Obsession with The Master

Boogie Nights-Paul Thomas Anderson-Heather Graham

How I discovered film and its American guru.

My first exposure to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson occurred when I was in 7th grade, although I did not actually see one. It was at the local dollar theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a beloved spot, but tragically financially challenged. My brother Nicholas went to see some boring looking movie about an oil man while I, and my friend DJ, went to see what looked to be a gut-busting comedy flick starring Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan called First Sunday.

I do not remember much of First Sunday. The movie my brother went to see happened to be a little one called There Will Be Blood. Not until the 9th grade did I finally see my first PTA film. The exposure was not secondhand this time, and it made me recall that night with my brother and made me wish I had gone to see There Will Be Blood instead. Alas, there was no way I could have known what I was missing then and besides, the viewing of Boogie Nights in the 9th grade proved to be a pretty memorable and seductive introduction.

I was an eager boy then, deeply intrigued by the possibilities of cinema. After the neurons in my head had been intoxicated, rewired, and exhilarated by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, I was fiending for a similar hit. Amateur cinema sleuthing had led me to several movies similar in one way or another to Goodfellas, and suddenly I found myself staring at the rental box of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s second film (1997), in a similarly financially challenged movie rental store in Albuquerque. “You can’t rent that…it’s too…,” my friend’s father halfheartedly warned, his voice trailing off in the store as something made him reconsider. “Actually, eh…it’s a good movie…sure,” he said, quickly deflating the societal expectation of protective parenting and took Boogie Nights and whatever Kung-Fu movie he’d chosen to the check-out desk.

My friend’s father was referring to the intensely explicit nature of Boogie Nights, and his short-lived worry was justified. Boogie Nights is a sprawling, San Fernando Valley fairytale-disaster about a family of pornographers in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Drugs, sex, and violence run amok in its two and a half hour running time, so obviously, the movie was attractive on multiple accounts, and the minute my friend and I got home, we popped it into his DVD player.

My fandom and thus subsequent obsession with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson had started in that living room and inevitably grew to encompass his entire filmography over the course of my high school years. My brother, enthralled by his first watch at that dollar theater, had bought There Will Be Blood on DVD and I begun watching it on a regular basis, along with PTA’s other movies. Magnolia, a near masterpiece (depending on who you ask), is a mosaic, cinema labyrinth of lost soul characters and a solid flick, but I particularly found the arty and genuinely eccentric Adam Sandler, Rom-Com film, Punch-Drunk Love, to be the most enticing. At that point, Paul Thomas Anderson had smashed and affixed two seemingly opposite worlds for me and showed me that they can coexist with one another. He took the low-brow, only-intention-is-to-make-you-laugh, absurdist quality from the best Sandler comedies, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, and combined it with an impeccable yet intuitive sense of technical craft and writing, and out came the deceptively and subtly great Punch-Drunk Love. To this day, it is my favorite.

But the peak of my obsession coincided with the release of his 2012 film, The Master. It was the moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s career when it was clear that he would continue going down the rabbit hole of his own filmmaking. The film proved to be even more risky and strange, but consequently more provocative and distinctive.

Once The Master’s first teaser was released, I obsessed for five months before the feature film debuted, and for at least a year after that point, I was still maddeningly obsessed. Ask anyone who talked to me in high school – The Master had punctured and permeated my subconscious and to this day, it still does. It was in particular the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, and his twisted, guttural take on Freddie Quell, a boozy, mentally incapacitated, disturbed, and enigmatic WW2 Veteran-Drifter that finds himself in the hands of an equally twisted man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who happens to be starting a religion (Or movement? Cult? No one really knows).

In retrospect, I don’t know what’s more bizarre and unsettling: the character of Freddie Quell or my inexplicable need to act like a character like Freddie Quell. I walked around the hallways of my high-school senior year imitating a man with a jagged back posture, chemical-death-booze on his breath, a slurred mumble, and a face that suggested the victim of a thousand strokes. I also happened to be the Hawaiian Shirt guy, so all of this now seems like I was on a Kamikaze, Social-Suicide mission of sorts.

But, I digress. What I’m trying to say is that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson have had an intense impact on my mind and the Northwest Film Center screening of all of his films, as well the beautiful and challenging films that influenced him, is an awesome, awesome blessing for any cinema enthusiast here in Portland.

All seven of his films  –  Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice – will be showing, and it’ll be an opportune time to fully take in one of the more mesmerizing qualities of his filmography and the constant rewriting and rerouted journey of what the audience, critics, or fans expect from him as a filmmaker.

If one looks closely, PTA has indeed ‘reinvented’ (or at the bare minimum, challenged) himself as a filmmaker with every release whether through style or genre, and the Northwest Film Center’s keen eye on that quality of his work tells me that the selection of films that influenced him will probably be just as perceptive, timely, and enlightening of Paul Thomas Anderson as a whole. This is a wonderful time to be a cinema fan in Portland, so don’t be the lost soul that doesn’t make his or her way to at least one of these screenings.




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