PTA Retrospective: Surrogate Families and Sullied Fathers


Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are dense, thematically rich creatures. Featuring fractured characters toiling in the shadows of loneliness, PTA’s films erratically swing like a pendulum. With ferocious camerawork and an ear for dialog, Anderson painstakingly gnaws away at our conscience, slowly giving way to a fragility buried within. What does PTA unearth? Alienation and eroded family relationships are often Anderson’s cinematic endgame. Intricate, idiosyncratic families are sometimes wistfully stitched together while other families dissolve like sugar caught in a hurricane. Blood becomes a burden, while genetic separation becomes the perfect qualifier. PTA’s examination of family begins with his first film, Hard Eight (Sydney). Featuring a terrific cast and intriguing script, Anderson crafted a proper introduction to the film world with Hard Eight, but a backsliding studio meddled in the editing room and threatened to derail the first time director’s vision.

Shockingly, in the face of various release quagmires and a title dispute, Anderson’s first film saw the light of day. Being that it’s Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight will rarely be seen as his masterwork. Instead, it serves as a steady template for what’s to come. The film finds John (John C. Reilly), a financially stagnant young man that’s trying pay for his mother’s funeral, seeking familial refuge from Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), an aging gambler aimlessly drifting through life. Implicitly we understand the roles they fill in each other’s lives, and these roles are undoubtedly tested when John’s girlfriend, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), runs into a bit of legal trouble. Sydney’s affection for John and the troubled Clementine barrels to an explosive ending, one that finds Sydney reigniting a life he left behind years ago.

The level of love emanating from Hard Eight’s makeshift family is also found in PTA’s second feature, Boogie Nights, albeit compounded to a greater degree. When placed up against Boogie Nights, Hard Eight is puny. Sprawling, episodic, and brimming with an unbridled confidence that can only be matched by Martin Scorsese, Boogie Nights is a behind the scenes look at the 1970’s pornographic film world. Porn is the basis for the film, but sexual expression and paid orgasms are merely a back drop. Instead, Boogie Nights is about a circus of perceived miscreants looking for an ounce of credibility in a cruel, judgmental world. Leading the pack of pornographic players is Jack Horner (a phenomenal Burt Reynolds), a flesh tycoon that writes and directs films that he sees as legitimate pictures. Jack’s big discovery is Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), a young buck channeling porn’s infamous John Holmes.

Desperate to escape his overbearing, alcoholic mother, Dirk moves in with Jack and shares both bodily fluids and a house with an aging porn starlet named Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and an up and coming bombshell named Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Rounding out the cavalcade of porn actors is the overcompensating Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) and the insecure Buck Swope (Don Cheadle). Over the course of a decade, and through drug addiction and the 80’s dreadful styles, these characters offer a framework for one another that was absent from their broken homes.  PTA demonstrates this best in a moment where Dirk is shooting his first sex scene, which features Amber Waves as his conquest. Nervous and unsure of himself, Dirk struggles to find a rhythm within his scene. Calmly and lovingly, Amber talks Diggler through the penetration much like a mother talks her child through a moment of uncertainty. A scene that most would assume is titillating, ends up evolving into a tender, motherly moment, leaving Amber as the supportive mother Diggler has always wanted.

Boogie Nights  delivers many more counter-intuitive moments where the desolate forge the impenetrable familial hierarchy that has circumvented their reach. If Boogie Nights is the creation of a family, then Anderson’s third feature, Magnolia, clearly represents its destruction. Matching the scope and dearth of Boogie Nights, Magnolia is a robust film made up of a collection of intersecting vignettes that coalesce into a tapestry of pain. Touching upon subjects such as molestation, abandonment, and the absorption of regret, Magnolia is as thematically rich as it is agonizing. Prompting Magnolia’s desperate and lonely characters is one source: sinful fathers. From an adulterous father with a distorted view on history to a father that exploits his child for Hollywood gains, Magnolia’s characters are saddled with an unshakeable depression, leaving them dependent on alcohol, cocaine, and sexual philandering as parental placeholders.

One of Magnolia’s most enthralling threads belongs to Tom Cruise as Frank “TJ” Mackey, a man who sells chauvinistic pickup tricks to men who see women as seminal shooting targets. As Magnolia’s marathon runtime whittles down and regret reaches a fever pitch, Mackey emotionally unravels, exposing himself as an abandoned child still coping with his father’s transgressions. Clearly, poison has reached the family tree’s roots. Mackey’s arc, along with every single character in the film, plays terrifically to a line that is constantly repeated: “And the book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Likely being overpowered by the sheer size of Magnolia, PTA took a minimalistic approach to his fourth feature film, Punch-Drunk Love. Admittedly, Punch-Drunk Love has a smaller familial drive than Anderson’s previous films, but it’s also his most romantic as he balances a churning angst with the colors of a blossoming love. In the lead role is Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a socially awkward recluse that struggles to find his voice when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex. He even stumbles over his own words when he calls a phone sex operator, a moment that inadvertently thrusts him out of his shell. Surrounding Barry’s quest for love is an achingly sweet score and beautiful cinematography, all of which gains resonance when PTA exposes Barry’s lackluster home life. As we come to learn, Barry has seven abrasive sisters. Being that he is the only son, his sisters constantly scrutinize him for his lackluster dating life, often calling him “gay boy”.

Understandably, Barry internalizes his sisters’ incessant nagging, which leads to erratic moments of violent behavior in public places (e.g. restaurant bathroom). Barry is polite to those who harass him, but he’s misguided. Incessantly Barry wants to hide his insecurities, so he forces his anger to pierce his gut like an ulcer, choking down the emotional acidity. The level of alienation Barry succumbs to is tremendously conveyed by Sandler, who harnesses his man-child shtick from his comedies and explores uncharted territory as an actor. Even though it’s not nearly as dark as Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love still finds a fractured family life handcuffing a child far down the path of life, except Barry ultimately finds a lover who is probably just as fucked up as he is.

Where Punch-Drunk Love is relatively breezy, PTA’s fifth film, There Will Be Blood, isn’t gentle with its audience. Stoking the film’s fire is the phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, an antagonistic prospector living at the turn of the century. Keen on pumping black gold from the Earth’s belly, Plainview rides from town to town, looking to exploit unassuming oil rich citizens. By Plainview’s side is his adopted son, H.W. (an assured Dillon Freasier). Plainview, whose greed slowly grows throughout the film, is initially affectionate towards his son despite their lack of a binding blood. When Plainview fulfills his lust for power amidst an accident that takes away his son’s hearing, he grows distant from the child he proudly claimed as his own. In one heartbreaking scene, Plainview lays next to his injured son, stroking his head out of comfort.

Invariably we know this is the last time they’ll share a moment as intimate and loving as this. Unable to communicate with his son, and with a mounting paranoia, Plainview’s sinking psyche can no longer muster the energy to place his son over oil. Blood money all but eradicates family. Without HW by Plainview’s side, There Will Be Blood shuffles down the path of madness. Plainview’s descent is terrifying, as he makes good on the film’s title. Much like in Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood depicts an “adopted” child as an anchor for a man wading through treacherous waters.  The only difference being that  an ocean of oil swallows up Plainview, while the rest of PTA’s characters find a way to intermittently survive.

Considering his knack for tackling the creation and dissolution of a family, PTA’s newest feature, The Master, appears to invest itself heavily into surrogate families and alternative kinship.  Featuring a disenchanted, boozed-up war veteran named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) finding guidance through a startup religion led by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), The Master appears to be about chasing answers in a life stunted with insurmountable questions. Sure, there’s a Scientology angle to it, but it’s merely the canvas in which PTA places his brush strokes. Rest assured, if PTA’s previous films have anything to say about it, The Master will be more about the complicated, evolving nature of family life than it will be about burning a religion at the stake.

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