After a decade or so building up his reputation as the heir to the throne of Kubrick, Scorsese, or Altman (depending on one’s critical proclivities, or the specific scene one is viewing), writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s edifice has since lightly toppled, or at least begun teetering. He has thus far spent the 2010s in a mild critical comedown. But, perhaps having attained the mount, he’s also fallen a dizzying, wholly edifying route, pirouetting with grace and exploratory abandon by virtue of his will to test his own mettle rather than rest on recapitulating past glories, often one’s borrowed rather than conjured on his own. Only in the 2010s has Anderson finally cultivated his own genuinely contradictory style, and folded in the parallel and perpendicular tendencies of his forebears, say jittery Scorseseian nerviness, soft and humanistic Altmanesque woundedness, and calculating Kubrickian brutality, in intoxicatingly heterodox ways.
With his two films of the decade preceding The Phantom Thread, he both deliberately plays up his inscrutably high-brow and his incredulously low-brow tendencies, often thinning the membrane between the two until the safety of assured boundary is nonexistent. First up was The Master, his highly elliptical, self-consciously masterful analysis of mid-century loss galvanized in two human figures whose relationship is liminally slotted between father-son, not-quite-lovers, master-servant, and allegorical two-sided-Janus-head. After Anderson spent five years on this follow-up to his rapturously adored There Will Be Blood, audiences were certainly expecting (hoping for?) something less willfully alienating. But what they got was an atomic-age potboiler and a grandiloquent melodrama walking into a bar, both flattened under the all-seeing eye of searing 70mm art-house muscle.
The Master may seem a little too capital-A artistic for its own good, but beneath the film’s beauty lies a subterranean labyrinth of lost American dreams, haunted ambition, and aimless humanity just searching for an exit. It’s the first of Anderson’s films to truly wander with errancy, to move with the fascinatingly irregular, haphazard sense of its characters hesitant, staggered attempts at human connection and belonging. The first of his films to speak with his characters rather than for them. The first not to calculate its self-consciously limber camera glides with a stuffy, overly-manicured perfectionism and over-determined striving for greatness. It’s the first of his films to harbor a subcutaneous element, to expose the push-pull between explicit social revelation and private intimation, the first of his films aware of the opacity its characters carry and cultivate in their attempts to preserve their individuality apart from society even as they search for a facsimile of family amidst mid-century American disenchantment.
And if The Master was itself met with mild indifference if not scorn by critics and audiences, its follow-up Inherent Vice was never going to serve as a consolation prize. The shaggiest damn thing in a filmography that increasingly seems defined by its refusal to have someone inspect and organize its closet, it stands totally apart from the empirically-refined, eminently-sculpted There Will Be Blood. After nearly two decades attempting to latch onto aspects of Robert Altman’s career, it singularly evokes a scruffily welcome return to Altman’s loopy rough edges and drugged-out negative energy. A psychotropic take on Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Vice’s spiraling script wafts out into the ether, indulging its errant tangents and mocking the calculated order lurking beneath detective-cinema disorder, whilst inverting the Altman formula of dropping an untamed world onto buttoned-up characters. Instead, Inherent Vice unearths vexation by blinding its lost-in-the-marshes-of-marijuana protagonist with the tight-lipped forward pull of a noir. I harbor no loss of love for Magnolia and Anderson’s other films which evoke Altman’s roving, searching camera or his seemingly-directionless-but-actually-anti-directional sound mix or his polychromatic, village-voiced narratives. But Inherent Vice alone not only mimics but advances Altman’s singularly wooly, disorganized haze of tangled, bent-in-every-direction uncertainty, of characters whose fumbling humanity offers only minimal recourse for handling the knotty, diffuse drama of life.
I’ve already reviewed those two films though, and because Phantom Thread, which I haven’t seen yet, finds Daniel Day-Lewis returning to Anderson’s holding company, it seems like as good a time as any to review his earlier, and to my mind less beguiling, features, to chart (or finish charting) his path to his most famous film, his first collaboration with Day-Lewis, a path which by my measure is much more wandering and heterogeneous than I initially expected.
(As an aside, I’ve already reviewed two of Anderson’s earliest films and won’t be revisiting them here in more than an indirect capacity. I will say, though, that his first film, Hard Eight, is also his tightest morality play, not his best but somewhere between his most natural and least conspicuously over-managed – if read positively – and most anonymous – if read negatively. Magnolia, its polar opposite, was not only his third film but the apex of his Altman-mode and undeniably Anderson’s “most” film. Only released four years after that debut, it remains the fruit of a lifetime of film watching, but sometimes struggles to complete its passes outside of mere glass-tipping or cinematic spectatorship, to use or analyze rather than simply honor its forebears. It’s still a real kicker of a film though, weaving toward Anderson’s contradictory impulses with dexterity and forethought. On one hand, it showcases his adolescent fervor and compulsion to reach for everything around him, and many things well away from him, and swirl them into a bellicose kaleidoscope of untapped visual and aural energy. On the other, it suggests, although in nascent form, his dying-man’s wisdom, his foresight to hold-tight on a scene – even as he paradoxically rushes around to try on alternating tones and moods – to consider all possible thematic valences of a moment for fear that its life will soon slip away from him.)
Anyway, onto the feature presentation.
Heir apparent to the artistic fortune of Robert Altman, Boogie Nights peppers Altman’s infamously shambolic collages of American entropy with an antic, screwball buoyancy bordering on genuine effervescence. And collective empathy. Although budding porn-star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is the supposed centerpiece of the equation, Anderson’s polychromatic quilt-work expands to include many characters, exploring a constellation of rhyming souls often clashing with one another like excitable electrons. His film is significantly more expansive than a tried-and-true but myopic vision of hermetic individualism in threat. Rather than a simple but earnest tale of one man, Diggler, falling prey to the depravity around him, sacrificing his all-American individuality at the hands of a collective of swarming ne’er-do-wells, Anderson puts numerous figures in contest and conversation with one another, all under the temporary purview of pornography media mogul Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), and all of whom surrender to temptation and vice in the name of belonging, ultimately accepting proximity for family. But it’s never nihilistic or brutal about it. Essentially the story of the rise and fall of the various bees buzzing around Horner, Diggler included, Boogie Nights is truly compassionate for the community these outsiders establish for themselves. Perhaps it reveals that proximity, more often than not, really is just family without the glorified cloak of biology the latter uses to sanctify itself.
Compared to another turn-of-the-century director barking at the door of high-class mainstream cinema for adults, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson weaves not overly-precise lattice-works but mangled, gloriously disreputable cockamamie creation, a collage of human camaraderie tested by the very foolhardy schemes which bring them together in the first place. Anderson, as he would advance in his next project Magnolia, conjures a genuinely affectionate but droll and farcical lift out of this portrait of America as a mélange of competing interests and democratic notions lost together in an absurd, self-inflicted centrifuge spinning them around and around within their own risible energy. Especially in the near-fanatically excited first half of the film, which wrings glorious, absurd joy from the unsavory elan of participation in possibility, following its characters’ palpable coke, porn, and family high in lock-step and never letting go for a moment.
In this first half, Anderson invokes a mood of perpetual potentiality, enlivening his film with the constant refreshment of ballooning with nothing to break its windfall. Anderson’s style is almost megalomaniacal, his giddy surrender to the material knowing no bounds. He submits to – and submits us to – and deliciously garish cinematic portmanteau that attempts to encompass and refract so many often contradictory strands of life that it pulls apart any semblance of center or boundary with its own overabundant, flamboyant energy. He clearly gets a rise out of the unwholesome, sleazily-stirring melodrama of the film dedicated to these American dreamers, loners, jesters, and hangers-on, and his endearing treatment of the characters, each and all, never sublimates them to mere machinations of plot. Superficial in its treatment though it can sometimes be, Boogie Nights always derives its drama from its characters, never simply abstracting and stringing up a moral quandary and then hanging his characters up to dry on that rope.
Decomposition sets in quickly though – maybe too quickly, or too programmatically – as the tipping point comes to call at the turn of the ‘80s, when Horner’s get-rich-quick scheme – his little slice of American possibility – runs headway into American negligence and emptiness. Anderson’s lecherously leaping camera, positively dripping with panting desire in the early goings, suddenly turns morbid, pressing too fast on the action, penetrating the characters’ comfort zones and personal spaces as their spectrums of possibility become rapidly limited, wrapped up in a need for immediate satisfaction and fix. (It’s not unlike a whole hour of the celebrated anxiety-and-drug cocktail “May 11, 1980” from Goodfellas). Horner’s straining for disorganized order – a unique breed of manicured business, a capitalist enterprise very much in the American tradition masquerading as social upheaval of that very tradition – unfetter into pandemonium at the turn of the ‘80s as the rise of video-tape destabilizes the prospect of professional pornography. This tonal sever in the film is a stellar coup for Anderson, if supremely obvious, the same over-excited visual and aural techniques evoking effervescence in the first half conjuring reckless aimlessness and obsession in the back-half, even if the whole bifurcated structure of the film is too calculated for its own good to serve as a calling card for Anderson.
Still, despite too obviously front-loading his film with juiciness only so he can then feed us the withdrawal symptoms, Anderson doesn’t relegate his baser itches for show-boating and grand-standing to mere tease or joke on the audience; this is a genuine display of cinematic bravura with an appreciation, of sorts, for the craft and consideration of “proper” movies, pornography though they may be. Admittedly, Anderson’s affection for the old ways conjures a certain anxiety about the limits of Anderson valorizing professional art at the expense of the DIY video techniques of the ‘80s. While the price of film stock and the necessity of distribution in public theaters welcomes Horner’s monopolizing tendencies, video-tape and home media players allow anyone in on the deal. Video, basically, is a more “truly” democratic alternative to Horner’s representative-republican “professional” business – to fill-in the “art” as mimetic for “America” allegory implicit in the film.
Anderson ultimately comes down extremely pro-celluloid at the level of form as well as narrative; there’s a classicist appreciation of genuine craft that somewhat uneasily suggests letting anyone in on the game inclines toward eventual artlessness. Just try to read the antiseptic, invasive second-half once videotape enters the game any other way. No wonder Anderson guy seeks refuge in the New Hollywood stalwarts, most of them stamped out not necessarily because of video but in a time period which video presided over. But if he finds comfort in the classics, Anderson does not treat them as safe harbor so much as he dissects them with his own modernistic twinges, his own understanding of the havoc the video revolution caused in the late ‘80s when directors like Steven Soderbergh explored the possibilities of the medium for improvisatory, interrogative, spasmodically personal art after celluloid itself become a haven for corporate blockbuster filmmaking. Somewhat elegantly, Boogie Nights tries to combine both trends, and the resultant film is both calculated and carefree, classical and of-the-moment, traditionally mounted but modernistically self-aware.
Although many-hued and often kaleidoscopic in its spirited refusal to cement its style or sublimate everything to theme, Anderson’s film isn’t perfect. Frankly, Anderson’s youth – also so central to the film’s successes – also wears. His first major production is much too boldface, much too obviously overelaborate and vertiginous, for its own good, a problem that would take about 15 years for Anderson to stamp-out. If the obvious template here is an Altmanesque anti-fantasia, an egg-beaten narrative about an assorted motley crew of diverse-but-shared interests and alternate-but-similar milieus, then the Kubrickian italics on every scene feel more showy than purposeful. If Altman’s films were sketches, Boogie Nights is a full, fully-augmented portrait, and the latter is not inherently an improvement on the former. Filling in the lines sometimes merely satisfies the need for fulfillment without nourishing the value of indecision or impurity. These are minor quibbles though. Beneath the youthful braggadocio and show-boating camera heroics positively thrumming with post-Tarantino slicked-back cool lies a more genuine empath, a compassionate soul with an eye for drifting, aimless people running around in concentric circles crashing into each other in oblong, fleeting ways. As a picture of people in search for alternative family, plunging into whatever form human contact happens to take around them, Anderson not only guzzles images of glamour but locates the glint of a faintly-beating, way-too-coked-out heart underneath.