The 100 Essential Directors Part 1

Chantal Akerman - Bernardo Bertolucci

by PopMatters Staff

1 August 2011


Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson
(1970 - present)

Three Key Films: Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007)

Underrated: Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Single-handedly reinventing the romantic comedy with outbursts of anger, pudding snacks and a dramatic Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love was an exercise in restraint from a director whose two previous films averaged a 172-minute running time. In a subtle nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddysey, Anderson employs a discarded harmonium as his obelisk, a device to signify transition for Sandler’s emotionally-stunted Barry Egan. The rest of the film is spent learning how to make music from what he’s been given. For a movie so comparatively small in scale to his other offerings, Punch-Drunk Love nonetheless captures the essence of all Anderson’s work: emotion.

Unforgettable: Frogs fall from the sky in Magnolia. In conveying the literal extension of Exodus 8:2, Anderson rains a plague of frogs on his beloved San Fernando Valley, and in the process gives us a visual equal to his filmmaking ambition. The unexplained phenomena is a reflection of the everyday cataclysms we create in our own lives when we refuse to let go of that which holds us down. It’s also a moment that indicates Anderson’s storytelling ethos at the time: relationships are messy and answers hard to come by. In a movie that throws any sense of tradition out the window with urban legends, cast sing-alongs (“Save Me”) and a ribald Tom Cruise, Anderson’s use of frogs takes the cake for pure audacity. It’s as if he decided to throw in every trick in the bag before turning to the economic filmmaking of Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood.


There Will Be Blood (2007)

The Legend: “I really do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” This line from Magnolia’s “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) sums up the rationale for Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Though there’s an astounding amount of technique at play in all his films, the heart of Anderson is truly on display in the unchecked emotion of the seekers that populate his screen; here is a director who feels on film.

Much has been made of the parent/child relationships that permeate his screenplays. In fact, Anderson’s father was a mini-celebrity in his own right. Ernie Anderson was an actor and voiceover artist that played a vital role in Paul’s filmmaking beginnings, introducing him to the world of Hollywood and his first video camera. To this day, Anderson’s own production company is named after one of his father’s characters, “Ghoulardi”. Regardless of his affection for his father’s work, the fictional parents in his films often play destructive parts. From Dirk Diggler’s spiteful mother to Daniel Plainview’s clinical stewardship of young H.W., sons and daughters are often left to find a surrogate family. Whether Anderson is commenting on his own parents is an open question, but there can be no doubt that the exploration of that core relationship remains a pervasive theme.

What defined Anderson as a filmmaker early in his career was his ability and ambition at such a young age. Upon the release of Hard Eight in 1996, a 26-year-old Anderson was already preparing his breakthrough opus, Boogie Nights, a film that would see him immediately and often compared to his idols, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Instead of flaming out like Orson Welles, Anderson has developed from a mere wunderkind to a singular voice playing in the sandbox big themes: love, self-destruction, family and death.

Perhaps most astounding is his recent creation of Daniel Plainview, a man who stands alone in There Will Be Blood but also in the larger context of Anderson’s oeuvre. His misanthropic use of Manifest Destiny ends up eating him alive. Plainview embodies the direct consequence of not finding an outlet for love, a vacant man left only to gasp, “I’m finished.” If Blood is any indication, Anderson is only at the beginning of a new phase in his career, exploring scope through the use of restraint. Tim Slowikowski



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