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1990s Paul Thomas Anderson was a generational talent. Growing up in Studio City, Los Angeles with an actor and talk show host for a father, he began making films at the age of eight on a Betamax camera. Upon encouragement to write and direct, he eventually made The Dirk Diggler Story (1988) and Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), two short films accomplished as a film school dropout that gave us a promising preview of his first two features. By 1994, he debuted his first feature Hard Eight at the alarmingly young age of 24. With 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia, he cemented his stature as a supremely confident wunderkind director, wearing the influence of Robert Altman’s humanism and a streak of Scorsese-style virtuosity on his sleeve. Cheeky, a bit disheveled, and annoyingly unpretentious, young PTA could do no wrong.
Looking back from the now third decade of his oeuvre, there is a significant shift from the 90s to his 2000s work. Consecutive releases There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Inherent Vice (2014) are sweeping and increasingly cryptic American stories. What begins with the nation’s birth of modern industry picks up at postwar, white-picket-fence Americana’s eerie advance into repression; and culminates in the peace and love era’s promises resigning to convention. This thread of films released 2007 through 2014 spins out an inadvertent trilogy, channeling a thematically cohesive study of the American psyche in the 20th century.
PTA marked a change of intentionality with the anomalous and charming Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Developed in earnest to be an entertainment picture, it broke momentum from the freshman album hits comprising his 90s filmography. The romance starring Adam Sandler coincided with Anderson at the onset of a relationship to his eventual wife. A five-year gap between the release of Punch-Drunk and the next film involved the beginnings of fatherhood. PTA’s work to follow would be less overtly autobiographical but echoes of the San Fernando Valley and a father-son complex would still persist.
2007’s There Will Be Blood arrived as an undeniable PTA original and a classic for the ages. Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, the film is an ominous, archetypal telling of America’s original sin at California’s turn of the century oil boom. It is infrastructure built upon greed and lies, disguised as virtue. It is birth of a modern nation, witnessed through the first sales pitch. It is a story of creation in which religion succumbs to industry. Daniel Day Lewis stars in his most iconic role as Daniel Plainview, a conniving and plainspoken businessman who forgoes his soul (and son) in the name of progress. TWBB’s two-and-a-half hours strikes an exquisite balance of intuited storytelling across memorable, charismatic scenes.
If TWBB is a sort of Great Gatsby spiritual prologue, 2012’s The Master follows the lineage of the American saga to its postwar condition. Set in 1950 and starring Joaquin Phoenix as Navy veteran Freddie Quell, the film is an utterly daring piece of enigmatic narrative. Quell is an often indiscernible figure, navigating scenes of postwar society with a violent, sexual energy akin to a feral stray animal. He makes his way onto a yacht in which the leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause” holds court. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is his name, and he insists upon his own philosophical authority and intellectual humility. Naysayers suggest “he’s all making of this up as he goes along,” a truth too haunting to consider.
Despite what journalistic provocations suggest, the film is not some coded Scientology exposé. The Master is a Freudian likeness of a nation undergoing collective spiritual PTSD. In the wake of civilization’s most destructive impulses being exposed, prior notions of divine morality proved inadequate. The postwar American animus was a beast, yearning for a cage to call home. Freddie is the era’s Id, Dodd its Ego. His wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is Superego, intent on enabling The Cause sway in the world. They are proxy stewards of a generation lost at sea, actively repressing its Atomic Age anxieties as a corrective to past trauma. Americana as it was being rolled out appears a contrived and strained concept.
It’s this tightly wound period in American life that is succeeded the peace and love era of 2014’s Inherent Vice. While The Master was inspired in part by the 1963 Thomas Pynchon novel V., Inherent Vice is an adaptation of the author’s 2009 novel of the same name. IV is more food for vibes over thought. It’s a mellow extension of The Master in the experimental and stoner noir haze through which the “plot” unfolds:
In the fictionalized Los Angeles seaside village Gordita Beach, private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) passes through its psychedelic underbelly of surfers, stoners, and cops. He attempts to make sense of a kidnapping case, fueled by hippie paranoia of power structures conspiring in the name of something. The shadow of an international drug syndicate, a stone-faced LAPD lieutenant, and the FBI at large signal an old order of things creeping into the frame of a decade-long fever dream.
Like Fear and Loathing before it, Inherent Vice is a cheeky, wistful portrayal of an iconic crossroads in the American canon. The film appears an almost redundant visit to that most endlessly mythologized decade. Says PTA, it’s “about the ex-old lady who still has you wrapped around her finger”. That thrilling eruption of miscellaneous humanity in just a few places over a few years was perhaps doomed from the start. It was provoked to cave in on itself, dragged away in the dark by the old forces of law and commerce. Doc stumbles about in 1970, at the tail end of it all, grasping for the everlasting wisdom of a sixties ideal on the cusp of defeat.
Doc eyeballs the camera at the end of Inherent Vice, bookending a panoramic canvas of over 7 hours of film with an ellipsis. It’s a knowing look with a hint of despair towards the sobering reality ahead. The America to inherit would relinquish a utopian vision whose spoiled promise artists and dreamers still cannot shake. Doc will not be getting back with his girl. And it’s with this longing feeling across three films that PTA strings together the story of America coming of age in the 20th century. From Daniel Plainview clawing towards civilization is painful childbirth. In Freddie Quell, defiance of trauma towards purpose is adolescent angst. Through Doc Sportello’s undermined search for truth is surrender to adulthood.
If you’ve only experienced them on streaming or home media, a fresh experience of PTA’s projections of modern American selfhood in a dark theater will likely prove to be a stirring and revealing affair. Repeat viewings are essential, always.