An Atypical Elegance: A Decade of Paul Thomas Anderson
Credit: The Criterion Collection
A Decade Of by Greg Cwik Feature Articles Featured Film

An Atypical Elegance: A Decade of Paul Thomas Anderson

June 24, 2022

“…love must be regarded as one of the religious and dangerous experiences, because it lifts people out of the arms of reason and sets them afloat with no ground under their feet.”   – Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

If I was given a Sight & Sound ballot for my top ten films of all time, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master would probably make the list. I’ve logged it 12 times on Letterboxd, each viewing giving me more to appreciate. The film is concerned with, among many other things, American masculinity, with male friendship and the allure of acceptance, the lengths a man will go to not say what he’s feeling, all that testosterone simmering behind glassy eyes. Anderson finds in post-war America not the jubilance of victory, but an aching sense of loneliness, of alienation, of wanting to belong to something, anything. One is, after all, the loneliest number. Consider the relationship between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled, bibulous WWII Navy veteran suffering from PTSD, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of the cultish movement The Cause, inspired by the early days of Scientology. It’s toxic, and yet it’s oddly endearing, these two liars reveling in the other’s company, rolling around in the grass. Dodd is a charming and chicanerous writer/philosopher/cult leader; he beckons with a fraudulent eloquence and his enigmatic ruminations, offering ambiguous answers to unanswerable questions. In him, Freddie, a broken man, all wiry limbs and with a face in perpetual contortion, smilingly scornfully, eyes aglint with unshakable memories and mouth twisting as words ooze out, finds something resembling love, or at least what he thinks love is. As played by Phoenix, Freddie is irrational, dangerous, a man of violence, and he becomes a pupil, an acolyte, a brother, a partner to his new master. “But above all I am a man,” Dodd intones, “a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” Hoffman exudes an air of authority, seemingly sapiential when he delivers knavish lessons, captivating with his theatricality. He is a man for whom every interaction seems to be a performance.

Violence is a means of communication for Freddie, a man who fucks a woman sculpted of sand and sees phalluses in patterns of ink. Notice how when Freddie meets Dodd, the latter’s red robe partially obfuscates the corner of the frame, as if he’s seeping into Freddie’s shot, while the shots of Dodd are unobstructed. Later, in jail, the two share a shot, enfolded by iron bars. “You’re making this shit up,” Freddie wails. “Who likes you except for me?” Dodd barks. They are now co-dependent.

Credit: The Weinstein Company

But to understand this entanglement, we must go back to the beginning of the film. After assaulting a man and raucously quitting a gig as a department store photographer, Freddie takes a job pulling heads of lettuce out of the dirt. He makes a drink out of whatever chemicals he can find — turpentine, fuel — and one of the other workers drinks some. Obviously, he dies (it’s fucking turpentine). The men accuse Freddie of poisoning him, and, in a shot hearkening back to The Searchers, Freddie flees, running out the door and into the field, with its sallow-blue sky and all those rows of lettuce, the camera distant and moving left alongside Freddie. Dissolve to nighttime — and this is where Anderson flaunts his dexterity — Freddie traipsing along a dock, toward the right side of the frame now, the camera following alongside him, slightly behind. Everything is in focus, a Wellesian deep shot. The water is as black as an abyss. Then, the din of merriment, camaraderie: He comes upon a ship on whose decks, festooned with strings of lights, partygoers dance. Freddie first sees Dodd from afar, the composed and corpulent man jolly and surrounded by people. He commands the crowd — the fun seems to be emanating from him. Freddie climbs up the side of the ship, instead of using the gangplank like a normal person would; but instead of following him, the camera continues its path, sliding along the dock, resting when the gangplank is perfectly in the center of the frame, suggesting that the film, the viewer, is not like Freddie — that the film, that we, are beholden to a different kind of logic. This shot shows us that Freddie refuses to play by the rules. This is life for Freddie, this faint glimmer between a hazy past and an uncertain future.

The Master is sometimes funny (“Pig fuck!“), but Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a shaggy dog sleuth story with a helplessly intricate plot, is a bona fide laugh riot. Phoenix is present again, here playing Doc Sportello, a dirty-foot hippie detective who smokes prodigious amounts of weed. Doc’s former girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), has gone missing, and the mean, hippie-hating cop, Lieutenant Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, having the time of his life), uses the case as an excuse to bully Doc. Our clueless hero embarks on a very strange odyssey leading nowhere in particular. The byzantine plot is almost inconsequential, as it was in Pynchon’s novel. Like The Big Sleep, whose loose ends and holes flummoxed even Chandler, Inherent Vice is a detective film that is only marginally interested in solving its own mystery. I’ve seen the film maybe five times and I still have no idea what’s going on, but I don’t care. It’s easy to luxuriate in the striking specificity of the images, the gentle undulations of Jonny Greenwood’s eclectic score; I laugh uproariously when Brolin tries to order pancakes, when he fellates a chocolate pop. Like all of Anderson’s more recent films, it has an atypical elegance. The film is dialogue-heavy, so Anderson mostly shoots with medium shot-reverse-shots, focusing on the faces of his players. Anderson allows the colorful banter to unspool with a certain rhythm. (To retain some of Pynchon’s trenchant verbal wit, Anderson has the honey-voiced Joanna Newsom read the third-person narration, an inspired choice.) There’s one particular shot that has stuck with me. Owen Wilson and Phoenix are discussing a mysterious group of Asian criminals who may or may not exist; they’re enfolded by a swirling fog, and for two minutes, the camera slowly zooms in on them, closing in, catching up, as if it’s chasing Doc. The film is pervaded by paranoia, but, as they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Everyone talks about the weed in this movie, and there is a lot of it. (It’s worth pointing out that being as high as Doc is throughout the film at once helps the experience, with the colors really popping, yet makes the already unintelligible plot even harder to comprehend). But under the brume suffusing the film is a melancholic and acerbic story of uncertainty and self-doubt told through the prismatic lens of an epoch and a genre. Anderson is as encyclopedic with his cinematic references as Pynchon is with culture and science jokes. The ambiguous and insouciant approach to narrative and clarity is one of the most confident things Anderson has done. It’s not Pynchon’s novel; it’s Anderson’s film.

Anderson’s final film of the decade, Phantom Thread, is his most romantic. Anderson and an unnamed coterie of assistants shot Phantom Thread, giving it a diaphanous grace. The film breathes, sighs, weeps. A demanding and sybaritic dress designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his final performance so far), falls for a waitress named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). In the beginning of the film, we get a montage of Reynolds’ morning routine: cleaning his shoes, pulling up his socks, brushing his hair. This is a fastidious man, a man who knows what he wants. He believes himself to be cursed, incapable of being loved the way he wants. He’s unwilling to alter his life to accommodate a partner, as his is an existence besotted by the rigor of routine, rules, and persnickety tics. An air of quiet death suffuses his house.

Phantom Thread looks and sounds beautiful. Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread is as lovesick and labile as the characters in the film. The seasick strings, swoony and vertiginous, rising higher and higher like lofty aspirations before plummeting back down, sound as if they’ve been salted by the ocean breeze. Greenwood’s previous scores for Paul Thomas Anderson were eclectic but more minimalist, sometimes just a note or chord sustained beyond the point of comfort, as in the opening scene of There Will Be Blood, or infected by jaunty, burnt-out stoner rock, a kind of Pixies-esque thing, as with the paranoid and impermeable Inherent Vice.

Credit: Focus Features

After an argument, Alma poisons Reynolds with mushrooms. She isn’t trying to hurt him, just weaken him so that she can take care of him. From his sickly mind Reynolds conjures surreal images; his mother, who haunts him (an Anderson motif), appears like a specter in the shadows of the room. In Alma, he finds someone to care for him. She remains by his side, sending away the doctor, his sister, anyone who tries to help. In his time of nearly dying, Alma becomes the dominant partner. She gives life back to him. It’s been called a toxic relationship, but from the right angle, it’s also strangely romantic. As I wrote for Mubi after the film’s premiere:

Love is, at its essence, an ineffable connection, a sensation of inexplicable, unexplainable attraction and desire, a series of moments strung together to form a sinuous narrative. It requires compromise and sacrifice and malleability to remain sustainable. Alma permeates Reynolds’s heart and Home, leaving her fingerprints on the fog. She gives every piece of herself over to the mercurial Reynolds; he tries to rearrange them to construct the partner he wants, turn her into a paradigm of acquiescence and domesticity. A man so complicated, so broken, may want a simple, unalloyed partner, use her like a corporeal piece of decorum, but what he needs, Anderson implies, may be someone who instigates him—someone who challenges his ideas and impetus. Maybe he needs someone to hurt him and heal him. She knows him, sees down deep to those indescribable intricacies that fundamentally define him, and she changes him. A relationship so labile, comprising manic highs and embittered lows, is begotten by a feverish love that knows little tranquility. Passions run high, whether lovingly or spitefully. Reynolds embraces the poison; he embraces love.

Anderson’s film is an achingly beauteous and painful portrait of a complicated, toxic codependence. Empathetic without veering into the saccharine, it has flawed, yearning, damaged, flesh-and-blood characters (though no one acts or talks like people; the film adheres to a weird but consistent internal logic) who, while retaining the self-destructive and selfish tendencies of Anderson’s other characters, feel more complicated, worth caring about instead of just watching them destroy themselves. Anderson, who has in the past occasionally been hobbled by heavy-handedness and an affinity for irrational WTF moments, here handles the material with a touch as light as gossamer.