There Will be Blood
Like Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls, Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are characterized by a constantly moving camera. Like François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese, his films are the work of a true “cineaste”, someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and film technique, who is able to make tried-and-true techniques as fresh and as vibrant as when D.W. Griffith first started to discover them. Like Robert Altman, Anderson thrives on working with large ensembles of actors. Like Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton, his films often depict suburban America as a place of alienation, and his characters are often alienated people who must in some way or another learn to assimilate themselves into some kind of family environment.
All of this comparison to past directors might make one assume that P.T. Anderson is unoriginal. That could not be further from the truth. He is one of those great joys for filmgoers: a master director who seems to have come out of nowhere. Like Spielberg in the 1970s and Spike Lee in the 1980s, Anderson went from being a grip to auteur in seemingly no time.
Another factor may be that if directors like Burton and Lee were born in the twilight of the baby boomer years (the late 1950s), Anderson was born in 1970. He was one of the first of the “video store” generation of filmmakers. His father was the first guy on his block to own a VCR, so from a very early age Anderson had an infinite number of titles available to him. While filmmakers like Spielberg cut their teeth making high-8 films, Anderson cut his teeth shooting films on video and editing them from VCR to VCR.
Part of Anderson’s artistic DNA comes from his father, who hosted a late night horror show in Cleveland. His father knew a number of oddball celebrities such as Robert Ridgely, an actor who often appeared in Mel Brooks’ films and would later play “The Colonel” in Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). Anderson was also very much shaped by growing up in “The Valley”, specifically the suburban San Fernando Valley of greater Los Angeles. The Valley may have been immortalized in the 1980s for its mall-hopping “Valley Girls”, but for Anderson it was a slightly seedy part of suburban America. You were close to Hollywood, yet you weren’t there. Would-bes and burnouts populated the area. Anderson’s experiences growing up in “The Valley” have no doubt shaped his artistic self, especially since three of his four theatrical features are set in “The Valley”.
At a young age Anderson got into filmmaking. His most significant amateur film was The Dirk Diggler Story (1988), a sort of mock-documentary a la This Is Spinal Tap (1984), about a once-great porn star named Dirk Diggler. After enrolling in NYU’s film program for two days, Anderson got his tuition back and made his own short film, Cigarettes & Coffee (1993). He also worked as a production assistant on numerous commercials and music videos before he got the chance to make his first feature, something he liked to call Hard Eight (1996), but would later become known to the public as “Hard Eight”. The film was developed and financed through The Sundance Lab, not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Anderson cast three actors whom he would continue working with in the future: Altman veteran Philip Baker Hall, the husky and lovable John C. Reilly and, in a small part, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who so far has been featured in all four of Anderson’s films. The film deals with a guardian angel type (played by Hall) who takes down-on-his-luck Reilly under his wing. The deliberately paced film featured a number of Anderson trademarks: wonderful use of source light, long takes and top-notch acting. Yet the film was re-edited (and re-titled) by Rysher Entertainment against Anderson’s wishes. It was admired by critics, but didn’t catch on at the box office. Still, it was enough for Anderson to eventually get his next movie financed. “Boogie Nights” was, in a sense, a remake of “The Dirk Diggler Story”, but Anderson threw away the satirical approach and instead painted a broad canvas about a makeshift family of pornographers. The film was often joyous in its look at the 1970s and the days when porn was still shot on film, still shown in movie theaters, and its actors could at least delude themselves into believing that they were movie stars. Yet “Boogie Nights” did not flinch at the dark side, showing a murder and suicide, literally in one (almost) uninterrupted shot, and also showing the lives of these people deteriorate, while also showing how their lives recovered.
Anderson not only worked with Hall, Reilly and Hoffman again, he also worked with Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, William H. Macy and Luis Guzmán. Collectively, Anderson had something that was rare in American cinema: a stock company of top-notch actors. Aside from the above mentioned, Anderson also drew terrific performances from Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg, two actors whose careers were not exactly going full-blast at the time of “Boogie Nights”, but who found themselves to be that much more employable afterwards.
The success of “Boogie Nights” gave Anderson the chance to really go for broke in Magnolia (1999), a massive mosaic that could dwarf Altman’s Nashville (1975) in its number of characters, ranging from a dying family patriarch to a young boy being exploited on a quiz show, and how their lives begin to spin out of control on one really rainy day. Many were perplexed by the divine intervention at the end (I will not reveal it for those of you who haven’t seen it), while others were put off by the gloom and number of stories being intertwined. Yet just as many people were fascinated at how a young director, barely 30 years old, could make a film so complex and so powerful.
Anderson has certainly proven himself to be a director of formidable skill and power, but has not yet reached a particularly wide audience. Still, he proved that he could win mainstream approval with Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Unlike his other films, this was not an ensemble piece, but a starring vehicle for Adam Sandler. Many people were a bit taken aback by the idea of the director of “Magnolia” directing a film with the star of Billy Madison (1995), even if Sandler’s co-star was the always great Emily Watson. Yet it proved to be a bizarre, quirky and very well made film that tapped into Sandler’s anger and vulnerability in a way that his pre-pubescent comedies failed to. Anderson was also awarded a “Best Director” award at Cannes, while the film went on to do fair business at the box office.
Anderson will almost surely create more great works in the future. Whether he will cross over to a Spielberg-sized audience or whether he will be fated to be a well-regarded “national treasure” like Scorsese (not a bad fate if you ask me) remains to be seen. (Biography courtesy of IMDB.com: Nathan Cox)