“he’s just making it up as he goes along…”
this is what lancaster dodd’s seemingly bored son (jessie plemons) asks freddie quell (joaquin phoenix) to realize about his own father (philip seymour hoffman) but i am tempted to affirm the same for masterful director paul thomas anderson. not taking any due and deserved praise away from his craft of course, rather simply attempting to learn the lesson i believe his latest film is attempting to teach us, that we are indeed all making it up as we go along. a worthy lesson, as if there ever was any other.
the film itself an overstatement of understatement, especially when contrasted with the already gilded trailer of steven spielberg’s lincoln, unwisely playing as a presumed historical companion, we are treated throughout to no more than a handful of actual “scenes,” sandwiched between “images” realistically presenting post world war america while never showing off the effort it must have taken to construct. no, the meat of these two and a half hours really cooks between the two men whose names on the call sheet every morning must have induced its share of nerves for the other actors sharing the screen that day. joaquin phoenix’s pain, visible in every pore, seen in a story told mostly in close-ups, became our pain, the audience’s pain, my pain as we were all taken from moment to moment in scenes blissfully interminable, showing the indubitable multiplicity of man just as lancaster dodd (seymour hoffman) tries to convince himself, his new protege and us that we are not animals, proving in the process quite the opposite.
as soon as freddie violently slaps himself three times for not yet being able to correctly abide by his new master’s command in his first “processing” session, we know we are in for therapy of our own. the director, bearing witness to his actors’ emotional cacophony does not try to sway us to one way or another of the moral values animating his protagonists, he knows, and makes abundantly clear, that that conversation is moot, at least as much as the story’s connection with scientology. that is not the point. the point is for us to realize that human and nature are two words that go together for a reason, two words that complete each other, two words that are correctly embodied by the fool and mistakenly taken apart by the learned. yes, we are animals and proud of it! able to both give in and suppress, allow and forbid, assist and punish at different times, depending on context, mood and, apparently, blood alcohol level. our storytellers seem to want us to understand that freddie and lancaster may in fact two facets of one person, of every person, whether ambitious or not, irreconcilable, destined and, above all, lonely.
that is what stayed with me after the credits rolled on an opus i will not likely forget, as much for its directorial restraint as for its interpretive abandon. it seems to me that after there will be blood, p.t.a. is longing for meaningful content above all and to become a champion of humanity on screen, whether it is comfortable for us audiences or not and probably one of the reasons why he might feel ready to tackle pynchon next. making it up as he goes along… we should all be so fearless.