Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Feature of the Month: Paul Thomas Anderson and dramatic scope.

It starts with Kevin Costner. In the spring of 2007, as a senior at California State University, Fullerton, I had the chance to sit in on a question and answer session with the Academy-Award winning filmmaker. In addition to those of us who were film students, the business students and the acting students (who proceeded to monopolize the session) were also invited. A lot of the standard questions like "how did you break into the industry?" were asked. The one thing that really impressed me the most about Kevin came when he was asked what kind of advice he would give to people like us who were trying to make our own start. Most people usually go off on a doom and gloom sort of answer about how hard it is, and how you won't get any sleep, and the fact that you won't see any real money for a long time, and things like that. Kevin broke the mold, so to speak. His advice was simple. He said, "If you're a writer, write a screenplay. But don't just write a good screenplay, write a great screenplay. If you're a director, make a movie. But don't just make a good movie, make a great movie." As you might imagine, this advice, despite appearing somewhat simplistic, was very inspirational to me.

Then, about a month ago, I watched Gone With The Wind for the first time in something like 16 years. After watching it, I was struck by the realization that David O. Selznick was doing something with that film that few filmmakers do anymore. From the outset, he had one goal, and that was to make a great film. This might not seem that important, but think about it for a moment. When was the last time that you watched a current movie in which the filmmaker's aspirations for greatness were apparent in every frame? Can you think of any? Can you think of one?

It seems to me that Paul Thomas Anderson has been following Costner's advice throughout his entire career. I don't think he's ever done a project in an attempt to score a base hit with a solid film. Just about every film he's ever made has been a swing for the fences. This is something that I admire a lot, because, like I said, so few people try to do this anymore. I've seen three of Paul Thomas Anderson's films so far, which amounts to 60% of his output. Each of these films has been unlike any other film I've ever seen.

One thing that strikes me about Anderson's work is the sense that he doesn't seem to believe in doing anything small. For example, in each of the three films of his that I've seen, the characters are larger-than-life, filled with conflicting emotions that would crush a lesser person. It's to his credit that he's been able to cast actors for these parts that have found a way to transcend the material, instead of being overwhelmed by it. In addition, in some cases, the actors that he's cast have been, on the surface, very unlikely choices. However, I think that he tends to be right on the money.

Magnolia (2000): This film is probably, to this point, the most archetypical Anderson movie. He approaches the material in a way that is reminiscent of the style of a filmmaker like Robert Altman. Like that legendary director, he takes a group of characters (played excellently by a terrific ensemble cast) from vastly different walks of life and places them on the screen almost like a chess player moving the pieces around on a board. It's particularly fascinating to watch to see where the character's lives do and don't intersect. What's equally fascinating is that the film's action takes place within one twenty-four hour period, and, within that period, instead of adhering to standard constraints of "reality," Anderson does something completely different. When the film begins, for the most part, things seem normal. The action (and, concurrently, the tension) rises as the film continues until, at the film's conclusion, I felt as though I'd entered a strange new world, where the rules were completely different. Seriously, if I were to tell you what was the climax of the film is by printing it here, you would not believe me. This, however, is a good thing. Far too many films settle for using conventional plot devices and conventional endings to the point where there is little surprise when a film arrives at its conclusion. Even the use of a twist ending, unless it's superbly executed, doesn't really create that much surprise. This is why the climax of Magnolia works so well. It serves as a means to challenge our ideas of what is possible within the confines of a film, that, despite its quirks, probably, until the climax, was such that a viewer would probably think that they had it figured out. A little bit of transcendence never hurt anyone anyway.

Thematically, Magnolia has a very interesting story to tell. By my interpretation, the film is primarily about forgiveness and, more specifically, what people can and cannot forgive. One thing that I find very appealing about Anderson’s approach to the subject is related to the arc of one of the characters. (I will refrain from divulging which character in order to leave you to the joy of finding it out for yourself.) This character is speaking with another character about why someone hates him. The second person seems to have an idea as to why this is possible, but forces the first person to say it for himself. What’s ingenious about this moment is that Anderson, instead of merely having the character admit to his past transgression, has him say that he doesn't remember if he's done it or not. He truly doesn't know whether or not he needs to be forgiven. This makes the moral dilemma much more compelling. In the film, Anderson never says what really happened with this character, and that is to Magnolia's benefit.

Punch-Drunk Love (2002): First and foremost, this film stars Adam Sandler. Yes, that's right, that Adam Sandler. What's more, he's excellent as Barry Egan, an emotionally challenged young man who, one night, calls a 900 number to have someone to talk to, only to have it backfire beyond his wildest imaginings. Unfortunately, by summarizing Punch-Drunk Love this way, I have made it seem like either a thriller or a wacky comedy. Here's the great thing: it's both, and more. In some ways, I felt like this film was a throwback to a more traditional type of Hollywood romantic storytelling. One of the things that makes Punch-Drunk Love different from other Anderson films is that, with Barry, he's created a singular, sympathetic character. In Magnolia, for instance, there are a vast multitude of characters, most of whom are sympathetic in some way. In this case, though, by concentrating on one character, the film's focus seems to be a lot tighter. The film's theme, one person learning how to take charge of his own life, is nothing new, but the joy is in Anderson's stylized approach, the performances by Sandler and Emily Watson, and the sense of discovery. After watching Punch-Drunk Love, I don't know why Sandler would want to work with anyone else.

There Will Be Blood (2007): This, I think, is the crown jewel in Paul Thomas Anderson's body of work. The film works on every level. What's really fascinating is that, on many levels, There Will Be Blood is a standard epic film that takes a character, places him in a period of history, and follows him for several years. On the other hand, if this film is "standard" in any sense of the word, then I'm Doris Day. The best way that I can describe There Will Be Blood is as an epic film on steroids. All of the genre conventions of the epic film are present, but the way that they're presented makes for a wholly original experience. For example, the score was composed by Jonny Greenwood, a member of Radiohead. Most epic film scores usually make liberal use of the string section to play sweeping melodies. Greenwood, on the other hand, uses the orchestra in entirely different ways. The music is at once jarring, unsettling, and pulsating. The one thing that truly makes There Will Be Blood "work" is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. Already known for his, shall we say, "intense" performances in films like In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis gives, I think, the performance of his career. Everything about his character, Daniel Plainview, is overstated. Plainview's battle for control of the oil deposits of a small California town causes his social inhibitions to come to the forefront in often violent ways. Day-Lewis commands the screen in a way that few actors this side of Marlon Brando ever have.

Thematically, on the surface, There Will Be Blood would appear to be about the nature of control. I think, however, it goes a lot deeper than that. In my estimation, Plainview's struggle with Paul Dano's Eli Sunday is nothing less than the story of the United States of America. Plainview represents extreme capitalism and Sunday represents religious fundamentalism. These two forces have been in play since the formation of our republic, and their relationship receives a fascinating treatement in this film. Interestingly, one of the film's posters alludes to this. It features the following tagline" "When ambition meets faith . . . there will be blood."

Many people have criticized the film's ending, which I will not divulge here, as being too far out of left field to be effective. I disagree completely. As is the case with Anderson's previous work, the ending here serves to do what he does best: pull the rug out from under the viewer. I don't really think that the film can end any other way. Is it strange? Yes. Does it come as a surprise? Without question. Is it necessary? Absolutely. For me, the ending makes the movie. It comes with a kind of apocalyptic finality that is unforgettable. Originally, I picked Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men as the best film of 2007. There Will Be Blood made me change my mind.

Paul Thomas Anderson's work challenges me like few films do. I truly appreciate his courage to swing for the fences time and again. In a world where far too many films have no lasting value beyond the ticket stub, Anderson is one of a small group of filmmakers that strives to create real art each and every time. For those of us who are in love with the cinema, we couldn't ask for anything more.

Recommended viewing: Magnolia, There Will Be Blood.

1 comment:

Senor Granto said...

Well written and dead on as usual. I always find it humorous that he shares the same first and last name as Paul W.S. Anderson who's approach to hackery approach film making is the complete opposite of Paul Thomas Anderson.