Baumann and Burch Conversations, #2: Paul Thomas Anderson

In the following talk, Tim and Matt think about the career of Paul Thomas Anderson, his movies, Phantom Thread in particular, and where he sits at what is probably the midpoint of his career. In lieu of an actual podcast, we give you this lightly edited conversation. You can find Matt’s work here.

Tim: After the uh, totally unqualified success of our talk about perfection, we’ve decided to try out a new topic which is significantly smaller in scope.

Matt: Not as much smaller as one might think, honestly. Certainly less ephemeral.

T: Definitely more empirical. As in, “Paul Thomas Anderson exists in most senses of the word ‘exist,’ and he has directed movies.”

My first thought was for us to start with Phantom Thread, which since we saw it has come up with six Oscar nominations more or less out of nowhere.

M: Yeah! I didn’t expect it to do that. To be fair, I think the nominations caught most people off guard.

T: Without getting off track immediately, this is probably the most exciting and unpredictable Oscar night in something like fifteen years. Partially because Phantom Thread, which had all this cred as soon as it was announced Anderson and Day-Lewis would work together, went from 0 to 60.

M: I’m still going to be disappointed at the winners, I can feel it.

T: I haven’t seen Three Billboards or Shape of Water, mostly because all I’ve heard about the former is that it’s smug and the latter…I saw the trailers, and trailers aren’t everything, but like, I felt like the only thing that was different from a thousand other movies in this same “Lookit the powerful do bad things, aw shucks,” was “fish sex,” and let’s face it, that’s not in my top five of weird things that happened in this part years of movies.

M: I can only think of those two as “Not In Bruges” and “Fish Sex” now. And they’re going to win most categories instead of stuff like Phantom Thread or Get Out or Lady Bird – or, and this is my big dream this year, Logan in Adapted Screenplay.

Phantom Thread though (unless you wish to continue down this tangent), why do we like that Phantom Thread is getting this type of recognition?

T: It’s funny, really, because I’m not sure I like, loved the movie. There are Anderson elements, like the wild tracking shots, which are still here and which will always symbolize for me some of his technical brilliance. I think one of the reasons I’m interested in this movie in particular is that it really feels like the first time that the main character of a PTA movie is a woman, and more than that a woman who does not want or think or feel like so many leading women do in movies made by men. (That was a lot.) And I don’t want to make it sound like I’m into Phantom Thread because it’s like, symbolic or something, because one of the trends in film criticism I hate is this need to make everything “relevant,” but I think it’s at the very least an interesting decision for this really male-focused filmmaker to hand the keys over to a woman who’s not Julianne Moore. (This is still a lot.)

M: God I love those tracking shots. AND to hand over the keys in a movie with Daniel Day Lewis. Vicky Krieps should be nominated for lead actress, I think, and that she takes over the movie still impresses me. What you’re saying fits with one of the themes too, the acquiescence to others that becomes this weird, maybe perverted, heart of the film. I sort of ran over the relevance point, but to me Phantom Thread is a delightfully uncomfortable experience that isn’t Anderson’s best but feels completely him at the same time.

T: Seriously, screw “this movie is relevant,” because every movie is relevant to its time and place. That’s code for “This movie speaks to my center-left education in obvious, graspable ways.”

What’s unusual for me watching Phantom Thread is seeing how the percentage of close-ups he’s using went up in this movie. I think back to There Will Be Blood or even something more recent, like The Master or Inherent Vice, and he’s definitely spending more time with personal subjects rather than total settings. That’s part of the reason this is an Alma/Krieps movie in terms of acting, because we are left with just her more often than I think we would have been ten years ago.

M: I think back to Boogie Nights, which I rewatched recently, and relies way more on close-ups than I remembered. The camera just lingers on people and lets faces do the narrative work. Phantom Thread felt like a return to that but with Krieps and Lewis instead of Mark Wahlberg. Which makes your point too, it’s she who does the heavy lifting.

T: It’s a very PTA thing, but one thing I think makes Phantom Thread different is that the camera moves less on people – there’s less in and out movement, and there’s just more stillness. There’s a sense that gives us that we’re observing, which jeez, that does not sum up my experience with Boogie Nights or Magnolia at all. And it’s a movie which is very concerned about observation just as a general thematic element, and it’s also interested in observing this woman who wields the deeply sexual power of changing a man who, if he had a laugh track, would be Sheldon-esque in his inability to change. And Krieps uses this limited range of facial expressions to do it! Really, I think she stays within a quadrant of the facial expression unit circle for the vast majority of the movie.

M: It’s funny, because Woodcock verges on manic-depressive but is all surface and Alma stays, as you say, in a fairly small range but feels more like an iceberg. Maybe she’s not and I just read the film that way – that she stays when I keep expecting her to leave speaks to motivations I didn’t see and why I read her that way.

T: The movie wants us to think of her as childishly stubborn at first, I think. Right? The part where Alma contradicts Reynolds in the most oppositional but simplistic form possible, just turning his sentences and beginning them with “Maybe I want the thing you’re telling me not to.” And that’s what makes the mushroom poisoning bit so surprising: it has an originality which I don’t know that I’d credited her with. I’m sure there’s other media out there which uses this particular idea, but the way the movie clubs us with it when we were starting to get the hang of everyone is really special.

I also want you to know that I’m searching “mushrooms and sex” on Google to see if there’s some aphrodisiac connection I haven’t made, and first of all I’m not sure I’m missing anything, and second of all I am really regretting this search.

M: You’re going to get all kinds of weird “fungus” related results.

T: The first several results are all for drugs, yeah. I honestly didn’t see that coming.

M: We do these things so you don’t have to, folks.

I think what you said before the mushroom search is what sticks with me most about the movie. The false endings and narrative tricks aren’t novel or even surprising every time, but the characters keep surprising me nonetheless. I totally thought Alma was going to let him die even though my brain registered there was more movie left. I loved being in suspense on matters of character rather than plot.

T: Them’s the dreams. I do want to come back to this idea later of how Anderson movies end, because that’s a criticism I think I have but which I don’t want to deal with at the moment.

Something we’re both on the same page about, and which we’re focusing on at present, has to do with Krieps’ performance (and of course Day-Lewis’ and Manville’s and so on) and how Anderson seems to have this rare magic touch with actors that one doesn’t usually associate with directors with his technical bona fides. Do you want to lead with something here?

M: I think you’re expecting me to lead with Sandler.

T: This is sort of your inside track, I’d say.

M: Anderson knows how to set performers up in ways that no one else can, apparently. He takes people with incredibly specific lanes (Sandler) or no lane at all (Wahlberg) – there are more, but for the sake of this comment staying short – and sets them up to thrive and even, in Sandler’s case, become the beating heart of a movie. He just seems to have an innate touch with how his actors/actresses can succeed. He saw that, beneath the juvenile and/or deconstructive humor of Sandler was a deeply sympathetic sad-sack who people might identify with in powerful ways. His struggles with family, work, and the deflationary everyday are struggles all of us have and Sandler, perhaps because of the humor he uses as catharsis or distraction, embodied that perfectly.

T: To me there are two categories of Anderson actor. You have people like Sandler or Tom Cruise in Magnolia who show up in just the one PTA movie and have one of their best performances, typically in some role which subverts or messes with a star image. And then you have this repertory cast that he seems able to return to over and over again.

This is going to be sort of an internal monologue thing, but one of the things I’ve been bouncing around a lot is this idea of a repertory and how that might be able to streamline a movie, or alternately streamline an audience’s viewing of that movie. John Ford and his constant use and reuse of John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., Ward Bond, and about fifteen other people comes to mind. And Mike Leigh, who seems to use some combination of Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, and Timothy Spall no matter what he’s doing. Orson Welles had his Mercury Theatre types. And especially Ingmar Bergman, who has (counts quickly) eight or nine people he uses in virtually everything. In the future I wonder how losing Philip Seymour Hoffman will affect that sensibility, given that Hoffman was in five of his movies and, forgive me, Daniel Day-Lewis, is still the person I most associate with being on screen for PTA.

M: I go to Hoffman first, which might not change if PTA is actually done acting. I hasten to add, as I often do, Wes Anderson with Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, etc. (aside: I have a Wes Anderson movie on in the background while doing this and my life feels complete in many ways)

Speaking of Hoffman, if I may…

T: He’s going on a slow boat to China in the sky.

M: I still can’t convince myself he died. Anyway, I think of him in Boogie Nights, when he wasn’t yet a PTA standby and played a role that still feels out of his normal. I guess I’m saying he occupied both roles you mentioned. Him as Scotty, a, like, C-level part that he just owns, always stands out in my head even though he had bigger and better performances in PTA movies.

T: That’s his third-best PTA for me, which hurts to say because it’s so perfect. He’s so funny and sad in that role, and like, no one else could have done that. To say nothing of the fact that if you’re going to have a movie about stardom, you’d better have fans, and somewhere Richard Dyer is really tickled by how perfectly Scotty does many of the things that ‘40s fangirls were doing in reference to Bette Davis or Deanna Durbin or whoever else.

M: The scene of his failed advance on Dirk still gets to me. Him crying in the car feels real and vital in ways that many scenes angling for similar pathos just don’t hit me. Which I think also goes back to the point we made about lingering cameras – the shot lasts too long but couldn’t be any shorter.

I’ve gone into left field. Who you got as most important to PTA’s oeuvre?

T: As an actor?

M: Sorry, I meant to finish the repertory idea.

T: Out of his people he uses frequently I have a soft spot for Kevin J. O’Connor and David Warshofsky, I think. Not like either one of them is stupendously important to his movies, but they are exactly the kind of glue you think of when you imagine being able to call on a few actors to work for you over and over again.

M: Can I add Philip Baker Hall?

T: Yeah, definitely him.

M: “I like butter in my ass and a lollipop in my mouth” is just so…something…and he delivers it with gusto.

T: Hall is retired by now, right? I just checked and he’s 86.

M: He’s IMDB suggests he’s still going, and pretty strongly.(!)

T: That’s promising. One three-named Philip must live on.

Have we reached a point where we start thinking about where his movies sit in relation to each other?

I have to admit I’ve never seen Hard Eight, so that’s…what, 12.5% of his oeuvre I’ve not seen.

M: I haven’t seen it either, though I’m familiar with the premise [narrator: that’s not the same]  I assume we also aren’t considering Junun?

T: I was going to leave that alone too. Leaving us to narrative fiction.

M: Cool. So shall we just tier the non-Hard Eight movies?

T: We’ve talked about this before, very briefly, but the way I see it I’ve got four tiers for seven movies. There’s the “One of the 100, 150 greatest movies ever made” tier, the “This is really exceptional work which is in the top 100, 150 greatest American movies ever made” tier, the “This is good enough to be one of the top 50 movies of the decade by the time all’s said and done” tier, and the “This is very strong but seriously erratic” tier. Gosh do I wish I had come up with catchier names.

M: I’m gonna go with tiers 1, 2, 3, and 4 with the caveat that I still like all of his movies.

T: Compact. I like it.

M: And numerical. Shooting to expand our S.T.E.M. audience.

T: They definitely should not read the mean things I said in my Killing of a Sacred Deer review.

Anyway, my Tier 1 is There Will Be Blood, Tier 2 is Boogie Nights and The Master, Tier 3 is Phantom Thread and Punch-Drunk Love, and Tier 4 is Magnolia. You?

M: Basically the same, honestly. The trouble I have is whether or not to add a fifth tier to give Punch-Drunk Love its own space, because I think that movie is so good but I can’t say it’s The Master or Boogie Nights.

T: Real quick…while I was doing some research, I found out that Anderson is the only person to win Best Director at the three big film festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin). Can you guess which three movies he won those prizes for?

M: Huh. Let’s go one at a time so I can be only slightly wrong. There Will Be Blood?

T: That’s Berlin.

M: Why is this so hard? Umm…Magnolia?

T: It’s really not the movies I would have guessed. They liked Magnolia at Berlin but he didn’t win Best Director.

M: Argh! I’m hoping there was a segue and Punch-Drunk won something.

T: At Cannes. Seriously.

M: Three cheers for jungle pig! Is Boogie Nights the other?

T: Nope. You were typing The Master, though, so I’ll give you half a point.

M: Sweet.

T: It’s one of those trivia facts that says as much about the era the director works in as it does something about talent, but I’m just tickled by this one. Anyway. I think you get to open serve on Punch-Drunk Love, which we have somehow decided is your movie.

M: By the way, Inherent Vice is Magnolia tier. I have a fondness for the former, but it’s a prickly movie.

T: The fact that I literally forgot to type it should tell you I feel the same. Oof!

M: Punch-Drunk Love is so not the two Anderson movies before it, and I’m happy about that. It’s really the first time he decided something other than an ensemble mosaic narrative would be good and, as everyone can probably guess from my waxing above, I feel connected to Punch-Drunk in ways beyond his other movies. I also find something to hold on to, but never quite as much. It also speaks to the thing I might like most about Anderson, which is that he seems to genuinely love his characters, sad and broken and damaged as they are. That said, there are people like Daniel Plainview who Anderson is diagnosing as a problem in his now 7 film long foray into the rot of American capitalism, but we more often get characters like Barry and Scotty and Freddie who are, well victims to put it bluntly and earn some level of sympathy. Punch-Drunk, to me, has also been the most fascinating foray into that running theme. Did I go bleeding-heart enough?

T: You know, I don’t usually think about Anderson as a person who is particularly working with victimization, but I think that’s definitely a concern of his in the first half of his oeuvre. Magnolia in particular feels like it’s just absolutely filled past the brim with people who have been done wrong. And Punch-Drunk Love has that as well.

M: I’d say it’s in all of them. Certainly to different degrees and more-so the first half of his career, but he’s always interested in how systems breed monsters and/or wreck individuals and communities.

T: That’s probably how I would phrase it generally. I think there’s also something moving about his very contemporary setting for Punch-Drunk Love, which is an outlier, really, among most of his movies. It’s easier to look at Daniel Plainview and say “Ah, yes, the years just before/around the Progressive Era encouraged the growth of barons” and much harder to look at Barry and say, “Ah, yes, the entrepreneur hustling constantly for some kind of meaning in an early Internet, early-post 9/11 world is a sad figure.”

M: And also pudding. When might the point be when we’re enough removed to see Punch-Drunk Love as a great period as well as character study? Which is to say, you make a good point.

T: Boogie Nights was a great period piece twenty years after the fact…let’s say another five years for Punch-Drunk. Isn’t that funny?

M: This may or may not be semi-related to where my dissertation is heading…

T: Period pieces are good. (I know that’s not what you mean.) I do want to note why I think Phantom Thread and Punch-Drunk Love are similar beyond the fact that I’ve put them in the same tier, and I think that has to do with the similarities between Emily Watson and Vicky Krieps. Neither one is this traditionally beautiful woman (this is the guy who has brought in Paltrow, Moore, Adams, etc.), neither one is playing someone who shows us why she’s interesting at first. There’s a lot of groundwork which has to be done to recognize what’s really fascinating about both of them. And that’s to say nothing of the general weird vibe that both movies give us, more so than the others. Like, Inherent Vice is weird, but that’s a feature. Punch-Drunk and Phantom Thread just have unusual temperaments.

M: Ones that are more…I don’t know the word I want here, but surprising? What I mean is, and we mentioned this about Phantom Thread, I feel like those two kept me guessing a bit more. You more or less know that the sprawling Boogie Nights or Magnolia or There Will Be Blood are going to break down at some point – I mean that for the characters, not as a note on Anderson’s technical ability. Does any of that make sense?

T: I think their narratives are less aligned to come up with a moment we’d expect. Inherent Vice and Magnolia both seem like they’re going somewhere. (Magnolia screws with that, but we’ll get there.) But Boogie Nights in particular feels like it’s aimed at a spot. The Master does too. And even There Will Be Blood follows a narrative path that isn’t straightforward, exactly, but it’s smooth enough. Neither of our Tier 3 movies is particularly smooth.

M: Which is super interesting since they’re also the smallest in scope.

T: You sort of have to do something interesting when you only play with a few characters in any serious way. I’m just thinking about some of the movies I’ve watched this month, and the one that surprised me the most and gave me the most profound emotional reaction was probably Through a Glass Darkly, which only has four people total.

Wanna jump back to Tier 4? I feel like we did something unexpected skipping that.

M: Let’s.

T: I want to say that Magnolia, after rewatching it, is a hot mess. I didn’t know if you had a different starting point in mind.

M: I didn’t have anything in particular to start with, so messiness sounds good. I think the general book on Magnolia is that the first bit is fantastic and then it sort of falls apart. Does that jive with your rewatch? (I haven’t seen it in a hot minute)

T: That’s about it, really. I mean, seriously, it comes out of the gate like a bolt of lightning, and then give it a couple hours and it’s diet Altman. That’s not one of my favorite things to do to a movie, but Magnolia is, down to the setting and even the time period, just so much like Short Cuts, and all those things that Short Cuts does well Magnolia seems to whiff on. Maybe it’s not trying to create as much connective tissue, but the connective tissue it does have is thin. Just spitballing now, but as viewers we have to reckon with:

  1. Women on drugs who are mostly defined by the gibbering messes they become
  2. The emphasis on circumstance and chance and especially coincidence governing our lives and using that to make everyone sing an Aimee Mann song together
  3. The fact that you can see there’s not much movie to shoot for outside of the Ricky Jay narration at the start, some of the stuff with Jason Robards and Jeremy Blackman, and the frogs.

I don’t mean to set that up as an agenda, by the way. Those are just things that sort of rubbed me the wrong way.

M: There are worse fates than singing Aimee Mann songs. My recollection is similar. I remember zoning out some by the end, and Anderson deals with chance and coincidence, the big conceit of Magnolia, better in other movies.

T: If you’re going to do that, I think that your payoff has to be chance and coincidence specifically affecting those characters. The problem with Magnolia (and this is an issue with Short Cuts too) is that we have this little cast of folks, but then the things which unite them aren’t really uniting them somehow but uniting, like, L.A. Frogs rain on everyone. Hey, do you have a mug of tea on you?

M: When don’t I?

T: Well, take a sip and mark off your bingo card, because here’s the inevitable Nashville reference. Nashville has a freaking brilliant ending because what happens primarily changes the people we’ve been following around all weekend. Magnolia loses that power when Exodus comes to the Valley as a whole.

Can we take a detour real quick and ask ourselves if Anderson is particularly good at ending his movies? He is an almost unimpeachable beginner, but I dunno if I think of him as being especially strong at closing them.

M: I’d peg him as definitely unimpeachable with beginnings. Wanna do some rapid fire?

T: Boogie Nights: ironically, I think it’s a great ending. Ending’s better than the beginning. The tone he sets is this masterful sense of exhaustion combined with homey kind of feelings, like everyone’s alive but they’ve got some frostbitten digits to show for it.

M: I love beginning and ending of that one. The massive tracking shot through the club is spectacular to me and perfectly establishes the bubble of glitz and glam that Little Bill bursts about an hour in. The ending, to me, is great because there’s no false sense that everything is fixed. Like, Rollergirl is doing good things but Dirk might become the same megalomaniac again. Which might sound further away from your reading than I intend it to be.

T: I think we’re focusing on different things. I just think that even if Dirk’s the last guy there, turning off the lights, it’s not really about him in those last five minutes.

Magnolia we’ve covered, but I do want to reiterate that there is something enormously infectious about the narration. Seriously, it’s got to be one of the best opening ten minutes of the past two decades.

M: I agree on the Dirk point – everyone gets a moment at the end and the movie is about a period. I’m trying to think about the best opening minutes, which will take awhile but Magnolia is definitely up there.

T: You may have accidentally made our third conversation topic.

M: So let it be written.

T: Punch-Drunk Love I think has a really strong beginning, and it’s one of the few that he has which seems so strong primarily because of the visuals. I’m less impressed with the ending? You probably disagree.

M: I do. I won’t pretend it’s revolutionary, but it’s sweet in the right ways, I think. “So, here we go” is simple yet loaded and it does it for me. Does the ending of There Will Be Blood bowl you over?

T: I think it is probably his best. The beginning is the best, too, though that one is on Jonny Greenwood as much as it is on PTA.

M: Can I make a tangential point right quick?

T: Is it about how Jonny Greenwood is one of the best film composers of our lifetimes, because that’s what we all thought was going to happen?

M: Definitely mark off your bingo cards now. It’s partially that. He is, and There Will Be Blood’s soundtrack is masterful. I do, however, miss PTA the curator. I love Greenwood as his regular composer, but I wouldn’t mind another PTA mixtape, so to speak.

T: I was thinking that too. Anderson has a Scorsese-level understanding of what song to use when, but man, Greenwood has been just stunning in his scores.

M: Absolutely. I’ll also have the “Sister Christian”/”Jessie’s Girl” scene to hold me over, I suppose.

I think I’m a bit murkier on TWBB as his best beginning, but the ending is spot on.

T: Let’s skip Inherent Vice real quick, because we can come back to that one. Phantom Thread has an okay beginning and a better ending. That’s a weird thought.

M: The beginning reminded me of Mad Men: great character establishment but not, like, phenomenal or movie stealing in any way. It does good work, but the ending is more interesting.

Also, are we skipping The Master?

T: I knew I was doing something wrong. I am distracted by the Sixers. We’ll put it that way. The Master has an incredible beginning. Referential and marvelous in the way it fools with some earlier movies, particularly Huston’s Let There Be Light. The ending is good. Very good, but not necessarily majestic.

M: I wonder how differently I’d feel if it ended with Seymour Hoffman serenading instead of adding its coda.

T: The coda is good! But that’s not the same as the singing. It’s a different mood.

M: Yeah, that was a genuine question not a leading one. I’m actually curious. The coda works, but it’s not necessarily as memorable.

T: Inherent Vice doesn’t stand out to me in its beginning or its end, frankly.

M: That’s partially source material. Pynchon’s whole thing is that time is a flat circle, basically. The movie is scuzzy as a rule and I think beginning in end stay true to that. Which isn’t to say they’re secretly brilliant, just that the story has a different sort of vibe it’s establishing.

T: I have to see Inherent Vice again, but it was the first time I watched an Anderson movie and thought it just sort of folded in. The best part of that isn’t Phoenix or Waterston or whichever actor, or some technique Anderson uses, but Robert Elswit’s cinematography. I dig weird and unusual, but I never had a moment where it hooked me.

M: The cinematography is great. It’s weirdness that’s more hazy than distinct. There’s not a Moment in Inherent Vice like there is in (nearly) every other PTA movie. Nor is it particularly quotable like other ones.

T: It’s part of a genre that usually leaves me cold…Under the Skin is like that too. Visually magnificent, but the atmosphere doesn’t give us anything.

M: It’s fitting that Anderson moved away from Southern California after that movie. It’s not his most contemporary, diegetically speaking, but it does seem to finally run headlong into the end of the American Century in that locale (high theory here I come!)

T: Before you get there, just a quick note that it is not unusual for directors who come out really hot out of the gate to start to fade around movie six or seven. Happened to Scorsese and Bogdanovich in the 70s, for example.

M: I don’t know that it is a rabbit hole I want to go down right now. The gist is that I think Anderson is always interested in America as a concept and Inherent Vice runs into its death perhaps most obliquely.

T: Needs another look from me for sure. I agree with you about that idea, too…Tier 2?

M: They’re both amazing but probably a bit more inconsistent than There Will Be Blood. I don’t have a particular place to start here either – though of our last three movies Boogie Nights is the only one that isn’t deadly serious most of the time.

T: When I did my infallible American Top 100 list, I rated it…eighty-first. The Master is a movie I’d put in my top 125, so maybe let’s start with The Master. It’s maybe the most dense movie Anderson has. If I were writing for the New York Times forty-five years ago, I would call it European.

M: Come on, pick one country.

T: They always envisioned a little Franco-Italian nation when they said that, so maybe like, Monaco or San Marino or something.

M: Fair enough. The Master made me think more than any Anderson movie, at least while watching it. Thinking in terms of piecing everything out, not philosophically necessarily.

T: That’s what I was saying less intelligently up there. Can we dismiss the Scientology thing while we’re here? I really don’t think it matters.

M: I don’t want to talk about Scientology, so yes. It doesn’t matter if that was foremost in Anderson’s mind, even, the nature of the movie takes it way beyond a Scientology parody.

T: It’s turning into another one of my film criticism pet peeves. Everyone reads everyone else’s stuff and they all say stuff like “The Master is Scientology!” or “Fanny and Alexander is based on Bergman’s life!”

Anyway. The Master is not a Robert Elswit movie, but Mahai Malaimare, and I think you get more blue out of this one, more shadows, less red and yellow.

M: I remember it being more earthy, definitely cooler tones if I’m off about the former.

T: There’s a scene in the movie where Freddie runs through the cabbage patch which is much the same color as that scene on the golf court in The Aviator.

Sorry. Joel Embiid just dunked on Westbrook really hard.

M: Westbrook is going to cannonball into his knees.

T: At any rate, my general point is that there’s a coolness in the light which is totally obliterated by the energy in Phoenix. I think it’s his best performance ever.

M: I have a weird thing for Her, which isn’t the correct answer. So I agree.

T: Weirdly enough, that movie is red and Phoenix is a much cooler character. Funny stuff.

M: 50 Shades of Joaquin Phoenix.

T: This is also for my money the best Hoffman performance. Nor do I think it’s particularly close. Lancaster Dodd is a brilliant character, so fascinating, and Hoffman makes a well-meaning charlatan into this vital and difficult person.

M: Where’s it at on your Amy Adams ranking?

Also obligatory Almost Famous mention.

T: Not low, precisely, but it’s not in my top five for her. There’s just not enough of her. Though I do think it’s a key moment in Adams’ acting, where she can be serious without needing to do that performative grit thing.

I’m going to throw in an advertisement for myself, by the way, and say that I’ve got longer pieces about There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread, plus shorter ones on Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, which is maybe why I’m finding it harder to say new things about The Master even though I think it’s endlessly interesting. I spent a lot of time talking about a Freudian kind of interpretation of the movie…

M: Better character: Freddie or Lancaster?

Which, now that I’ve asked that, it feels like The Master and Phantom Thread have more in common than I realized before this.

T: Lancaster for me. Freddie is much more interesting to me than the average drunk roamer, who rarely gives me much to think about, but Lancaster has worlds inside his head.

M: That seems right to me. Freddie is interesting to me as someone tossed between ideological systems who, even though it looks like he frees himself by the end, just keeps perpetuating the same violences. I guess I’m saying I find Freddie interesting as a type rather than a singular presence, which is what Hoffman pulls off with Lancaster.

T: Lancaster is one of those extraordinarily difficult people to pull off. Genuinely religious people are like hen’s teeth in mainstream cinema, and Lancaster really is religious. He thinks about the world with a devout mindset, and he acts like he believes in what’s going on in his head. Think about the vehemence with which he snaps back at that non-believer who comes to challenge him…it’s not just defensiveness.

M: Such characters are usually either parodies or just correct in the narrative’s world. Lancaster is painted and acted in ways that….I’m not totally sure where I mean to go here, but he’s yearning in ways that make his religiosity more convincing and intriguing.

T: We’re not doing this one justice – as much as any movie we’re talking about I think you really have to see The Master to get the point.. Boogie Nights? What’s the funniest part of Boogie Nights?

M: I’m sad we have to use that trick, but it’s true. Go watch the Master, it’s too subtle and environmental to truly explain.

T: Like, there are books and philosophers like that too. You just can’t do it justice summarizing or throwing stuff at it.

M: For sure.

Funniest part is either Buck’s first scene or the camera trick (it reduces to a circle frame) when Scotty first sees Dirk.

T: I’ve got two as well…it’s either that choreographed dance in the club or, alternately, the part where Luis Guzman sees the sign of his club has been misspelled. I die every time.

M: I forgot about the sign! Luis Guzman is a treasure.

[I now have Archer on and it’s the episode with Burt Reynolds. All of my worlds are colliding.]

T: Also the fact that he wants to be a porno and they keep putting him in the movies as the guy who like, runs the club.

M: I might lean Buck just because I love “This is hi-fi. That’s high fidelity. It’s the highest level of fidelity.”

T: The humor in this movie is just an affectionate series of “Oh, honey, you’re doing this in public” moments. So embarrassing and so endlessly funny.

M: That’s a wonderful way of describing a movie about the porno industry.

T: I think this movie is almost certainly going to be his most accessible movie, which is a weird thing to say about a genuinely curious movie about the so-called “Golden Age of Porn,” but there it is. It really is accessible! Famous people, approachably amusing period setting, quotability, you name it.

M: It’s so easy to watch. It doesn’t feel the three hours it nearly is. And no one think I mean that as code for it’s intellectually limp, because there’s still a lot going on here but it’s not as hazy or confrontational as other movies.

T: The first half is easy to watch. I think the second half is occasionally heartbreaking. Rollergirl in the car doing a home video porno in which Jack doesn’t know the rules is plain ugly. Really painful. Amber Waves in her custody battle is painful. Watching Dirk self-destruct isn’t so sad, but some of these other people really give us some melodrama. The ‘80s were hard! (Now this is a Mellencamp movie.)

M: Absolutely. Easy to watch wasn’t the right phrase. I guess more what I meant was I find myself wanting to watch Boogie Nights more than other PTA movies. The Rollergirl scene guts me. And that slowly pulsating drum that runs for, what, like 10 minutes while so many worlds come crashing. Speaking of people performing their best in PTA movies, Heather Graham (who was born in Milwaukee!)

T: This one seems to me like the one that we’re least likely to see from him again in terms of tone. Magnolia is probably not likely in the sense of its structure, but I just don’t see another movie which is as wild as this one.

M: His last five feel closer in kind than any do to Boogie Nights, I think. I mean, I don’t want him to try to recreate any one thing just for the sake of it, but I wouldn’t mind seeing another film like Boogie Nights if it happens naturally.

T: “Demarcus Cousins’ Boogie Nights.”

M: So he’ll direct the video for Boogie when he joins the Lakers.

T: The last movie, and the best movie, is almost always the one that gets short shrift, but I don’t mind sort of skimping on There Will Be Blood because so much of what has been said about it has been said.

M: The people know this one.

T: Is there a place where you’d like to key in that most people leave alone?

M: It’s curious to me that a few key moments of that movie are remembered well and so much surrounding them is, like, completely mysterious. I know that’s how movies get remembered in general, but am I wrong in saying the legacy of TWBB misses a huge chunk of the movie?

T: Mm! No, you’re right, though. It’s not episodic, you know? It’s not like you can break it into neat chunks the way you can with some of the other great American films. Like, who thinks about Daniel burying his “brother” and waking up with the elder Bandy and his shotgun over him? And the scene where he puts the napkin over his face and taunts a business rival. Or the scene where what he says in voiceover is contradicted in action? The parts we forget are special and marvelous and essential, too. I really think this is one of the three best movies of the 21st Century, either second or third overall and the finest American offering.

M: With the caveat that I’ve seen far fewer movies than you, I’d agree. I’m glad so many people remember it, or pieces anyway, but I do wish the totality of it were more recognized.

What’s your favorite non DDL or Greenwood part of the film?

T: Tell you what, there are not a lot of those.

M: I’m here for the tough questions.

T: I think they’re literally in 95% of the movie. I mentioned the elder Bandy before and I think he’s a really essential cohering piece to the film that gets overlooked – you’ve got to have him in there to basically send Daniel to church, for there’s no one else who could do it. What’s also striking – once again, actual piety – is that Bandy is just as religious as Eli Sunday, but without much of the fanfare. It’s a tendon that this movie has that Magnolia doesn’t, say.

I think the talk around There Will Be Blood has become really interesting because I think it’s become accepted in the past decade that it’s a better movie than No Country for Old Men, but at the same time I don’t think that was mainstream in ‘07. That was a real debate!

M: I still wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy picked No Country even now – I don’t endorse that choice, but I can see them doing the same thing. Maybe that’s me being too cynical. Any idea what happened that we came to our senses?

T: Anderson has always been a director, I think, who takes a few years to set in? The Master has gotten a serious critical reevaluation even since it came out, and Blood did, of course, and I think Magnolia, which looked like it was going to be his signature movie before Blood, has sort of faded. Also, I think it’s worth noting that a lot of the reevaluation of There Will Be Blood is being pioneered by people outside the USA.

M: It’s easier to sign off on the critique (evisceration?) of a country you don’t live in. Not that the US shouldn’t be there too. Regardless, I was thinking along similar lines, that we generally seem to need a minute for Anderson’s movies to sink in. I think that also speaks to his talent/power.

T: Can we segue this into a direction that I did some prep for? Some secret prep you haven’t seen?

M: It’s like the B&B B&B intros! I was trying to seque you into directors writ large. Is that where you’re going?

T: That’s the one. So, I kind of did something silly and tried to create a tier system for American directors, you know, just casually, because I’d never really given a lot of thought to where Anderson belongs in comparison to that group.

M: Ever or current?

T: Ever!

M: Nice!

T: So by my count, there are five directors who were enormous geniuses and had a combination of peak and longevity which is just unmatched: Kubrick, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Ford, and Wilder. Of course, we’ll note that two of those guys were born somewhere else and one of them left just about forever, but we’ll leave that alone. That’s a more or less canonical grouping.

Then I have a group of ten directors who have either remarkable peak or remarkable longevity, but never really hit the heights of Hitchcock’s ‘50s or Kubrick’s ‘60s, or, if they did, never managed to sustain something like that peak. I count Altman, Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Chaplin, Malick, Anderson, Huston, Keaton, Wyler, and Hawks. I would not argue if you put Altman or Welles in the first group.

At any rate, while I was doing that, I was kind of second-guessing myself, because I’m saying that on the basis of eight movies Paul Thomas Anderson should be mentioned with those other directors, who are the absolute giants of American cinema. But at the same time, I don’t know that that’s wrong, either? He’s never made a bad movie, or even a not-good one, and his best movie is better than Malick’s, Huston’s, Keaton’s (I’m about to lose my credibility with the film community), etc.

M: Another way to think about it, which I’m subtly telling you to do since I don’t have the requisite knowledge, is line up the top 8 movies from those others against Anderson’s and do a comparative analysis. Will Anderson’s body of work look similar? And how many of those directors are 9 or 10 movies deep in goodness?

T: So I’ve sort of thought of some stuff along those lines. That’s why Chaplin is ahead of him, for one thing. I can count on two hands the directors who can play in the same ballpark as The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times. I’m willing to put Malick’s best four against Anderson’s best four. Keaton, frankly, might not even belong in this tier, because I’ve got one about people who rewrote film grammar and he was such a pioneer. Wyler and Hawks don’t have the heights Anderson does, but they have long, powerful oeuvres. And of course Anderson will never make as many movies as those guys did, because they were products of the studio system and Anderson takes his sweet time between features. That’s why I have Anderson and Huston linked together, and while I’d take Anderson’s peak, Huston’s a better screenwriter and, if we’re honest, was the battery for one of the most important genres in world cinema, since he’s the guy behind The Maltese Falcon and a major figure in film noir.

M: Related, I think, I feel confident about Anderson bolstering his legacy going forward. Maybe there’s not another TWBB, but I definitely foresee more good movies. I don’t have a guess as to when he’ll run out of gas, but I can’t imagine him tanking right away.

T: Part of it is a temperament thing, I think. There is no evidence he’s doing what Coppola was doing in the ‘70s, for example, or, heck, what anyone in the ‘70s was doing in their personal lives. He has a pretty stable family life, from all accounts, with Maya Rudolph and their kids. He’s already been making movies for twenty years. And he’s not fifty yet. Let’s say he’s got another twenty years…he’s looking at another six or seven movies, I’d say. And that’s where your question of legacy plays in, and how much more time he’s working with.

M: I’ve been saving this question and now’s the right time: Will Maya Rudolph ever be in one of his features?

T: I don’t think she’d ever have more than a bit part.

M: Which is really a way for me to ask if Anderson will ever make a comedy.

T: I think if he hasn’t made one by now, he’s not likely to crank one out. The closest he might come is a Coen Brothers comedy like Fargo, but I really don’t see a Raising Arizona or Hail Caesar! in his being.

M: Fair. I’m not sure I’d want him to, I just like thinking about what it might look like. So you have Anderson 10th(ish)? What’s the highest you think he could climb?

T: Give him another twenty years and I genuinely think he could pass Wilder and Ford. Ford would be hard. He has such a deep bench. But Wilder does have a dead zone in his later years that you could see Anderson come up on…it would just be so hard.

Right now Anderson is the best American filmmaker, and his only peers are the giants of world cinema: Haneke, Lanthimos, Weerasethakul, Farhadi, McQueen, Wong Kar-wai. In America the old guard is fading out. Malick is starting to get itchy but he can’t have too much more time left, and Scorsese is aging. When they die or retire, it’ll just be Anderson, and there’s not anyone, right now, who’s near him in the pack.

One thought on “Baumann and Burch Conversations, #2: Paul Thomas Anderson

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