Excerpt from 'Paul Thomas Anderson'

Paul Thomas Anderson

By George Toles


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-04036-8


Acknowledgments, xi,
Note to the Reader, xii,
Wise Up, 1,
The Sledgehammer of Eros in Punch-Drunk Love, 26,
The Trail of the Ellipsis in There Will Be Blood, 66,
Form and Formlessness in The Master, 111,
Notes, 179,
Filmography, 193,
Bibliography, 201,
Index, 205,


Words and Music: The Magnolia Crisis

Wise Up

"To take an interest in an object is to take an interest in one's experience of the object, so that to examine and defend my interest in these films is to examine and defend my interest in my own experience, in the moments and passages of my life I have spent with them. This in turn means for me defending the process of criticism, so far as criticism is thought of, as I think of it, as a natural extension of conversation."

— Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness

This book offers a considered, thematic and stylistic account of my viewing experiences of three films by Paul Thomas Anderson and their backgrounds — Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012). I also engage with related works of literature, philosophy, and the films to which Anderson's narratives owe some debt. My original plan for the study was to examine Anderson's entire career. After all, he has so far directed only seven feature films, the most recent an adaptation of Thomas Pynchons novel Inherent Vice (2014). The more time I spent in the company of his work (where he consistently functions as both screenwriter and director), however, the more I became persuaded that the three films I eventually settled on, for all their differences, were strikingly linked in ways that had not received much previous attention and that they shared unusual preoccupations. These numerous, complex linkages seemed to warrant treating them as a group, though I would hesitate to characterize them as a trilogy. Inherent Vice, a woozy, end of the sixties comedy of manners disguised as a detective film, laced with Pynchonesque paranoia and befuddlement, was released too late for inclusion in this book.

In an excellent essay on The Master, Geoffrey O'Brien begins by describing the territory that Anderson repeatedly explores in his narratives:

[The America] where we live ... [is] a country of deep loneliness — that same loneliness that permeates all of Anderson's films, and against which his characters are forever forcing themselves into protective families or parodies of families, a population of paternalistic strangers, adoptive sons, surrogate mothers, fake cousins. All his films ... have found their way to the heart of a peculiarly American disconnectedness. The freedom to be left alone turns into a desperate drift: a desperation measured, often, in hyperactivity and baroque elaboration, as if keeping frantically busy could stave off a lurking sense of emptiness. From the start his films seemed to need to prove themselves with every composition, every line of dialogue, every cut, every music cue. The aggressiveness of style was a declaration of ambition; intending to astonish, the filmmaker made himself so visible that he was one of the characters, another creature of compulsive energy looking for a way to manifest itself. (292)

O'Brien deftly captures the feel of Anderson's recurring landscape of disconnection. He goes on to speak of the expressionist treatment of milieu in the films, as though in each narrative there is an attempt both to acknowledge, naturalistically, the claims of material reality and at the same time "to reconfigure the real, to bring it into line with the most extravagant desire, and it is that [latter] attempt that magnifies to the utmost the sense that the world is not merely implausible, but fundamentally unbelievable" (295). O'Brien evokes the essential dynamic of Anderson's films and their mad dreamer's aspect. In diverse ways, each of them frames an appeal to the knowable world to manifest itself on more visionary terms — the terms of a deep desire that is impossible to articulate or satisfy.

Hard Eight (1996), Anderson's splendidly eccentric debut film, was premised on the magical appearance, out of nowhere, of a shrewd and honorable older benefactor who takes a lost young man in hand. The naive recipient of the surrogate father's largesse is moved in a trice from his "no-prospects" circumstances in the sticks to the imposing, garishly charged and disreputable wonderland of Vegas casinos. The benefactor, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) — though his own resources are limited — opens every door possible for his young acolyte. His casino version of Oz is a realm in which new connections are easily, breezily formed.

Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) are San Fernando Valley movies, imbued with urgent, crackling life. Anderson sought to make the valley (where he grew up) into a place of mythic consequence, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. If he were to approach the locale with an attitude of sufficient, affirming grandeur, the region could yield action on a scale appropriate to other myths of American self-making. Anderson's rendering of the valley is hyperbolically vivid, a place teeming with "characters" trying to find openings in their constricted situations and breaking out with incandescent gusto. Though their aspirations are, more often than not, touchingly small-time, Anderson fully honors their fantasies of renewal. Anything paltry can become large in the rendering, especially if the external world is depicted, intermittently, as an Expressionist fever chart of characters' gift for ardor. There is ample opportunity to meet likeminded dreamers on the social periphery, which in Anderson's valley films seems thick with mystery, exotic danger, and human flow.

It is my sense, however, that Magnolia marks a significant transition, taking Anderson to the end of one way of dramatizing possibilities, and gesturing — in the midst of an only half-recognized crisis — toward another. The millennial space carved out in Magnolia attests to Anderson's faith in a world where talk and group activity are plentiful and transformative. He pursues a vision of provisional community and reconciliation, though it is underwritten throughout by a relentless emphasis on estrangement and neediness. By the time of Punch-Drunk Love, which bears some canted relationship to romantic comedy, Anderson's created world has become sharply and fearfully diminished, and its population thinned out. His central male character, Barry Egan, is a pathological introvert, ill at ease with almost everyone he encounters, who has immense difficulty making himself understood — to others, to himself, and to the viewer — by means of language. The spaces Barry Egan occupies and moves through seem a curious mixture of impersonal strip mall topography and emanations of his baffled, tormented psyche. It is increasingly a challenge to determine where the cloistered self leaves off and its physical surroundings begin. The boundaries between mind and matter are porous, in a dreamy way, and the soundscape Anderson designs to supplement the surrealism of the images is a clangorous amplification of Barry's ferocious swarm of fears. There Will Be Blood and The Master repeat and further complicate this "estranged solitary" design, as though Anderson has become transfixed by the specter of damaged male souls in arrested development, living at remote distances from their buried needs. These three films seem to go into exile from any settled forms of social behavior, shifting into reverse and undoing the work of civilizing influences. We encounter outwardly grown men in uncomprehending struggle against some impasse: the residue of stunted childhoods. The visual environments where these men are first encountered — a grim corner of an office, a hole in the ground, an army landing craft in wartime — externalize this impasse. The business of childhood is indeed never finished for Anderson. The departure from traditional, readable narrative structure seems to be a necessary corollary for Anderson's deepening fascination with human unknowability. The forms of his films, like the landscapes they depict, are fitted to the haunted, withdrawn central male figure's dilemma.

This book offers little direct commentary on Anderson's life history or his frequently tempestuous conflicts with producers and studios. (A vivid picture of Anderson's predilection for high-stakes struggle and his abhorrence of compromise are portrayed in Sharon Waxman's Rebels of the Backlot. Waxman also strives to place Anderson in the context of his 1990s "independent filmmaker" generation. As is the case with most directors, however, his stronger, more important affiliations are with artists of an earlier period.) The biographical facts that interest me most are those having to do with his shadowy upbringing in his crowded, sister-dominated family — three siblings and four half-siblings. Paul's father, Ernie Anderson, had reasonably successful careers as a disk jockey, television and radio announcer, and voice-over artist. The looming presence throughout Paul's childhood of his father's authoritative voice — shape shifting and disembodied, a genial, hidden ghost in the machine — has noteworthy ramifications for the phantom father figures (benign or sinister) in Anderson's movies. Even more momentous, in my view, is Anderson's oppressive, apparently contentious and unresolved relationship with his mother, Edwina. In the multitude of interviews he has granted since the release of Boogie Nights, Anderson consistently deflects questions about his relationship with his mother. The possible reasons for this silence are worth pursuing, even in the absence of biographical particulars.

Many reviewers have noted the preoccupation with father-son relationships in Anderson's films and the emphasis on surrogate families with an absent, muted, or, in the case of Punch-Drunk Love, perfectly child-mirroring maternal presence. I would argue that the foreground conflict with father figures and male doubles in Anderson's later films is an elaborate screen for the far more complicated, perilous, irrational drama with the hidden mother. The first scene in Hard Eight reveals a young orphan who has rashly lost the $6,000 he requires to give his deceased mother a proper burial. The final image of The Master focuses on Freddie Quell curled up on the beach next to a prodigious, naked, female sand sculpture (a memory image) with an especially prominent breast. Frank Mackey's most closely guarded secret in Magnolia — one that his journalist interrogator, Gwenovier obliges him to confront — is that his mother is no longer living. Frank (Tom Cruise) terminates the interview in a furious, agitated state after Gwen (April Grace) asks him: "Frank, can you talk about your mother? ... Frank, can you?" One of Magnolia's many puzzles is Frank's reason for burying the fact of his mother's death, for which he bears no responsibility, and which poses no obvious threat to him.


Excerpted from Paul Thomas Anderson by George Toles. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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