Paul Thomas Anderson: An Autocritique

By Greg GerkeDecember 19, 2013

Paul Thomas Anderson: An Autocritique

I think that those that are emerging are so incredibly talented. These young […] directors […] know the job well. But it’s not so often that they really have anything to say.

— Ingmar Bergman, 2002 interview

FORM IS SUCH a spidery matter, I have rarely had the desire to bend into it until my mid-30s. Form may be many things but it is finally how a work of art was made and, to a degree, what it is. What does the receiver of art respond to? Form, which is made of the same units of existence as us and everything in existence — time and space. Time being a knotty experience and perhaps most bullish in music, as Walter Pater says:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it. That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely, its given incidents or situation — that the mere matter of a picture, the actual circumstances of an event, the actual topography of a landscape — should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the handling, that this form, this mode of handling, should become an end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different degrees.

Pater died six years before the appearance of the earliest motion picture, but something full of cuts like Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d'Arc may have given him as much as pleasure as the 96-minute continuous shot that is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Because it contains music, film might not be too far from its exalted condition. Music has its notes and, as André Bazin said, Cinema is a language. It speaks through mise-en-scène and montage, and the worlds it displays are greatly stabilized and destabilized by the space in the frame.

Ever since Star Wars I have been responding to space in art, even up to getting my dose of Georges Seurat via John Hughes and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at the stinky soft age 12. That scene in the Art Institute of Chicago may be a romantic sort of hectoring that certain art is overpowering, but it is a dutiful record of one’s encounter with artistic space. Cameron sees a little girl at the center of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, which may or may not be the true focal point of the painting, depending on which scholar or spectator you speak to. As an eager consumer of pop art, I saw the film three times, but I also became a little curious about paintings. They were beautiful, but disturbing. Who can guess how many more people visited the Art Institute of Chicago to see that painting after the film came out? Because the director John Hughes had Cameron keep looking at a painting, and because he kept showing the painting on film, the audience was able to see why the Seurat is amazing.

The Caravaggio and Vermeer paintings I gloried over in college were riveting because of their handling of space, as well as light, line, and a number of other effects. Space, applied to art, is a truly awesome word. According to film critic Manny Farber, the three most important types of movie space are “(1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor, and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” Space is so important that it is everywhere and it continually overlaps in that place known as the screen and whether in painting, photography, or film the image that stands before us is the collective pattern of chosen space. How do Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick constantly defy the strictures of narrative cinema? Through space. In Rear Window and Psycho, the objects Hitchcock settles on — Thorwald’s apartment, the dog, the flower bed, the ring, the pack of money, the shower, and the Bates house — are all isolated by a certain regard of the camera, the blocking of the actors in relation to the objects, and the over- or underexposed grain of the film stock used to photograph them. In Kubrick’s films what makes one overawed and fearful are the distances — the range of what he shows (often in a wide-angle dream equilibrium) to the audience’s eyes: the vast, soundless, space in 2001, the slow backward zooms in Barry Lyndon that begin on people who are mostly unawares of the true import of their surroundings and end at a point that freezes their coming despair in grand portraiture, the hotel’s golden aura and maze-like corridors exploited by the fluidity of the steadicam in The Shining, and finally in Eyes Wide Shut, where the steadicam again swings and sometimes stabilizes to let all the characters but the main one leap out of their metaphorical toy boxes with a brio accentuated by the fairy-talish, Christmas-lighted, and at times medicinally blue lighting scheme.

The bounty of responses to Paul Thomas Anderson and his films speak to his artistry. After David Lynch and Terrence Malick, he is the star of the American narrative cinema and is certainly leagues more commercial than those two old souls, now name brands. Because he is a contemporary, I confess a competition. It is one-sided, but not drooling. What I have made in the past five years may pale to what The Master is. Many pages and many words that don’t cohere into one principled mountain risk the dyspepsia that graces the internet, our mutual multi-glutinous mouthpiece. Our mediums are different, our means are different, one doesn’t know the other exists — it sounds like many crush relationships, but it is the basis for more than thwarted love or genuine repulsion.

Critics carry the stain of envy into the thoughts they print, especially those emboldened enough to critique without having ever made the art that can exasperate them. E. M. Cioran, the crotchety Romanian, master of despair and champion of the unsuccessful writer and artist said, “To venture upon an undertaking of any kind, even the most insignificant, is to sacrifice to envy.” The plexiglass irony complicating the situation is that Anderson works in the vein I presupposed would fill my life full when I was 20. He didn’t go to film school; for a few years, I did. I left it with only two years completed, in addition to numerous Bergman-enamored screenplays that would never see production. He put in time as a production assistant, while I moved across the country to his coast to find tai chi, tofu, and women who didn’t believe in underwear. Later, I farmed my way across Europe, while Anderson simply realized what Kubrick and John Cassavetes counseled — if one wanted to make a film, one had to go out, get money any way one could, and make a film. Hard Eight, his first, came out in 1996. Two years later, I sat in a meadow at 8,000 feet in Arizona and told myself, by pressing the words into a notebook, that I would be a writer, not a film director. The Rilkean moments of beginning to see were starting to accumulate. I began to make fictions and characters who would not be seen speaking, but whose monologues and dialogues would have to cut the internal ear of the audience.

Anderson kept pushing himself and after Magnolia came a great shift in his world-view and probably his life situation, though I will only call the shift aging. It’s not when sadness entered — babies were born — but when his age squeezed out the adolescent endeared of pre–Cape Fear Scorsese, an overreliance on the steadicam, and such Lite-Brite touches as having Georges Bizet’s famous aria in Carmen become the ending pivot of a scene between a cop and his love interest in Magnolia. In 2005 he served as the insurance director for A Prairie Home Companion because of Robert Altman’s health and age and began to birth his own style: quiet, measured, and magnifying. It is with his last two features (There Will Be Blood and The Master) that Anderson has answered Ingmar Bergman’s call for a young filmmaker to have something to say, announcing this with the first shot of the former, as he fades in to an intricately aligned long shot of three cracked mountains, accompanied by the swelling strings on the soundtrack. Images and sound more and more speak for dialogue, sound manipulation spurs mystery, and his editing produces images often offset and unexpected, if not unique in their rhythms — most triumphantly in the cutaways when Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell remembers Iris and then tries to visit her in the end, as both scenes begin on slight roving movement (an Anderson signature) toward her parent’s house, from left to right in the former scene, with an old blue car in the foreground, and from right to left in the latter, with the same car a little closer to the camera (and in slow motion), so for a moment the audience sees Quell through its windows. In these scenes the alterations of distance, speed, and longitudinal movement bring us into the moody mind of Quell when he pursues one of the few humans he has a genuine bashful feeling for. Yet it is mostly the mugs of Daniel Day-Lewis, Phoenix, and Philip Seymour-Hoffman that tailor the line, paint, swirl, and swish of his mise-en-scène.

Last autumn, The Master roosted in multiplexes that routinely feature Jarring and assaulting, but not necessarily artistic images. Some of Anderson’s images do assault but with a difference. Their schema has been weighed retroactively by a consciousness that has consumed Carl Dreyer, Max Ophüls, and Jacques Tati in addition to everyone else to be expected. Anderson’s worldview — well aware of film history, and probably his place in it—has changed. He sees things more by the light of his own heat. The amour between him and his main characters is more abstract than the doting on Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight, Mark Walberg and company in Boogie Nights, and the gaggle of stars in Magnolia. The skin of the face is all the more naked and mature in the close-ups of Day-Lewis, Phoenix, and Hoffman because they are the faces of death — their limitless malfeasance embargoes happiness and pulls the world always toward the pulchritude of darkness. Anderson has made a screen for these misfits and the glaze of indifference in the eyes of Day-Lewis or the curl to Phoenix’s bitter lip makes their force shine brightly while the art flirts with the uncanny.

In Kubrick we remember the wideness and symmetrical design of the space (of which the framing of the bowling alley in There Will Be Blood is a nod) and how the characters are often trapped by that space. The exceptions are the moments of greatest emotional outburst — Barry Lyndon at his son’s deathbed and Bill Hartford’s breaking down and crying to his wife in Eyes Wide Shut. With Anderson we remember what the faces are doing and how they react to the latest bulletin that there is pain in their lives, as in the greatest scenes when the actors take command of the frame and any cinematic space beyond them is secondary.

If Freddie Quell is a savage, and Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview stands only four steps from such ethos but is more successful because his moments of brutality are well chosen, then Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is the amalgamation of the two, perhaps requiring the most difficult performance. Like Plainview, he knows he is a conman, but Dodd is also a family man, a man of letters, both compassionate and a bully — a scaly soul but a powerful politician, he is the evil in a suit that hypnotizes others to roughhouse his enemies for him. The fat on his face guards him more from the humanity he is destined to tame — he is a provocateur and he knows that to court women is to find public success and private pleasure, an eros he uses to adumbrate his screeds, making the new age manuals twinkle for both sexes.

Because Dodd contains these multitudes he is Anderson’s most complex character. Hoffman uses his heft and grace notes that trigger the memory of how bumbling and offhand he could be in other films (his mugging, back-slapping, and singing), to a positive effect — the audience mostly trusts him. Except for a few flashes of fury (“Pigfuck”), he is kept at a remove from any emotion that isn’t rooted in rational thinking, especially his sign-off song in the second to last sequence. That tune serves to distance Freddie and the audience simultaneously so that everything we previously thought of Dodd and his integrity has to be sounded against this parabolic “Slow Boat to China” in the final confrontation. Has Dodd realized he has fallen in love with a man who can’t give back? What does he need Freddie for now that he has unbridled success?

This is a scene of close-ups mirroring their first duel on the boat where he audits Freddie. These scenes are the nexus of the film and though the interiors change from the boat’s small drab space to an English manor’s opulence, the constituent parts of the têtes-à-têtes are minimized to the face controlled by men playing pretend. In the end one is left wondering why Dodd even bothered. Maybe he just wanted a friend, because all his friendships are subject to his authoritarianism, his place on high. It does make a somewhat strange sense that two men incapable of friendships should see something in each other but not with the tenuous, “I knew you in a past life,” which is more a red herring. They see themselves in each other because at least briefly, they see an opportunity to live better. It’s their only chance for intimacy before they waste away in opposite directions. What Farber referred to as the “psychological space of the actor” has taken hold of film. In a cinematic love story the faces transmit the feeling. Quell and Dodd, and the actors Phoenix and Seymour-Hoffman, fall for the same faces the audience does.

And so I praise Paul Thomas Anderson and my envy evaporates with time by wrestling with a film that keeps biting back. As Samuel Beckett and the Buddha might have said, the best way to forget about something is to keep thinking about it. To truly see what I see can’t happen so often, but when Anderson makes spaces, I can.


Greg Gerke's fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Film Comment, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and others.

LARB Contributor

Greg Gerke has published See What I See (Zerogram Press, 2021), a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things (Splice, 2019), a book of stories. He edits the journal Socrates on the Beach.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!