For Paul Thomas Anderson there was never much of a plan B when it came to directing and filmmaking. Growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley with an actor for a father, Anderson was encouraged from an early age to pursue a career in film. Choosing the ‘university of life’ over a college education, after two semesters at Emerson College and just two days at NYU, Anderson threw all his chips, not to mention his life savings, into the production of his first film, which he considered to be his ‘college education’. This film was the short Cigarettes & Coffee, made for just $20,000 and shown at Sundance to considerable acclaim. Cigarettes & Coffee was later expanded into his first feature Hard Eight, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John C. Reilly, a film which would become his Hollywood calling card, and allow him to make the challenging and unique films with which he has made his name. With the rapturous praise for his most recent film, The Master (2012), it seems as though Anderson’s gamble on his education well and truly paid off.
It therefore seems fitting that Hard Eight (1996) centres on the story of a gambler, as rookie John C. Reilly learns the ropes from seasoned gambler Philip Baker Hall. Expanded from the short film Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), Hard Eight begins and ends in a diner, much like the earlier short, set entirely in a roadside eatery.The seeds of one of Anderson’s enduring themes can be seen in both films, that of the troubled father son relationship. Philip Baker Hall’s Sydney has taken up the role of a father figure for John, but it is later revealed that Sydney is actually responsible for the death of John’s father. This often torurous and almost always unhealthy father son dynamic can be seen again with Daniel and H.W. Plainview in There Will Be Blood, and is continued with the characters of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd in The Master.
As Anderson explores some of the most complex paternal relationships in cinematic history, his films also continuously explore the California of his birth, bringing light and often darkness to the state, and thereby following in the footsteps of famously erudite Californians such as John Steinbeck and Joan Didion. Set in the San Fernando Valley in the heart of his home state, Magnolia (1999) presents a microcosm of America and American family life through a series of searing vignettes. Having previously admitted his desire to create something smaller, and more intimate than the modern epic Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson found Magnolia’s story growing bigger and bigger, to the point where it can almost be seen as a ‘state of the nation’ film. Harkening back to both the missed and unlikely connections we see in his debut Cigarettes & Coffee, Magnolia’s breadth and scope manages to be both soaring and intimate, as we watch the ambitiously large ensemble of characters convey the often devastating sense of claustrophobia of daily life.
The small life writ large is portrayed once again in Anderson’s fourth feature, Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, Punch-Drunk Love was something of a divergence for the director, with his decision to work with a comic actor, on what ostensibly appeared to be a simple romantic comedy. Drenched in colour and light, Punch-Drunk Love is one of Anderson’s films which sheds light on California specifically, and America more generally. Inspired by the life of David Phillips, known also as the ‘Pudding Man’, who bought $3,000 worth of pudding in order to accrue 1.25 million air miles, the film follows Barry Egan (Sandler) as he simultaneously romantically pursues Emily Watson’s character (Lena), and attempts to out-run four brothers trying to extort him. As he runs to and from what haunts him and what he desires, Barry’s journey leads him to the simple lesson that small lives get a whole lot bigger when you let love in.
If There Will Be Blood (2007) appears initially to stand apart from Anderson’s previous work, it is still nevertheless, resolutely Californian. Where formerly Anderson’s films explore the California of present day America, and the often seedy underpinnings of the industries which set it apart from other American states, There Will Be Blood portrays the state at the turn of the twentieth century and the bloody beginnings of the oil industry. The cold, cruel, and calculating presence of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview oozes with menace and dangerous malice. A man who feeds off of competition, stamping out anything and anyone who threatens his position at the top of the oil derrick, Plainview’s journey from ostensible family-and businessman to alienated millionaire warns of the dangers of unbridled competition and capitalism. This is spectacularly represented in the towering inferno of the derrick explosion which deafens his son, when Plainview looks into the blaze and sees the promise of oil and great wealth. Where others see destruction and violence, Plainview sees hope, a pertinent reminder, as in many of Anderson’s films, that perception is in the eye of the beholder.
Set just after the Second World War, and apparently based on the early beginnings of Scientology, Anderson’s most recent film, The Master (2012), follows traumatised and unstable veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he finds friendship with the leader of a cultish religion (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd). Exploring another potentially toxic homosocial relationship, Anderson delves into the world of the cult leader who is dangerously drawn to the kind of violent loyalty Quell displays towards him. The film received the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, proving it worthy of the critical success to which Anderson has grown accustomed.
Anderson is now hailed, in large part due to the critically acclaimed There Will Be Blood, as one of America’s best, if not the best, living director working today. His resume may be brief (The Master is only his sixth full length feature film) for someone so well known, well respected and critically lauded, but it appears as though his astute choices, if not outright pickiness, has had the desired effect. He is a director that actors are drawn to work with, industry players trust to deliver, and critics both love and laud in equal measure. He therefore looks set to continue his winning streak with his next project, an adaptation of Thomas Pyncheon’s Inherent Vice, which will see Anderson back on his home turf in California. The buzz and collectively bated breath surrounding this future project, as well as his most recent work The Master, is testament to Anderson’s reputation, solidifying his place at the top of the pile of modern American filmmakers.
Watch a panel discussion with Paul Thomas Anderson at the Venice Film Festival 2012:
By Annie Taylor
1:The Master Movie Poster, Comingsoon.it
2: Boogie Nights Movie Poster, Listal
3: Film Still, There Will Be Blood, Cinemagia