Paul Thomas Anderson: Flawless filmmaker, bad storyteller

Is it possible to be one without the other?

The opening shot of Boogie Nights is the best opening shot of any movie. A “smash” cut introduces the film’s title, set to The Emotions’ “The Best of My Love.” We move from a San Fernando Valley street through a crowded disco, setting up major and side characters along the way – Jack Horner, Amber Waves, “Rollergirl,” Buck Swope, Reed Rothchild – before finally settling on Dirk Diggler, our protagonist to-be, bussing a table. He’s a sideshow. The party and the glamor aren’t meant for him. He goes unnoticed by all, except for one man: Jack Horner. And with the following cut, we are introduced to the entire thrust of the first act.

This is what flawless filmmaking looks like. And Paul Thomas Anderson did this all in his mid-20s.

His visual gift has never been in question. He can send the camera zooming through “the Valley,” as in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, or Punch Drunk Love. He can strip things back and revel in the naturalistic scenery of There Will Be Blood and The Master. I doubt there’s been a more meticulous visual director, certainly not since Kubrick. And yet, something feels “off” about PTA’s movies. He doesn’t tell a great story.

Rotten Tomatoes would beg to differ. His lowest rated movie is the incoherent Inherent Vice, coming in at a respectable 73%. Based on what I remember from reviews at the time, I would’ve guessed lower. All of his movies deserve positive reviews based on their technical merits alone. And yet PTA has, given his immense talents, managed to underachieve.

PTA is more in-control of his finished product than any director in Hollywood. The immortal Daniel Day-Lewis entrusted him with his (supposed) final performance. If PTA wants to make a movie his way, trust me: he can.

So with a “blank check for life” from Hollywood, on the back of the seminal There Will Be Blood, why has the great filmmaker descended into a storytelling hole? His followups – The Master, Inherent Vice, and the recent Phantom Thread have moments of brilliance, as do all his films. It’s bound to happen when a director of his caliber is behind the typewriter and the camera. But his films are more-often-than-not confused, dreary misfires – misfires which reviewers are too quick to forgive.

An easy attack on PTA is his disregard for traditional plot structure. His films move like Scorsese’s, a director whose influence is obvious in Boogie Nights. There are setpieces connecting character events. Scenes might rely entirely upon a funny line or a well-placed edit to justify their existence. Montages and sequences blend and become indistinct. And I like this approach to movement. After all, the plot isn’t what matters in any of this. All movies have plots, things that happen, even if they don’t follow predictable patterns. But it’s the story underneath that matters. The story makes the (nearly three-hour) journey worth it. It guides the film like a track, keeping it from going any which-way it pleases. What is your movie about? What is it telling us? A good storyteller knows that every element serves this purpose.

Let’s see if PTA can tell us a good story. Well, not if he can – if he wants to. Take Phantom Thread, the last movie of Daniel Day-Lewis’s career. Put yourself in the director’s chair: What story should we tell for the send-off of the greatest actor of his generation? I can make literally anything I want. What’s a story worthy of the honor?

To quote the Rotten Tomatoes synopsis:

“. . . renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are at the center of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutants and dames with the distinct style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young, strong-willed woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. Once controlled and planned, he finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love . . .”

Hm. Not my first guess.

Here’s my synopsis: an obsessive asshole fashion designer falls for a woman, but since he’s an asshole, they have relationship problems, so she feeds him poisonous mushrooms. But he doesn’t die, he just realizes that you shouldn’t be an asshole to the person who is taking care of you when you’re puking your guts out.

What is it we should take away from the movie? That obsessive artists need to be reined in by their significant others, with the help of toxins? That being in an emotionally abusive relationship is – not good? That assholes are meanie-heads and need to be literally bed-ridden before they stop being meanie-heads? What’s the story, and why does it need to be told?

Boogie Nights, the best film of PTA’s early period, follows the formula of Goodfellas, Scarface, and any other “American Dream gone wrong” movie. It’s a classic rise-and-fall from grace. A simple cautionary tale. A fable. The execution is what makes that movie great. The performances, the lines, the ‘70s porn aesthetic, camera moves, editing – that’s all flawless. But even that story snags. The “rise” is so full of great moments. It is a deep dive into the 70s porn world as imagined by PTA. We go with Dirk Diggler (the wonderfully adequate Mark Wahlberg) to pool parties, porn sets, awards shows – it’s all a bit overwhelming. It’s a rush. “I hear you have a big great cock. May I see it?” Or “My fucking wife has an ass in her cock in the driveway, Kurt.” Or “I like simple pleasures, like butter in my ass, lollipops in my mouth.” Pure genius. Who doesn’t love that?

But everyone stops enjoying that movie when the “fall” starts to happen – somewhere around “Little” Bill’s (William H. Macy’s) murder-suicide. All the exuberance is gradually sucked out of the frame. The characters descend into drug abuse, crime, (hilariously) pathetic attempts at music careers, fighting and arguing, murder – things gets hopelessly dark very quickly. This is exactly what happens in Goodfellas (think the “Sunday, May 11th, 1980” sequence), but that movie tricks you into thinking that the rise might keep going until it’s too late. Boogie Nights’ fall is inevitable, and PTA is determined to beat us over the head with it. The Colonel gets busted for pedophilia and Todd Parker gets killed during an attempted robbery and Dirk gets beat up for ambiguously homophobic reasons and Amber has her children taken from her and on and on and on. Let’s just say that subtlety goes out the window.

At least Boogie Nights knows where it’s going. What do we learn from Daniel Plainview’s rise to power in There Will Be Blood? That power corrupts? No – he was already a corrupt, greedy scoundrel before he got his riches. So there’s no character arc for Plainview. He shuns his disabled son as he transitions into adulthood – but that’s exactly what we expected him to do. TWBB is Anderson’s most artistic, symbolic, operatic work. It has the heavy pessimism of Macbeth, without the tragic comeuppance. Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) gets greedier and greedier and greedier and – and what? His soul pathetically rots, but it’s not clear he had one to begin with.

Is the story that evil and greed will overtake all in its path? Well, Plainview sure makes short work of Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday, who inexplicably comes begging for money in the film’s finale (not having aged a day). Sunday never had a chance. We know this from the beginning, and aren’t surprised to see Plainview finally bash in his mortal enemy’s head with a bowling pin. It’s a perfectly fitting, albeit unimpressive ending.
PTA doesn’t have a worldview. The Master is a thinly-veiled critique of Scientology that says nothing profound about Scientology. Punch Drunk Love is beloved because Adam Sandler did the “comedian being a serious actor” thing. Everyone (thankfully) forgot about Inherent Vice. Magnolia is bloated, and Hard Eight – well, I haven’t seen it. But we need to admit that of all the ideas PTA has thrown at the wall, the only things that have stuck are flashy technical things. The immense 70mm frames of The Master. The ingenious, boisterous performances of muses Daniel Day-Lewis and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The endlessly quotable lines of Boogie Nights. Obtuse Jonny Greenwood scores. He makes beautiful, painstakingly crafted “shells” of movies. But what stories has PTA told that are worth telling? Are his films interesting oddities, or essential viewing? Now that he operates in the rarefied air of master directors, PTA has every opportunity to show us who he is and what he has to say. It’s hard not to feel that his career has ended up as something of a missed opportunity. I really hope he turns things around. He has plenty of good years left in him. At least, let’s hope the next movie is about something more interesting than, I dunno, the world of 50s British fashion.

Leave a Reply