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The Evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson Films

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For all his critical acclaim, you couldn’t label Paul Thomas Anderson as a director of great experience, with his debut feature film Hard Eight hitting screens in 1996. Just as John is guided by Sydney in Hard Eight, so are we guided through the first of many of Anderson’s memorable works, the beginning of a vibrant career, starting a journey that would soon lead him to make such iconic films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and later The Master. 
Despite his career’s somewhat recent start, he remains one of the biggest names in contemporary cinema. Like many a successful director, Anderson’s style has evolved distinctly since his earlier films. Between Boogie Nights and The Master, his approach to film making has seen a development that has left his most recent films feeling more mature and meditative, his own unique style shining through more and more with each film.
Though famously an independent spirit within Hollywood, his knowledge and passion for classic cinema permeates his films as he deferentially allows his cinematic influences in as subtle details in camerawork or production. Even the opening of Boogie Nights has seen itself compared to the famous Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, with its long shot and use of Steadicam seen as an homage to Scorsese.
Anderson’s earlier films are full of a movement and spirit that give them life, though throughout his career there has been a noticeable change in pacing. His films have become more aesthetically static, almost tamer. Despite this gear change, the heavy and complex human drama has remained, a perennial backbone to his ever-evolving body of work. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Master and There Will Be Blood. Both portray ongoing quests for acceptance and human connection, with their protagonists beginning or ending their respective stories as drunk, wild men, often pictured isolated from others. These themes are consistent throughout Anderson’s filmography.
In spite of his many influences and homages, certain elements of Anderson’s personal style remain consistent from film to film. The aforementioned themes of loneliness, as well as the notable focus on relationships between fathers and sons, whether biological or surrogate, are ever present. In Boogie Nights, it’s Jack and Dirk. There Will Be Blood; Daniel and HW. However, their relationships are often strained, making for quite heavy, poignant drama, particularly in his later films. We get a taste of this during a scene in the oil-drenched There Will Be Blood, in which Daniel communicates with his son, now rendered deaf after an oil mining accident. His dialogue is muted and replaced with an overlay of the film’s intense, string based score, which serves to heighten tension both in this particular moment and alongside the entire narrative. Not only is the scene emotionally poignant, but it encapsulates the importance of sound and music within his films. Having worked with the likes of Jon Brion (Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind) and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, each score is made with the individual film in mind, yet in several of his films we can identify a similar repetitive motif.
The importance of a good soundtrack is evident in Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and especially Magnolia in its iconic title sequence and character introduction set to One, by Aimee Mann. In an interview with Vice this month, Anderson describes Magnolia as his ‘most personal work’, something that comes across in its more emotionally centred narrative, and its focus on familial relationships. It differs from its energetic predecessors not only due to its slower pace, but in the way it often places more emphasis on its quieter, more reflective moments. It’s possible that Magnolia is the film that caused Anderson to rely less on the influence of other filmmakers, and develop his own personal choices to create his own symbolism and meaning.
Probably the most uncharacteristic of Anderson’s films is Punch Drunk Love. It tells the story of Barry Egan, a strange and troubled novelty goods supplier and salesman who finds love in the company of an English woman named Lena, all the while being blackmailed by a phone sex operator for money. It is definitely the oddball of Anderson’s diverse filmography, dividing audiences due to its peculiarity. However, the aforementioned themes of loneliness and a search for acceptance remain intact, making Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master a trilogy of sorts that manages to reflect Anderson’s ideas on the human condition, while displaying the ongoing struggle of characters who are forced to change in various ways in a struggle against loneliness.
Stylistically, Punch Drunk Love manages to capture the spirit of the French New Wave, and to a lesser extent, The Silent Era in the way it uses sound and visuals to capture expression and emotion, as well as its use of techniques like the ‘iris shot’, in which all but one circle of a shot is blacked out for emphasis. In this case, we see this when Lena and Barry hold hands for the first time. In its use of colour, lighting and set design, it also appears to pay homage to Kubrick. However, compounded with its emphasis on romance and human connection rather than father/son relationships, it is this bold and quirky experimentalism that sets it apart from Anderson’s other films and gives it a different vibe.
Anderson is also known for working with ensemble casts, with the likes of John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman regularly appearing as familiar faces throughout his films. Boogie Nights even gave some of its budding stars like Mark Wahlberg and Don Cheadle the exposure they needed to properly kick start their careers.
Despite the intricate nature of his later films and their tendency to mystify the typical average movie-goer, Anderson’s ability to portray drama through the lives of believably written characters and his understanding of human nature is what truly makes his films stand out, allowing him to join the ranks of the Oscar-worthy directors of our time. His films now are perhaps more slow and contemplative, though no less intriguing. Ultimately, style is just an amalgamation of choice and artistic flair filtered through creative influence, and with every film it’s clear that his stylistic choices have adapted to best portray the stories he tells. Like any successful director, Anderson has evolved and hopefully will continue to captivate us with his truly unique style.
In his newly anticipated film, first book to movie adaptation and first feature in 3 years, Inherent Vice follows the story of Doc Sportello, again casting Joaquin Phoenix as the lead. A stoner and private investigator, he works on a mysterious kidnapping case tracking the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend in drug-fuelled 1970’s California. Inherent Vice is released in cinemas in the UK on the 30th of January.