Editor’s Notes: Please note this is an excerpt from the introduction to “The Proper Path: The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson”, by Parker Mott.
Paul Thomas “P.T.” Anderson, like another well-known “Anderson” of his generation, achieved success as a writer and director of movies at a remarkably young age.
It was January 1996, and Anderson was 26 years old, when Hard Eight, originally titled Sydney (to honour its director, we will call it the latter from here on out) had its initial release; this was one month prior to the theatrical release of Bottle Rocket, the debut feature of that “other” Anderson – Wes. Both films, incidentally, were based on shorts that the respective Andersons had previously directed (P.T.’s being 1993’s Cigarettes & Coffee).
Barely a year later, P.T. Anderson got busy writing, directing, and co-producing his next film, Boogie Nights, an ambitious look at the Golden Age of Porn in San Fernando Valley, CA (P.T.’s home base). The opportunity presented itself so quickly, in fact, that Anderson had to fork out money from his paycheque for Boogie to finish the post-production on Sydney. The company that funded the picture, Rysher Entertainment, did not approve of Anderson’s workprint, and would only give Anderson final cut if he put up the cash himself.
Certainly this experience, as P.T. would go on to describe, was “baptism by fire” into Hollywood. Fortunately, Anderson met a producer, Michael De Luca of New Line Cinema, who trusted the wiry wunderkind’s vision, and did not step on his creative toes. Boogie Nights was a critical and financial success and here, I would argue, where Anderson’s career took lift-off speed.
Since this particular point in time, Anderson has written, directed and co-produced five motion pictures, many of them award-winning (not that awards really matter or define artistic merit). He also directed several music videos, such as Michael Penn’s “Try”, which is executed as a single, elaborate track and perfectly connects with Anderson’s pre-Punch Drunk Love visual sensibility. Anderson has created a few short films, as well; for instance, a black-and-white short film starring Adam Sandler and an on-display couch.
Quintessentially, Anderson’s art packs a certain grandiosity - his movies often are large in scope, well over two hours, dressed with a bevy of big actors, and punctuated with strong, textured emotions.
As his career progresses, Anderson has fashioned a particularly authoritative directorial style that emotionally and viscerally strong-arms its audience. Yet, his movies retain a deep sensitivity that countervail Anderson’s almost punishing sense of command (one of the many aims of this book is to root out and explore this “sensitivity” and its function).
Film critic Pauline Kael had a theory that a director’s finest work happens early on in his or her career. With age, the director self-aggrandizes; he/she obsesses over grand artistic statements and subjects its work to Big Ideas and pretensions (Kellow, Life in the Dark). In 1972, Kael called Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange “the work of a strict and exacting German professor […] done in such a slow, heavy style that those prepared to like it can treat its puzzling aspects as oracular.” (Kael, 1972)
For many of Anderson’s detractors, they could cut and paste this criticism into their review of There Will Be Blood or The Master. Those are two extremely portentous movies – great movies by my standards (but this book is not a paean) – that are very “strict” in style; “slow” and “heavy”; thrive on their “puzzling aspects”; and, on the surface, deal with Big Ideas (Big Oil in Blood and Scientology in The Master).
Nevertheless, all of Anderson’s movies – and I mean all of them - can be distilled to one overarching theme: Family. In spite of the imposing quality of Anderson’s visuals and narrative structure, his stories can still be discussed intelligently and cogently in simple, classical terms. While Anderson’s films do not exactly heed the Aristotelian method, they adapt key themes of classic Greek drama and tragedy. Family, Love, Greed, Power, Redemption. It’s important to note, however, that, individually, these films emphasize some themes over others – and that I will also get into.
There’s so much more to say, but for now here is a tribute to the complete works of Paul Thomas Anderson. This video touches on some of the key themes, quotes, and images from Anderson’s movies. Through this seven-minute montage, this video aims to combine Anderson’s films into one seemingly unified vision that, thankfully, is still taking shape.
Watch “The Proper Path: The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson”.