The Modern Master: An Appreciation of P.T. Anderson

Published

Adam Nicholson
Writer

Over the past month, the GFT has been running a “cinemasters” season dedicated to a director who is, for my money, one of the greatest cinematic practitioners of the 21st century: Paul Thomas Anderson.

While Anderson has remarked that 1999’s Magnolia is possibly the best film he’ll ever make – and indeed, the 35mm screening at the GFT was a magnificent testament to that bold tragicomedy – his work in this century continues to set him apart from the rest of the herd. In the 18 years of the 21st century, Anderson has produced five major works of cinema: Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and the forthcoming Phantom Thread. While all of these pictures are important and worthy works in of themselves (especially The Master – an oft overlooked masterpiece of subtlety and deception), one of these pictures stands well above the rest.

There Will Be Blood (2007) is a cinematic leviathan. It seems to reach out of the screen and envelope the entire auditorium, lingering with you for days after; like the oil with which it is obsessed, the picture is difficult to wash off. It is a filmic Black Mass of greed, religion, humour, and horror themes.

If there was a true standout of the GFT’s P.T. Anderson “cinemasters” season, it was There Will Be Blood, superlatively screened in 35mm. This is important. Film does something that digital prints do not: film flickers. That inherent infinitesimal movement is hypnotic – and with film, black is deeper and white brighter. For a picture composed of such contrasts – black, black oil, black as a moonless midnight, and the burning intensity of the Californian sun – a greater accentuation of these visual opposites heightens the optical effects. In 35mm, There Will Be Blood is luscious and sublime, in the Romantic sense – terrifyingly beautiful.

Of course, Daniel Day Lewis dominates the picture. He is the Hades of this Underworld. His performance is ingeniously paradoxical; laced with nuance and subtlety yet consummately theatrical, even expressionistic. Anderson and Day Lewis channel more than any previous pretender to the throne the gargantuan power of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. Indeed, There Will Be Blood is the only true heir to Kane’s throne.

Usually, when presented with so powerful and profound a picture as this, selecting a single standout moment seems an impossibility. Indeed, I should be happy to choose every single frame and offer it as a worthy mark of the film’s quality, every frame compelling and cumulatively crafting the pervasive motif of obsession – obsession with power, with money, with blackest oil. And yet, as strong as every scene of the film is, There Will Be Blood truly saves the best for last. Dramatically, the film’s final scene strips away everything bar the bare necessities: it is two men, who share a past, in a room together. Yet, with these basic elements, Anderson, Day Lewis, and the wonderful Paul Dano (a superb supporting player) conjure a mood which is almost infernal – it is akin to how the climactic scenes of Othello or Macbeth might have seemed to their Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries: an overwhelming confrontation of verbal and theatrical supremacy which is simultaneously compelling, terrifying, funny, tragic, and captivating. Coming at the end of the epic two and half hour tale, it leaves you breathless.

Such is the appropriate scheduling of the GFT that There Will Be Blood’s screening was the last in the season and only a week before the release of the next Anderson/Day Lewis collaboration. DDL’s presence is an assurance of quality, as is Anderson’s. And yet, my suspicion (informed by early reviews, interviews, and footage) is that Phantom Thread will have less in common with their previous outing and more in common with the supreme interplay of infinitesimal tensions, desires, and compulsions demonstrated in The Master. Indeed, it appears that Phantom Thread is imbued with the disquieting dissonance and ambiguity of the later works of novelist Henry James: a ghostly air perfumed with love and obsession, a lucid dream of uncomfortable romance. In truth, there is scope to suggest that Phantom Thread has the potential to be the pinnacle of the Anderson/Day Lewis artistic partnership. Not only is it the latter’s swansong and already dignified with six academy award nominations, but it shall doubtless be the crowning jewel of Anderson’s directorial career. And long may the Master lead us in the art of modern cinema, though he leaves so potent a muse behind.