Paul Thomas Anderson and The American Nightmare

[written by Tilly Long]

You may be forgiven for thinking that Paul Thomas Anderson takes a very dim view of his home team. Cult leaders, lovelorn stoners, suicidal porn stars, monomaniacal frock makers, women hating gurus, and psychopathic tycoons. These aren’t the bit players added to vitalise his narratives, but the main event and bedrock of his storytelling. This is the American dream gone seriously awry. But to be exact, these dysfunctional characters are viewed through a lens fractured by the Californian heat haze. Most of his films are set within its boundaries. Perhaps then, it comes as no surprise that one of his favourite movies is Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984). Set in Anderson’s homeland of the San Fernando Valley, the film is filled with the hapless flotsam and jetsam of a generation that was supposed to change the world, but instead decided to watch Star Trek reruns and smoke pot. He has also articulated an affinity for this affliction: “I recognise this world. I saw tons of burned out hippie parents and kids like this.” 

But let us not forget that the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’ is also non-conformist central, and like no other US state. It gave us The Gold Rush, TinselTown, The Summer of Love, and Charlie Manson. Hardly surprising then, that it provides such rich pickings for the creative mind. Anderson once said, “What’s scary is how I continue to love this place and be so comfortable here and still get a kind of giddy appreciation for even the ugliest corners of it.” This juxtaposition of the vibrancy of the San Fernando Valley with its dark side is best exhibited in his second feature film, Boogie Nights (1997). 

An opening mirage of neon fuchsia signs and roller skating waitresses gliding across a multi coloured dance floor to The Emotions’ ‘Best of My Love’ sets a ‘groovy’ tone to the 1970s backdrop. Like all of Anderson’s male protagonists, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) begins with very little in his pockets. He is, however, able to transcend this when taken in by surrogate parents: “exotic pictures” producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and nurturing, drug fueled Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Gaining immediate yet fleeting fame as a fresh face in the porn industry, Eddie is reborn with the stage persona ‘Dirk Diggler’. Despite the alluring exhilaration of Dirk’s first pool party, lurking sinister realities already threaten to resurface: “this is twice in two days that a chick has OD’d on me!” The cold truth of sex stardom is then gradually unraveled in a series of misfortunate events, beginning with a jealous porn star’s cuckold shooting his lover and then himself at a New Year’s Eve shindig before the clock even strikes twelve! The nature of Anderson’s typical rise and fall arc is demonstrated as we watch our leading man beaten up and robbed, having resorted to prostitution after being fired from Jack’s productions for drug overuse. The film’s ending, however, seems to evoke the director’s sympathy for his lost characters; Dirk tells his mirror reflection, “I’m a big bright shining star.”

Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner and Mark Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights (1997)

Just as Dirk looks to god-like filmmaker Jack for fatherly guidance, The Master (2012) sees Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) stumble upon a chance for redemption in the form of cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It might be argued that the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman would not have made natural leading men in the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’; their talent too unique and sophisticated. But in Anderson’s world, the ability to deconstruct and reconstruct a character in minutiae, in front of the camera, is a prerequisite. We first encounter Freddie as a chaotic, traumatised war veteran, prone to primitive desires and drinking his memories away with cocktails of inconspicuous ingredients (including, but not limited to, paint thinner). The nightmare ensues slowly, as he gains a non-biological family in ‘The Cause’. Their tortuous rituals brainwash Freddie into believing his PTSD is being cured, when in reality, it increasingly worsens. 

Anderson’s protagonists rarely exist without an antagonist or opposing force: from Daniel Day Lewis’s endlessly exploitative oil tycoon and Paul Dano as psychotic priest Eli in There Will Be Blood (2007) to Adam Sandler’s anxious entrepreneur and his calm, collected crush, Lena (Emily Watson) in Punch Drunk Love (2002), the ongoing quest for familiar love seems simultaneously doomed to fail, and the sole function of every one of Anderson’s leading men. 

Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the family of The Cause in The Master (2012)

This pursuit is at its most unrelenting and sentimental in his three hour long epic masterpiece, Magnolia (1999). Following an ensemble cast navigating through the depressing conundrums of Californian daily life, the apt line from Aimee Mann’s soundtrack reinforces Anderson’s notions of societal outcasts: “One, is the loneliest number.” As usual, his characters don’t fit into any existing hegemony, but still need to search out like minded eccentrics in order to be fulfilled. This axiomatically creates personality defects of Shakespearean proportions. Theory would suggest this would leave us with over the top monsters in modern dress. Instead, the director/writer ensures their true characters are kept safely under wraps until needed. The slow reveal is embedded in the narrative. 

One example of this is perhaps the most oddly comic figure in Anderson’s repertoire, Frank (Tom Cruise); a ponytail, leather vest wearing, women-hating guru of disturbing proportions. Whilst we grow to hate him throughout the film, a surprisingly emotional scene towards the end shows Frank hysterically sobbing over his father’s death bed, crying out, “I hate you.” This notion of reconciling with the past in order to become at peace with oneself is a recurring motif throughout Anderson’s entire filmography, although not all characters are afforded redemption. 

 Tom Cruise as Frank in Magnolia (1999)

While his work is clearly affected by his Californian history, Anderson’s consistent exploration of the psyche is best summed up in his own words: “I don’t get a sense of American pride. I just get a sense that everyone is here battling the same thing. That around the world everybody is after the same thing. Just some minor piece of happiness each day.” 

Essays

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