It’s tempting to think of 2007’s There Will Be Blood as the transitional film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s career. Anchored by a lead performance by a heavyweight actor, set a century in the past, ostensibly concerned with Timeless Themes, it’s a pseudo-prestige picture. (More on this next week.) It also appears to mark a tonal shift in Anderson’s work away from the comedic looseness and romantic longing of the early films toward something darker, more surreal, and pricklier, helped along by the aggressiveness of Jonny Greenwood’s seething, punching score.
I spent a lot of time at the Somerville Theatre this week: on Wednesday I attended a screening of The Wild Bunch (with which the theater inaugurated its newly installed 70mm projection system), and Thursday I went back for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Is it heresy to say that, of the two, I enjoyed Magnolia more? Seeing The Wild Bunch in 70mm was spectacular—hearing the opening strains of the overture sent a chill down my spine—but I’ve never been much of a Peckipah guy. I’m more of a P.T. Anderson guy. Or a Hitchcock guy. Or a Sofia Coppola guy. Or etc.
Hard Eight may have been Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film, but his career really begins with Boogie Nights, the film on which he began pre-production work before Hard Eight was finished being edited. From its bravura opening shot, which begins with a blast of disco on the soundtrack (watching it with a large crowd last week, you could feel the audience jump with shock and pleasure), Boogie Nights is the work of a young filmmaker charging out of the gate at full speed. Anderson is so high on his own talent that the entire film feels like a giddy bliss-out. At the risk of making a bad pun, I’d call it a supremely cocky film: Anderson’s cockiness mirrors that of his main character, the swaggering (and well hung) porn star Dirk Diggler. But where Dirk Diggler’s cockiness doesn’t have any brains behind it, only a basically good-natured but childlike impetuosity (incapable of handling his own fame, he skids toward self-destruction), Anderson’s is grounded by the intelligence and the instinct of a born artist. It’s a dazzling, sure-footed high-wire act.
Last week the Somerville Theatre kicked off two fabulous summer-long retrospectives, one showcasing the films of Sam Peckinpah, the other featuring the complete films of Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve been an ardent fan of Anderson’s ever since I first saw Boogie Nights, so I couldn’t be more excited to revisit his films, half of which I’ve never before seen screened theatrically. (I’m even more excited that the Somerville Theatre will be showing all of them in 35mm prints, with The Master in 70mm.) But because I was out of town last Thursday I missed the first film of the series, Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney). I had only seen it once before, on cable TV circa 2000, and I think it was in pan-and-scan. And I don’t think I ever saw the ending. And I didn’t remember much about the beginning either.
As I look forward to the premiere of Todd Haynes’ new film Carol (scheduled to open this December) I’ve been looking back at several of his early shorts, in which Haynes explores the emotional landscape of queer boyhood. The Suicide (pictured below) is a very early effort dating from 1978, when Haynes was not much older than a boy himself. It’s been unearthed by Criterion and included as a bonus feature on their recent reissue of Haynes’ [Safe]. Haynes’ juvenilia is more intellectually sophisticated and stylistically sure-handed than many filmmakers’ mature work. The story of a sensitive mama’s boy whose torment at the hands of his classmates drives him to attempt suicide—and who changes his mind only upon realizing that he has grown to enjoy the pain and humiliation he suffers—The Suicide is a pitilessly ironic study in masochism, shot to look like an after-school special. Dottie Gets Spanked (1994, pictured above) is a more oblique portrait of queer childhood fantasy in which effeminate six-year-old Steven unconsciously combines his fascination with a zany TV comedienne with a desire to be spanked by his parents. Inspired by Haynes’ own childhood obsession with Lucille Ball by way of Freud’s “A Child Is Being Beaten,” it’s wonderfully perverse stuff, set in a lovingly re-created 1960s suburbia. Where Haynes’ narrative features explore the lives of adults (usually women) and tend to utilize a more restrained tone, the shorts tap more shockingly into the raw nerves and seething desires of a child’s world.
Inside Out is one of two offerings this year from Pixar, the second of which, The Good Dinosaur, is slated to arrive in November. That holiday-season release date makes it look like the studio is hoping that The Good Dinosaur will be an awards contender. But it’s hard to imagine it eclipsing Inside Out for conceptual brilliance or emotional power. (If it does, then 2015 will have been a very, very good year for Pixar.) Inside Out is possibly the most ingeniously devised film the studio has yet produced. It ranks with the Toy Story films in its ability to channel the emotional essence of childhood—not just what things look like from a child’s eye, but how they feel.