Saturday, September 15, 2012

A title that could describe its director

It would be an understatement to say I'm excited for the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

I'm so excited, and want to so little advanced footage to bias me one way or another, that I actually bowed my head while the trailer was playing before Celeste and Jesse Forever on Monday. So I heard the trailer, but didn't watch it, in keeping with my strict avoidance policy with regards to promotional material for The Master.

Reason: Few directors are as capable of surprising us as Anderson. When I go to see his movie this weekend, I want those surprises to flow over me like a tide of rushing water.

After all, The Master is the latest work from our current master of cinema.

Paul Thomas Anderson has made just five feature-length movies prior to this one, and I haven't wholeheartedly embraced all of them. But it's hard not to look back at those five films and see a creative talent of great vision and ambition. His stinginess -- after a relatively prolific start to his career, he's given us only two films in the past decade -- is part of his mystique.

The true greats -- like his collaborator in There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis -- take time to perfect their craft, even and perhaps especially if it means their fans have to wait. Perhaps I'm just used to this kind of thing, as my favorite band -- Nine Inch Nails -- used to routinely take five-and-a-half-years between new albums. When The Master hits theaters today -- at least in my market -- it will have been nearly five years since There Will Be Blood blew the doors off our expectations of what Anderson can accomplish.

Like many people given the privilege of directing a film, Anderson started modestly. His 1996 debut, Hard Eight, is perhaps the very definition of modesty. It concerns a downtrodden gambler (John C. Reilly) and the father figure (Philip Baker Hall) who takes him under his wing, in an attempt to turn the man's life around through perfecting the very endeavor at which he had failed (gambling). There's more to it than that, and the film also features such big names as Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson. But it's essentially a small character study, painted in intimate strokes.

Anderson threw modesty out the window -- literally and figuratively -- the following year with the masterpiece Boogie Nights. Not only did it include porn, prosthetic penises and mounds of cocaine, but the movie was a stylistic tour-de-force, as grandiose and ambitious as Hard Eight was quiet and contemplative. The film also represented Anderson's first instance of expertly imitating the style of another master, which he has done several times during his career. (In fact, I almost called this post "The Master ... of disguise?," except that I could only come up with two convincing examples of Anderson aping another director's style). Boogie Nights could have just as easily been made by Martin Scorsese, and people would include it in the conversation when discussing Scorsese's best films.

The director confounded me personally with his next film, Magnolia, in 1999. It wasn't because I considered the film bad -- in fact, in many ways it was more ambitious than even Boogie Nights. Rather, it was because I thought Anderson's tendency toward imitation overwhelmed him this time. I found Magnolia to owe entirely too much to the films of Robert Altman, specifically Short Cuts, a favorite of mine. Both this film and Short Cuts deal with a dozen or so intersecting lives, take place in Los Angeles, have a ridiculously epic climax, and run three hours in length. However, my initial reaction to Magnolia soon subsided, and I decided that I felt confounded by it because it had discomfited me in some way -- which is almost always a good thing when watching a movie. One of the first things I learned about my wife is that she loves this movie, and as it happens, a discussion last week led to my renting it from Netflix so we'll have it available to watch again -- whenever we seem to unexpectedly have three hours at our disposal.

So as not to pigeonhole himself as an auteur only capable of painting on a large canvas, Anderson went intimate again with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. And as a great indication of the many ways Anderson is capable of touching many different movie fans, I know a number of people who consider this his greatest achievement. As though intentionally trying to challenge himself, Anderson took Adam Sandler and said "I can make a great film with this guy, and show you a side of him you've never seen." He certainly did that. I may not love Punch-Drunk Love as much as its ardent fans, but it's another film that ages well in my mind, as ambitious with sound, framing and just plain eccentricity as his two previous films are ambitious with scope. It's a love story literally like no other.

Anderson's first five-year layoff then followed, and the results were a spectacular return to epic form. There Will Be Blood was, for many critics, one of the most vital American films in a decade, the 2007 version of Oscar's annual failure to recognize the best film made that year. On the strength of the towering performance by Day-Lewis, Blood is a masterpiece of sound and vision, featuring such details as an anachronistic score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, an opening 20 minutes that contain no dialogue, a grand American story of enterprise, greed, violence and corruption, and breathtaking cinematography of the plains that earned this film comparisons to the great westerns of old. Many critics listed it as the best film made in the first decade of the 21st century.

So now we wait to see what will be Anderson's encore after his masterpiece -- or perhaps, just the latest in a string of masterpieces. It's easy to imagine that our master may have made another Masterpiece, and a number of critics have already proclaimed it such.

I'll be finding out soon. Real soon.

These are the times when it makes me giddy to be a cinephile. 

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