In honor of the release of The Master later this month, The Spin is turning its wheels towards Paul Thomas Anderson – writer/director extraordinaire – a true auteur. The great chronicler of Southern California, cancers both physical and metaphorical, dysfunctional makeshift families, deranged father-figures, damaged sons, melancholy and death is arguably the most ambitious American filmmaker working today. But he has only achieved that status through evolution…through finding his voice. Here we will revisit his three most signature works: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood and track the course of his discovery.
“This is the film I want them to remember me by.” – Jack Horner, Boogie Nights
On its surface, Boogie Nights – the grand piece of nostalgia celebrating a pre-AIDS, pre-video porntopia – would appear as a lark – a jokey, ballsy, “Look, Ma, I’m a Hipster Director!” type feature designed to showcase a young man’s skill behind the camera and his cocky nerve to tell a scandalous tale. When you look deeper, the film is anything but that.
From the opening shot where the neon-lit title card/sign is turned on its side and the propulsive retro-beats of “Best of My Love” play on the soundtrack, the viewer knows they are in for something memorable. The whirlwind long-shot introduces us to all of the players (would it surprise you to know my favorite is Heather Graham’s Rollergirl?) and in just a few short minutes we know everyone we need to know and the kind of trouble they are about to get into.
Director Jack Horner (played with subversively charming cloying sleaziness by Burt Reynolds) doesn’t just want to make porn – he wants to make “a film that is true and right and dramatic.” When he spots a nubile young busboy (Mark Whalberg, still carrying the stank of his rapping alter-ego of the mid 90’s) he immediately sees a star in the making. Their opening conversation carries the sick undertone of a predator picking up a child – but it’s a “screen test” for not just entry into film, but entry into Jack Horner’s family. His porn studio operates as an abnormal brood of runaway adult children where Horner oversees as the pater familias. And thus locked into place is one of Anderson’s most dominant themes – deranged father-figures lording over damaged sons.
Boogie Nights is ferociously entertaining in that forbidden fruit kind of way, and Anderson’s use of pop music, period detail and slick camera movements (including the genesis of his own signature “float”) are enough to make any film buff (and especially fans of Scorsese) swoon. But admittedly it loses steam, goes a bit too dark and overplays its hand. Yet Anderson recovers from the excess – as who can forget the Alfred Molina-goes-bonkers with “Motoring” playing on the soundtrack sequence that propels the film to its cozy reunion of the family in its all-too-sentimental closing moments?
“This is not just something that happened.” – Narrator, Magnolia
Of all of the trailblazing films that came out in the watershed year for my generation that was 1999, Magnolia was probably the nerviest – a hyper-manic, overextended, Altman-esque 3-hour long ensemble piece about fate, chance, pain & suffering, redemption and raining frogs that takes place over one epic 24-hour period in contemporary Los Angeles. In the intertwining tales, Anderson wove a bitter pill of a theme about child abuse of every color – emotional, physical, spiritual and sexual. There are not one, but two storylines about dying fathers trying to reconnect with children they abused or abandoned – and not one, but two tales of exploited children (quiz show whiz kids) and how the exploitation scars their souls. Oh, and then there’s the wives – the second-wives – and the mothers! You can’t fault the damn thing for ambition. And I didn’t even mention my favorite story line about a nervous, earnest cop trying to live a moral life and find love – played effortlessly by a totally un-ironic John C. Reilly.
To say Magnolia is overstuffed would be a grand understatement. But the Anderson moves are all there in spades, too – and the Aimee Mann soundtrack is the kind of melancholy enchantment you want to be wrapped in on a rainy day. And like Boogie Nights from two years earlier, Anderson overcomes the excess and delivers one of the most emotionally resonating closing scenes in the history of millennial cinema. With Mann’s “Save Me” building to a subdued crescendo on the soundtrack, Anderson’s partially obscured camera lingers on the worn-out face of actress Melora Walters (who in playing the most damaged of the damaged characters delivers one of the most underrated performances of the last twenty years) as John C. Reilly’s character soothes her with unintelligible talk – and slowly, despite all she’s been through – she sees a glimmer of hope (or perhaps she’s still drowning in cynicism) and (feigns?) a smile. Fade to black.
Making a film like Magnolia and saving it from itself before it completely drains the audience – it’s not just something that happens. It’s not a matter of chance. And Anderson proves here he’s a guy who’s not going to spoon feed it to you. He makes you work for it. The film’s ending could be a happy one…or not…and it’s your choice in how you interpret that knowing smile.
“I am a family man and I run a family business.” – Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
And so it was in 2007 that the evolution occurred. Some would argue that everything about There Will Be Blood was excess…pretension…self-indulgence…from the camera-work to the discordant Jonny Greenwood soundtrack to Daniel Day Lewis’ volcanic performance. But it was oh so brilliantly calculated and delivered with a precise coldness the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Stanley Kubrick. Gone was the manic emotion that kneecapped his earlier works. And yet for all of the homages to Kubrick, it was wholly a Paul Thomas Anderson product. No other film maker could’ve made it.
I don’t know what more I could say about the film other than what I already did say when I first saw it or when I declared it the greatest film of the decade. But I’ll try.
I could get clinical and say that it’s about the battle for America’s soul between wanton capitalist greed and misguided religious zealotry. It is. In building his oil empire, Plainview knows he has to deal with these people and he placates them when he says, “I enjoy all faiths.” And even while he privately hates them before publicly slighting, scorning and physically beating their prophet, it is that sick prophet, Eli Sunday, who asks his own father at the battered sanctuary of the family dinner table, “Do you think God is going to save you from being stupid?” The hate rots like a cancer on both sides, and runs thick as oil, thick as blood. “I see the worst in people,” Plainview tells us…and he saw the worst in these people from day one.
Or I could stab at the heart and talk about Anderson’s overriding theme – the defining motif of his work to date – that tortured relationship between fathers and sons. And child abuse. Plainview sees in an orphaned infant an opportunity…a tool with which he can build a “family business” – a cute face to bamboozle these people. And as he grows, the son, H.W., learns to love the business and love his father. Meanwhile Daddy has one focus. “Can everything around here be got?” he asks his lawyer. “Why don’t I own this?”
But there’s one thing he can never own. His son’s voice.
In the critical moments after a horrendous accident, the boy, covered in oil, cries out to his father, “I can’t hear my voice!”
But we can hear you, Paul. Your voice is loud and clear.
For a film so often quoted for its blistering Network-ian dialogue…much of There Will Be Blood plays like the greatest of silent films. H.W.’s silent film. Paul’s silent film. A silence that screams. An open wound. A silence as thick as oil. As thick as blood.
“I’m gonna be something! You’ll see!” – Dirk Diggler, Boogie Nights
As Dirk Diggler mused in Boogie Nights that “Everyone is blessed with that one special thing.” – we realize that Paul Thomas Anderson’s evolution has revealed that one special thing is his voice. Caught up in showmanship in Boogie Nights and raw unchecked emotions in Magnolia, I don’t think he realized it until he symbolically lost it through H.W. in There We Be Blood. But it’s out there now, escaped from the bottomless well…in the ether. Hell, it’s so bold now his next film is simply titled The Master. And here’s to that voice holding our rapt attention on the silver screen for decades to come.
School us, master. Show us what film could be. Should be. Is.
Written by David H. Schleicher