Paul Thomas Anderson: One Shy Step From Greatness
Films reviewed in this essay:
Boogie Nights (1997) ****
Magnolia (1999) ****
There Will Be Blood (2007) ****
Paul Thomas Anderson is widely considered to be one of the greatest currently working American filmmakers. I would probably place myself in the camp that would agree with that statement, but that may be because the competition just isn’t what it used to be. If it sounds as though I’m trying to belittle the man, I’m not. He really is a superb director in many ways. I’ve only been exposed to three of his films (which is quite a few, given his relatively small oeuvre): Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, all of which I will be offering partial reviews of in this essay. I was profoundly impressed by all three films. Each one of these is a miniature epic unto itself—epic in both length and cinematic vision. Anderson is undoubtedly a director/writer of many gifts, yet I believe he is deeply flawed. Before I elaborate, I must say that the level of engagement I experienced while watching all three of these films rival some of the irrefutably greatest films ever produced, yet somehow each one left me ultimately disappointed. It’s a pity, because in my view he comes so close to sheer greatness. If one were only to judge his talents only as a director, I would say he had already reached it. But since he insists on writing his own material, he is entirely to blame for the disappointing perplexities one is faced with at the conclusion of his pictures. It is that strange phenomenon that I wish to explore in this piece, because each of these three films forced me to analyze my reactions to them in a way I don’t often do.
I happened to see the three prenominate films in the order in which they were released. The first was Boogie Nights, which I saw slightly over a year ago. Based very loosely on the life of pornographic actor John Holmes, Boogie Nights chronicles the rise, horrible decline, and so-called redemption of Dirk Diggler. Initially set in the late 1970s, Diggler, who in the beginning of the film is in his late teens, works in a club frequented by the who’s who of the Los Angeles nightlife scene, including many of those involved in the highly lucrative porno industry. It’s Diggler’s dream to one day star in porno films, and given his massive endowment and indefatigable stamina it’s more than a fair bet he could achieve it. He manages to meet a porn mogul, played by Burt Reynolds, who gives him his big break. Diggler is ditsy kind of guy, who nods enthusiastically when given the most inane direction, and is able to perform a given scene numerous times. Add to that his greatest ‘asset’ and in no time he is able to rise to the top. For a while everything comes up roses, but then the drugs and his inflated ego soon enter to antagonize him. Once this happens, it isn’t long before he hits absolute rock bottom, in a way so blown out of proportion that perhaps someone loaned him a jackhammer so that he could burrow a few meters below rock bottom. It all culminates in the now infamous botched drug deal scene with Alfred Molina, in which a bloody shootout ensues. This scene is damn near perfect, with the wildly coked up and scantily clad Molina rocking out to “Sister Christian”, while his unexplained Chinese counterpart is throwing firecrackers around the room. It’s hypnotic, and certainly the most memorable sequence in the film. It’s this, plus some other terrible events, such as having to masturbate for closeted homosexuals in parked cars to earn money, only to be violently assaulted that should have taught Diggler a lesson. Yet the so-called redemption the film has to offer is his resurgence into the porno industry—the same arena that got him into all the trouble in the first place. Any sensible person would have seen that there’s a clear lesson to be learned here, but Dirk Diggler doesn’t. So, ultimately Boogie Nights is about a stupid person. But what is so unsettling about it is that the ending seems to glorify his stupidity. If an audience is obliged to spend nearly three hours with a stupid person, some of us feel we should be allowed to see the repercussions of which. Here we don’t. Rather, we are required to simply accept Dirk Diggler for who he is, despite the harsh unlearned lessons that were thrown his way, and ponder the meaning of it all when he is allowed to start the whole destructive process again. Some may argue that observing a person’s inability to recognize their own errors is a lesson in and of itself. I would say that is true as well—for infants. Isn’t this one of the first lessons we learn in life, to learn from our own mistakes? As a side note: I noticed that the film, which ends in the early ‘80s, conveniently disregards the AIDS pandemic that occurred at that time, which is subsequently how Holmes died, and also shook the porno industry. It seemed more obvious that Diggler should have met with a similar fate. It would have certainly made for a more satisfying ending, I thought, but given the many comedic aspects of the film that perhaps would have been too much of a downer. I also got the impression that Paul Thomas Anderson really cherished this Dirk Diggler creation of his, much in the same way a pet owner cherishes his/her brainless pet. But I think onlookers wouldn’t share the same affection for another person’s brainless pet, and they would certainly not want to be subjected to watching hours of footage of the animal. This is how I felt at the end of Boogie Nights, and I would like to emphasize only at the end. I watched as an inherently stupid person, despite the harshest of lessons remained a stupid person. It’s no mystery that these people exist, but after such a grand treatment as this film received; I had hoped that it would have more to say about them.
Magnolia, for me, was probably the most engaging of the three films. It contains a very curious prologue, using two anecdotes to illustrate how the world is capable of presenting us with bizarre anomalies to ponder. I remember wondering to myself how this would relate to the film later, and it did so in the most unexpected way with the thousands, if not millions of frogs falling from the sky toward the end of the film. I’m sure this is exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind by use of that prologue, only everything else that comes before it detracts from his message. Magnolia is an omnibus of a film, with a vast array of highly affected characters, all interlinked through various connections, and each one gradually entering a state of crisis that grows with intensity until the great anomaly occurs. I do not wish explore how these characters are interconnected, for it is so complex. But what the reader should understand is that viewers of film will feel that it is constantly building toward something, and that somehow the people on the screen and their baggage are going to converge in some significant way, but instead we get the frogs. It’s a shocking moment when that event does happen, but to what avail? Like in Boogie Nights, Anderson again seems to be stating the obvious: yes, strange and unexplained things do happen in life. But why does he feel he needs to illustrate it in what is ultimately one large pretense? This is a very lengthy picture, and the viewer really feels it. At the one point in the film, an orchestral score is introduced that remains with us until the frogs start dropping. It’s a minimalist score that effectively adds to the hypnotic quality the film, and it adds significant amount of tension as the film develops. Gradually, as we get deeper into the various characters we feel as though we’re meant to experience some great cataclysm between them and their respective stories, only it never happens. And after the great anomaly, there really isn’t any closure in any one story—life simply goes on, and for other characters it doesn’t.
I am hoping that the reader will see that I’m building toward a theme in my critiques of these films. It has to do with Anderson’s use of simple, well-understood themes as the basis for these massive pictures of his, presenting them in such a way that we feel we are going to presented with a new profound commentary on them, only he never delivers. I plan to discuss this in more depth, but before I do I want to briefly analyze the final film, There Will Be Blood.
There Will Be Blood is the story of Daniel Plainview, a cold, heartless man, driven by his desire for wealth. In the beginning of the film, he works tirelessly as a lone silver prospector only to strike oil one day. Soon he is able to build a vast industry for himself, thus securing the wealth that is his raison d’etre. He is a quiet, reserved man, with pent-up emotions who only speaks using various forms of chicanery when he has to swindle people out of use of their land to drill for oil. Serving as prop to instill confidence in his unassuming victims is his young son at his side, who was actually an abandoned infant he happened to stumble upon. Daniel forms no bond with the child, and uses him coldly to further his own agendas. When the boy loses his hearing after an accident at one of Daniel’s drilling sites, Daniel sends him away—he’s outlived his usefulness. And when the boy returns, intent on starting his own company, Daniel shuns him, regarding him as a potential competitor. Daniel appears to be the sort of individual who needs no one, yet when a stranger appears one day claiming to be his brother, Daniel takes him in with apparent affection, offering him a privileged position in his company. It is at this point that the man seems human after all, as he takes a profound interest in his own family, and even opens up somewhat to the man he thinks is his brother. What he has to tell him is already made obvious to the audience, that he, Daniel, is a misanthrope, and wants to see no one else succeed but himself. Aside from this very brief outpouring, we never really get see inside the character, nor do we ever get to learn what makes the man tick.
Religion is a key component to this story as well, as one of the characters, a young evangelist and leader of a small cult of followers, is one of the people Daniel must swindle in his quest for oil. Everyone should be able to see through the artificialities of this evangelist character. He appears interested in converting Daniel to what he deems the path of righteousness, but really has an agenda of his own, similar to Daniel’s, in fact—power, only of a different kind. In the film’s final scene we see the evangelist for the phony he really is, as he denounces himself as a prophet for a loan from Daniel. And we finally get to see the first real moment of passion from Daniel as he unleashes violent waves of his own misanthropy upon the young man.
There Will Be Blood, like the other two films is immaculately presented. And this character of Daniel Plainview, fascinating as he is, is entirely an enigma. His character shows no development whatsoever during the course of this film. He is as corrupt as the poor man at the beginning of the film as he is the wealthy one at the end. It begs the question if money and power is the root of all evil, or if men themselves are inherently evil. It’s the chicken and the egg all over again. Though we know for certain that it was man that came before money, but money certainly has the ability to corrupt pure and impressionable people. There Will Be Blood is built on a pretense that it has some sort of commentary on this question, and Daniel Plainview is the key, only the box remains closed.
I purposefully disregarded discussing the positive attributes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work as a filmmaker. I believe those to be obvious, and overly discussed in most circles. He is very talented, and really knows how to tell a story, while at the same time creating visual imagery that thoroughly engages his audience. He thinks in very large terms, and his films are conceived on a grand scale. Everything is so lavish that it boggles the mind when by the end none of it stands for anything. Perhaps this is his shtick. There’s an existential nihilist quality to the stories of his films, saying something to the effect of ‘a lot of seemingly important and significant stuff happens in this world of ours, but none of it really means anything. It only exists to fool us into thinking that it is something more.’ I don’t have any problem with this message, it’s an entirely legitimate one—it’s just the packaging that bothers me. Certain novels come to mind that offer similar messages, such as The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist, which is about man’s inherent evils; The Trial by Franz Kafka, in which a man is persecuted for a crime in which neither he or the reader is told anything about; and The Stranger by Albert Camus, the ultimate existential nihilist novel. These are all relatively short novels, very concise, with no pretense about what they are trying to convey, even though their message is a rudimentary one. For this reason they are all very effective, and the reader is very willing to submit to their message. Paul Thomas Anderson is guilty of leading us on, through grand storytelling and false pretenses. We sit there, with his obvious message made clear to us within the first quarter of the film, expecting to be presented with insightful commentary that puts a different spin on it, but he lets us down each time. The sensation is something akin to a child who receives a beautifully wrapped Christmas present in a grossly oversized box, large enough to where they think some truly wonderful gift must be inside (as I child I equated the size of the box to the quality of the gift) only to find something much smaller and ordinary within. It’s a huge letdown, to say the least.
I have felt letdown by each of these three films, because, the perceived weaknesses aside, they were remarkable film-going experiences, and I recommend them to everyone. Paul Thomas Anderson, I feel is so close to being one of the timelessly great directors, if he would just construct his stories so that he had more to say about the various facets of our existence he chooses to explore. Until he does, he will always remain flawed in my mind.