The coolest, dorkiest, sexiest, and most indelible celebrity power couple of the ’90s reached the zenith of its “It”-ness on December 8, 1999, at a movie premiere held at the Mann Village Theatre in Westwood, Los Angeles. For Paul Thomas Anderson, it was the first public unveiling of Magnolia, his third feature, which he boasted to the Village Voice was “unquestionably the best film I will ever make.” For Fiona Apple, the event might as well have also been held in honor of her own difficult magnum opus, her second album When the Pawn … , released one month prior and containing more than 400 characters in its full title, a sufficiently unwieldy complement to Magnolia‘s uncompromising and studio-defying three-plus hours of running time. Anderson and Apple had earned the right to be audacious with recent, highly successful breakthroughs — 1997′s Oscar-nominated Boogie Nights for him, 1996′s triple-platinum Tidal and the Alternative Nation staple “Criminal” for her. They became stars by asserting totally ’90s outlaw artistic integrity while at the same time engaging in good old-fashioned showbiz sexual titillation. Now Paul and Fiona (Pauliona? Fionaul?) were ready for their full-on genius-in-their-own-time close-ups, risk of overexposure be damned. “The timing is so ridiculous,” Anderson gushed about this shared moment of glory in Spin‘s second Fiona Apple cover story two months later. “I’d want to slap us.”
Smarter than Johnny and Winona, less tragic than Kurt and Courtney, truer than Julia and Lyle — Paul and Fiona were ultimately just as doomed. But let’s forget that for a second: Their timing really was so ridiculous that December night. A new millennium loomed little more than three weeks away, and the last beats of a decade they embodied (and then transcended) were being played out. You can see them sharing a limousine on the way to the premiere in a brief scene from That Moment, a 73-minute documentary tucked inside the second disc of the Magnolia DVD. It reminds me a little of that part in Eat the Document1 where Dylan and Lennon spend several minutes trying to outsnark each other in the back of a car tooling around London. Only Paul and Fiona aren’t as chatty; they’re just nervously sucking down cigarettes, trying to get their minds right before walking into the glare of what’s waiting for them outside.
In retrospect, it might’ve been better for Paul and Fiona if they had just kept on driving and smoking that night. It never got any better for them afterward — not as a couple, anyway. The ’90s weren’t just coming to a close; the era was about to collapse right on top of them. Behavior that would’ve once made Paul and Fiona heroes — that did make them heroes, just a few years earlier — was now being pilloried in the media as so much ungrateful petulance. A New York Times Magazine profile of Anderson timed with the release of Magnolia chided the director for his hyperactive protectiveness of his work and paranoia over corporate interference. Writer Lynn Hirschberg zeroed in on Anderson’s “reputation as a brat and a genius,” and the article’s sub-headline posed a pointed rhetorical question: “Thanks to the critical success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson has total control over his new three-hour movie, Magnolia. So why can’t he calm down?”
Yeah, and what about that Fiona Apple? Why can’t she calm down, too? People still ask her about that speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards — heretofore known as the “This World Is Bullshit” Address — even if it now seems pretty innocuous if not just plainly obvious, akin to observing that watching Jersey Shore might in fact not be an intellectually rewarding exercise. Had Apple name-dropped Maya Angelou and acted spiteful about winning a cheap-looking trophy in 1992, she would have been applauded for being realer than an ill-conceived bass guitar toss to Krist Novoselic’s face. But all that alt-rock stuff was so passé in the late ’90s; people just wanted to enjoy their budget surpluses and lack of wars and Sugar Ray singles. Fred Durst was all over MTV, not Kurt Cobain. Fiona, like Paul, had a Heaven’s Gate mentality in what had suddenly become a Star Wars world. Now even Janeane Garofalo — the fallen symbol of bygone preach-the-truth alt-dom — was mocking her, in a bit from Denis Leary’s 1997 album Lock N Load, which Rolling Stone‘s Chris Heath played for Apple during a 1998 interview seemingly for the purpose of making her cry. (He succeeded.)
People only wanted Paul and Fiona, the stupid jerks, to appreciate being rich and famous. But Paul and Fiona each had the same, different idea: They spent the ’00s as Dylan and Lennon lived in the ’70s, turning out the occasional masterwork but mostly just hiding out. Apple thought she might never make another record after When the Pawn … .It was only after frequent musical co-pilot Jon Brion — at the time heartbroken over a split with actress Mary Lynn Rajskub, one of the stars of Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, for which he was composing the score — begged Apple to write new songs to give him something he could produce that a new album started to take shape. Apple and Brion started on Extraordinary Machine in 2002; after a change in producers and some well-publicized (if exaggerated) record-label wrangling, it came out three years later, six years after When the Pawn … , and restored Apple’s reputation as a likably thorny artist. It was also her only record of the decade.
Anderson hit the wall after the public sniffed Punch-Drunk Love and opted not to take a drink. It had been his intention to write a conventional 90-minute comedy for Adam Sandler, whom he met while tagging along with Apple when she performed on Saturday Night Live in 2000. What he actually made was more like a Fiona Apple song — a disorienting mishmash of bright melody and percussive dissonance, with a main character who was odd and oddly compelling and prone to oddly explosive, out-of-nowhere outbursts. Unfortunately for Punch-Drunk Love, Fiona Apple songs were still a few years away from returning to fashion, and the film died at the box office. Anderson made just one other film in the ’00s, 2007′s triumphant There Will Be Blood, as he settled into what appears to be a happy home life with his partner Maya Rudolph and their three kids.
Paul and Fiona have been apart romantically for more than 10 years. But their creative lives have once again achieved a sort of harmonic balance. In June, Apple released her first record in seven years, The Idler Wheel … , which would be my favorite album of 2012 if the year ended today. On Friday, Anderson’s first film in five years, The Master, arrives in a handful of theaters, with a wide release set for next week. I’ve been looking forward to The Master for so long that it already seems like my favorite film of 2012 even though I haven’t seen it yet.
Paul and Fiona may no longer be a unit, but they signify something similar: They are regarded as important, relevant artists responsible for creating essential documents of our culture, and yet they both exist in their own spheres somewhere outside of our culture. As media personalities, they both seem kind of unknowable, or at least untouchable. They drop in every half-decade or so, blow our minds, and then go back to their private lives. Caring about the work of Paul Thomas Anderson and/or Fiona Apple means respecting an invisible line between them and us. If you love them, you want them to never step out of the limousine.
According to People magazine, Anderson and Apple were first “spotted together” in February 1998, though Heath’s Rolling Stone story from that January includes a passing reference to Apple showing up to a morning interview with a hangover after “she was up most of the night drinking Surfers on Acid (Malibu, Jägermeister, and pineapple juice) with Anderson,” which dates the relationship back to at least late ’97. Like a lot of twentysomething dudes in 1997, Anderson had a crush on Fiona Apple based on the barely legal soft-core of the “Criminal” video. “We sort of mutually wanted to meet the other person,” Anderson said in 2000. “I certainly wanted to meet her. I mean, she was a foxy rock star who seemed really cool.”
Anderson structured Magnolia around the songs of another singer-songwriter, his friend Aimee Mann, but he really wrote the movie for Apple. He was certainly influenced by her, later claiming that he would page through her notebooks at the house they shared — located not far from the filming hub of Magnolia — and “steal her lines.” In the case of Stanley, the quiz show kid who’s bullied by Michael Bowen’s character and pees his pants in protest on the set of the game-show-as-metaphor-for-child-exploitation What Do Kids Know?, Anderson took direct inspiration from Apple’s life and his burgeoning love for her, as he later told Rolling Stone in 2000.
Fiona told me a story, and it’s funny, because I don’t remember it in detail now, because I’ve twisted it around and made it my own, but she had to go to the bathroom in some kind of taping situation, and they just said, ‘Well, can you just hold it and do this thing for us first?’ And she did. And when she told me this story, I wanted to strangle every person involved. We had just fallen in love, and I was just becoming protective of her, you know, as protective of her as I am now, as my girlfriend and, you know, as my love. And to hear this story made me want to crack someone’s head open and say, “Let her go to the fucking bathroom.”
Like Stanley, Fiona Apple was a child prodigy, starting her songwriting career as an adolescent and signing her first record deal when she was in high school. Tidal was released two months before Apple’s 19th birthday, and the popularity of “Criminal” and its scandalous video made her a pop starlet while also (not coincidentally) humiliating her. Any irony that was intended in the clip2 was lost in translation and used to justify heavy-breathing coverage from major music magazines, the most despicable being a Spin cover story from 1997 that embarrassingly described her as “a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl” (she was the proto-Britney!) and “the kind of arty, ravished girl you knew in junior high who wrote poetry in lower-case letters,” between cheesecake photos of a pained-looking Fiona. That Apple’s personal history with literal sexual assault became part of her oft-told origin story added another sickening layer to all the gleeful leering.
Stanley’s big dramatic moment in Magnolia comes when he refuses to participate in the musical bonus round, in defiance of the show’s host, Jimmy Gator (played by Philip Baker Hall). Finally, Stanley’s meek façade melts away, and he confronts Gator — an abuser of children in his professional and private lives — with a monologue that’s essentially a more articulate and angrier rewrite of Apple’s VMAs speech:
This isn’t funny. This isn’t cute. See the way we’re looked at? Because I’m not a toy. I’m not a doll. The way we’re looked at because you think we’re cute? Because, what? I’m made to feel like a freak if I answer questions? Or I’m smart? Or I have to go to the bathroom? What is that, Jimmy? What is that? I’m asking you that.
If there’s a little bit of Fiona in Stanley, she’s more obviously present in Claudia, the film’s other survivor of childhood sexual abuse, played by Melora Walters. Giving the most ravaged and unsettling performance in a film full of ravaged and unsettling performances, Walters possesses a beauty so feral and unkempt that it stops you like an implied threat. Words tumble out of her mouth in unpredictable fits and starts, careering between halting vulnerability and ferocious self-preservation. She’s a jumble of nerves held together by the flimsiest of twist-ties.
She also gets her licks in on Hall: “I’m not crazy! Don’t you tell me I’m crazy!” a righteously haggard Walters screams at him in an early scene, when he comes to visit his prodigal daughter with the news that he’s dying of cancer, and she responds by hurling flaming knives from out of her throat.
Being protective, you know, of his love and all, Anderson wrote a knight-in-goofily-mustachioed armor for his Fiona surrogate in Magnolia, dispatching John C. Reilly to repair his emotionally damaged turtle dove. The film ends with Reilly returning to Walters’s apartment and delivering an achingly heartfelt speech — the epitome of “every embarrassing thing I wanted to say,” as he put it to the New York Times Magazine‘s Hirschberg — pledging his/Anderson’s love and commitment to Walters/Apple.
For all the flights of indulgent fancy in Magnolia — the multiple Julianne Moore freak-outs, Jason Robards’s endless deathbed confessional, the thing with the frogs — Anderson just comes out and says what the movie is about right here in the most direct language imaginable: “I can’t let this go. I can’t let you go. Now, you … you listen to me now. You’re a good person. You’re a good and beautiful person and I won’t let you walk out on me.” If you’ve seen the movie, you know you can’t actually hear this dialogue or otherwise make out what Reilly is saying without subtitles, because Mann’s “Save Me” is intentionally mixed too loud on the soundtrack. After 180 or so minutes of oversharing, Paul and Fiona apparently decided to get a room.
Perhaps because he was seven years Apple’s senior, Anderson was occasionally painted in the media as her mentor.3 From the New York Times Magazine: “While Anderson is manic, Apple is still; she is tiny and all face, with long, tangly mermaid hair and moist blue eyes that are trained on Anderson. She watches, she listens, she seems to be absorbing through every pore.”
After Paul and Fiona split, this dynamic (if it actually ever existed) took on a slightly sinister air in light of the song “Get Him Back,” from Extraordinary Machine. The album generally, and this song specifically, have been interpreted to be about Anderson, though Apple herself has been more vague on the subject, suggesting it’s about all of her ex-boyfriends (and therefore none of her ex-boyfriends). Let’s just say the second verse is applicable to a type-A personality that’s common among critically acclaimed directors: “The next one up: a contemptible snob! / He lived to put things in their place / He did a commendable job / He put himself so low he can hardly even look me in the face.”
Anderson’s tendency “to put things in their place,” by her own account, also had a more positive effect on Apple, inspiring her to take more control of her music. “He is a nitpicker like I’ve never seen before,” Apple told Spin in 2000 after observing Anderson on the set of Magnolia. “But he’d get it right. And sometimes I’m a little half-assed about things. With the last album, I didn’t realize what a joy it is to be able to put things together … A lot of that record [Tidal] is me going, ‘I don’t know, what do you think is better? Go ahead.’ It just sounds a little bit undecided.”
The “undecided” elements of Tidal don’t necessarily detract from the album’s innate Fiona Apple–esque qualities — the voice and the persona are already solidly in place. But the record’s jazzy arrangements and over-reliance on ballads do suggest a mid-’90s singer-songwriter record on autopilot at times. It’s a perfectly fine first album, much as Anderson’s post–Pulp Fiction crime genre exercise Hard Eight4 is a perfectly fine first film. But Tidal doesn’t feel like a real Fiona Apple album the way When the Pawn … does. What distinguishes When the Pawn … is the specter of violence — both real and imagined (or fantasized), be it physical, emotional, or (most often) a combination of both — and how Apple learned to communicate it, as a good filmmaker does, by showing rather than telling.5
Apple is her own Sydney, her own Barry Egan, her own Daniel Plainview — her songs are miniature psychodramas about beating back a delicious fury that threatens to be self-destructive. But whereas a song like “Limp” might have once relied mostly on the lyrics (“you fondle my trigger / then you blame my gun”) to put that across, now the music was just as much of a finger-jab to the chest. When the Pawn … and Extraordinary Machine are outwardly ornate and ingeniously produced contemporary pop records, but deep down in the guts they are as refined as a rusty blade plunged into the meaty part of the ribcage. It was in these depths that Paul and Fiona always found their common ground.
Not that it matters, really, to anyone who isn’t Paul Thomas Anderson or Fiona Apple, but it’s nice to know that Paul and Fiona don’t hate each other. They seem cordial now, even warm. “I have this weird thing where I’m friends with my ex-boyfriends, and I really care about them,” Apple told V magazine in June. “I care about their lives with their girlfriends. I feel like maybe an annoying mother or something.” According to Apple, Anderson started to make a video for one of the best songs on The Idler Wheel … , “Hot Knife,” which the Anderson fan site Cigarettes and Red Vines speculates was filmed when Apple finished the record two years ago, before Anderson started shooting The Master.6
In the press reports about The Master that I’ve been obsessively reading since the movie started screening a month ago, the same word gets thrown around a lot: “mature.” That troublesome verb was also hung on Apple’s The Idler Wheel … , a frightfully spare record that doesn’t leave one breath, thigh slap, or bad thought out of place. If it’s right to proclaim such things based solely on their creative output, Paul and Fiona seem to have found apart what they couldn’t get together — peace, control, a sense of self that’s not perpetually setting itself on fire.
A lot of that can be chalked up to age: Anderson turned 42 this summer, and Apple celebrates her 35th birthday on Thursday. And their audiences have aged with them, resulting in a natural settling and deepening of action and reaction. Paul and Fiona haven’t necessarily outgrown the possibility for disaster; it’s just difficult to imagine what disaster looks like from two people who have made irregularly paced character studies and sonically vexing song cycles their respective franchises.
We turn to Anderson and Apple in order to not get it right away, to revisit what they’ve given us and savor the complexities; we want them to be hard on us. They are our generation-defining loner freaks who also happen to be really popular. It’s almost like they never broke up.