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CineMasters: Paul Thomas Anderson

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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Paul Thomas Anderson's third feature, Magnolia (1999), begins with the voice of Ricky Jay.  Positioned halfway between narration and dramatic monologue, Jay delivers, in his uncannily neutral newsreader's tones, a six-minute campfire tale that purports to give the full, unexpurgated details of three separate deaths.  In each of the meticulously described cases, coincidence and chance play a gruesome, yet often critical part.

None of these three macabre stories - despite Jay's repeated assurances to the contrary - is entirely true; each is, in fact, an agglomeration of half-factual details, scientific semi-possibilities and pure, unabashed hogwash.  But, crucially, each of the accounts is packed tightly with details: not necessarily important details, but rather calculatedly superfluous details, designed to give the appearance of veracity to something not entirely possessed of it.  The fact that Jay was better known, not as an actor, but as a sleight-of-hand magician, seems to indicate that these details are in fact a part of what those in his primary profession would call misdirection.

These stories - with their reliance on the interconnection of small irrelevancies to create an atmosphere unachievable through other, less subtle means - allows them to serve as the singular template for the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson as a whole.  Much like these stories, to enter into Anderson's filmmaking is to enter a world he creates on his own terms: where other filmmakers strive for accuracy to actual fact, whether historical, cultural or otherwise, Anderson's films are true only to their own realities.  Built around an inexorable internal logic, they become self-generating, every part of them accumulating into a composite creation: a universe, not necessarily inhabitable, in which internalised rage gives way to the smashing of windows, where lonely sailors have sex with sand sculptures, and where a single night in the San Fernando Valley leads to spiritual transfiguration through a miracle of nigh-Biblical proportion.

For his debut feature, Hard Eight (1996), the site Anderson created for his story was one of film noir tropes, a familiar case of the burgeoning film poacher turned gamekeeper - few marks of which would ever turn up again in subsequent work.  It is telling, then, that here and in follow-up Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson relied least heavily on what would become almost a trademark use of language and music.  From Magnolia onwards, both of these components would contribute heavily to a type of distancing effect, in which the viewer is made either sharply aware that the things seen in Anderson's worlds are not to be encountered anywhere else.

 Thus, while Inherent Vice (2014) is no more intended to be a simulacrum of the actual 1970s than Boogie Nights, by this stage Anderson's work has given itself entirely over to a set of individual mannerisms and finely-honed techniques which constantly and consciously indicate the film as a work of fiction rather than, like its predecessor, an attempt to create a plausible, acceptable imagined idea of the decade of disco.  However, the most noticeable difference between the two films is undoubtedly the latter's use of language.

 As an (extremely rare) adaptation from the work of Thomas Pynchon - an author alternately hailed and harangued for his irreverent approach to words, sentence and story structure and indeed any sense of how or why a story is intended to function - it seems unsurprising that Inherent Vice's approach to dialogue would be any less fanciful.  Yet Anderson takes this one step further, giving each of the film's characters a sort of hyperinjection of 1970s slang, as if it were in fact a new language all to itself: the hipness of the words stripped entirely from their meanings, they instead function as the only words available to characters with appropriately implausible names like Bigfoot Bjornsen, Sauncho Smliax or Japonica Fenway. 

Likewise, Anderson's collaborations with musicians who inhabit a place between popular songwriting and composition - such as Aimee Mann on Magnolia, Jon Brion on Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and most recently Jonny Greenwood, who has collaborated with Anderson on each of his films since There Will Be Blood (2007) - provides an additional level of separation.  In There Will Be Blood particularly, given its place as the film least reliant on dialogue in all Anderson's work to date, the juxtaposition of Greenwood's sonorantly minimalist instrumental pieces against scenes of oil field disasters in the 1920s feels ostensibly mismatched yet somehow achieves a kind of instinctual self-coherence all its own. 

The icing on the top of all this technical cakery is one of Anderson's most reliable techniques: the shock scene - the unexpected moment, entirely unpredictable and consequently unprepared for.  If the normal logic of filmcraft is to slowly lay down small clues leading to an inexorably logical or believable end, Anderson's films turn this on its head.  Thus, in The Master (2012), a respectable society gathering is suddenly populated by nude partygoers, as envisioned through the fevered imagination of the perpetually sex-starved protagonist.  In Inherent Vice, the scream emitted by Doc Sportello upon seeing a baby picture serves not only as a moment of left-field hysterics, but more significantly as a way of heightening the film's alienation: it indicates that what is being watched is not a work of documentary-level reenactment, but a work of self-consciously postmodern fiction. 

In a way, these techniques lead to the conclusion that Anderson's distinct brand is in fact a variety of magic realism, one in which the magic and realism are allowed to coexist independently of each other whilst both inhabiting the same space, and not simply fusing with each other to create a harmonised whole.  Now looming on the horizon, Anderson's eighth narrative feature, Phantom Thread (2017), seems poised to continue in the tradition of this singular ability to take a historical scene and moment - in this case, the fashion world of 1950s Britain - and invent a plausibly implausible, unacceptably believable mirror image of it.

 

Marc David Jacobs
freelance arts worker

January 2018

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