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Organised chaos: Looking back at the films of Paul Thomas Anderson

ByMarc Nelson

Feb 3, 2018

The filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson seems a stylised, deceptively arranged cinema. To evince this, it’s best to begin with the opening tracking shot of Anderson’s second film, ​Boogie Nights (1997)​.​ This Steadicam shot, which lasts for about three minutes, walks us in and introduces to the main cast of characters in an L.A. nightclub, all of whom work (or are about to) in the porn industry. The shot feels reminiscent of the long-take in Martin Scorsese’s ​Goodfellas (1990), and has the same moral murkiness to it. The unbroken take, with the fluid movement of the camera, suggests a coherence, an ecosystem at work; it helps also that it looks glamorous, and it’s backed with a tune to which you can’t help but dance.

But wait for film to advance, for the style to fall away, for the movement to grow more frantic, and we realise we’re not in an appealing world at all, but rather a world of moral torpor. This is the film’s organised chaos, and it’s a consistent facet of Anderson’s work to this point in time. (Due to space, the tightness of our theme, and, honestly, inclination, I’ve omitted consideration of both Hard Eight (1996) and ​Punch-Drunk Love (2001). I can only apologise.)

This chaos that I’m maintaining to be a key tenet of Anderson’s work is not just to be applied to narrative; no, it applies to the interior lives of characters, too. Anderson continued with the ensemble drama with his next film, which to my mind, while only possibly his best, is certainly a personal favourite of his films, ​Magnolia (1999). Inspired by the cinema of Robert Altman, Anderson’s film is a day in the lives of an intricately connected group of people living in Los Angeles. The camera moves in a frenetic fashion for a large part of its run-time, but slows down when it decides to catch and enlarge an emotion to devastating effect, chasing after the thematic resonances in the character’s lives rather than strict narrative strands. It’s a dizzying experience, and as the subject-matter grows increasingly distressing (illness meets abuse meets emotional neglect meets loneliness meets violence), its orchestration changes entirely. The final portion, like a withering magnolia petal, folds in on itself; the film starts to think about redemption, forgiveness, and how impermanent this life is. It becomes a pacifying experience, and not once has it failed to flatten me out.

After making ​Punch-Drunk Love with Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, Anderson returned with new playmates, namely the esteemed Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Fisk (one of Hollywood’s greatest production designers), and ​Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. The result is a colossal achievement, and possibly his best film, ​There Will Be Blood (2007). Day-Lewis puts in a performance of real magnitude as Daniel Plainview, an oil-prospector capable of truly amazing coldness and cruelty. “I don’t like to explain myself,” Plainview intones – but the film has already explained him with piercing accuracy. In an earlier scene, one of his wells has just erupted: the blast has deafened his son, members of his team are surely dead, and, as he watches a geyser of flame rise and rage and destroy the oil derrick he has constructed, he asks his associate what he’s so upset about. The explosion means there’s “an ocean of oil beneath” them. Nothing could better explain Plainview: his ambition burning all he sees to ruin, with no human sympathy; chaos incarnate.

It’s true to an extent that Anderson valued camera movement over the composition of individual images until he made ​There Will Be Blood; and this applies even less to ​The Master (2012). It is one of Anderson’s most visually beautiful films: its colour palette heightened and unreal, and its compositions unimaginably splendid – one dolly-zoom, in particular, seems inspired by the final shot of John Ford’s ​The Searchers (1956). This film is almost non-narrative, but ostensibly follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran and lost soul who returns home and aimlessly wanders. He happens upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic leader of a cult. Or is he? As his sycophants occasionally outwit him, and ask him questions he in his “religious wisdom” cannot answer without contradiction. There’s also his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in an astounding performance), who seems to exert a control of her own. On first watch, I thought the film arresting but unsatisfying, largely due to its ending, which is an abrupt tonal swerve. But within our framework, the closing scenes make a great deal of sense: the only subject-matter of the film is what Freddie does, so for it to end as suddenly as it began is another example of Anderson’s wonderful deception.

It’s been my contention that Anderson’s films utilise an arranged messiness of narrative, in order to be true to the incessant flux of living. It’s also the case that Anderson has created characters whose personalities are chaotic. So what would the result be if Anderson combined the two, but without an ensemble, and with the narrower focus of his later films? What if he made a film of seemingly chaotic narrative order, concomitant with a main character who, to put it mildly, does not have their shit together? Well, it would look something like Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, ​Inherent Vice(2014). Phoenix again plays the lead character, P.I. “Doc” Sportello, an inveterate stoner who shambles his way through a case presented him by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Sportello investigates, and hits with a fantastic imprecision all the points of the mystery. This is done – for a change – to make us laugh: the plot falling into place as it does is a comedic deconstruction of the noir-genre. (Made all the funnier by Josh Brolin’s barnstorming turn as Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen; his buzz-cut severity playing against Spotello’s hippy tendences tremendously.)

And what of Anderson’s newest film, ​Phantom Thread? With its couturier’s exactness, luscious visuals, and dreamy score – where is the chaos in this pristine picture? Everywhere. For all of its punctiliousness, it is the story of an extremely chaotic pair. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker fastened into his daily routines. Breakfast must be plentiful and peaceful, so that he can make exquisite garments for those with the money. But Woodcock is another addition to Anderson’s gallery of lonely, deprived souls. He stitches messages into the clothes he designs, as if he has something to tell someone, but cannot. He meets Alma (played with unbelievable brilliance by relative newcomer Vicky Krieps), and after giddily flirting, she moves in with him, as a muse and lover. They’re in love, but they’re dysfunctional. During a confrontation, following Alma’s attempt to surprise Reynolds with a dinner, the two end up barking at each other. Reynolds is exact and cruel with his remarks, Alma can barely form a sentence due to her mystified anger. Why is he apoplectic? Because she has interrupted the quotidian: his life, he feels, is being thrown off by her simple kindness. In this way, Woodcock is akin to Anderson’s other chaotic minds. But wait and see how Alma reveals her own version of chaotic control (involving the making of an omelette); if you can keep your jaw closed, I’ll be surprised. It’s an extraordinary moment, in an extraordinary film, in an extraordinary filmography.

Image: Universal Pictures

By Marc Nelson

Film Editor

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