Paul Thomas Anderson (P.T.A)
Filmmaker Feature by Lorenzo Lombardi
In the ‘90s, the world of cinema witnessed the debuts of many great directors. There was excellence from the likes of Joel Coen, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher. All of these visionaries have demonstrated their perfected auteurism, but one filmmaker has arguably conquered his decade of talent when it comes to sheer directorial and artistic craft. That director is Paul Thomas Anderson. Known for his inclusion of provocative scores (frequently composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood), complex and transformational character studies, adversarial and existential themes, brilliant exposition, and the ability to get the most out of his actors, P.T.A has more than shown his capability to becoming an all-time great director.
P.T.A: An early start
P.T.A was born in California on June 26, 1970. He was among a household of 9 siblings. His father, Ernie Anderson, was an actor, and so encouraged his son to ultimately become a director. At the age of 8, Paul created his first film, a sign of his abilities to come. Throughout his boyhood, he furthered his hobby of filmmaking by experimenting with different kinds of cameras, including a Betamax, 8mm film, and 16mm film. Entering adulthood, he created his first film at 18 --- a half-hour mockumentary titled The Dirk Diggler.
Anderson attended a college and a university before dropping out prematurely of the latter to put all of his energy into filmmaking. In 1993, he made a short film called Cigarettes & Coffee with a $20,000 budget. He submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, where he then had a chance to truly get into the filmmaking business.
P.T.A: The Naturalistic Phase
Striking a deal with Rysher Entertainment, he decided to direct his first feature film. This was Hard Eight (1996). It is a solid noir, but it was only a practice mood piece for PTA.
A large ensemble drama called Magnolia (1999) was subsequently made, which follows a number of stories that ultimately get interwoven. These stories make for some grounded and layered characters. Actors deliver some of their career-best work, including Tom Cruise, Phillip Baker Hall, and John C. Reilly. Each recurring character plays their part in this expansive piece, and most of them are meaningful and relatable. PTA enacts themes of forgiveness, loss, longing and fate through this spectacular but grounded showcase of well-written characters and scenarios that happen to be connected to one another. It reminds us of the adversities that some people have to deal with, but the miracles that can occur, all through hope.
The beginning of his career --- short film The Dirk Diggler --- served as inspiration for P.T.A’s next film: the sprawling Boogie Nights. It follows Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), a dishwasher who adopts the screen name Dirk Diggler and gets into the pornographic industry during its golden age. Boogie Nights’ rise and fall story is one of the most entertainingly effective in cinema history and manages to be crudely funny while still having stunning supporting performances from the likes of Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds (the latter of whom both received Oscar nominations). It is a well-made haze of violence, drugs, and porn, carried along by a charismatic breakout performance from Mark Wahlberg. His energy and seductiveness are perfect for the style and subject of the film, and The Dirk Diggler also manages to be humorous in self-referential and unexpected ways, most notably the ending, which is a masterful parody of Raging Bull. It is a fascinating insight of the vices of the adult film industry, and the definitive fictional delve into the ‘70s.
P.T.A: Brilliant Characters
In 2002, Punch-Drunk Love was released. It was the start of his newfound style and narrative. Unlike the first 3 movies, this film has a distinctive visual flair that favours exposition over dialogue. This was also the beginning of his sincerely emotional character studies, with fewer actors cast in order to focus on the protagonist(s). Punch-Drunk Love follows Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a reserved man who sells novelty items. Feeling lonely and alienated with his big family and the failure of his business, he seeks succor. Barry then gets himself into an outrageous extortion plot and a romance that might perhaps save his soul. Alike his previous film Boogie Nights, PTA focuses puts a developmental spin on yet another insightfully written character, showing Barry’s transformation from alienation and loneliness to love. This also sparked a new outlook on Adam Sandler, as it demonstrated what he could have achieved as a more serious actor.
Incorporating once again a constantly moving camerawork, you can feel the messiness of the character’s lonely life. This is furthered by an innovative use of an avant-garde score (Jon Brion) which punctuates a feeling of French-esqué romance as well as a paralleling sense of alienation and distress during the more frantic scenes. Punch-Drunk Love fantastically achieves conveying this world through those visual and audio cues, and you will not see Adam Sandler the same way again.
It is 2007, and the greatest film of the decade is released. There Will Be Blood is about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), a miner-turned-oilman and his strive to succeed among those around him. We witness his rise to power from striking his first well of oil to the development of his newly conceived operation towards an oil-filled land in California. We also see how he manipulates the people around him for his own benefit. Firstly, Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the most memorable and complex performances ever put on screen, resulting in a performance that will be renowned for generations to come, both with analysis and an epitomizing example of acting overall. What also makes this sprawling picture radiate is its themes of religion, family and power. These are predominantly conveyed in the transformation of this character from ruthless businessman to a fully-fledged monster. Supporting this powerhouse performance is an exceptional turn from Paul Dano in the form of Eli Sunday, a preacher cautious and demanding of Plainview’s deeds. As the plot develops, the more he becomes a threat to Plainview, adding intensity.
The film is a tale of manifest destiny, capitalism, family ties and religious zeal all gone wrong. Including one of the greatest performances ever and an enormously provocative and original score (by the great Jonny Greenwood), this is a decade-defining vision of a man whose greed and hatred decimated his soul.
The Master (2012), another character study, is like There Will Be Blood’s spiritual successor. Some incorporation pertains to similar themes such as success and instability. Overall, though, this is a different beast of a film. In The Master, we follow a World War II veteran, Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix), as he tries to find his place in the world with mental side effects against his journey. He inadvertently meets a sophisticated leader of a cult known as “The Cause”. The Cause is thinly disguised as Scientology, and as a result, the film was controversial. But the film is mainly about the feeling of belonging. In a career-best performance, Phoenix portrays Quill to such a believable degree that the audience forgets they are watching a performance, but a complex human with needs and desires. As the film follows his lust for love and meaning, the film becomes more and more emotionally engrossing. Arguably, the late and great Phillip Seymour Hoffman also delivers his defining performance through the equally complex Lancaster Dodd --- leader of The Cause. Lancaster Dodd also has his desires, and similarly to Daniel Plainview, his eventual fame and power overwhelm him.
Quill forms a close and fatherly-like bond and defends his deceptive and convoluted ideologies. This is where familial themes are found again, as Quill treats The Cause as his family. Whereas Punch-Drunk Love ends on newfound love, The Master ends on coping with a lost love. By the conclusion, the audience has felt his almost tangible pain.
Polarizing Inherent Vice was released in 2014. It focuses on private detective “Doc” Sportello (another Phoenix role) as he takes a case from his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) to solve a suspected plan that her boyfriend might be kidnapped and sent to a mental hospital. What follows are complicated and sometimes superfluous storylines of neo-Nazis, revolutionary groups, and corrupt cops. Even with the abundance of tidbits to remember, the scheme of things here is investing. Phoenix often holds up the film with another stunningly believable performance. This picture’s humour was effective as well in its dry manner, with the hippie-stoner-surfer era of the ‘70s playing to its advantage. It was one of the greatest offerings of 2014. Far out.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who explores themes that we can all relate to, uses a constantly moving camera for a one-of-a-kind burst of energy and has made some of the greatest films of the past 3 decades. He is PTA.
“I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life.”
- Paul Thomas Anderson.
Yes. Yes, you will.