The American filmmaker excels at grasping the neuroses of the past and the ambiguity of transitional periods between eras.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s eight films to date display an awareness of United States history: first of its cinema, as should films by any self-respecting, movie-enthusiast director, but also of the secret forces that seem to govern it. When Anderson first showed up on the radar of film festivals and the Oscars with “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999), he took his place among the pantheon of auteurs he admires and whom he’d studied religiously and used as teaching aids after dropping out of film school after just two days. If his first thriller, “Hard Eight” (1996), still surprises with its modesty despite a rather Scorsesian structure (petty criminals and a casino), Anderson then lets loose with virtuosic, dynamic and skillfully composed shots, realizing he’s following in the footsteps of the masters of the American New Wave and therefore must do better.
The sumptuous, opening long take in the nightclub in “Boogie Nights” references Scorsese’s celebrated opening to “Goodfellas” (1990); the patchwork of plot, fate and character in “Magnolia” draws its inspiration from the multilayered compositions of Robert Altman (1993’s “Short Cuts” a case in point). The immense skill of a filmmaker brimming with confidence almost reaches a point of no return in the first quarter of an hour without dialogue of “There Will Be Blood” (2007), very “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in its mineral primitivism – a Kubrickian technique he uses again at the end, a nod to “The Shining.” The awards poured in, including a Best Actor Oscar for the monstrous performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, but Anderson doesn’t enjoy the acclaim and continues to make films which implode and impose themselves on the viewer, yet are more insidious, more cryptic than the biblical deluge of frogs in “Magnolia,” more in line with his filmmaking forefathers. The aptly named “The Master” (2012) suggests a possible breaking free from idols while “Phantom Thread,” a meticulous ode to craftsmanship, is dedicated to a filmmaker fixation of Anderson’s, undoubtedly the most modest and least obviously auteur-ish among his pantheon: Jonathan Demme (“Stop Making Sense,” “The Silence of the Lambs”).
Parallel to his own trajectory, Anderson has also traced a history (more interesting because it’s oblique) of his country. The filmmaker doesn’t much care for the celebratory, or for biopics – “The Master” (2012), anticipated as a biopic of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, isn’t really one. He likes to reconstruct the past in order to better understand turning points in United States history, a past in which the old world gives way to the new in a climate of high anxiety. All is transition, even in the music video he directed for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” in 2016, in which the eternally restless Thom Yorke opens a succession of doors only to arrive at seemingly impossible places. In “Boogie Nights,” the director of 70s porn films played by Burt Reynolds clings to the medium of film and discusses its qualities while the VHS revolution is dawning.
But it’s in the unofficial trilogy of “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” and “Inherent Vice” that Anderson systematically captures the neuroses of the typical American individual(ist) in different eras through pairs of characters behind or in line with the times, who are inexorably bound in sadomasochistic relationships, willingly or not. As every end of days summons its messianism, the super-prospector Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) cannot stop super-preacher Eli (Paul Dano) from drawing parallels between the increased industrial capitalism of “There Will Be Blood” and religion, all the better to destroy himself with when their respective lines (of oil and faith) dry up.
In “The Master,” Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a broken World War II veteran, seeks direction and meaning within the sect of Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who revives him with strict, woolly sermons while envying him his freewheeling violence. If Anderson’s story here appears to fundamentally make sense – the community ideal of “The Master” finds a subsequent echo in hippies – it falters in “Inherent Vice” and becomes indecipherable, a Thomas Pynchon prerequisite. Private eye Doc (Phoenix again), a relic of the 60s, gets lost in a convoluted plot typical of the 70s in which opium-enhanced delirium merges with pervading opaqueness and political paranoia; a billionaire Jew hangs around with neo-Nazis, who themselves do business with a gang of Afro-Marxists. Not surprising then, that in “The Phantom Thread,” which is set in Great Britain but fraught with class struggle, any relationship – personal or collective – is played out against small dishes served up between lovers, from falling in love to the clash between the old and the new. “A house which doesn’t change is a dead house,” declares couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), who doesn’t care for fashion or style, but is more political than he thinks.
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