A while ago we wished a Happy Birthday to Natalie Portman. Today writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson turns 41 and we are going to take a look back over his brief yet illustrious career behind the camera which has put him amongst one of the finest filmmakers working today.
Growing up with a father who was infamous for his work in television and radio, it was no surprise that Anderson would go on to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry. Raised and still living in California, Paul’s father Ernie had a huge influence on his son’s creative upbringing, exposing him to movies and TV which, like so many filmmakers of his generation, became his film school. Also said to be his most profound influence is growing up in the San Fernando Valley and the seediness that he experienced while growing up through the 80s.
At the age of 17 he made his first film, a short called The Dirk Diggler Story. The film was a Spinal Tap style mockumentary which looked at the personal life of a failed porn actor Dirk Diggler. Of course, we later know that this character would mutate into Anderson’s first true break out hit. At 18 he enrolled at NYU film school, only to drop out after two days. There however he made another short Cigarettes and Coffee, which through the Sundance Lab he was able to adapt into his first feature, Sydney or as it became known, Hard Eight.
Despite a lukewarm reception both critically and financially, the film bookmarks the trademarks of Anderson’s directing style. Influenced by the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the rapid fire dialogue and the ever moving, ever watching eye of the camera were there from the beginning. Also present is Anderson’s close relationship he began to develop with actors, the two main stars of Hard Eight were Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly, both of whom went on to feature prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson pictures.
But the most significant relationships forged on this film was with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, the most frequent acting collaborator of Anderson’s, and with cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot all of his films. Despite the film not being wholly successful, it is well worth seeing for fans of the man’s work.
The film to really put the filmmaker on the map as a talent to watch out for was his first true breakout hit: Boogie Nights. Giving a starring role to a little known rap star called Mark Wahlberg, then known as Marky Mark, and having your film about the most taboo of Hollywood subjects: sex (particularly porn), it was almost destined to fail. The film boasted a scope of huge ambition, mounting a 155 minute satire of the 70’s porn industry with an all star cast which included Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, William H Macy, Hoffman, Hall and Reilly, and then burnt out Burt Reynolds, thrown into that censor baiting sexual imagery, it was just all so big it was ready to fall on its own sword.
But the reverse happened. While Anderson chooses to play everything incredibly broadly, especially the satire, the moments of quiet subtlety and a true core of degradation is what makes Boogie Nights the brilliant film it was claimed to be. It catapulted many of its actors to super stardom, putting Mark Wahlberg in the spotlight and giving kudos back to Burt Reynolds. The critics adored it, it made $45 million worldwide and through awards season it picked up an array of trophies including 3 Academy Award nominations including one for Anderson in the Best Original Screenplay category.
While Boogie Nights was considered an audacious, bold effort for such a fledgling, young filmmaker, the studios nor the critics could have been prepared for what he had in store for us next. Released in 1999, Magnolia is an epic, multi stranded narrative melodrama set against the backdrop of one evening in Los Angeles as the lives of several, seemingly disconnected people are brought together by pure coincidence. The film is truly Anderson’s compassionate reference to the work of Robert Altman, a loving tribute and perfect companion piece to Short Cuts, which follows a similar structure, only Magnolia gets the special Anderson twist.
Well over 3 hours in length, Magnolia whizzes by mainly due to a top draw cast and some clever, emotional editing. It is a film which knows exactly the right time to cut back to exactly the right character and continue with their story for the next 20 – 30 minutes before we move on again. The cast assembled is the among the finest, arguably the finest, ensemble in cinema history, featuring some barnstorming performances from actors you didn’t expect to have it in them. Particularly from Tom Cruise, whose work as the motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey will go down as his finest performance. It oozes with a creepy smugness and self satisfaction that Cruise had channelled for most of his career but fully let out of the cage to bring the character to life.
To this day it is probably Anderson’s most hotly debated film in towards what it all means. The ending with the plague of frogs would in the hands of another director just appear to be the work of a man who has creatively run out of ideas, but with Paul Thomas Anderson at the helm we are invited to look closer and deeper. This is a profoundly human and emotionally complex film that remains one of my true favourites. A gloriously heartfelt masterpiece that has a special place in my heart because of all the arguments I’ve had about it. Many will love it, many will hate it but it will endure. If you manage to get past the ‘Wise Up’ sequence then you’re with me.
No surprise for his next film that Anderson would attempt something a tad less unwieldy, however his accomplishment as a filmmaker is even greater. He makes Adam Sandler bearable. Punch-Drunk Love is an 85 minute, alternative romantic comedy which places at its center the near autistic Barry Egan, a toilet plunger salesman who falls in love with a girl called Lena played by Emily Watson. The film is an incredibly strange piece of work, with an extraordinary soundscape and real quirky (but never irritating) edge that make this a true original.
Sandler’s performance as Egan, a man so emotionally disturbed he destroys things to vent his anger, is brilliant. And I mean perfect. Anderson gets out all the leering, angry qualities that Sandler manufactured in his comedies and turns him into a ticking time bomb nearing the zero. Sandler emits both the charm and the chills at the same time in this most unconventional of romances. A film so weird that the most romantic thing anyone gets close to saying in the movie is: “You’re so pretty I want to smash your face in with a sledgehammer.” Who can’t love that?
We wouldn’t get another Paul Thomas Anderson film for 5 years after Punch-Drunk Love was released, but when audiences finally got a look at There Will Be Blood in 2007 it had been well worth the wait. A searing drama about the rise of oil baron Daniel Plainview in turn of the century California, played with fearsome, awesome power by famed method actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is Anderson’s most profoundly political work. You could see it as a parable about the tension between capitalism and religion, Plainview’s rise and success is pitted against the wiles of a young evangelical preacher called Eli Sunday, who battle for the power over the town of Little Boston.
You could also look at it more deeply as a story which concerns the sins of the father. Plainview has a young son, H.W. which he brought up after his real father dies in an accident. Plainview’s obsessive business mind prohibits him fully from being there for his son, instead he uses him as “a pretty face to buy land.” The underlying capitalist nature, to thrive and to make money stops him from being at heart a man of family. Or a viewer could choose to see it as a straight drama, there is still plenty to marvel in Robert Elswit‘s stunning, Oscar winning cinematography, the terrific score orchestrated and composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance is nothing less than staggering. He is Plainview.
Although There Will Be Blood garnered an impressive array of Oscar nominations and is widely considered one of the finest films of the last decade by many critics, Anderson’s best work could still well be ahead of him. Now in front of cameras is his mysterious Scientology parable The Master, the film will again see him work with Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays Lancaster Dodd, a man who returns from the war to set up a new faith organisation. Also on the horizon is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a 70’s based detective drama with Robert Downey Jr. circling the lead role.
So let’s once again salute a great filmmaker who could still have some of his most incendiary and bold work yet to come. Happy Birthday Paul Thomas Anderson!