aul Thomas Anderson has proven he knows his way around the most inaccessible regions of the human heart. An explorer might become dispirited by unforeseen obstacles and by internal and external pressures, but this 52 year old film writer and director shows no sign of discouragement. Anderson journeys courageously into the uncharted and fathomless depths of human emotion and returns with a greater understanding of the world we find ourselves in.
D.H. Lawrence advises that we’re better off relying on the story itself, not on the person who is telling it. Anderson might be an exception as his films present hyperreal character studies that place less emphasis on what actually takes place. We are more likely to become enthralled with lengthy, unexplained gazes or disconnected responses during protracted conversations than by a riveting plot line. In other words, there is often too little story to trust so we have no choice but to rely merely on the impressions being offered by the teller.
One might be tempted to analyze Anderson’s success by mapping the path he took to filmmaking. Certainly his father Ernie Andrson’s career in television had some effect, but he started making films on his own at a very early age, and besides some limited college was pretty much self-taught.
He was only in his mid-twenties when he worked on his earliest feature films, “Hard 8” and “Boogie Nights.” And that was a lot for someone with little experience on a set managing an entire project. He learned early on, much like the young entrepreneur Gary (Cooper Hoffman) in “Licorice Pizza,” to trust his instincts.
His own instincts have led him to his memorable yet enigmatic characters — characters who, it’s easy to see, are not necessarily out to win many friends. They are certainly capable of arresting viewers’ attention, though. Their idiosyncrasies are different enough to make them intriguing, but they do have something else in common. It’s almost as if they are outside themselves, voluntarily giving witness to their own lives.
In the hands of a less skilled writer and director, such characters may have come off as inauthentic. But Anderson handles intricacies and nuances so well that this does not happen.
Of course the actors portraying many of the leading characters have a lot to do with it. Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Vicky Krieps and others bring their unmatched skills to help mine their characters to unearth compelling and intriguing results.
For example, in “Phantom Menace” (2017), Lewis’s Philip drifts through his life as if he’s not living it, while Alma, the equally stoic Krieps, attempts to make him aware of this fact so that he can free himself. Lewis exhales his lines rather than speaks them, if only to maintain a face that’s as still as a portrait. He, like us, is watching life happen, not merely the events taking place but the unraveling of its emotionally bound mysteries.
Or consider “Inherent Vice.” We often get lost in the hallucinatory and mindless episodes of Phoenix’s Doc. But Doc’s struggles are not to do with finding his way back, but with staying true to the relativism of events. The mysteries in a case he is trying to solve are on par with ordinary questions of his day. He may be interested in solving the case, but Phoenix adeptly has Doc confined to a state of mistrust in the reality of the moment.
There’s little difference between the type of characters Anderson invents and those he’s adapted. All but “Inherent Vice” (Thomas Pynchon) and “There Will Be Blood” (Upton Sinclair) are his invention. But whether he creates the characters himself or adapts them from others, the complexity of these idiosyncratic characters is such that stereotypes are bypassed.
Anderson does this by creating opportunities for the actors to work honestly within. This is to say they’re given opportunities to get their real selves out of the way so that the authenticity of characters’ feelings finds a way to make it to the surface. We often don’t even know exactly what the characters are thinking, much like in real life.
The two main characters in “Licorice Pizza” are recurrently unable to find words to describe their feelings in moments that are either new or confounding to them. It fits very well because the two of them live their lives with the philosophy that lives are to be lived and not obeyed. Whether they are alone with each other or in a group, there are times when they say nothing at all, not because it’s socially appropriate, but because often there really is nothing worth saying. Even in a movie.
Anderson captures the most common features, while also managing to communicate the uniqueness of individuals. This is what makes his characters seem true to living, breathing people. Maybe some are based on real people — but maybe he pulls off this feat by doing what every story teller should be able to do. That is, to convince the audience to have enough trust to suspend disbelief.