Paul Thomas Anderson is a great filmmaker with overwhelming ambition. If he weren’t so talented, he’d buckle under the weight of his own desires. Similar to other ambitious directors like Alejandro G. Iñárritu or Tommy Wiseau (if we’re talking worst-case scenarios), Anderson wants to make films that are as good as Citizen Kane. However, unlike these other directors, his egomania doesn’t cripple his work. Instead, it empowers him with the confidence to create bold visions of American cinema that harken back to the glories of the New Hollywood era. In many ways, Anderson is a filmmaking prodigee. He demonstrates that unlimited convince combined with genuine talent can accomplish cinematic greatness.
Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 1970 in Studio City, California to Edwina and Ernie Anderson. Ernie Anderson was a late-night horror movie host on local television and encouraged Anderson to pursue films from a young age. He bought him a Betamax camera, which Anderson used to make short films beginning at age 12. After experimenting with filmmaking throughout his adolescence, Anderson made his first “real” short as a senior in high school. The Dirk Diggler Story (1988), a mockumentary about a male porn star, would serve as inspiration for Anderson’s later breakout film, Boogie Nights. After high school, Anderson attended Emerson College for two semesters and spent two days in the film program at New York University before dropping out.
After deciding post-secondary school was not for him, Anderson worked as a production assistant on television movies, music videos and other small-time gigs. He eventually filmed a 20-minute short called Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), which got into the Sundance Festival Shorts Program. Anderson agreed to expand the short into a feature in order to gain entry into the Sundance Feature Film Program, where he was mentored by Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy).
While in the Sundance Feature Film Program, Anderson made a deal with Rysher Entertainment to produce his feature screenplay. The resulting film, Sydney or Hard Eight (1996), follows a Las Vegas gambler named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) who takes a younger man, John (John C. Reilly), under his wing. Sydney and John eventually get involved with the prostitute Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), who complicates their relationship as she pushes John to ignore Sydney’s sage advice. While Sydney is Anderson’s weakest film, it’s a promising debut showcasing his unique blend of interesting character drama and lavish formal style. The film’s success is also a testament to Anderson’s artistic confidence. After completing the film, Rysher Entertainment re-edited the cut without Anderson’s permission. In retaliation, Anderson, who still retained a copy of his director’s cut, submitted his cut to the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened in the Un Certain Regard program. Anderson leveraged the film’s festival success to get his original print a theatrical release, where it garnered significant critical attention.
Anderson used the capital of Sydney’s critical success to make his breakthrough picture, Boogie Nights (1997). Boogie Nights follows an up-and-coming pornstar, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), during the Golden Age of porn in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Inspired by the films of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, Boogie Nights has a large ensemble cast and follows multiple characters simultaneously. Although Diggler serves as the focal point of the film’s drama, Anderson evenly divides screen time between his many interesting characters, including Burt Reynold’s porn director, Julianne Moore’s starlet, William H. Macy’s pathetic assistant director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boom operator. The film’s impressive cast also boasts John H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Philip Baker Hall, and Luis Guzmán among others.
Much of the pleasure of Boogie Nights is in its decadence. It’s attention to period detail, all bell-bottoms and disco collars, is ravishing, as is the film’s infectious soundtrack sampling some of the best tunes from the late seventies and early eighties. Like with Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Boogie Nights demonstrates the pleasures of its characters’ lives, along with its pitfalls. Also like Goodfellas, Boogie Nights is full of astonishing camera work.
As if hoping to top Scorsese’s famous Copacabana steadicam shot in Goodfellas, Anderson opens the film with a complicated crane shot to steadicam that starts on the marquee of a lavish nightclub and ends in the bathroom inside, introducing many of the film’s characters along the way. The opening shot is brilliant not only for its technical audacity, but also for demonstrating what kind of film will follow. The shot’s multi-layered focus shows that the film’s interest lies in more than one character. Its lavish set decoration and attention to period detail demonstrates the time period as well as the film’s focus on pleasure. And the formal prowess of the shot indicates to viewers that this is a film where the filmmaking doesn’t take a backseat to the narrative. They work hand-in-hand and share focus.
However, Boogie Nights is more than technical flash. While highly stylish, the film’s deep sympathy for its characters is its greatest asset. Like Altman, Anderson doesn’t favour one of his characters over the others, nor does he judge them. He invests in them, which makes their failures all the more painful, and their minor triumphs genuinely ebullient. Boogie Nights is a deeply entertaining film, but it’s also a profound look at desperation and the limits of family. Boogie Nights was a critical and commercial success, garnering Anderson his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights is even more ambitious than its predecessor. Arguably, it pushes his cinematic ambition to the edge of breaking point. After the success of Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema gave Anderson carte blanche for his next feature. The result was Magnolia (1999), a drama following several isolated individuals suffering heartbreak and loneliness in the San Fernando Valley. The film starred his usual performers Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Luis Guzmán, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore, as well as Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in key roles. While Magnolia is visually enchanting and dramatically interesting, its borderline-convoluted plot and inclusion of magic realism push the boundaries of narrative believability. If one were to label Anderson as pretentious, Magnolia would be the chief exhibit.
However, the film has many virtues, chiefly Tom Cruise’s riveting performance as a pickup artist self-help guru. The filmmaking is also superb. As if unsatisfied by one-upping Scorsese Goodfellas steadicam shot, Magnolia seeks to upstage Boogie Nights. One steadicam shot follows characters as they enter a building and pass down the hallway, and then switches to follow new characters as they pass the first set. While the shot arguably distracts from the narrative of the scene, its naked ambition is impressive in and of itself. Like Boogie Nights before it, Magnolia garnered three Academy Award nominations, including another Best Original Screenplay nod for Anderson.
In 2002, Anderson moved away from ensemble dramas with Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Punch-Drunk Love is a dramatic romance starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Personally a fan of Sandler’s comedies, Anderson used his artistic reputation to secure Sandler for the only dramatic role of his career. It’s no surprise, then, that Punch-Drunk Love contains Sandler’s best performance. Cunningly attuned to Sandler’s man-child personality, Punch-Drunk Love channeles Sandler’s immaturity and anger into an ode to loneliness and masculine disaffection. While Punch-Drunk Love is lesser Anderson, it’s a fine film full of unusual pleasures and surprsing complexity. It’s also a film with its share of passionate defenders who’ll gladly and persuasively argue it to be Anderson’s best film.
However, the pleasure of being Anderson’s best film belongs to his follow-up, the mammoth There Will Be Blood (2007). It’s his masterpiece. Based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows the tyrannical energy tycoon, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), in the early twentieth century as he builds an oil empire and achieves domination over a small southwestern town. While Boogie Nights and Magnolia saw Anderson making films in the styles of Scorsese and Altman, There Will Be Blood is a film that’s distinctly Andersonian. It marks the moment he came into his own as a filmmaker, no longer copying the masters, but instead matching them, and in many ways, surpassing them.
If Boogie Nights and Magnolia were the works of a confident, talented young turk, There Will Be Blood shows the steady hand of a master. Anderson’s confidence is evident in the film’s quiet approach to exposition and narrative. For instance, the opening of the film is virtually free of dialogue. Instead of building a conventional introduction, Anderson lets his images and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score tell the story of Plainview’s transition from poor silver miner to oil magnate. The film as a whole is filled with a similar visual clarity and confidence. A derrick fire late in the second act of the film is one of twenty-first century cinema’s greatest moments. Anderson uses his famous steadicam shots to follow Plainview and his men as they race to put out an oil fire that is consuming his business and threatening the life of his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). Anderson cuts out most of the soundtrack during the initial moments, allowing Jonny Greenwood’s minimal drum score to propel the scene.
Perhaps There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s best work because it examines an ambition that matches his own. He explores his own artistic hubris in the work of examining Plainview’s misanthropy and capitalistic fervour. The film is also remarkable for Daniel Day-Lewis’s towering performance at its centre, which belongs in the pantheon of cinema acting. There Will Be Blood won Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert Elswit, while garnering Anderson nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.
It took Anderson another five years to follow up There Will Be Blood. That follow-up was The Master (2012), which initially began life as a thinly-veiled take on the birth of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology before growing into something more fictional and dramatically potent. The Master follows animalistic former seaman, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), as he takes up with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a religious cult in the early 1950s.
The Master is an intimate drama filmed on a grand scale. Anderson chose to shoot the film in 65mm, which gives each shot an incredible richness and warm palette. However, instead of filling the film with wide vistas, Anderson favours close-ups, focusing on the faces of Phoenix and Hoffman as they hold intensely personal conversations. The standout scene in the film is Freddie’s “processing,” in which Lancaster Dodd asks him a series of questions during which Freddie cannot blink. Anderson shoots the scene in close-up, holding on Phoenix’s face for much of the scene. As the scene develops, Anderson holds in close-up and the sight of Phoenix straining to keep his eyes from blinking while answering Hoffman’s repetitive questions becomes excruciating and tense. However, the intensity and intimacy of the scene has a purpose.
For one, the 65mm lets us see every detail on Phoenix’s face. More importantly, it lets us search his performance for any subconscious or inadvertent dishonesty in much the same way Dodd searches Freddie for dishonesty. And as Dodd is satisfied with Freddie at the end of the scene, so is the audience satisfied with Phoenix and his remarkable performance. The younger Paul Thomas Anderson would have never relinquished control of this scene, but the older, wiser, more quietly confident Anderson trusts Phoenix to carry the entirety of it. As the entire scene is about Freddie’s capacity for brutal, unmotivated honesty, the decision to let the actors carry it was the right one. The stationary close-up was the right shot. The Master is not the work of a young filmmaker. Instead, it shows the patience and control of a master. It’s another testament to Anderson’s maturity and talent as a filmmaker.
In 2014, Anderson adapted Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice for the big screen, becoming the first filmmaker to ever adapt Pynchon’s work. The film is a bizarre one, full of rambling dialogue, endless narrative detours, and confusingly dense narrative devices. In short, it’s a perfect adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, which uses a shaggy dog detective story to demonstrate the moral failings of the 1970s and the growing conspiratorial nature of American democracy.
Inherent Vice is a rush, both formally and comically. It follows Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello, a stoner detective living on the beach in LA County in the early 1970s, as he investigates the disappearance of his old girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). The film deliberately approximates the feeling of being high, with scenes following characters down odd digressions or into drug-induced adventures. The mystery is beside-the-point. Instead, what’s important is the atmosphere, which is overwhelmingly paranoid. Inherent Vice is a divisive film, as its disinterest in its own narrative throws many viewers off. However, viewers who can attune to the film’s wavelength will be greatly rewarded. It’s a provocative film, full of formal daring and hilarious moments of absurdity. It’s unlike anything else Anderson has made, even if it showcases his typical control over character and camera movement.
Paul Thomas Anderson shows no signs of artistic stagnation. In 2015 he made a short documentary detailing the recording of Junun, a musical collaboration between Jonny Greenwood and famed Israeli composer and poet, Shye Ben Tzur. In 2016, he filmed a music video for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” off their most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool. Each successive film of his grows more daring and more assured. The brazen ambition of Sydney and Boogie Nights has turned into the patient confidence of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Seemingly through sheer force of will, Anderson has transformed himself from a hungry wunderkind into an old master, even though he’s only 46 years old. If Anderson can continue to grow with each film he makes, there’s no doubt he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest filmmakers America ever produced. He’s living proof that great ambition can produce great art.