Sunday, October 06, 2002

Interview: "A Poet Of Love And Chaos In The Valley"

New York Times, Written By Dave Kehr
October 6th, 2002

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON, 32, is the unofficial poet laureate of the San Fernando Valley.

"I was born in Studio City," Mr. Anderson said by telephone from his home, "and I'm here now, looking out over the expansive West."

The West he refers to includes Sherman Oaks, Reseda, Encino and many other valley settlements, large and small. They are all new cities in the American mode, composed of strip malls, franchises of every description and vast middle-class housing developments. A significant portion of the movie business has also migrated there, slipping over the San Vicente Mountains from Hollywood.

Three of Mr. Anderson's four films have been set in what Angelenos call simply the Valley, and with them he has emerged as one of the most original voices of his generation, a filmmaker who combines extreme formal experimentation with close observation. His work is at once sociologically accurate and poetically abstract.

For all of the itching realism of "Boogie Nights," the panoramic history of the Valley's vast pornography industry that put Mr. Anderson on the map in 1997, the film retained a buoyant, lyrical side, conveyed through graceful long takes and gliding Steadicam shots.

His 1999 film, "Magnolia," a sweeping vision of a dozen lives linked by chance and compassion, took its title from one of the Valley's principal thoroughfares, Magnolia Boulevard, along which much of the movie is set. Mr. Anderson places some of the most penetrating, naturalistic dialogue this side of David Mamet in the context of what might be described as a Cubist narrative, offering a multitude of perspectives through characters whose situations eerily reflect one another's.

Now there is "Punch-Drunk Love," a romantic comedy opening Friday about a businessman, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who wholesales novelty toilet plungers out of a Valley warehouse. Barry's life looks more than routine: he's become obsessed with clipping coupons for frequent flier miles from pudding containers. But one morning his world is transformed by three inexplicable events: A car overturns, causing a sickening accident on the street in front of Barry's building. A taxi pulls up to the curb, and a slightly battered harmonium is gently unloaded on the sidewalk. And a lovely, sweet-tempered Englishwoman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), appears out of nowhere and falls in love with him.

With its small cast, limited locations and a running time of only 89 minutes (as opposed to the 188 minutes of "Magnolia"), "Punch-Drunk Love" is clearly a reaction against the sweep and scale of Mr. Anderson's last two films. The new picture feels like a rest stop, a time to recharge the batteries, but is no less dazzling and original for it. (It was shown as part of this year's New York Film Festival.)

"I just remember thinking that I would like to do something simple, to try to do a romance movie and to work with Adam and to work with Emily," Mr. Anderson said of the film's origins. "I think you usually just start off where you left off. And I had just finished 'Magnolia,' a movie that was really big and long and sad. Your first instinct is you just want to go the other way."

One inspiration was Jacques Tati, the French comic and filmmaker whose acutely observed comedies include "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and "Playtime" (1967). "I was just in a real love affair with Jacques Tati's movies," Mr. Anderson said.

Not everyone, of course, would cast the aggressively outgoing Mr. Sandler as a modern-day version of Tati's Hulot, a shy and gentle eccentric with a tendency to disappear within his own movies. Why did Mr. Anderson consider Mr. Sandler, the creator of "Happy Gilmore" and "The Waterboy," for a role like this?

"At the end of the day, it's really just how funny he is to me," Mr. Anderson said of Mr. Sandler. "Everything he does is very funny and very human. And I like what a mystery he is, really, how we don't know much about his personal life, which was really nice. And I just love it when he gets angry."

Always a significant element of his screen personality, Mr. Sandler's temper plays an especially large part in "Punch-Drunk Love." In his own movies, he has often portrayed the put-upon loser who finally gets fed up and explodes, exacting a hideous vengeance on his tormentors. Mr. Sandler's outbursts have a frighteningly realistic edge in "Punch-Drunk Love" that lifts them out of their usual farcical context. In the film, his eruptions of rage, which include the trashing of a restaurant washroom and a confrontation with a phone-sex pimp (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, so far the only actor to appear in all of Mr. Anderson's films), take on an Old Testament fury. They are both mad and majestic, a crippling limitation and a strange, powerful gift.

As Lena, Ms. Watson plays one of the many guardian angel figures who populate Mr. Anderson's films: those caregivers who seem to appear out of nowhere and offer protection and redemption. One is the veteran gambler (Philip Baker Hall) who adopts the down-and-out character played by John C. Reilly in "Hard Eight" (1996). Another is Burt Reynolds as the paternalistic pornographer who takes the stunningly endowed actor played by Mark Wahlberg under his wing in "Boogie Nights." And there is Mr. Reilly again, as a selfless Los Angeles patrolman who comes to the rescue of a deeply troubled young woman (Melora Walters) in "Magnolia."

Analyzing his work makes Mr. Anderson uncomfortable. All he will say about these recurring figures is: "Well, it's always nice to have someone smack you on the head and tell you to shape up a little bit. You count on that." Of Mr. Reilly's character in "Magnolia," all he will say is, "That's really what Reilly is like, more than anything."

In the director's commentary recorded for the DVD release of "Hard Eight" (a film Mr. Anderson prefers to call by its original title, "Sydney"), he links Sydney, Mr. Hall's wise older man, to his own father, Ernie Anderson, a professional voice-over artist and onetime host of a Friday night horror movie showcase in Cleveland. (Mr. Anderson's production company, Ghoulardi, is named after his father's character.) Asked to characterize his relationship with his father, who died in 1997, Mr. Anderson volunteers only: "It was great. It was great."

If Mr. Anderson's work abounds with positive parent-child relationships, both literal and metaphorical, there are also many poisonous ones. In the elaborate game of mirrors that is "Magnolia," Mr. Hall returns as a father, a celebrated game show host, who has destroyed his daughter's life; and Jason Robards (in what was to be his final film role) is a dying television producer who is unexpectedly reunited with the son he had abandoned as a child (Tom Cruise as a woman-hating self-help guru).

The parent-child relationship — as played out as well by Mr. Sandler and Ms. Watson in "Punch-Drunk" — is a paradigm of responsibility, perhaps the most important moral quality in Mr. Anderson's work. Given the absurdity of a universe ruled by chance, in which harmoniums suddenly appear on sidewalks and frogs rain from the sky (as happens at a key moment in "Magnolia") responsibility may be a tenuous concept, but it is what holds Mr. Anderson's couples and communities together. His work occupies a tumultuous space somewhere between chaos and control, between an abandonment to chance and a determination to put things right.

"Hard Eight" is the only one of Mr. Anderson's films to have a conventional, three-act narrative structure, following the evolution of the father-son relationship between a raw young gambler (Mr. Reilly) and a shrewd veteran (Mr. Hall). (Set in Nevada, it's also his only film not rooted in the San Fernando Valley.) Since then, he has experimented with a variety of forms. "Boogie Nights" is constructed like a Zola novel, built around group scenes that offer panoramic portraits of specific social and professional classes. The effect is enhanced by the use of long, uninterrupted Steadicam takes that suggest the interconnectedness of the characters.

"Magnolia" is a magic carpet ride through the Valley, gracefully gliding among a number of different stories, all involving lonely, isolated people and building to a mystical climax that unites the characters in a shared, preposterous experience.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is Mr. Anderson's most radical experiment to date. Its staccato rhythms and jagged editing seem a direct reaction to the softness and smoothness of "Magnolia." This is a film of lulling interludes punctuated by sudden loud noises, explosions of anger or acts of physical destruction. (Huge trucks keep appearing out of nowhere.) Between the film's agitated first and last movements, there is a lovely entr'acte in which the action is suddenly propelled to Hawaii, and the jangling soundtrack is replaced by the impossibly sweet sound of Shelley Duvall singing Harry Nilsson's wistful ballad "He Needs Me," from the movie "Popeye."

With his precise control of rhythm and tone — he speaks often of the momentum of his films — Mr. Anderson has a very musical sense of the cinema. He has had no musical training, he said (although his companion is the singer Fiona Apple), but he does call in his regular composer, Jon Brion, during the planning stages. "You try to attack it early on, just so you know a little bit of what might be happening when you shoot," Mr. Anderson said. "When you're in a jam on the set and trying to remember what is going on, just keep your mind on the music that will be there. It always helps guide you back toward shore."

There's another, subtler musical element in "Punch-Drunk Love." Throughout the film, Mr. Sandler's Barry Egan wears a suit made of the most amazing deep blue material. "It's from, well, I always loved `The Bandwagon,' the Vincente Minnelli musical," Mr. Anderson said. "And if you watch `Singin' in the Rain,' too, it's sort of indicative of these movies that there's a fantastic rich blue suit in just about every one of them. Look next time and you ll see them.

"So it's a little bit like a musical thing," Mr. Anderson said. "It's an MGM suit."