The master of quirk

The trailers and early previews for The Master have been trickling into my twitter feed the last couple of weeks. Suudhan’s comments on this post has finally given me the push to publish this old draft I had about the master of quirk – Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA). The man has made exactly 6 movies in the last 16 years, 5 of which released to immense and almost universal critical acclaim, the latest unreleased one is generating even more buzz if that’s conceivable. Whether this consistency in quality is achievable merely because of the time spent on and between each of these movies is besides the point. If so much time is required to come up with such phenomenal movies, and if the maker is a perfectionist with enough patience to execute on his high expectations of quality – then so be it.

With the exception of Hard Eight, his first film, I have watched the remaining four with growing interest from one film to the next. The subject matter, plot and environment of all 4 movies are vastly different from each other. And yet, there is an invisible thread that runs across all of them in retrospect – a thread of necessity to communicate something about the human condition, if you will, in a vision that is unmistakably PTA’s.

Illustration by Steve Brodner, Image from

I don’t remember what I watched first, so I am just going to make a chronological list in the order he made these movies. Lets start with Boogie Nights. It was a genuinely eye-opening film for me – a fully mainstream movie, with a full assortment of A-list coveted actors acting in a movie about the Hollywood porn industry of the 70’s. The film was so non-judgemental, non-manipulative, non-melodramatic and was so fantastically comical and real. I could not begin to imagine how this plot could have become this movie. But then, that can be said of all his movies.

Then came Magnolia , my favorite among the 4. If you can have Tom Cruise in your movie and not have your voice overshadowed, that is tremendous achievement in itself. Even Vanilla Sky was more of a Tom Cruise movie than a Cameron Crowe movie (and so was Jerry Mcguire). Probably the only other movie where Tom Cruise completely let himself go and not fill the film with his presence was Tropic Thunder – no surprise that I feel this is one of the funniest films ever made (only second to Michael Madana Kama Rajan, perhaps). Magnolia, in my opinion was a movie about daddy issues, urban legends, insecurities and the mess that is life – the way it should be made for all of this and more to come together and actually make sense.

In a similar tone was Punch drunk love, one of the most poignant love stories on-screen yet. If you watch this and this other small film called Reign over me, you will join me in my in-credulousness over how someone capable of such emotion and amazing skills as exhibited in these two movies, can continue to act in inane romantic-comedy star vehicles which all follow the same template over and over. If you haven’t clicked those links yet, I am talking about Adam Sandler – can you believe it? Does being a “star” mean THAT much? Even when you know you are doing shitty work? This is always a puzzle, more so in the Indian context. So many of our “heroes” and “superstars” have reduced themselves to redundancy in roles and movies for chasing after that “stardom” and box office records in spite of knowing and possessing skill that far exceeds what they care to show.
The most recent and most popular film of PTA’s is There will be blood – the film that I rank the lowest among the four. Don’t get me wrong, this was a fantastic movie on its own and it worked quite well for me despite the fact that none of the characters had much depth. It was an interesting choice of subject matter or matters given that it deals with a dichotomy of sorts with religion and liberation. It also felt like a celebration of Daniel’s eccentricities, just as how I think The Master is going to be a celebration of Joaquin Phoenix’s eccentricities. One can only wait and see.

I wouldn’t be too far off the mark to state that he is one of the few auteurs in today’s cinema. You see, when you try to define an “author” of a movie, it becomes a really strange perspective. There is almost always one author for any movie – the person whose vision and voice most clearly comes across. Just as how Tom Cruise is the “author” for Mission Impossible movies, just as how Charlie Kauffman is the “author” for Adaptation (there is a slight blurring of lines here with Spike Jonze given their visions seem to be similar, it is hard to separate whose came across more in their collaborations). Quentin Tarantino is an auteur – you would never call Inglorious Basterds a Brad Pitt movie, for example. For Saawariya – Ravi K Chandran was the “author”. For Rockstar – in so many ways, A. R. Rahman was the “author” as much as Imtiaz Ali was as much as Ranbir Kapoor was. Atleast, this is how I define the term to keep it interesting for myself. And by that definition, PTA is the author for all his films and what a fantastic author at that.