When I saw the Coen Brothers‘ The Big Lebowski (1996) in a theatre, and when I’d finished laughing, it struck me as a film that’s constructed around the thesis that American political polarities have stagnated since Vietnam and are doomed to express themselves fruitlessly in new ill-fitting iterations like the First Gulf War. In addition to this theme, The Big Lebowski constructs its narrative to convey an idea so rare in American films that we virtually never see it expressed.
That message: Violence doesn’t solve problems but creates new ones. In cinema and politics, this is so anathema to US mythology that viewers couldn’t recognize the idea. Many found The Big Lebowski strange and lopsided, full of irrelevant digressions. They had trouble “getting it”.
I feel a similarly strange recognition of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Licorice Pizza, which I’ve just watched on DVD. Licorice Pizza is constructed as a series of anecdotes to demonstrate a message virtually never seen in US films: that rich white privilege is poisonous and inherent in the film’s social landscape. This message runs so counter to what we expect of Hollywood cinema that it must be hard to recognize, especially in a film that it’s easier trying to peg with those handy marketing labels as “fun”, “nostalgic” or “romantic comedy”.
Licorice Pizza is inspired by actor/producer/entrepreneur Gary Goetzman, who filled the ear of Paul Thomas Anderson with rich material about growing up in privileged 1970s California. Most characters are based on real people known to Goetzman (renamed Gary Valentine in the film). The film often uses their real names: restaurateur Jerry Frick, producer Jon Peters, politician Joel Wachs. Disguised flimsily in pseudonyms are characters based on Lucille Ball (because rich narcissistic, entitled assholes may be female) and William Holden.
Anderson is aware of the seductive allure of great music and exhilarating camera moves, so he strews every scene with anti-nostalgic landmines like Mad Men to warn us: Don’t get too comfortable. Every sequence is marked by the tension between this seduction (by America, by masculinity, by movies, by pop culture) and the continual douse with cold water. Such is the story’s defining structure and its emotional drive.
Licorice Pizza‘s opening scene introduces our main characters, Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffmann), in sweepingly elaborate tracking shots in which the immature high school male comes on like a confident squirt to the stagnated and floundering female in her 20s. The sequence is scored with the magnificent voice of Nina Simone as the last dreamy shot is timed to end perfectly with the song’s end.
Except as we’re thinking, “what a great shot,” it ends with rude punctuation: a proprietorial slap on Alana’s rear by her photographer boss. This jarring moment finishes the “romantic” and “nostalgic” scene on an unexpected sour note. How does Alana react? With outrage like one of today’s properly enlightened heroines? She doesn’t respond at all. Her inaction indicates that it has happened before and takes it with the territory of her life, a part of the job. This is Licorice Pizza’s first rude wake-up: Don’t be lulled by this time, place, and people. This isn’t the seductive good time it looks.
Gary does biz with Jerry Frick, a white entrepreneur of Japanese restaurants who says, “We’re Japanese.” We receive a sense of his appropriating Japanese culture and stereotypical schtick or kitsch to make money. It’s also a paradigm of the postwar conqueror/patronage dynamic as entrepreneurs began spreading their versions of Asian culture to white Americans. Such is the American way, and we’re so used to it that we may fail to think about it.
The man’s two Japanese (mail-order?) wives are bothered by his behavior, which he fancies funny and clever, and other troubling matters. The first wife complains about his restaurant ads emphasizing “doll-like waitresses” instead of the food. We may intuit that she dumps him and he replaces her promptly with a doppelganger. (Apparently, this happened with the real-life Frick, both Japanese wives divorced him.) Nobody else in the room utters a peep because they’re all making money off him. That’s exactly how and why such entitled jerks continued on their merry way in that time and place. As with the other scenes, the fact that this guy’s presented as a comic idiot doesn’t make him less annoying.
I find it revealing that some viewers singled out this example as unacceptable and offensive while missing all the other cartoonishly entitled white, rich idiots who structure the entire plot. Do they take for granted all that other stuff is bad behavior, or don’t they notice? Or did it just not bother them? The man’s behavior isn’t only racist but profoundly sexist, although fewer people charged to the ramparts over that. (Hmm.) My cynical inner pratt wants to say, “Thanks for declaring your offense at something meant to offend you. You must be a sensitive person if only you gave credit to the movie for your reaction instead of blaming the messenger.”
My preening irony aside, I’m sympathetic to the protesters’ POV because everyone’s been rigorously trained by Hollywood to understand a “movie” as something constructed by committee to patronize 13-year-olds. Every permissible emotional response must be carefully cued and underlined, the better to validate complacency and ensure the slow kids in the back are getting it: “Yes, this is what you’re supposed to think, you clever ticket buyer.” Above all, any bumps or jarring notes to the good time must be rigorously weeded to encourage the smooth digestion of popcorn. The “entertainment” industry grooms us to take mere movies much less seriously as statements of how we live.
Critics complain about this now and then to make themselves sound smarter than the average bear. Then comes one of the rare people who make films assuming that their audience is as smart as themselves, even without flattering us, and that viewers can be trusted to rise to the film’s level by paying attention and figuring out why disturbing elements are there. Then comes the test.
Those complaining folks are right: that’s racist and sexist behavior they’re seeing. They pegged it. With unconscious irony, those who seek to have their emotions validated have indicated that they’d prefer a film that “whitewashed” the era’s dynamics (rich white guys are the princes they think they are!) or presented them dishonestly (as with an on-screen cue of modern criticism), or avoided them because such a false image would avoid hurt feelings. Well, we get the films we deserve, and there’s a whole commercial juggernaut turning out those validations for your entertainment dollar and the desire to play in China.
For the record, I don’t assume there’s a monolithic “Asian” response to Licorice Pizza. I’m interested in the responses in Japan or among Nisei women of that generation, and I found English-language Google unequipped to help me with that. I looked in vain for interviews with actors Yumi Mizui and Megumi Anjo on how they perceive their scenes and what Anderson discussed with them. Did they think the scenes went too far or not far enough? What do they think of calls to boycott awards for their work?
Anderson’s mother-in-law is a famous Japanese singer. I’m curious to hear her perspective on Licorice Pizza instead of other people’s perspectives on her. Had she written those scenes, might they have been less vicious or more? Maybe he should have asked her to do it.
Here’s an idea for a social experiment: Show these scenes to a test audience and explain them as clips from the latest Chloe Zhao film. Ask the viewers if the scenes go too far in depicting patronizing white guys in the 1970s. How many would say, “Right on, sister!” or encourage it to go farther? What we see is based on our knowledge, baggage, interpretations, and projections. I’m no less guilty.
My googling revealed threads where self-identified Asians express all kinds of opinions about Licorice Pizza, enough to erase any monolithic impression. Still, I’m struck that many of these people aren’t Japanese, and I observe delicately that a multiplicity of Asian nationalities speaking on behalf of “Asians” implies an interchangeability that echoes the restaurateur’s changing of wives, and surely that’s not desirable. Each opinion must be understood to reflect that individual’s experience, perceptions, and responses, all of which exist.
To name a prominent example among critics, Justin Chang’s review in the Los Angeles Times, “Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Licorice Pizza’ is a valentine to the Valley. And Alana Haim” (15 November 2021) off-handedly dismisses the “strenuous nonsense” of the Japanese scenes while he otherwise raves about it as one of the year’s best. He doesn’t see Licorice Pizza as a strongly negative depiction of its context, although he certainly doesn’t see it as a whitewash. I might be the only person who sees it as a consistently negative critique beneath the needle-drops, and that’s why I’m documenting my reaction. As we say, your mileage may vary.
I admit I haven’t methodically canvased every review, but I sense that the film’s admirers don’t see it as an overall negative worldview or at most as flavored with negativity. In contrast, I see a critique from beginning to end, a film where Anderson continually pops the bubble. I don’t know how “consciously” or “instinctively” he constructed this, perhaps one more than the other, but I find a consistent pattern, and I assume I’m meant to find it.
Although I think most complaints about the two Japanese scenes are unsophisticated, I understand that some people may find my view unsophisticated: that if the point of your scene is “this guy’s a racist, sexist jerk”, you should show him as a racist, sexist jerk.I see how Licorice Pizza could easily have dispensed with the Japanese scenes, as so many people wish, and it wouldn’t be worse. I also see how the scenes fit the film’s parade of how entitled rich white jerks treat women, children, and minorities. Anderson methodically checks every box of rich white jerkhood: arrogance and ego, racism and sexism, hypocrisy and dishonesty, abuse of power, and violence and danger. These elements are embedded in politics, economics, and personal relations. Why leave out racism? Why should that guy have escaped the general arraignment of entitled assholes, none of whom ever gets punished? No white saviors in these rooms.
I’ve now devoted half this article to these scenes, which occupy a few minutes of screen time, and that’s good because these scenes reflect the entire film in miniature, as I’m now illustrating. To continue with what happens in Licorice Pizza, the “Lucy” scene presents the beloved star as an angry, foul-mouthed, self-absorbed female putz around children, using them as ornaments to herself and not caring what they or their parents hear.
This is where Alana meets a smoother, more handsome, more confident rival to Paul and brings him home to meet her folks. He washes out by announcing his atheism to this more orthodox Jewish family. Of course, there are Jewish atheists, but Alana’s angry reaction interprets his atheism as a denial of being Jewish, a way to get around it instead of admitting who you are. (“We’re Japanese,” says the white jerk.) Keep that in mind, for it’s crucial to the Licorice Pizza‘s climax.
Suddenly two outright fascist white cops grab Gary and terrorize him as they drag him off without reading his rights or explaining what’s going on, nor do they later apologize or admit being wrong. It’s a downright alarming glimpse of the police state in sunny California. Does anyone cry “police brutality” and call their lawyer? Heck no. They’d get the hell beat out of them. Gary is glad to run away and forget his fear and humiliation as though it never happened. He takes it. This is his country. He moves on to the next setpiece and forgets it, and apparently, most viewers do too.
Another real-life character, a talent agent named Mary Grady, advises Alana to agree to nudity and praises her Jewish nose, which is in demand right now. This was the era of Barbra Streisand, who made waves by refusing to have plastic surgery, and she will be name-dropped later.
At a reading for Clint Eastwood’s 1973 film Breezy, the “William Holden” avatar comes on to Alana with transparent ooze, and she’s flattered and dazzled – a famous star being nice to me! He sweeps her to a restaurant (Tail o’ the Cock!), where things quickly go south as he and a buddy commandeer the room for a drunken display of macho bullshit that once again has repercussions on Alana’s tail – thump! The whole restaurant becomes a cheering section at being allowed to spectate a famous actor make a fool of himself while she’s forgotten as collateral damage. Again, not a peep. This is America. Women and Jews and Asians and gay men are there to decorate and service the real stars.
Streisand is mentioned in the Jon Peters scene (“Do you know who my girlfriend is?”), which can only be described as a psychotic display of entitled behavior and the one where Gary decides on childish “revenge” for a threat to his brother’s life. Peters has a gay assistant who radiates the wish to be somewhere else, not unlike the Japanese wives. The whole sequence involves pumping various fluids, either oil or water, into other things, and I’ll leave that to simmer. Peters looks like an Elvis impersonator, so we get multiple symbolic references.
This segment culminates in a metaphor: Alana’s saddled with driving an out-of-control truck (symbol of masculinity) backward – shades of Ginger Rogers’ famous remark that she had to dance as well as Fred Astaire only backward and in high heels. While the knocked-about boys celebrate this bitchen exploit, Alana nearly collapses as she sees them for what they are: irresponsible young idiots she’s hanging out with for inexplicable reasons. An uneasy apprehension begins to emerge: No matter how old they are, they’ll always be much more immature and idiotic than she is.
That’s when Alana decides to become a serious grown-up. She signs up to help Joel Wachs, a real-life mayoral candidate of appropriate age – except that he wants to appropriate her as a “beard” for his closeted life, not unlike how the “Japanese” restaurateur appropriates his “doll” wives for that dash of authenticity, not unlike how that nose can help you right now for cosmetic authenticity if you’ll also flash your boobs. Alana’s hit between the eyes, or on the nose, with the revelation spelled out bluntly as a climactic epiphany in her conversation with Matthew (Joseph Cross), Joel’s boyfriend:
Matthew: “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Alana: “I don’t know.”
Matthew: “Is he a shit?”
Alana: “Yes.” You can see it clicking in her head.
Matthew: “They’re all shits, aren’t they?”
Now here’s Licorice Pizza‘s “privileged” moment, its scene of richest connection between two humans. The message can’t possibly be thrown in our faces more bluntly, just as each scene I describe throws it bluntly, and Alana has witnessed every single example. So why do so many people miss it? I think it’s because people filter out what they can’t process. Many noticed the Asian racism and yelped when they felt bit, while the rest of it passed by unexamined. Others didn’t notice or process racism as a seriously intended element in Licorice Pizza.
This is a message that I fancy the vast majority of American filmgoers aren’t ready to process – that those privileged rich boys (and girls) in charge, the stars who dominate our heavens and our politics and our businesses and oil embargoes and international fiascos and movies, are all shits, aren’t they? Our Valentine hero is no exception. The dots are connected from one “digression” to the next. Licorice Pizza is a gaudy parade of rich white privileged shits of the type Anderson tends to focus on in all his films, and he displays them knowingly, from the inside. They’re his people.
The application of this message seems to be: If you expect to break out of the cocoon or your 20s inertia and move forward, you’d better process that message. It’s all around you, like those long gasoline lines you’d like to run past or skirt around, or those bits of casual racism that some viewers wish to skirt around as too disturbing (or the opposite response of ignoring as not important – equally unhelpful). Every scene has shown this message conclusively. Even characters who know better get seduced by money. Every single character pursues it. They become the allies of shits and indeed get paid to protect, coddle, or defend the shits.
Those viewers seduced by the songs and tracking shots and youthful ingratiating joie de vivre in Licorice Pizza may wish to resist this sour counter-message, but it keeps slapping you in the face and patting you on the butt. “Look, this is how America works.” If it bothers you enough to spoil your fun, you might decide it’s the film’s problem and not yours, because how many films are designed to spoil the fun?
Licorice Pizza is about how Alana finally ingests and accepts this revelation: if all men are shits, maybe I can have an inappropriate boyfriend of my very own. She wants to go with the flow now, but I don’t get a strong feeling that she’s heading for future happiness. She’s accepting the moment instead of resisting, like this will be another passage on her way to the maturity so lacking all around her, but now she’ll have her bearings. And so much for romantic comedy.
I’m not surprised to see indications that many viewers missed this message because it doesn’t fit the language known as “movie”, certainly not a Hollywood movie, and definitely not a Hollywood movie by a member of the entitled tribe in question. Those things are supposed to affirm every bromide and validate every emotion as they entertain without offending or disturbing us. I don’t find Licorice Pizza affirmative or soothing about youth, love, the American way, the Dream, or the melting pot, and I’m crediting the filmmaker with my reaction.
Many viewers want to read a standard romantic/nostalgic pattern and find Licorice Pizza, like The Big Lebowski, strange, digressive, oddly shaped, with uncomfortable pricks sticking out. Do you know that scene in United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) where everyone’s looking at the 9/11 attack, and nobody can correctly process what’s in front of their eyes because it doesn’t fit their paradigm? Even though the title conjures a sharp, sour taste, I think people can stare at Licorice Pizza and miss that it says the opposite of what most American films sell. Yet it’s all right there, like the “magic eye” hidden image in an autostereogram. Just look until you see it.