A Personal Exploration Of The Films Of Paul Thomas Anderson – Punch Drunk Love
This micro-strand is a spin off of a recently posted Criticwire Survey, in which I was invited to discuss my relationship with the work of the American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Inspired to expand further upon that response, and with The Master almost upon us, now would appear to be the perfect opportunity to revisit PTA’s entire body of work, and from a wholly personal point of view to boot.
This is the second piece in an occasional series focussing on Anderson’s body of work in the run up to the UK release date of The Master in November. For the first part, which took in Anderson’s sophomore effort Boogie Nights, please click here.
Nb. This piece is a fully revised and expanded take on an essay which first appeared on Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second in July, 2011.
What more appropriate a time to revisit Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature film than upon the tenth anniversary of it’s theatrical release. The film opened in the US on October 11th, 2002, having swept through Cannes that previous Summer. While Anderson would take home the Director’s Prize at that years festival, it was largely ignored when it came to year-end polls and award circle prizes.
My first encounter with Punch-Drunk Love came on the opening day of the films belated UK theatrical run in February 2003. The film itself was one of those wonderful oddities that saw audiences collide. Much in the same way that fans of middle of the road thrillers turned out for the Nicolas Cage – Werner Herzog Bad Lieutenant, and legions of die-hard Twi-hards camped out for David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Punch-Drunk Love screenings were largely comprised of folk no doubt expecting an Adam Sandler comedy in the vein of some of his contemporary works at the time (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Anger Management). While the film technically
The idea of this film in particular being ten years old is almost enough to make ones head spin. While Boogie Nights was seen under the glitter and mystique of an underage screening, Punch-Drunk Love was taken in legitimately, of age and to an adult. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, I know, but at the same time I can’t help but look back to the lead in to that film both A) with fondness, and B) as though it were only yesterday. Speculation as to the legitimacy of the project accompanied it’s every muttering in the lead up to production. Was Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, two of the key films of the late-1990′s resurgence of the American cinema really going to strip back and make a 90-minute Adam Sandler rom-com? Many initially wrote off the project as a flippant remark taken out of context (a thesis which would prove true when on the press trail for There Will Be Blood a number of references to his next picture being a horror movie would be misinterpreted and misreported: There Will Be Blood was the horror film in question), and yet it proved to be the case. Kind of.
Within the context of Paul Thomas Anderson’s body of work I think that it’s fair to say that Punch-Drunk Love is overlooked, and especially by the mainstream. I’ve also noticed a muted reaction toward the film on the likes of Twitter and other forms of online communication networks of late, with many actually deeming it the “forgotten” PTA, or the one not worth bothering with. And who could blame the lay viewer? It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the work fell between the cracks of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, the latter one of the greatest films of the 21st Century, and the former one of the finest films of the 1990’s. In terms of oeuvre’s PTA’s is as good as it gets. The director is six for six, with every film a standout in its field. Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second even went so far as to declare There Will Be Blood as the greatest film of the last decade.
Punch-Drunk Love always was going to have a task ahead of it; Anderson himself cited the project as one steeped in relief, following the ambitious one-two of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia. Early tales of the project, with folk whispering Sandler’s name alongside the esteemed director with giggles and ridicule, became a thing of folk-lore, many refusing to believe that such a film would ever be made. Alas, it was, and Anderson even went on to win the Directors Prize at Cannes in 2002.
Perhaps most importantly for a film of this ilk, Punch-Drunk Love straddles the right side of “quirk”, with the surreal elements ground largely in a realistic world. Yet, and this is the important bit, the film never feels insincere, nor does it patronise, unlike many of its contemporaries within this very specific sub-genre of what is effectively the American romantic-comedy drama. The core protagonists feel like cartoon characters operating out of flux with their environment. That Anderson borrows a musical cue from mentor Robert Altman’s live-action take on the Popeye cartoon is notable too, with that film of course recalling not only the animated, but also the musical. As Shelley Duvall’s ‘He Needs Me’ fills the soundtrack of Anderson’s film one can’t help but be reminded of the golden age Hollywood, with special note going to the Hawksian screwball comedy. In fact, it’s a fairytale by way of screwball comedy. The most Grimm-ly familiar aspect of the film are our protagonists seven sisters, themselves a stomach churningly vile creation. Straddling the line between comedy and tragedy to a note-perfect level, Anderson has crafted a work that is ground in the timelessness, again reinforcing these notions of the fantastical.
A story of fate, consequence and love, Punch-Drunk Love is, from a certain angle at least, Anderson’s most simple work, and is itself a personal commentary from the director on his own oeuvre; following the sprawling double-bill of Boogie Nights and Magnolia PTA reacts with introversion, and an altogether more streamlined film. While it may be scaled back on the sheer ambition of the structure, this in no way reflects in the film at hand. It’s a visually stunning work, with the beautiful cinematography courtesy of Anderson regular Robert Elswit, who would later go on to win the cinematography Oscar for his work with the director on There Will Be Blood. The work of visual artist Jeremy Blake sits alongside Elswit’s photographer in a series of digitally created animated interludes, interesting if not only for the fact that it sees Anderson collaborating on-screen with a separate artist entirely. (Terrence Malick did something similar year by including portions of Thomas Wilfred’s work within The Tree Of Life)
Adam Sandler, as Barry Egan, the central protagonist of Punch-Drunk Love, is remarkable for the first and only time to date. Emily Watson is suitably lovely. It might too include Philip Seymour Hoffman’s finest performance too, his Mattress Man a character whose quirk is only matched by the fear he exudes, and is one of the finest screen villains of the 2000′s. And while his presence may not mean much these days, Luis Guzman, in a role significantly more prominent than the usual extended cameo his fans will be familiar with, is great too.
Punch-Drunk Love is effectively a post-modern take on the traditional Sandler man-child revolving comedy, a staple of the 1990’s. Following his first outburst, the sort of moment that would be greeted with laughter in a traditional Adam Sandler film (Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison initially come to mind) instead sees the character attempt to seek help, with the occurrence portrayed as a worrying, scary incident. Anderson treats the overwhelming rage within the character as a genuine psychological problem, and not as the hilarious plot point of his earlier works. Elsewhere, the central conceit of the film, concerning a savvy American that spotted a valuable loophole in a pudding offer is actually based on a true story. It’s the sort of story that wouldn’t have been out of place in the opening reel of Magnolia, in which a couple of stories of chance are recanted.
Punch-Drunk Love features great music. As has already been mentioned, Anderson recycled the song ‘He Needs Me’ from Robert Altman’s Popeye. Jon Brion’s score is inspired by and samples the Popeye track, with tone, pitch and sounds forming the core of the soundscape. In a manner not entirely dissimilar to Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, or Michael Penn’s music for Boogie Nights, Brion grounds his score in thematic notions, with the loose, experimental nature of the themes for Punch-Drunk Love setting the tone in the same way that Penn’s play on the stereotypical sounds of the circus and funfair set the basis for the audio angle of Boogie Nights. The use of the harmonium, the organ-like instrument that also features in front of the camera blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic presentation of aural matter.
Like many modern day comic-book and cartoon adaptations, Anderson’s film is structured around a realist world given a magical or surreal edge. The camera work is paced and reflective of the real world, bouncing around the screen at times, with abrupt cuts breaking the whimsical tone as and when warranted. Generally speaking these crashes come at the precise point when the audience would least expect it, with Anderson always keen to break the mood, never allowing said audience to feel comfortable. So, is Punch-Drunk Love that all too rare American commodity, a piece of bona-fide poetic realism? It certainly falls within the loose terms of that particular area of the cinema, with Anderson’s heightened presentation of a serious subject sitting comfortably along the best of Jean’s Renoir or Vigo.
As his oeuvre progresses Punch-Drunk Love becomes a more important and a more telling work. Rather than being a stop gap, or a breather, it’s becoming clear that it was more a stated progression. There Will Be Blood and The Master follow in the more tightly structured, single protagonist line that emerged in Punch-Drunk Love, while the more refined idiosyncrasies of Punch-Drunk Love can clearly be seen in both There Will Be Blood and The Master. While the earlier works were experimental to a degree, the roots of the filmic liberties taken by Anderson with the form and structure of his later works can clearly be seen in this “little Adam Sandler rom-com”.