Akshay Seth: Paul Thomas Anderson, Master of Tension

Paramount

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published October 19, 2014

In the first 15 minutes of “There Will Be Blood,” there is only silence. A prospector crouches, hunched over in trance-like desolation as his pickaxe scrapes embers from cracked granite. Standing alone, buried within the depths of this arid hell, he toils, plunges, rages deeper into pulsating madness, scratching away at oblivion until, at last, the earth bleeds silver. And then he falls. He crashes. Breaks — gasps, sucking at life through a marrow of dusty air. So he must crawl, his shimmering prize tucked safe in the folds of a well-worn shirt. For miles he must slither, arms heaving, shattered leg drudging behind him, weighting him toward that soulless pit.

Only after Daniel Plainview has etched his name in ink; only after he’s traded that silver nugget for his just due, is he deemed worthy to be seen an oilman. So when he finally speaks, the words of an oilman coat us in their slippery sheen, like thick quicksand bathing its prey in false warmth moments before the blackness settles.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have traveled over half our state to be here tonight…” His sermon seeps from him like the smooth, black blood it promises its captivated listeners. Three wells producing. $5,000 a week. And with that malice in Plainview’s voice — the way it purrs in its dignified reprieves, wringing our ears in manners no normal human being’s ever could — Paul Thomas Anderson uncoils the tension bookending this masterpiece: a version of the tautness, albeit altered, that stabs through his entire filmography.

Hearing Plainview talk, embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in perhaps the most well-realized performance by any actor or actress living today, is akin to sitting in silence, humming along as a symphony orchestra scores the labored pause before some ruinous explosion. However unnerving the wait may be, Anderson keeps us nailed to our seats in anticipation of his next tidal surge, letting conversations play out for extended turns as similar, even identical phrases bleed from one act to the next.

We pick up morsels of these phrases — Plainview’s pitch to landowners, also our first bit of written dialogue in the entire film — in the significant intervals preceding every chapter, framing the shifts in tone. Ladies and gentleman, I am an oilman. I have numerous concerns spread out across this state. I have many wells flowing at many thousand barrels a day...: The words themselves become a litmus test for the protagonist, dabbed at by Day-Lewis to oscillate between acerbic and neutral, conniving and sarcastic while using a master actor’s instincts in adding the necessary shades of seductive intensity.

This is a technique which aids in giving “Blood” the grand yet deceptively simple appearance critics marveled at seven years ago — a pared down quality that, at the time of its release, was characterized by many in vaguely caricatured terms including “formalistic,” “detached,” “cold.” The implication being that Anderson — an auteur with a penchant for throwing large ensemble casts, linked plots and a general sense of freneticism at his audience — was finally soothing his foot off the gas; finally trading in those trademark, impeccable camera jumps that leapt from story to story for a more static palette.

Put simply, all these statements are true. Many tendencies which populate the writer-director’s earlier work and give it that classic P.T. Anderson feel aren’t immediately visible in “Blood.” Gone are the extended steadicam tracking shots, so painstakingly engineered; the single-focal-point frames, guiding us through those feats of unrelenting forward motion. And without those watermarks, the claim that this isn’t the same Anderson behind the curtains — the one who created seamless transitions with the supplest of visual slights, who knotted together the richest storylines, however marginally twined — can be an easy one.

But what makes Anderson Anderson is tension, and though the way he conveys it has changed in his 20-year career, it’s there. More nuanced, more intricate, though very much still drawing breath.

In a too-convenient generalization, the filmmaker’s earliest work can be described as cinema that bridges a gap between incoherence and coherence. The myriad narratives, chalk-full of volatile, immediately endearing punchlines and characters, may never really lock hands but for a brief lull after the climax, their fingers brush.

Through sheer repetition, Anderson carves anxiety into the preceding build-up. In “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” this homogeneity gives both films an almost symbiotic feel. One, it can be claimed, is merely an extension of the other — an idea only further compounded by a style of storytelling so similar, so consistent, its traces are evident even in the way Anderson blocks his camera movements: slowly zoom in to focus on one story, and just as the cliffhanger or gag arrives, pan quickly right into the next.

Anderson has been using this technique since he was 23 years old. In “Cigarettes & Coffee,” the first short film that got him considerable attention, and also his first Philip Baker Hall collaboration, he lets three stories — all connected via a single $20 bill — play out within a 30-foot radius, in the confines of a roadside diner. Three minutes in, the camera tracks left, shoved aside to a new set of characters just as the words “So, what is it, over cigarettes and coffee here in the middle of the desert, along this highway, in this place. What is it that you want to tell me?” are uttered by Hall. The entire story is never fleshed out. Neither are any of the characters’ real intentions.

But we’re piqued the second that frame wheels left, and from there, all Anderson needs to do is let the loose strands, extending from each piece of cryptic dialogue, clamp on. Let the dominoes fall.

Good storytelling persists in its ability to keep target audiences clinging for the next page. This is something Anderson — who started writing “Magnolia,” widely considered his magnum opus, in the midst of the critical feeding frenzy surrounding “Boogie Nights” — clearly understands. Yet, what sets “Boogie Nights” apart from its longer, denser cousin is that there’s nothing anxious about the filmmaking. The characters are introduced in the first act. We learn more about them as we transition into the second. And in the meantime, they get closer, their paths naturally cohere, as do their lives.

Then when the inevitable split comes, caked in cocaine and bouncing to the tune of ’80s disco, Anderson’s jumps feel more jarring. It’s that tension at work. Dominoes tumbling in slow-mo exaggeration — the ebb and rise of seeing all those personalities pressed together, ripped apart, then unceremoniously left to hang in the wind, weather the storm alone.

The same isn’t true of “Magnolia,” which despite rich writing and clear storytelling, feels rushed, bloated in its treatment of an unending parade of characters.

The film never seems to escape its predecessor’s influence, becoming Anderson’s way of saying “I can do a bigger version of ‘Boogie Nights.’ Just watch me.” Frustratingly, the script only allows for its core cast to cross paths after the three-hour runtime has ticked away. Though it builds in emotional swells up to that fateful tipping point, the tension remains cordoned off in isolated corners, as if we’re watching five different P.T. Anderson pictures play out at once.

Then the storm hits. Frogs rain from the sky — quite literally, frogs hail down from the heavens onto an unsuspecting, rain-soaked Los Angeles. And the release — fantastical, spewed in amphibian guts — is the closest filmmaking can come to “cathartic.” How pretentious, egotistical, self-absorbed can this man be that this is the way he chooses to finally tie those disparate tales? Though does it really matter? Because the result is beautiful, madly transcendent cinema.

In one possible interpretation, “Magnolia” ’s final minutes can be seen as Anderson’s send-off, a delayed middle-finger to ensemble moviemaking. His next three features follow one, maybe two characters. They’re quieter, more reflective than energetic. They don’t have frogs.

And yet, shades of that reminiscent tension still pervade “The Master” — from the way Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell stalks around in his cage to how Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd tries to wrestle him within his grasp. There’s a scene in the film in which Quell completes a “processing exercise” for his master. He walks between two opposite ends of a hallway. A window represents freedom, a wall the cult-like organization that threatens to yank it away.

Anderson lets the sequence play out in relative stillness. Phoenix, eyes closed, does laps between wall and window for hours, until his animalism all but bubbles on the surface. He savagely punches the wall, laughs before veering himself back into control. It itsn’t the zoom-in, pan-right we saw in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” though the effect is the same, if presented in a more elegant context.

“There Will Be Blood” revels in this elegance. It is an oily smooth-rendition of Daniel Plainview’s narcissism, presented in perfect John Huston elocution, coupled with Paul Thomas Anderson’s penchant for weaving tension. Daniel Day-Lewis’s voice typifies the taut arc of his career. It hits you with casual urgency. Ladies and gentlemen, I have traveled over half our state to be here tonight It teeters on self-praise. Three wells producing, $5,000 a week. And then it establishes itself. So, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll agree with me when I say I’m an oilman Then it waits for your response. And just as you ready yourself, just as you let your guard down, it lies.

Akshay Seth can be reached at akse@umich.edu and @NotAkshaySeth on Twitter