by Matt Zoller Seitz, The New York Times
The films of the writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson are obsessed with the destruction and reinvention of families, particularly the anxiety of influence felt so keenly in the relationship between distant, absent or controlling fathers and their grievously wounded sons. This in itself is not remarkable. What is remarkable, or at least striking, is how vividly the theme manifests itself in the stories that Mr. Anderson tells, and the evolving style with which he tells them.
The career of Mr. Anderson, whose first four features will be screened on Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, is on the minds of cinephiles with the arrival of his fifth movie, “There Will Be Blood,” a kinetic period piece about a driven oil prospector, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who builds a financial empire atop the self-destroyed ruins of his personal life.
Whether “Blood” succeeds in all of its varied, wildly ambitious aims is a matter of debate among critics. But there seems to be a consensus that Mr. Anderson — a largely self-taught filmmaker, criticized in some quarters for a hyperkinetic style thick with instances of cinematic genuflection — has forged a distinct voice after a decade of sensuous wide-screen searching.
That evolution is inscribed in his first four movies: “Hard Eight,” “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” Viewed consecutively they chart the evolution of a style that blooms like the titular flower in the opening credits of “Magnolia.”
Mr. Anderson’s debut, “Hard Eight” (1996), was a potboiler in the mode that the film historian David Bordwell calls “indie guignol.” John C. Reilly plays John, a sad sack who is instructed by a dapper old gangster named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and falls in love with a waitress and self-abasing prostitute (Gwyneth Paltrow). Mr. Anderson directed “Hard Eight” with a poise that mimics Sydney’s rock-of-ages cool. But in its restless trying on of visual and verbal modes, the movie’s heart seems more aligned with the malleable seeker John.
The poetic, profane dialogue in “Hard Eight” owes much to David Mamet, an admirer of Anderson’s movies whose longtime collaborator, the actor and cardsharp Ricky Jay, acted in Mr. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and narrated and acted in “Magnolia.” The visuals borrow from giants of ’70s American filmmaking, notably the unhinged innocent Hal Ashby (“Shampoo”) and John Cassavetes, whose improvisation-heavy approach toward performance is evoked throughout Mr. Anderson’s films, down to the convention of having actors play characters who share their first names.
Looming over Mr. Anderson’s shoulder is Martin Scorsese, whose adrenaline-jacked post-“Raging Bull” movies obviously helped forge Mr. Anderson’s compositions and camera movements and his sense of how to cut action to music.
Mr. Anderson’s comedy-drama about the pornographic film industry, “Boogie Nights” (1997), was so brazen in its appropriation of techniques, situations and set pieces from great older films that at times it suggested a 35-millimeter version of one of those Top 40 record collections sold on local TV: Scorsese-style high-speed dolly-zooms that lunge into actors’ faces! The walking-into-the-pool shot from “I Am Cuba”! Quentin Tarantino-style freaky monologues that build toward acts of violence! And much, much more!
Some of these elements were undeniably spectacular, notably the film’s opening tracking shot, which Mr. Anderson modeled on similarly acrobatic long takes in “Touch of Evil” and “Goodfellas.” Others were the auteur equivalent of chewing with one’s mouth open.
But lurking beyond (or beneath) the homage was Mr. Anderson’s own sensibility, marked by a dry, goofy wit (picture Mark Wahlberg and Mr. Reilly in “Boogie Nights” bragging about how much they can bench-press) and a bracingly unironic emotional directness. The cocaine-fueled moment when the young porn star Rollergirl (Heather Graham) tearfully asks her mentor, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), to be her mommy is trite and on the nose; it’s also exactly the sort of thing Rollergirl would say.
“Magnolia” (1999), an ensemble drama about family, fate and coincidence, is longer, louder and more populous than “Boogie Nights” — no mean feat. Its fusion of mundane domestic tragedy, dark-night-of-the-soul emoting and hypermuscular camerawork suggests Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” on jet-propelled roller skates. (Mr. Altman embraced Mr. Anderson, even asking him to be his directorial understudy should he expire before completing what would become his final feature, “A Prairie Home Companion.” “There Will Be Blood” is dedicated to Mr. Altman.)
But if the film’s miscalculations were magnified by its grandiosity, its sincerity was too. The wilder conceits in “Magnolia” — a biblical rain of frogs; a musical montage in which principal characters sing verses from Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” — were more startling for being heartfelt.
So too were the film’s confrontations and reconciliations, the most painful of which forced resentful parents and children to move beyond misery and lineage and into enlightenment. Jimmy Gator (Mr. Hall), a philandering, child-abusing quiz-show host says, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” But it is. The final meeting of the cancer-ravaged tycoon Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and his long-estranged son, the chauvinist self-help guru Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), is an open sore that miraculously heals itself. And the whole movie is filled with intimidating parents who die off, self-destruct or fade in prominence, leaving the next generation to move ahead.
Mr. Anderson himself did move ahead, conspicuously, with the romantic comedy “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002). A truly strange movie told mostly in long, slow, unbroken camera moves, interspersed with abstract color patterns and partly scored with a harmonium, it was also the first of Mr. Anderson’s features that concentrated on one character: an emotionally constipated, lovestruck man-child (Adam Sandler) who had no on-screen father, and who struggled to assert his own identity in the presence of his domineering sisters.
Like the filmmaker’s previous efforts, “Punch-Drunk Love” paid homage to past masters, including Mr. Altman, whom Mr. Anderson honored by scoring a daft travel montage with “He Needs Me,” Olive Oyl’s love song from the 1980 Altman film “Popeye.” But the quotations were submerged so deeply within the film’s visual text that the result seemed not merely unique but beguilingly alien, like an artifact from a lost civilization.
“Punch-Drunk Love” is Mr. Anderson’s most tender and self-revealing work, arguably one of American cinema’s most un-self-conscious love letters to romantic eccentricity since Mr. Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” in 1971. In its meticulously composed wide-screen frames, periodically disrupted by eruptions of fury and heartache, you can see the rock-solid artistic confidence that would lead to “There Will Be Blood,” a grimy capitalist opera that pulverizes sweetness and spews black humor like crude oil.
Like “Punch-Drunk Love,” “There Will Be Blood,” based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, concentrates on a protagonist, who is defined more as a father than a son. And with his most recent film an upstart filmmaker elbows his way into the pantheon. The child is father to the man.