Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Three Films by Paul Thomas Anderson

Boogie Nights (1997)
Punch Drunk Love (2002)
The Master (2012)

In the run up to the release of The Master, the Lighthouse cinema showed some older films by Paul Thomas Anderson. I went to see two that I had previously missed. Boogie Nights tells the story of Dirk Diggler, a man with an enormous penis, who becomes a star of the 1970s porn industry. It is an odd film, in that it is very affectionate towards its characters and shows good and bad things happening to them, but it never really gives any sense of whether it has a fixed opinion towards pornography and the porn industry. There is a lot of music in it, not so much the classic waka-waka-waka music that I am told makes for the standard soundtrack to porn films. Instead we get a lot of scenes of people dancing in nightclubs (actually in the same nightclub repeatedly). I was very struck by a scene where everyone starts doing this amazing formation dance - why does this never happen in real clubs?

There is also a funny scene in the all-gone-to-shit stage of Mr Diggler's life in which he and his even less bright friend try to become 1980s pop stars. And a recurring joke in which an African American character is mad into shit country music.

In the film there is a big chunk of it where it all goes wrong for all the characters and they all become sad, with some of this being triggered by the changing nature of the porn industry as video replaces film. But then by the end they all get it together again and the film ends on an upbeat note… except that if you have any sense of historical events you know that HIV/AIDS is coming at them like a honking juggernaut driven by a blind homicidal maniac. It is odd that the film does not engage with this, though it does remind me of, say, the ending of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, where the film goes out on a big note but you know it will really go bad for at least some of the characters afterwards.

Punch Drunk Love, meanwhile, is one of those films in which a guy who is a bit dysfunctional has his life turned around when a good woman falls for him. Such films are always viewed as heart-warming and uplifting but I have found them problematic ever since I read a piece by someone saying that if you look at these films from the woman's point of view they are a bit of a disaster - basically a successful and competent woman suddenly finds herself shackled to some loser man-child.

But I am only really mentioning this film because of the musical and sound content. It has possibly the most amazing sound design of any film I have ever seen, using strange and disorienting effects to communicate the confused nature of its main character. The music is great too, with Jon Brion apparently composing music on the set and then Anderson adapting dialogue and action to fit the timing of the sounds. The soundtrack frequently uses a harmonium, partly because a physical harmonium appears in the film as something of a plot device.

Anyway, if you have never seen this film I strongly recommend it, particularly if you can see it somewhere with decent sound. Notwithstanding my quibbles about the whole woman-saves-fuckwit genre, Adam Sandler in the lead role is genuinely affecting and the music and so on adeptly conveys his confusion and dysfunction.

The Master - did that have much in the way of music in it? I cannot really remember and did not particularly like it that much. The performance in the lead roles by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are very impressive but the film does seem to be one of those plotless ramblers. That said, it did make me weirdly sympathetic to Scientology, as the scenes where the L. Ron Hubbad analogue was auditing or processing or whatever it was the main character made it all look surprisingly impressive.

Image source

A review of Knocked Up, by Joe Queenan.

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