Friday, January 21, 2011

Faces and Names: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Devotion to Character

***Back in September for my Paul Thomas Anderson Tribute Month I wrote several pieces that I didn't end up posting, due to the fact that the response to my Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon was much greater than I expected. I didn't want to let these pieces go to waste so I will be presenting them sporadically throughout the year, along with some promotional PTA scans I didn't have back in September. I hope they prove enjoyable and interesting.***

Director Jack Horner and his assistant Kurt Longjohn have been in the editing room for hours creating the title sequence for Jack’s newest opus, Angels Live in my Town. For the first ‘Brock Landers’ film Jack had hoped to creatively go farther than he had before and, as the opening titles play out before him, he realizes he has accomplished his goal. Visibly moved by what he and Kurt and have come up with, Jack exclaims that this is the film he wants to be remembered for.

In any other film outside of Boogie Nights, this little moment would have been played for laughs, or would have played out at the expense of adult maverick Jack Horner, as Angels Live in My Town wouldn’t exactly be the film most would choose as their greatest cinematic legacy. However in the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, the scene is incredibly moving, sincere and humane. For all of his considerable skills as a screenwriter, and his extraordinary technical skills as a filmmaker, the relationship Anderson has with his characters remains perhaps the most resonate aspect of his career. Anderson has, time and time again, presented us with some of the most flawed and damaged characters imaginable but his love and compassion for them shines through, just like the love Jack Horner had for the flawed little films he created.

From the first frames of Hard Eight, to the final chilling moments of There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has shown himself as modern film’s greatest humanist. Nearly all of his characters are injured lost souls, but Anderson refuses to pass moral judgment and he asks the same from his audience. He asks for compassion as he recognizes we are all ultimately flawed, which is one reason the characters in Anderson’s films continue to live and breathe long after the final-credits roll.

Strip them down to their barest element and all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are essentially very vivid character studies. While most modern American filmmakers are more comfortable building their films around situations, it is the people in Anderson’s films that guide them. All of them, from Sydney in Hard Eight to Daniel in There Will be Blood, are haunted by Quiz-Kid Donnie Smith’s line in Magnolia concerning the fact that “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.” Like the great early seventies character studies by the likes of Rafelson, Altman and Scorsese, Anderson’s films are populated with people looking for something usually just past their grasp, while attempting to escape from something that is always close behind.

Anderson has clearly been fascinated by the idea of character since his very first work, the short film inspiration for Boogie Nights, “The Dirk Diggler Story.” The emphasis is always on the people in Anderson’s films and he clearly loves his characters and embraces their flaws; even when that character is monstrous like Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood.

Because of Anderson’s attention to his characters, and his astonishing ability at writing them, many of them have taken on an iconic stature typically reserved for figures decades old. As far as modern filmmakers go, only Quentin Tarantino has rivaled Anderson’s knack for introducing characters that immediately feel like they are a part of our popular culture. Whether it is Dirk Diggler or Frank T.J. Mackey or Daniel Plainview, Anderson has given us some of the most memorable characters in all of film history, and he has allowed actors as famous as Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise and Daniel Day Lewis the opportunity to disappear in the best roles of their careers.

While his most famous characters have entered the popular consciousness, Anderson’s many supporting players also occupy the thoughts and dreams of his many fans. What Anderson devotee hasn’t been occupied by thoughts of what happened to the likes of Roller-Girl, Buck Swop, Claudia Gator and Dean Trumbell? For people who become truly invested in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, these characters finally become a part of us in a way typically reserved for the just the most famous icons of art, literature, and film.

Of course, the many memorable people that have occupied Anderson’s films have taken on an added relevance when one considers his unnerving ability to match the perfect actor with each part, and his braveness at often casting underestimated actors. Who would have thought an often maligned performer like Heather Graham could have delivered such an emotionally devastating turn as Boogie Night’s Roller-Girl, and who else in the mid-nineties would have trusted a then considered past his prime Burt Reynolds for the pivotal character of Jack Horner?

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are finally transformed from just potent character studies into astonishing works of cinematic art, due to his astounding technical skills as a filmmaker. Anderson has, in the span of the less than half a dozen features, become far and away the most technically accomplished American filmmaker of his generation, and his films are as cinematically dazzling as his characters are damaged.

With his next project The Master sadly on hold, let us take a moment and recall the many faces and names that have populated Paul Thomas Anderson’s first five features. To quote Lou Reed recalling the films of Andy Warhol, “Images are worth repeating”, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson continue to become richer and richer with each viewing. Like the sharply drawn characters he has presented to us, Anderson’s works are very much alive in a way reserved for only the greatest of cinematic achievements.

-Jeremy Richey, 2011-

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