Monday, March 19, 2018

It's Not Even Past #14 - New Directions in Movies (More)

I saw 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. I still haven't seen Inherent Vice, and frankly, it's subject matter strikes me as perfect for PT Anderson, so everything I may eat the words of everything I say from now on in this podcast. Except for Hard Eight, I've seen everything else, and I think I've seen enough to know that even if Inherent Vice is any good, it's still a blip on a trajectory.

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 would have found business, gone into business with Eli Sunday, and they would have beaten the union negotiator with a bowling pin Goodfellas style.

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 performances, in some ways, work as reflections of their surroundings. I forget which critic says that Daniel Plainview's voice sounds like the oil he mines, but there is something about his voice and cadence which does smell of gasoline - like a cross between John Huston and Burt Lancaster. , 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. Scenes for PT Anderson are just another elaborate set piece. A movie with twenty good scenes and no bad ones is a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. So what the hell is the ending of that movie supposed to mean? I doubt Anderson thought about it half as deeply as people who watched it. What the hell is the point of Joachim Phoenix leaving the cult by driving off into the distance except to showcase Anderson's brilliant desert photography, what the hell is the point of the scene where everybody gets naked for twenty seconds, only to be fully clothed again in the next shot? So much of that movie is absolutely incomprehensible because PT Anderson is a virtuoso organizer of gimmicks, but beneath the surface of his movies is more surface.

On the strength of Boogie Nights, I persist with Anderson, waiting for him to discover 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. Phantom Thread seems, to me at least, the logical endpoint of his current trajectory; a movie by a brilliant director who cares about nothing but surface and style about a brilliant fashion designer who cares about nothing but surface and style. It lays bare Anderson's artistic bankruptcy as though it were a confession. For three hours we dine with a man whose extremely specific habits are a way of shielding himself from life, who makes luxury products that nobody but the extremely wealthy could ever appreciate, and by living through an unbreakable routine, eviscerates any semblance of vitality which the chaos of life might give him.

When Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement after Phantom Thread, I was cynical about the claim for a number of reasons. Reason #1 is that Daniel Day-Lewis just came out of retirement to play this role - his third retirement for those who are counting - this new one is retirement #4. This was DDL's first role since Lincoln, five years ago, and after Lincoln, he went back into seclusion on his Georgian estate. Reason #2 is that in the midst of the #metoo imbroglios, it would have behooved many actors to lay low. The timing of DDL's announcement, always extremely cautious about his choices, seemed to me a little suspicious. Finally and most importantly, reason #3, Daniel Day-Lewis said that the reason he's retiring is that the part of Reynolds Woolcock was simply too draining to ever act again. No actor since Marlon Brando has been so famous for his character preparation, and Daniel Day-Lewis goes so much further with method preparation than Brando ever did. As many people have pointed out, method acting is the favored preparation of so many famous male actors: Brando of course, but since him Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, Shia LeBouf and of course, the late Heath Ledger, whose method acting may have killed him. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep just shows up. Occasionally you hear about Hillary Swank or Charlize Theron going method, but Kate Winslet? Julianne Moore? Helen Mirren? Cate Blanchett? Jodie Foster? When has anyone ever heard a story about a great actress carrying her work home with her? This is not yet another podcast in which the author calls out sexism or the disparities of behavior between men and women. My point in bringing this up is that if there were any appreciable difference in the quality between male actors, so many of whom 'go method', and female actors, the vast majority of whom just act, then the method would have something to recommend itself. As it stands, the method seems more like narcissism than acting. Just think of There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis, the world's most famous Actor-With-A-Capital-A, spent a year preparing to be Daniel Plainview. Paul Dano was hired to play Sunday on Thursday and had to start shooting Monday. Even if nobody agrees with me that Dano was better than DDL, everybody agrees that this 23 year old B-List actor completely kept up with the emperor of the profession. Daniel Day-Lewis grew up in England, where he thoroughly trained in the most traditional, classical school of acting in which you don't prepare for the part with research or carrying your character over to everyday life, you just do the role by knowing the text like the back of your hand. In a repertory theater company, there's no time for that kind of exhaustive research, but what you lose in inwardness you gain in the strength of having a cohesive cast that acts with one another in production after production and spend decades learning how to make a cohesive ensemble and play off your colleagues. If Daniel Day-Lewis is so tired of the method, why doesn't he just try acting?

But once you see Phantom Thread, you realize that his claim about this part draining everything from him was absolutely serious. The movie itself is not bad, it's just rather bland: I'd give it a seven-out-of-ten or a soft three stars out of four. The ending is not exactly coherent, but it's still pretty funny, and it's nice to know that Anderson can still occasionally let his sense of humor out. But in both the cases of Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, the character of Reynolds Woolcock can be a standin for the essential decadence of their approaches to art. DDL claimed that both he and PT were utterly drained and depressed from the experience of making it, and when you see it, you might infer exactly why that is. Since 2000, nearly every movie either has made is greatly revered without being loved. With the possible exceptions of Lincoln and Punch-Drunk Love, they both make utterly cold products, divorced from life as most people them. It must have been like turning their eyes into their very souls, and seeing the reflection of something neither wanted to admit - that if the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature, then they both have lived a middle age that holds nature at bay. If that was the realization they had, it must have been devastating.

PT Anderson, a director who practically defined what fashion was for the cinema world for twenty years, made a movie that is completely tone-deaf to the zeitgeist.

Were it made twenty years ago, it would have been the kind of movie Harvey Weinstein would have backed; a movie for people over seventy who spent their younger years watching Merchant-Ivory movies and Masterpiece Theater adapt Victorian novels they never finished. It's a costume drama about how a wife finds satisfaction in ministering to a white male genius who dresses the super-rich. When you get home, you look PT Anderson up and you realize he's been married to Maya Rudolph since 2001, which in Hollywood is an eternity - and that they have four children. Maya Rudolph is one of the most brilliant comic actresses alive, but for the last ten years, her most famous appearance is defecates in a sewer while playing backup to Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. Perhaps while she was on SNL, PT Anderson was the one taking time off for the kids, but since she left SNL in 2007, he's made There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread. There's a clear disparity in their partnership, and in an era when awe at the male genius is no longer what it was, PT Anderson, be his achievements great or small - is beginning to look seriously unfashionable. When you hear Reynolds Woolcock's narcissistic cry of despair at people preferring other dress designers because they're thought more chic, and his agony at how he thinks his marriage is destroying his creativity, you begin to wonder who's really doing the talking.

About five years ago, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson's homonymic rival for cinematic prestige, was at a similar crossroads in his career - mesmerized by style, irony, and immaculate shot composition. Still enamored of his fashionability, but after the disaster that was Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou, no longer fashionable (and shut up, it's terrible). But rather than make movies as he so often did about adults who act like children, he made Moonrise Kingdom, a movie about the virtues of children. Rather than make a movie about artificially affected people, he made Grand Budapest Hotel, about an era in human history when pretentious affectation was a virtue. In losing his fashionability, Wes Anderson gained substance, and perhaps the time's finally arrived when PT Anderson will do the same, but the world is not the 90's anymore. The 90's were a decade populated by young cinematic puppies filled with knowledge about film and little knowledge about life: the boy prophet was Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch his John the Baptist, along with apostles like the Andersons, the Coens, the Wachowskis, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufmann, the Davids Fincher and Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Gus Van Sant, and exactly one woman - Sofia Coppola, the daughter of a Hollywood King. Film bros whose cinematic subject is usually technology of some sort, possessed of technique so virtuoso that admiration of it precludes every other quality in the movie, so filled with knowledge of film that half the shots are homages. Everything in a face or nature can be airbrushed in a computer, and the movies of these cold fish are cold enough to give off the glare of a computer screen. Sure, there are exceptions, one or two movies by most of these directors I like or love, and directors like Richard Linklater or Alexander Payne or Jason Reitman whose work is far more human, but they're the exceptions, and speaking personally, I've had a rule the last few years that whatever movie people buzz about, wait five years to see if people are still talking, or if it's simply tossed off like another gadget - though I usually don't last the full five, or I just never get around to seeing it...

So far as I know, there have never been stories with PT Anderson of the kind of on-set tyranny one gets about some of these cold fish like the Davids Russell or David Fincher. Working with him doesn't seem to be a particular ordeal, and he's not even a director about which coworkers have ambivalent feelings the way they have about that friendly loose cannon, Quentin Tarantino. PT Anderson is not a particular dinosaur in his attitudes, he is only a dinosaur in the sense that nobody can articulate the ethos of an age forever.  Anderson is pushing fifty, and in relatively quick succession, he has been the director of movie after movie fascinated with the stories of men who would be great. Perhaps for the first time in the entirety of human history, stories about ambitious men are deeply, deeply unfashionable, and true to the spirit of our time, we're now seeing movies pop up left and right which tell the stories about everybody else, and it's thrilling enough to see something new at the movies that I'm now violating my rule about waiting five years. None I've seen of these movies so far, not even Lady Bird, strikes me as a masterpiece, but seeing these movies has gotten me more excited to go to the movies than perhaps I've been since college. Every week this Oscar season, it seemed like a new movie was coming out whose approach was completely new and different, no longer brined in style and irony, and no longer taking a back seat as it has for twenty years to the substance we seem to find everywhere on television.

So what are these movies?

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