Phantoms of the past


FromHard EighttoPhantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson has been deeply invested in the idea of unravelling histories

Celebrated Hollywood filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s recent visit to India, which attracted much media attention, was part of a series of events initiated with experimental artist Tacita Dean in 2011 to campaign for the continuance of ‘film’ in a world increasingly moving towards the digital. And while the world trained its eyes on the celebrated director, undoubtedly one of the strongest proponents of the medium today, his contemporaries Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have also been rallying for film for years.

Anderson has pointed out that 70 mm is generally associated with the shooting of vistas but The Master is an interior film. As is his latest film, Phantom Thread(2017). In fact, there are reports of how Anderson deliberately wanted to avoid the ornamental feel of period films in favour of a grainier image so that when the film, originally shot in 35 mm, was blown up to 70 mm for special screenings, the intentional ‘dirt’ left on the image would be even more perceptible. This was apparently part of his plan to perfect the period look. In terms of both content and form, Anderson has been deeply invested in the idea of representing history, and a study of his oeuvre along those lines offers much scope for discussion.

Memories and escapes

In The Master , Freddie Quell finds his way back to the park bench that he used to once frequent. He lies down on it hoping it will take him back to a time before the war when things were different — simpler, happier.

Although ultimately left out of the film, in an interview in The Guardian where he describes the scene, Anderson also speaks of the songs and stories that came out of the years after World War II — accounts of memories and past lives, of dreams and yearnings for travel through time, of an escape from the present.

Early on in the film, in order to get an assessment of his psychological state, Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), like his fellow war veterans, is put through a Rorschach test and grilled about recent emotional episodes. He tells the officer that he had dreamt of home, of sitting around a table having drinks with his parents, of laughing. On the one hand, Phoenix’s intense, broken and angry war veteran, and the memories he carries with him point to the realities of a war that has irrevocably altered people and their worlds.

On the other, the Scientology-inspired religious system, whose growth the film charts, involves the accessing of previous lives where people return to past trauma in order to resolve issues in their present, and The Master contains several episodes where Dodd attempts to help believers revisit their personal histories. In a wider sense, it is also this revisiting of past lives, of moments in private and public history that much of Anderson’s work seems preoccupied with.

Most of his primary characters are men living in specific periods of American history with lives, circumstances and sensibilities inevitably shaped by those times. The early Boogie Nights (1997), set in Anderson’s own San Fernando Valley, tells the story of a group of people working in the pornography industry during the Golden Age of Porn in the late 70s and early 80s.

The critically-acclaimed There Will Be Blood (2007) bases its narrative of capitalism, ambition and corruption against the Southern California oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Again, the freewheeling and multi-layered Inherent Vice (2014), adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel and set in Los Angeles in 1970, brings together government conspiracies, criminal organisations, shady property developers, eccentric dentists, noble spies, and a private investigator stuck in the counterculture ways of the early 60s.

Families and friends

Figures like Dodd and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood serve not just as foils to the central characters but also as representatives of the religious developments of the time. Experiences of war, the breaking up of families, and increasing alienation enabled the rise of evangelists, saviours and religious leaders who promised to help people out of their misery.

The creation of foster families as spaces of familiarity and safety in the wake of the breaking down of biological families is a recurring theme in Anderson’s work.

When Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is thrown out of his house early in Boogie Nights , it is to his new-found family of porn stars headed by the paternal Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) that he escapes. Again, in Anderson’s remarkable debut feature Hard Eight (1996), it is Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) who picks up the orphaned John Finnegan (John C. Reilly) from the streets and grants him new life and purpose. Although Sydney has his reasons for the generosity, by the end of the film we sense that his motives are not altogether selfish.

Hard Eight , the ambitious ensemble piece Magnolia (1999) — where almost every story is intricately connected to the idea of family — and Punch-Drunk Love(2002), while not set in historical periods, delve into the private histories of their infinitely damaged characters. In the first, Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) uncovers the truth about the seemingly avuncular Sydney’s murky past and threatens its exposure which leads to the film’s final denouement.

In Magnolia , the past holds immense power for each of its characters. For misogynistic life coach Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) and drug-addled Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), a refusal to confront it is the only way to carry on living. For problematic father figures like Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), death becomes an act of atonement for the past as much as an escape from the guilt, shame and regret it carries. In Punch-Drunk Love , Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is so troubled by his growing-up years that the only way for him to endure a social situation is to follow it up with a violent outburst.

Personal Narrative

Phantom Thread (2017), Anderson’s first film set outside the U.S., offers a rich combination of these public and private strands of history, balancing both intricately. On the one hand, the story, drawing on some real-life inspiration, is about a high-profile London fashion designer in the 1950s who clothes the rich and famous in the dominant styles of the time.

The film has the mellow, elegant fluidity of the clothes the women don in it, and through its mood, tone, colours and texture, Anderson exquisitely captures the essence of the era. At the same time, we are offered a peek into a personal narrative that throws up traces of the past, which repeatedly returns to inform the present.

There were rumours around wedding dresses — stories of curses they would leave on the women who made them, relegating them to lonesome lives. At 16, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) had stitched his mother a wedding dress because no one else would. It later went missing but there was a portrait made of her in that dress which remains in his country home.

The air of quiet death, as he describes it, that hangs in the house and that he finds strangely comforting takes the shape of his mother clad in that beautiful dress during one feverish night. When he prepares a wedding dress for a Belgian princess with the help of his quietly efficient army of seamstresses, hiding the words ‘Never Cursed’ in its hem, it is an un-cursing of sorts, a dispelling of those old beliefs. Elements from his past — the initial learning of his craft from his mother, her continued presence in his life and the recurring significance of the wedding dress — haunt his adult life.

The latest offering from one of the most original filmmakers of our time is unique and yet bears similarities with all that came before it — one more way in which the past remains present in the works of Paul Thomas Anderson.

Cinema, coffee and canines are the three great loves of this Mumbai-based film writer. @cinememsaab

Phantom Thread has the mellow, elegant fluidity of the clothes the women don in it, and Anderson exquisitely captures the essence of the era


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