Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks

The Daily — Nov 18, 2020
Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of Phantom Thread (2017)

What makes a filmmaker memeable? There has to be a signature visual style so distinct that a single frame or clip from any one of the works is immediately recognizable as a sample taken from the singular world of the oeuvre. Wes Anderson is an obvious example, so much so that there’s even a book, Accidentally Wes Anderson, that gathers images that look as if they might have be stills from an Anderson film, but in fact, aren’t. Paul Thomas Anderson is a less obvious example, but for whatever it’s worth, there’s a cool factor to PTA that lends him a not inconsiderable currency on social media. “I just think it’s amazing what a memed movie Phantom Thread turned out to be,” Adam Nayman tells Nick Newman at the Film Stage. “He’s made romantic comedies before, and dealt with relationships, but Phantom Thread is a movie with lines or images that pop up in contexts well outside the boundaries of something nebulously defined like Film Twitter.”

On Friday, New York’s Metrograph will present a live screening of Phantom Thread (2017), followed by a conversation between Nayman and Vicky Krieps, who stars in PTA’s most recent feature as Alma, a waitress who serves renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) his “hungry boy” breakfast. In Nayman’s new book, Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks, the introduction and final chapter both address Phantom Thread, and in between, the chapters are arranged chronologically—not according to the order in which the films were made but according to the period in which they are set. So the first chapter takes on There Will Be Blood (2007), a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! set against the backdrop of the oil boom in southern California in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Succeeding chapters offer a sort of alternative history of California, and by extension, America—in the late 1940s and ’50s in The Master (2012); the ’60s in the Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice (2014); the ’70s, the golden age of porn, in Boogie Nights (1997); and the ’90s in the noirish Hard Eight (1996), the ensemble film Magnolia (1999), and the Adam Sandler–starring Punch-Drunk Love (2002). In the movie he’s working on now, currently titled Soggy Bottom, Anderson returns to the San Fernando Valley and to the 1970s to tell the story of a high school kid, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, Cooper, who becomes a child star.

Phantom Thread, set in England, is the outlier. “For all its forbidding, foreboding atmosphere, Phantom Thread is a surpassingly funny movie,” writes Nayman in an excerpt from the book up at the Metrograph, “and the satisfaction of seeing a figure as singularly fastidious as Reynolds come progressively unruffled has a component of pure, ecstatic schadenfreude. Few directors are as fascinated by the spectacle of carefully maintained facades crumbling as Paul Thomas Anderson. Think of the alpha machismo of Tom Cruise’s Frank T. J. Mackey ebbing away during a calamitous night in the San Fernando Valley in Magnolia. Or of cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) inadvertently undercutting his own grandiloquent psychobabble with an angry epithet in The Master. Or of Day-Lewis’s tight-lipped oilman Daniel Plainview coming unglued during a church service in There Will Be Blood, crying out ‘I’ve abandoned my child’ in abject, guilty humiliation, knee bent in resentful deference towards a higher power. Breakdowns are Anderson’s specialty; in light of his fixation with physical and psychological deterioration, it’s no wonder he eventually made a film called Inherent Vice.

Nayman, who has previously written books on Showgirls, Ben Wheatley, and the Coen brothers, has been on something of a virtual book tour, and what comes through in the series of interviews he’s been giving is that he had been ambivalent, not really won over to PTA as a filmmaker until the later films came along. “While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant.

Talking to NOW Toronto’s Radheyan Simonpillai, both interviewer and interviewee poke at what they see as the weak spots in Magnolia. Nayman’s “frustration” with Boogie Nights is derived from what he perceives as Anderson attempting to “have it both ways,” as he explains in an excerpt in MovieMaker, “to be trenchant and sentimental about an era and an industry that were both hugely formative for its creator while lying just outside his lived experience, conflating history and fantasy under the sign of re-creation.”

The turning point was There Will Be Blood. “Whatever arguments people make about its central metaphor about capitalism and religion or the believability of the plot,” he tells Wisconsin Public Radio’s Adam Friedrich, “I think it’s inarguable that he put things together on a level of sound and image and location and production design that just took the collective breath away. And it was imaginative in a way that his other mostly realistic films hadn’t [been]. It’s not just that they hadn’t achieved it. They hadn’t attempted it.”


Working with designers and illustrators from Little White Lies, Abrams Books, which has made a specialty of publishing coffee-table books on memeable directors such as Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection and Nayman’s The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together, has put together another handsome volume. Along with a forward from Josh and Benny Safdie—and Benny, by the way, has landed a role in Soggy BottomMasterworks features interviews with Vicky Krieps, producer JoAnne Sellar, editor Dylan Tichenor, cinematographer Robert Elswit, costume designer Mark Bridges, production designer Jack Fisk, and composer Jonny Greenwood, who tells Nayman that “you should know that whenever you’re in the edit with Paul, he is—without exception—laughing throughout.”

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