Something Mild

The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson has various things in common with his work of the past fifteen years, an unignorable run started by There Will Be Blood (2007) and continued with The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and Phantom Thread (2017). Like its predecessors, Licorice Pizza takes place at a carefully presented historical moment (Southern California in 1973), and derives key details from an existing source, the early life of the producer Gary Goetzman, here given the surname Valentine. Like Anderson’s other recent protagonists, Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is male and largely defined by his professional activities, in this case as a teenage entrepreneur, and his central relationship, with the twenty-five-year old Alana (Alana Haim), has elements of the collaboration. Other areas of overlap include a running-time that exceeds two hours, and an original score by the composer and Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood used alongside familiar music: McCartney’s ‘Let Me Roll It’, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ Yet for all the continuities, the recourse to dependable methods and motifs, what defines the new film – and makes it such a monumentally frustrating experience – are properties not previously evident in Anderson’s body of work: obstinate optimism, conceptual muddiness, and a near-total lack of stakes.

It’s clear enough what Anderson is inviting us to care about. In the first scene, Gary spots Alana at his high school, where she is assisting a yearbook photographer. First he takes her for dinner at his favourite local restaurant, then he enlists her as his chaperone for a trip to New York, where he is performing a skit on a talk show – as things turn out, his last hurrah as a child actor. Back in Los Angeles, specifically the San Fernando Valley, Gary, who loves a scheme, and Alana, whose life is going nowhere, start a business selling water beds, while their downtime is devoted to activities that make the other feel either jealous or cared-for.

Anderson is familiar with the ways of pairs – the oscillations between caginess and receptive warmth, hostility and fondness, enmeshment and estrangement. His short, Cigarettes and Coffee (1993), screened at Sundance when he was twenty-three, portrays both of the kinds of duo to which he has repeatedly returned: in a roadside Nevada cafe, a young man seeks the advice of an older acquaintance, while a few tables over, lovestruck newlyweds bicker. Sometimes Anderson’s films are presented almost baldly as exercises in double portraiture, as with The Master, in which a wayward seaman falls in with a cult leader, and Phantom Thread, about the relationship between a dressmaker and his latest muse. But even when he adopts the outward form of the ensemble or the epic, his chamber-piece proclivities still tend to win out. The ‘Goodbye 70s… Hello 80s’ party sequence that marks the turning-point in Boogie Nights (1997) comprises, among other two-handed scenarios, a chance encounter that ends in marriage, a summit about the future of the porn industry, an abortive come-on, and a man killing his wife and then himself. Anderson’s next film, the vast Valley snapshot, Magnolia (1999), is engaged exclusively with one-to-one dynamics – marital, parent-child, employee-boss, romantic, legal, medical.

Even There Will Be Blood, a feverish depiction of the California oil industry, is really a battle-of-wits-in-variations, with supporting characters taking turns to be bested or rejected by the burgeoning magnate Daniel Plainview. During the thirty-minute passage concerned with the sudden appearance of a man claiming to be his ‘brother from another mother’, Daniel doesn’t cross paths a single time with his otherwise constant antagonist, the preacher Eli, his son is packed off to boarding school, and his sidekick sidelined. In Anderson’s work, three rarely gets a chance to be a crowd. Look past the running-times and period trappings, the yawning vistas and snaking cast lists, and the standout American director of our times is almost exclusively interested in what happens when two people go head-to-head across the space of a desk or dining table.

It’s usually a lop-sided affair, with one key-term recurring. In the first scene of Anderson’s first film, the gambling drama Hard Eight (1996), the drifter John mocks the suspiciously generous Sydney as ‘Mr Helpful’. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood both end with a struggling youngish man turning up at a large house, and telling its ageing male owner, ‘I need help’, with diverging consequences (a hug; a bowling-pin to the skull). The same syllable occurs many times in Magnolia, most prominently in the stories of the cop Jim and the nurse Phil, who says at one point ‘this is the scene of the movie where you help me out’, and with Inherent Vice, Anderson adapted the only Thomas Pynchon novel in which that concept plays a significant role, starting on the very first page. Anderson’s most recent film, Phantom Thread, marked a return to the Hard Eight formula, favour-giving as offered, even enforced, with Alma telling Reynolds that she wants him ‘flat on your back, tender, helpless, open, with only me to help.’

Help with what exactly? The immediate context is often practical – money, a favour. But the broader purpose is to locate a better way of getting by. Alma, for example, believes that Reynolds is refusing to accept, let alone embrace, his vulnerable true nature – a tendency towards repression avidly abetted by the other woman in his life, his stern-faced sister Cyril, whose promise to leave Reynolds ‘on the floor’ is altogether more aggressive in tone. Jim, the Valley cop who likes to ‘help people’, assures the erratic Claudia that she deserves more – and is capable of more – than her prevailing routine of cocaine, hook-ups, and self-censure. Without such interventions, left to their own vices, Anderson’s characters derive their feeling of relief, and perhaps a sense of purpose, not just from quick fixes and cathartic outbursts, but from controlling their environments and silencing dissent, from moments of victory and phallic domination – literally, as with Eddie in Boogie Nights, who wins an industry prize for Best Cock, or symbolically, in the case of Daniel Plainview’s ‘drilling’.

Then there are the many acts of bragging, the assertion of status or even existence: ‘I am a star’, ‘I am an oil man’, ‘I am strong’, ‘My name is quiz kid Donnie Smith from the TV’, ‘We. Are. Men’. What seems to need allaying is the threat of futility or inadequacy, the possibility of being ‘stupid’, ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘an idiot’, ‘a loser’, becoming ‘a laughingstock’ or suffering ‘a crying spell’. Some of Anderson’s characters remain trapped in a cycle, chained to their worst impulses, and confront the end credits with defences intact. But in the stories with apparently happy endings, there’s a willingness to abandon current compensations and find a different way to mitigate a basic anxiety – to do something to help that might actually help.

Anderson’s most gifted contemporary, Noah Baumbach – who is a year older, and made his debut a year earlier – has displayed a similar concern with lost and suffering figures and the bonds they struggle to forge, but Anderson is working more consciously in a tradition. He has spoken with rapture of numerous double-act films, notably F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which bears the subtitle ‘A Song of Two Humans’, and Jonathan Demme’s postmodern screwball romance Something Wild. Perhaps the closest he has to a precursor is Bernardo Bertolucci, a specialist in tales of contretemps, including an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, as well as a film concerned, like Phantom Thread, with an obsessed creative Englishman, living in a large empty house, who is liberated by a foreign employee-cum-muse (Besieged), and another, Me and You, about the alliance between a spotty, strong-willed fifteen-year-old and a troubled woman in her mid-twenties which makes prominent use of Bowie in his science-fiction mode (in that case, ‘Space Oddity’).

Anderson has never cited Bertolucci’s example, though it’s hard to watch the seduction guru Frank berating his comatose estranged father in Magnolia, or hear Lancaster in The Master use ‘pig fuck’ as a curse, without recalling Paul’s speech to his dead wife towards the end of Last Tango in Paris. Whatever the case, the true kinship between these writer-directors – other than a liking for method actors and a precocious start that gave way to substantial achievement – is a shared strength, their ability to exploit psychological terrain (more overtly Freudian in Bertolucci’s case) as a route to the analytic and the sensual, a way of delivering a lesson that is also an experience. Anderson, for his part, has displayed increasing discomfort with one half of the equation, and Licorice Pizza suggests how far he is willing to go in response. His desire to get closer to his characters, to forgo distance in favour of immersion, results here in something close to a rejection of insight and even meaning. (It seems telling that the title, borrowed from a chain of record shops, possesses no claim to relevance.)

It’s the result of a conscious process, an act of serial adjustment that has now reached a point of over-correction. In his early work, from Cigarettes and Coffee to Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Anderson used a range of devices to impose his perspective on the material. His characters said silly things while his narrative techniques nudged us to notice delusion or myopia, by presenting an image at odds with a voiceover description or through the use of the Robert Altman jigsaw framework, that grants the viewer a version of omniscience. Anderson wanted to get his message across, and one obvious advantage of the ironic method is legibility of attitude. Magnolia, for example, portrays two deficient fathers with terminal cancer, is bookended with a narrator reflecting on ‘coincidence and chance’, and uses Aimee Mann songs with lyrics that provide comment on the action: ‘can you save me?’, ‘it’s not going to stop / ’til you wise up’.

The oddball romance, Punch-Drunk Love, represented a partial reaction – though half the length of its predecessor, it was still a winky affair (‘he needs me, he needs me, he needs me’, Shelley Duvall sings on the soundtrack). But since There Will Be Blood, Anderson has tended towards an altogether stricter style. Action is presented from two perspectives (at most). Music is used to connote a period of time or enhance the emotional atmosphere. Inter-titles are kept to a minimum. The fourth wall is respected. In Phantom Thread, Anderson steers the audience with organic patterns of detail (the atmosphere at meal-times, the recurrence of dairy products) and moments of pointed dialogue, such as Reynolds’s account of his childhood. Otherwise, the vehicle of expression is the showdown – Reynolds accusing Alma of oppression, Cyril advising him that his moaning hurts her ears.

Licorice Pizza, by contrast, offers neither an overarching framework nor much in the way of local clarity. While Gary and Alana amuse each other, and Anderson appears convinced that something powerful exists between them, there is no clue as to what. The forms of help exchanged are hardly meaningful. His absent father is never discussed, nor is her fractious home life. Gary’s occasional advice to Alana derives narrowly from prior experience – with casting directors, for example, when she dabbles in acting. And it’s Alana who recognises the implications of the OPEC crisis for a business reliant on rubber, though again this is not reflective of her personality, merely the fact she’s an adult. The episodes of verbal combat are difficult to track, with the air of a word-association game and very little paraphrasable substance. So we are asked to make do without the one thing that has underpinned all of Anderson’s previous work – a definable dynamic.

Anderson has talked with awe about how, in Something Wild, Demme showed ‘how loose you could be with the rulebook’. But that is to emphasise the film’s impudent tone and narrative surprises at the expense of its rigorous character-drawing, evident right until the final shot, which reveals that the apparently reformed rebel Audrey has parked her car beside a fire hydrant. It’s a far cry from the anything-goes aesthetic of Licorice Pizza, where causeless chronology rules, details are introduced then abandoned, and the sense prevails of a story that begins afresh with almost every scene and might conceivably go on for ever.

In the one scene where Anderson seems to place a hand on the tiller, Alana sits dejected on a kerb. Gary is making penis jokes with his friends to her right, while to her left their latest customer, the Hollywood hairdresser and playboy Jon Peters, is trying to pick up a couple of women out for an early-morning game of tennis. Behind her, in an office window, is a poster for the local politician Joel Wachs – a passionate progressive and, as it turns out, gay. She resolves to volunteer for his campaign for city council. But even here, the things Alana is spurning – adolescent horseplay, middle-aged predation – have played little role in her fate. And though Alana’s new career is the closest the film offers to what Anderson calls a ‘gear shift’, referring to the mid-point swerve in Something Wild from joy to peril, it yields neither a change in mood, nor any increase in ethical seriousness.

Wachs may have designs on reforming L.A. land use, but Licorice Pizza fails to extend the surprisingly trenchant, committed, and fine-grained critique delivered in There Will Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice, which draw on the story of L. Ron Hubbard, and the work of two political novelists, Upton Sinclair and Thomas Pynchon, to scrutinise the exertion of American power at home at various points between 1898 and 1969. Almost as soon as Alana enters the Wachs headquarters, she calls on the endlessly adaptable Gary to shoot promotional videos, and City Council corruption becomes another opportunity for nostalgic scene-setting and a backdrop to yet more bickering.

The danger with Anderson’s initial approach was a tendency to the traits – bombast, bravado – which he liked to skewer in his characters. His motto seemed to be, ‘I am a major film-maker’. There Will Be Blood realised that statement by legitimate means, and he found the balance he was seeking in the first hour of The Master, and for long stretches of Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. It seems that at this point he would rather do too little than too much. He recently praised the way that Billy Wilder didn’t feel the need to ‘put a hat on top of a hat’. But Licorice Pizza serves up a bewildering spectacle – the director of the six-hatted breakthrough Boogie Nights and twelve-hatted follow-up Magnolia aspiring to a hat-less state, an authorial reticence that borders on the abstinent. (The extremity of the shift recalls the claim, in Boogie Nights, that Eddie ‘can fuck hard or he can fuck really gently’.)

For all its surface busyness, Licorice Pizza is marked by the things it doesn’t provide, in terms of either drama and technique – voiceover, flashback, revelatory dialogue, explanatory cross-cutting, enriching context, escalating discord. Gary’s early declaration, ‘I’m a showman’, is basically right, and his occasional out-of-his-depth moments, or tendency to be ‘braggy’, reflect adolescent gaucheness, not delusional fantasy. When Alana calls him ‘idiot’ in the film’s final seconds, it isn’t a tool of emasculation but a term of endearment. This is the first film that Anderson has made in which a male character doesn’t cry. It’s also the first that contains smiling in both the first and last scene (the smile that clinches Magnolia is especially hard-earned). And though it isn’t quite grins all the way, the emotional range is starkly narrow, leaving an aftertaste that’s not so much licorice as supermarket mozzarella.

It seems odd that the film is so taken with its creaseless hero when Alana is clearly the more fruitful creation, not just in her impulsive behaviour and pained uncertainty and listless lifestyle, but the familiar pathos of her paper-thin assertions: ‘I have integrity’, ‘I’m a politician’, ‘I’m cooler than you’. There’s a similar, and similarly tantalising, glimpse of Anderson’s strengths, the power to illuminate and elate, to fuse the incisive with the energetic, in the sequence devoted to the whim-driven motormouth Jon Peters, played with almost unhinged flair by Bradley Cooper, an actor in the tradition of ragged intensity of earlier Anderson collaborators Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Entitled, vain, and openly aggressive, Peters is a mix of Frank, the agonised philanderer in Magnolia, and the wild-eyed drug dealer who pops up at the end of Boogie Nights. ‘Do you know who I am?’ Peters asks Gary, and then, after he receives the answer he is looking for, ploughs on: ‘Do you know who my girlfriend is?’ (Barbra Streisand.) For a brief passage, Licorice Pizza sparks into life, illustrating and at the same time embodying a lesson taught by all of Anderson’s previous films. We can tame our wildest excesses, or at least reach some form of accommodation, but we can never escape who we are.

Read on: Peter Wollen, ‘Speed and the Cinema’, NLR 16.