Monday’s Unpopular Opinion: Paul Thomas Anderson

I had been planning a pithy little introduction about how Paul Thomas Anderson‘s initials are PTA, which made me think about parent-teacher evenings at school and how there was a correlation there because I never looked forward to those either. But then I realised PTA is the Parent-Teacher Association, and not strictly just the night when my olds and my teachers would get together to bitch about me. Either way, I never looked forward to that, and I wasn’t looking forward to re-watching Mr Anderson’s catalogue.

But maybe my apprehension was unfounded. Like everything I’ve done in my life, apart from writing this article, I was younger when I watched his films. Maybe now I’m more mature and have a greater appreciation for his style of art.

Before we get in to the play by play though, we need to discuss some established guidelines for film making. I don’t think I’m giving any secrets away, but perhaps some of you might be unaware… When writing a script the two key moments in the film should happen around minutes 20 and 60.
Minute 20 is the set up. You’ve had quarter of an hour to establish your characters, locations, scenarios, but then you need the catalyst. That moment that says “this is what this film is about”.
Minute 60 is the point of no return. Your characters have been getting together, making a plan, overcoming some doubts, but at this point they’re getting in to whatever they’re doing.
Next time you watch a successful movie, set two timers, it might blow your mind how it happens in most films.
Like I said, this isn’t a secret. They teach it in film school, and if you were ever lucky enough to have a sit-down pitch meeting with some producers, chances are they’d flip to pages 20 and 60 to see if your film is going to be a success.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to follow these rules. There are examples in history of the best art being things that subvert the norm. Some would say it’s by going against the grain and creating your own rules that you become a true artist. But then again, impressionism came about because Monet’s eyesight failed and he saw everything as blurry, so that’s how he painted.

Unfortunately PTA started his career subverting the idea. Without proving first that he’s ever understood it.

Boogie Nights (1997) gets it half right. At the 20-minute mark we see Rollergirl (Heather Graham) sucking Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) dick. But he’s already been approached by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) about his potential for joining the porn industry. But you can see where it’s going, so you start to become invested in the characters.

boogie-nights-poster
Source: https://socialpsychol.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/paul-thomas-anderson/boogie-nights-poster/

Dirk Diggler is the beautiful naïve protagonist. Jack Horner is the seedy yet stylish porn kingpin. Rollergirl (so-called because as she says, “I never take off my roller skates”) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) are the two generations of porn actresses. William H Macy plays a “William H Macy” type, just the same neurotic, cuckold sad sack that he plays in literally everything. He’s even in a film called “The Cooler” where he plays someone so dour that just by sitting next to people, they get bad luck in the casino.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is in a role that was originally written for Jack Black, but PSH is such a good actor he simply plays it as Jack Black. And the always good John C Reilly plays Dirk’s best friend, who does little else than to become an amplifier for Dirk’s ambitions.

Now, you’ve got a lot of good characters to work with there. Loose morals, hopes and dreams, questionable relationship goals.
But none of it goes anywhere.

By the end of the film, everyone is still exactly the same as they were before. They all still work in porn, and all seem to be doing quite well for themselves, living happily ever after.

The worst thing that happens to Dirk is he’s having such a good time taking drugs that he can’t get a boner. And then later he gets beaten up a little bit. So, apart from never having my dick sucked by Heather Graham, I’m basically Dirk Diggler, if you think about it.

Macy does undergo a slight transformation in the sense that he gets fed up of his wife constantly fucking other men that he shoots her and then himself. But if a man kills himself half way through a film, by the end of it, can he really be said to have learned anything?

Anderson has even admitted, or, I guess discussed (seeing as he wasn’t being accused) the fact that none of the characters go through a change. Which again is considered one of the corner stones of story-telling, predating even the written word.

Stylistically PTA favours long uninterrupted shots. Which he thinks is “so cool” according to Burt Reynolds, who would go on to list a number of films that had already utilised similar shots, pointing out that PTA had not come up with anything original. And it’s actually to the detriment of the film. Because if you fuck up a shot, do you just ignore it, or reset and do the whole thing again?
One particular scene is Macy having a conversation with Ricky Jay (excellent magician and card-thrower in real life) about the movie they’re about to shoot. Macy is frustrated, because in the back of the shot a group of men are stood around watching another man fuck his wife. Part of Macy’s dialogue goes “my fucking wife has an ass in her cock”. I had to rewind a couple of times to make sure that’s what I heard, and if I did, then is there a world that that makes sense? Was it in the script like that? Probably not, because for a split second you can see Macy’s face react to his mistake. But Anderson’s a cool guy, he said, fuck it, let’s just keep it in. Because having his extended shot is more important that getting it right.

There is an almost redeeming scene where Dirk and Reed (John C Reilly) are pitching ideas for a series of action style porn films where the women get treated with respect by his hero character, and not the victims of any kind of violence. And although that’s probably representative of the 70’s, it smacks of the classic champion of women’s right needing to be a man.

The problem with showing the pitfalls of the porn industry predominantly from the male perspective is that any problems he does encounter are from his own decisions to do drugs. No one is forcing him to get strung out.
It’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.
A much more stark representation of the porn industry is Lovelace (2013) which is based on actual Deep Throat (1972) actress Linda Lovelace, as opposed to this character who is merely inspired by John Holmes. Lovelace shows basically the same story twice, first with the light-hearted fun side, and then a bunch of the same scenes later as the seedier side. For instance, the first time round you hear her and Peter Sarsgaard fucking in a hotel room and you think “they’re having a fun time, living the life and all”, but later you see that he was really beating her.  The majority of her life in the industry was controlled by men who barely even pretended to have her best interests at heart.
It’s pretty evocative.
Anderson went out of his way to ignore this side of it, and a scene was cut from the film showing Becky’s (Nicole Ari Parker) non-porn-industry husband beating her up because of his jealousy about her past. Which would have shown some consequences and a real reflection of how things were. Instead her story line ends happily ever after.

All the humorous moments in the film revolve around the punchline that Dirk has a big penis. So the final scene is the pullback reveal that he does in fact have a big cock, which he exposes to us in a mirror while inexplicably dressed like Don Johnson from Miami Vice.
For my money, the better ending would be a bait-and-switch where they cut away from him just as he’s about to whip it out, and show Rollergirl in her bedroom, finally deciding to give up her lifestyle, and taking off her roller skates, to reveal her long manky yellow toenails.

MPW-53082
Source: https://uk.movieposter.com/poster/MPW-53082/Magnolia.html

Magnolia (1999) begins with a clunky introduction to the idea of coincidence by recounting three examples of it in the real world, while the narrator (Ricky Jay) explains that these things really happened, but if you had seen them in a movie you wouldn’t believe them, and pass them off as hackneyed. The conceit of this is to set you up for the most mind-boggling story of coincidences.
There’s only a few problems with this.
Firstly, only one of the examples is actually based in fact, and it’s about three men whose surnames are “Green”, “Berry”, and “Hill” who mugged a man outside his work, and that man happened to live in a house named “Greenberry Hill”. Wow. What are the chances? Well, considering that happened in 1678, if that’s the best you can find, then yes, the odds are very real. Remember, it’s not a miracle or a coincidence that people keep winning the lottery, there’s millions of combinations of numbers picked by people every week. A coincidence would be if only one person picked one set of numbers, and those numbers came up. It would of course also be a tragedy, because with the approximately 14 million to one chances of winning, they would only win a portion of their stake back, like 75p.
The second example is the scuba diver found in a tree after a forest fire riddle. A plane supposedly collecting water to put out the fire, scooped up the scuba diver from a nearby lake and dropped him. This story is entirely apocryphal.
The third is that a man tries to commit suicide by jumping from a building, which he would have survived because of a newly fitted net below. However on the way down he gets shot by a shotgun. And it was his mum that fired it. Now those odds are astronomical. That is until, as the film goes on to explain, the man lived in that building, with his parents, who argued a lot, which lead to his depression, and he loaded the gun to teach them a lesson. So yes, the split-second timing is unlikely, but primarily it is explaining causality.
Again, this example never actually happened. It is used in law courses to argue who if anyone would be considered guilty for the murder.

Now, this wouldn’t be a terrible set up, because what happens over the next three hours is actually an interesting collection of stories interconnected by causality.

The 20-minute mark is Earl (Jason Robards R.I.P.) on his deathbed telling Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman R.I.P.) about his long-lost son. That turns out to be Frank (Tom Cruise) who gives motivational speeches about how to “tame the cunt”. Earl’s wife is Linda (Julianne Moore) who is regretful that she’s cheated on him throughout their marriage.
Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) is a game show host of a quiz that has kids as contestants. He will later have a heart attack, and confess to his wife that he may or may not have been sexually inappropriate with their daughter.
Their daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a mess, because she definitely got diddled as a kid. She takes cocaine, even while being chatted up by Officer Jim (John C Reilly). They go out on a date, and Jim later catches former Quiz Kid contestant Donnie (William H Macy) breaking in to his old workplace.
Also, there’s a little kid currently on the show who is really smart but needs the toilet and no-one will let him go, because apparently none of these adults has ever experienced the need to urinate.

That’s basically all that happens. No coincidences. Just a handful of people, some of whom know each other, some of whom are related. And each of them has more than one thing going on in their life right now. Be it drug addiction, dying of cancer, or needing the toilet.

The climax of the movie is that frogs fall from the sky. These frogs break some windows of where all these characters are. Coincidence? No. These people all live and work within a square mile of each other, which is why it stands to reason that they might know each other.

The narrator returns to further blow our minds of this bizarre incident. The problem with this is that frogs and other small water-dwelling animals have been known to fall out of the sky quite often. And by that I don’t mean it’s once a week or anything, but it’s so common that it even happened to Philip Baker Hall once in Italy.

My biggest bugbear with this goes back to my suspicions that PTA has never studied storytelling in any form. Because shortly before filming someone said to him, and I’m paraphrasing because I wasn’t privy to the exact conversation “oh, raining frogs, cool, like in the bible” to which Anderson replied “What the fuck is ‘The Bible’?”
He had no idea that he’d stolen an idea from one of the ten most famous stories, from the most famous book of short stories ever to have existed. But now he’s joined that exclusive club known as “everyone” he decides to fill the film with references to 8:2, which is the Exodus chapter containing the raining frogs. This is just dumb and hackneyed.

All in all it’s not a terrible film, but three hours is taking liberties. Liam Neeson rescued a thousand Jews in the same amount of time.

Tom Cruise is, as always fantastic, and powerful, and vulnerable, and unlikable. And he just went ahead and ad-libbed some emotional dialogue for the deathbed scene, which resulted in tears.
On the set, not in my flat. It’s so hard to cry when you’re swooning.

Patton Oswalt (comedian who played the Scuba diver from earlier) has a bit in his 2016 Special Talking for Clapping about how the most famous directors are men, but most of their editors are women. A man shoots hundreds of hours of film and declares it all to be genius, but then it takes the level-headedness of a woman to cut out all the bullshit and turn it into something that is art. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) exemplifies that. Coming in at a cool 95 minutes, it establishes the quirky awkward character, at your 20-minute mark he’s working out a deal for air miles, which pays off at minute 60 when he uses them to go visit the love interest.

punch_drunk_love
Source: http://www.impawards.com/2002/punch_drunk_love.html

Anderson stated in an interview that he wanted this to be an arthouse version of an Adam Sandler movie. And that’s exactly what it is.

If you change the score of a movie you can completely change the tone of it. Most romantic comedies are just a slow violin away from being a stalker thriller (search “Sleepless in Seattle horror trailer” on YouTube)
If you took this exact script, produced it by Happy Madison and added Rob Schnieder this would be indistinguishable from any number of Sandler’s other movies. He still does his occasional rage, general awkwardness, and it’s impossible to tell if he’s putting on a voice or if that’s how he normally talks. He has an overbearing family members who treat him like a dunce, and an attractive female lead who falls for him for seemingly no real reason other than the storyline requires it.
It’s with this in mind that would lead me to believe PTA’s issues aren’t with directing, because it’s actually quite an entertaining watch, pushed along by Sandler. The timing all checks out, and most importantly it’s half the length of Magnolia.

The funniest thing about this film is that there is a line “Business is very food” which was a typo when Anderson was writing the script, but they decided to keep it in as a joke. In the Robin Williams movie Popeye (1980) they sing a song called “Everything is Food” where “food” is used in place of “good”. Harry Nilsson wrote both “Everything is Food” and “He Needs Me” which is used throughout this film.
Now THAT is a coincidence.

Spoiler alert for There Will Be Blood (2007) …there is a pool of blood at the end.

there_will_be_blood_ver2
Source: http://www.impawards.com/2007/there_will_be_blood_ver2.html

Urgh. Everyone’s favourite film that they’ve never watched a second time.

I honestly don’t know where to begin.
I think the appeal for most people must be not really knowing where it’s going. In that respects, yes, it’s suspenseful with a decent score to match.
But there’s nothing I want from the character. Being as he’s in every scene and is clearly not a nice person, there’s nothing to root for. No other character is given enough screen time to form a connection with them. And despite the moment of weakness of crying after killing the man he thought was his brother, he’s straight back to screwing people over with land deals. Or at least that appears to be what’s happening.
The problem with setting things in the olden days is it’s tricky to tell if what they’re talking about is a large amount of money or not. At one point they’re quibbling over $500, then he’s making $5000 a week, and at the end, before the reveal, he seems amenable to giving away $100,000.
Ok, so you can get a bit of a feel for it, but now add in conditions for procuring land deals. And discussing oil retraction processes. I don’t know about you, but the sum-total of my knowledge of drilling is Armageddon.

It would be nice if he fixed his son, but we know they’re not going to have a cure for deafness, and it’s a different time, and we’ve already established that he’s a bad guy, so it’s not particularly shocking when he leaves him on the train.

There are no stakes. No peril. No love interest. He’s not battling nature, or machine.

It’s just another PTA film with no character progression. It’s hard to pick out a point where you’ll hope something will happen. I’m not hoping he’ll get his oil line finished. I don’t care if his son comes back. At no point did it seem like he was doing any of this for any other reason that it’ll make him rich. He doesn’t want to be rich so he can take care of a family. And by all appearances he’s already wealthy. He’s so obviously conniving, his begging for forgiveness means nothing.

The final reveal supposes that Eli (Paul Dano) and Daniel (Daniel Day-Lewis) were friends, although that wasn’t evident at any point. The last two times they were together they slapped each other around. And we find that Daniel has taken some other oil that he was trying to procure earlier. But he only seemed to be kind of after it. He never made out like it was his one true goal in life. So now we’re wrapping everything up by him just saying “I did really want it, and actually, I got it”, but what he actually says it that he drinks your milkshake, which was commonly yelled around the streets of Camden for six months even though it has no context in practically any other situation apart from stealing oil or milkshakes.

Daniel Day-Lewis is a fine actor. But who gives a shit.
Again, some of you may be unfamiliar with nine (some say seven, but there are nine) basic plots that make up all stories. They are…
Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth; Mystery; Rebellion against the one.
There Will Be Blood falls in to none of these categories.

Its one redeeming moment is at about 17 minutes in you can clearly hear my favourite comedian Paul F. Tompkins yelling out “We gain nothing by losing our heads”, which he ad-libbed.
If you would like to gain an appreciation of this film, you can hear him talking about his experience on his stand-up album Laboring Under Delusions (2012).

That brings us to the final film I’ll be contemplating, The Master (2012). Yes, I know, I’ve missed out his first film Hard Eight (1996), (John C Reilly and Philip Baker Hall do small con jobs at a casino) and his latest Inherent Vice (2014) (I have no earthly idea what this is about) but I’ve got deadlines for handing this in and I really want to go see War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).

This at least attempts to build some character progression. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) starts as a bit of a nutball, joins a cult, because that’s what nutballs do. He buys in to the teachings of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) but slowly it becomes apparent that he’s just making shit up as he goes along.

And slowly is the operative word.
If you’ve ever read or heard about Scientology (this film is loosely based on its founder L. Ron Hubbard) or Christianity, or Hinduism or any of the other cults in the world, you’ll know that it’s all just best-guessed solutions for making people feel good about themselves so they’ll give you their money.

There is a scene where these two main characters are in jail together which makes Freddie freak out. All these theoretical feel-good exercises account for nothing when his real-world situation is affected. With his freedom restricted it should be time to consider proper solutions to his problems. This would be the perfect jumping off point for him to rebel against ‘The Cause’, but instead he just carries on going along.

Again, it’s hard to emote for any of the characters who are all basically unlikable, and nothing gets resolved at the end.

Looking at his work as a whole, I have to admit that Paul Thomas Anderson is a good director in the sense that they are all shot really well, and the transition from scene to scene makes sense. The issue I have is that those scenes themselves don’t really amount to anything. It’s his writing that is the biggest problem. As I’ve alluded to earlier, he doesn’t seem to have a grasp on how to tell a story, what the main components are, or how to develop any of the characters. He doesn’t care for stakes, and ultimately he doesn’t care about entertaining you, the audience.

Each of these films has some merit.
But none of them are terribly enjoyable to watch.

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2 thoughts on “Monday’s Unpopular Opinion: Paul Thomas Anderson

Add yours

  1. Tom Cruise is fantastic in Magnolia, and I feel at least PTA did give him some sort of character arc in that film. I also feel Sandler’s character in PDL has a character arc. Love bringing him out of his shell and all that. I don’t particularly disagree with you on anything. It’s probably why I lost interest watching Boogie Nights.

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