Is it going too far to say that Southern California is to Paul Thomas Anderson what North Mississippi was to William Faulkner? Possibly. So maybe we’re better off playing it safe and going with Flannery O’Connor’s home turf instead.
Not to worry, people. As novelistic as PTA can be, which is plenty, this isn’t about giving him some kind of misbegotten upgrade by proclaiming his movies are Just Like Literature. The point is that he’s a regional artist in a way that doesn’t have many screen equivalents. If East Coast critics often overlook this in spite of loving him to death, no wonder: Not many Americans outside the zip codes in question think of SoCal as a real place to begin with.
Neither do most of the transplants, for that matter. Reality wasn’t the attraction when they moved, after all; liberation was. One of Anderson’s great strengths is that his understanding of Los Angeles as a teeming vat of self-actualization projects doesn’t make him feel obliged to depict the volunteer lab rats as bizarre or foolish, in the hysterically contemptuous way that we’ve been used to since The Day of the Locust. Good old American transcendentalism just got all modern and DIY in SoCal, and the results are a travesty only if you mistake different methods for changed goals.
Being the local boy that most of his fellow filmmakers aren’t — he was born in Studio City, pretty much the definition of deglamorized glamour — has the effect of turning everybody else’s Oz into Anderson’s evocatively vivid Kansas. Maybe there’s no such thing as having roots in Bel Air unless you’re Tori Spelling, but that’s less true of the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles’s tirelessly enterprising parody of Middle America. For somebody with Anderson’s distinctive temperament, which isn’t nostalgic or autobiographical so much as analytical and epic, that so-near-and-yet-so-far environment was an awfully useful vantage point. His matter-of-fact sense of L.A. as home — it’s never La-La Land or Tinseltown in his movies — is every bit as transformative as the way gen-u-wine cattle rancher’s grandson Sam Peckinpah reinvented Westerns by taking them personally.
Anderson also has a passion for cultural archaeology, a historical sense that he fuses with an uncommonly demystified view of California’s role in defining the rest of the country’s latter-day tastes. Rearrange his movies in the order of the eras they’re set in, and damned if he isn’t around halfway to pulling off something monumental: a decade-by-decade screen history of Southern California in the 20th century, from the keel-laying boom times of 2007’s There Will Be Blood to the millennium’s-end fugue state of 1999’s Magnolia.
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His excavation project began with Boogie Nights, the movie that established Anderson as the guy to beat in the Next Great American Filmmaker sweepstakes. Depicting a 1970s the director hadn’t really known firsthand (he was still a child when they ended), the tale of witless sex star Dirk Diggler is one of the most effusively eye-opening historical re-creations in movies. It also solidified the stock company — Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others — whose reappearances do so much to ID his movies as chapters in an ongoing SoCal odyssey.
Nobody else would have pegged the San Fernando Valley porn biz as a candidate for a magical time capsule, but Anderson reacted to that piece of local history the way a Virginia middle schooler might to learning that a Civil War battle had been fought in his backyard. He’d also caught on ahead of most people that the disco era — an unrecognized milestone in the California-izing of our national mores — was as evocatively Other by 1997 as, say, World War II. Since then, he’s gotten progressively less interested in providing conventional entertainment to mitigate his stark view of society’s power dynamics. It’s still his most accessible work.
With the exception of Punch-Drunk Love, which is the real outlier here — though it’s set in the Valley, creating a believable social context wasn’t part of the director’s stylized game plan — Magnolia is the only one of Anderson’s subsequent films that doesn’t resurrect a bygone age. But like Robert Altman’s Nashville, the movie’s obvious granddaddy, his tessellation of SoCal lives was designed to emblematize a time and place anyway — that is, to function as a period piece that happened to have been filmed while the period in question was still going on. From Tom Cruise’s penile-colony self-help guru to Julianne Moore’s trophy wife and John C. Reilly’s bamboozled cop, the characters’ attitudes are being preserved as if in anticipation of how they’ll be remembered.
Meanwhile, their backstories amount to nesting-doll histories of L.A.’s mutating identity. Anderson’s leg up on Nashville is that he isn’t a supercilious tourist. He breaks with the unofficial tradition, sustained by plenty of filmmakers who know no other world — the Altman of Short Cuts and The Player included, though not the Altman of The Long Goodbye — that L.A. and/or showbiz lives are exotic by definition.
Yet it was the two movies that followed Punch-Drunk Love that made Anderson’s ambitions unmistakable. As origins stories go, There Will Be Blood’s titanic three-way wrestling match between man, God, and nature is a great corrective to the misconception that the movie biz was what transformed Los Angeles into a 20th-century metropolis. Its true architects were rapacious, last-frontier descendants of Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen like aqueduct builder William Mulholland and oil tycoon Edward Doheny.
The latter is the real-life original of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, who also owes something to Mulholland in relentlessness. That’s why TWBB is the unofficial prequel to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, almost the only other movie to remind us that Southern California was a paradise won, not lost, by capitalism’s version of original sin — the destruction of the natural order. The same is true of America itself, of course, but California’s role in our culture is to incarnate the New World’s own, hyperbolized promised land.
In the same way, 2012’s The Master is movieland’s only spiritual sequel to Citizen Kane that doesn’t shrivel under the hefty comparison. It’s also an origin story — Lancaster Dodd is no less a California empire-builder than Daniel Plainview was. His version of an oil boom is America’s post-WWII anomie, epitomized by Joaquin Phoenix’s Navy vet turned West Coast vagabond.
It’s not incidental that Phoenix’s character originally hails from hidebound Massachusetts and Dodd ultimately runs afoul of East Coast snobbery in intellectual-gatekeeper drag. Exposing him as a false messiah just doesn’t interest Anderson that much, since it’s not as if more pedigreed American verities are any less notional or their creators — Benjamin Franklin, anybody? — any less Barnumesque. To a San Fernando Valley native, customized belief systems aren’t something to get hysterical about — they’re just symptomatic of humanity’s enterprising streak.
Whatever its stand-alone merits, which are considerable even if fun isn’t one of them, Inherent Vice, out this weekend — based on Thomas Pynchon’s rambunctious novel about a stoner detective fly-fishing for meaning in L.A.’s backwaters as the ’60s went pfft — makes the most sense as the latest panel in Anderson’s ongoing SoCal epic. This isn’t the first time he’s adapted another writer’s work, since There Will Be Blood was based on a forgotten novel by muckraker Upton Sinclair. But considering how abashed most filmmakers would be by Pynchon’s daunting mythos, the way the movie plays as astringent Anderson instead of deferentially illustrated Pynchon is darn near revelatory. Susceptible he isn’t.
Starting with a clutch of characters resembling Raymond Chandler’s rep troupe outfitted in roach clips and funny wigs, what was waggish and covertly sentimental in Pynchon turns dispassionate and biting here. No doubt to Warner Bros.’s despair, the PTA flick that everyone expected to be his first real romp since Boogie Nights is probably his least audience-friendly yet. From Phoenix’s deliberately ungregarious performance as Doc Sportello to the soundtrack’s avoidance of nostalgia-inducing period earworms — even the surf music that Pynchon used as shorthand for lost innocence gets short shrift — the movie, unlike the novel, counts as wild-and-woolly only if that’s how you describe performing brain surgery on sheep.
Fans of the book, not to mention ’60s nostalgists, may well be put off at first. But for my money, Anderson’s acrid take on the counterculture’s demise gains a lot from its place in his larger chronicle. Think of the movie as a story about Lancaster Dodd’s pot-zonked, feckless children vying with Daniel Plainview’s money-grubbing inheritors over who gets to define Southern California’s next incarnation, and you’ll see how the sense of burnout here is playing phoenix’s ashes to the hedonism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia’s New Age soul-searching.
There’s no better guide on film to the ups and downs of freedom, California-style. Being the nation’s incubator for self-reinvention keeps the state eternally suspended between Disneyland and Charles Manson, and it says a lot about Anderson that he could as easily make a movie about one as the other. Not only would he be equally at home with both, but he may also be the only American director who’s ever understood that they aren’t even opposites.
Tom Carson (@TomCarsonWriter) is GQ’s movie reviewer and the author of Gilligan’s Wake and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter.