Paul Thomas Anderson & the Cinema of Outcasts

Born and raised in the Valley, the director of <em>The Master</em>, <em>There Will Be Blood</em>, <em>Boogie Nights</em>, and his latest, <em>Inherent Vice</em>, is the finest of his generation. But that doesn’t make him any less of a puzzle
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This is the point when a more tactful profile refers to Anderson as an “indifferent” student, having bounced around half a dozen local schools from Buckley to Campbell Hall. But why bother when he himself acknowledges that by the 11th grade, any interest in education whatsoever finally kicked in too late to salvage a high school career? Attending Emerson College for two semesters and barely dallying with film school, Anderson (whose father was a television actor hosting late-night horror flicks) attended the school of filmgoing, his alma mater since he was seven. “For anyone my age,” he remembers, “the standards were anything by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Seven years old and you see Star Wars; ten years old, you see Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I look back and also remember, at 11 or 12, Absence of Malice, Reds, Gallipoli, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, Prince of the City. Whatever was there. The Sherman Oaks Galleria was the stop every Friday night—it became my job to drag my family to the movies. I saw Melvin and Howard there, the trailer for The Shining with the blood coming through the elevator. Raging Bull on the Friday it opened—it was over my head, but what wasn’t over my head was the dance around the boxing ring in slow motion, with the smoke coming in, opera on the soundtrack.”

Anderson doesn’t dispute the impact of Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman as seen in the stately rhythms of There Will Be Blood, the anxious restlessness of Boogie Nights, the human hubbub of Magnolia. “Gigantic,” he agrees. “In that moment of forming yourself, there’s Scorsese and Altman directing something in your mind. Of course with Kubrick it’s the way a shot is framed or music is used, but to me it was more the level of investment, a quality watermark—he made it cool to care.” Among the pictures that endure as touchstones, John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre “always, always does the trick for me. And your relationship to [Orson Welles’s] Citizen Kane is that sometimes you think, ‘Well, it can’t be that good—and then it comes on and you stop and watch and your mouth is open and it’s…that…good.’- ” Anderson worked himself up from production assistant (one of the business’s more glorified titles, unless “grunt,” “lackey,” or “errand boy” evokes for you unbridled glamour), and like a close family friend who passed along a movie obsession to the aspiring filmmaker, other teachers were future collaborators, such as cinematographer Robert Elswit, already working with directors Curtis Hanson and Rob Reiner and shooting the occasional James Bond flick when he became Anderson’s go-to guy. Photographing almost every Anderson picture, including Inherent Vice, Elswit won the Academy Award for There Will Be Blood.

Truth be told, the Paul Thomas Anderson who holds his head in his hands this morning is a bit grateful for the scorched earth of nine-year-old hordes. The postpartum blues that follow completion of a major, fairly spectacular creative endeavor are kicking in, a “really, really acute stabbing kind of sadness—even if I’m old enough to know what it is now,” he says. Anderson is “such a passionate filmmaker,” says Inherent Vice’s coproducer JoAnne Sellar, “that he’s 150 percent involved in the film he’s working on until it’s in the cinema,” which is to say his brain can’t turn to something else soon enough. “Any good feeling of satisfaction,” admits Anderson, “from an audience applauding or somebody saying they like your film is just so… fleeting, and anyway, the peak really was back when you’re sitting with two engineers, watching the final print and getting to the end and kind of going….” He makes sobbing sounds. “Having done this a few times, does it make that feeling easier? Yeah, it does. It used to be, ‘Why do I feel this way, why am I burning the house down, what am I so miserable about?’ ” Anderson laughs. “Always, ‘Is that it ?’  ”

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Notwithstanding the dramatic framework offered by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! to There Will Be Blood and the influences of Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned on Magnolia, Inherent Vice is a unique instance of Anderson operating in service to another vision. “I loved Pynchon’s voice,” says Anderson. “That was a great feeling after a movie I did write,” he says, referring to The Master. “Maybe I was tired or didn’t have a lot of writing in me—so I felt, first, a lot of responsibility to the book and, second, a ton of pride doing it and, third, grateful to have a collaborator with all that information.” Uninterested in the printed word as a kid—“It wasn’t till Shelley’s Frankenstein, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, that I became a proper reader”—Anderson conveys a more literary sensibility than any of his peers, especially for someone so cinematic, and his devotion to Pynchon’s untamed poetry is preserved in the film by Joanna Newsom’s voice-over.

Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. Photograph by Everett Collection.
Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. Photograph by Everett Collection.

Contributing to the mysteriousness of Anderson’s movies is their refusal to get bogged down in the clichés of backstory. Except for an aside here or a divulgence there, we have little visceral sense of what the characters’ lives were before the movies begin. Nonetheless Anderson’s scripts and actors imply secret backstories that play out in the subconscious, overt exposition aside: By the end of Inherent Vice, antagonists Doc and Bigfoot share a fraternal bond that doesn’t exist in any literal sense, but in their final scene when Doc calls Bigfoot “brother,” Bigfoot growls, “I’m not your brother,” with enough vehemence that you know he means it more than figuratively. No matter how many times you see There Will Be Blood, you find yourself suspecting that twins Eli and Paul, evangelically raised sons who each are prodigals in their own fashion, are the same character even as we’re explicitly informed this isn’t the case (indeed they originally were to be played by two actors before both wound up as Paul Dano). Historically and personally the relationship between Lancaster and Freddie in The Master seems to pick up where Plainview and H.W. leave off in Blood, except with the same incestuous resonances as in Boogie Nights between Dirk and Amber, who can’t decide whether she wants Dirk as her child or lover. “It’s there for sure in those films, those mentor-student relationships,” Anderson says. “More than anything, though, is lost love: ‘Did we love each other in another life, and you’re just inhabiting this body and I got this one? Why are we so drawn together? I feel like I’ve known you before; you feel like you’ve known me before.’ ”

These subterranean relationships implicate the director and his actors in cryptologic conspiracies. Phoenix’s performance as Doc is particularly key to Inherent Vice, since, amid a garden of unhinged delights, he’s as reliable a Boschlike tour guide as we’re likely to get, while Brolin steals the picture from not only Phoenix and Wilson but an ensemble of Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, and Eric Roberts, precisely because Brolin knows something about Bigfoot that Anderson doesn’t. “There was some intersection there,” confirms Anderson. “Josh asks the right questions, the legitimate questions, not bullshit actor questions. That latticework became Josh’s Bigfoot, with his air of possessed melancholy.” All of Anderson’s work is distinguished by bravura acting. In total it’s yielded seven Oscar-nominated performances by Day-Lewis, Hoffman, Phoenix, Reynolds, Moore, Amy Adams, and Tom Cruise; this doesn’t include prizeworthy turns by Dano, Hall, Macy, Jason Robards, and Emily Watson as well as Wahlberg and Adam Sandler, of whom rather less was expected before they worked for Anderson. “I adore him to no end,” says Brolin, who has a professional familiarity with the pantheon of Ridley Scott, Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Gus Van Sant, and the Coen brothers. “Paul picks up the shovel and digs through the pony shit with you, always acknowledging that it’s the digging that’s the prize. Sometimes a movie can feel like a construction or math test,” he adds. “Paul’s movies feel like an experience, whether you’re getting the really prepared Paul or the more organic Paul. I’d work with any Paul.”

Anderson’s efforts with actors fall somewhere between the extremes of Clint Eastwood, who believes that once the right actor is cast, the director gets out of the way, and Kubrick, who rehearsed his actors (whether their stardom was mega or of less celestial wattage) 60, 70, 80 times. “No one’s going to be happy if someone is miscast,” Anderson acknowledges. “And sometimes you end up doing 20, 25 takes of something, and sometimes that’s for a good reason, and a lot of times you’re working on a scene that’s just not right and probably won’t end up in the movie anyway—you’re just banging your head against the wall. Times that are good, you can do three or four takes of something and walk away. Sometimes just two takes. That’s a great feeling.”

Having worked on every Anderson picture since Boogie Nights, Sellar laughs. “Paul has never done just two takes.”

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As every painting withholds secrets from its artist and every novel has secrets from its author, every film hides something from its auteur. Along with the other secrets of Anderson’s films having to do with antagonists who may be brothers and twins who may really be a single person, the most revelatory comes at Inherent Vice’s conclusion, with the adaptation’s most significant departure from its source.

Doc drives off with Shasta (Katherine Waterston), that femme fatale of his twilight noir. Used by every man who’s come her way, she’s turned out not to have been so fatale after all. In Doc’s front seat a murmur of protest is on her sleepy lips; a sneaky smile, accompanied by a fourth-wall-busting glance, is on his—and it occurs to us that for all Anderson’s tales of rash porn stars and blackhearted capitalists and inept but noble cops and doleful ex-quiz-show winners and raging toilet plunger salesmen and messianic megalomaniacs, the director is a romantic, maybe a capital-R romantic who has kept his uppercases to himself. “Yeahhhh,” Anderson drawls after a pause, a lifetime of contemplating the question in that single word, before laughing, “if by ‘romantic’ you mean nostalgic, sentimental, and blubbery.” Moreover, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon may be just fine with this small departure; for that matter perhaps Anderson’s clandestine full-moon romanticism channels the novelist’s more clandestine pitch-dark no-moon romanticism. Anderson says, “That thing with Shasta of lost love, with the girl who got away, where it didn’t work out and then she shows up at your doorstep and you would run to the ends of the earth for her against all better judgments and against everybody’s good advice—‘Stop! Don’t do it!’ but you wouldn’t listen—that was a central thread in Inherent Vice that was easy for me to connect to.”

Joaquin Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson during the filming of Inherent Vice. Photograph by Wilson Webb/Warner Bros.
Joaquin Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson during the filming of Inherent Vice. Photograph by Wilson Webb/Warner Bros.

By the time you read this, just maybe Anderson’s begun transcending the languor of completing his hardest picture. “After Boogie Nights,” Sellar points out, “Paul said he wanted to do something small. Paul’s idea of ‘small’ was Magnolia, with frogs falling from the sky.” Earlier profiles of Anderson allude to a youthful arrogance—but was that his personality or just the vision talking? Was it what film historian David Thomson, an admirer with reservations, calls Anderson’s “willful arbitrariness,” which may be arrogance by definition, as in “Damn it, if I want frogs to rain from the sky, who’s to say otherwise?” Maybe the Anderson on his knees to grab a smoke or with his head in his hands to plot birthday pretzels has outgrown arrogance or just grown craftier about it. Does anyone make movies like Anderson’s without arrogance? Now he murmurs vaguely about The Death Ship, by another mystery man of letters, B. Traven (who, as it happens, wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and then there’s still Pynchon, known to have written another book or two himself. “Vineland is really near the top for me,” says Anderson about his true passion project before he turned to Inherent Vice. “I got bogged down with certain things, but the characters still stick with me, the ideas stick with me, the girl Prairie sticks with me, trying to figure out what happened to her mom and dad. I mean,” he cracks, “either I’ll do it or just rip a lot of it off.” But why stop there? Why not do the Pynchon with V-2 rockets “screaming…across the sky,” the one that emblemizes the second half of 20th-century fiction like Ulysses does the first? Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t even the hard one. Perfectly seriously, Anderson says, “You know, if I had time and focus, I’d do Mason & Dixon,” Pynchon’s massive postmodern meditation on American history and everything in its proximity. This suggests that if Anderson isn’t arrogant, he’s certifiable.

“Too much looking back like this isn’t good for your health,” he concludes amiably, shaking free the Big Director Blues. “Your brain starts to itch.” So he looks in the other direction, nodding, “Yeah, yeah, you know…seeing how far you can push yourself out in the ocean before you get really scared that you can’t see the shoreline. And you’re just thrilling yourself, and it’s starting to get dark out, and the sun is setting—you can see the moon coming out—and that is a thrilling, nerve-racking place to be, and addicting. That feeling keeps you coming back every time. You know that feeling like a junkie, and, like, I can’t wait to get back there. Dummies that we are, we keep coming back again and again for that feeling, that comforting panic: I can’t wait. Can. Not. Wait. I’m housekeeping till then. Cleaning the desk, getting ready. Yeah.”


This feature originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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