Thursday, January 8, 2015

Riske Business: Paul Thomas Anderson is Pissing Me Off

by Adam Riske
What do directors owe their audience?

This isn’t a column meant to deride the work of the talented writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, but instead take a pause and consider my relationship to the current state of his career. I don’t know what to make of Paul Thomas Anderson movies anymore.

For as much as I found his earlier work (through Punch-Drunk Love) involving and emotional, I consider his more recent output (There Will Be Blood, The Master -- which I like the best of these three by far -- and Inherent Vice) to be anywhere from cold to frustrating to almost unwatchable. My viewing relationship to the writer-director has taken a sad and disappointing turn in the past seven years. He’s a filmmaker I used to love but for whom I’ve had a change in temperature. Frankly, he doesn’t seem like the same guy anymore.
From what I’ve read in interviews, Paul Thomas Anderson seems like a nice man and I don’t want to pick on him, but his work (and other people’s reaction to his work) is starting to irritate me to the extent where I want to say something. What is irritating me is that very few people (mostly in consideration of Inherent Vice) are willing to admit that his movies are getting aimless and more maddening. They make all kinds of excuses for him.

Let’s look specifically at Inherent Vice, a movie that is not terrible but one for which I would have to do lots of mental acrobatics to convince myself I enjoyed despite the good performances. The champions of Inherent Vice have argued that it is a movie where you should ignore the plot (because it’s meant to be confusing…that’s part of the joke) and just go along with the flow of the thing. I find that hard to do because the movie is a redundant barrage of scenes with two characters sitting and talking to each other, mostly about the plot. Plus, with the exception of the Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin characters, the cast doesn’t have parts that are colorful or memorable enough to function well as a hangout movie ala Jackie Brown.

Others say that you need to have seen The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and Chinatown to fully appreciate what Anderson is going for. I call bullshit on that, because I’ve seen two of those four movies and still didn’t like Inherent Vice. I doubt watching the other two and recognizing tropes that are repeated in Anderson’s latest will help me enjoy the movie. I shouldn’t have to watch or know a stack of other movies to get your movie. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films are massively entertaining and poignant to me and I’ve never seen a Shaw Brothers movie. Your text (movie) needs to stand on its own and not be propped up by its appendices (influences).
I’ve also heard that it’s like an album that you hate at first but like once you get used to it. Sigh. This is commonly expressed in the “I think I need to see it again” sentiment, which is code for “I respect the filmmaker’s past work but I think he may have just made a bad movie and I don’t want to admit that.” I don’t like that stance because it positions the viewer as the “wrong” one or the “stupid” one, like there’s something deficient in you for not getting a master filmmaker’s work. Even masters botch a job or two. I didn’t have to bend over backwards to know I liked Boogie Nights, Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love, so why do I have to put forth all this extra effort for Inherent Vice?

The last defense, and one I have no patience for, is that it’s a “stoner movie” and that you need to partake in marijuana regularly in order to appreciate the tone and style of the movie. Fuck that. I haven’t smoked weed since 2006 and have only a handful of times in my life (arrest me), but I can watch The Big Lebowski or Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and find them hilarious and very entertaining. Don’t forgive a movie that’s (in my opinion) dull and boring filmmaking because of some backwards intent where you say the style is meant to match the protagonist.

Paul Thomas Anderson is known to be a fan (as am I) of the late Stanley Kubrick, and I feel like his prior two movies before Inherent Vice -- There Will Be Blood and The Master -- were like him riffing, trying to play in the key of Stanley Kubrick. To be honest, I probably would have liked those two movies better if they were the same movies but had the name Stanley Kubrick attached to them. Sounds weird, right? Maybe even hypocritical? The reason why is because they feel like Stanley Kubrick movies. I want Paul Thomas Anderson to go back to making Paul Thomas Anderson movies. He used to be so great at drawing you into misfit worlds, always in a heartfelt manner. Now he keeps you at arm’s length. In short, I feel like he’s losing what is special about him.
The argument could be made that it’s my fault for not letting an artist grow or expand his horizons. Why does every Anderson movie have to be on the same wavelength or voice of Boogie Nights, Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love? Does he have to stay the same for my benefit? Of course not, but did Michael Jordan have to quit playing basketball to play baseball? No! Paul Thomas Anderson makes so few movies that something like Inherent Vice felt, to me, like a waste of time and left an especially bad taste in my mouth. It was supremely disappointing.

In my humble opinion, Paul Thomas Anderson is making his audience do a lot of work these days just to enjoy his movies. In the case of Inherent Vice, I don’t think it’s worth the effort. One of the worst things for a moviegoer is to feel that a filmmaker is jerking you around without good intentions to follow. That’s where I’m at with Paul Thomas Anderson. Maybe I just need to chalk it up to “it isn’t for me.” But isn’t that depressing when a director who was very much “for you” early in his career has basically broken up with you and left you in the cold? It doesn’t feel good. It leaves you bitter and confused.

Maybe he should start hanging out with Fiona Apple again?

37 comments:

  1. I haven't seen 'Vice yet but I too was sour on The Master (full disclosure, I couldn't even finish it) and TWBB I thought was good but not in a PTA kind-of way. I think he's at a point in his career where he is trying new things and I feel you on "letting an artist grow" but at the same time that can end up disastrous. Have you heard the last 3 Radiohead albums? Awful. Have you seen the last few Egoyan films? What is he doing?! (I liked The Captive and felt it was a step to get back on track.) Ahhh...but there it is - "back on track". Let's use Radiohead as an example again. After OK Computer the band really started changing direction and experimenting with different genres and sounds. I was on board for Kid A and Amnesiac but things started to fail with Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs. Or did things really start to fail? Was I just wanting that sound that I loved so much to be there album after album? I even knew that Thom York was so done with "Creep" that he would let the audience sing the whole thing live and wouldn't even utter the words. De La Soul did the same with "Me Myself and I" later in their career - chanting "we hate this song!" in the chorus when performing it live. I think that artists get to a point where they want to try new things and it can often backfire to their fans whom have grown to love a certain style of theirs that really, THEY might be done with and are ready to move on from. Did Egoyan start making shitty movies or did he stop making what I felt were "Egoyan" movies? When Kubrick went from The Killing to Paths of Glory to Lolita - then to Strangelove were people like "oh man, what is this guy doing?!" I dunno.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And sorry for the lengthy post! Great article, Adam! Got the ol' brain working this morning.

      Delete
    2. I really enjoyed reading your comment. You make some great points with your examples.

      Delete
    3. Thank you,sir. This article reassured me that I'm not the only one who doesn't just like things because of the name attached. I mean, I can't stand "dramatic" Tom Hanks and everyone thinks I'm crazy for it :)

      Delete
  2. I'm starting to think the old PTA is gone. I read this quote yesterday from him and it had me even more worried than I was when I wrote this column.

    “I remember reading Cormac McCarthy talking about writing ‘The Road.’ He was in this motel room in El Paso with his son, and he was looking out the window while his son was sleeping when that story [about an apocalyptic natural disaster] came to him. So I was playing the other day with the kids and it was 102 degrees. And I got nervous in a way that I have never been nervous before. Like, what the fuck are we doing? You know, what are we leaving them? And it made me deeply, deeply sad in a way that was new. Somebody said that if you’re making something and you have a kid, you realise that your best work is done. And it actually frees you up to be a little bit looser in your work. You know that your masterpiece has already been made–nothing’s going to touch that. It doesn’t mean you try any less, or you’re any less invested, but you’re just working in a different level because you’ve already done your best work.”
    ~ Paul Thomas Anderson To Mark Kermode

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoa. Yeah, that is not promising.

      Delete
  3. I share your sentiments exactly. I went from being a huge PTA fan to the point that I realise I've been overplaying my interest in the rest due largely on the strength of Boogie Nights. If I'm completely honest, I think I would hardly care as much as I do about him if that movie were removed from his filmography. The rest are good, some very good even, but Boogie Nights was the only one that combined his knack for emotional complexity, sprawling epic storylines AND fun characters + narrative. He was like a one-man Coen Brothers with that, but now his films (with the exception of Punch Drunk Love) seem too droll and academic for my tastes. Oh well, here's to hopefully enjoying Inherent Vice when I get around to seeing it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Academic is a great term for how I feel about PTA's last 3 movies. They feel (to me at least) like they're strictly for the Film Comment crowd.

      Delete
  4. I don't think PTA evolving as an artist is a problem. I miss PTA's bleeding heart stuff in the same way I miss Tarantino's 90's crime stuff. I miss it, but I don't necessarily want him to go back to that place. I want him to go where he wants to go.

    I think The Master is his best movie :v

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. First things first, there is a lot to like in The Master. It just doesn't come together for me. I want to agree with you so badly in your comparison to Tarantino but the difference (for me at least) is that QT's movies are involving and lead the audience through a well-told story. PTA's movies are becoming messier and he seems to not be as concerned as QT with having the audience go along with him.

      Delete
  5. Fascinating article... and I definitely don't know any of the answers to the questions raised here. My only contribution is There Will Be Blood is my favorite of his movies, and one of my favorites of all time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I tend to agree with Kino in that, while I don't have all of the answers, I do think a filmmaker should be allowed to evolve and expand outside making a certain type or tone of movie. That being said, I haven't seen Inherent Vice, so it's possible I don't know what I'm talking about.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Inherent Vice was like spending time with a girlfriend you know will dump you in two weeks but you wait it out, hoping for the best, and endure the punishment.

      Delete
  7. Several friends and I talked about PTA, debating if we should go see Inherent Vice. We went to see Boyhood instead. I was luke warm for PTA's work and then I saw The Master. I have never shook my head so much, questioning what the hell just happened during movie credits. The only reason I was willing to watch Vice was Josh Brolin. After reading your comments, I am very glad we did not watch it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great article Adam. I've been a bit more into PTA's recent stuff. I really need to revisit Boogie Night's. What some of you guys point out as his more emotionally resonant stuff (Magnolia, Boogie) always felt a little overboard to me. I can watch a character go through low lows and emotional upheaval, but every character in every movie is a little much for me. Punch Drunk Love seemed to find that perfect balance. Oh well. I hope I like Inherent Vice a little more than you did.

    Chaybee: listen to In Rainbows again. It's a grower!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cool. Let me know what you think of Inherent Vice after you see it. I'm curious about people's reactions to it other than in the critical community.

      Delete
    2. I'll revisit it at some point, Charles. When it came out, I had it in heavy rotation in my vehicle and it just didn't grow on me. Radiohead was the example I used for comparison just because it was easy and came into my head immediately.

      Delete
  9. You disliked Inherent Vice, so you write a takedown piece on half of Paul Thomas Andersons' body of work? Why not just review Inherent Vice& be done with it? Because honestly the rest of this article could be tackled in one sentence, "I prefer his older stuff". Instead you ramble for paragraphs about how his new shit is confusing, you don't like stoners, and Boogie Nights is like the best, man. Its whiny Faraci-esque criticism at its finest. Also, complaing that Anderson is too much like Kubrick is the most ridiculous complaint I've ever heard. Thats like saying, "She showed me her tits, they would've been great, but they looked too much like these other really great tits I saw.".

    ReplyDelete
  10. Interesting. I've seen it once, paid attention to the plot and felt I understood it well enough (just like I felt/feel I understand the plot in The Big Lebowski well enough and enjoyed the performances. I wonder where that places me, since I liked the movie quite a lot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's cool that you liked it. Everyone has their own taste :-)

      Delete
  11. If you want to hear a spectacular interview with PT, Marc Maron posted a 2-hour podcast this week where he just goes through his movies with him. I still haven't seen Inherent Vice, but it sounds like it comes out of a deep reverence Anderson has for the author Pynchon. He believes the man has a deep understanding of the "truth" about the world. They also get into some Illuminati stuff, and I'm not totally sure what all of it was suggesting, haha. I believe that Maron is one of the greatest interviewers alive, and this is probably the most complete discussion with Anderson that I've ever heard. I don't know if it will justify the movie, but it might at least clear up the purpose.

    Side note: He's posting a Linklater interview today or tomorrow, which I imagine will be equally awesome.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the head's up. I'll definitely check that out. It sounds like a good listen (no pun intended).

      Delete
    2. I just finished the PTA interview. It is really good. I need to go back and watch the movies I did not care for that PTA made. PTA calls movies a "moveable buffet" and where you are (environment or headspace) can mean a lot to how you react to a film. Side note, I listened to Linklater a couple days ago and it was a really good interview. Maron has some kind of magic pixie dust in his garage he sprinkles on people right before interviewing. Whoever Maron interviews, just opens up and has a good time.

      Delete
    3. Listening to a WTF is like being buddies with a celebrity then sitting down in their living room and asking them all the random questions you have. It's amazing. I'm a big fan of the Drive-By Truckers, and Maron interviewed frontman Patterson Hood and past member Jason Isbell in the same week. I'm pretty sure most of their Wikipedia biographies source that podcast now.

      Delete
    4. Just finished the PTA interview on WTF. Truly great stuff.

      Delete
    5. I'm listening to it for the second time. It's great.

      I wonder if the F This Movie team would ever interview a director for a podcast…?

      Delete
  12. I just watched Inherent Vice and I really liked it. I thought the movie was populated with interesting characters and has an intriguing relationship at it center between Joaquin Phoenix's character and his ex-girlfriend (played by Katherine Waterston). I also really liked the comedic, paranoid vibe that it has and didn't think the plot was confusing or hard to follow at all. It's not PTA's best movie ( I would put it above the Master and maybe even above Punch Drunk Love) but I thought it was very enjoyable and fun and nostalgic at times about the 60's and all of it's eccentricities and characters. But I can see where people could get disconnected if they're not into the movie from the beginning.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's cool. I'm happy you liked it! Thanks for commenting.

      Delete
  13. I just returned from seeing Inherent Vice. I really really loved it, and I think it's my second favorite of PTA's works, right under The Master.

    That said, while your statement about complicated plot lines is entirely valid, I feel like, in this case, it's warranted. You're supposed to be confused and kinda dazed because Doc is confused and kinda dazed.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I understand your frustration with where PTA is headed, Adam. The only movie of his last three that flustered me was "The Master" though, and even that came with the caveat that the cinematography and performances were interesting-enough to make it worth seeing. "There Will Be Blood" and, to a lesser degree, "Inherent Vice" really engaged me once I settled into their respective grooves and rules of their respective cinematic universes. But I totally get why anybody that just wants to enjoy an entertaining movie or even a challenging one would become frustrated by the distance and hard work PTA makes his audiences endure to have fun watching his movies.

    In this he's definitely heir to Kubrick's 'my way or fuck off' school of making things his way, and as long as producers keep giving him money he'll keep doing it this way. Once the money well dries up then PTA will have to (a) go the Jean-Luc Godard/Jonathan Demme school of low-budget passion projects that don't compromise his vision or (b) sell out a little to commercial cinema and do something mainstream for hire. It'll be interesting to see how "Inherent Vice" does when, like "American Sniper," it opens wider across the country in mid-January. If "The Master" is any indication it'll cover most of its budget, make a little coin overseas (I can see the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd eating it up) and be a consistent home video seller/midnight stoner feature for years. I guess what I'm saying is ready for more down-this-path PTA for at least his next two or three movies, because he has yet to be punished for it by critics and (within the arthouse/cinephile circles) the public at large.

    ReplyDelete
  15. My main disappointment with Vice is that all of the fun and cheeky joy in the book is missing from the movie. Sure, there's the wistful end of the 60's era stuff, but that's already a tired motif in pop culture and has been fully explored by Hunter Thompson. All of the funniest scenes are gone. Anderson only captures some of the lunacy in the Martin Short scenes. There is a suggestion in the book that much if not all of the story is Doc's hallucinations. And in fact some of the more ridiculous scenes in the book are impossible to be taken at face value, (The surf band turns into zombies and chase Doc and Denis.) But I never get a sense in the movie that what we're seeing isn't actually happening. It's a shame because the book is entertaining and the movie is a dull, joyless slog.

    ReplyDelete
  16. For what it's worth, I don't think the four movies you cited are necessary viewing to enjoy Inherent Vice, but it certainly helps to have a cultural context. Inherent Vice is *none* of those movies, and it doesn't really pretend to be. It finds its own path, and that path is mostly laid down by Pynchon. This is a case of a filmmaker making a very literal adaptation, which I respect and admire.

    Is the movie perfect? No, but what movie is? Is this an amazing adaptation of a Pynchon novel, books which are almost impossible to adapt? YES, god yes. And thank the movie gods that it even exists.

    ReplyDelete
  17. You just took my exact state of mind after walking out of Inherent Vice and turned it into this column. The only thing we disagree on is that I'd put TWBB above The Master. Other than that, I deeply agree with every syllable of what you wrote. I'd easily put both Magnolia and Boogie Nights in my all-time top 10. Punch-Drunk Love left me loving life and movies and everything. TWBB was great but I left the theatre wondering where the PTA stamp was. I got worried that he was changing, but I was willing to go in any directions with him. Then there was The Master, and I had never been more confused by a movie. While it was playing, I was loving everything I was seeing, fully enthralled. Then it ended....and I didn't know why it ended, or why it began, or why anything. I've since come over to the side of liking The Master, but still hoping that the old PTA wasn't just going to get farther and farther away. After Inherent Vice, I wanna say I've lost all hope, but the truth is losing hope would be easier than where I am. I'm still holding on. Still trying to follow PTA wherever he goes. But it's getting too hard. I'm all for artists growing and evolving, but does that mean getting away from telling an engaging story, or telling a story at all? Take away Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Katherine Waterston and Josh Brolin, and his last 3 movies are absolutely worthless in my eyes. That's disappointing when the name that's bringing in me into the theatre is the writer/director.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have always felt PTA was overrated, another self indulgent filmmaker who doesn't know how to edit himself. Just look at Magnolia, a long slog through the lives of a bunch of sad sacks. I could't dislike a film more than that one. There Will Be Blood featured an amazing performance by Daniel Day Lewis, but is essentially a cold, befuddling experience. I liked The Master quite a bit, again because the lead actors are amazing. I think that as he has gotten older PTA has gotten idea that this is good filmmaking. 3 hour movies featuring flawed, unlikeable men. Snooze

    ReplyDelete