It seemed easy to peg Paul Thomas Anderson following Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, as well as his more obscure debut, Hard Eight. They were all about pathetic characters suffering of self-consciousness, self-pity, guilt, and ineptitude within an infinite urban grid of people who could not care less. And for the most part they were all extremely good. But his two recent films have brought his artistic project more sharply into focus, because it now seems clear that Anderson is more devoted to unpacking the cultural identity of Los Angeles than any of his peers. Each of his films attacks one central component of the city’s history: in There Will Be Blood, the oil industry that practically established Los Angeles itself; in The Master, the quacky brand of religious high-modernism among the post-war elite; in Boogie Nights, the porn industry; in Punch-Drunk Love, the expansive landscape of faceless warehouses and apartment blocks that characterize the post-industrial city. Each of these points to a history of egomanaical power players and sad-sack peons. Each of them points to some extremity in the genetic heritage of LA’s economy and culture. He wants to know why it is the way it is, and he wants us to know too.
That he is making films about the culture from which he emerges, (to be precise, a wealthy San Fernando neighbourhood called Studio City,) is easy to forget given that they lack the hallmarks of so many other LA films: the roving shots of neon lights on the highway set against the blackness of a warm night; villainous crime bosses; gun violence. Rather, his films depict much tighter indoor spaces, spaces that are too intimate for us to see anyone as an evildoer and that lead us to forget entirely about the city that looms over them. In that sense, they speak more broadly to the North American experience than most LA films; they are about forms of love and competition that are in all of us.
In fact The Master contains no shots of LA streetlife whatsoever. All we get is a glimpse of an upscale department store: the impulsive, post-traumatic protagonist Freddy Quell photographing paragons of American correction and success while a young woman (who Freddy soon canoodles in the dark room) meanders through the store in a lushious knee-length coat telling patrons, “mink coat, forty-nine ninety-five.” It is an extremely appropriate, if also very brief, taste of the city in 1950. Everything else takes place outside of the city as Freddy follows his newfound master to New York, Philadelphia, Pheonix, and finally London.
The film homes in on a culture that pervaded the west but that LA epitomized. It is about the embarrassing gullibility of the optimistic and patriotic mid-century American bourgeoisie, a milieu into which the pseudo-scientific seer Lancaster Dodd (beautifully realized by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) fits perfectly. Anderson is commenting more on the elite mainstream than on the fringe, and the questions he raises are far from obsolete. Scientology continues to beg the question as to who LA’s luminaries think they are, and as to what the experience of wealth and celebrity does to a person. Writes Geoffery O’Brien: “When movies have attempted to show the inner life of cults and newfangled religions, they have generally sought to convey how strange they are. Anderson by contrast shows how strange they are not.”
And that, I think, is the ultimate point of The Master. L. Ron Hubbard was far more off-puttingly demented than Anderson’s Dodd, but both capitalize on the popular blend of religious millenarianism and science fiction that got everyone aroused in those days. Indeed, many of the most important scientific thinkers of the mid-twentieth century saw themselves in a rather messianic light. This was a time when many of the most celebrated minds in science were advancing the thesis that there is “no contradiction between real science and real religion,” and occasionally conflated nuclear apocalypse with the Second Coming of Christ. Los Angeles in particular saw a powerful cult of rocket scientists, nuclear physicists, occultists, millenarians, and sex magicians grow up alongside the swelling military-industrial complex and its academic spinoff, the California Institute of Technology, in the post-war years. That was the world of L. Ron Hubbard, and a good many of America’s best and brightest.
The LA genre I see as having two distinct subcategories. The first is the L.A. noir – think Chinatown, Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Blade Runner, Drive, and countless others – in which we follow the inevitably male antihero as he travels into a sordid world of corrupt politicians, drugs, prostitution, murder, et cetera, and by the end ultimately proves himself more violent and yet more principled than we imagined possible. The second is newer and less popular but it is even more characteristically Los Angelean. It consists of a variety of interweaving plotlines, and speaks directly to the alienation, curiosity, and voyeurism of the city. It emerges in particular with Altman’s 1993 film Short Cuts, and has been carried forward by Pulp Fiction, Anderson’s Magnolia, and Crash. It is telling that Anderson directed a film that is so definitively Los Angelean and so directly inspired by Altman, (“I’ve stolen from Bob as best I can,” wrote Anderson in 2005,) but I see Magnolia as also being his most derivative and thematically boring film.
Rather, Anderson is at his best where he breaks away from the mold entirely and focuses on relationships that have grown too close for comfort. This typically means relationships among men, where the power-player and the peon are realized through Anderson’s recurrent father-son motif: the ruthless oil man Daniel Plainview and his quiet young son H.W. in There Will Be Blood; the former gangster Sydney and his adoptive protegé John in Hard Eight;the playboy-millionaire Jack Horner and the golden-hearted young Eddie Adams (a.k.a. Dirk Diggler) in Boogie Nights; and finally, of course, Quell and Dodd in The Master. We ourselves become trapped by these relationships, as we are always made to empathize with the son, admiringly though ambivalently looking up to the father-figure as he arrogantly reshapes the city and the culture around him.
I have never been to Los Angeles, but like many North Americans I have read and watched a good deal about it. It is an oil town; it is Tinseltown; it is an industrial and a post-industrial town; but it is most importantly a place of dreams. Wrote Joan Didion in 1968: “The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.” There is a palpable truth in this: because LA’s construction has always been characterized by pernicious moneymaking schemes masked by short-lived utopian narratives, its historicization has always been an inherently radical act. That these schemes and narratives emerge from a history of colonialism and patriarchy is something that I think Anderson understands well, and that is why I see him as one of the most important film-makers around today.
This may seem like an extravagant claim when so few of his films would even pass the Bechdel Test, but it is clear that our mores of masculinity and heroism are laid bare in these films. The paternal characters he focuses on – in particular Plainview and Dodd – rise meteorically because of their ability to narrativize the future while the intimate perspective we are given on them reveals their hubris, their ignorance, their abusive tendencies.
Modernist mythology is brought to the desert before our very eyes in There Will Be Blood, as Daniel Day-Lewis’s Plainview speaks to a few dozen impoverished peasants of the southern-California desert. “New roads, agriculture, employment, education – these are just a few of the things we can offer you, and I assure you ladies and gentlemen that if we do find oil here, and I think there’s a very good chance that we will, this community of yours will not only survive – it will flourish.” To this he adds (disingenuously) that he is a family man. “I encourage my men to bring their families as well, of course it makes for an ever so much more rewarding life for them,” he says. “Family means children, and children means education, so wherever we set up camp, education is the necessity and we’re just so happy to take care of that. … These children are the future that we strive for and so they should have the very best of things.” The score that backgrounds the speech is an inspiring one, and although by this point in the film we are entirely aware that Plainview is dead inside, it is hard not to be swept up in the pioneering spirit of the scene. Here again it is easy to overlook the fact that the film is about Los Angeles. Plainview’s Nietzschean character is based on Edward L. Doheny, the man who in 1892 drilled the first successful well into the Los Angeles City oil field and sparked an oil boom that played a central role in jettisoning the town’s population from barely over ten thousand in 1880 to well over two million by 1930.
There Will Be Blood can in many ways be seen as Anderson’s response to Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the 1971 “anti-western” as Altman put it, in which the entrepreneur John McCabe (Warren Beatty) arrives in a remote north-western mining town around the turn of the century to establish a brothel. Like most mining towns, this one is heavily male-dominated, and McCabe’s monopoly on the lucrative resource of women’s bodies ultimately garners the unwanted attention of a few gangsters in the mining business. It is about the complicated introduction of women into the frontier at a time when there is no law in the west and a brothel is the only place for a young woman who winds up there. There Will Be Blood is equally concerned with the problems of gender on the frontier, but it is also more subtle. Where McCabe was rife with drunken brawls and hillbillies riding into town in ten-gallon hats and drawling, “It’s been so long since I had me a piece of ass,” Anderson’s film captures it in a single thirty-second scene where Plainview winds up in a brothel’s saloon, sitting alone and scowling at everyone around him.
The vision of monogamy and prosperity that Plainview spells out before the peasants can be seen as being brought to its apogee fifty years later, which is where we meet Dodd. And yet even within this moment of consummate American greatness – the baby boom, the nuclear family, the automobile – sex is as fraught as it ever was.
One of the most haunting moments in The Master is a scene in which Dodd leads a song and dance among a few dozen of his followers in one of their homes. As his master gleefully prances around, Freddy hallucinates that every woman in the room is entirely naked. We are reminded of his own sexual frustrations, and his jealousy of the Dodd’s presumptive access to their bodies. As in so many cults, the leader’s power has a fundamentally sexual connotation. By contrast, Freddy remains sexually isolated: damaged by the war, by his own impatience and anger; impoverished in a world where women remain currency; “existentially cock-blocked” as Adam Nayman puts it. In our introduction to his character we find him humping a mermaid made of sand by his peers in the navy, who laugh uncomfortably as they look on, before Freddy meanders off to masturbate. And that beach is where he returns at the end of the film, as he remembers sidling up to the mermaid and resting his head on its bosom before going to sleep.
If The Master can be seen as the historical sequel to There Will Be Blood, then The Master’s sequel can be found in Boogie Nights, where the dream finally disintegrates. And yet in the L.A. of the late seventies and early eighties, women are as much a currency as they ever were. Whereas beforehand prosperity and monogamy were seen as complimentary, now the opposite is the case: performative promiscuity and the indulgence of sexual fantasy are what makes money. The fascistic utopianism of the previous L.A. has been completely defenestrated – and to be sure that has a salutary effect: a certain weight is lifted; the soundtrack throbs with disco, as opposed to the anxst-ridden droning of Jonny Greenwood. But by the second half of the film everyone teeters on the edge of overdose and mental breakdown. The city’s defining powerplayer is no longer an industrialist, a scientific seer, or even a family man. It is Jack Horner, (Burt Reynolds,) the daquiri-drinking poolside porn director and businessman who simply wants to make what sells. The cynicism of the city’s psychology is impossible to ignore by this point. Unlike Dodd, Horner has few illusions about the nature of his game. But as his crowd slowly disintegrates, the quality of his films plummets. As he walks onto the film set in his living room, a naked blonde lying on his couch asks him, “Is he gonna fuck me in the ass?”
“Is that what you want?” he says.
“It’d be nice.”
“Alright,” he sighs at the boy next to her, “fuck her in the ass.” The artistic visionary is finally crushed by the market.
The conclusion of Anderson’s narrative arc inevitably returns us to his starting point: the sad-sacks of contemporary L.A. that we meet in Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love. Magnolia – which Anderson has weirdly identified as being “for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make” – may be the most important case study. The mores of his period pieces all have a role to play here – the cutthroat atmosphere of the business world of Tom Cruise; the sexual insecurities of William H. Macy; the boredom and degradation of Julianne Moore’s life as the trophy wife of an ailing millionaire – but the city can no longer be defined by a single character. It is too fragmentary and too large. It is not a city of dreams, but rather a city of dreamlike occurances: of treasures hidden in the pudding aisle of the supermarket, of sadness and suicide, of frogs raining from the sky, and of people being hit by lightning. It is a moral vacuum left in the wake of dreams – dreams, mostly, of money and sex – that have risen and fallen with every generation.