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My Love/Hate Relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson

Sam Corner will examine Paul Thomas Anderson as a director and writer. Exploring his change in views towards Anderson, from his most prominent critic to considering him to be one of the most importance filmmakers today.

BY Sam Corner

From his humble beginnings with his first feature film Hard Eight to his very recent Academy Award winning Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson has become one of the most popular and iconic filmmakers today. For myself, I’ve never been totally convinced by the certain themes and ways of filmmaking that Anderson exerts into his work. However as of recently my eyes have been opened to Anderson’s filmography in a more inspirational and intriguing light.

“What's strange is that I went from not really liking his films at all to now actually seeing them from what they really are, insightful, funny and ultimately very clever.”

Very recently I finally got round to finishing off watching the last of the films I hadn’t seen that were written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. What’s strange is that I went from not really liking his films at all to now actually seeing them from what they really are, insightful, funny and ultimately very clever. It all started in 2014 when I had a Joaquin Phoenix phase, where I began watching all of his films including the new one he was featured in that year, PTA’s Inherent Vice. I enjoyed the shot composition, the comedy and Phoenix’s character of Doc, but the film in the end was a disappointment. The writing was messy and hard to follow, it felt too long and I think maybe in the end it wasn’t my kind of thing. At that point I wasn’t really enthusiastic about watching PTA’s films, with watching The Master next, also featuring Phoenix, I enjoyed it more but again felt it was too long. Yet just this year, I gave Best Picture nominee Phantom Thread a go, PTA’s next film after Inherent Vice. And I loved it. So, I decided to give Anderson another chance. I watched all his films and whilst some are a little less good than others (I’m still not convinced by Vice) I ended up really appreciating Anderson’s work in the long run. And here’s why.

It’s important to mention that Anderson is considered a filmmaker of the ‘video store generation.’ What this basically means is that a director who began their career with possibly working in a video store, Quentin Tarantino being a specific example, or just being inspired by the VHS excitement during the 90’s primarily. For Anderson, he is considered one of the first video store filmmakers, with his family being one of the first on his block when he was younger owning a V.C.R player. He then went on to do something very different to many filmmakers at the time, shooting films on video and editing them from V.C.R. to V.C.R. This helped shaped his style, his ‘auteur’ if you will.

Most of his films touch on an aspect of film and narrative I really like. Similar to what many auteur filmmakers do in their films, the theme of father and son relationships come into play in Anderson’s films. My favourite film by Anderson, There Will Be Blood, features Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview as a man seeking wealth and prosperity from the oil business in America. Adopting orphan HW as his son, he uses him to present himself as a family man and to gain the consideration of his peers and those below him. Plainview is a not a nice guy at all but what I felt was most compelling about his character was his relationship with his son, he used him for his own gain yet somewhere down the line I felt as though Plainview really cared for HW and had a lot of love for him, even despite their sad closing scenes together. It’s what makes Plainview such a complex and jaw-dropping character, with Day-Lewis pulling off a captivating performance. Don’t drink his milkshake!

PTA demonstrates this idea of father and son in Magnolia as well, between Tom Cruise’s Frank and Jason Robards’ Earl Partridge. A dark and emotional relationship which the subverting narrative of the film constructs with tension and tear jerking drama. And among Magnolia’s other characters the father/son or even daughter dynamic crops up between other characters too. Hard Eight, Anderson’s first film, looks at a relationship between John C. Reilly’s John and Phillip Baker Hall’s Sydney. After Sydney murder’s John’s father, he feels a debt is owed to John, so brings him on as his protege, and finds him a wife in Gwyneth Paltrow’s Clementine. Yet while it is consideration for John, it also is a selfish deed to redeem Sydney in some way, to give back to someone he did something awful to. In Boogie Nights Mark Whalberg’s Eddie has such a touching relationship as a surrogate son to Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner, it goes in and out of control for the pair of them. When Eddie goes off the rails and leaves the control of Jack, his inner control becomes a cause for concern as he has no father figure anymore to turn to in his time of need. He needs the control that made him who he was back.

Yet it’s not all about family, it’s also about discovering purpose in life. Freddie in The Master finds purpose in the Cause, after finding no purpose after returning from war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s the Cause that brings him back to life and he returns to his old life before the war because of it, chasing his own destiny and becoming his own master. In Phantom Thread Reynolds has purpose in life with his career but seeks love after the death of his mother and the rivalry in the relationship with his sister. That’s where his relationship with Alma comes in, a turbulent yet also quite intriguing one. Then, love is found once again in Anderson’s probably most lesser known movie, Punch-Drunk Love, featuring a remarkably good performance from Adam Sandler of all people. He plays Barry, a lonely and mentally distressed man who discovers Lena, a woman who loves him for him, and finds purpose with her despite the distress and issues with a hostile sex line company in his life.

In the end I think there is a lot to take out of the works of PTA. Sometimes his films are a little too long, a little too crammed, and sometimes go off on a tangent. But there is always something to love from them. I urge you all to at least watch one of his films. Even with Inherent Vice and Hard Eight that are my two least favourite I still find them incredibly interesting whether that comes from his superb direction or his thoughtful writing. In the end it proves that you really should give a director and his films a chance. Or a chance with anything in general.