If there were an Oscar for content, P.T. Anderson would be in the gold.
Depending on who you ask, P. T. Anderson’s Phantom Thread, up for six Academy Awards this weekend, is a lot of things. It is, as we have called it, “a haunted tale of a twisted, unique love affair.” It is also, as J. Hoberman most recently put it in the NYRB, “a faux Hollywood melodrama, a gothic romance, a dark comedy, a baroque chamber piece, a study in artistic self-absorption, a discreetly kinky case history, an anti-authoritarian fable…and a fairy tale.” A lot of very nice words, but another review catches my eye. A user by the name of Katie, in one the movie’s most popular reviews on the movie cataloging website Letterboxd, describes the movie in terms of her identification with one of its central protagonists, Alma (Vicky Krieps). As such, Katie writes: “She embodies everything I am, everything I’ve tried to be, and everything I’ve ever wanted to be.”
More than any movie this Oscar season, Phantom Thread captured the soul of a demo long adverse to the kind of scheduled hi-fi schlock that this part of the year brings out of moviemakers: the people of the internets. The thorny romantic relationship at the heart of the movie’s plot, a triangle between Alma and a fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the icy, watching eyes of his business partner and sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), opened itself up as a metaphor for complicated relationships endured everywhere. While Alma won the collective heart, Lesley Manville’s performance as the stern and unrewarded keeper-together of Woodcock’s business purchased the internet’s icy, angry conscience. A performance of “meticulous resting bitch face,” her ability to keep shit together by sheer strength of personality has even accumulated off-canon queer theorists.
Viral marketing is the dream of every publicity firm splattering movies onto screens everywhere (what could be better than ads you don’t have to buy?) and that people share on their own, but the success of Phantom Thread on the wide world of the internet feels, initially, surprising. The first trailers and publicity campaign have hammered two angles: that the movie was a very serious drama about a very serious artist, and a very serious drama about a very serious artist played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who had forsworn playing very serious people evermore. This campaign made some amount of sense; two of Anderson’s earlier movies were also very serious films about very serious people: 2012’s The Master and 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the latter of which also starred Day-Lewis. Both movies found rapturous audiences among critics, if diminishing returns among people who paid money for movies, with There Will Be Blood raking in $76.2 million and The Master not even cracking $30 million. Inherent Vice, Anderson’s wonkishly faithful adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that followed, didn’t even clear $20 million. Both are numbers that Phantom Thread, still in theaters, has quickly surpassed.
Phantom Thread is so unlike any movie that Anderson has ever made that it defies the traditional attempt to compare the movie to any of his previous work. It is, after all, ultimately a comedy. But unlike any of the comedic moments the defined part of Anderson’s earlier career (Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love), Phantom Thread actually had jokes. So many jokes. Last month, Vulture ran a feature putting lines from Phantom Thread onto Valentine’s Day cards. Shortly thereafter, Mashable awarded it “one of the most meme’d movies of 2017,” speculating that even its plot felt like a meme: “Reynolds and Alma’s shifting struggles to balance out the expectations and needs in their relationship is painfully relatable…[and] Alma’s solution to this problem and Reynolds’ acceptance of it has an air of #goals about it.”
The abundant catalog of .gifs and memes suggests that Phantom Thread succeeded because it was an amazing mine of content. In comparison, Anderson’s accomplishments in There Will Be Blood feel paltry, its singular “I Drink Your Milkshake” still haunting the darker echelons of YouTube. Movies have always been about content: George Lucas realized this when he began crafting creatures to turn into plastic toys, and the internet didn’t change this so much as provide another avenue for content to flow. It allowed movies to become collections of endless items to ceaselessly plug into listicles, idealized heroes, and villains to cosplay and catalog, ad infinitum.
The annually-studied genre of the Oscar movie has proven resistant to this kind of organization. A domain of ruthlessly middlebrow aesthetics and politics, there was very little in most Oscar movies worth wanting to re-experience in small consumable chunks. The best middling songs in La La Land? A .gif of Ellar Coltrane looking out a window in Boyhood? Because the point of a contemporary Oscar movie is that it views itself very seriously, they are implicitly antithetical to being enjoyed as digestible content. It’s striking, after all, that the only other major Oscar contender to enjoy a viral life is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a movie whose life began as a dump month release and only later was interpreted as Oscar contender. Like all bad art, the Oscar movie wants very much to be earnestly loved, and on the internet, people who earnestly want to be loved are normies.
Phantom Thread found a rapturous online audience precisely because it does not want to be loved. In Anderson’s movie, Alma manages to have the relationship she wants by poisoning her husband and he, in turn, learns this only to graciously accept its inevitability. To collectively say that these struggles are our own is to deprecate ourselves, to admit we live in a world of tragically imperfect solutions. Traditional Oscar fare like Three Billboards and Shape of Water offer the same martyrs we have always worshiped, normie protagonists who suffer through their pain like prescribed medication. The hint of subversiveness that underpins the solution of Phantom Thread is the same as that behind a viral tweet, a performatively wrong, very extra, way of achieving a collectively likable goal, like heterosexual monogamous love. Phantom Thread won the internet because it had people we actually wanted to be and not just watch.