Jonathan Dean threads his way through the filmography of the perfectionist director
Paul Thomas Anderson is a modern American master; a concoction of influences, who took what he loved and became uniquely great himself. Think Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, John Sturges, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, but with a modern sensibility of meticulousness and sass that has had his films look out at our society from its lowest point — pornography — to its highest — couture.
He is not, in any way, prolific. Rather, he is particular, and his films often warrant a closer reading. There Will Be Blood, for instance, is ostensibly a tale about oil, but look harder and it becomes a marker for the collapse of religious authority in the US and the start of its worship of commerce. Think, too, of Magnolia. The stories within it are worthy of films in themselves, from the poor boy on the quiz show who wets himself to the old man with a terrible secret, but to see them all fall into place with each other is immensely satisfying.
It is part of Anderson's paradox: he holds back on resolution because he does not believe life is orderly, yet he cannot help but tie up his films beautifully. A questioning perfectionist, then, who is most interested in people who are flawed, ruined, desperate, peculiar, secretive — anything but okay, and thank goodness. Who wants to watch films about people who are doing just fine?
Born in Los Angeles in 1970 — he turned 50 last June — Anderson has been in the business his entire life, making short films before his feature debut, Hard Eight, in 1996, after which he never looked back.
Get to know him
Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love
Anderson's breakthrough film was a blast of endless sleaze and barely bubbling-under depression. In excitable thrall to Robert Altman, his Boogie Nights told of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and his huge penis in the 1970s porn industry. It's a kinetic patchwork of fascinating characters. Equally frantic, but rather sweeter — and briefer — is Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson's attempt at a romantic comedy. It is a dizzy blur of a movie, with a never-better Adam Sandler. It is odd, of course, but then so is love.
Magnolia, There Will Be Blood
The three-hour Magnolia is divisive. For some, its operatic rush of interconnected troubled souls is as majestic as movies get, digging into the broken people who live in LA. Others think it — and its frogs — pompous. Either way, it demands to be seen, with Tom Cruise at his weirdest and best as an anatomy-obsessed lecturer to misogynists. There Will Be Blood gets better each time you watch. The opening and ending are slightly tricky, but, in between, Daniel Day-Lewis' oil man anchors a parable of greed that belongs in the cinematic canon.
I saw The Master six times at the cinema. Yes, I'm a fan. Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled soldier returning from the Second World War, straight into the duplicitous arms of Philip Seymour Hoffman's cult leader. The two leads jostle as minds go mad and tensions surge. Credit, too, to their co-stars Amy Adams, Rami Malek and Jesse Plemons. It's a very rich tapestry, ably supported by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, Anderson's go-to composer, who sets the scene with his lush, distracted arrangements. This was Hoffman's final performance of note.
A personal favourite
Anderson's most recent film is his most subtle and, perhaps because of its lack of fireworks, remains somewhat unsung. A very funny film, it tells of a 1950s dressmaker, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his demanding sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and an obsession with Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is eager to please a man who is never pleased. On the surface it is all beauty and awkward breakfasts in intricately replicated period London. But there is, inevitably, angst too.
One to miss
The cast of Inherent Vice is fantastic. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston — Quentin Tarantino aside, can any other director attract that range of stars? Alas, the film is just too knotty and uninviting. Many struggle to keep up with the plot, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel and, worse, simply do not care about the cartoonish characters on screen. It is a 1970s dope-soaked mystery noir that looks great but is far too self-absorbed.
Go in deep
Anderson's friendship with Radiohead has resulted in music videos from the sublime Daydreaming, in which singer Thom Yorke wanders through rooms teeming with memories, to the simple Present Tense, with Yorke and bandmate Greenwood playing campfire-style, amazingly relaxed. The director also made the short film Anima for Yorke's latest solo album — a dance epic full of expressionist angles and upside-down floors. Note also his videos for the LA band Haim; nobody films that sunlit grey city as well.
Licorice Pizza opens in New Zealand cinemas on Jan 27
Oscar-nominated film-maker Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to Phantom Thread follows a high school student — and successful child actor — in 1970s San Fernando Valley. Stars Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie and Tom Waits.