PTA's Quarter-Century Search for Humanity
“If you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, Pig Fuck? We are not helpless. And we are on a journey that risks the dark.” —Lancaster Dodd
Paul Thomas Anderson’s creations – I say creations instead of characters, for they nearly always seem to have been brought forth from within their creator, rather than forged from without – hurtle toward the dark. The journey does not merely risk darkness; it is promised. They search for something, more a need than a want, some aching longing, a question to which some claim to know the answer, though few of them do, and certainly their creator doesn’t even pretend to understand. This is the mark of a personal filmmaker. Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell; Barry Egan; Jack Horner and Eddie Adams – these male marionettes seek the same wisdom as the man who brought them to life, embarking on a journey, their strings controlled by a filmmaker who created them to help him better understand what pulled his own cords.
What do they seek?
They seek what’s missing, of course.
It’s a glib answer, but also an instructive one. Anderson doesn’t invest much screen-time exploring the forces that shaped the gaping holes in the souls of his protagonists. Barry Egan is angry. Reynolds Woodcock demands perfection. Daniel Plainview indirectly causes the impairment of his son, and later sends him away, but his insatiable thirst for black gold began long before this abandonment. Anderson understands that to lack is to be human, and his audiences replace the lack of overwrought character history by turning inward. He knows that how we act on this yearning is the stuff of great stories.
Power and control are two sides of the same coin – to take destiny into your own hands, to shape the world to your needs rather than letting it shape you. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview seeks unmitigated power in an expansive new world. In Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock carves out and confines himself to a small corner, an oasis of known amidst the uncertainty, and demands complete control over every facet of that microcosm. In The Master, when the one he was given won’t do, Lancaster Dodd simply creates his own world from the ground up, populating it with those who will nourish his appetite for absolute authority, spurning others who might challenge him.
Anderson’s Daniel Plainview is unique among this tripartite – a man who by the end of There Will Be Blood is singularly broken by the same lust that fills so many of his characters. His son has left him to the crumbling ruins of his archaic empire. His single-minded pursuit of power has crushed everything in its path, and with nowhere left to turn, it turns like an ouroboros on the only thing left in sight, Daniel himself. He has no saving grace. He has nothing and nobody to love. It’s no surprise that Daniel’s nemesis and the last man he sees in the film is Eli, a man with unshakeable faith. Among Anderson’s perverted characters, Plainview is the lone self-stylized savior who is irredeemable. He has no salvation.
The other two heads of Anderson’s Cerberus, Lancaster Dodd and Reynolds Woodcock, serve as patriarchs to the two lineages of PTA creations, each anchored in love.
“I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” —Barry Egan
In Phantom Thread, Alma does not just love Reynolds – she breaks him down and forces him to relinquish control over his own self, his own body. In Punch-Drunk Love, Lena does not necessarily vanquish Barry’s anger, but she gives him a reason to be angry. Rather than framing Barry and Lena’s accident and Barry’s subsequent vengeance mission as a comment on the futility of anger and revenge, Anderson is giving Barry a specific target for his frustration, and most importantly, something to return to, a place where it can end. Barry’s impotent, endless raging is given a purpose, and that very purpose grants him a reason to stop being angry.
In both Phantom Thread and Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson feels no need to carry the films beyond this initial discovery. Reynolds finds a small oasis with Alma where he can – he must – let go of his obsessions. Barry discovers a person and a place where he can release his fury. Will this lead to long-term personal change? Really, who cares? They have found it. Love takes a twisted form in both cases – in one, literal poison; in the other, off-putting statements of violence that demonstrate the ways our passion seeps out of us – but it takes the exact form that Reynolds and Barry need, respectively. It’s what they were missing.
Another member of this lineage – a cousin, perhaps – is Inherent Vice’s Doc Sportello. The twin to Reynolds Woodcock only in that they’re the two leading men not originally created by Anderson, Doc is the most obviously and literally in search of something. A lot of somethings – and someones – actually. A member of the Aryan Brotherhood. The maybe-dead husband of a former heroin addict. A drug smuggling ring, a cult, an insane asylum, and a suspicious offshore vessel. Really, though, Doc Sportello is trying to rediscover a love he shared once – a beautiful, running and kissing in the rain, doesn’t-matter-if-it-was-real type of love – with Shasta Fay Hepworth.
The traditions of noir and neo-noir graft themselves perfectly onto Anderson’s obsessive searches. Known especially for their often unintelligible, maze-like plotting, films like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Lady from Shanghai, or even something more recent like Miller’s Crossing find their leading men crisscrossing from lead to lead, making magical leaps in logic only to double- and triple-back on themselves. This physical journey – unsurprisingly replicated in Inherent Vice – matches the emotional tours of PTA’s characters past, as the search for that missing something is usually shapeless until its final moments. For Doc Sportello, those two trips intersect at the finish line. He finds Shasta, but it’s unclear whether their love can ever be what it was – if it ever even was what he imagines it to have been. But whether they rekindle anything is beside the point. Either way, his search can end.
Shifting away from the Love of a Good Woman Lineage, we find the gnarliest branch of this demented family tree, but also the most delicate: father figures. Lancaster Dodd is an actual father, of course, but in The Master, it’s his mentorship to Freddie Quell that becomes the unconditional love tempting him away from his endless quest for cult power, control, and life’s otherworldly meaning. Nestled between the downward spiral of Daniel Plainview’s hedonistic greed and the personal salvation found in true love, Anderson positions this love of a prodigal son as a limited healing power. It cleanses the soul, but it cannot last. For Lancaster – as for Jack Horner in Boogie Nights and Sydney in Hard Eight – something is bound to go wrong.
In The Master, as Lancaster’s grip on “The Cause” destabilizes with his keen interest in Freddie, he turns the tendrils of his control toward his acolyte. The more energy that Lancaster directs into controlling Freddie, the further Freddie pulls away and rebels, until Lancaster eventually lets him go, watching him ride into the salt flat-filled horizon.
This is the fate of the mentor: success or failure, there comes a time when you must let them go. In Boogie Nights, after grooming Eddie Adams into Dirk Diggler, Jack watches as Dirk’s success inflates his ego beyond the size of the first porn family’s ranch. As he fights the future pivot-to-video with one hand, Jack lets his disciple drift away with the other, showing an understanding that Eddie needs to spread his wings if he’s ever to be happy again in the coop. The same is true for the once-titular Sydney, in the retitled Hard Eight, played with a weary combination of love and pain by Philip Baker Hall. After desperately holding onto the loosest of human connection with a bumbling bumpkin, John Finnegan, Sydney cleanses his own past by hoisting John’s sins unto himself, cleaning his young friend’s slate and giving him the future he fears he may have ignorantly robbed him of years earlier.
PTA understands the necessary tragedy implied by this love of a mentee. We can guide them to a hopeful future or we can be a part of it; we cannot do both. To love is to let go. Lancaster understands that too late and is punished. Jack gets it from the start, and is rewarded when Dirk returns. But the purest vision of this relationship is found in Anderson’s debut feature, where he resists the urge to show what happens after this release. As always, his work is best when it refrains from showing “what happens next.”
Though one can’t blame Anderson for this aching desire to find that final answer.
“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” —Lancaster Dodd
There’s a reason that so many of Anderson’s characters embark on such a personal quest; their creator is looking right alongside them. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you. Earlier I posed the question of what his characters seek, and I gave a cheeky answer: they seek what’s missing. In reality, the truth is both more and less profound, and certainly more elliptical, even frustrating. Happiness? Sure, though that’s not a thing that can be found, at least not in and of itself. Meaning? Maybe, but purpose might be more accurate, and even is an annoyingly ambiguous concept. My place in the world? That might be most apt. But it’s a destination most people wouldn’t recognize even once they arrive.
The point here is that wherever the destination, Anderson conducts his own search through his creations. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the one true ensemble piece – the one where every character is imbued with a curiosity of spirit that matches the director’s own. This is Anderson’s masterwork, Magnolia.
“It’s not / what you thought / when you first began.”
“You’re sure / there’s a cure / and you have finally found it.”
These are the lyrics to Amy Mann’s “Wise Up,” sung in unison in a bold flourish by the many characters of Anderson’s sprawling 1999 epic. I’d estimate that audiences are split 50/50 on this fourth-wall breaking exercise, but look beyond its cinematic success or failure and you may find the purpose for this simultaneous catharsis.
“It’s not going to stop / It’s not going to stop / It’s not going to stop / ‘Til you wise up.”
And the controversial, apocalyptic, amphibious ending to Magnolia shows us what “wising up” looks like: accepting that there is no meaning. The search continues in his subsequent movies, and characters find elation and ruin in alternating measures, but none of them stumble upon some greater meaning to everything. It’s those who accept that fact – those who give up the need to control their surroundings or find meaning in power – that find some semblance of happiness.
I wrote earlier about how Anderson often eschews long character backstories, focusing more on their path forward. His filmmaking choices can be a guide for his characters, if only they could see the mechanisms behind their movements. This one is especially instructive.
“The book says we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,” spits Jimmy Gator in Magnolia. But later, from Officer Jim During: “But if you can forgive someone... well, that's the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street.”
In the major exception to Anderson’s approach, nearly every character in Magnolia is attempting to cope with some past trauma. Frank seeks dominance and control over the female sex. Claudia turns to drugs. Donnie is consumed by envy and focuses on the smallest aspect of life that he can control: dental surgery. The list goes on, but the point is this: Anderson heaves this massive burden from the past onto their shoulders, only to literally split open the heavens in an effort to tell them, by the end: stop treating the past like a puzzle that can unlock the meaning of your future. Sometimes bad things happen. You will never move on – it’s not going to stop, in other words – until you make it stop. Until you just decide to move on. Until you wise up.
But that’s the tough part. And in Anderson’s most achingly beautiful moment, the final shot of Magnolia is the smallest of smiles, a vibrant bit of hope from the woman who should logically have the least. Every journey risks the dark. But if we look forward with love and forgiveness, we can make our own light.