What other well-known Hollywood director takes so many bold risks in his movies? Who else in the mainstream, other than Quentin Tarantino and Trey Parker, is so fearlessly willing to take the chance of alienating his audience? Can you think of another post-Boomer American filmmaker whose work is so original, confident, ambitious and distinctly his own?
I'm sure a lot of people would violently disagree on this, but in his relatively young career, Anderson has yet to make a bad film – and four of his six films are already considered classics or masterpieces by some discerning critics. But whether you think he's a daring maverick or a pretentious twerp, you've still got to admit one thing: Anderson seems incapable of making an ordinary
movie. And in a Hollywood that continues to rely on formula, special effects and target marketing when choosing which projects to greenlight, that's a rare and beautiful thing.
I was thinking about all this after seeing The Master
, Anderson's new epic, an eccentric character drama about the bond between an alcoholic drifter and a charismatic cult leader in the 1950s. Like his other movies, The Master
is long and engrossing, entertaining and obscure, challenging and maddening all at the same time. It draws you in with subtle characterization, shocks you with unexpected violence and halts abruptly with a decidedly ambiguous ending. And like all truly great movies, it screams for repeat viewings.
And like Anderson's other movies, it doesn't speak to everybody. Sure, it's received some glowing reviews: David Silverberg raved it on this site
, as did Peter Howell in The Toronto Star
, Peter Travers in Rolling Stone
(“a new American classic”), Andrew O'Hehir in Salon
, and Anthony Lane in the New Yorker
among others. But not every critic takes the film's deliberate opaqueness as a good thing. Roger Ebert
, who played cheerleader for all of Anderson's previous works, found The Master
unsatisfying. So did Jim Emerson, despite a lengthy and fascinating essay
on his blog about the movie's themes and technique. And Stephanie Zacharek implies in an Onion A.V. Club
article that emperor Anderson has no clothes: “Sometimes you just know something is wank.” (Zacharek felt much the same way
about There Will Be Blood
But perhaps the comment that best expresses the movie's impact on a first viewing belongs to Slate
's Dana Stevens: “I left the theater not entirely sure what The Master
was about. I can't wait to get back and see it again.”
Exactly. What makes Anderson's films stand out is that nagging feeling that there's so much going on, both under the surface and right under your nose, that a single viewing in the theatre, hopped up on popcorn and relaxation, doesn't come close to embracing the full experience. And that's why many moviegoers (even smart and discriminating ones), accustomed to movies with clear external conflicts and resolutions, don't respond to what Anderson does.
But I don't necessarily go to movies to end up with a triumphant good guy, a defeated bad guy and a satisfying happy ending. Sometimes I want a movie to shake up my world and challenge my ways of seeing life. Regardless of genre, I place more value on movies that leave me with intriguing questions instead of pat answers.
It's often hard to make people understand why a movie affected you when your reasons for valuing movies differ completely from theirs. When both Magnolia
and There Will Be Blood
came out, I wouldn't shut the hell up about them. I was That Guy. I was irritating everybody about them, urging people to see them, even dragging a few friends to the theatre to see if they'd “get it” too. Predictably, I was often told that Magnolia
was “pretentious” and Blood
was “slow and boring”. It made me wonder if I was wearing special goggles that made me see things in these movies that nobody else could see. Only the validation of some (though not all) critics convinced me I wasn't insane or deluded.
The movie that launched Anderson's “wunderkind” reputation, 1997's Boogie Nights
, still holds up wonderfully as a deeply human epic about the '70s porn industry, a film not about sex or pornography so much as the makeshift families that form around the trade. Boogie Nights
blends the themes and styles of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, complete with delicious tracking shots and an uncanny instinct for composition, into a feast of solid filmmaking – and through all that, never loses its interest in the characters themselves and their individual stories.
Anderson's 1999 follow-up, Magnolia
, is a glorious, operatic mess of a movie. My first viewing was probably the most cathartic experience I've ever had in a Megaplex. When I watch it now, it plays as if the director is struggling to tame a vision too bold, big and complex for any three-hour film. It's not just over the top – it wants to smack the top around from every conceivable position. Taking more cues from Altman's multi-story ensemble dramas, it takes risks and chances that look insane on paper but pay off beautifully onscreen; only an artist who grew up during the MTV generation could conceive of the Aimee Mann “Wise Up” sing-along sequence and actually make it work. Magnolia
does have plenty of passionate detractors, but even Ebert has added it to his “Great Movies”
After teaching Adam Sandler how to act in the lighter (but lovably strange) romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love
, Anderson shot for the stratosphere in 2007's There Will Be Blood
. A departure from his ensemble dramas, Blood
focuses on the raging monetary and ideological conflict between Daniel Day-Lewis' sociopathic oil tycoon and Paul Dano's church pastor. But while Anderson borrows themes from Citizen Kane
and similar classics, the movie has an atmosphere and tone unlike anything you've ever felt in a movie before. Its deliberate pacing, intense melodrama, bleak comedy, detailed period authenticity and striking cinematography are distinctive enough, but add Jonny Greenwood's dissonant, icy score (swerving between Stravinsky and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
) and you've got something you can't really compare to any other movie. What could have been a dull, conventional historical epic in any hack director's hands becomes an uneasy, savage, spiraling nightmare of greed and hypocrisy in Anderson's.
Yes, there are people who dislike Anderson's films intensely. But that's far from abnormal for any personal work of art that tries to be different and new. Not everybody can relate to Anderson's flawed characters, their dysfunctional relationships and the absurd, sometimes tragic situations in which they wind up. But the job of the artist isn't to tell you what you want to hear – it's to express universal truths about the world as the artist sees them, in all their ugliness and beauty. Sometimes, when an artist does that too well, he or she shuts out people who don't want to hear those truths. But if you can handle it, the work stays with you long afterwards.
I'm not saying that every single thing Anderson does is perfect and beyond reproach. Or even that the people who trash his movies are wrong to feel that way. Nor is this a putdown of other gifted and original directors of Anderson's generation (like Tarantino and David Fincher, for example). But whether you like them or not, these four films – Boogie Nights
, There Will Be Blood
and The Master
– are genuine originals. They're solid evidence of an artist who's remarkably secure in his vision, who's unwilling to compromise that vision just to make an easy-money crowd-pleaser, and who yearns to stretch the boundaries of cinema to discover what else it can do. He's one of the few true “auteurs” working in Hollywood today. I'm damned if I can think of a better one.