Sunday, 3 January 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson: My Favourite Director?

When it comes to naming famous directors, I don't think many in the general public would go for p t anderson.  Spielberg, Cameron, Eastwood, Scorsese, or Ridley Scott are all names that resonate with the public. In fact if I were to mention the name Anderson, people would probably think I was referring to the director of Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic. Or even worse the director of Resident Evil and Alien vs. Predator.

I guess if you're reading this article, there's every chance you're in the same camp as the great unwashed. None of his films have made hundreds of millions at the box office. In fact, his namesake, Paul W.S. Anderson, has made more money with his last three by-the-numbers movies, than p t anderson has with his five great ones.

Nevertheless, two of his films, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, I would certainly put in my top ten movies of all time. The emotions I get from watching those two features are unlike anything any other films give me: the worlds Anderson creates are so unique and enchanting that I can't help but be sucked in. For me there's two big reasons that his movies are so watchable:

1. His ability to create a fable-like world without traditional fantasy elements
If you take directors like Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro: the fairy-tale like worlds they create are obvious from the first frame. Their use of colour, creature/character-design and set-design leave you in no doubt that this is a world unlike our own. Anderson's movies also exist in a world unlike our own: they contain coincedences, and inexplicable events that subtly reveal to the viewer this is not trying to show us reality in its truest form. Examples of this include the "Wise Up" musical scene in Magnolia; The appearance of the harmonium in Punch Drunk Love; and although There Will Be Blood has less-obvious signs: the inclusion of a Eli's twin, Paul at the start of the movie, and the way neither of the main characters age at all in the final chapter also point towards this tale being outside of our own reality.

2. His use of music
Despite rarely using the same composer, the soundtrack to each of his films has its own feeling. There's a sense of enchantment yet underlying sadness about them. In creating his 'fables', the music plays a very important part in bringing the viewer into these strange yet emotionally-charaged worlds.

I'm now going to go through each of his movies and explain what makes them so special. The excpetion will be There Will Be Blood which I feel I've convered extensively in this blog: coming top of my movies of 2008 and movies of the decade.

Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney)
Based on a chapter from Cigarettes and Alcohol, this tells this story of Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) meeting John (John C. Reilly) and mentoring him in how to make money from casinos. Like Punch Drunk Love, this is a much smaller, more intimate movie. It features a lot of Anderson's trademarks: long scenes of dialogue, and a 'moment': A moment that forces the movie to shift gears abruptly and move in a completely new direction. It also features Reilly, Hoffman, Hall and Melora Waters, who would each have roles in Anderson's next two movies. A small, well-told story of trust and redemption.

Boogie Nights
Boogie Nights tells the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a porn star in the 1970s. From a film-making standpoint this is a very good movie. The introductory shot does an incredible job of not only introducing the mood and feel of the time the movie is set in, but also in showing you the main characters and where they're at as the story begins. Something, narratively, many movies can take about twenty minutes to achieve. The fact it's all in one take gives it an energy and vitality that make it one of my favourite openings to any movie.
If you skip to 1 minute in the clip below, you can watch the scene in question. The opening shot ends at about 4 minutes, with the first shot of Dirk (Mark Wahlberg)

Despite wonderful moments like this, for me the subject-matter had a big impact on my enjoyment of the movie. Films must keep the viewer engaged in the world, and I felt there were times I couldn't engross myself with the characters and story because of the nature of its content. For this reason alone it's my least favourite of Anderson's movies.

Magnolia tells about ten stories, which all interweave. Common themes of disappointment, family and forgiveness all feature strongly in a movie that I can watch again and again without being bored. Viewing it feels like entering a dream: sometimes I'll put it on just to watch half an hour and find I've reached the point where it 'all goes biblical' two and a half hours in. There are so many moments I love, and so many of the stories I cherish. Tom Cruise's tale is certainly one of them. For my money, this is his finest performance. His arc is one of the most remarkable I've ever seen, as I go from viewing him as the most despicable being on the planet to someone a few sandwiches short of a picnic to someone you will be crying with by the end of the movie.
It's remarkable that all the characters bring you on a similar sort of journey: where you feel such a range of emotions towards them: loathing, pity, frustration, warmth. Sometimes all in one scene. A remarkable movie which everyone with even a passing interest in cinema must watch.

Among my favourite scenes is the one below, where all the characters sing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up". In the wrong hands or in a different movie, this type of thing could be the cheesiest, most cringe-enducing thing ever. However, when I watch the film, this is the scene that always brings a tear to my eye:

Punch Drunk Love
The movie that proves, against all previous evidence, Adam Sandler can act. He plays a lonely office worker, Barry, who is employed by a company that sells novelty items. He meets Lena, and the film shows us the beginnings of their relationship, as Barry copes with a complicated web of family, sex-lines and airmiles.
Like (500) Days of Summer, and Garden State this is a romantic comedy that can be enjoyed equally by guys and girls. Sandler's frustrated office worker is a brilliantly strange mix of ingenious and idiocy. I've only seen this once, and I found the tale told is charmingly simple yet weirdly unpredictable. On first viewing, I felt it suffered from pacing issues, although feel this would probably be a non-issue on repeat viewings. A nice, endearing film that proves romantic comedies can be done in really creative and insightful way.

So there you have it, my summation of my love for p t anderson. If you're a fan of him, you probably disagree with some of the interpretations I've put above. If you've never seen a movie by this inspirational director, I hope this has persuaded you to rent one of his movies out in the near future. Were that to be the case for just one reader, I would consider this blog entry a complete success.

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