Licorice Pizza: A Eulogy For the Analog Lifestyle
The undercurrent of life during COVID and climate crises and a cultural society that willfully falls apart at the seams, feels bleak in a way that’s both pervasive and concentrated, like there’s never anything else worth talking about. Though I am young enough that it feels like the majority of the rest of my life will be defined by these same events and their offspring and the casual sense of far-off doom with which we’ve agreed to regard them — were used to a time when bad things were either one or the other. Horrible things would happen every so often, but not so close together that they felt like dominoes that fall not only cause the next one to fall but would somehow stack on top of one another.
In hindsight, I think that mentality reflected my blasé privilege which has always steered what gets labeled as real life, even as real life merged with the apparent democracy of the internet. The miracle of the internet has, in the wake of its relatively recent birth, left an egalitarian wet dream where anybody can reach anybody and their presence may be heard by thousands more than it otherwise would be in the process. (It is worth noting, in key with where I hope this piece is headed, that I have never spent a second of my life on the notorious app known as TikTok, though I have seen many clever TikTox sent by my friends.)
Yet the more time we all spend on our phones and computers and Countless Auxiliary Products, the ability to be loud has come to outweigh the ability to be connected. And I don’t know what to do about that, because an attempt to retreat into the past will not yield the results an idealist would hope for. Delving back into the past — which is a surface-level idea that plenty of polarized Americans would be interested in, for (shocker) legibly different reasons — would yield the surface-level autonomy eradicated by the docile ubiquity of the internet, but such attempts are a one-way ticket to eradicate the progress brought about by the internet, even if such progress does whiff as though it took a turn for an occasionally punitive fork in the road some number of years ago.
Paul Thomas Anderson understands this, and is profoundly capable of balancing ethereal nostalgia on thirty-five millimeter with assured recognition that the time Licorice Pizza is set was a jaundiced period: America was in the midst of a transition out of the bruxist conformity of the post-WWII era and the baby boom, but the whims of wealthy white men were still the law of the land. (Let’s not act, almost fifty years after Anderson’s film ostensibly took place, like that has changed much.) Anderson documented this moment of collision between the compliant and the countercultural once before in Inherent Vice, where the Pynchon novel acts as both a map and a stepping stone. I can envision a Los Angeles where Doc Sportello and Alana Kane exist simultaneously; their aimlessness feels akin but their diametric self-impressions, particularly of their own ambitions, separate them permanently in a way geography could never.
Anderson fills Licorice Pizza’s apparition of the San Fernando Valley with figures adjacent to Hollywood. Some were once famous, others will be again, and Jon Peters floats in the space in between, happy to chase down anyone who gives him a breath of an opening. In the 1970s, in California like everywhere else, there were bad people held in high regard: people who use mocking Asian accents yet are — like Jerry Frick — the winners within the local community whether customers know of their indiscretions or not. That is how the world has operated for a long time. Sucks, but it’s naive and silly to imagine that this is not the world we’re all still living in. Instead of buzzy, exotic local joints, twenty-first century demagogues use the more susceptible setting of the internet, which holds ponderous audience members in numbers greater than any dining room could hold. The internet is miserable because of both what Trump exploited within the internet’s power structures and the damage he further wrought on it. Twitter is a bad place and it’s better off without him on there, but that doesn’t make it a good place. It also doesn’t mean I will ever work up the courage to actually stop using it, because I think my tweets are mostly pretty good.
I admire Licorice Pizza’s level-headedness: it mourns a time we will never be able to return to — if for no other reason than that technocratic capitalism would never allow it — and admits that in our attempts to bring everyone closer together and hand microphones of empowerment to anyone who wants one, maybe we overdid it? When we consume controversial and perhaps candidly ribald art, if we do not acknowledge that the emphasis of Jerry Frick’s accent is for the audience to notice the moments after, the knowing glances of powerless discomfort shared by Gary Valentine and his mother, what gives us the right to think of a better way to display the reality of a bygone time?
The discourse around the film feels like a personal tipping point. Intelligent, critically-minded people can balance what Anderson shows with that scene and also admit that the film can probably omit both scenes involving Frick and get its point across all the same. The same is true of the relationship between fifteen-year-old Gary and twenty-???-year-old Alana: to describe their work partnership and flirtatious friendship as a simple tale of will they or won’t they is a failure. It strikes me as a deliberate misinterpretation, a failure to imagine their future mistrials — there is a real chance that, after the film ends with the two of them embracing and running off into another valley evening, Gary and Alana have an argument the next day and don’t speak for nineteen days. Calling their dynamic grooming when it is clearly not even in the realm of even something like Red Rocket does a disservice to the purpose of all this progress we’ve made in fifty years. I guess it’s ironic; when there’s nothing worth talking about except the existential threat of everything falling apart before our very eyes, it does seem silly to acknowledge progress. The sooner we understand that the whole deal is a hamster wheel, the better.
I saw Licorice Pizza the day after Christmas with three of my best friends. Theaters mostly feel like a safe place for me during a pandemic because they are mostly empty. This was not the case when I saw Licorice Pizza. I was stunned, having just seen West Side Story days before in empty auditorium number twelve. Literally, it was empty save for me and my friend. We were free to talk about the movie in real time — and we did. I expected more of the same this time. Instead, Licorice Pizza brought laughter and theater-wide applause for the first time in well over two years. After the most claustrophobic Christmas of my life, the first that did not feel like Christmas whatsoever (I blame my retail job), the chance to see a film by one of my favorite filmmakers, one of the great American artists, in theaters was the furthest thing from a month of seeing my family tend to the banal insanity of trying to conform to whatever the hell that thing that gets rich white people to act more materialistic than they already are. When we left the theater, it was still snowing. It hadn’t stopped for the better part of twenty-four hours. I didn’t care. It didn’t stop for another day.
I cherish the record player my dad gave me for Christmas. (I can’t avoid it all, this thing that I do my best not to play into, but bear with me.) The player and those two hours I treasured watching the narcotic fuzz of Pizza’s film grain on a big screen (my first experience with PTA in a theater) reminded me that it is perfectly acceptable to desire none of the past while still craving the persistent disconnectedness of the entirety of time, save for this nascent millennium. I’ve lost count of how many times I checked Twitter writing the original draft of this thing, but that’s what it’s there for. For the time being, I’ll consider my recent superpower of Leaving My Phone In The Car a worthy achievement. Every morning, when I blend my insane hybridized coffee protein shake, I pull out a record from the collection I took from my grandma’s house — or from the collection I’ve already started to build on top of it — and play it. I read and let the side stop. And with any luck, I stay away from my computer and my phone for a little while longer, building instead an imaginary reality that persists for a few hours more.