Why I fell out of love with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson

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Image Credit: Munawar Hosain/Getty Images; Everett Collection

\If I were to compile a list of my ten favorite movie experiences in the time I’ve been at EW, for number one — just edging out the night I spent drinking into the wee hours with Russell Crowe — I’d probably have to choose the first time I saw Boogie Nights at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival. It was a little like the first time I saw Pulp FictionBoogie Nights had that kind of virtuoso rock & roll Gen-X Scorsese dazzle, and it gave you that kind of brain-spinning cinematic high. Its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, had taken on the most daringly degraded subject matter imaginable (he made a movie about beautiful dumb clucks who “acted” in porn films and thought that they were real stars), and out of that audacity he spun a story that was dark, exhilarating, moving, scary, and true.

What made it, for me, even more thrilling than Pulp Fiction was that where Quentin Tarantino had cooked up a visionary playhouse-of-pop movie universe, Anderson, in Boogie Nights, created a film that was every bit as much of a playhouse unto itself…yet it also connected up to the real world in ways so heady that I couldn’t get the movie out of my head. In 1994, I saw Pulp Fiction twice before reviewing it, and I was never moved to see it again for more than a decade. As great as it was, I felt like I had nothing left to discover in it. But when Boogie Nights came out, I got addicted to it. I saw it a second time before I wrote about it, I went back a few more times to experience it in a theater with an audience, and then, a month or two into its run, someone I knew at New Line slipped me an early VHS copy, and I watched it at home, over and over again. It had become like an album I couldn’t stop playing.

What, exactly, was its hold on me? Certainly, I recognized that Anderson, like Tarantino, had absorbed into his DNA a great many other filmmakers’ styles and tropes. Boogie Nights, with its innocent-drawn-into-an-underground-family vision of the porn world, was like a scuzzier, more outré-subculture variation on GoodFellas, told with an Altmanesque sprawl, and with an ironic blend of Jonathan Demme’s straight-up humanity and QT’s ultra-violence-for-the-hell-of-it crazed dazzle, all of which Anderson swirled with a ’70s swizzle stick and made his own. I got to meet Anderson that year at Toronto, and though I knew he was only 27, when I was introduced to him I got a tingle of amazement that I have never had meeting another filmmaker. I literally couldn’t believe that this nice, clean-cut, soft-spoken, genially high-fiving, unassuming boy standing before me had created that squalidly mesmerizing tale of triple-X low-life society: had imagined it in the first place, and had gotten it, just the way he wanted it, right up on screen.

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

What hit me more and more, the more that I watched Boogie Nights, was what an epic vision it truly was, and how deftly it snuck that vision into the sleaziest of settings. It was certainly a movie about the porn world, but it was really about something much larger — an essential transformation that this culture had gone through, yet that no one really talked about. The most iconic transformation since World War II, of course, had been the overthrow of the buttoned-down ’50s by the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s — the behavioral revolt of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. That embrace of raw hedonism had re-made the world, and even when the counterculture died, the hedonism didn’t. It just transitioned from Woodstock to Animal House (and now to the party religion embodied by Jersey Shore). And the 1980s? Well, that was the “greed decade,” or the “Reagan era,” or maybe the “John Hughes decade,” or whatever other cozy handle you wanted to hang on it. But the point is that unlike the famously scruffy counterculture, the transformation into the ’80s didn’t seem, at the time, like a social earthquake. More like a collective American decision to start coveting Porsches and using hair gel.

Boogie Nights was about how that transformation was really the birth of the world we’re in now, and about how the change was many things at once — all of which Anderson saw, and captured, through the lens of porn. It was about the infusion of technology into our lives (symbolized in the movie by the change from shooting porn on leisurely, we’re really making a movie here! 16mm film to cold, hard videotape). It was about artificial mood enhancement giving way to addiction. It was about a new kind of hyper-consuming greed. And about the rise of toxic celebrity narcissism. And about the infusion of dark, fetishistic aggression into mainstream sexuality (the “amateur” porn that was shot on those videotapes would have a very different spirit, and influence, than the porn before it). And about how the pursuit of pleasure became the culture of working at pleasure. And about how all of these things operated together. The grandest irony of Boogie Nights is that it viewed the world of ’70s porn, in all its tacky ineptitude and squalor, as a Garden of Eden — and, yes, a fall from grace, but one that was only a warm-up for the real fall from grace: the fall from our humanity into the cult of selfishness that America is still trying to shake.

The miracle of Boogie Nights is that Anderson was able to express all this within a completely organic, rags-to-polyester saga of glittering stupido fame. The movie made Mark Wahlberg into a major star, and that’s because our connection with Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler was total. He was us on screen — not in any literal way, but in the same way that Rocky Balboa or Travis Bickle is us. His presence embodied a desperation and swagger and innocence and corruption that spoke to our dreams.

Boogie Nights was such an act of filmmaking bravura that after that movie, I wanted, and expected, great things from Paul Thomas Anderson. At the time, a lot of critics didn’t feel that way about him. I still remember the awards-voting meetings in 1997 for the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics’ Circle. There was a lot of love for Burt Reynolds, but the movie itself fared only modestly. (When I voted for it for Best Picture, I truly felt like odd man out.) In the 15 years since, however, Anderson has made four features, and during that time his status has slowly and surely risen. When you read reviews of his work, they are now suffused with reverence for the grandeur of his talent. Yet I’ve gone in the opposite direction on Anderson. I think that there is brilliance in every one of his films, and I like different things about all of them. But I can’t say that I love any of them. I can’t escape the feeling that something has gone wrong in his work, and while there is now a cult for Paul Thomas Anderson, and a great many fans who just about think he’s God, the crucial problem, for me, is that one of the people who now thinks Paul Thomas Anderson is God is Paul Thomas Anderson. His films have acquired an Olympian sense of their own importance. They are Major Statements, but partly for that reason, they are no longer — at least to me — great movies.

Magnolia (1999), his first film after Boogie Nights, was probably as worthy a follow-up as you could have expected, and it remains a tender and fetching depressed-soul-of-Los Angeles ensemble piece. In many ways, it’s closer to being the young filmmaker’s sentimental balancing act that you’d imagine a director like Anderson might have made before Boogie Nights. It’s a movie so emotionally open it wears its heart on two dozen sleeves. I watched it again recently, and got caught up in its rhythms, its mystic fascination with coincidence and genius kids and broken spirits, and I thought that Tom Cruise, frankly, was extraordinary. His performance as a preening, samurai-haired self-help guru who teaches men to pick up women by hating them — but only because his own hatred for his father has hollowed out the space where love should be — is charged with a thrilling showbiz fakery, then a bitterly honest dramatic excitement.

Yet Magnolia, compelling as it is, comes apart in its last half hour, and it’s the way that it comes apart, with that Biblical shower of frogs, that’s a harbinger of what would start to happen to Anderson as a filmmaker: his grandiosity taking over, elbowing everything else aside. You can forgive that frog deluge as a sophomore-slump moment in the middle of an otherwise compelling movie, but the fact that Anderson thought he could get away with it at all is, frankly, telling.

To a solid but lesser degree, I enjoyed Anderson’s follow-up, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), in which he didn’t merely team up with Adam Sandler but made the cunningly perverse decision to do a kind of arty, discordant version of an Adam Sandler angelic-idiot fantasy. It works: Punch-Drunk Love is an engaging sweet-and-sour little novelty. But that’s all it is. It’s only some kind of exquisite movie if you begin to see it from the point of view that says that if P.T. Anderson made it, it must be special. Which is exactly the sort of thing that began to be said about him around this time.

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

The total gaga worship of Anderson, of course, is all about There Will Be Blood (2007). And I have to say that this is where I draw a line in the sand — even though I do find the movie fascinating, and in a number of ways compelling. Here’s the rub, though: There Will Be Blood establishes its central character, Daniel Plainview, as a deviously unscrupulous and manipulative sociopath, a tycoon-crackpot obsessed with oil and money at the expense of everything else, within its opening 40 minutes. Basically, he acts the same way, and does the same (immoral) thing, in scene after scene after scene after scene. Not to be overly lowbrow, but where’s the arc in that? Now, it must be said that Daniel Day-Lewis, channeling the voice of John Huston and the demeanor of Snidely Whiplash, throws a sickly mesmerizing party of one. He has great fun turning up the heat on Daniel’s monstrousness one meticulous Bunsen burner click at a time. Yet if there’s always a kind of suspense about what form his corruption will take, there’s never any doubt that he’s going to lie, and cajole, and dominate over and over again. The result is, on the one hand, a grand didactic parable of capitalism. (Message: It’s ruthless.) It’s also a movie in which there is no essential person to identify with.

That’s what bothers me not just about the movie, but about how much other critics love it. There Will Be Blood seems to reinforce, as a viewing experience, the very inhumanity that it’s about. It basically invites us to revel (with a thin veneer of “judgment”) in Daniel Plainview’s misanthropy, and it doesn’t offer any vital dramatic-emotional alternative. (The wispy glare of Paul Dano can’t compete.) But it’s not that Anderson wants you to identify with Daniel Plainview. When you watch There Will Be Blood, he doesn’t want you, really, to identify with anyone on screen. He wants all your identification reserved for him — for the eye of the storyteller.

That, I think, is why so many viewers find Anderson’s new film, The Master, intriguing in a somewhat baffling way. It’s actually quite a coherent movie, and there’s power in Anderson’s vision of the early days of Scientology — or, at least, a fictionalized psychology/religion very much like it — and, by implication, the New Age self-help rackets that grew out of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd really is making it all up as he goes along. The precise steps in his systems and “processes” and group rituals don’t really matter, because the thing that does matter is that he’s getting you to follow orders. He’s creating personality fascism.

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Image Credit: Phil Bray

Like Boogie Nights, The Master has a big vision. But unlike Boogie Nights, what it lacks is a character we care about, one who connects us up to the world it’s showing us. Joaquin Phoenix, as Dodd’s drunken, troubled loser of a disciple, certainly turns in a broodingly accomplished piece of disheveled-antihero acting, but the movie invites us to stare at him like a tormented animal at the zoo. We never really grasp the basic issue of why Dodd even bothers with this chump in the first place. Dodd, in the few moments that he reveals his own wasp sting of anger, is shown to be a human being with a passion for control, but the rest of the time he’s got his mask on, and he’s cut off from us too. Why? Because Paul Thomas Anderson now wants to sever our connection with the people on screen, so that nothing gets in the way of our link to the magnetic pull of his directorial voice. It’s a warped vision of what a movie is. But when a director who, in Boogie Nights, made the humanity of his characters sing now insists on making movies as if he’s “the master,” and is hailed for it like he’s the indie-crossover answer to Orson Welles, maybe it’s not necessary for us to love his films. Maybe worship, in its way, feels better than love.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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