Magical realism is a deceptively simple stylistic label that has often left artists floundering in their attempt to somehow create works that transcend the mundane and represent larger metaphysical concerns on our plain of existence that the human spirit grapple with daily the larger questions on our meaning in life: what is love? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is everything chaotic or is there a deeper meaning to all of this? But these and other highfalutin concepts are part and parcel for a director like P.T. Anderson.
Few directors ever addressed these questions without a high amount of pretension: Fellini created La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 to explicitly posit these quandaries, while Ingmar Bergman’s entire cinematic output battles openly to find the answers. Various directors flit in and out of addressing these concerns without ever making them their central theses, obliquely approaching them instead through distracted fiction.
But few directors–if any– have ever taken these important, life-altering questions and have thrown their potential meanings on-screen than P.T. Anderson. A director whose work runs on alternating currents of rampant cynicism and sincere optimism, Anderson uses his platform–in this case, cinema–to challenge and refute these basic questions, almost positing that if any true meaning occurs, it’s either through willful self-negation, divine intervention, or else random dumb luck.
His earliest films certainly feature the latter of this assessment: in Hard Boiled, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights, Anderson suggests that the whims of fate and self-determination will determine larger meaning, if any, to his characters’ lives, while in his latter films destiny and leaps of faith seem to be the ultimate guidance system his characters can follow. Only his most morally neutral film, The Master, does he make the daring statement that life is an uneven see-saw system of rational thought and carnal want that represents the human best: that we are all unaware slaves to our desires and lust, never reaching a true conclusion even if a constructed one is presented to us for simply answers to undying questions.
This is to say that P.T. Anderson has explored the collective unconscious–more accurately, the American collective unconscious–than any filmmaker before and since. Anderson’s characters are purely ego-driven and hope to maintain their position in the world no matter the cost; elsewhere, any character that seems to deviate from this prescribed path is smited. Maybe P.T. Anderson has a God complex. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never met the man, but through his films he certainly seems to be as capricious and violent as any god upon his subjects.
P.T. Anderson – A Perfect Director
Where else to begin with P.T. Anderson’s oeuvre than his scattershot masterpiece Magnolia? I saw this film in the theaters during its initial run, I sat riveted for three hours as this complex work navigated the lives of half a dozen main character’s dysfunctional lives while they sought meaning, redemption, and happiness. It’s not his best film–and, with what he’s produced since, nowhere near a masterpiece–but it’s an important film for this nascent director to have made. Maybe it was even an elaborate exercise on his behalf: as a narrative feature, it works better as a stylistic exploration than a true film. But it also establishes recurring motifs that would guide the director’s work from there on out: of flawed protagonists; moments of altruism, self-revelation, and humanism; nearly delirious cinematic conceits that render these moments divine, or at least of great dramatic impact; and depicting a world of utterly flawed humans that cannot help but be as weak and stupid and needy as all of us are. Magnolia is a big, sloppy mess of a film, the product of a young man who was suddenly granted an amount of money and creative power that he was perhaps too green to fully comprehend. But, unlike many great flame-outs that were handed this Prometheus tool, Anderson wielded this light with a confidence only seen once in a generation.
But before his gigantic, complex film, Anderson found his true talent: depicting ordinary, extraordinary characters in an exciting thrush of cinematic conventions turned up to extremes. Boogie Nights was the predecessor to the unwieldy Magnolia and P.T. Anderson made his first masterpiece.
Blending an American era’s inimitable and unmistakable style, Boogie Nights brought Anderson into the mainstream, producing a bona fide hit that spoke to generations long past the time he depicted. Between the groovy soundtrack, incredibly stylish directorial flourishes, and depicting stilted, broken protagonists in the seamy world of pornography, Anderson made his first true masterpiece. Revelatory performances were coaxed out of esteemed actors and permanent B-listers alike: Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, and Burt Reynolds all turn in stellar performances as deluded, dim porn actors, and Anderson’s calculated direction became a second star of the film.
Perhaps most of all, Anderson’s hypnotic ability to push forward a narrative are on display, creating a movie whose topic would normally push away a large amount of the potential audience instead drew them in thanks to humanizing the subjects on display, portraying them as people instead of objects–which largely subverts the very industry under examination in the film.
Maybe his talent lies mostly in this very noble pursuit, of depicting seemingly unsavory characters in a sympathetic light, rendering them human beings instead of objects of disdain. Following this line of thought, one of my favorite movies ever made is Punch-Drunk Love, which focuses on a sensitive nature of love among the damaged, whose self-esteem has been beaten down to such a point that finding a sympathetic counterpart in the world raises such an event to the transcendent.
Although a young man when making the movie, Anderson seems to understand how fragile a human’s emotions can be and treats it with necessary delicacy–and subsequently depicts how raw and violent it can turn if threatened–when true love is at stake. It’s a perfect movie, and one whose value I hope to elucidate further one day. For now, though, I can only enthuse as to the incredible feat that Anderson succeeded in making such a personal, provocative film. A celebration of being alive and finally finding someone you love, no other film quite translates such a rush of emotions of this discovery than Punch-Drunk Love.
But Anderson continued to push forward into darker territory, creating such masterpieces as There Will Be Blood, a savage depiction of what damage a capitalistic soul can wrought upon all who get in his way, portraying the savage, aggressive man in splendor in the early 20th century as he tears through any opposition to his want in the quest for blind success. And the brutality isn’t lost on the director, who chameleon-like inhabits directors before him, in this case Stanley Kubick’s dispassionate eye. Daniel Plainview is witnessed as a cold, calculating character and is never given a sympathetic glance through Anderson’s gaze on this mean-spirited figure. Humanistic to the core, Anderson never allows his characters any undue reward.
The Master is a wholly different cinematic experience and one worth revisiting from time to time. As the main character is traumatized from his experiences in World War II, he is lost and open to any potential answer that may relieve him of his psychic pain. Unfortunately, this relief comes at the hands of L. Ron Hubbard expy Lancaster Todd, who is founding a new religion based on his own bizarre interpretation of reality. As our “hero” falls under this master manipulator’s spell, he rebels and kicks against the strictures this belief system tries to impose on him, and the film functions as a battle between Id and Ego with neither side ultimately winning. It’s an engrossing piece of cinema and one that every adult should see to understand how easily dogma can become scripture in anyone’s mind.
Finally, we come to Inherent Vice, possibly one of my favorite movies. Following the loopy adventures of shaggy PI “Doc” Sportello, this unique Thomas Pynchon adaptation articulates the stoned existence of its protagonist in early 1970s coastal Los Angeles as he tries to suss out the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and the larger conspiracy that surrounds it. Funny, crazy, and always a fantastic trip, Inherent Vice is one of the best movies ever made–and if you’re witty enough to peek through and figure out its mystery, you may agree.
Simply put, P.T. Anderson has become one of the last lines of counterculture directors in the 21st century: constantly pushing boundaries, always looking forward, and never looking for easy answers, Anderson has become one of the premier directors of American cinema. His latest film is highly anticipated by cinephiles and his body of work should speak for itself by this point. And even if you haven’t dug what he’s laid down so far, then it’s just your loss: P.T. Anderson is the definition of excitement at the cinema and whose brazen, unique films never disappoints.