Paul Thomas Anderson’s On Cinema

20 01 2015

On October 4, 2014, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a talk where Paul Thomas Anderson elaborated on his inspirations and influences.  His knowledge and love of cinema shone brightly, leaving me quite rejuvenated in the power of the medium.  Basically, he would be the best film professor EVER.  Here are some highlights from that session.

Part 1

The program unfolded largely based on discussions following clips selected by Paul Thomas Anderson and, presumptively, moderator Kent Jones.  He began with an opening from “Police Squad,” a television show from the 1980s.  Not the first thing I associated with the director of “The Master,” I’ll be honest.

I knew the team behind “Police Squad” mostly for their inane “Scary Movie” installments, but I actually explored the older Abrahams-Zucker comedy on Netflix via “The Naked Gun” films.  Now I see where Anderson comes from when he descirbed the serious “hilarious, brilliant” and that it “doesn’t get any better.”

He rediscovered the joy of the show while watching videos on YouTube during smoke breaks, reminded how much the humor was ahead of its time.  Moreover, it made him remember that anything is possible.  That kind of energy plays out clearly in “Inherent Vice,” whether its Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot Bjornsen fellating a chocolate banana or Martin Short’s Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd doing lines of cocaine.  The gags are silly, but they are always clever.

Part 2

His next clip was from Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.”  (Liven up the images by listening to the track by Young, featured in “Inherent Vice” and on the film’s soundtrack.  Click here to listen.)

The “ultimate hippie” Young directed the film around the time that “Inherent Vice” is set, and it presents the kind of dream that was quickly being ushered out by the paranoia of the 1970s.  These are the hippies who were “cute, caged monkeys” in the time before the Charles Manson murders ruined the flippancy of their perception in America.  Anderson himself referred to the scene as representing his idea of heaven on a Saturday afternoon: “running around with your girl, parking on a babbling brook nearby, taking a joint down, eating strawberries, and drinking apple juice.”  (The crowd reacted with amused laughter.)

Also a fun moment worth noting: Anderson made a fantastic Freudian slip when referring to Young, mistakenly stating “he’s got a great glaze on” when he meant to say gaze.

Part 3

I had somehow never heard of the underappreciated cult film director Alex Cox before Anderson raved about him at length; he expressly told the audience to “GO FIND EVERYTHING HE’S DONE!”  (I have since educated myself some by watching “Repo Man” and “Walker,” the latter of which was a pick of mine for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”)  When he first stated the title of the film, a portion of the audience burst into applause.  I just wish I could have joined them in the moment.

The rationale behind showing this selection was his recognition of the world on display in “Repo Man” from the aimless youth to the burned-out hippie parents.  It also ties into “Inherent Vice” in the way hilarity and abandon can coincide with such masterful craftsmanship.

He also expressed admiration for the way that Cox could make scenes that were talky “without feeling like a stage play because it’s always moving.”  Anyone who knows Anderson’s work ought to know that such a phrase could also describe his own films (watch just about any scene from “Boogie Nights” and see what I mean).

Furthermore, Anderson raved about Cox’s director of photography, Robby Müller, who had a penchant for shooting some truly magical night exteriors.  Even after seven films and countless Oscar nominations (including a cinematography win for “There Will Be Blood”), he remains stupefied and dumbfounded by Müller’s masterful alchemy with these particular scenes.  Lighting the film in post-production, though, is out of the question for Anderson, who claims that is “f—ing cheating.”

Part 4

“30 seconds of exposition is mercifully drowned out by the sound of an airplane,” Anderson began when describing the joy that is Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”  He claims that no one cares about exposition, a value that might not quite be in line with much of the moviegoing public.  That might explain some of the walkouts I saw at a regular showing of “Inherent Vice,” where I got the sense that the average viewer just had no idea what to make of the bizarre cavalcade playing out on screen.

Saying no one cares is probably a bit of an exaggeration, however.  His later statement in this segment of the conversation, where he said, “I never remember plots in movies, I remember how they make me feel.  I remember emotions, I remember visual things, but my brain never connects the dots.”  Just strapping in and enjoying the experience can sometimes be enough.  Ask someone to explain a mainstream blockbuster like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and they will probably recount their reactions rather than running through a chain of events.

Vague plausibility is a necessity for Anderson, yet preserving an “emotional logic” remains paramount.  “Inherent Vice” goes down blind alleys and dead end streets in its episodic plot that skips from stone to stone.  (Anderson’s words, not mine.)  Both his latest film and “North by Northwest” have a kind of “looseness” to them that might disturb viewers who need events to firmly unfold from points A to B to C.  Those who stick in that mindset may find themselves needing to experience it twice.

Part 5

If we’re just being honest here, “Jackie Brown” is probably my least favorite Quentin Tarantino film.  Paul Thomas Anderson, on the other hand, proclaims that the movie “makes him want to cry it’s so beautiful.”  He loved the sweetness and delicacy of the dialogue, which provides the rare cinematic scene of two middle-aged people talking candidly.  Agree to disagree, I guess.

As with any gathering of cinephiles these days, the discussion quickly veered towards the ongoing debate between shooting on film stock vs. digital.  Anderson said he tries to stay out of it, while the very vocal Tarantino practically becomes one of his crazy characters in his fervent zeal to protect celluloid.  “It’s difficult to get on someone if it’s your bag,” he succinctly offered.

Part 6

In case you had not noticed the general trend, Paul Thomas Anderson suggests cultural products, and then I go consume and investigate them like crazy.  Shamefully, I had never even heard of Grimes before he showed the music video to her song “Oblivion,” directed by Emily Kai Bock.  According to music magazine Pitchfork, it’s the #1 song of the decade so far (as of August 2014).

Anderson returned to the stage after the music video showed with a reenergized attitude, claiming that it “gets me going and makes me hyper.”  Sound image click perfectly in this “spooky” and “graceful” video.  There are “frat guys bouncing around and they seem all too real – and all too date rapey.  So there’s that danger lurking beneath it.”  Someone could write a dissertation about the sexual politics of this music video because there is just so much interesting stuff contained within these four minutes.

MTV and music videos did not serve as a huge influence for Anderson (he did not have the channel at home), though great tunes are basically a given in all of his films.  He did divulge a few directors who he thinks employ music particularly well in their films, but only reluctantly since that conversation could go on forever.  The names will come as no surprise: Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Jonathan Demme (specifically “Something Wild”),  and Martin Scorsese (“gigantic”).

The one unifying factor behind these filmmakers’ excellence?  Their musical selections are “eclectic, but it never feels like you were watching just the best of someone’s record collection.”  The movie, not the mixtape, has to come first.

Part 7

The least striking (and least discussed) of all the clips was one from Frank Capra’s pre-code “The Bitter Tea of General Yen.”  Anderson held it up as a prime example of great lighting and set design.  He said he had only just watched the film months before and was excited to share something new with the crowd.

In perhaps his most quotable moment of the day, he compared films to books on a shelf.  “You can love movies, you can keep watching them, but there is ALWAYS something else that you haven’t seen.”  So to everyone who has asked me if I have seen every movie ever made, the answer is no.  And neither has now-six time Oscar nominee Paul Thomas Anderson.

PTA prof pic

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