There is a video floating about our vast internets somewhere which was shot by an audience member after a screening of Martin Scorsese’s excellent film, Hugo. The bespectacled master is talking to a large crowd with the chatter box enthusiasm he is famous for, musing about the next step in digital and 3D film making. He suddenly mentions holograms and invents a scenario where Hamlet sticks his hand out of the screen and into the crowd and proclaims; To be or not to be. He is explaining that trends and fashion shouldn’t effect creative people and that this leap in technology is not a gimmick but a progressive tool in cinema, one which is to be embraced, used respectfully and honed to help grow the world’s perception of film. Acting as moderator and siting beside Scorsese is an worried and intense, greying bearded man, his hand rests frozen on his mouth with his eyes wide and fixed on Marty.
Even though Paul Thomas Anderson is only 42 years old, his 6 films, spanning 16 years, have bubbled with an intense maturity and an undeniable audacity which have managed, time and time again to confound the expectations of his most loyal fans and his critics alike. A true cineaste, a purist both at heart and on the surface, using the camera in dizzying whip smart fashion, painting stories of men and women at odds with their world, their families, their obsessions and their faith, it’s understandable why Anderson had Scorsese comparisons thrown at him early on. If those comparisons rung true for some film goers (circa Boogie Nights) they certainly ended somewhere between Magnolia, a three hour Altmanesque mega soap about cancer and regret, and Punch Drunk Love, his u-turning, self proclaimed “Arthouse Adam Sandler film”.
And, if that little you tube film tells us anything and if Anderson’s face is a mirror of his principals as a film maker, it’s the fact that you sense he wouldn’t touch digital or 3D with a long sterilised pole. This year’s excellent Side By Side showed us that many film makers (old and new) are head over heals in love with 3D and the all of the remarkably inexpensive digital possibilities.
This only sets Anderson further apart as a film maker who now stubbornly exists within his own borders, making once borrowed idiosyncrasies his own and developing fully as a serious voice. An uncompromising and unique one, and perhaps now, America’s finest. His own story only deepens the near mythic plots and characters he creates and, although notoriously tightlipped about his own past, underlines the main theme of his past three films.
Anderson’s first serious (or not) short film The Dirk Diggler Story, was written and developed, in his own words, as “a kind of Spinal Tap for porn”. Based on the life of John Holmes and featuring a voice over from Anderson’s own father Ernie, a television star in his own right, The Dirk Diggler Story would obviously pave the way for something much bigger later in his career. But before it could become Boogie Nights Anderson had some tough lessons to learn about school, film making and studios. So he shoved a VHS copy of The Dirk Digger Story into Alan Parker’s hand at a screening of The Commitments and headed off to film school in New York City. Parker apparently later called him to tell him how much he liked the film.
Anderson famously quit school after receiving a C- grade for his first paper; One page of script with no dialogue supposed to illustrate character through action only. The page he had handed in was in fact one page of Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet’s then unmade Hoffa. At odds with the education system’s highbrow approach to film, he took his tuition money back and headed off to find an acting hero of his who he had seen in Martin Brest’s Midnight Run and Robert Altman’s Secret Honour; Phillip Baker Hall. Anderson bugged Hall for weeks on the set of a PBS tele movie, the pair ended up drinking endless cups of coffee and chain smoking, chatting about films. One film in particular; The 30 minute short film that Anderson would direct for Hall in 1993, aptly named Cigarettes and Coffee.
He supposedly wrote the script as a feature when he was 22 and only saw Cigarettes and Coffee as an unfinished section of a bigger story and much like The Dirk Digger Story would later become Boogie Nights, Anderson just couldn’t let the idea of the feature film go. He was eventually funded by Sundance to adapt the rather accomplished short into the feature staring Baker Hall, John C. Reilly and Gwyneth Paltrow. The director still insists on calling the first “P.T Anderson picture” Sydney after having it’s original title taken from it because “…punters might think it was about Australia”. He also lost control of the cut in the edit suite and was ultimately involved in a bullheaded mexican standoff with his producers. “If we call the film Hard Eight you get your cut released” they said, Anderson relented, everyone lived and the 26 year old’s career was launched with Hard Eight at the Cannes Film festival in 1996.
Boogie Nights then showed what the 27 year old was truly capable of behind the camera. Somehow already a master with actors, Anderson handled an ensamble cast with the confidence of his hero, Robert Altman. The whole piece is orchestrated wonderfully. Whip pans, long technical takes and perfectly timed dolly shots exuberantly tied multiple stories about the Californian pornography industry together. After it’s success the director was allowed a long leash for his next project.
That leash ended up being a three hour long one which would allow him to craft a dark, audience splitting drama about families in crisis. The shooting script for Magnolia was three hundred pages long. When William H. Macy read it he said to Anderson: “I like it… It’s a little long.” Anderson laughed and then screamed: You f**king c**ksucker, I’m not cutting a singe word!” Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore had the very same irk and both received an identical reaction.
Perhaps it’s these student/teacher/artist/studio battles early on in his career that shaped his infatuation with a different type of outsider. The obsessive. Beginning with Sandler’s Barry Eagan in Punch-Drunk Love; A 90 minute love story about a painfully shy only brother to seven aggressive sisters whose very own obsession grows in trying to exploit a loophole in a frequent flier points promotion. Anderson’s film was a total surprise after Magnolia and, in hindsight, his artistic turning point.
At half the length of his previous 2 films and completely unique in look, dialogue, and especially in sound it rocketed along. It was somehow both charming and mysterious, a comedy amplified by it’s nervous ticks and a romance with ties to Shoot the Piano Player by way of Jaques Tatti. Frequent collaborator Jon Brion added a strange loopy tension to the whole film with his click clacking harmonium score; Something which Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood would take to a new orchestral level with Anderson’s greed and religion masterpiece There Will be Blood.
It would seem that the director, always playful with music, had honed his ear as well as his eye to blistering effect. The story unfolds as a much more psychotic version of Citizen Kane, filled to the brim with an unrelenting dread. Essentially a father/son story inside a money/religion battle set in the prospecting American West, There Will Be Blood is incredibly leaps and bounds away from Hard Eight, from Boogie Nights and miraculously from Punch Drunk Love.
His newest film, The Master, was shot in 65mm (the first film shot in 65mm in 16 years) and is his first film without longtime lensman Robert Elswit, a vital tool in Anderson’s box. But with rave reviews from critics and audiences pouring in, and another galloping draining score by Greenwood, the reportedly baffling story of a spiritually lost man who joins a cult in the wake of WWII, looks like it may be the simplest but most well formed effort of the director’s career. Much has already been said about Joaquin Phoenix and cult leader Philip Seymour Hoffman’s battle of wills, something Anderson brought in spades with There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday facing off over just about everything (milkshakes included).
It certainly would seem that the passionate obsessive is intent on further deconstructing obsession by utilising his own and whether it’s pudding, oil or cults, Anderson is only going from strength to strength, focusing on the strange, embroiling himself in the mythology of his characters and squeezing his life’s work subconsciously into their own. It’s something he has always done in one way or another but once again he is boldy charging forward and, with an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s noir Inherent Vice as his next project, it would seem that he’s not over the theme just yet.
An article from Esquire magazine uncovers one brilliant little morsel of Paul Thomas Anderson’s uncompromising ideology. When an old high school teacher of Paul’s tried to contact him to come back to town for a visit after the release of Magnolia she only received a one line message back from his assistant. It just said: “Paul doesn’t go back.”
The Master opens in the UK on the 2nd of November.