On Christmas day 2017, my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. As we watched I wrote about each of them. These are not recaps or academic analysis, just trying to understand what the films have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn about story from a master storyteller. Below are links to each piece and excerpts I’m particularly proud of.
Hard Eight and Boogie Nights
Boogie Nights treats it’s characters with such tenderness that when things devolve for them, when their sheltered ignorance comes to bite them in the butt, you don’t laugh. Yes, the characters are not in on a lot of the jokes in the first act but somehow it isn’t mean. John C. Reilly’s sweetness, Julianne Moore’s mothering; these characters genuinely love each other and are seeking love in its most profound sense.
Like Hard Eight, what we expect, horrible people to exploit each other, is not what we get. What we see on screen is a group of pretty regular, if somewhat damaged, people trying to find companionship. Where hurt comes through in Boogie Nights, is in the past. Some of these characters have pasts that are named and take a lead in their lives. Mark Wahlberg’s scene with his mother gestures broadly at a troubled home life. Heather Graham’s roller skate beatdown and her painful cries of “Don’t disrespect me!” is a startling moment that reveals the hurt endured by this women and what horror she might be running from to choose this life.
Explicitly, [Magnolia] lifts coincidence as a substantial facilitator of human connection (and an elegant storytelling device). Magnolia meets its characters in moments of extreme vulnerability, self-made or otherwise. This leaves them open to confrontation (confronting themselves and each other) and change, if not always growth.
Coincidence and vulnerability as a catalyst of change plays an important role in Phantom Thread, as well. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock appears ready to let chance enter his life in the form of a parade of young “muses,” Vicky Krieps’ Alma being the latest iteration. These women presumably serve a creative end for him, stimulating him enough but not too much. What he doesn’t expect is Alma’s ability to see and exploit his emotional and physical vulnerability. It is this delicate and intimate manipulation that forces him to acknowledge her as a whole person. It is also his own susceptibility to her control, so different from his sister’s, that lets him acknowledge his vulnerability and see some value in the messy, human parts of life.
Reynolds’ personal narratives, his relationships with his mother and sister, his “curse,” his habits, form the walls of his prison, and part of his strength. That his narrative is tenuous, the way all narrative is, susceptible to puncture by a well-handled blade, makes the grace of Alma’s insertion all the more tender.
Punch Drunk Love
[Paul Thomas Anderson]’s first three movies use human connection in different and powerful ways, thinking in particular about the many and diverse connections we each cultivate. This film seems to be a departure from that as it illustrates the value of breaking connections and a focus on one connection in particular. This film also introduces the Particular Man character who will become the centerpiece in his next four films. Adam Sandler, sweet, sad Adam Sandler, as Barry Egan is no Daniel Plainview or Lancaster Dodd, but he is the keenly observed and eccentric focus of this film. While the first three films smash together and tear apart characters, this one steps back and lets them do what they need to do.
There Will Be Blood
Tom Cruise’s maniacal libertine Frank Mackey in Magnolia is deeply self-conscious and madly driven. Drive, a theme we also see flashes of in Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, is embodied with frightening and mesmeric power in Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview. I don’t want to call it ambition because ambition has a goal, has an end, even if it is intangible or self-designed to be out of reach. Daniel Plainview is not ambitious, he is driven, propelled forward by something inside that won’t let him rest until he’s beaten everyone who’s ever challenged him (figuratively, emotionally, and, in some cases, literally).
There is a way of looking at this movie that has his drive destroying his life, tearing apart his relationships and leaving the man who has everything drunk and twitching with violence in the gutter of his own bowling alley. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Daniel Plainview gets exactly what he wanted. His drive is for power over his environment. He wants power over the earth and he gets it. He wants power over the people around him, over their roles in his life and over their lives themselves and he gets it. And when he has these things he’s finished.
In that so many of Anderson’s early films are about connections between people The Master explores power and control as a meaningful part of the process of creating connection. For damaged people, for those of us looking for meaning beyond what we can see ourselves, reading and responding to power is a really important part of placing ourselves in the world. Freddie is so compelling because we watch him see this, reject it, see it again, loose track of himself, and finally find some peace within his own chaos. We see Master oscillate though a similar maelstrom but with subtlety and control, the moment when you see his white knuckles gives tremendous gravity to the gaiety in his tranquil moments of power.
There is something beyond power and control that defines Lancaster Dodd, and that is laziness. Dodd wants to be Master without doing to work necessary to master anything. When he finally gets around to writing Book Two, he can’t even be bothered to maintain continuity. When Laura Dern (god bless her) gestures at his intellectual laziness all he can do it get loud, a transparent tactic of many lazy men. Freddie, on the other hand, is seen as a lazy drunk. He has anarchy in him and does not contribute in any conventional way, but this is far from lazy. He is proactive in his protection of Master. He is proactive in his inebriant chemistry. He is wild in his motion but he is always moving. The narrative of his laziness comes from his inability to live within cultural norms. He can’t achieve the goals expected of him and it is seen as a failure of character, the fault of a lazy man. While Dodd also lives outside those same norms he responds to them and uses their language. By writing books and collecting acolytes his story is that of a diligent and elevated contributor. Even those that see him as a charlatan engage with him as a rational peer because that is how he presents. This is while Freddie is either ignored or gawked at as an animal in Master’s control.
There aren’t a lot of movies about people who love their jobs, but it seems to be something that Anderson is interested in. As far as I can tell there are two main career-related narratives that exist in culture. One, follow your dreams and the money will come, which is manifested both positively and negatively across cultural narratives. Two, you are not your job, the idea that an individual works in order to support the human, non-work part of their life, that work is subsidiary to life. Both of these have truth in them, but Anderson seems to present a third way, a way that is closer to my personal experience of the relationship between work life and everything else. I love my job and I think that’s partly, like Bigfoot, because I’m good at it and partly, like Doc, because the end result of the work makes me feel good.
This is a film about courage and caution and the frameworks we create in our lives to make it possible to be courageous on whatever scale it is that we work in. Anderson has clearly constructed for himself a milieu, a career, in which he has the courage to make such a strange and particular film. But he does so not without caution. We are cautioned in the previews and in the opening passages of the film itself that what is to come is not like other films.
The common narrative around courage is that it is something we have in our hearts, a bright internal light, maybe, that reminds us of our own resilience. Courage is organic within us, something we access with varying degrees of success throughout our lives, a resource to be tapped. What exists in Phantom Thread seems to be a different narrative about how courage exists in the world. Courage here is something you build for yourself. Courage is the collection of behaviors and objects we each amass that support us in the quest for the life that we want. Courage here is also mixed up deeply with caution. Being cautious in this world seems to be an important and highly valued tool in building courage. … Courage is not something that festers within us, waiting for an opportunity to break free. Courage is not dormant. Courage must be built, it must be acquired, both over time and in a moment of need. Caution helps build courage in that it guides us to the rituals, the ideas and the physical totems that empower us to be brave.