to his desperation to be a star and to make something of himself. Rollergirl also spends much of the movie seemingly looking for parental figures, staying loyal to Jack long after the faux family at the film's center falls apart, and begging Amber, in a moment of coked up mania, "Will you be my mom? Can I call you mom?" On the other side of the parenting coin, Amber Waves has lost custody of her child due to her profession and her drug problems, which effects both her and her son, who meekly calls Jack's house looking for Maggie (Amber's real name) early in the film, desperate to get his mother back.


None of Anderson's films tackle the relationship between parents and their children more directly or rewardingly than Magnolia, of which Anderson has said, "I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make." The film is a mosaic of life in the San Fernando Valley, filled with characters whose lives have been wrecked by their parents, or whose lives are in the process of being destroyed by the flaws in the adults that surround them. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was a quiz show champion when he was a kid, but his parents stole his winnings, ruined his innocence, and left him a pathetic shell of his former self. His modern day equivalent, Stanley Spector, endures the abuse of his father and the indifference of the casting coordinator (Felicity Huffman) on the same game show, but cracks begin to show in the surface of his psyche, and he is left ineffectually commanding his father, "Dad. You have to be nicer to me." The other two kid competitors on the show with him are already rude and greedy, products of parents working steadily to maximize the profits that can be made from their children's successes.


Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise, in a performance that garnered him a surprisingly well deserved Oscar nomination) is a motivational speaker who teaches men to "Seduce and Destroy" the women in their lives with callous indifference after being forced to care for his dying mother when his father Earl (Jason Robards) abandoned them to his philandering ways. Claudia Wilson Gator (Meolra Walters) is a manic cocaine addict who fears forming connections since distancing herself from the father (Phillip Baker Hall) who molested her in her youth. Magnolia is absolutely filled to the brim with familial failings and the lasting consequences of those flaws.



Punch Drunk Love is notable if only for the fact that Barry's parents are not referenced once. In spite of their apparent absence, however, the effect they had on his upbringing is apparent through Barry's interactions with his seven overbearing and cruel sisters, and through his repression and latent rage. The household that wrought these characters was clearly a deeply flawed one, and each of them (and Barry's brother-in-laws) are paying the price for that decades later.

Daniel Plainview nearly manages to destroy the life of his secretly adopted son H.W. in There Will Be Blood. Daniel's neglect leads H.W. to become anti-social, a tendency which is exasperated when he goes deaf in an accident caused by his proximity to his father's noxious business. The only thing that saves H.W. from being destroyed by his father's maddening cynicism, greed, and nihilism is the love of Mary Sunday, who guides him further and further away from Daniel's poison sphere of influence. The Sunday clan provides another example of flawed parenting however, as the weak willed parents allow the arrogant machinations of their preacher son Eli (Paul Dano) to go unchecked, leading his fervor and superiority to grow until it eventually seals his undoing.



Selecting one of Anderson's themes to examine seems reductive of the brilliance and depth of his work, yet he persistently examines the roles that parents play in their children's lives, for better or (mostly) worse. As the writer and director of all of his films, and the clear driving authorial force behind them, there is little doubt that Anderson is an auteur. What makes him so fascinating a topic for this column is how prolific and diverse he manages to be while working within a recognizable framework. He tells stories of the porn industry in the "˜70s and "˜80s and stories of the oil boom at the turn of the century. He tells stories that span decades, and those that take place in a single day. He weaves tales through vast ensembles and focuses with laser-like precision on the downfall of a single man. Paul Thomas Anderson cannot be accused of making the same film over and over (a charge leveled at many auteurs, the similarly named but unrelated Wes Anderson among them), yet his voice never wavers throughout his work. He can be held up as a shining example of the limitless possibilities of auteurism, which is often seen as a dead and repetitive notion. Most importantly, though, he can be counted on to make a blazingly original work that can still be easily defined as stemming from the fertile mind of Paul Thomas Anderson.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

7/18: Fritz Lang

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

8/15: Todd Solondz

8/29: Jean-Luc Godard
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