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The Master At Work: Paul Thomas Anderson

His films have reinvigorated American cinema and given hope to an industry that currently falters more than it succeeds

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In an age where the Hollywood film industry is filled with big budget blockbuster flops, prequels, sequels, and remakes, the word auteur is rarely used. In the late ’90s, before he had even reached the age of thirty, Paul Thomas Anderson had already written and directed three feature-length films, two of which were considered by critics as masterpieces. A unique style of storytelling and key production traits in his films have reinvigorated American cinema and given hope to an industry that currently falters more than it succeeds.

Anderson’s journey into the film industry is an interesting one. After enrolling into the New York Film School he only lasted two days before withdrawing and heading back to Los Angeles with his tuition money. He felt there was nothing they could teach him that he hadn’t already learned through watching hundreds of films. This arrogant attitude towards authority has followed him throughout his career, especially when dealing with studio heads. Anderson was accepted into the Sundance Filmmakers Lab to work on his debut script Sydney (Later to be called Hard Eight) when he met future producing partner John Lyons, “I thought he was particularly smart and one of the most interesting directors who came through there. He had an unusual amount of confidence, even for a director, especially for someone his age. He was very savvy, utterly self-confident”. Anderson’s maturity was evident in Hard Eight. Writing and directing a story about a washed up gambler in his 60’s showed that Anderson was wise above his age.

Anderson’s directing style was defined in his second feature film Boogie Nights. Long takes and a constantly moving camera for which the director is now known were an element used to enhance the energy of the film, a story about the porn industry in the late ’70s. It’s safe to say these elements were borrowed from two of Anderson’s idols, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. The long opening shot into the nightclub bears striking similarities to the nightclub shot Scorsese used in Goodfellas. A multi-protagonist cast was used to tell the story, a trademark Altman used in his heyday in such films as Nashville and Short Cuts.

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Several recurring themes that would later find themselves in Anderson’s other films also first appeared in Boogie Nights. Dysfunctional family relationships, alienation, regret, and loneliness were embedded into the screenplay. Having such emotional themes addressed in a film about the porn industry showed Anderson’s skill at being able to get the audience to sympathize with his characters. Never one to let the audience get too comfortable, Anderson also worked the shock value to perfection with several scenes in the film, such as the memorable double murder/suicide performed by William H. Macy’s character and the underage cocaine overdose scene. Both extremely raw but also quite comical. Making a serious actor out of Marky Mark, introducing us to Heather Graham (on wheels) and giving a kick up the ass to Burt Reynolds fledging career all in one film? This director was to be taken seriously.

By the mid to late ’90s every studio in Hollywood was eager to sign the next Quentin Tarantino. The success of Boogie Nights gave Anderson free reign to do whatever he pleased. Mike De Luca, a young head of production at New Line was so keen to keep Anderson on their books that he offered him ‘final cut’ on his next feature, a privilege many directors never come across. What followed was Magnolia, a 3 hour-long magnum opus, a mosaic of interrelated stories about characters searching for happiness, forgiveness, and meaning in their lives. Again Anderson was showing everyday people in moments of crisis and not shying away from intensely emotional moments. Many of the cast members from Boogie Nights returned, including Julian Moore who had this to say about the director during the making of Magnolia, “One of the things that is so wonderful about Paul is his humanity and how emotional he is. There aren’t many people who have the desire or the bravery you need to be that emotional. Paul does that, he really goes there”.

In a surprise casting move, Anderson cast Tom Cruise to play Frank TJ Mackey, a self-help guru specializing in the art of seduction. During a promotional trip to the UK for Boogie Nights, director Stanley Kubrick invited Anderson to the set of Eyes Wide Shut. The night before Kubrick had screened Boogie Nights for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Cruise told Anderson that he loved working with good directors and hoped to work with him soon. That’s all Anderson needed to hear. The role would eventually win Cruise a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and would be hailed by critics as one of Cruise’s best performances.

Magnolia was also a platform for Anderson to showcase his skill with music. After the success of the Boogie Nights soundtrack Anderson was inspired by Aimee Mann’s music during the writing of Magnolia and used 8 of her songs in the soundtrack, having several of her lyrics incorporated into dialogue and filming a music video sequence of the song ‘Wise Up’ where each character sings sections of the song. He also used an original score, which was epic in size and was used masterfully to build tension in climatic moments of the story. The film would go on to win the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival. In an interview after the film’s release, the confident Anderson was quoted as saying “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I’ll make pretty good movies the rest of my life… but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.”

In an interview with Film Four in 1998, Anderson commented on how the romantic comedy was being killed by bad filmmakers. He stated that for a long time he’s wanted to make a rom-com in the most traditional way but fuck it up in the most untraditional way. The best way to criticize a movie, Jean Luc Godard famously said, is to make another movie. Punch Drunk Love was born.

In my opinion, this is Anderson’s most complex film. It challenges the audience to consider many things happening within the frame. For example, the positioning of Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in each shot often cornered and trapped, especially at the beginning of the film. The color choices; blue representing protagonists Barry Egan’s life and red representing what Barry wants. And the meaning behind random events such as the car crash in the opening 5 minutes. In what is a masterful directorial move, Anderson sets up one of the most amazing car crash scenes ever filmed, but instead of having Barry’s character investigate what happened with the crash, he simply keeps the camera and story with Barry, making a choice to stay with this character and asking the audience to do the same. Anderson would win the Best Director prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. In a 2003 interview with The Times, Anderson states, “This one came from my stomach. It’s reference-less. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow – and I’m proud of that.

It’s worth mentioning Anderson’s directing skill in being able to get such an amazing performance out of someone like Adam Sandler. Famed critic Roger Ebert said in his review of Punch Drunk Love that “Given a director and screenplay that see’s through Sandler’s persona, it pushes Sandler to reveal depths and tones we may have suspected but couldn’t bring into focus.” While we’re on the subject let’s make one thing clear… If Adam Sandler is ever going to reinvent his career and distance himself from the shit sandwiches he keeps attaching his name to (See Jack and Jill, That’s My Boy, etc…) he needs to either a) Start actually reading the scripts he signs on for, or b) Watch Punch Drunk Love, Funny People and Reign Over Me on repeat for a weekend and realise what a truthful performance of his looks like. And for the love of God please stop doing that stupid annoying voice that makes you sound retarded and was funny maybe once? 

Five years would pass between Punch Drunk Love and Anderson’s next film There Will Be Blood. Based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, it tells the story of Daniel Plainview, an oilman on the ruthless quest for wealth in the oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Daniel Day-Lewis won every award under the sun for his portrayal of the lead character, including Best Actor at the 2007 Academy Awards.

The film encapsulates everything that is great about Anderson as a director; His ability to so skillfully direct a story (for the first 14 minutes of the film no dialogue is spoken, Anderson relies purely on action to set the story up for the audience). The amazing cinematography, thanks in part to longtime D.O.P collaborator Robert Elswit. The epic score (courtesy of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), again being used as a tool to set the rhythm of the film and to drive home emotional moments and climatic points. The brilliant casting; directing Daniel Day-Lewis to one of the greatest ever screen performances. And finally, something that I haven’t yet touched on and that is his skill as a writer; gifting his actors with such powerful dialogue and knowing exactly how to build tension and when to end those long scenes.

 There was another 5-year wait before the delivery of Anderson’s next and most recent film, The Master. Rumors of financing troubles due to the story’s loosely based Scientology themes, as well as casting issues (Jeremy Renner was originally slated to play Freddie Quell), initially thwarted the film’s production. The story of a World War II veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to adapt to a post-war society and his eventual meeting with a charismatic preacher (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September. The film took home top honors at the festival including a joint Best Actor Award for Phoenix and Hoffman and a Best Director Award for Anderson. The Master proved a hit with critics upon its release in October and was named Best Picture of 2012 by Sight & Sound, RollingStone, and The Village Voice among others. However, the film faltered at the box office, so far only making back half of its $30 million dollar budget.

For an audience, The Master is probably the least accessible film of Anderson’s due to there being no typical narrative progression or no clear character goals. What The Master does is ask something more from its audience, similar to what Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life asked in 2011 which was to let yourself escape from the cinema for 2-3 hours and be taken someplace higher than storytelling. While Malick’s Tree of Life was a study on life, faith, and existence, Anderson’s The Master is purely a character-driven study and one that couldn’t exist without the fascinating portrayals of such troubled characters. This really is a master class in acting and directing.

Paul Thomas Anderson is inspiring a younger generation of filmmakers like the Scorsese/Altman generation did for him. An auteur in the truest sense of the word, Anderson is now considered one of the greatest directors alive today. Lucky for us we won’t have to wait another 5 years for his next film, with talks of Inherent Vice set to start shooting in April. The film, adapted from the novel of the same name by author Thomas Pynchon, is about a drug-fueled P.I detective named Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello and a high profile kidnapping case he decides to investigate. Set during the Manson Family paranoia days of 1969 and with Joaquin Phoenix signed onto to play the lead, this is one film all cinephiles will be counting down the days for.

Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fight Club, and the Quest For Authenticity

An exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self

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As with any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, his ninth is a fountain of hot-takes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something for everybody with an opinion about just about anything. The film has touched off conversations about #MeToo, nostalgia, Christianity, and foot fetishism. In short, I fully understand that the last thing anybody needs is yet another angle on this movie. 

Nonetheless, I would like to propose that Tarantino’s latest is not only the sweetest, most optimistic film of his career, it’s also a rather profound exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self. By looking at this film’s use of doubling, and by contrasting it with how doubling functions in David Fincher’s Fight Club, I want to argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers unexpected wisdom about the possibility of finding authenticity in a world of artifice, even as it creates an artificial past.

The film is utterly unique in Tarantino’s catalog, lacking (until the ending) the gruesome violence that characterizes so many of his films. The specter of that violence still hangs over this film and adds a lot of juicy tension to scenes like Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch. One has come to expect carnage in scenes like this in the past, and Tarantino masterfully uses that expectation to create a scene that is a masterclass in suspense. 

Once Upon a Time‘s directorial craftsmanship is joined by absolutely stellar performances across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance as Rick Dalton is a complex web of rage, vulnerability, and desperation and should earn the actor an Oscar nomination if there is any justice. Likewise, Margot Robbie is simply dazzling as Sharon Tate and, like the film itself, she makes the viewer long for a world in which Tate survived Charles Manson’s impotent rage. 

It is Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, that I want to focus this analysis on, however. Pitt’s performance pairs nicely with DiCaprio’s and his characterization of Cliff is a kind of negative to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. For all Dalton’s frantic, nervous desperation, Pitt’s Cliff is a rock of bemused stoicism, and the two performances feed seamlessly off one another. So seamlessly that they function as two parts of a single whole, which is of primary concern to the film, I argue.

The doubling of Cliff and Rick offers substantial food for thought about the nature of identity in this film, and I want to suggest that Once Upon a Time says something important about personal redemption. Some viewers have dismissed Tarantino’s latest as mere wish-fulfillment, but others, such as David Bentley Hart, see a sincere moral imagination in the film’s re-imagination of the Manson tragedy, and its attempt at crafting an alternative narrative that redeems the broken past through art. Hart’s reading of the film seems right to me and I think that central to the film’s power is Rick Dalton’s process of reconciliation with himself. He struggles with being two people at once, the biological Rick Dalton, and the Hollywood creation “Rick Dalton.”

DiCaprio’s Dalton is an amalgam of an old-Hollywood system actor. He is part Clint Eastwood, part James Arness, and part John Wayne. He is meant to be taken as an archetype of an actor who is a product of a star-driven system. Whatever role Dalton was playing, he was, for his audience, “Rick Dalton,” and his strength was in delivering on the expectations that system created. The problem with that for Dalton is that he became a fictional version of himself in the process. His individual identity, as an artist and as a man, was lost, replaced with the product “Rick Dalton” that was crafted and sold by the entertainment industry. And as Hollywood began transitioning away from the system in which this was successful, Dalton experienced a profound identity crisis.

The forging of that artificial identity required the pairing of Rick with Cliff, his confidant, and stunt double. “Rick Dalton” could not very well be an action hero if he could not fall off a horse. However, to do so would eventually bear a heavy toll upon Rick Dalton. Cliff, the rugged stunt man, could bear the physical burdens that made the on-screen persona possible. 

The resulting partnership was a two-sided coin for Dalton. Sure it made the creation of “Rick Dalton” possible, but it stunted the human development of Rick Dalton, and in the midst of epochal changes in the industry threatened his very existence. Cliff made Rick look powerful on-screen, but off-screen, Dalton’s life became similarly dependent upon Cliff, who could not fix his own TV antenna or even drive his own car. To create the heroic, powerful “Rick Dalton,” Rick Dalton became nothing but a spider-web of powerlessness and anxiety. 

“Rick Dalton’s” power resided fully in Cliff’s preternaturally capable hands. He may or may not have killed his wife, but he is a master stuntman nonetheless, an expert driver, a skilled handyman, and he even beat Bruce Lee in a fight. This is all before his near single-handed massacre of the Manson family at the film’s climax. In short, the power he brings to the creation of “Rick Dalton” is dangerous, with a mystical violence lying just below the grinning, calm surface he presents. He is the id to Dalton’s superego and together, they form a precarious ego.

Here a comparison to Fight Club is in order.

David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel also dealt with a character split into two halves. The crafted persona of “The Narrator” (Edward Norton) comes to depend on the unbridled violence of his other half, Tyler Durden (performed by, coincidently or not, our own Brad Pitt). Durden is the id to The Narrator’s out-of-control superego, and he frees the depressed white-collar worker from the constraints put on him by consumer society, supposedly connecting him back to his state as a “natural man.” 

Like Rick Dalton, The Narrator lives a life curated for success in the machinery of his industry. The demands of this effort eventually replaces any authenticity his life might contain with a manicured performance. His is a kind of simulacrum rather than a man. 

Here is precisely where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood diverges from Fight Club, however, and the change helps make Tarantino’s film far more optimistic than Fincher’s. 

For Fight Club’s Narrator, Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a hammer used to destroy the carefully curated image. Trapped in a consumer nightmare existence, Norton’s character invents a psychic projection of himself that frees him from the shackles of his inauthentic lifestyle. What many viewers of the film miss, however, is that, despite the apparent ethical move toward authenticity, what this actually results in is a kind of fascist movement (today we might call the Fight Club an Alt-Right group) based on a mythology of the past. In short, The Narrator and Durden replace one form of inauthenticity with another. 

Once Upon a Time inverts the relationship between Pitt and his double. Here, the free and violent Cliff is not the solution to Rick’s problem of inauthenticity, he helps facilitate it in the first place. (One other major difference is, of course, that here Pitt’s character literally exists and is not a psychic manifestation of The Narrator’s subconscious). When, at the film’s end, Rick and Cliff amicably part, both are given the new opportunity to exist without dependency upon the other in this optimistic fantasy world in which Old Hollywood and New Hollywood come together without the violent fracture of the Manson murders.

The difference is significant. Because Cliff is not leading Rick from one artificial life to another, Rick is free from his codependency upon his stunt man and free to create a whole version of himself. 

And as it turns out, Rick is a good actor. In the film’s third act, while separated from Cliff, he blossoms in his craft. Hired by a director who breaks with practices of the system that created “Rick Dalton,” Rick is forced to act, not merely perform “Rick Dalton.” DiCaprio’s performance in these scenes are the moral centerpiece of the film and we see a transformation in Dalton. Freed of the constructed identity that created “Rick Dalton,” including his id, Cliff, he sheds the confines of the old system and metamorphoses into an actor that may one day star in Roman Polanski films of an imagined New Hollywood. 

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