Inherent Nice

Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks By Adam Nayman. New York: Abrams. 288 pages. $40.

The cover of Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks

IN JUDD APATOW’S MOVIE This Is 40, from 2012, a married couple played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd take a weekend trip to a hotel, where they get in bed and discuss their relationship. Rudd tells Mann that sometimes he feels like she wants to kill him. She admits that’s true, so he asks her how she’d do it. “I’d poison your cupcakes,” she answers, explaining that she would put in just enough toxin to slowly debilitate him. “I would enjoy our last few months together,” she tells her husband, “because you’d be so weak and sweet, and I would take care of you, but while killing you.”

Fans of recent American cinema will recognize this as the plot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which came out exactly five years after This Is 40, but with poison mushrooms instead of poisoned cupcakes. Judd Apatow, a more explicitly comic Hollywood contemporary of Anderson’s, had already imagined the slow poisoning of an annoying husband by a loving wife. Apatow cast his own spouse as the wife, and made the incident into a short conversation, not a whole movie. Anderson, for his part, did not cast his own actor wife, Maya Rudolph, in the role in Phantom Thread. Instead, he found the Luxembourger Vicky Krieps to sauté poison mushrooms and feed them to Daniel Day-Lewis, so she could sicken him, then nurture him back to health.

Adam Nayman does not mention This Is 40 in Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, his large, colorful monograph on the director of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. He does bring up the music video for the 1993 R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts,” pointing out the striking resemblance the six-minute clip has to Anderson’s three-hour epic of LA life, Magnolia, from 1999. In both, “sad-eyed” citizens are “lost in private reveries” in separate stories, ready to break into lip-synching before a strange phenomenon unites them. Nayman might have added that both share references to books of the Bible—Psalms in “Everybody Hurts,” Exodus in Magnolia, which signaled the film’s rain of frogs.

Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, 2017. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread, 2017. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Focus Features

No matter. Anderson’s movies are always greater than the sum of their parts, as Nayman demonstrates by including a sidebar in each chapter on an unexpected but related older film—The Manchurian Candidate for The Master, Shoot the Piano Player for Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson says that the idea for Phantom Thread came to him while he was sick in bed and thinking Rudolph wanted him to stay there longer than he needed to, so she could take care of him while he watched Rebecca, Beauty and the Beast, and The Story of Adele H. It’s a certain kind of filmmaker’s dream, to be tended to maternally, unable to do anything besides absorb cinema classics, the whole time pretending he should really be somewhere else, working.

Anderson might have added The Story of a Cheat to his list of bedridden movies. Sacha Guitry’s film is about a boy who ends up the only survivor of his family after all his relatives die from eating poison mushrooms while he is being punished in his room without dinner. Like the boy in Guitry’s film, Anderson comes from a huge family. One of nine children, he was born in Los Angeles in 1970 to Ernie and Edwina Anderson. Ernie was a popular TV horror-movie host in Cleveland who moved his family to the San Fernando Valley when he got a job working for the ABC television network. His son’s production company is named Ghoulardi, for Ernie’s old TV character. Anderson began making films as a child when his father gave him a video camera. He went to NYU for a little while, but quit (wisely, as time has proved) to return to LA and get to work.

The films he has made since reflect his upbringing. In them, father figures and their male protégés negotiate rivalries, often with the lonely younger man looking for a love like the older one has, while both are surrounded by a gaggle of cultish oddballs who can turn threatening, violent, or just freaky and weird. Phantom Thread, Anderson’s most recent film, breaks this cycle by eliminating the father and finally wrapping the protagonist in the arms of true love, a woman who can be muse, lover, and twisted Nurse Mommy all in one.

THE STRUCTURE of Nayman’s book presents the Anderson oeuvre as a history lesson overlaying a bildungsroman. So instead of writing about each of Anderson’s eight films in the order they were made, starting with 1997’s Hard Eight, he writes about them in the order they take place, with the notable exception of Phantom Thread, which is set in the 1950s and which Nayman covers last.

The book, therefore, starts with 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s fifth film, which begins its story in 1898. This schema works because, before that film, it still wasn’t entirely clear what kind of filmmaker Anderson was. There Will Be Blood ’s title announced its seriousness after the five-year gap between it and Anderson’s arty, kooky Adam Sandler rom-com, Punch-Drunk Love, a surprising, concentrated film that curbed Magnolia’s sprawl.

There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role as an oil prospector in old California, was a self-conscious and successful attempt to make the Great American Movie, a violent, masculine exposé of the capitalist psyche, in every way the opposite of romantic comedy. The frightening combination of Day-Lewis as an American, the vast landscapes he exploits, and the often bizarre dialogue he barks—“I drink your milkshake!” “You’re a bastard from a basket!”—established Anderson’s intensity beyond the obvious proficiency of his porn-industry fresco Boogie Nights (1997), and prepared him for The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014), arguably his best films to date, one a cryptic riff on the early days of Scientology, the other an enigmatic Pynchon adaptation.

In Magnolia, Anderson had predicted a Jordan Peterson–style men’s-rights guru, but one with the screen magnetism of Tom Cruise. As Frank T. J. Mackey, the author of a book called Seduce and Destroy, Cruise exhorted his followers to understand that “Men are shit. Because we do bad things, don’t we? We do horrible, heinous, heinous, terrible things.” This exorcism-celebration of male outrage seeps into all the lead performances in Anderson’s films, in which violence and love fight for dominance.

In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler and Emily Watson’s pillow talk expresses the depth of their mutual attraction with as much force of harm as possible. After Sandler tells Watson that the way he feels for her is like squeezing a puppy to death, he adds that he’s so in love with her that he wants to smash her with a sledgehammer. Watson, in turn, replies that she wants to chew his face and remove his eyeballs with an ice cream scoop and eat them.

Anderson, it seems, based Punch-Drunk Love in part on a trip he took to Hawaii with the musician Fiona Apple, his then-girlfriend, a pop star whose intensity matched his own. Apple, in a recent interview, mentions that after Anderson, nominated for Boogie Nights, lost the 1998 Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who won for Good Will Hunting, he threw a chair across the room, a signal, she realized, that he probably wasn’t the one she should spend her life with.

An act of ill-temper, to be sure, but who wouldn’t be tempted to hurl a chair at the wall after losing to those two? The difference between them is not an award, but that Affleck and Damon have not gone on to greater screenwriting glory, and Anderson has. And unlike them, he has never had to make a franchise film, or anything that reeks of mere entertainment, or any kind of compromise at all.

Anderson is, as Nayman points out, a one-film filmmaker, who gets an idea and follows it through from research to screenplay, and from casting to shooting and premiere, before he starts another. Alone among Hollywood filmmakers, he has apparently never been tempted to do anything else. He has found a way to make films the way they are supposed to be made. Whether you view him as privileged and spoiled or talented and committed, Anderson seems well-adjusted and content, surrounded by his own large family, unswayed by the meretriciousness of the entertainment world (with the possible exception of Haim). The poison that is Hollywood nurtures more than sickens him.

It’s interesting to note that Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg both disavowed Boogie Nights years after it came out, saying they wished they had not been in it. Since it’s the film that rescued them at crucial points in their careers, that really says something about Hollywood. After all, these are actors who also starred in Cannonball Run II and Transformers: The Last Knight, films they didn’t renounce. If there is something essentially non-Hollywood about Anderson, he has learned to tamp it down. He’s no longer the interviewee who once wished testicular cancer on fellow director David Fincher.

In interviews these days, Anderson presents a sunny disposition in which all is well in the cinema and in the world as long as he has a new movie out. As far as Hollywood goes, he is practically Goethe at this point, yet still squarely San Fernando Valley. Among current filmmakers he is the only one who has combined the looseness of Robert Altman and the control of Stanley Kubrick and lived to tell his tales, without giving in to despair like Lars Von Trier or somebody. As we learn in Nayman’s book, no matter what Paul Thomas Anderson puts his characters through, for some people there are still happy endings.

A. S. Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1 Books, 2018).