For at least the past decade and a half, each of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies has arrived in theaters as a major cinematic event. By pure chance, I got an especially powerful taste of this a few years ago in Los Angeles when, after a revival screening of The Shining, we in the audience were told to stay right there in our seats for the rest of the night’s surprise double-feature, the second half being Anderson’s as yet unreleased and almost completely unseen The Master — projected in 70-millimeter. Needless to say, nobody left, so palpable was the desire to experience the next phase of the cinematic vision of the auteur who has, to that point, given us Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood.
So what makes Anderson’s cinematic vision so compelling? Video essayist Cameron Beyl, creator of The Directors Series (whose explorations of Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, and the Coen brothers we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture), attempts an answer in this analysis of Anderson’s films, each of whose chapters reflect a chapter of the auteur’s journey to his current prominence. The first of them finds him, at seventeen after a childhood in the San Fernando Valley, shooting a porn-star mockumentary called The Dirk Diggler Story, elements of which would later shape his 1997 porn-industry epic Boogie Nights. Having ditched film school after just two days, the slightly older Anderson set out to make Cigarettes & Coffee, a short tale of low life told in high style that would expand into his first feature, the mistreated but rediscovered Hard Eight.
Beyl’s miniseries of video essays, which runs nearly three hours in total, continues from Anderson’s early Sundance success (a success that did much to raise the profile of the festival itself) to his much larger-budget “California chronicles” Boogie Nights and Magnolia, his “concept comedies” Punch-Drunk Love and various other shorts made at the time, his “portraits of power” There Will Be Blood and The Master, and his ascent to “higher states” in the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice and the documentary Junjun.
Beyl describes Anderson as undeniably “born to be a filmmaker,” and so it stands to reason that, though his favorite themes including family, power, and sexual dysfunction remain constant, each new phase of the director’s life results in a new phase in his filmmaking — or indeed, the other way around. And so everyone who takes film seriously eagerly awaits his next chapter.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.