“The films that I love are very straightforward stories, like really old-fashioned stuff.” — Paul Thomas Anderson

There are many good contemporary film-makers doing fascinating bold work but Paul Thomas Anderson is what you might call “touched”. What other filmmaker now would even dare to make something like Magnolia? Who could even think that up? How was Magnolia even possible? How did he do it?

That entire lengthy section where everything is happening with every character simultaneously and he flows from one to the next to the next and the film doesn’t lose momentum – if anything it gains in momentum. And he does this with minimal dialogue. It’s more about rhythm, and music, and flow. That movie is insane. But then he can pull off something short and sweet (and sad) like Punch-Drunk Love. I haven’t even mentioned the mighty There Will Be Blood, another sui generis bizarro film, which doesn’t have a line of dialogue for the first half-hour. After which, it’s all talk-talk-talk. And … Upton Sinclair as your inspiration? Sign me up.

Anderson’s work excites me in a unique way, distinct from other filmmakers I love. My thought process is basically: “I can’t wait to see what he’s been ruminating about THIS time.”

After all of his great ensemble films, he comes out with the gorgeous Phantom Thread, a chamber piece, taking place in two locations only, featuring just three characters. I don’t know if I can put into words how much I love Phantom Thread. Oh wait, yes I can: I wrote the cover story for Film Comment on the film:

My first cover story for them. I put my heart and soul into this one, because the romantic aspect of the film touched me so deeply and because much of the commentary about the film – about Woodcock’s “toxic masculinity” and the “predatory” age gap (enough already: she is an adult woman. She makes her own choices.) etc. seemed a willful missing of the point, a need to shoehorn something into the dominant narrative, even if it doesn’t fit.. The weird thing was (or, it wasn’t weird to me, just to others) was I didn’t “relate” to Alma (Vicki Krieps), the young woman falling in love with Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). I “related” to Woodcock, his rigidity, his staunch aloneness, his haunted nights, his desire for affection and yet his fear of it, his single-mindedness, and his damaged solitude. Love comes to him and it is difficult for him to bear it. He pushes it away. He is too fucked up. He can’t take it. And he NEEDS someone like Alma, to love him enough to stick around and wear him down. It’s fine if you don’t relate to that, but I fucking do. I’ve got a lot of bad road behind me. The assumption that women can only relate to women characters and men can only relate to men characters is not only not true but is irritatingly persistent and needs to be burned in the public square. There is no reason a man can’t see himself in a female character (I’d bet Window Boy could relate to Alma. I was a TOUGH NUT.) There is no reason a woman can’t see herself in a male character. Hamlet? Hello.

Here’s my cover story: Love After a Fashion.

I also was a guest on the Film Comment podcast, to chat with Violet Lucca about the film.

I was so obsessed with Inherent Vice I saw it three times in the movie theatre. Now, the best piece about the film, the one to read, is Kim Morgan’s at the New Beverly site. Don’t miss it. She digs so deep into the film she enters into its maze.

I wrote about it, too, although briefer, mainly adding on to what she already said.

Here’s the first piece I wrote and then … I wasn’t done, and decided to write a second piece, about one shot in the film that reminded me of a photo in one of those Time-Life books from back in the day, and how I would put money down that PTA was referencing it.

I also wrote about Licorice Pizza for Ebert.

I love his work dearly and cannot wait for his next dispatch.

One final thing: Marc Maron’s two-hour interview with him is a must-hear kind of thing.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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7 Responses to “The films that I love are very straightforward stories, like really old-fashioned stuff.” — Paul Thomas Anderson

  1. Todd Restler says:

    Hi Sheila,

    I found my comments on PTA after your Phantom Thread review and will just repost them below.

    He is SO incredible at writing characters that are memorable. And he often seems unconcerned about things like plotting and structure, which gives his movies such an unpredictable, almost dangerous vibe. When I think of PTA my mind always goes to Michael Douglas shaking his head when James Leer gets his book published : ” Wonder Boy”.

    That’s how I think of PTA : Wonder Boy.

    Great review, (of Phantom Thread) and what a movie! I just saw it this weekend.

    This is a wild comparison, but the structure reminded me of the movie Audition (1999, Dir. Takashi Miike), in that it started out grounded in such reality (if eccentric reality) that it felt like an Ozu movie at first, only to turn on its head in the second half into a disturbing, “almost-horror” movie.

    The performances by the three leads were amazing, and I love this from your review: “Unlike the orchestral Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Phantom Thread is a chamber piece, featuring three instruments.”

    Great analysis, the movie plays like a piece of music where the different instruments take turns playing lead.

    It’s also incredibly interesting, and pretty much unavoidable, to see how this movie fits into PTAs filmography. As Altman once said about his own work, “In many ways I’ve been making one long film” – and PTA feels like that too. He is perhaps my favorite living director (along with Scorsese and The Coens).

    In particular I love the originality and spontaneity of his work. He has a wonderful gift for creating epic characters that are real, living, 3 dimensional people. Yet, as all humans are ultimately a mystery, his characters reveal just enough of themselves to seem real and inarguably human in their behavior, but not enough so we “get” them completely.

    It’s this sense of mystery that makes the characters linger I think. I’ve been thinking about his movies a lot after watching this, and while the settings vary (Vegas for Hard 8, San Fernando Valley, Old West Oil rush, Manhattan in the 50s, London in the 50s), and the stories are all very different, there is this mysterious undercurrent of weird, unknowable sexuality coursing through his movies.

    I thought it was revealing that PTA didn’t show the big “Love Scene” between Alma and Woodcock (what a name!). I actually wanted to see that, but I get what he’s doing. Was Woodcock incredibly giving as a lover, obsessed as he was with the female form? Was he repressed and awkward, preferring to dress woman than undress them? That mystery makes the character seem epic, unknowable.

    Let’s see how else he does that:

    Boogie Nights- What is up with Jack Horner? Does he ever actually touch the woman in his kingdom, or does he only prefer to watch? Was he always a pure voyeur, or did he become one? Can he still get it up even if he wanted to? Fascinating.

    Magnolia – I loved how you hit on the amazing ending of this film in your Phantom Thread review. That brief smile on Melora Walters’ face is the whole movie. All of the characters are sexually repressed, or unfaithful, or alone. But it’s Tom Cruise’s JT Mackey who wins the fucked up sexuality award, especially when you realize his whole act is full of shit. What a character, and Cruise has never done anything remotely like it before or since.

    Punch Drunk Love – I am not sure what is going on with Barry’s sexuality here, and I’m not sure I want to know. I’m terrified of that character. Of all PTAs movies, this one remains the most elusive for me to “get”.

    There Will Be Blood – Is Daniel Plainview gay? He at least seems asexual. He is rich but never marries; never has kids of his own, and in the one scene in the brothel, he seems totally disinterested in the women. He may not know he’s gay, drinking his self-awareness away as he does, but I think he is. Is his anger due to that repression?

    The Master – Joaquin Phoenix humping a sand mermaid pretty much says it all. The key scene for me is where he gets PSH drunk, because THAT’S actually why PSH keeps him around – for the homemade booze. Two fucked up soulmates.

    Phantom Thread is am amazing movie, it lingers in the mind, and is a worthy chapter in the work of one of the most mercurial filmmaking talents ever.

    • sheila says:

      Todd – I don’t know why I missed this comment. I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks – for the first time in two years – so I’ve been a bit out of touch.

      PTA is definitely a Wonder Boy – so much so that he’s a throwback – to Altman, to Coppola, to Scorsese – in those exciting days in the 60s and 70s (not that I was there) – when they were at the top of their game. Marty the last one standing and still making amazing films! There are other contemporary directors who get this reputation for being visionaries with strong visual styles – but they leave me cold. I won’t name names. I find most boring and uninteresting. My favorite filmmakers in general are European and if that makes me sound like a snob I truly don’t care.

      PTA is a holdout – AND it’s so exciting that he hit it so huge with Boogie Nights because … not that he gets a blank check, he clearly doesn’t, but he made a big money-maker and that generates trust. And so now … he just makes these crazy movies that seem to have nothing to do with each other – he doesn’t follow trends at ALL and I really appreciate it. From Phantom Thread to Licorice Pizza. That’s Altman-esque. Or Woody Allen-esque. I love the genesis of Phantom Thread – him lying sick on the couch and Maya looking down at him with a look of fond PITY – and he found it strangely comforting. lol THAT was the genesis – along with his fascination and Daniel Day Lewis’ fascination with post-austerity London – and the fashion scene there. Like, what?

      I love it – because we’re about the same age – so (knock wood) there’s a lot more to look forward to.

  2. José Gabriel Ferreras says:

    //and because much of the commentary about the film – about Woodcock’s “toxic masculinity” and the “predatory” age gap (enough already: she is an adult woman. She makes her own choices.) etc. seemed a willful missing of the point, a need to shoehorn something into the dominant narrative, even if it doesn’t fit..//

    This is the kind of comment that makes me come here more often than anywhere else: almost everyone else seems to conform to the same tiresome fashionable narrative… and you just don’t read THIS anywhere else! Thanks, Sheila, for keeping it true and honest, it’s a rarity these days!

    • sheila says:

      Jose – thanks! The “commentary” about men and women right now is so toxic. I can’t stand it. Some of these people don’t realize how Victorian they sound: women need protection in the big bad scary world, and need protection from big bad scary men. I’ve heard 18 year old girls referred to as “children”. The age gap thing is the current obsession. I was in love with a 40 year old when I was 25. I couldn’t deal with my peers – men my age didn’t “get me” but he did. was that age gap “predatory”? I was 25. An adult!!

  3. José Gabriel Ferreras says:

    40 to 25? Where was your head? How dare he! ;)

    • sheila says:

      It was indeed a crazy situation and might have caused problems down the road but I knew what I was doing, I was a grownup, so was he, nothing predatory.

      My friend Mitchell says, “If it’s predatory, it’s predatory.” He’s so right. If it’s NOT predatory then it’s NOT predatory. If the power dynamic is skewed – if this guy was my boss, for example? Okay, that would be another story. Not all age gaps are predatory, ESPECIALLY if both people are of the age of consent. It’s nobody’s fucking business.

  4. José Gabriel Ferreras says:

    //It’s nobody’s fucking business.//

    LOL, love it! :)

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