DECEMBER 23, 2016
LIKE ME, the esteemed film scholar George Toles thinks that Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t really come into his own as a director until he made There Will Be Blood (2007), his fifth feature film. But as I read Toles’s intriguing new book on Anderson — part of the increasingly influential “Contemporary Film Directors” series published by the University of Illinois Press — I began to realize that he and I value the film for very different, perhaps even incommensurable reasons. A film that had me thinking about history and geopolitics had him thinking about psychology and personal trauma. What had me thinking of Walter Benjamin — “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” — had him thinking about Freud, and not necessarily the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents, either.
In Toles’s account, There Will Be Blood mines “the buried emotional core” of its ruthlessly single-minded protagonist, the heartless oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). For him, the film is an intimate portrait of one man’s “jammed consciousness.” But I still see it as a broader indictment of the ideologies that have shaped modern American society as a whole: capitalism, evangelism, industrialism, and, of course, violence. I want to punch Daniel Plainview in the face, or put him in prison. Toles wants to put him on the analyst’s couch. Did he and I see the same film?
Toles views all of P. T. Anderson’s work as a filmmaker through a psychoanalytic lens. His book — which, unlike much academic film criticism, is full of literary shine and sparkle — surveys almost all of Anderson’s cinematic work to date, but it focuses primarily on three of the director’s later films: Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the aforementioned There Will Be Blood, and The Master (2012). Inherent Vice (2014), an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same title, arrived in theaters too recently to make it into the manuscript, which is a shame, partly because the film challenges some of the assumptions Toles makes about the arc and coherence of Anderson’s career; but also because a Distinguished Professor of English who has spent a career working with the filmmaker Guy Maddin — a mad genius whose films, like Pynchon’s prose, freely mix history, myth, and fantasy in ever surprising ways — would be just the right person to parse the meaning of a Pynchon/Anderson mash-up.
If you have ever seen a Guy Maddin film — some of which Toles either wrote or co-wrote — you will have a sense of what to expect in Paul Thomas Anderson. Close attention is paid to psychosexual dynamics, and to how they determine not just conscious thoughts and actions, but also subconscious drives, desires, and feelings. Mother figures and father figures loom large, especially in inescapable fever dreams of memory that shuffle between feelings of guilt and shame on the one side and euphoric ecstasy — or release, if we want to be more graphic — on the other. Those long, dark winters in Winnipeg, where Maddin lives and where Toles teaches at the University of Manitoba, must leave a lot of time for introspection. Maybe too much time.
Toles thinks that Anderson’s films simultaneously invite and resist such psychological scrutiny. He discusses framing and editing and performance, all the usual subjects you would expect to find in a work of film studies, but what really interests him is feelings. To get at those feelings, Toles trains his focus on Anderson’s conflicted characters, whose hearts seem to have been confiscated by some previous trauma or by the fear of an impending one. Each character becomes a case study awaiting diagnosis: Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who wants to punch people in the face, struggles with a case of thwarted desire; Daniel Plainview, fleeing his own personal pain, would rather mine for gold or drill for oil than unearth his own deeply buried, fiercely guarded personal secrets; and The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) displays a stunted emotional growth, exacerbated by a fondness for what today we might call “artisanal moonshine.”
Unavoidably, Anderson himself comes in for a fair amount of psychological scrutiny, perhaps because he has, at least in Toles’s opinion, rather obvious mother issues. “One of the main strands of argument in my book,” Toles writes, “is that Anderson continues to ‘guard’ the story of his mother,” even as that story “is always working its way, with obdurate, ghostly force, into his narratives about fathers (real and surrogate), and carries the real burden of the narrative mystery.” Oedipus is never too far away.
Fathers, both real and surrogate, are prominent in Anderson’s early films — Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999) — but they are hardly role-model material. The first is a professional gambler with a wise-guy past, the second is a pornographer, and the last is perhaps the most questionable of the three: a television producer. (Anderson’s own father worked in television and radio, mostly as a voiceover artist and disc jockey.) But mothers, even in their absence, play a powerful role as well, and Toles is surely right to suggest that these early films are in fact guided by a feminine sensibility, one that finally gets a voice, literally, in Aimee Mann, whose plaintive music weaves the disparate storylines of Magnolia together into a cathartic, emotionally effusive chorus. Whether or not this had to be done in the style of an extended music video, and with that deluge of frogs to go with it, is of course another matter entirely. (The less said about those, maybe, the better.)
It is Anderson’s post-Magnolia work, though, that fascinates Toles, in part because it refuses just such “confessional effusion.” It trades Aimee Mann for Jonny Greenwood; frenetic prolixity for static-charged silence. The “increasingly taciturn, oblique, and mysterious screenplays” of Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master exhibit more than anything a suspicion of the “from-the-gut candor” — to use Anderson’s own words, quoted by Toles — that animated the early films. There would be no simple cathartic release here, no refuge in the embrace of a community that recognizes and feels your pain. In addition, there would be no easy reliance on the comforting tropes of genre or traditional narrative structure. Viewers would be made to feel as alienated, as disoriented, as lost as the characters on the screen in front of them. “Anderson’s plan for the viewer in Punch-Drunk Love” — a turning point in the filmmaker’s career, Toles thinks — “is to keep him or her confined in an uncertainty comparable to Barry’s own.” We never know what to make of this strange, off-kilter film, just as Barry doesn’t know what to do with the feelings and emotions unleashed by Lena’s (Emily Watson) unexpected interest in him. And that is precisely the point, because eros — if you follow this line of thinking — is a kind of “delirious instability.” It is not so much the glue that keeps one’s world together as it is a sledgehammer that breaks it apart.
Toles moves from the “sledgehammer of eros” in Punch-Drunk Love to what we might call the pickaxe of the soul in There Will Be Blood. What I viewed as an epic tale of grand historical and possibly even philosophical sweep, Toles sees as an intimate narrative of failed introspection. Daniel Plainview, in whom I saw the maniacal face of capitalist greed and bitterness, becomes, in Toles’s interpretation, a tragic, almost sympathetic character. He is a “a figure overmastered and done in by an essential stuntedness, and by a vast, buried hurt. He is too fearful to face up to the latter, so he settles for lying bluster instead.” Poor guy.
For Toles, There Will Be Blood is not a film about the origins of the contemporary world, and all of the blood and oil and menace — both physical and psychological — that brought it about. That’s too literal an interpretation. “One feels that the search for oil, this fantastic residue from the far depths, is an unrecognized search for one’s buried origins, hurt, and attachments,” he writes. “It is as though the pit must be made to speak in place of lost and estranged others who cannot, and also be made to speak for the unreachable core of the man drilling, who is intensely driven but does not know by what.” There Will Be Blood isn’t about blood at all, apparently: it is about the search for that “buried emotional core.”
At this point in the book, oil drilling and mining become a recurrent theme and metaphor. In the part of it devoted to The Master — a film that swaps mining camps and oil derricks for naval vessels, but no matter — Toles even likens the moviegoing experience itself to these processes. It isn’t such a stretch to imagine our entrance into the darkened theater as a descent into some kind of cinematic mineshaft, where the dreams and desires of others will be unearthed before our very eyes. But this isn’t what Toles has in mind, exactly. For him, cinematic mining is actually self-mining: the pickaxe gets turned the other way around, especially when it confronts films such as Punch-Drunk Love or There Will Be Blood or The Master, which do not conform to established genre expectations. Their form and their content seem to resist interpretation. Something seems to be missing in these films, populated as they are by uncommunicative protagonists, and edited in ways that keep the viewer both temporally and spatially displaced. In these instances, our hermeneutic blade hits impenetrable bedrock, only to bounce back and dig into the softer stuff of our own messy souls:
We partly fill in the gaps with inferences about character psychology, story logic, environment. We consider how the parts are arranged, notice repeating patterns, and find the most fitting ways to think about the plot. But mostly it is ourselves (a roiling mass of feelings and contradictions) that we mine to fill the gaps. It is our imagining self, our living presence, that seals the cracks and most powerfully animates the movie picture.
Admirably, Toles lives by what he preaches, and traces of his own “roiling mass of feelings and contradictions” can be found scattered throughout his book. His conviction that Daniel Plainview is a grief-stricken character worthy of our sympathy, for instance, stems mostly, as he admits, from his own experience of grief at the loss of his mother not so long ago. We feel another’s pain by drawing upon memories of our own. But all of this raises the inevitable question: How are we to know that the feelings we have mined from the depths of our souls or psyches do justice to the work of art that we are trying to interpret? How do we know our mining will produce some nugget of interpretive gold?
It has to be said that Toles is an intrepid cinematic and psychological miner. He finds a great many gems in Anderson’s films by working carefully, measuredly, over key sequences in each of them, unearthing insights that less diligent, less experienced viewers such as I all too easily overlook. And he does it with both grace and flair. Still, we should remember that mining is dangerous work. The deeper one digs, the more the dread of eventual collapse mounts; the more one longs to see the sky again, breathe fresh air.
The opening shot of The Master may not give us the sky, but it does offer a whiff of fresh, salty, open-sea air. It transports us to the back of a boat where we see the ship’s wake churning a beautiful blue-green sea. Our protagonist this time is a sailor, not an oilman, and he is on a journey — one that, we soon realize, has no clear, definitive destination. The film, which seems to jump randomly between various moments in Freddie Quell’s life, from his time in the Navy to his flirtation with a newly emerging midcentury cult that seems to have a lot in common with Scientology, does not make it easy for us to follow his path. But we suspect that we will see that churning sea again before it’s all over — and we do.
Among the very few cinematic precedents for Anderson’s work that Toles invokes are the films of Terrence Malick — especially Days of Heaven (1978). It’s safe to say that Malick hasn’t come across a body of water or a sky that he didn’t want to capture on film. Days of Heaven, which was filmed on the vast prairies of Alberta, Canada, has its fair share of river scenes and picture-perfect sunsets. But this interest in waterways and skies — if not, in fact, in the entire natural world itself — is not what Toles thinks Anderson owes to Malick. Nor is it the work of Malick’s longtime art director and production designer Jack Fisk, who worked on both There Will Be Blood and The Master. Instead, it is Malick’s structuring of Days of Heaven and, 20 years after it, The Thin Red Line (1998) that seems to have exerted a definitive influence. Both films exchanged “carefully delineated psychology” for “fragmentary episodes” that offered little more than “evocative glimpses” of a coherent, dramatic narrative. Both films resist our expectations concerning character, genre, and plot. Days of Heaven both is and is not a tragedy; The Thin Red Line both is and is not a war film.
The same kinds of things can be said of The Master, of course. It is neither this nor that in more ways than one. It is full of “fragmentary episodes” and “evocative glimpses.” Having seen it again recently, at the Museum of the Moving Image, I still don’t know what to make of it. Surely Toles is right to suggest that the film is determined “to thwart our desire to get inside its narrative.” But this doesn’t stop him from trying to do just that. He puts on his miner’s cap and digs, searching for the film’s meaning, its source. (It’s worth pointing out here that Freddie’s surname, “Quell,” means just that — “source” — in German.) The Master may indeed represent, as Toles suggests, another quest for an “archetypal mother” figure, symbolized this time around by a mermaid made out of sand that Freddie first ogles, then humps, and finally cuddles, tenderly. But couldn’t it also be about many other things as well, including, perhaps, the inability of a certain kind of Scientology-like psychologizing — “The Cause,” as it is called in the film — to unlock the secrets of such a confounding, enigmatic, tight-lipped character?
The founder of “The Cause,” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the embodiment of intellectual bravado — “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher” he declares at one point — who tries as best he can to quell Freddie Quell, to cure him of his corporeal animality, which gets expressed in all manner of physical outbursts, many of them violent and self-destructive. In Toles’s analysis, the sex that Freddie finally has — with a woman not made of sand, it is worth pointing out — represents not just a release but also a kind of redemption. But it is unclear if this redemption results from Freddie’s embrace of “The Cause” or his rejection of it; if it shows him having been mastered, or having become his own master. Either way we read it, though, the scene certainly stands in stark contrast to the vicious, visceral, decidedly unambiguous ending of There Will Be Blood. (Such a giveaway, that title.) Maybe it proves Toles right. There won’t always be blood, I guess, but there will always be feelings. On that we can agree.