In 2012, Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece for Entertainment Weekly explaining why he had fallen out of love with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. In the article, Gleiberman shares his own thrill of discovering Boogie Nights at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival and the impact it had on him as a film critic; he then goes on to discuss his perceived problems with There Will Be Blood and why Anderson’s films no longer affect him the same way.
I came across Gleiberman’s article recently during my struggle to detail my own relationship to Anderson’s films. Like Gleiberman, my first Anderson film was a revelation. As a manager for an independent theater in a small town, it was my job to assemble a 35mm print of Punch-Drunk Love during my Thursday shift and sit by myself through a midnight technical screening. I was tired after a long day and annoyed that I hadn’t been able to pawn what I assumed to be another Adam Sandler comedy off on any of my coworkers. Naturally, I spent the rest of my evening in a state of shock at what I had seen. In that empty theater at two in the morning, I watched a movie that could have been made just for me; Anderson and Sandler overclocked my sense of empathy and made Barry Egan the most heartbreaking character I had seen on screen.
And so began five years of obsessing over Anderson’s previous films – Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia – and hyping myself up for the release of his next project. It never stood a chance. Like Gleiberman, I was left cold by the lack of humanity in There Will Be Blood and confused by my reaction. The Anderson I had come to love and the Anderson who emerged with There Will Be Blood seemed to be two different filmmakers, and I spent a lot of time trying to understand why this was the film that garnered Anderson unilateral praise.
When The Master was announced, I was even warier, avoiding any articles or press clippings on the film in the hope that my own expectations would be mitigated. It was no use. Both films continue to keep me at arm’s length, like a roped-off piece of art: Look but do not touch, admire only from a distance.
So I perfectly understand Gleiberman’s perspective when he wrote that Anderson “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,” but this conclusion gives me pause. It’s tough to separate ourselves from our favorite filmmakers – after all, our own experiences are what make film such a powerful medium – but we can also be guilty of projecting our own experiences on the films themselves.
With Inherent Vice set to make its debut at the New York Film Festival, I want to try to understand what has changed about Anderson’s work without writing myself (too much) into the narrative. And to do so, I’m choosing to focus on the process rather than the results. Whatever discontent I have is with Anderson the writer, not Anderson the director.
Scott Tobias wrote a great piece earlier this year on Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, and the real highlight of the article is Tobias’s explanation of why Anderson writing for specific actors works so well. As Tobias notes, “Anderson understands as well as any other director what an actor can bring to a movie—not just in terms of chops, but general persona, too. . . These are not merely actors playing roles, but a comment on their history as performers, the accumulation of parts that have led them to this point.” \
While this serves to explain Reynolds’s appeal as the patriarch of the porn industry in Boogie Nights, or the deconstruction of Adam Sandler movies that occurs in Punch-Drunk Love, it can also help explain the ways in which Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix inform the creation of their respective characters. They are not just method actors – they are men who have made a career of not revealing themselves to the public.
When Day-Lewis takes on a character, it is usually accompanied by blind items about how long he stayed in character or how difficult he can be to the cast and the crew. Much less is said – and much less is offered – about the man himself. The only thing that really matters is the role; as someone who writes about the persona as much as the character, Anderson would have recognized the intrinsic value in matching Day-Lewis to a character who cares about the job and nothing else.
Similarly, when cast in The Master, Phoenix had been participating in a public art-project-cum-meltdown-cum-art project that he believed would raise questions about the very nature of celebrity and the public legend. Phoenix often comes across in interviews as if he is waging a one-man war with the media for his own delight; although he may share in Day-Lewis’s vague reputation for being “difficult,” here we are kept at a distance not out of a lack of interest but a surfeit of it. Phoenix is invested in never letting us see the real him; Anderson writes Freddie Quell as a man with no desire to ever reveal himself to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd. Anderson the writer is faithful to his actors to a fault, even if it means moving away from the type of narratives that helped build his early reputation.
If anything, this highlights Anderson’s most recent films as a shift away from hubris. Anderson’s early movies were marked by his reputation as a control freak; he had made no secret of his fight with his producers to gain control over his first film, Hard Eight, and he feuded with Burt Reynolds over the actor’s perception of Boogie Nights. When Magnolia was released, many interviews with the director mentioned the studio’s decision to grant him final cut – quite the achievement for a young filmmaker – both early and often. Anderson would also write the parts in his movies specifically for the actors he knew, creating a sense of trust that allowed them to give themselves over to his vision completely.
Consider two quotes during the publicity for Magnolia:
“He is driven by demons, but his only aim is to get the actors to create what he has envisioned. If you ask him to explain, he’ll say, ‘Dude, just trust me. This is the way it has to be.’ Ask him about a scene and he’ll say, ‘This is too much to explain. Just trust me.’” (John C. Reilly)
“[O]n the set, I would say the relationship is reversed: He’s the father and I’m the son, because his vision is so clear and so powerful that I wouldn’t think of questioning whatever he thinks is right for a scene or a moment. (Philip Baker Hall)
Both of these quotes suggest a filmmaker who has complete buy-in from his actors and the freedom to express his vision however he sees fit. Compare those quotes to those by Anderson on the filmmaking process during There Will Be Blood and The Master:
“Reflecting on his recent work as the stand-in director for major filmic influence Robert Altman on the set of the maverick’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, Anderson told indieWIRE that he learned to “hold onto stuff” and not always give his collaborators the immediate answers they desired.” (indieWIRE)
“[On The Master] Well, you know, I would lower your expectations in terms of plot. And I would raise them in terms of performances and watching two great actors work together to tell that story that way.” (AAP Newswire)
Read through several of Anderson’s interviews and you can see a subtle shift in the way he talks about his craft. It’s a lazy observation to say that Anderson is simply maturing, giving more space to his actors to create characters that eclipse the words on his pages, but the shift in tone of his films feels more deliberate than that. Anderson’s early work displayed tightly interwoven narratives that clearly marked the passage of time; both There Will Be Blood and The Master are more abstract stories with a delineated timeline.
This is Anderson the adapter rather than Anderson the writer. He is free to piece together the highlights of the source material – be it the first 150 pages of Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” or the anecdotes surrounding a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard – and focus on the highlights of the source material, sitting back and letting great actors do great work and putting it all together in the end. In an interview with Network Ten’s Angela Bishop, Anderson put it most succinctly: “Unless you’re making a biopic, as they call them, as a screenwriter you get to sort of steal pieces that you need and you cheat and you lie, and you kind of fabric your own thing together.”
In the end, there’s no denying that There Will Be Blood and The Master – and, one can assume, the upcoming Inherent Vice – are indicative of a different type of filmmaker than early Anderson, but where Gleiberman saw someone falling in love with his own reputation, I see the same man choosing to mix things up. Anderson’s interviews have always suggested he is more comfortable as a writer than as a director; this current phase of Anderson’s career sees him scaling back his influence as the former and focusing his attention behind the camera, and the critics seem to think this translates to his best work yet.
I won’t pretend like I don’t miss the melodic waltzes of Jon Brion over the percussive tension of Jonny Greenwood; the quiet dignity of Philip Baker Hall over the frantic energy of Joaquin Phoenix; the sympathetic ear of the writer over the cold eye of the period director. But through it all, there’s a method to Anderson’s process that remains intact, and understanding that makes disliking his films a little easier to swallow. With all apologies to Mr. Gleiberman, maybe it is acceptance, not worship, that feels better than love.