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The Paul Thomas Anderson Rewatch: An Overview

September 2, 2012

Along with the movies I mentioned opening this fall in my last post, there are a number of others opening that look interesting (though I won’t be able to see most of these until I’m employed again). Given how much I liked director Rian Johnson’s previous films Brick and The Brothers Bloom, and given I’m also a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I’m definitely excited to see Looper, which has received great advance word. Ben Affleck still needs to improve as a writer and an actor, but as a director, he’s getting better, and given the real-life story behind Argo, I’m looking forward to that. Not Fade Away is David Chase’s first project since The Sopranos, and the fact it’s about rock-n-roll is another plus. Holy Motors was considered the craziest movie to hit Cannes this past year, and though I’ve yet to see a movie by director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge), that fact alone makes it a must-see. Whatever his off-screen reputation may be, David O. Russell still is a talented filmmaker, and The Silver Linings Playbook looks right up his alley (and my meh feelings towards Bradley Cooper are offset by how talented I think Jennifer Lawrence is). I’m still a fan of Quentin Tarantino (when he’s not working with Robert Rodriguez, that is), and Django Unlimited looks like it’ll be just as crazy, and entertaining, as his previous work. Whatever you feel about the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow is a visual poet, and the fact she’s reunited with writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, my favorite movie of 2009), doesn’t hurt. And while I’m by no means a fan of Michael Haneke, I’ve heard enough good things about Amour, even from non-Haneke fans, that I want to see it. Finally, it may be wishful thinking, but I’m hoping Joss Whedon will finish editing his version of Much Ado About Nothing in time for an end-of-the-year release (I’ve given up hope on Terrence Malick doing the same with To the Wonder, though I’d be enormously happy if I was wrong).

Still, there’s one movie that looms over all of those, and even if I don’t have a job by then, I will be in line to see it (the fact the release date has been moved up to the middle of September is even better). Because of the vagaries of making films today, unless you’re working exclusively with either big budgets or microcosmic ones – and even those have their obstacles – it’s almost impossible for a director these days to build up a body of work like they used to. And that’s one reason why it’s hard to compare them to who I think of as the old masters like Kurosawa, Bergman, Wilder, Ford, or more recently, Scorsese. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s too much hype to say I think Paul Thomas Anderson is the best writer-director who’s been working in Hollywood in the last 15 years or so, and that’s why The Master, which will be released in select cities on September 14, is the movie I’m looking forward to the most this fall (full disclosure; Anderson was a member at the last video store I worked at. We didn’t talk much, but he was always nice to me).

Ever since he burst on the scene 15 years ago with Hard Eight, Anderson has been one of the most divisive filmmakers working today. Supporters point to his visual acumen, his empathy for his characters, his willingness to tackle big themes, his use of music, the fact his films wear their emotions on their sleeves, and the fact his films, especially Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are so personal. Detractors call him pretentious, a mere knock-off of better directors such as Altman, Kubrick and Scorsese, complain about the overlength of his films (except for Punch Drunk Love, which clocked in at just over 90 minutes, and Hard Eight, which was originally going to run at two and a half hours, was eventually released at 100 minutes), complain at what they see as the over-acting in his films, complain about his ego, and say the messages of his films are, at best, fairly simplistic (Magnolia especially gets this; detractors such as Kevin Smith, for example, pounced on the scene where Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) told his father near the end, “You have to be nicer to me”). There’s also the fact that while his films have received both critical acclaim (consistently from people like Roger Ebert and David Ansen) and Oscar nominations (Boogie Nights was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Burt Reynolds), Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore) and Original Screenplay, Magnolia was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Cruise), Original Screenplay and Original Song (Aimee Mann’s “Save Me”), and There Will Be Blood was nominated for eight Oscars and won two; Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Cinematography (Robert Elswit)), they’ve never made a lot at the box office (though they’ve usually gained an audience on DVD).

As I’ve pointed out enough here and elsewhere, I would rather a film try to do too much than not try to do anything at all, and so I applaud Anderson’s ambition; I do admit, though, it wouldn’t mean as much if I didn’t think he had the talent to back up that ambition, and I do. Also, I do think films can be pretentious if they’re not tied down by a connection to either the real world or real emotion, and I think Anderson does that in all of his films. As for his being a rip-off of Altman, Kubrick, Scorsese and the like, I do agree there’s a fine line between “paying homage to” and “ripping off”, but I think Anderson stays on the right side of the line (he always acknowledges his influences in interviews). I don’t think a film should be long just for the sake of it, but I think Anderson’s films earn their length through their ambition (for the record, if you believe Sharon Waxman’s book Rebels on the Backlot, Anderson has conceded he should probably have cut Boogie Nights and Magnolia down some; I disagree). It’s true Anderson’s films are often pitched at a high level emotionally, and to some, that will translate as overacting, but I think the actors Anderson casts make it work, and I think there’s room both for this type of acting and more subtle acting as long as they’re both done right. As for his ego, I think all directors have it (certainly, all the directors Anderson admires have it), especially the successful ones. And even with that, I think it speaks well to Anderson how often he’s worked with the same people several times both in front of the camera (The Master will be his fifth film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he’s worked with Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman and Melora Walters on three films each) and behind it (JoAnne Sellar has been a producer on all of his films since Boogie Nights, Mark Bridges has done the costumes for all of his films, and The Master is the first film of Anderson’s that Elswit hasn’t been the cinematographer). Finally, as far as the messages or meanings of his films go, I do think there’s a lot more going on in his films than his critics seem to think, and I hope to show that in the days ahead.

I’ve been re-watching Anderson’s previous five films (as well as the two short films he made before that, Cigarettes & Coffee and The Dirk Diggler Story, which were precursors to, respectively, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights), and I’ll be writing about them in the days ahead. I wrote a review of Punch Drunk Love back when it came out (for the same place I wrote reviews of Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman movies), and will be reprinting that, along with my new impressions, but the other four will be fresh reviews. All of his films, I think, hold up to multiple viewings, and reveal more about themselves upon those viewings. I’ve tried not to read too much about The Master, but from what I’ve skimmed, it seems that film stands up in quality with his other films. I hope to do justice to Anderson’s work, and I hope you enjoy both the films and my write-ups on them.

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