Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014

There Will be Boogie Nights

A Close Look at the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson

By David Luhrssen
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Jason Sperb is not a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s something much better—an intelligent critic trying to discern what’s valuable and what’s not in Anderson’s body of cinematic work. In his close reading of the director, Blossoms & Blood: Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson (University of Texas Press), Sperb finds much to admire and much to criticize in the man behind Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood.

A lecturer in Northwestern University’s radio-television-film department, Sperb connects Anderson to historical currents in late 20th century moviemaking as well as the director’s formative experiences. Anderson was close to his father, who worked in Hollywood, but less so to his mother, perhaps the basis for the problematic women in some of his movies. Since the director grew up on the backbenches of the entertainment industry circus, Sperb concludes that he’s preoccupied with “mediation,” an unsurprising fascination in a society where our relations to each other and reality are “mediated by images in an unprecedented fashion.” As Sperb sees it, mediation “casts doubt on notions of origin and absolute truth”; uncertain claims of truth and authenticity are themes in Anderson’s films.

The author proceeds to illustrate his thesis with examples, yet it must be said that media induced or distorted pictures of reality became prevalent in post-World War II film. They are part of the cultural DNA of most recent filmmakers, whether consciously explored or not.

Sperb’s thesis is less interesting than his careful, film-by-film analyses of Anderson’s work (and the life experiences that fed the work). Anderson was talented but obstinate when he emerged as part of the Sundance-fueled ‘90s indie crowd. Sperb examines the legend of Anderson’s heroic refusal to compromise over his first production, Hard Eight (1996), and finds it as wanting as the movie itself. Hard Eight was an interesting if somewhat by numbers neo-noir, imbued with the elements of the newest art house wave, especially the lack of obvious identification with characters, prompting audiences to “actively engage in deciphering the film and its characters” rather than accepting the face value characterizations of Hollywood and kindred cinemas.

The assessment is mixed for Anderson’s next films, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). But with the unlikely Adam Sandler vehicle Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the director achieved “a newfound maturity attuned to the aesthetic beauty and creative potential of ephemerality.” Unlike Boogie Nights and Magnolia, conceived as if to show off Anderson’s dazzling brilliance, Punch-Drunk Love maintains a delicate balance of “ironic distance and sincere sympathy.” Working as Robert Altman’s understudy on the veteran director’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006), taught Anderson the value of collaboration and spontaneity that would inform his masterpiece, There Will be Blood (2007). His youthful overconfidence evaporated, There Will be Blood was the work of a fully mature auteur. Arriving as Blossoms and Blood was going to press, Sperb could offer only cursory comments on The Master (2012).

 Blossoms and Blood includes an unsettling realization: the currents that shaped Paul Thomas Anderson—along with Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Wes Anderson—have already passed into history. The screens are getting smaller, even as the opportunities for wannabe auteurs are more numerous than ever.

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