The mind of Paul Thomas Anderson must be a very interesting place to be. Since the start of his cinematic career, Anderson has produced consistently interesting and thoughtful work, concerned with the workings of the human mind in broken down societies. Over the years, however, his work has become darker and less linear. It is as if, the further he burrows into psychology, the more he disassociates himself from traditional storytelling. It is by no means a bad thing; Anderson’s work is responsible for some of the most interesting cinematic debate that has happened over the past year. The news of a new Anderson film, therefore, is primarily received with anticipation, for the new ideas that he will put forward and for the new way that he will think about society in general.
Since There Will Be Blood in 2007, the critical opinion towards Anderson has plateaued somewhat and whilst his follow up The Master was certainly well received, it was done so with a sprinkling of reserve. Where There Will Be Blood was innovative and spiky, some questioned whether or not The Master was too introspective and self-aware. With a new Anderson release recently in cinemas, however, it seems that things are still on the up for the director. With Inherent Vice in mind then, it is a good time to consider the director’s work as a whole and see how he moved from small time crime (on film, of course) to the twisted world of Thomas Pynchon.
In Hard Eight (or Sydney), Anderson made his name as a filmmaker to watch. The neo-noir film, which takes influence from the 1940s film noir genre, follows a young gambler as he makes his way onto the casino scene. Unlike most gangster-thriller films, Hard Eight is relatively dowbeat when it comes to violence and glamour, playing its world as more normal than most people would think. In the film, Anderson’s grip on the human condition is apparent; he does not hold his characters up on a pedestal, or glamourise their lives any more than they would be in reality. Whilst the film circulated mainly on the Indie circuits, it is a strong feature, indicative of greater things to come.
By the time Boogie Nights came around, Anderson had cemented his name as master of the long, looping film, which interweaves character plot lines as effortlessly as it follows their lives. Boogie Nights follows the fate of Californian bus boy, Eddie Adams, after he is discovered by a Porn producer. Adams soon develops into Dirk Diggler and things are on the up. Like many films of its kind (think Goodfellas and Casino), Boogie Nights plots the inevitable rise, fall and subsequent rise of its central character. However, it is not in the plot that Anderson shines. His ability to create and develop characters is incredibly adept; he sees into the characters’ minds and understands how they function. For its representation of an era, a people and an industry, Boogie Nights is incredibly accomplished.
Anderson really hits his stride with Magnolia. Whilst the director has made recent declarations of the film being too long, it is still one of the high points in cinema. Filmed over the course of one night, the film interweaves between narrative strands in a similar way to Boogie Nights. Whilst the earlier film focused on one man in the midst of social chaos, Magnolia spreads its gaze amongst many characters, upping the ante on the cinematic frenzy level. Although the running time can feel like a bit of feat, the film doesn’t lose anything in its length. Magnolia is also Anderson’s first step into the more nonsensical narrative, building its plot through emotional outpourings rather than sequential events. In the most famous scene, the characters sing Aimee Mann’s Wise Up, in a strangely poignant sequence. Despite its length, Magnolia achieves exactly what it sets out to, showing how a group of people can change over the course of one night.
It is with There Will Be Blood that Anderson truly made his mark in cinema. Set in the Californian oil boom of the late 19th century, the film follows miner Daniel Plainview as he chances upon an oil fortune. As he becomes increasingly rich, his moral compass becomes more and more skewed and in its climax, the film shows the complete humanitarian breakdown of its central character. There Will Be Blood is incredibly intense, featuring much of the emotional claustrophobia that Anderson later explored in The Master. Whilst The Master could be said to err on the side of introspection, There Will Be Blood is just interior enough to build tension. The film balances narrative clarity with the loss of Plainview’s sense of mind and reality; the narrative dips in between the two with the perfect balance and is all the more affecting for it.
Inherent Vice is a hard one to call. Whilst it is the least linear of all of Anderson’s films and the most difficult to understand, it is based on a text which is, by nature, obtuse, forcing its audience to work in different ways to shed light on its meaning. In Joaquin Phoenix, Anderson has found a muse of sorts, a representation of the type of difficult narrative that he is focused on in this point in time. When paired with There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson seems to have made a trilogy of sorts, looking at the complications of the human mind by focusing on a lone, socially isolated figure. Adapting Thomas Pynchon for the cinema is enough to make you lose your mind, so it is lucky that that is the effect Anderson wished upon his viewer. Although he is very much back in the favour of critics (but when was he really out of favour?), it is unclear where Anderson can go next. Following the climactic build-up of his last three films in particular, perhaps he will completely change his mind, alter perspective and give us a comedy. Based on past experience, the chances are low but one thing is for sure; wherever he should decide to go next will be interesting, thrilling and very much deliberate.