Paul Thomas Anderson: a viewer’s guide to the greatest filmmaker of a generation

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Heather Graham in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (Credit: Boogie Nights Facebook page)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is 20 years old and Getintothis’ Chris Leathley reflects on the career of one of Hollywood’s most fascinating directors.

Hollywood is usually the graveyard of directors like Paul Thomas Anderson. In LA, money is the bottom line. Ignore that central tenet and your career is going to be of short duration.

For profits to be made, the rationale of the studios is often founded upon accessibility. If you produce movies that audiences readily comprehend, ticket sales are likely to be correspondingly large.

Hence, it should be both surprising and encouraging that the director behind such cinematic esoterica as The Master (2012) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), is a hardy perennial in the American filmmaking community.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a product of, and adherent to, cineaste culture. Even though Anderson spent a relatively limited time in College studying film, there can be little doubt that theory matters to his work. Practice and technique alone are insufficient.

Nevertheless, Anderson is not a director on the margins. He has found his audience repeatedly, with four of his releases (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread) breaking the $40 million barrier for global box office. They’re not stratospheric figures but they are none too shabby either.

Indeed, if anything, Anderson has demonstrated the viability of movies that exist outside the mainstream, even if their production, cast and distribution reside comfortably within the system.

It was not always thus however. Anderson’s debut production, Hard Eight (1996), only drew in a little over $200,000 in box office. It did provide a promise of glories yet to come though, in terms of technical precision, dramatic momentum and visual nous. It was enough to earn Anderson another tantalising bite out of the cinematic cherry.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Two of Anderson’s biggest financial hits were to be his next two films, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). After this opening triumvirate of movies, Anderson could afford to carve out a more idiosyncratic furrow. With the weight of critical opinion behind him, and the ability to attract secure investment, Anderson made a left-field turn.

Boogie Nights (Credit; Boogie Nights Facebook page)

This decision led to a collaboration with Adam Sandler on Punch-Drunk Love (2003). Sandler was a comic actor well-known for simplistic comedies that plumbed the depths of toilet humour. It is a measure of Anderson’s tactful qualities as a director that he was able to mould a film and performance from Sandler that was to result in yet more acclaim without sacrificing artistic value.

Anderson would follow his individual fascinations with even more bravado in 2007 when he released what many consider to be the finest work of American cinema this century, There Will Be Blood. Indeed, it attracted 8 Oscar nominations and yielded his biggest box office to date.

Such heady praise, and there was plenty of praise in the aftermath of There Will Be Blood, might have proven suffocating to lesser directors. Adulation can prove addictive and directors can often make increasingly ‘safe’ choices as to their projects, in a vain attempt to defend their tenuous position a-top the critical pile.

Paul Thomas Anderson has never entertained such thoughts though. His cinematic philosophy remains defiantly non-materialistic whilst his selection of work for production is anything but Oscar bait (even though his movies persist in attracting the attention of the Academy – 25 nominations and counting).

All of Anderson’s subsequent films, The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017), have demonstrated that he is no mediocre hack. His films resist repetition and they defy complacent categorisation.

Each production has enjoyed its own raison d’etre whilst being delivered with adapted modus operandi that vary enormously from movie to movie. Rather than bending in the wind of the latest Hollywood zeitgeist, Anderson stubbornly dedicates himself to his own star, whither it should flit.

That said, however, there are some repetitions of horizon, modality and personnel within Anderson’s filmography. He appears content to cultivate a ‘family’ of collaborators and, for the most part, works exclusively with them. These relationships are reciprocal, with some of this generation’s finest actors, eager to work on an Anderson set.

Daniel Day Lewis, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix have all starred in more than one Anderson film. The same can be said for Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, producers Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar or composers such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

Beyond these more obvious patterns of filmmaking, there are subtle trends that form a rich seam throughout Anderson’s filmography.

There is an ominous drum beat to Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, even when it is comic, rather than dramatic, fayre. Perhaps drumbeat is too intrusive a metaphor – more appropriate would be a finely crafted brush against the surface of whichever world Anderson is traversing through.

Faint rustles of activity and exploration, seemingly innocuous but strange and illuminating nevertheless. This helps manufacture a cinema of unease, of discomfited individuals, often made irrelevant by their community, time or place.

Sometimes droll, sometimes terrifying, these are devastating tales that are resolutely non-linear. It would be fair to assert that Anderson, an accomplished screenwriter as well as director, operates outside the tramlines of screenplay dogma. He displays intuitive skill when adapting existing works (There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice) or developing a narrative from scratch.

As such, there is no one story to be told, no constraining rules to abide by. Consequently, his methods of constructing this cinema of unease differ wildly.

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Visually, Anderson is confident in utilising chiaroscuro lighting in order to underpin the opacity of characters in his movies, characters who proffer only limited exposition of their reasoning or desires. The camera in Anderson’s movies, operates as a fluent amoral eye, roving over and through lives in differing degrees of crisis.

Both narratively and visually then, Anderson never lets the audience off the hook with cathartic rationales for character behaviour. Much more slyly, Anderson leaves the viewer to speculate as to true motives and meaning, making our interaction with his cinematic world much more unsettled and uncertain.

Something that is not discussed as often regarding Paul Thomas Anderson, are the prominent, empowering roles given to women. These are characters coloured by the kind of tenacity, ruthlessness and sense of purpose that is usually reserved for more prevalent tired Hollywood male stereotypes.

That is not to say that Anderson casts his female actors in an exclusively morally grey light. The vivacity of these protagonists are also conceived in terms of bonds of affection or familial obligation, but never at the expense of a robust sense of self.

In order to illustrate this, think of Amy Adams in The Master. As Peggy Dodd, she exudes a steel-tipped determination to support her husband Lancaster’s ambitions but also to dominate this compromised con-artist.

Consider also, Vicky Krieps as Alma in Phantom Thread, a woman with deeply complex feelings for the man who is both lover and terror to her, a man who we can assume she is every bit the equal of, if not superior to.

With slightly less ethical ambiguity, we can marvel at the performance of Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love as Lena Leonard, a woman who falls in love with Adam Sandler’s socially inept entrepreneur but only on terms agreeable to her.

There is no marginalisation of women here, no doveish surrender to male supremacy. Strong, assertive female characters are at the very heart of Anderson’s cinematic universe.

Move beyond gender and you find that Anderson is obsessed with the alienated. His films encompass us all in a clammy embrace with the bereft and the lost. Almost every movie in Anderson’s oeuvre is submerged amidst this fog of skewed human compasses, lives directionless and spinning hopelessly.

Indeed, some of these works appear to be patchwork quilts of social dissonance, Magnolia being the most obvious example. Anderson’s dispassionate cinematography only serves to reinforce the cognitive disconnect between protagonists and their milieu.

One of the most profound manifestations of this alienation can be found in Anderson’s use of the ‘tyrant’ in his films. He mines this traditional cinematic trope with a great deal more success than others before him and with much more originality.

Consider the vituperative bile of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood as he wrestles with nature (both his own and the physical landscape that he seeks oil within); or the suavely confident Lancaster Dodd in The Master who struggles to contain his more primal and turbulent persona.

There Will Be Blood

Bitter is the fate of those who are rendered therein. The pathological need to control that is evident within these characters points to Anderson’s careful reflection upon man’s insecurities. We can all relate to these unedifying traits in the midst of our own lives, buffeted by modernity and political instability.

However terrible these tyrants are, our horror is tempered by how murky a mirror image they provide to our own fates and experiences.

Moreover, Anderson accentuates this cinema of unease with his intelligent use of tonally astute scores. Recent soundtracks in particular (The Master and There Will Be Blood spring immediately to mind), have proven to be brittle musical evocations of baleful fates and emotional struggles that are perfectly married to Anderson’s filmography.

Scores have proven to be a central feature of Anderson’s approach to filmmaking. In terms of early work, this has ranged from the nostalgic disco bonanza of Boogie Nights, through to the delicately contrived work of Aimee Mann on Magnolia. Later films have displayed a change of tack, as already suggested, with the progressive ambitions of Jonny Greenwood set loose amongst a raft of taut, subtly subversive compositions.

Anderson has further revealed this passion for music, directing music videos for Fiona Apple, Joanna Newsom and Aimee Mann, amongst others. This has also been exemplified by his documentary work, producing Junun (2015) to record the collaborative work of Jonny Greenwood with Israeli and Indian musicians. Music is certainly not incidental for this director.

All of our preceding thoughts on Anderson may lead to the baseless accusation that he is a humourless filmmaker. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Aside from the self-evident fact that both Punch-Drunk Love and Inherent Vice are largely comic in tone and intent, Anderson’s cinema contains numerous moments of mordant comedy. Even at its most bleakly misanthropic, Anderson’s movies retain the capacity to make us smile wryly – the hallucinatory party scene in The Master or the gauche Mark Wahlberg navigating the 70s Adult film scene proffer plenty of laughs.

On a much more ambitious level, Phantom Thread unexpectedly morphs into a ferocious black comedy, a contest of personal wills that should appal but fascinates instead. In that sense then, Anderson is no Bergmanesque director, intent only on studied sincerity. Comic vitality resonates throughout his filmography.

One final point worth making regarding Paul Thomas Anderson is that his cinematic art is suffused with love, even though it may not always be apparent.

Sometimes asphyxiating, sometimes malevolent but often, it is a love born simply of lust and romance.

For every twisted Machiavellian Phantom Thread, there is the (almost) saccharine intensity of Punch-Drunk Love or the wistful nostalgia for lost loves displayed so poignantly in Inherent Vice. One might even make a case for the slick, morally ambivalent ‘love’ shared by Peggy and Lancaster Dodd in The Master, a relationship rooted in paranoia and flint-edged survival instincts.

Either way, love in all its conceptions and rituals, common or no, is prevalent in Anderson’s movies.

For a director who has often used the past as his source of inspiration, Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker of contemporary relevance that few other cinematic auteurs can match. It is a counter-cultural marvel that this unique artist with such a fierce investment in his filmic vision, can still thrive in a dollar-hungry industry.

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In order to celebrate this, Getintothis now provides a quick guide to Anderson’s exceptional filmography…

Hard Eight (1996)

Anderson’s debut was, by the standards of what was to come, relatively conventional. Philip Baker Hall plays an ageing gambler who takes a down-on-his-luck John C Reilly under his wing and teaches him the ‘rules of the game’. Anderson then reveals a gallery of characters, of varying degrees of moral decline, all seeking some kind of solace in an environment bereft of easy sanctuary.

The plot, at least, remains unpredictable, as past misdeeds and intersecting destinies are revealed. Similarly, the cast is impressive, especially given the limited financing, with Samuel L Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow complementing the deft actors on display.

Hard Eight (Credit: Hard Eight Facebook page)

As a movie, its mood is resolutely low-key and downbeat, perhaps explaining why Hard Eight struggled to find an audience. Nonetheless, it did find credit with many film critics such as Roger Ebert. More importantly, the positive notices in the film press ensured that Anderson would get another opportunity to direct.

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Boogie Nights (1997)

Bigger budget, bigger vision? Well, maybe, but the story behind Boogie Nights retains an edge, not least because it delves deep within the cultural undercurrents that swirled in 70s America. That the film appears day-glo (despite the, at times, troubling context) in terms of costume, sets, music and ambitious cinematography, is a testament to the vivacity of Anderson’s cinema.

His capacity to steer the narrow line between hedonistic indulgence and fame’s hollow solace and isolation reflects this. Indeed, one thing that really stands out about Boogie Nights is how courageous the choice to make the film was.

Paul Thomas Anderson & Boogie Nights cast (Credit:Boogie NIghts Facebook page)

After all, this was Anderson’s (potentially only) chance to show what he was capable of in film. That he chose to adapt his early High School film experiment, a mockumentary about a porn star, and manufacture an expansive odyssey throughout the rise and fall of ‘golden era’ adult cinema is audacious, to say the least.

As salacious as this could have been, Anderson is much more interested in the human stories within the industry. As we watch Mark Wahlberg’s navigation of the enigmatic, heady environs of adult movies, we see that Anderson treats his protagonists with affection but not with undue sentiment. Wahlberg’s character Eddie Adams, has to contend with all the trials and tribulations that arrive with his meteoric rise to stardom, incorporating drugs, fractured relationships and the harsh realities of show-business.

No special treatment is afforded the taboo filmmaking on display. Anderson treats the adult film universe as just another extension of Hollywood, no different in its technical mechanics and power hierarchies.

In fact, when you strip out the ‘adult’ context, Anderson in making Boogie Nights, was really crafting a fan-boy essay on the joys of celluloid versus the anaesthetised era of digital ubiquity. As the industry around Eddie Adams changes, we see obvious parallels with the wider world of cinema.

In that sense then, perhaps the giddy, wide-eyed innocence of ‘Dirk Diggler’ at the start of his career becomes a cipher for all of us as we first encounter that one true artistic love. Through Boogie Nights, we see one version of that world which, transient though it may be, we dearly wish that we could retain within our fragile grasp. A world of careless liberty, uninhibited carnality and passionate creativity.

Is it too much to claim artistic sincerity for the milieu of Boogie Nights? Think of Jack Horner’s (played by Burt Reynolds in a career peak performance) conversation in the Diner as he describes his film aspirations, lost in meditative reverie as he reveals the scope of his cinematic hopes, and you might begin to see what I mean. Perhaps even, Diggler is a cipher for Anderson himself and his interaction with the Silver Screen?

Regardless, Boogie Nights is a masterpiece of 90s cinema, providing an emphatic statement of intent by a director hitting his artistic stride.

Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia is an almost universally praised film but, truthfully, this writer would consider Anderson’s third movie to be a qualified success only, especially when set against his other formidable cinematic works.

Magnolia is sprawling, extending across many different fictional lives and personalities, aided and abetted by a gallery of acting stars. Anderson, both in terms of narrative and casting, showed aspirations that were monumental even if they were only partially fulfilled.

Magnolia

In terms of plot, Magnolia is a vertigo-inducing mosaic of personal traumas. We range over a scarcely credible melodrama that encompasses the dying, abuse survivors, child prodigies (both current and past), neurotic drug addicts, lovelorn cops and more. To summarise would be pointless but Anderson is certainly seeking to use these isolated, damaged souls as means by which he can convey sympathy for the living, those resident in worlds that are not always of their creation but imprison them nonetheless.

This unfortunately allows the film to meander and luxuriate in misanthropy, generating a mood of melancholic resignation, infrequently alleviated by some moments of brief catharsis. Nonetheless, Magnolia is not a film without merit and the emotional strain of these stories does translate, for the most part.

This is most evident in that the dramatis personae are played by some of the most vibrant actors of the era – Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards (in his last screen appearance), Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C Reilly, William H Macy and Tom Cruise. Cruise in particular, is revelatory as the kind of repulsive pick-up artist who seems ever more prevalent these days, a kind of primitive Jordan B Petersen for horn-dog misogynists.

Magnolia also boasts a soundtrack that features exquisite original compositions by Aimee Mann, songs that had appeared prior to the film but had inspired Anderson whilst writing the screenplay. Few movies have been as heavily shaped by the songs of its soundtrack, both in terms of storyline and atmosphere.

As a mood piece then, or indeed, as a tableau of special performers demonstrating considerable acting chops, Magnolia succeeds. It certainly resonated at the box office and received effusive acclaim.

Yet as a coherent work of cinema, it falls somewhat short of other thematically similar efforts (Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is one example of a superior movie with the same thematic premise).

Regardless, it facilitated Anderson’s next film which was to prove very different in both style and content.

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Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Unlike the rather grandiose Magnolia, Anderson sought a more intimate character study with his new foray into film. Not only that, but he chose to work in the comic form. After the expanse of both Boogie Nights and Magnolia, this was evidence of a director who was fully comfortable in his own filmmaking skin.

Anderson took further risks with casting Adam Sandler, poster-boy for a brand of comedy that dissolves brain cells faster than the latest UKIP party political broadcast. That said, Anderson augmented this bold choice with regular Luis Guzman and Emily Watson, an actor who had excelled in Lars von Trier’s controversial Breaking the Waves.

Punch Drunk-Love (Credit: PDL Facebook page)

Punch-Drunk Love thus allows us a ring-side seat for a carnival of personal misery as Barry Egan, a small-time entrepreneur who leads a stunted life, tries to pursue an endurable existence. He is harried and harassed by seven sisters, keen to belittle Egan at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Barry seeks acceptance within a world that remains disinterested in his fate and it is this that forms the basis of the film.

Although, to suggest that Punch-Drunk Love is merely a movie about one socially inept man finally, finally, achieving a meaningful connection with somebody is to underestimate its subtle wonder. For one thing, Emily Watson as Lena Leonard is in no way comparable to Egan’s awkward personality. She is quietly assertive, secure in her own desires.

Lena’s romance with Egan is frank, in all its elements, a fumbling lust and a problematic intimacy. Instead of pulling hard on the usual Hollywood levers, Anderson is content to allow events to unfold haphazardly.

Whilst doing so, Anderson confidently situates this all within a comedic frame, embracing farce and more deft comic approaches. This is especially true as Egan confronts some of his tormentors towards the movie’s denouement.

One final point of note regarding Punch-Drunk Love is its scintillating cinematographic palette (done full justice by a recent Criterion reissue). This ensures that Anderson’s work is given an aesthetic ‘lift’ that complements the measured texture of the screenplay.

Punch-Drunk Love has stood the test of time and is still a real delight for all fans of off-kilter cinema.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

It is hard to write adequately about There Will Be Blood. To codify the story is to reduce it to conventional banality. There is nothing unpredictable about the basic aspects of Daniel Plainview’s (played with rabid ferocity by Daniel Day Lewis) quest to find oil. If you are keen for a point of cinematic reference, think Gene Hackman’s Jack McCann in Eureka, just without the cosmological mumbo-jumbo.

There Will Be Blood (Credit: TWBB Facebook page)

We are presented with Plainview as a rustic prospector, albeit one with a particularly pronounced monomania that is almost Jesuitical in its missionary zeal. From this beginning, we view the rise, tragedy, acquisition of wealth and fall of Plainview on his profane journey.

This is hardly an a-typical plotline but that is somewhat beside the point.

Anderson’s screenplay ascends beyond the ordinary by weaving a tale that is far from explicit. Instead, we get lost, adrift in a black sea of untrammelled appetites. The primitivism of Daniel Plainview’s howl into the capitalist abyss is obscured by an elusive approach, one that emphasises oblique angles of narrative incidence.

More often, we are gifted insights into the inscrutable Plainview via other characters and their interaction with him. This morose protagonist is thrown into sharp relief by those around him – Paul Dano’s ruthless evangelist, Kevin J O’Connor’s mysterious brother and of course, the orphan son H.W., enigmatic and perhaps Plainview’s only tenuous link to humanity.

Paul Thomas Anderson directing Daniel Day-Lewis (Credit: TWBB Facebook page)

It is on these screenwriting terms that Anderson illustrates how Plainview sacrifices all to achieve, by the film’s conclusion, an apogee of self-loathing. That he does so without succumbing to the over-weening melodrama of Magnolia is a telling reflection of Anderson’s maturity as a director. By this point in his career, Anderson is more sure of his audience, respecting them enough to leave as much as possible open to interpretation.

There Will Be Blood’s photography is resplendent, using a landscape of forbidding physicality in direct contrast with austere interiors. Here, more than in any other collaboration with Anderson, Robert Elswit makes his presence felt as cinematographer. Likewise, Jonny Greenwood’s score is one of brooding malevolence, pregnant with grim portent and grotesquely effective.

As thrilling as There Will Be Blood undoubtedly is, even more exciting is the fact that such a challenging work of cinema should propel Anderson to Oscar success and bountiful monetary reward. It shouldn’t matter but in the film industry, this has allowed Anderson to set his own terms since.

For that, and so much else with regards to There Will Be Blood, we should be thankful.

The Master (2012)

Once again, Anderson reached a fork in the road of his career. As before, even in the midst of critical recognition, this reckless director chose the road less travelled. The Master was the result and, in the view of this writer, is Anderson’s career pinnacle as a director to date.

Having experimented with less traditional storytelling techniques in There Will Be Blood, Anderson established a non-linear narrative trajectory in The Master that he would never quite match again. Gone were the peaks and troughs of convention. Replacing them, Anderson presents a hallucinatory meditation on faith, social and familial degradation and hermetic worlds.

The Master (Credit: The Master Fasebook page)

In this case, the sealed environment is that of a cult that bears uncanny resemblance to Scientology. Our entry point to this rarefied community is Freddy Quell (an turbulent acting turn by Joaquin Phoenix), a man who is barely a man, tortured by demons that are implied but not explained. An alcoholic, a sexual deviant and a person of barely restrained rage, Quell is a war veteran with no purpose or home. In fact, just like Lancaster Dodd’s cult, one could argue that Quell himself is a ‘sealed world’ both to Dodd and the viewer.

On meeting Lancaster Dodd, however, Quell sees something beyond his itinerant existence. Dodd is the charismatic overseer of a cult called The Cause that specialises in fleecing wealthy patrons as it preaches a mythology of past lives and future possibilities. Dodd is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor at the very height of his powers in this film.

Dodd is fascinated and repulsed by Quell. In fact, the implication is that he, urbane though he may be, sees himself in the savage Quell who has yet to learn the self-control that he, the master charlatan, possesses. This battle of wits proves to be the central crux of the movie, alongside the various machinations of Dodd’s family, including an absolutely astonishing performance from Amy Adams as his wife.

No easy answers are given in this film, nor would we wish to seek any. The Master, even when it dwells in the territories of magic realism, never loses its grip on the viewer, such is the potency of the characters that are created by Anderson.

Shot in 65mm film stock, The Master has an utterly unique sonambulistic style in terms of his filmography. His cinematographer for this production was Mihai Malaimare, a Romanian who has not worked on an Anderson film since. Yet, in this one collaboration, the use of light and composition is frequently ingenious, leaving an indelible series of images in the mind’s eye of the viewer.

The Master is not an accessible film and this certainly hampered its chances at the box office. Nevertheless, rarely has an American director made a more unusual movie in mainstream Hollywood. It is Anderson’s finest hour and one that should be cherished by anybody with pretensions to cinephilia.

Inherent Vice (2014)

If you need a marker of Anderson’s ambitions as a screenwriter, then surely this lunatic attempt to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel is a good starting point. Few would think it possible to recreate Pynchon’s paranoid, schismatic worlds on the screen.

Yet, Anderson was judicious in his choice of Pynchon text which was much more streamlined than some of Pynchon’s earlier masterworks. His ability to prune labyrinthine exposition meant that he was able to create a comic fantasia that also touches poignantly on personal and communal betrayal.

Inherent Vice (Credit: Inherent Vice Facebook page)

The film introduces us to Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a sometime PI who is either a savant-like genius of detection or a maddeningly incompetent investigator. The recent disappearance of an ex’s wealthy boyfriend (a surprisingly tragic turn by Eric Roberts) leads Sportello down a rabbit hole of drug smuggling, property fraud and political corruption that extends well beyond the normal confines of time, space or logic.

Cases intertwine, from seeking a lost drug addict to uncovering the true extent of smugglers, the Golden Fang’s, nefarious operations. As they do so, we start to lose a sense of place or context but what we do get is a psychedelic parody that morphs into a thriller and ends by becoming a nostalgic reflection on what might have been for all concerned.

Anderson, as always, is able to coax wonderful acting turns from Joaquin Phoenix (as Doc), Josh Brolin as a maniacal detective, Katherine Waterston as Doc’s sometime love interest and Reese Witherspoon as a not-quite-so-straitlaced public attorney. Whenever our willing suspension of disbelief starts to creak, the flamboyant cast retains our attention.

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Elswit returned for the principal photography on Inherent Vice and we are treated to a tactile method that yields beautiful results. The gaudy paraphernalia of costumes and interiors are heightened whilst muted colours are deftly elicited during moments of introspection.

Inherent Vice had a difficult time on release and was probably the first film since Hard Eight to really struggle to find an audience. This is a travesty though and it certainly deserves the revitalising of its critical reputation that has gained momentum since 2014.

As an exercise in Cult cinema, it is a glorious monument to the cultural folly of an America that seeks to homogenize, and a counter-culture that may have lost its values too.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film has returned his work to a cultural prominence not experienced since the giddy heights of There Will Be Blood. No doubt, it helped having Daniel Day Lewis on board, cast as Reynolds Woodcock who is the master couturier whom the film revolves around.

Woodcock’s fine fashions are the preserve of the wealthy and even royalty. His firm is run by the calculating Cyril (Lesley Manville on peak form) but his relationships beyond this fraternal one are detached, selfish and exploitative. In fact, much of the film seems to depict Woodcock’s career as a paradox – both a salvation and a triumph but also a constricting, repressive cage.

The Phantom Thread (Credit: The Phantom Thread Facebook page)

The film takes as its jumping-off point Woodcock’s chance meeting with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in the hotel to which he has escaped to for a brief respite. From there, we end up with a devastatingly brutal battle of the sexes, as expectations are challenged, subverted and re-calibrated. Even more surprising, given the dark hues of the narrative development, we also find some blackly comic laughs emerge.

Phantom Thread could have become simply an exercise in cinematic misanthropy, one that would have had few redeeming features. Anderson ensures through his script that such a fate does not befall this film, principally by incorporating wicked barbs, surprisingly tender moments and perceptive comments on the fragility of the familial ties that bind.

In addition, Phantom Thread is able to draw on Anderson’s experience in collaborating on past films with Robert Elswit. Due to Elswit’s unavailability, Anderson dictates the principal visual compositions himself and as such, no cinematographer was therefore credited to this film. Regardless of this, the photography is as crisp and elegant as the dresses designed by Woodcock.

Moreover, Jonny Greenwood, previously responsible for eerie, disorientating scores in some of Anderson’s finest works, is content to utilise much more lush arrangements for Phantom Thread. We see in Phantom Thread a director who will not re-tread old ground, no matter what the temptation. Few filmmakers in American history can claim to have scripted and directed such a varied cinematic oeuvre.

Once again, Paul Thomas Anderson has displayed an intuitive filmic imagination that has no equal in Hollywood today. We await his next foray into movies with baited breath…

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