Back in the late '90s, the big knock on Paul Thomas Anderson was he was too immature; too showy, too in love with style to be a truly great filmmaker. Now that he's largely abandoned the swaggering aesthetics that propelled his early work, he's starting to get the opposite complaint: he's gotten too mature, too buttoned up, too bogged down in self-importance. The man is damned if he does (use split-screens) and damned if he doesn't (introduce all of his characters in three-minute-long takes).
The source of the complaint, in this case, is Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly, who spends nearly 3,000 words explaining why and how he "fell out of love" with Anderson's work. He ranks the first time he saw "Boogie Nights" as the single greatest moviegoing experience of his tenure at EW. But nothing Anderson's made since has lived up to that film's promise in his eyes. And now it's like an Air Supply song between the two of them:
"'Boogie Nights' was such an act of filmmaking bravura that after that movie, I wanted, and expected, great things from Paul Thomas Anderson... Yet I’ve gone in the opposite direction on Anderson. I think that there is brilliance in every one of his films, and I like different things about all of them. But I can’t say that I love any of them. I can’t escape the feeling that something has gone wrong in his work, and while there is now a cult for Paul Thomas Anderson, and a great many fans who just about think he’s God, the crucial problem, for me, is that one of the people who now thinks Paul Thomas Anderson is God is Paul Thomas Anderson. His films have acquired an Olympian sense of their own importance. They are Major Statements, but partly for that reason, they are no longer -- at least to me -- great movies."
We could debate whether or not Anderson is trying to make Major Statements instead of films, preferably while glaring at each other without blinking, until we are teary-eyed and blue in the face. Gleiberman's opinion is his own and no amount of PTA fans disagreeing with him is going to change that. Instead, I'll just make one small point.
"Boogie Nights" is my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film as well, although I do also love everything he's done since, up to and including "The Master." But I read the way Gleiberman describes his affection for "Boogie Nights" -- watching it over and over during its theatrical run, getting an advance copy of the VHS from New Line, becoming "addicted" to it, in his words -- and I wonder: could any movie made in its wake live up to that?
Screenings like the one Gleiberman had when he saw "Boogie Nights" for the first time at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival are intoxicating -- and perception altering. I had a similarly transcendent experience the first time I saw Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness." I'd never seen it before when I was cajoled into booking the film as a midnight movie on my college campus; I watched it for the first time when we screened it in front of a packed theater full of rowdy, drunken fans. They cheered and screamed and recited the lines along with Bruce Campbell. I was totally blindsided. This was something I'd never witnessed --film as spectator sport -- and it was incredibly exciting.
It was also a once in a lifetime event. As great as it was, that screening of "Army of Darkness" wouldn't have been half as memorable if I'd seen the movie before. Even if I could travel back in time now (perhaps with the assistance of a book of unholy evil) and rewatch the movie in the same auditorium with the same crowd, it still wouldn't make the same impression on me, because this time I'd know what was coming.
"Boogie Nights" is a magnificent film. It's aged marvelously in the fifteen years since it was released. Whether Anderson himself has gotten better or worse is arguable -- but there's no question his movies are received very differently now than they were back then. That feeling of "Where did this guy come from?" is long gone. Instead of surprise, there are expectations; instead of "This is nothing like anything I've seen!" there's "This is nothing like 'Boogie Nights.'" Complaining that Anderson hasn't made anything as good since is a little like griping that Orson Welles never made anything as good as "Citizen Kane." You can't fall in love at first sight twice.
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