Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon: Kevin J. Olson on Punch Drunk Love

***I am very happy now to present another piece on P.T.A.'s magical, and totally unique, Punch-Drunk Love. This article originally appeared at the always intelligent and surprising Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and I thank its author, Kevin J. Olson, for letting me reprint it here. This look at Punch-Drunk Love got a lot of attention when it first appeared and I invite everyone to look at the original post to read the many comments it inspired.***



Punch-Drunk Love
Kevin J. Olson


Barry Egan is an isolated man who sits alone at a desk, dwarfed by the interiors of a giant warehouse he works at selling novelty toiletries, wearing a blue suit that seems out of place for his business setting. We are introduced to Barry in long shot as he is talking to someone on the phone about a loophole in a frequent flyer mileage promotion. After hanging up the phone we follow Barry out of the blasé warehouse and into shadows before we hear the sound of a steel door opening, and we're left wincing – like Barry – at the initial harshness of the daylight. Barry squints and reluctantly makes his way to the street where he finds a harmonium. After this weird discovery there is a car crash that sends Barry running back to the safety of his cold, empty and dark interior. Barry is a complex, socially inept person whose social skills seem completely utilitarian (he's not a bad salesman when he wants to be, and he can channel his inner rage at opportune times); he's also deeply disturbed and alien in a world that is inhabited by seven sisters that constantly nag him –needling him about remembering embarrassing past stories until his rage boils over – and wonder why he always wears the same blue suit. This is a tricky character, always on the verge of exploding yet delicate and in desperate need of some reciprocated love. So, who does writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson get to play such a character? Why, Adam Sandler, of course! In one of the most ingenious bits of casting in the past decade Anderson creates one of the most idiosyncratic and engrossing oddball love stories I've ever seen.

Much has been made about the casting of Sandler and how this was the first real "serious" role for the polarizing comic actor. However, Anderson stated numerous times in interviews that whenever he finds himself bummed out he pops in a Sandler comedy that cheers him up. I personally don't see how that would work, but what I think Anderson really saw was an actor who was being horribly misused by his directors. Here's an actor who constantly plays Barry Egan in every one of his films; only it's without the sincerity and introspection that Anderson allows Sandler to work with here in developing a deeply scared and tortured man-child. Sandler has always been an enigma, and it appears that Anderson figured out the riddle and unlocked the actor within that, instead of relying on immature behavior to elicit laughs, elicits winces based on Barry's unpredictability and violent tantrums.

After Barry finds the harmonium outside he is visited by an outside, a woman named Lena (Emily Watson) who is dropping off her car at a repair shop next to Barry's work. They awkwardly converse and we come to find that she ends up being the co-worker of Barry's sister, and that her dropping of her car was a plan all along in order to meet Barry. This infiltration into Barry's world has led some to believe that Lena is an alien. The alien theory derives from the fact that we meet Lena after the crash in the beginning, she enters his life and often is ushering him towards the light (enlightenment/love), and that curiously (or perhaps not so curiously) Anderson often uses lens flare when Lena is on screen, suggesting some kind of alien presence. I think this theory is stretching it a bit because I don't feel that Lena is literally an alien, but symbolically it works beautifully in a more subtle way than say something like The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Barry and Lena begin a courtship that pulls Barry out of his funk and inspires him to buy more pudding for his frequent flyer scam because as opposed to earlier in the movie where we see the hunched over Barry talking on the phone about the promotion – a promotion we get the sense was just something he wanted to exploit – we now see a dancing Barry in the grocery store elated that he actually has a reason to go somewhere. This leads to a beautiful and insanely romantic (in the P.T. Anderson context) moment in Hawaii, and there's a moment during Barry and Lena making love where Barry says something that would horrify almost any woman, but Lena seems to understand where such a wild statement comes from, and she's right there with him the whole way. The next morning we see Lena on the phone talking business, but she just sits there and stares at Barry in a way that can only be described as someone who knows they've met the person they're supposed to be with. Yes, Lena brings Barry out of his funk; however, if Lena were the protagonist of her own film we might be saying the same thing about the insertion of Barry in her life.

There are some other interesting moments here like Barry's daily operations at work (with always tremendous Luis Guzman playing the straight man to Barry's eccentricities) and moment where he makes a 1-900 call to a woman names "Georgia" who scams him out of some money. The pest part of this little detour is that we begin to see the evolution of Barry thanks to Lena as he begins to stand up for himself. After being shaken down by the self-proclaimed "Mattress King" (in a film-stealing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman) Barry and Lena come home from a date and three of the "King's" hoods crash into his car to further send home the message. Barry flips out – finally having someone to protect and something to stand up for – and proceeds to beat the living hell out of two of the hoods with tire iron. It's a crucial moment because instead of punching walls or kicking in sliding glass doors Barry has learned how to appropriately channel and unleash his anger. After getting Lena to the hospital Barry sets off on a hilarious journey to Orem, UT where the "King" lives. There is a standoff – on the phone and face to face – that makes the film worth seeing even for the most casual of fan.

This is probably Anderson's most abstract and challenging film; it also feels like it's the one that's most clearly from his heart. The film follows more closely the avant garde, early Altman (and of course French New Wave) style of filmmaking than the more sweeping, latter Altman approach he's taken with his other films. The aesthetic appropriately matches the mood here (something Anderson is always conscious of) and in one of my favorite moments from the Hawaii vignette we get a beautiful use of an iris shot. I mean who still uses an iris shot! It is little moments like that one that make me so glad we have Paul Thomas Anderson. This is why the film feels likes it's so much from Anderson's gut, the inspiration and influence is still present, but this film – arguably for the first time in the young filmmakers storied career – feels aesthetically fresh with a narrative style that doesn't feel indebted to Scorsese and Altman. Anderson is inviting us to consider some of the abstract aspects of art that intrigue him, and he's placing these questions smack-dab in the middle of a 90 minute Adam Sandler comedy.

This is the film that Anderson said he wanted to make after his operatic and emotionally draining duo of Boogie Nights in 1997 and Magnolia in 1999. Exhausted from making two masterpieces that showed Anderson's love of all things cinema (both films are drenched with cinematic allusions), the auteur wanted to collaborate with Sandler, the man who often brought Anderson (like Barry) out of his funk. There are some cinematic allusions in Punch-Drunk Love like in the way Barry and Lena dress (Godard) and brilliant use of the song "He needs me" sung by Shelly Duvall in Altman's (Anderson's master) Popeye, but these nods are less overt than previous films (for example the tracking shot into the disco club from Boogie Nights that mirrors the track from Goodfellas).

The splicing in of abstract art pieces from artist Jeremy Blake suggest that Anderson really wants us to think about color in this film, and indeed it is the primary source of symbolism. Barry's blue jacket is as crucial as Holden Caulfield's red cap in that it is the singular thing we associate with Barry's mood. Barry is blue and cold; Barry also wears the jacket everywhere adding to the theme of displacement as Barry often looks out of place in his blue suit (especially in Hawaii), an alien if you will. Barry's blue is contrasted starkly by the harsh light that Anderson often bathers him in (especially that opening scene with the blinding morning light of L.A.) and the red dress of Lena; red being the primary color throughout that leads Barry to happiness.

Color isn't the only symbol that Anderson uses to give us insights into Barry's psychological warfare; the harmonium also acts as a key symbol for Barry's journey from loneliness and darkness to reciprocity, love, and companionship. Barry finds the harmonium on the side of the road, a piece of junk that some people were too lazy to deal with, but Barry finds it intriguing and that it's something worth saving (much like Lena finds Barry interesting, not the piece of junk that his sisters and other have given up on, and worth saving) so he carries it into his office and begins working on it (a metaphor for his life). As the film progresses so does the restoration of the harmonium (Barry's soul), so that by the end of the film when Barry and Lena are ready to embark on their journey we see Lena coming into frame as the camera pans with her to find Barry playing the harmonium, in tune.

The ending is one of the most satisfying of Anderson's in an oeuvre that is filled with masterful endings. That's one of the thing that I think people come to expect from Anderson is great, ambiguous ending s that lean more towards hope than doom (except for There Will Be Blood). As Lena whispers to Barry "here we go…" you get the same feeling you did watching the end of Magnolia when John C. Reilly tells Melora Waters tell her he loves her no matter what as Aimee Mann's beautiful "Save Me" plays over the dialogue. Lena and Barry are anything but normal, but sometimes that's okay in the realm of love, and I love the way Anderson's ends his film on the beginning of a journey, a journey I can't help but think will serve Lena and Barry well.



Much is made of Punch-Drunk Love because of the Houdini-like feat of Anderson pulling a good performance out of Sandler; however, that's only part of the film's charm. I think people who solely look at the film from that perspective are missing some of the filmmaker's most interesting themes. This is a film about Barry's escape from the isolated, dark and drab existence into a more fulfilling and exhilarating one. The film is quite cerebral for the 90 minute comedy Anderson claimed it to be as Anderson uses music and color brilliantly to study more deeply the psyche of one his most interesting characters. The release of the 2007 film There Will Be Blood kind of erased this film from the memory of those who were so quick to call Anderson's 2007 film his masterpiece. I love There Will Be Blood and think it's one of the 30 best films of the decade, but it doesn't come close to Punch-Drunk Love, as complete and utterly beautiful and brilliant a film that Anderson has made. Where Blood overstayed its welcome by about 20 minutes Punch-Drunk Love stays just long enough on screen – balancing beautifully the idiosyncratic and the poignant – but lingers long after, creating one of the very best, and most aesthetically pleasing, films of the past decade.

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