Thursday, October 7, 2010

Momentum: A PT Anderson Retrospective Pt. 1

OK...first off, I was a bit hesitant in even doing a retrospective on PTA. With only 5 films, there are barely any books dedicated to the director's work, which for better or worse is the big reason why I decided to go ahead on doing this retrospective. But perhaps an even bigger obstacle was: How in the blue hell do I even begin on writing about Magnolia or There Will Be Blood. Besides, the website Cigarettes & Red Vines has already done an astonishing job collecting interviews, press junkets, articles, etc. on each film. So I decided to comb through their archives as well as the DVD commentaries and other resources to present an assembled critique/analysis of the films. Hopefully, this masterclass will serve two parties: those who have yet to discover the director's work & those who are already familiar with the films and are looking for tasty little tidbits on them.

Second -- I plan on posting Pts. 1-3 this month and Pts. 4-6 in November. That schedule is subject to change. I'll be doing another Director Retrospective in January.

And finally, I do have to rant a bit. It's bizarre seeing all the comments online calling him the next Kubrick, Altman or Scorsese. I can't help but stop and roll my eyes. His films may have the STYLE of those directors and of course invite the comparison as far as style goes. But the director has written all of his films so he is already different than those directors. If ever there was a more idiotic way to label a filmmaker, it's "THE NEXT" (Fill in the Blank). It's trying to put a familiar name on something new. It's not the way to look at art. PT Anderson is the first PT Anderson. And that's that.


Paul Thomas Anderson was born June 26 (one day before my birthday), 1970 in Studio City, California to Edwina & Ernie Anderson. His father was a late night horror movie host known as "Ghoulardi". Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he got into filmmaking at an early age. He attended a number of schools: Berkeley, John Thomas Dye School, Campbell Hall School, Crushing Academy, and Montclair Prep. He briefly attended New York University, but would drop out of it.

Anderson became apart of the VCR generation along with Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater. These independent mavericks were trained not so much in the classical way but by watching zillions of films. With currently only 5 films under his belt, Anderson has become regarded as one of the great writer/directors of his generation. The fact that he made his first feature at 25 is all the more intimidating. There's a reason why Paul Thomas Anderson has such a small body of work. You have to wait for one of his films because he takes time to craft something like There Will Be Blood. He's not a director who feels the need to put out a movie on a yearly basis (take note, Woody Allen). & I think the body of work speaks for itself. I'd much rather wait till 2011 or even 2012 for The Master or whatever it turns out to be, than for him to rush it.

His films depict suburban alienation on an intimate level. A theme tackled by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters & E.T. as well as Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands. In a response to the question of "Do you think of yourself mainly as a writer, director or filmmaker"? Anderson responded: filmmaker. "Because I think I direct in a way that's technical and show-offy. And that's not generally said about writers that direct. With those sort of writers who direct, like Woody Allen or David Mamet, you don't usually think of them as applying alot of cinema- in the Scorsese or Oliver Stone kind of way- to their movies." Being technical and show-offy is a major criticism the director's detractors love to bring up. This director is of course not going to please everybody with his films. But you would be hard pressed to find a director who finds a better balance of subtelty and audacity in their work.

His primary influences stem from three directors: Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. What struck me the most was when PT cited Demme as such a major influence on his work. One would not think to look for it to begin with. But what does stick out with this connection is both director's distinct use of music. Demme is known for shooting The Talking Heads 'Stop Making Sense' concert film as well as the 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs and his follow up film Philadelphia. Both films have distinct sequences in which the music underscores the mood the filmmaker is trying to create -- whether it's Q Lazarus' Goodbye Horses or Bruce Springsteen's Streets of Philadelphia.

Anderson's camera is constantly on the move in a good number of his films. Scorsese, whose been influenced himself by the moving camera of Jean Renior and Max Ophuls, is cited amongst many filmmakers of the 90's as a major influence.

In terms of ensemble narrative, both Boogie Nights and Magnolia owe a lot to the late Robert Altman. Anderson for me became a gateway drug to Altman. It's like going up to a film geek and saying "Wow, how can someone juggle 9 stories so well?" And then their response being "Oh yeah? Wanna see someone juggle 20?" Without films like Nashville and Short Cuts, we would not have a film like Magnolia. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's time to zip back in time to PT's humble beginnings.


So it's 1987 and some guy named Paul Thomas Anderson decides to pick up a camera and make a short little 32 minute film. What's so incredible about it? He's 17 years old when he writes it.

Anderson had a connection with the industry from the beginning. His father was Ernie Anderson, who did voice overs for ABC. So it makes sense that he would use an experienced actor like Robert Ridgeley in his short. PT's influence for the whole short fell into two categories. In terms of the format he was looking to do something akin to Woody Allen's Zelig and Spinal Tap -- a mockumentary of sorts. Content wise, it's about the rise and fall of a pornstar named Dirk Diggler. The original approach to Boogie Nights was to expand the mockumentary. It's a good thing his maturity as a filmmaker allowed for him to expand it in many other directions as opposed to strictly the mockumentary format.

Even looking back on the Dirk Diggler Story, it's interesting to see how many things are ported over to Boogie Nights. There's the whole "You Got the Touch" scene of Dirk Diggler massacring the song. The most striking thing is the content that Anderson is tackling as well as the advanced sense of dark humor and sarcastic wit he has at the age of 17. It's important to note -- the visual acrobatics PT's films are known for are obviously not present here.

Created at the Sundance Lab, Cigarettes & Coffee is a much more accomplished piece of filmmaking. The narrative weaves around three stories taking place. The first deals with two friends, one in trouble, the other being the wiser (played by Phil Hall); the second: a young couple on their honeymoon; the third: a shady hustler. The way Anderson spins these threads into a collective whole is still rough around the edges. His canvases would become alot more polished and expansive as his career goes on. When screening the short at the Sundance Film Festival, producer Robert Jones approached Anderson about expanding it into a feature.


Right now this artist is more or less dipping his toe in the water. Feeling out certain beats & rhythms to ideas & motifs. What works? What doesn't? He would end up diving straight in with his debut feature. But I'll save that for Pt. 2.


  1. Hopefully he follows through with "The Master," as its currently being called. He's my favorite director and has yet to disappoint.

  2. I'm hoping he follows through with it as well. The subject matter sounds very intriguing. We've seen what he can bring out of Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I'm also interested in what he can do with Jeremy Renner.