Critic Vafa Motamedi dissects and appreciates the career of Paul Thomas Anderson
Auteurs are in short supply these days. With the gradual move towards a Blockbuster-centric culture in the past few decades, the making of a motion picture has turned into art by committee — the director merely a journeyman trying to bring a set of disparate elements together. There is nothing wrong with this inherently; many good films are produced in this manner. But, arguably, there is nothing quite like the clarity of vision that a single auteur provides.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one such auteur and is perhaps the greatest still working in English language filmmaking. He writes all the films he directs, possessing full creative control all of the way and is remarkable in both his longevity and his consistency. His near contemporary Tarantino has now fallen into self-parody, his once exhilarating iconoclasm giving way to a series of derivative self-indulgences.
The only other filmmakers who started in the 90’s and are still as good as ever are the Coen brothers, and even they had a lull during the early 00’s; while Anderson, as of yet, has never dropped the ball. Every one of his movies manages to balance the scales perfectly between being engaging and profound. With three of them: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood all hailed as modern classics.
What marks Anderson out from both his contemporaries and his forbearers is his ability to be chameleonic. Anderson doesn’t have ‘a style,’ as such. His style changes drastically depending on the nature of the story he is telling, the topics of which range greatly, from the porn industry to dope fiend detectives. Sometimes having too strong a voice can limit the storytelling, like a painter that only uses a couple of colours.
Futhermore. Anderson is director who is wears his influences on his sleeve yet never becomes a slave to them nor does waves them around pretentiously. Boogie Nights owes much to Goodfellas, with its long tracking shots and two act narrative. Magnolia resembles Nashville, with its interconnected stories. Whilst There Will Be Blood tips its hat to Kubrick with its clinical starkness and use of long silences. Yet these influences don’t overwhelm the movie. Like the movie brats before him, Anderson has absorbed the movies that he loved as a youth and uses them as a springboard to create something fresh and unique.
He has the ability to draw career best performances out of actors who are the best in the their field: Julianne Moore, Daniel Day Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix and of course the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is, after all the director that managed to squeeze an amazing performance from Adam Sandler, of all people. This probably has less to do with any actor-directing skill but more likely comes from the quality of both the characters he writes and the actors that he chooses to cast. Anderson said in an interview once that the only thing that scared him was ‘bad actors.’ The skill of directing actors then is not in herding them like cattle but in giving the best possible actors the best possible material. After that, it all falls into place.
He refuses to bow down to modern screenwriting convention, with its emphasis on rigid structural formula and paint by numbers storytelling. Think of the harmonium in Punch Drunk Love, a rich piece of symbolism that would be cut out in a screenwriting class for being too strange and superficially pointless.
When one looks at Boogie Nights, what is most astounding isn’t just its impeccable cinematic technique, nor its empathetic intelligence and blistering exuberant confidence. It’s the fact that it possesses all these things and was only Anderson’s second feature. Not bad for a film school dropout.
There Will Be Blood is clearly his crowning achievement. It is perhaps America’s crowning cinematic achievement of the last decade, a ferocious excavation of the American soul with its twin pillars of Big Business and Big Religion falling under the spotlight. It features Daniel Day Lewis’s greatest performance as Daniel Plainview, capitalism personified as a malicious scenery chewing monster. Plainview is as awe-inspiring as he is terrifying and has entered the pantheon of Great Movie Characters, alongside his spiritual cousins, Charles Foster Kane and Gordon Gekko.
Prior to Inherent Vice, The Master was perhaps the most coolly received of Anderson’s films, though there is still much to love. Aside from the Joaquin Phoenix’s jaw-dropping turn as the damaged Freddie Quell, the film’s most notable triumph is its thematic confrontation with the Church of Scientology, a religion that has exerted a strange grip over the filmmaking community. The audaciousness of tackling such a large and influential organization is something to be admired and The Master is a film that will be looked back on as another masterpiece in years to come.
And now Inherent Vice is further solidifying Anderson’s place as the great director of recent years. It may be a bold claim to make but in fifty years’ time when we talk of Welles, Ford, Scorsese and Kubrick, we will also talk of Anderson in the same hushed reverent manner.
By Vafa Motamedi