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The Theme That Connects All of Paul Thomas Anderson's Movies

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by Matt Singer
September 11, 2012 1:18 PM
2 Comments
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"Magnolia."

In a few hours, I'll finally see Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." As the flood of Anderson-centric content on the site (three posts in just over 24 hours) might suggest, I am mildly excited. And by mildly, I mean feverishly. And by excited, I mean frantic.

I've been dealing with the anticipation the only way I know how: by reworking my way through Anderson's filmography. Revisiting these movies has been more than entertaining; it's been illuminating. I'm seeing stuff I hadn't seen before, like the subtext of the scene that inspired yesterday's piece tying Jack Horner's love of film to Anderson's decision to shoot "The Master" in 70mm. Like the theme that I'm just realizing appears in all of his work.

PTA's movies share certain stylistic similarities, and even a few thematic concerns (like surrogate fathers finding and teaching, but eventually failing and losing adopted sons). But something else connects his films, from the sprawling epics of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" to the intimate character studies of "Hard Eight" and "Punch-Drunk Love." That something is salesmanship.

Every Anderson film includes at least one sales pitch. Most feature several. The very first scene of his first movie, "Hard Eight," opens with a perfect example: a man named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) tries to convince someone he meets at a roadside diner (John C. Reilly) to join him for a trip to Las Vegas.

Sydney gets Reilly's John to come with him, but most Anderson salesmen are significantly less successful. Consider "Boogie Nights"' Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who is perhaps the world's worst stereo dealer.

Buck is a fairly terrible employee, and he doesn't seem to know much about stereo equipment. He tries to get a loan in order to open his own store, but the bank turns him down. In a fortuitous turn of events -- the sort of strange thing that happens all the time, at least in Paul Thomas Anderson movies -- Buck is the only surviving witness to a donut shop robbery, and he uses the dead thief's bloody bag of cash to start Buck's Super Cool Stereo Store, which is seen in this fake television commercial from the conclusion of "Boogie Nights."

Fake commercials -- filled with over-the-top, direct address salesmanship -- seem to be of particular interest to Anderson. In addition to Buck's Super Cool Stereo Store, there's also Frank T.J. Mackey's "Seduce & Destroy" dating advice infomercial from "Magnolia"...

...and this hilarious "Mattress Man" commercial featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, which was deleted from "Punch-Drunk Love" but can be found on the film's DVD.

"Punch-Drunk Love"'s hero, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) also works as a salesman, running his own novelty toilet plunger business. Early in the film -- in a scene that's sadly not available online -- Barry attempts to demonstrate his new line of plungers' unbreakable handles for some prospective buyers and promptly shatters one against a countertop. Barry would get along well with Buck Swope.

"There Will Be Blood"'s story of oil baron Daniel Plainview -- the predatory predecessor to Hoffman's Dean Trumbell -- takes place prior to the invention of television, but not salesmanship. Many of its most memorable scenes are sales pitches: Plainview to a group of landowners he wants to work with ("So, ladies and gentlemen... if I say I'm an oil man you will agree. You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, you can lose it all if you're not careful."); Eli begging Plainview to drill for oil on his land long after he's already done it in secret ("If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!"). In Anderson's films, life is a series of negotiations and transactions.

"The Master" is described in one synopsis as the story of "a charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman)" who "launches a faith-based organization and taps a young drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) as his right-hand man." All religion involves salesmanship, especially the act of starting a new one and building its membership. So, too, does filmmaking. Movies must be marketed, with posters and trailers and commercials. Guess who made "The Master"'s, according to The Village VoicePaul Thomas Anderson, filmmaker and salesman.

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2 Comments

  • Alexander Huls | September 12, 2012 11:40 AMReply

    I wonder if one can also extend the idea of salesmanship a little further to the notion of performance. I say that because a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson movies are about individuals performing. I don't just mean performing in order to sell something necessarily. There seems to be this sense of performing in order to represent a different version of oneself, or taking on a personality/argument in order to achieve a desired result. A lot of PTA characters struggle with the divide between who they really are, who they think they have to be/who they pretend to be. It's not performance in the sense of acting, but you could call it an existential performance of sorts.

  • Brian Z | September 11, 2012 3:59 PMReply

    Thanks for the piece Matt. It's kind of obvious now that you mention it the running theme, but damn if I didn't notice it myself.

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