Film critic Adam Nayman and I often work in the same genre of book (pictorial criticism) at the same publishing house (Abrams Books, by way of the film magazine-turned-imprint Little White Lies). It’s fun to try to anticipate what he’s going to do next, because you never really can. Nayman’s work is as fun and surprising as it is insightful. His new book about Paul Thomas Anderson, Masterworks, is his best to date, merging form and content in the manner of classic films by his chosen subject.
Nayman is a versatile critic whose work appears in The Ringer, CinemaScope, and other outlets. Prior to moving into pictorial criticism, he wrote two text-driven film books: It Doesn’t Suck, an impassioned defense of “Showgirls,” and Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage. His first foray into the pictorial format was The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, which cleverly turned what might’ve seemed like a liability (Nayman didn’t interview the Coens, though he did talk to many key collaborators) into an aspect of Nayman’s recurring analysis/theorizing about the brothers’ philosophical and theological take on life (God remains a tantalizing abstraction in their films: there are moments when you think you sense his presence organizing or “directing” things, but it could also be coincidence, or your imagination).
Masterworks is a leap forward in terms of organization, doing something I don’t believe has been done before, at least not in a single-director book: Nayman goes through Anderson’s filmography chronologically, not according to their release date, but according to when each story is set. This re-frames Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in a new way. Then Nayman builds a career-spanning critical analysis on top of that, with still-frame images and frame-grabs sourced to discussions occurring in the main text and captions.
What follows is an edited version of our (incredibly long) discussion about the book and Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography.
Masterworks will be published October 20. To order it, click here.
Why did you decide to structure the book chronologically according to when the films were set?
Well, I don’t want to hedge by asking you off the top if you thought it worked. We can talk about that later!
No, I’d rather just go ahead and tell you right now that I loved it. In a strange way, it reminded me of Norman Mailer’s The Time of Our Time, which is not chronologically structured like your book but pairs fiction and non-fiction. That makes the reader think about fiction and non-fiction as mirrors of each other—or in terms of being similar, or different, avenues into the same subjects. What you’ve done here is in that vein. It’s like a film editor rearranging footage to create a different meaning.
I’m so glad to hear that. We were very happy with how the Coen book turned out and how multi-directional it was. The whole way of looking at the Coens was the idea that this body of work that does clearly progress, that it’s such a constellation—you know, to quote “A Serious Man,” it’s this giant spiraling web of things. The movies could connect in every direction, but we still stuck to the order of how the Coens made them. We tried not to treat that as a path of least resistance, but chronological [by release date] is a pretty conventional way to do one of these auteur studies, especially one that’s visual. So when we came up with the idea to do a book on Anderson, I guess there was—on some level, between me and my editor, David Jenkins—a desire to do something different.
But I was also really aware of the narrative around Paul Thomas Anderson—and I’d be curious to know your thoughts about it; you saw this even more in real time as a critic than I did, because there’s an age difference between us—the narrative of, “Here’s this young, exciting director who’s talented before his years and almost seems to thematize that youthfulness in a movie like “Boogie Nights,” and then he matures into this kind of master filmmaker.” The book is not even trying to disprove it or argue against it. It was more about, “Well, how can we scramble that a little bit?”
The preoccupation of his recent work, let’s say in the 21st century, has mostly been history and the psycho-geography of America, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. Let’s treat his recent films as a trilogy – “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master,” and “Inherent Vice: as a jumping-off point, and then see what that does to the analysis of the work.”
I was struck by that decision because, while there has been no shortage of writing about Paul Thomas Anderson, so much of it has been in terms of his relationship to film history, his relationship to other auteur filmmakers, and so on. And I think if I were to make a list of the 10 things people think about when they think about Paul Thomas Anderson, I’m not sure that “historian” would make that list. So can you talk a bit more about that? The idea of Anderson as a historian, not just of the pop culture history that he’s a consumer of—like, say, Quentin Tarantino—but of actual, real-world history?
Yeah. It’s interesting that you mention Tarantino. I mention Tarantino a bit in the book. I’ve always thought about Tarantino in relationship to Steven Spielberg. In the first chapter of both of those guys’ careers, their historical references for events are just cinematic. And then, it’s not like they wake up on their 40th birthday and go “God, I’ve got to go deeper”—but it is interesting that in Spielberg’s mid-’80s phase, suddenly you have a shift from things like “E.T.” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun.” And Tarantino—after two of the most self-reflexive films a human being could ever make, “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof”—shifts to World War II and the Civil War and the late 1960s.
With Anderson, it’s not as cleanly delineated between two halves of his career. He’s dealing with both film history and cultural history in his second movie, “Boogie Nights.” But it’s a really fascinating shift from the completely present-tense feelings of a movie like “Magnolia,” which is binging off the millennium and is kind of a Y2K countdown movie in a way, complete with an apocalypse, to “Punch-Drunk Love”—a transition which we can talk about later—and then “There Will Be Blood,” where he’s like, “What are the foundations of the L.A. that I’ve been dramatizing for a while? What does California look like before anybody puts anything there? And who would the characters in this creation myth be?”
This is not a movie that lacks for celebrating, right? No one is going to say “Oh, yeah, ‘There Will Be Blood,’ that movie is underrated.” But part of why I wanted to write about it is that I thought: Man, the idea of building a town from scratch is just encoded in the way the movie looks at history and the story that it’s dramatizing.
There are implications to doing that, and they extend beyond the frame. I think that “There Will Be Blood” is the first one of his movies that’s not just a brilliant, self-contained piece of filmmaking but an emotional experience where you’re watching it and thinking, Oh, this is really connecting with something about the real world, and filtering into the present that it’s making in the mid-2000s through the past and vice-versa.
I feel the same way about that movie. I was a bit of a Paul Thomas Anderson agnostic during his first three films. I thought there was no way that anyone with eyes and ears and a brain could deny that he was a virtuoso. But I wasn’t convinced that there was something truly unique and original there until I saw “Punch-Drunk Love,” because that was the first of his movies where I wasn’t feeling like everything was kind of footnoted by him, for him, and for us, to the point where I was kinda like, “Yeah, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, David Mamet, Jonathan Demme, ‘I Am Cuba,’ I’ve seen this movie, I’ve seen that movie—great taste, great filmmaking, he’s done the homework.”
“Punch-Drunk Love” was not like that at all. It felt like this alien object that had been dropped onto the surface of the earth. It was stunning. I’d never seen or felt anything like that movie before. On the basis of something so otherworldly, I thought maybe his next film would be science-fiction. Instead, it’s “There Will Be Blood”—which, as you say, is the most rooted-in-the-real film he’d done up to that point.
Yeah, and whatever your own personal curve was with him—yours was ahead of mine, and not just because of you being an established critic at that time and me just starting out—the first time I saw “Punch-Drunk Love” when I was in my early 20s, it missed me. The first time I ever wrote about Paul Thomas Anderson was in Cinemascope—not even that long ago, maybe 10 years ago, in a thing called “The 50 Best Directors Under 50″—and the description that I wrote of him was almost word-for-word what you just said. I was like, “This guy’s a major talent, you can’t just dismiss the work, I have issues with the early films at this point in time, except for ‘Hard Eight’—but there’s something about ‘There Will Be Blood.'” Even as it’s become canonized and more popular, it’s still so inscrutable and strange, that film.
I’ve always said the moment I turned around on Paul Thomas Anderson, where I went from being interested in him as a talent to feeling like he was speaking to me, is the cut when the little boy, H.W. and the Sunday girl jump off the court in 1912 and they emerge at their wedding in 1927.
Yes. Great cut.
That’s not just a compression of space and time: it’s the meaning of time in that cut, and everything you don’t get to see, and everything that Daniel Plainview has probably missed in that period pertaining to the one person who he loves, and the way childhood turns into adulthood. I can’t say I was sitting there in the dark saying “Oh my god, this guy’s a master filmmaker,” but that cut was just, “This is something.”
And that’s how I’ve felt ever since.
It reminded me, of course, of the legendary bone-to-spaceship cut in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but also there’s a wonderful cut in “The New World” where it goes from—I think it’s in the original theatrical cut—from Pocahontas in her bed to the ship—
The water, yes! Soaring over the water. You know the cut! Exactly. It’s one of those “Wait a minute, was there a mistake in the projection? Is there footage missing? What is this?” It’s audacious.
That cut [in “There Will Be Blood”] made me realize that I’d previously thought that emotion was something Anderson was really trying to elicit through performance or through contrivance or the drama in the narrative. With “Punch-Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood,” I realized the emotion is in the craft. The emotion is in the cut. And he didn’t sacrifice all those other things that he had before.
In the introduction to the bool, I actually quote your old New York Press colleague Armond White. He asked, “Is this guy the next great American whatever? Does it matter if he’s not? And why do people always need there to be one?” I think that’s a really interesting thing to talk about, alongside the movies, even if it doesn’t have to do with their plots or their stories.
Well, the anxiety of influence is certainly something that is keenly felt by any filmmaker who attempts to be an auteur in this kind of classic, mid-20th century sense, which is definitely what Anderson modeled himself after, and that some other post-80s American filmmakers tried to do, like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele—where, when you go to see one of their films, it’s mainly their voice that you’re interested in. The anxiety of influence is a thing that preoccupies the characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, and that’s something you explore in detail here.
Yeah, fathers and sons, parents and children. I think that that relationship is quite literal in “Hard Eight,” you know, which in some ways—I don’t know if you’d agree, and I’d be interested in your take on this—is the most solidly grounded of the first three movies.
Yeah, I think so. It reminded me of a David Mamet movie, except the actors are allowed to breathe, which is something Mamet doesn’t permit in the films that he directs himself.
Yeah, the actors are allowed to breathe. It’s grounded, and it’s literally an eternal kind of pathos play. The father and the son become much more figurative in “Boogie Nights,” which is also where I think the theme of virtuosity comes into this work: there’s filmmaking within this narrative, action within the filmmaking, you have this conflation, I think, of potential and dick size – which again, in this book, I try to write pretty seriously about – or, not seriously, I try to write consciously about the phallic-ness of what Anderson does, and the extent to which his movies are about dicks. You know?
I mean, that’s not being glib. It’s very true.
And then I think in “Magnolia” you have this whole constellation of inter-personal relationships, but they’re really rooted around certain father-child things.
We keep coming back to this word “virtuosity.” It feels like a synonym for potency. A kind of almost mechanical or animalistic potency, versus fear of impotence. In his movies, there are people who f**k and people who get f**ked. And a lot of the unhappiness of that second type of character comes from the fact that they know they’re getting f**ked.
It’s not just that it comes from the fact that they know they’re getting f**ked, it comes from the fact that they can’t do it themselves.
One of the things about “The Master”—which is, to me, not just his best movie, but just about the richest movie of its kind that I know—is that it is essentially a movie about a guy who’s cock-blocked, right?
The opening scene is about having crabs, and the happy ending is “Stick it back in,” when after three hours of god-knows how many lifetimes, he gets laid, at which point he gets what he wants; but also, in that final cut, he’s back with the woman on the beach and he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. But I think that in this moment, the questioning and skepticism and, I think, quite correct sort of rejection of this kind of very male virtuosity and “sucking off the audience and showing off how hard and long you can go.” This has been dominant for a long time and I think there’ve been real challenges rising to meet it within criticism, within academia, and I didn’t want this book to just bulldoze them, right?
This is something that you have written about very smartly, about very acclaimed subjects. Similarly, with the other Anderson, Wes, most people would sort of probably come from the agreement of the initial point of, “Yeah, that guy’s pretty good,” or “‘The Sopranos,’ that’s a pretty good show.” So how do you not just celebrate something good, or do a victory lap around something good?
That’s the challenge when you’re writing about a popular, well-covered subject. You have to show people things that they don’t already know.
With Paul Thomas Anderson, I think I was trying to look at the skepticism and the dissent—not just my own, but what exists with the movie’s reception, what exists within film culture. I think if you can’t test the work against the people who don’t like it, maybe you don’t have faith in the work in the first place.
Although I was finally on board with him after “Punch-Drunk Love,” what cemented that was the opening section of “There Will Be Blood,” because it was so unlike anything he had ever done before in terms of rhythm, in terms of tone, in terms of the audio as well as the visuals. It’s just the plainest, simplest filmmaking I think he had done up to that point: a series of shots of a guy going down into a cave and doing stuff. I don’t think there’s any dialogue in there. There might be some grunts and things, but I don’t remember. You have a better memory for this than I do!
For the first 12 to 13 minutes of the movie there is exactly one word, which is “No”—which is a complete instinctual scream, because Daniel falls down the shaft.
And then the first text in the movie is, of course, him signing his name to the claim. That’s a wonderful way of introducing the character without dialogue. You have the name on the signature.
Then after that overture—which is very much an overture, and very much styled musically by Jonny Greenwood as a curtain-raiser—you get the first big monologue. The assurance it takes to do 10-15 minutes of wordless, visual drama, then follow it up with five straight minutes of speechifying with Daniel Day-Lewis doing this voice, and this presentational showmanship—you look at it and go, “This filmmaker is confident in what he is doing.” That confidence is completely consuming and magnetic. And in my real-time experience, he has not lost that.
Can we delve in more detail into this relationship between, I guess you would say, noise and silence, speech and not-speech? Or, to go full Manny Farber, the relationship between positive and negative space in his movies? Early in his career, he was so dense and so multi-layered, kind of like, “The house is on fire—how much can I stuff into this suitcase?” And at a certain point, he kind of loses that.
He does—but what he does is, he mutates it.
Let’s look at “Punch-Drunk Love.” You would argue, and I would agree, that the transition as a filmmaker is somewhere in there—it’s either during “Punch-Drunk Love,” or after there, or in the interstitial between that film and “There Will Be Blood.” On one hand, if you look at sound and image, “Punch-Drunk Love” has got music by John Brion, who also worked with Aimee Mann, and it has a song in it that narrates action dramatically, which is the use of “He Needs Me” from “Popeye,” which I think serves the same function as the Aimee Mann songs in “Magnolia.” But it’s also coming from the present, atonal, mechanistic, minimalistic score—and not just the kind of waves that would throw the melodrama in “Magnolia,” but I mean it’s like a ratchet soundtrack in “Punch-Drunk Love.” The whole movie seems to take its abstraction from control of those bursts of color, or beauty, or lyricism, that punctuate negative space. The negative space of the warehouse, these horizontal ramps, the San Fernando Valley, are all much less populated than it is in a movie like “Boogie Nights.”
And then I think in the shift of composers to Jonny Greenwood, I don’t know if you want to call it blobs or dribbles or blips or something, but he finds himself. Then in “There Will Be Blood,” it’s like listening to a hornet’s nest. The tone of the movie is just set. Obviously there’s things being done on the level of image, but I think it’s the music and the sound design and that sense of just abstraction that’s overwhelming from “There Will Be Blood” on, on a soundtrack level. And then to some extent, “The Master” and “Inherent Vice” and “Phantom Thread” continue that.
Although I also think it’s funny that by the time you get to “Phantom Thread,” Greenwood’s music has now done a 180, to melodicism. Those gorgeous piano waves would not have worked in previous movies, but in that film, they are just breathtaking.
And it’s simple. It’s very simple. The musical modes of those two cues that you singled out—the hornet’s nest sound of “Blood” and the repeated piano melody in “Phantom Thread”—could not be more different, and yet what they share is that simplicity and directness.
Yeah, simplicity and directness. You know, one of the words that sometimes—it definitely gets used with him less often, and he’s such a big talent—it’s an integration of a kind of minimalism into the work. But you invoke the idea of negative space, and I think that compositionally there’s a lot of that in “There Will Be Blood,” where you have these big skies, or these lopsided compositions. I mean, one thing that he’s not is he’s not a very symmetrical filmmaker. There’s this misunderstanding of Kubrick as being about masterful symmetry, but if you watch Kubrick, you see that there’s a lot of bobbing and camera movements and a lot of angular setups. One of the things Anderson takes from Kubrick, camera-wise, is that it’s not all about symmetry. It’s not about putting the camera in the dead center of the frame all the time.
The Coens are very symmetrical. Wes Anderson is the king of symmetry, and I don’t need to tell you that! But what’s interesting to me about the visuals in “There Will Be Blood” is how the compositions, at their best, kind of throw you. They throw you in terms of where the foreground is, they throw you in terms of how far away things are, in terms of how we’re looking at things past and present.
You know, just parenthetically, “He Needs Me” is, I think also a transitional needle drop for him. It’s not as if he had bad or uninteresting taste in music prior to that, but there’s a new sophistication at play when that piece of music comes in, in that it functions simultaneously on so many different levels, and none of them are obvious. We talk about “the anxiety of influence,” and Anderson’s love of Robert Altman has never been a secret, but there it’s almost like he’s just saying “I love you, dad” by just throwing that in there. I can’t imagine he’d deny that this was part of the appeal.
And yet it’s not just a director saying “I love Altman, I love ‘Popeye.’” There’s a narrative function to it, in that it’s the story of this guy who has anger management issues, and—to sound both corny and surreal—love is his spinach, you know? That’s what activates him, his passion, his love. And it reminds me of Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson or Sofia Coppola or Kubrick, the people who really understand how to use pop music. They don’t approach it from a level of, “This character is sad and it’s raining, what’s a good song about being sad while it’s raining?”
Yeah! And when you say it’s not obvious, one of the things about it that’s so interesting is that that is a movie that is plunged fully into the psychology of this pent-up, again, existentially horny kind of rage-aholic, but it’s a female voice, and it speaks for Lena, the Emily Watson character. It speaks for her yearning. It complicates the subjectivity in the movie. I mean, it’s very accurate—he does need her, and he knows that, and he may not really know why he does, or how he does, or what it means, even, to need somebody, because he’s such a messed-up character at the beginning. But the song articulates and it complicates and it cushions, and then, it’s also just very fun.
And it’s very mysterious, somehow. The way it’s used in that montage, it seems almost as if it’s the voice of Lena calling out to Adam Sandler like a siren, summoning him to another place.
In “Magnolia,” Aimee Mann sings the inner life of multiple characters, whether they’re male or female, but in “Magnolia” she’s kind of like the hive mind for 10 different people, but in “Punch-Drunk Love,” you’re so inside Barry—and then all of a sudden, his lover is on the soundtrack.
I like your description of her as a siren. One of my favorite little moments on any record in the last few years is hearing my fellow Canadian thirty-something, Carly Rae Jepsen, who I’m very fond of. She has a song that interpolates “He Needs Me,” and obviously on the track listing it’s credited to Harry Nilsson and “Popeye,” but there’s an intermediate step there, with [the question of] whether she’s been inspired by “Popeye” or “Punch-Drunk Love,” because the song now appears in both places. And so it’s, like, a wonderful trilogy of objects. I like the song in “Popeye,” I like it in “Punch-Drunk Love,” and I like it in Carly Rae Jepsen’s song. It’s very sweet.
Since we’ve brought up Robert Altman in context with that song, can we talk about the relationship of Altman to Anderson? Everybody talks about the influence of Kubrick on Anderson generally, and particularly on “There Will Be Blood,” but I also wonder if there isn’t an Altman influence in “There Will Be Blood”—and maybe it comes from not just loving Altman the filmmaker, but from having been around Altman the guy?
When Altman was making “A Prairie Home Companion,” Anderson was what people called “the insurance director” on the set, in the event that Altman died.
An incredible honor—imagine Robert Altman telling you, “Hey, kid, if I die while I’m directing this, I trust you to finish it the right way.”
The production of “Prairie Home Companion” would have been around the time that “There Will Be Blood” was being prepared, and the film is dedicated to Altman.
The son paying tribute to the father. Not the anxiety of influence this time, but the pleasure of it.
In in the book, one of the things I do is, in each chapter on each film, I have a mini-chapter on a film that might not so much be an influence, exactly, but might just be in a good conversation with it. Some of them are obvious, like “Magnolia” and [Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” a pairing that’s kind of unavoidable. But others, like “The Master” with “The Manchurian Candidate,” I don’t think anybody’s thought of before.
As far as “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia,” there’s a funny little story I like about Anderson meeting Altman at some point, and saying, “Hey, I’ve been ripping you off for years,” and Altman laughing. That really is what it is, right? You couldn’t deny the influence or the impression that Altman made, and you couldn’t deny the directness of the allusions, you couldn’t deny their friendships, but as a critic you still want to try and say something interesting about it. And so I think what I would say about it is the difference between Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson is Altman didn’t have himself to live up to. Whatever Altman achieved in his own work, I don’t think there was a master figure hovering over him.
And Altman is also a very different director than Anderson because, in the time that he worked in, he made a movie every year. Sometimes he made two movies a year. He’s inherited … in that prolific sense, with people like Steven Soderbergh, and I’m not saying they’re all similar temperamentally, but with those guys it’s like, “I’ll try something.”
There are certain directors who just work fast and often, like Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood.
And not everything is—and this is subjective, but some people will say “Oh, well they’re all masterpieces,” but I don’t think that they are. You take any of those directors you mentioned, nobody just makes masterpieces. But Anderson, I think, is someone who tries to.
And isn’t it interesting that you could look at a loose alignment of filmmakers at that period—and you could even step outside, let’s say, the backlot rebel group that includes people like Anderson and Tarantino, and maybe include someone like M. Night Shyamalan—and you could see that same urge, that impulse of, “This has gotta be perfect, this has gotta be great.” I think that that has to do with several generations of self-conscious auteurism kind of trickling down, you know? And if you’re a name-above-the-title director, especially if you’re a writer/director, well …
And that’s why, again— I’m not trying to harp on individual critics or reception—but that’s why I mentioned that piece of Armond White’s that ties into Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, about what he called “The ‘Magnolia’ Syndrome.” There’s just a lot of name-calling and bad-faith meanness in that piece, but he’s also getting at something: there’s a difference between the ’90s and the 2000s, there’s a difference between the influence of the ’70s and millennial auteurism, and what seems to be at stake for filmmakers and critics and audiences is just “Can someone live up to what has come before?”
And man, is that thematically appropriate to Anderson! And isn’t that an interesting thing for critics to ask themselves, when we’re sort of trying to be like, “Well, who are the heroic auteurs?” Because auteurism isn’t going away.
With Anderson, you feel the anxiety of influence. It’s the influence of Altman, but it’s also just the whole influence of the Hollywood ’70s where it’s just like, “Who’s going to live up to that?”
What major filmmakers that came up in the ’90s and later don’t seem to have that particular quality—of feeling like they’re under pressure to live up to what came before?
One guy who was not in that category at that time is David Fincher, who would just do “The Game” or “Panic Room” because that happened to be there to do. They’re good movies, but he didn’t write them.
When Armond and Godfrey Cheshire and I did our round table in the ’90s, which is republished in The Press Gang, one of the big questions, posed by Godfrey, was, “Who among the filmmakers coming up right now is the equal of people like Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Robert Altman?” This was in late 1999. And I mentioned Paul Thomas Anderson, Brad Bird, and the Wachowskis. And Godfrey said, “I don’t see Altman, Malick, and Scorsese in those three,” and I said, “Well, they haven’t been working very long.”
But: I guess you could say that you still can’t see the giants of the ’70s in those three, but maybe it’s not fair to expect that, because feature filmmaking doesn’t occupy the culturally central position that it did even 20 years ago, and now we’re kind of in a situation where movies and TV and music videos and everything else have all been folded into this endless, indistinguishable stream of “content.” So what anxiety, what influence exactly, are we even anxious about?
What I would argue is that when Anderson started “The Master,” which is a movie that is wrestling with anxiety, the anxieties about the filmmakers who’d come before him is just gone. The anxieties, whether they belong to Anderson or the characters or the culture and the audience, are gone away. For the first time, even more so than in “Punch-Drunk Love” or “There Will Be Blood,” you get a sense that this is a guy who is feeling himself, and feeling what his movie is about. There’s nothing that he’s measuring up to.
You can sense that when you’re reading the difference between Thomas Pynchon’s authorship and Anderson’s authorship in his adaptation of “Inherent Vice.” And you can sense it even more strongly in “The Master” and especially “Phantom Thread,” which happen to be my two favorites of his movies. I don’t sense any flop sweat on those films at all.Yeah, there’s references, there’s allusions, and there’s a sense of history. But it’s not just that he’s not copying; it’s that he’s not worrying about it. They are liberated movies, in their way. They’re not avant-garde, they’re not experimental, but they are liberated.
It sounds weird, probably, but when I think of “Phantom Thread,” I think of Spike Lee’s “Mo Better Blues.”
I have not heard that one before! How so?
“Phantom Thread” is the story of an obsessive, perfectionist artist who is entirely defined by his vision and his craft, and in the end, his the love of a woman completely obliterates his need to be defined by that, and he willingly gives himself over to being a passive kind of object, almost. It completely inverts him. “Mo Better Blues” is not an exact analog or anything, but when I was younger, I thought the ending of that movie was a tragedy, and now that I’m older I see that it’s quite hopeful. It’s like Spike Lee, who at the time was still pretty young, was saying “If my art was taken away from me, I would still find a way to be happy, and it would be OK,” which is an extraordinary thing to say if you’re an artist.
I feel like “Phantom Thread” lands in a similar place. It’s not saying he wants his art to be taken away, but maybe something more like, “There’s more to life than art.”
I think it does say that. And in addition, it says that there’s more than one way to have control. One of the things about that the end of the movie that’s so interesting, and it’s in that last shot too—this is something that the critic Manuela Lazic wrote and I quote it in my book—that last shot of him kneeling and her standing is a multi-faceted look at power there, and at control.
The movie would be very different if she were tricking him without his knowledge. It’s the complicity at the end with the omelet that, I think, means that to some extent, he is taking control of his own helplessness, and in some ways, her control over him is also a form of submission. You remember what she says to him, she says, “I just need you on your back for a little while.” You can go back to being this anal-retentive asshole, basically! She doesn’t want to take over his family business, she doesn’t want to run the House of Woodcock, she wants to be his wife. It’s a subservient desire—it’s just with this little bit of control built into it.
For a guy who was such a virtuoso to make a movie that’s kind of this little hymn to compromise is, to me, very sweet.
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