Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Boogie Nights

Birds of a feather

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Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage

A while back, for the book Inventory by The A.V. Club, the director Paul Thomas Anderson shared his list of “Two movies that without fail or question will make me stop dead in my tracks and watch them all the way to the very end, no matter what else is happening or needs to get done.” The films were The Birdcage and The Shining. His second choice probably won’t raise many eyebrows—The Shining‘s fingerprints are all over his work, particularly There Will Be Blood—but the first one might give us pause. Yet when I watched it over the weekend, I had no trouble seeing why Anderson finds it so appealing. There’s the astonishing opening shot, for instance, which zooms across the waters of South Beach and continues in an unbroken movement into the club where Robin Williams is greeting patrons and overseeing his floor show of drag queens. Among other things, it’s impossible not to see it as an influence on the opening tracking shot of Boogie Nights, which would come out the following year. (The cinematographer here, incidentally, was Emmanuel Lubezki, who would go on to do spectacular work for the likes of Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón and win an Oscar for his indispensable contributions to Gravity.)

After almost twenty years, it’s fair to say that The Birdcage holds up as an unexpectedly rich, sophisticated slice of filmmaking. Like many of Anderson’s own films, it has a deep bench of supporting players anchored by a generous lead performance: I felt like watching it primarily as a reminder of how good Robin Williams could be with the right direction and material, and what stands out the most is his willingness to dial down his natural showiness to highlight the more flamboyant performances taking place on all sides. He’s essentially playing the straight man—well, sort of—to Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, but his restrained energy and intelligence give all the actors around him an additional kick. Not surprisingly, for a movie directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Elaine May, it’s often subversively clever, like a Woody Allen film disguised as a studio crowdpleaser. Lane’s very first line is a reference to The Red Shoes, and the film is packed with nods to gay culture, like the way Lane’s show begins with the opening notes of “The Man Who Got Away,” a la Judy at Carnegie Hall, that probably went over the heads of much of its audience. But I don’t think even I would have watched it nearly as attentively or affectionately without the clue from Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson

And Anderson clearly knew what he was doing. Whenever you’re asked to provide a list of your favorite movies or other works of art, there are several competing impulses at play: you’re torn between providing a list of major milestones, the films that speak to you personally, or simply the ones that you enjoy the most. There’s also an awareness that a surprising choice can be notable in its own right. After composing his final list for the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies of all time, Roger Ebert wrote:

Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose [The Tree of Life] is my propaganda title.

Whether or not Anderson was thinking explicitly in these terms, there’s no question in my mind that he listed The Birdcage so prominently as a way of highlighting it in the reader’s mind. This is a great movie, he seems to be saying, that you may not have sufficiently appreciated, and listing it here without comment does more to lock it in the memory than any number of words of critical analysis.

That’s the real pleasure—and value—of lists like this, which otherwise can start to seem like pointless parlor games. We don’t learn much from the debates over whether Vertigo really deserves to be ranked above Citizen Kane, but it can be enlightening to discover that Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films include titles like “The Bad News Bears,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Rolling Thunder,” and “Pretty Maids All in a Row.” (Going through the Sight and Sound lists of great directors is like a miniature education in itself: after seeing that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola named Andrej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds in their top ten, there’s no way that I can’t not see this movie.) Once we’ve worked our way through the established canon, as determined by a sober critical consensus, the next step ought to be seeking out the movies that people we admire have singled out for love, especially when they take us down unexplored byways. After watching one movie through Anderson’s eyes, I wish he’d tossed out a few more titles, but maybe it’s best that he left us with those two. And the next time The Birdcage comes up on television, it’ll stop me dead in my tracks.

Lessons from The Master

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I met Paul Thomas Anderson once. It was years ago, in early 2000, when he came to Harvard to discuss Magnolia, which at that point had just entered wide release. At the time, I was a college sophomore working as a film critic for an online startup, and I managed to secure a private interview for after the presentation. Needless to say, I was excited: with the authority derived from a reviewing gig that paid fifty dollars a story, I’d already declared Anderson “the most extravagantly talented director of his generation.” At the auditorium at the Carpenter Center, I watched Magnolia for the second time—I’d go on to see it a total of three times on the big screen—and waited afterward while Anderson took questions from the audience. Standing next to me at the edge of the room was a young, very attractive girl I was positive I knew from somewhere, possibly from one of my classes. I was trying to remember where we’d met, and was on the verge of going up to say hello, when Anderson ended his talk, came over, and gave her a kiss. (It was Fiona Apple.)

Afterward, Anderson and I sat down and chatted for about twenty minutes. For various reasons, the interview was never published, but I still have the original microcassette recording of our conversation somewhere, although I’ve never listened to it since—I have a feeling that I’d be slightly mortified by my own performance. But Anderson was extremely generous with me, and looking back, I can see why: I was only nineteen years old, and Anderson, incredibly, was less than thirty. He was every much as patient and encouraging as I’d hope to be to a college kid under similar circumstances, and I left the interview feeling as if I’d been privileged to hang out with the closest thing I’d ever find to the young Orson Welles. And while I remember only bits and pieces of our conversation, one thing he said earlier that evening stood out: in response to a question from the crowd, he said that he admired Steven Spielberg, and would love to make a blockbuster movie one day that would reach a huge popular audience.

I’ve thought back to that comment more than once over the last twelve years, and after seeing his remarkable new movie The Master, it’s been on my mind a lot. Anderson, clearly, has not taken the Spielbergian route: ever since Punch-Drunk Love, his work has retreated all the more deeply into interiority, introspection, and strangeness. (The same year as Magnolia, I’d see another movie that impressed me just as much, never guessing that its director would go on to achieve Anderson’s dream of making complex, technically ambitious movies on a Spielbergian scale. It was Memento.) The Master may not be his most daunting film, but it’s a work that makes enormous demands of its viewers, although it offers equally considerable rewards: it’s saturated with craft and atmosphere, filled with wholly convincing period detail, and features one of the best performances in any recent American movie. In fact, for all his ingenuity and resourcefulness, Anderson’s smartest choice may have come right at the beginning, with the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, whose recent travails have transformed him into an eloquent, expressive, ravaged actor. It’s a very good movie that I’m going to revisit again and again.

Yet when I think back to his earlier work, and especially the popular ambitions that he once expressed, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. The Master is a deeply weird movie, and it’s likely to alienate many of its viewers, but it’s also weird in more or less the way I expected, with none of the startling surprises of There Will Be Blood. (Its portrait of the cult led by Philip Seymour Hoffman is also slightly unfocused: the rest of the movie is so startlingly specific that it leaves us wanting more information about how this movement really works.) There are moments when the film seems on the verge of breaking out into something larger, but except for a pair of short scenes with Hoffman and Amy Adams, it sticks resolutely to Phoenix’s skewed, peculiar point of view. On its own merits, this works: The Master is manifestly the movie that Anderson wanted to make. But I still miss the teeming, sometimes immature, but always exhilarating variety of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. As I’ve recently begun to understand, these were the films of a young man, and what Anderson is doing now is valuable and important. This may no longer be a world in which his movies can reach a Spielbergian audience. But that’s the world in which I’d like to live.

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2012 at 9:45 am

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