Bigger, Louder, More Frogs

How Paul Thomas Anderson sets himself apart from Hollywood’s other wunderkinds.

It’s only fitting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakthrough film, Boogie Nights, was the story of a triple-X superstar with a python in his pants. This is one director you could safely call a size freak—or, to put it more politely, a maximalist. The gushers of oil in his new film, There Will Be Blood, are an apt visualization of how all his films function: They’re designed to erupt and spill over. The larger the canvas, the grander the theme, the higher the volume, the wilder the emotion, the more inspired the filmmaking.

We may not be living in a golden age of American movies, but a new New Hollywood of sorts has emerged—a cluster of adventurous directors in their 30s and 40s who have figured out how to get personal films made with Hollywood or Indiewood money: Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, Alexander Payne. Many of them have a specialty. Fincher is a visual virtuoso, Linklater a verbal stylist. Payne is good with character, Coppola with moods and music. Tarantino has the encyclopedic geek smarts, Soderbergh the taste for reinvention. With Paul Thomas Anderson, all of the above apply. His thing is that he can do it all.

A 37-year-old autodidact (he dropped out of NYU film school after two days), Anderson has written and directed five films, each one in its way bigger or bolder than the last: Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and the long-awaited There Will Be Blood (opening Wednesday). Still precocious enough to be considered an enfant terrible, he incites strong, divided opinions. Many reviews of Magnolia, a three-hour-plus whirlwind pop opera that climaxed in a biblical downpour of frogs, assumed the tone of a lecture directed at a talented but undisciplined child. (Janet Maslin wondered why a film that began so well would “torpedo itself.”) Even There Will Be Blood, a festering epic of frontier rapaciousness that has earned Anderson the best reviews of his career, has been wrist-slapped for the balls-out anarchy of its finale. (David Denby advanced the condescending theory that “some part of him must have rebelled against canonization.”)

But those who love Anderson’s movies tend to be obsessed with them. He’s the rare filmmaker who appeals to Ain’t-It-Cool fanboys and auteurist snobs alike. I once moderated a Q&A with him, and witnessed among the crowd the kind of expectant devotion normally reserved for faith healers. Sobbing fans were turned away from a sold-out preview of There Will Be Blood in Manhattan a few weeks ago.

Anderson invites emotional responses because he’s an emotional filmmaker, and this, too, distinguishes him from most of his cohorts. The signature trait of the ‘90s indie school is detachment, whether in the form of self-conscious cleverness or numb ennui, but there’s nothing detached about Anderson’s films. His most memorable characters—Adam Sandler’s dazed man-child in Punch-Drunk Love, Julianne Moore’s mother-whore hybrid in Boogie Nights, anyone in Magnolia—tend to be exposed nerve endings.  

Given the dominant American pop idioms of snark and quirk, Anderson’s sensibility can be confounding. He’s satirical, but also achingly sincere. His characters often speak with a declarative directness that is both breathtaking and a little ridiculous. “I have so much love to give,” William H. Macy’s sad sack in Magnolia announces, “I just don’t know where to put it.” Daniel Day-Lewis’ driven oilman in Blood, the curdled flipside, offers a capitalism-in-a-nutshell haiku—”I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed”—and sums up his worldview in four implacable words: “I hate most people.”

In a sense, Anderson’s films are all about cranking up the atmosphere to the point where such lines sound not just devastating but plausible. One way he does this is, quite simply, by turning up the music. Too-loud music is an Anderson hallmark: a manifestation of his characters’ roiling inner lives or a cosmic sign that all hell is about to break loose. In Boogie Nights’ justly celebrated deal-gone-wrong, I-love-the-’80s set piece, the dialogue is all but drowned out by the “awesome mix tape” that Alfred Molina’s freebasing nutjob is blasting (Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” auto-reverses to Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl”).

Anderson’s movies feature some of the most experimental scores ever written: Jon Brion’s wheezing harmonium and clattering percussion in Punch-Drunk Love, Jonny Greenwood’s detuned horror-movie strings in Blood. Plenty of directors are skilled in the art of the song choice, but when Sofia Coppola puts on the Jesus and Mary Chain or Wes Anderson unearths some obscure Francopop gem, it is, at bottom, a reflection of the filmmaker’s impeccable taste. Anderson’s use of music is at once more radical and more precisely linked to what’s happening on-screen. In Magnolia, as the action shifts among nearly a dozen anguished characters, Aimee Mann’s lush melodies function as both Greek chorus and salve. At a critical juncture, her ballad “Wise Up” occasions an otherworldly karaoke that topples the fourth wall; all the characters, including a dying man in a morphine coma, sing along.

The prominent bursts of music—and the way the narratives rely on musical principles like rhythm, tone, and phrasing—result in a kind of delirious synesthesia. His movies set off a crazy multitude of sensory triggers, leaving the impression that Anderson is working from a larger palette than most filmmakers. Punch-Drunk Love syncs its hero’s panic attacks and joyful palpitations with Brion’s volatile score and Jeremy Blake’s intensely chromatic digital patterns, which appear throughout as punctuation. The kaleidoscope swirl of sound and color and movement hits its dizzy nirvana in a sequence that reunites Sandler’s Barry and his beloved Lena (Emily Watson) in the flamingo-pink lobby of a Waikiki hotel. She throws herself at him and they kiss, silhouetted in an archway that opens onto a green lawn, a pink wall, and the gleaming blue of the Pacific. “He Needs Me,” the cockeyed love theme from Robert Altman’s Popeye, swells on the soundtrack.

The Popeye song is a nod to a director who often comes up in discussions of Anderson. It’s true that Boogie Nights and Magnolia juggle their ensemble casts as adroitly as Altman did in Nashville and Short Cuts and that Altman was something of a real-life mentor: Anderson was a standby director on APrairie Home Companion, and There Will Be Blood is dedicated to the late director. But Altman was never this interested in spectacle, and while he was routinely called a misanthrope, Anderson is anything but. (There Will Be Blood is a film about a misanthrope, not a misanthropic film.)

If the Altman comparisons seem grossly reductive, it’s because Anderson is liberal when it comes to borrowing from the greats. Why not combine Altman’s panoramic outlook with Stanley Kubrick’s formal bravura with John Cassavetes’ messy candor? While Anderson fits the profile of a “hysterical realist,” to evoke the pejorative literary buzz-phrase of a few years ago, his films never indulge in excess for the sake of excess. He’s a born showman—his first three films bore the Barnumesque credit “A P.T. Anderson picture”—but his go-for-broke tendencies are tied to an expansive, humanist impulse.

Anderson subverts the stereotype of the chilly, Kubrickian technical genius. He makes stunning use of gliding, Steadicam-abetted tracking shots, a favorite trick of showoff directors. (In Boogie Nights, he and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, quote two of the best-known tracking shots in film history: Goodfellasnightclub prowl and I Am Cuba’s swimming-pool dive.) But the snaking camerawork is not simply a demonstration of daredevil prowess. Often it provides social or emotional context. While David Fincher, for instance, has a special love for spatially impossible, digitally enhanced camera maneuvers, Anderson’s long, unbroken takes are rooted in human movement and contact. They speak to the interconnectedness of his characters or the distance between them.

Five films into his career, Anderson still makes whiz-kid movies, and I mean that in the best way. There’s a bratty perfectionism on display—his films appear to be made by someone who gets what he wants. As he has matured, though, his obsession with size and scale has become less about sprawl or duration than intensity. Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood are remarkable feats of concentration. They’re distilled, interior epics. Anderson’s detractors may be right when they complain that he can work only at a grandiose pitch. But there are worse challenges for a young director than having to find new ways to satisfy his enormous appetites—and his appetite for enormity.