Sunday, March 18, 2018

It's Not Even Past #14: New Directions in Movies (Beginning)

I saw The Phantom Thread the night before I began writing this podcast. I'm not a PT Anderson fan, but I preferred this one, at least, to a number of his other movies. At this point, there's not even a doubt, PT Anderson is the most acclaimed filmmaker of Generation-X. Quentin Tarantino is of course his nearest rival and still the director who defines his generation's ethos; but what goes up must come down, and the world hates Quentin Tarantino right now as much as they used to love him. For the last twenty years, the acclaim for PT Anderson was consistent, universal, and in my opinion, undeserved.

Like everybody, I love Boogie Nights. Like Pulp Fiction or Jaws or The 400 Blows or Citizen Kane, it's a movie in which a new director of huge gifts announces himself and shows exactly how brilliant he is. The whole thing manages to be both excessive and perfect: the gaudy, seventies excess of Southern California, in which the porn industry is just an extreme example of the excess people put into living everywhere during that perverse decade. It's the movie Anderson was born to make, and it's frankly all been somewhat downhill from there. Right after Boogie Nights was Magnolia, in which this director with an extreme eye for style tried to match his style with emotional substance. PT Anderson is not Ingmar Bergman. Sweden is not the San Fernando Valley, and it's treacherous waters to try to create characters of enormous depth in a place where everybody tries to be so superficial. The only other movie of his I truly like is Punch-Drunk Love. It's not a perfect movie, but it's so strange that it's hilarious, which is I'm sure exactly how it's meant. Anderson is clearly a director whose natural inclination is to light and exuberance, and as he's supposedly matured, he's done everything he can to suppress his natural exuberance so that his public will take him more seriously.

The San Fernando Valley or 'The Valley' is the place where PT Anderson grew up, and Boogie Nights proved that its superficiality is his natural home. But for the rest of his career, he's tried very hard to be deep, and to me, PT Anderson's movies read like a playboy's vision of intellectual depth. Many people believe There Will Be Blood the greatest movie of its decade, but I thought it's was a bit like watching beautiful paint dry. The central set piece of the oil explosion was stunningly beautiful, but the movie is so hypnotized by the landscape and Daniel Day-Lewis's incredibly hammy performance that it didn't really take care to truly examine the issues it brought up. I'm sure many people think the movie says something very deep about the American clash between big business and religion, but look around, what's amazing about big business and religion in America is not that they clash but that they get along so well. If the movie was really a statement about America, Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday would have gone into business together and used a bowling pin to kill the union negotiator.

But you'd have to be a fool to not see that There Will Be Blood also has some enormous strengths. Anderson clearly knows California, and he photographs his lonely locations with a desolation that's a perfect reflection of the story he's trying to tell. Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis overacts, but at least it distracts from the paucity of material he has to work with, but better than DDL is Paul Dano's haunting performances as the Sunday twins. Ten years later, Eli Sunday's preacher scenes still haunt me while DDL's overacting just makes me laugh. Both, in some ways, work as reflections of their surroundings. There Will Be Blood is, for me, a two-and-a-half star movie whose grim heaviness the intellectually insecure film world mistakes for sublimity.

The Master, on the other hand, is just plain bad. Unintelligible, plodding, mesmerized by its photography, and did I mention that the plot is unintelligible? Anderson has proven over and over again that he can create great scenes, and there's no doubt the scene on the boat between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joachim Phoenix is masterly, but a great movie does not need great scenes if every scene around it is bad. Twenty good scenes, no bad ones, and the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. What the hell is the ending of that movie supposed to mean? What the hell is the point of driving off into the distance except to showcase Anderson's admittedly brilliant filmmaking technique, what the hell is the point of the scene where everybody gets naked for twenty seconds, only to be fully clothed again. So much of that movie is absolutely incomprehensible.

On the strength of Boogie Nights, I persist with Anderson, waiting for him to see in what direction his real potential lies and build on his initial great achievement. But he persists in mining this phantom realm of intellectual gravitas he doesn't have. The Phantom Thread seems, to me at least, its the logical endpoint.

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