Monday, November 5, 2012

"What are all these fates, driven on pell-mell?"

The following entry was going to be my contribution to Jeremy Richey's outstanding Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon at the Moon in the Gutter site...two years ago. Unfortunately, personal obligations, ridiculous computer problems, and a last-minute change of my essay's focus all conspired to make me miss my window to join in. However, in light of the excitement and extraordinary reviews generated by his first film in five years, two retrospectives of his previous films in Los Angeles within the last seven weeks, his ranking as the #1 working director in movies today by both The Guardian and my best friend Chris Price, and the simple fact that I'm hard pressed to resist an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite directors, I'm pulling this out of mothballs. Because if directors are our rock stars now, a concept originating from the '60's French publication Cahiers du Cinema and their staff of critics (soon-to-themselves-turn-directors) notions of auteur theory, then as sure as shootin' Anderson has a permanent position on my cinematic jukebox. An appropriate metaphor especially, since both the cult '60's era music videos machine pioneered by the French, and the special interstitials designed for his DVD release of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, both share the name "Scopitones." He has not yet received his own "Cinemetal" t-shirt that the other rawk directors like Scorsese, Herzog, and Jodorowsky have, but that's easily rectifiable:

Ersatz Cinemetal logo created by Kate Willaert, used with permission.

However, in the parade of names, mentors, and influences that fans and scholars tend to cite when discussing Anderson's work, there is one that has never been mentioned, not even by Anderson himself in the few interviews he has granted. As such, one would argue that said person doesn't hold sway in the manner that, say, Robert Altman provided a template for juggling multiple storylines, or that Chayefsky provided a template for punchy dialogue for his films. But as I revisited MAGNOLIA recently, to analyze a crucial plot thread for the essay I was going to write but abandoned, I began to seriously see evidence of a definite, if unconscious, other force of inspiration. And ironically, as in my previous paragraph, it's courtesy of the French.

Claude Lelouch is not a name mentioned much at all in cinematic circles nowadays, let alone offered as comparison to anyone with the hot-button interest that Anderson commands. The few people that even recognize the name would likely write him off as a quaint relic of another era - that guy who made that '60's romance movie with the theme song that could now be used for black ops torture sessions. Indeed, a fair number of his films have not been a priority for me to seek out, both due to the expense involved and what I have perceived as their likely lightweight status. However, Lelouch can lay credit to three very strong, bonafide classic films that may not possess the household familiarity of work by Altman or Scorsese or even Downey Sr. (A Prince), but I insist can be considered, if not directly, then certainly by cultural osmosis, influential to the style of storytelling that Anderson is justly lauded for.

The first of these films is 1974's TOUTE UNE VIE, released in shortened form in the States by Avco Embassy as AND NOW MY LOVE, which, next to his worldwide smash A MAN AND A WOMAN, is easily his most popular film among American moviegoers. It won Best Foreign Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association,  and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1975, against SHAMPOO and AMARCORD, all of them ultimately losing out to DOG DAY AFTERNOON. In much the same way as other not-yet-over-fetishized cult films, mentioning your fandom can admit to you an intriguing and friendly secret club; admirers of AND NOW MY LOVE include prolific screenwriter Scott Alexander, the late critic Gene Siskel, and comedian Fred Armisen, who hosted a rare screening of the film at Los Angeles' CineFamily in 2009.

AND NOW MY LOVE ostensibly promises "a love story that is absolutely timeless" (at least according to one of Embassy's ad campaigns), but that is a bit of a misnomer, in that this movie is obsessed with the passage of time, and said love story consumes mere minutes at the very end of the movie. It opens with B&W, music-scored but otherwise silent footage depicting the turn of the century, with characters who will quickly be gone from the story, and even as it opens up to color and synchronized dialogue, it will be quite a while before we meet the actual protagonists, or fully understand their relationship to the characters we saw at the start. Also, rather than a proper credit listing at the beginning, we will see the names of all the people involved in the production, but in a completely random order that does not designate their role or job description, thus star Marthe Keller is essentially on as equal a footing as the key grip in this sequence. What we are treated to is the history and times, not just of these characters' ancestors, but of the world as well, and how those elements will shape our man and woman, and color them until the fateful moment when they will actually meet.

The original French title, TOUTE UNE VIE, means "a whole lifetime", and as such rather than get details in backstory as we would in a standard romantic film, we're going to watch the legacy and lives of these lovers and derive our drama there. And by the credits' refusal to specify what name did what job, it's essentially saying that much like all the "what's beyond" details that made these people who they are, every person on the crew made this movie what it is, with no one having a higher standing than another. It's a risky maneouvre, to make us sit and wait for what we know is essentially a fait accompli, but it works, as it makes that final payoff all the more exciting. And Lelouch, who put many autobiographical elements into this story, prepared it diligently. The production script was rumored to be over 400 pages, and actors were not allowed to see it in full, receiving only their character's dialogue sides, and often even getting those lines fed while shooting. Again, in light of the film's initial positive reviews, awards recognition, and devoted fandom, Lelouch's gamble paid well. "[The film] is a study on how art of any kind shapes us into who we are, how we use it to create out own reality, and how it helps us understand our place in time," writes recent convert Daniel DiCenso in his review at

That last sentence can also be appropriately applied to Lelouch's even bigger and ballsier 1981 epic LES UNS ET LES AUTRES. Originally shown as a 250 minute 5-episode TV miniseries, it played in most countries in a 184 minute theatrical version, and was briefly released in the U.S. in a slightly shorter 173 minute form under the title BOLERO. Much like it's predecessor AND NOW MY LOVE, it tells a sprawling tale involving the horrors of 20th century warfare and the healing power of art, but instead of building to a meeting of two lovers, it is instead to a convergence of artists from all over the world, progeny of other artists of another time, some successful, some failed, some withstanding more struggles (Its original French title essentially means "these ones and these others"). It also presents its opening credits in an unconventional manner - aside from an opening production credit, title card, and possessory credit for Lelouch, the only text we see is a quote from Willa Cather's O PIONEERS:

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."

That is followed by an opening sequence which ultimately previews what will be the grand finale of the film, an exquisitely choreographed ballet scored to Ravel's immortal composition, while a narrator (Lelouch himself) makes a sort of mission statement, bisected by a roll call of the large multinational cast:

"The people you are about to meet in this film [are here], because their stories are either extraordinary, or very ordinary...All the characters are, or were, real people. This film is dedicated to them." 

The ostensible start of the story is then announced, a dance audition in 1936 Russia, conducted in a long tracking shot almost entirely without expository dialogue, as a performer loses the role she wanted, but gains an admirer whom she will soon marry. When this transitions to an elaborate French music hall show, we are nine minutes into the movie, but the narrator returns to announce the music and choreography credits, and leaves for good to allow another important event to unfold, again without dialogue. It will not be until a good 18 minutes into the movie when we are finally given plot-driving dialogue, oddly enough in English, by James Caan. And from here on, the story goes forward in its ambitious way, often driven more by visual sequences and music rather than with characters speaking expositions, with some actors gaining age over time while others ultimately play multiple roles as parents and their children, until we arrive to the grand climax teased at the beginning.

It is at this point I would like to think that for most fans, some of the parallels are becoming self-evident, but I suppose I should flat out state what the hell the connections are between these movies and PTA's work. For starters, both of the preceding films present stories of children marked for life by the expectations and limitations of their parents, a longtime commonality in the works of Anderson as well, not just in the obvious parallel structure of his equally unconventional epic MAGNOLIA, where his characters are all wounded by bad parenting, but also in the peculiar fatherly bond uniting Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in HARD EIGHT, the ersatz family dynamic of Burt Reynolds and his stable of actors in BOOGIE NIGHTS, the eternally-hazed Adam Sandler breaking free of his dominating sisters and resisting a band of vengeful brothers in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, the eroding shred of conscience that ties Daniel Day Lewis to his son and partner in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and the somewhat dog-and-trainer relationship of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER. A quote comes into play in the three Lelouch films to be covered here - "Buffalo Bill's son couldn't shoot as well as he did" - and its concise understanding of history and family weight is such that it could have just as easily come out of the mouth of an Anderson character.

On a stylistic level, BOLERO's almost wordless first 20 minutes has a kinship with the almost wordless first 20 minutes of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, where we see the turn of fortune that will mold the manners of Daniel Plainview and H.W. Both of the offbeat openings of the Lelouch films strike a prototype for the wonderful prologue to MAGNOLIA, where he spends almost an entire first reel with a dry narrator (magician Ricky Jay) explaining seemingly unrelated strange events from history, the first even in B&W, to prepare us to understand that "these things happen." Much as Lelouch will figure out how to assemble the surviving characters of BOLERO to either directly participate in, or pay passive witness to, the great dance at its climax, while presenting musical interludes in an unconventional manner, Anderson will bring some of his diverse MAGNOLIA characters together, and unite them all through unnatural musical and meteorological means. And Willa Cather's invocation about the circular nature of history in the former has a perfect mirror in the narrator's closing invocation in the latter:

"There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, 'Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.' Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, 'We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.'"

Most intriguingly, MAGNOLIA offers two very potent bits of, if not proof that Anderson is likely a fan of Lelouch's BOLERO, then at least outstanding happenstance that he's waxing his car in Lelouch's garage, both contained within the portentious episode of "WHAT DO KIDS KNOW" in the middle of the film:

The first question asked of the adult contestants is to identify the author of O PIONEERS.

Later, when the New World Harmonica trio plays their variations of three classical composers' arrangements of "Whispering," the second composer, whom Stanley Spector fails to identify, is Ravel.

It is in the humble opinion of this film historian that this is not just "something that happened." This cannot be "one of those things." This, please, cannot be that.

Another most crucial bit of spiritual brotherhood between these two directors is their mutual spirit of daring to create wildly free and untethered film adaptations of classic literature. Over a decade before Anderson took Upton Sinclair's novel of muckraking outrage against the petroleum industry, OIL!, and extracted only a few characters and scenes to create his more intimate but no less epic character study THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Lelouch took one of the most beloved novels of all time, and did something even more audacious - created an entire new set of characters living in another century, and integrated the book itself as a virtual character that alternately inspires and prophesies their actions through two generations. LES MISERABLES DU VINGTIEME SIECLE (translated subtitle: "of the Twentieth Century") presents Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Jean Valjean stand-in named Henri Fortin (and in prologue, his ill-fated father, continuing his motif of actors playing multiple generations), an illiterate boxer turned truck driver and petty thief who, in the dawn of WWII, agrees to smuggle a Jewish family out of occupied France, and over the drive, listens to them read aloud from Hugo's book, imagining scenes they describe with himself as the hero. When Fortin and the family members find themselves separated and scattered, they each become enmeshed in adventures and crisies that mirror those of the book.

Lelouch's 1995 production of LES MISERABLES is extremely special because it is not just an adaptation or even a modernization of a well-known book, but an speculative demonstration of the impact of this book on people, and perhaps even a nation, long after it's publication. If the two previous Lelouch films mentioned here were about how art can have a positive effect on a life, this film is about how someone affected by that art takes the lesson to the next level. (At the climax, Willa Cather's quote reappears, reinforcing the connection to the preceding films.)  Hugo's book is shown to kindle romance, as when the family patriarch meets his dancer wife when she performs in a ballet adaptation, inspire heroism, as when Fortin's gang decide to become partisans during a crucial attack, and reinforce justice, when it appears that this story's Javert stand-in will have the upper hand. Thus, as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, while drastically different from Sinclair's book, still ultimately shares its moral about the acidly destructive power of greed, so does Lelouch stay true to Hugo's themes of individual acts of mercy and nobility being the force to keep humanity progressing towards a larger good. In a serendipitous fillip to this portion of my essay, Upton Sinclair in fact wrote the preface for initial American editions of LES MISERABLES, proclaiming it "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world," demonstrating the kind of spiritual link between like-minded artists that I have set out to dramatize here.

Unfortunately, much like Anderson's directly acknowledged influence Robert Downey Sr., Lelouch is an auteur whose reputation has dimmed in recent years, and is well overdue for reappraisal.  And more unfortunately, unlike Downey, who recently saw many of his earlier works receiving fresh DVD releases from Criterion's Eclipse division, Lelouch does not have an American concern to make that push on his behalf; in the early aughts, Image Entertainment commendably released some of his films to home video, but those editions are now out of print. While continuing to make new films, his last to see a U.S. release was 2008's ROMAN A GARE, which he initially pretended was directed by a younger, handsomer friend to prank the entertainment press that was declaring him a has-been. Even LES MISERABLES, which would seem to be a no-brainer for DVD re-release to ride the coattails of Tom Hooper's upcoming film of the musical adaptation, is nowhere in sight - while it had been available earlier this year for streaming in their branded studio store at Amazon, Warner Bros. recently declared their rights have expired. But in an interview conducted during the release of ROMAN, he insisted, "After 34 films, I am dedicated to filming hope," and by the act of continuing to make new films, he is living that hope firsthand.

And in this final statement, one can make connection to Anderson again. He may not be experiencing any kind of career twilight, and won't for a long time, but his acclaim has always been tempered by perceptions of his bankability, and despite multiple critics' awards and Oscar nominations for his films, the marketplace success of his films have been more modest than massive, and it has been the intercession of mavericks like Michael De Luca and Megan Ellison that have enabled him to get financing to continue making his films. The struggle for an iconoclast is the same regardless of their age or stage of career.  And every one of Anderson's features have ended on a note of hope. Even dark fables like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER offer slivers of positivity for selected characters that allow escape and transcendance from bleak circumstances. The romantic Frenchman and the ballsy Valley boy are just going to keep doing their thing on their own terms, because they got the touch, they got the power...

Again, I have no idea if Paul Thomas Anderson has had any sort of experience with the work of Claude Lelouch beyond, say, his velvety-voiced dad Ernie introducing an ABC Sunday Night Movie premiere of A MAN AND A WOMAN ("Parental Discretion Advised"), so all of my proselytizing may have as much basis in fact as one of Lancaster Dodd's religious tracts. But I stand firm that it is the groundwork and the example set by visionary souls like Lelouch that created the climate that allowed another visionary like Anderson to get his movies made and accepted by the devoted fan base he commands. And to me, that rawks!

Ersatz Cinemetal logo created by yours truly.