The first half of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career is about striving for greatness through a focus on great subjects. The building of narratives out of cities of characters that he got from Altman, the playing with single and double dimensional characters from Demme, and the technical skills from Scorsese. Those movies, I love them, but they are a young man’s work. The second half of his career is different because his approach has scaled down to a handful of characters. Instead of cities, these are movies. It’s weird with some directors – PTA was cinematic from the start but when he began stripping away the elements and characters in Punch Drunk Love his films became movies.
His films are always about fathers and sons, and families. He’s also always had an interest on the fringes of American capitalism (gambling, “the rate card scam”, prostitution, pornography, game shows, inspirational speaking, pudding giveaways, phone sex lines, strongarm blackmail scams run out of a mattress store, oil, and now the birth pangs of Scientology). But so far the second half of his career is about a single character dealing on a very personal level with a small group of people – a family, usually. The family – in Punch Drunk Love it’s Barry Egan’s own, and in There Will Be Blood it’s both Daniel Plainview’s son and Eli Sunday’s family. The families are stable but dysfunctional, and they cannot easily handle the intrusion of chaos. The subjects these film tackle – religion and capitalism and family, of course. But there is a sense of bloody-minded retribution in these films, and a catharsis that just wasn’t there, and an exposed humanity that keeps the tackling of god, capitalism, family, and everything else from being a gesture or a pose.
The single characters, though. They’re what make these movies special. Walking into the frame as embodiments of chaos. The first three PTA films don’t have anything like Daniel Day Lewis or Adam Sandler or Joaquin Phoenix. There are elements of them in the earlier films, but there is a nakedness of emotion in those three actors that just wasn’t there. Those three actors – all of them having great ability but also all three being incredibly frustrating performers. All of them can be tedious. But the characters that Anderson writes for them, that they inhabit (and it should be clear by now that I am very excited and anticipating The Master coming out next week, even with the knowledge that getting excited is the quickest way to ensure I’m going to have a bad day next Friday), they inhabit a space where they can unleash something more than just the anger they have at their disposal. All of three of them have a well of it.
There is something missing from these characters, wires have been pulled. They are experiencing the world with the volume turned up, unable to check emotions, unable to leave the unease that permeates their being unvoiced on their faces. Their reactions are inappropriate to their situations, but not really, not on the level where we need movies to feel things on a larger canvas than real life. The adversarial relationships these characters develop are so rich (even as they at times feel a little one-sided because of the intensity at hand), and the images filmed so potent. They are really of these characters, their faces. What these characters do, why they are needed in these films, is to allow the unchecked into these situations. It is not an act of the inexplicable like in Magnolia, at the heart of these stories. It is the characters that are inexplicable, and therefore more real. These are not great performances of multi-dimensional characters, the kind that make you cry and feel what is being communicated. Instead there is a sense of the hand behind the story being removed. These people you are watching are both more and less real than real, and that creates an emotional space for you to relate to them in a way you don’t relate to characters in movies. There are lines, moments of performance from Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood that are tactile as memories for me, they aren’t just greatly written or greatly delivered lines from a movie I like. It’s the rare thing that happens, and it happens quite a lot in both of those films, in movies where you remember it the way you remember things that happened to you. That’s not what great moments in cinema are, they aren’t things you can only do in movies, they are moments of performance and writing and direction alchemized together to fake a memory you feel. Even in these movies, where those moments can be of the ugliest emotions and acts, that’s beautiful. And only happens in the movies.
Which, I guess is my way too long way of saying I’m really looking forward to The Master or something.
-Sean Witzke, September 2012