We’re here at last. The final entry. The last movie. My favorite film of 2017. The picture to this post told you what it was, but just in case…
It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.
This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who knows me. I’m quite vocal about my love of PT, and his latest film only serves to deepen my adoration. I want to talk about the Phantom Thread, but before I get to the film, I want to spend some time talking about Paul.
Paul Thomas Anderson has possibly the best track record as a filmmaker. He has never made a bad movie. In fact, every single movie he has made, with the exception of his first, Hard Eight (which I do love), is a masterpiece. The fact that he made Boogie Nights when he was 28 still blows me away. The fact that Magnolia even exists blows my mind. His transformation after his Robert Altman/Jonathan Demme/Martin Scorsese inspired early days to the esoteric, boundary-pushing, instinct-based filmmaker he is today blows my mind. His transformation is not unlike Stanley Kubrick’s transformation from Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The signifiers of his blossoming were there from the beginning, but it was 2001 that sealed Kubrick’s shift. With PTA, it was Punch-Drunk Love that signaled the coming storm, and There Will Be Blood that set the typhoon upon us.
There Will Be Blood might be my favorite film. I said in the last post that Blade Runner was my favorite movie, and while I have a multitude of favorites, the reasons behind them vary immensely. Princess Mononoke could be my favorite movie because of the role it served in my life: I saw it when I was 5 and it shaped my views on morality, art, and film from then on. Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (henceforth: The End of Eva, because the full title is a mouthful) could be my favorite movie: I saw it when I was 15, exactly when I needed to see it. Blade Runner (Final Cut) could be my favorite movie: It’s the film I think about every day, the film that has defined the territory I’m interested in writing about. Stalker could be my favorite movie: It’s the film that interests me more than any other, the one I think about nearly as much as Blade Runner, and the one that is never quite the same with each passing thought. But it also might be There Will Be Blood.
The only way to talk about this movie is to get a bit personal. I was a Music/Philosophy double major in college. I was pretty much killing myself with my course load (if you think double majoring is hard, look up what Music majors are required to do and then think about having another major on top of that), and I was in total denial about how utterly unhappy I was. I spent 12 hours a day on campus (yes, 12 full hours), and I worked every night over the weekend at my job. My social life didn’t exist. Finally, I reached the point of saturation and was deciding if I should quit. It was a hard decision, one that I kept putting off, telling myself to “just make it through one more quarter.” Then, on one particularly lovely morning, I woke up and didn’t want to go to class. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I sent my mother a text saying “I think I’m going to stop the music classes,” and then I went to my TV and turned on Netflix. I decided on a whim to watch There Will Be Blood: it had been on my list for almost a year, and it seemed like as good a day as any to watch it. I distinctly remember the way the light filtered past the incompetent vertical slat blinds in my living room, the way the desk chair I was sitting on (I have bad vision, so I need to sit close to the TV) kept squeaking every time I shifted, and I remember halfway through the movie when my phone rang. I answered the call from my mom while staring at the paused image of Daniel Plainview. I told her I was quitting music for sure. I also told her I wanted to write movies. There Will Be Blood is the reason I made the jump, took the risk, started to pursue what I always knew I wanted to pursue but needed that push to really commit to. For that, the movie is inseparable from that timeless morning, the squeaking chair, the fantastical lighting, and the paused image of Daniel Plainview. It could be my favorite movie.
The thing with PTA films is that despite the importance of There Will Be Blood to me, every other movie he’s ever made could easily have been that film, given a different set of circumstances. The Master is my second favorite of his after There Will Be Blood. The Master is a movie that requires nothing less than its own essay, but I don’t have that kind of space here. Following The Master is Punch-Drunk Love, then Magnolia, then Boogie Nights, then Inherent Vice, then Hard Eight. I’m still unsure of where I should place Phantom Thread on this list.
There is a biography about the late David Foster Wallace titled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. I’ve never read the book, though I intend to, and yet that line has come to be associated with PTA’s Phantom Thread for me. His interest in the supernatural has been a clear growing theme since Magnolia. It went dormant for a bit but resurfaced in The Master. It’s most prominent in Phantom Thread, and it’s the aspect of the film that I’ve seen talked about the least. Like Paul, I too have an interest in what’s beyond this life. I too want to believe that there is something more, that it’s not all physical, that there is something in the aether, something just outside reach but always around. I too want to believe in ghosts.
Now that I’ve rambled sufficiently, it’s probably time that I talk about this movie. A key aspect of PTA’s filmography is what he understands and depicts better than any other writer or director: men. Paul has been depicting every shade of what a man is since he started making films. From Philip Baker Hall’s loneliness in Hard Eight, to Dirk’s naiveté, to Frank’s misogyny to mask his suffering, to Barry’s anger and yearning for love, to Daniel’s toxicity: archetypal man incarnate, to Lancaster’s roaring charism and Freddie’s ranging freedom, to Doc’s haunting love, to, now, Reynolds’s embodiment of the toxic artist – Paul has captured men, the fate of men, the lives of men, like no other filmmaker in history. While every character of his is a man unto themselves, they are also aspects of all men: caricature for the sake of diagnosis, the root of the ailment of men. It’s also no mistake that his three most diagnostic films about men are period pieces: There Will Be Blood set at the turn of the century: the beginning of the shifting definition of a man, and The Master and Phantom Threads: two films set in the 50s, the last time when “men were just men.”
This running theme in all of Paul’s works is likely a result of an unconscious association; often artists aren’t aware of what they’re depicting, and even if they are, they don’t know why. Writing has been called hypnosis; I’ve always thought of it as a kind of haunting. It’s as if something takes up residence inside us, stretches its limbs throughout ours, pouring the unfathomable secrets of the universe through our language, through our fingertips. This is true of Reynold Woodcock’s dressmaking, both metaphorically and literally. He is possessed by both the specter of his mother and the phantasm of the artist.
Along with Reynolds is Alma, our classic gothic leading lady. Or is she… The foil of Alma is brilliant: a woman to match Reynolds, someone to refuse his pitiful tantrums, someone to plant themselves in the shadow of overbearing masculinity and say “no.” In The Master, throughout the film, there is a constant question that is never asked: who is the Master? Many would say Dodd, some might argue for Freddie, but the undeniable answer (confirmed by Paul himself) is Peggy, Lancaster Dodd’s wife. The same questions intertwine in Phantom Thread, hiding in the lush piano, the skeletal harmonies of Johnny Greenwood’s score. Who is in control: Alma or Reynolds?
Much has been written about this film and its place in the time of #MeToo. Can a movie that doesn’t outright condemn its childish tyrant of a main character, one who resembles far too eerily the various man-children of our headlines, be accepted? Does this depiction coupled with the winking sardonic irony of the ending amount to endorsement without the proper moralizing at the end. I know how I feel about it, but to deny the people who find fault in the film would be to commit the worst sin of all: to not listen. In the effort of fairness, I’d like to offer two readings of what the film is about. First, it is the perfect depiction of toxicity: people who do nothing but poison each other (literally and metaphorically) but refuse to accept the failure of their relationship. Another reading, one that isn’t incompatible with the first but differently focused, is that Reynolds is quite literally haunted. Alma may float wraith-like through the Victorian house like the gothic protagonist – Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Gaslight, The Passionate Friends – but it is not she who is broken, it is Reynolds. I mentioned before the title Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and this is where it applies. Their love story is a ghost story for many reasons: Reynolds is haunted by the presence of his mother, carrying her image stitched into the lining of his clothes, stitched into the lining of his soul. She is the reason for his profession, and she is the reason for his intensity; with every dress he crafts, he offers up a sacrifice to the ghost of his mother. It’s no mistake that at his lowest, when closest to death, it is she that he sees, just on the boundary of reality, cold, distanced, an idea to pursue but never reach. It’s also no mistake that in the same scene, Alma passes in front of her, pulls Reynolds’ vision from his mother. The mother is often said to be the framework from which all future lovers are defined, and in this case, the psychology is apt. Reynolds profession is transformation, it’s binding and breaking, it’s molding and shaping; it is to alchemize a human being into something else. But what does he turn these women into? What does he turn Alma into? The answer is clear: his mother, the Ideal.
Phantom Thread is too beautiful a film to be captured in words. It’s three-dimensional in ways that many films fail to be. I hope that this essay managed to convey some of its elegance, its ethereal imagery, transfixing score, and metaphorical brilliance. I hope it also helped to glean a bit of Paul Thomas Anderson. In recent interviews, he’s mentioned his interest in writing a real ghost story. I only hope it comes sooner rather than later.
And, I’m done. Whew. That was quite a task I set for myself. I was hoping to get these essays out one after another, but that was my own ego masking the work that I set for myself. I’m not sure what I will tackle next, maybe Park Chan Wook, maybe Bong Joon-Ho, maybe Terrence Malick, maybe Andrei Tarkovksy. Or, perhaps, something else altogether.
Until then, au revoir