Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: Punch-Drunk Love
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
Punch-Drunk Love is the P.T. Anderson film I saw on the big screen most recently before Phantom Thread. Wordless Music did a live score and screening last March at BAM with Jon Brion and Norah Jones. I liked the event very much, it’s a unique way to watch a film. Live music with a modern film really changes the experience. Music can obviously be incredibly important to evocative and cogent storytelling. This seems to be particularly important to Anderson’s films as he uses composers much the same way he uses actors, creating ongoing relationships, exploring range and themes. But in most cases music is supporting, beautiful maybe, but overpowered by visual stimulation. With a 50 piece orchestra and a Grammy winning singer, though, that is what makes the bigger splash. Transformed into a music-first experience Punch-Drunk Love becomes a beautiful pantomime.
On this watching of Punch-Drunk Love I was looking for a few things in particular. PTA’s first three movies use human connection in different and powerful ways, thinking in particular about the many and diverse connections we each cultivate. This film seems to be a departure from that as it illustrates the value of breaking connections and a focus on one connection in particular. This film also introduces the Particular Man character who will become the centerpiece in his next four films. Adam Sandler, sweet, sad Adam Sandler, as Barry Egan is no Daniel Plainview or Lancaster Dodd, but he is the keenly observed and eccentric focus of this film. While the first three films smash together and tear apart characters, this one steps back and lets them do what they need to do.
I don’t claim to know Anderson’s reasoning for the shift but for viewers it seems like he is putting a lot more faith in his actors then ever before. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dean Trumbell seems to highlight this development. This is Hoffman’s fourth Anderson film (that’s all of them, if you are keeping track) and the the first time he really wields his power on screen. He has no personal narrative, something PTA has dialed up and down in the past, and he spends most of his onscreen time screaming into a telephone, but his performance delivers on the complex inner life of another early version of Anderson’s Particular Man.
With this focused narrative Anderson seems to be moving away from the intricate, virtuosic storytelling to the focus an character. He elevates the solo over the ensemble. I don’t mean to say he has sacrificed the ornate narrative, even Punch-Drunk Love, his smallest story in that way, is oozing with detail. And he certainly hasn’t done away with the elegant cacophony of a dozen people in a room together, but his eye is resting on a single player in what feels like a loosened grip. Or perhaps it is a move towards a kind of shared vision, a place he’s seemed to embrace in Phantom Thread.
A kind of adorable PTA theme that comes up in this film is the search for shortcuts. Barry Egan buys an obscene amount of Healthy Choice pudding cups to collect airline miles taking advantage of a deal he thinks is too good to be true. Simultaneously, he is dealing with nefarious scammers who, though more experienced, seem equally ill-prepared for the realities of their con. Thinking back to the petty gangsters of Hard Eight you can see the rhyme with John C. Reilly’s first casino rate card scam.
Punch-Drunk Love is a small film that marks a substantial shift in the kinds of stories Anderson’s tell and the methods he uses to tell them.