I don’t remember exactly what was the first Paul Thomas Anderson film I ever watched because it has been a few years but I’m pretty sure it was Magnolia; considered to be one of the first films that introduced the director to a wide audience, I watched Magnolia one afternoon about ten years ago and it made a huge impression on me. I was eighteen at the time, and although it was a complex and very long film (more than three hours), I remember it as something unique, something quite different from most of the films I had seen up to that time.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and have noticed that they always have one or more factors in common with each other, including autobiographical elements.
Anderson’s themes concern celebrity culture, media, patriarchy, and commodities in the postmodern America of the late 20th century, with a focus on the preponderant media culture in our lives, to the point that reality and media are inevitably interconnected. A cinephile from childhood, growing up in the San Fernando Valley (born in Studio City, the heart of the Hollywood film industry) and the son of a well-known television personality (Ernie Anderson, voice of the ABC channel), Paul Thomas Anderson experienced firsthand the rise of dominant masculinity in the Reagan 1980s, and many of the male characters in his films seek to reinvent themselves while simultaneously trying to outgrow their past. As with many of the films released in the postmodern media culture of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, Anderson’s films often revolve around the relationship between father and son, which is often difficult and troubled. Moreover, as author Jason Sperb points out in his book Blossoms & Blood: Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson, “many Anderson characters ambivalently engage in endless cycles of consumption while the physical act of labor – of actually producing a material good with use value – seems nonexistent.” In Anderson’s films, many of the characters work as salesmen and represent the center of transactions that are part of everyday life, as well as having both dissatisfaction with and dependence on material wealth.
Sperb writes: “His films explicitly posit characters’ drive for financial success, as well as their conspicuos consumption, as an emotionally unsatisfying journey, filled with moments of excess, egomania, and greed. These same people are often situated as socially marginalized. […] Anderson’s early films, set in the media-saturated commodity culture of upper-middle-class Southern California, also suggest that no other meaningful options exist. They often end on a cautious note of reconciliation that implies patriarchal capitalism is the solution to the same problems it created.”
I have enjoyed many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, both for the structure and unfolding of the plot and for how they address the themes expressed. Here below are five of his movies I have loved the most, in no particular order:
1) Magnolia (1999): although not considered by critics to be the director’s most successful movie (he was only 28 years old at the time of its release), I believe there is something incredibly magnetic and captivating about Magnolia, Anderson’s third movie, which remains one of the landmark movies of independent cinema at the dawn of the 21st century. Magnolia features a series of intertwining plots and characters, with a cast full of established and audience-pleasing actors, like Tom Cruise as Mackey, a ruthless motivational guru who profits from dispensing secrets to middle-aged men about how to “seduce and destroy women” and who to this day remains one of Anderson’s most iconic characters. The central themes of the film are the disintegration of the white middle-class family, the ephemeral satisfaction provided by success and commodities, and the deconstruction of masculinity. Magnolia is an epic story set in the San Fernando Valley which depicts in an almost apocalyptic way the inadequacy of the characters in outgrowing their past; the stories of these characters intersect during one day, with a great importance given to random fate, while also touching on themes of guilt and redemption. It is thus a movie that strikes more of an emotional resonance than a linear plot in itself, and I think viewers who enjoyed the movie as I did happened to identify themselves with what one or more of the characters were feeling. It is perhaps the director’s most autobiographical film, and although he later pointed out some of the film’s flaws (such as its excessive length), he also said, “I consider Magnolia a kind of beautiful accident. It gets me. I put my heart-every embarrassing thing that I wanted to say-in Magnolia.” The movie is a tribute to Robert Altman, Anderson’s mentor; it is a profound story about childhood, love and illness in the world of Southern California television celebrities. Magnolia is not for everyone, but there is no denying that it has something incredibly lyrical and meaningful about it.
2) There Will Be Blood (2007): one of the two Paul Thomas Anderson movies starring Daniel Day-Lewis, I only got to watch it eight years ago because I was still in middle school when the movie was released. I think it is undeniable that There Will Be Blood is one of Anderson’s masterpieces; it was an incredible success with audiences and critics, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Lead Actor, and is considered one of the best American movies of the decade. The plot emphasizes how chasing perfection is dangerous and virtually impossible, and this is especially evident in the destructive journey of Daniel Plainview’s character (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), which is also a critique of ruthless capitalism, intersected with the religious theme as well. Indeed, one Hollywood critic said that There Will Be Blood, filmed near Marfa, Texas, “tackles all the big themes about America: blood, oil, religion.” It is the story of a silver miner in the early 20th century who makes the pursuit of oil the center of his life; in the process, he buys all the land he can by destroying the competition in what is an unscrupulous quest to gain absolute power over everything around him (the character was inspired by oilman Edward Doheny). As highlighted by Sperb in Blossoms & Blood, Plainview’s character also embodies the figure of the salesman because he cons people into selling their land. Another of the themes taken from Anderson’s earlier movies is the figure of the surrogate father, as well as the father-son relationship (after one of his employees is killed in an accident, Plainview decides to raise his orphaned son). Unlike some of his previous movies, there is neither love nor redemption in There Will Be Blood. I think it is wonderful both visually and in terms of plot; the long narrative sequences of isolation, interrupted by sudden bursts of violence, were influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s style (especially from The Shining), as well as the film’s dialogue-free opening sequence, which is very reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A reminder of the industrial origins of the state of California (well before the advent of the entertainment industry), There Will Be Blood is a film that stays with viewers even after its ending, both because of Day-Lewis’s masterful performance, which finds humanity in a character with monstrous traits, and Anderson’s skills as a screenwriter, which as Sperb states: “The strength of Anderson’s writing abilities is that he never loses sympathy for his characters-he never loses sight of how they see the world, even if he doesn’t expect audiences to empathize with them at their worst.”READ MORE
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