PTA: Life & Liberty, Porn & Milkshakes

California seems to be both the birthplace and the final resting place of the American Dream. It is the metaphorical end of the earth, where all cross country road trips come to a halting close. It is a contradictory oasis of both natural beauty and physical artifice; a symbol of unlimited opportunity, and a destination set upon by dreamers and naïve kids, but also by those schemers and con men whose covert manipulation of the former appears seemingly endless in scope and respective ambition. Yet, once one reaches this beacon of idealism, where can one go? The sun and palms seem to inspire things in people, and make them try and achieve something more. Some meet it with a smile and a heart full of hope, while others approach it with the sly smirk of cynicism, trying to use the system for something far more nefarious than mere fame and fortune.

Regardless of our shared, personal destination, everyone crashes in the end, turning up at the same place; it’s the colors of the flames and the way that these individuals crash that sets them apart. And no one has captured this schizophrenic nature of the American Dream of California quiet like American director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA, for short), who has distilled this sense of manifest destiny in two of his greatest films: Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. They are (quite possibly) the best of his entire career, and certainly the most American motion pictures of their respective decades. Each one illustrates, in its own specific fashion, a different aspect of this country and everything it stands for. PTA deconstructed the myth of it all, while simultaneously adding his own signature mystique in crafting something new, something different, and something downright bold.

The sheer and exuberant optimism on display in the first half of Boogie Nights is incredibly palpable and infectious. When watching it, I can never help but ask, “What could go wrong?” It all seems like smooth sailing, like a plane cruising at peak altitude. Yet, as that plane careens out of control, everything begins to crash and burn as it all goes down, hurtling toward the ground of our shared patriotism. To the average spectator, Dirk Diggler appears immortal at the beginning of Boogie Nights. He is at the top of his game, swaggering along in a bacchanal of money, fame, and good vibes. After leaving his tumultuous family life and fitting right into the melting pot of his new family in the porn industry of sunny California, it seems all is well for Diggler. On closer examination, however, he is revealed to be incredibly vulnerable; a veritable doe in headlights, graced with a few lucky breaks.

New Line Cinema

New Line Cinema

The thing about success to those who’ve never had it is that it seems completely without death, and eternal. That is, until it finally comes to an end. At one point in the film, Dirk himself asks, “What can you expect when you’re on top? You know? It’s like Napoleon. When he was the king, you know, people were just constantly trying to conquer him, you know, in the Roman Empire. So, it’s history repeating itself all over again.” It’s a funny line, showcasing Dirk’s foolhardy bullheadedness, and earnest overconfidence, while also subtly foreshadowing the tragic events yet to unfold. Soon, as if in an evocation of the actual Roman Empire, or any past historical symbol of success, things begin to fall apart for Diggler, in an equally terrifying and glorious fury. Cocaine, betrayal, and what one might even call pure inevitability all contribute to Dirk’s downfall. Like the old maxim says, “What goes up must, [eventually], come down.”

In America, this is doubly true. Everything falls harder under the shade of the stars and stripes. The disillusionment that comes with the American Dream is a concept constantly played with in cinema, almost to the point of nausea. The faulty nature of American idealism is nothing new; everyone from Martin Scorsese to Clint Eastwood (and many far less talented filmmakers) have exercised different permutations of the similar idea for decades past. For Anderson to use it here and make it seem so fresh and interesting is nothing short of remarkable. Boogie Nights is essentially a colorful rags-to-riches story by way of Raging Bull, yet it comes off as something utterly and entirely different. It is an amalgam of those oft used cinematic themes that plays out like it is the only one of its kind.

After forays into an Altman-esque, overlapping storyline, ensemble piece (Magnolia), and a low-key (but vastly under-appreciated) Adam Sandler comedy (Punch-Drunk Love), Anderson once again ventured into the wild territory of Californian Americana, as both concept and landscape, with all of the context that comes along with it. Boogie Nights, even in its moments of despair and relentless emotional pain, is mostly optimistic about the future of things, ending with a Beach Boys song, and the entire cast in relatively good spirits. The PTA of Boogie Nights knows the depths of human suffering, but he’s not jaded or cynical about it. For him, the future is something to embrace, not dread.

Enter There Will Be Blood, which plays out almost as a rebuttal to Boogie Nights, drilling right to the grimy, oil-filled heart of America with no hope for redemption, for in this American Dream, there is no hope at all. Both films portray the darker side of a shared fantasy, but do so in different manners. Boogie Nights recognizes that things can turn bad when one reaches the top, and that the allure of success in America can corrupt any individual, no matter how fresh faced one is when one starts out. Yet, it still remains optimistic. The road is still open. There Will Be Blood sees the American Dream as a distorted, sickly, almost incestuous force of violence and greed. Bad men become worse and the children are deafened from the shrieking awfulness of it all. The entire film is filled with a sense of thick and palpable foreboding. Always it feels as if there is some great and terrible apocalyptic event on the horizon, and Eeverything takes place on the brink of the Great Depression, making it all seem that much worse, like some unstoppable Old Testament plague fated to happen, with Daniel Plainview cast as the proverbial black crow, an omen of the times to come and a testament to the extent to which the system is willing to corrupt and destroy.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

A common analytical reading of the film often paints Plainview as a Satan-like figure, a singular manifestation of everything wrong with capitalism and America, wrested from the bowels of the Earth to consume and destroy. And yet, I feel such a view disregards PTA’s style completely, and detracts from the film’s cinematic impact. Anderson isn’t the type to make characters that are nothing more than symbols. Throughout his career, regardless of his shifts in style and tone, his constant understanding of the human condition and people in general has always been present. This is made explicitly clear in films like Magnolia and The Master, but his sympathetic probing of the human conscience is just as prevalent in There Will Be Blood. The character of Daniel Plainview is a detestable one (there is no doubt of that), but he is not always the bowling-pin-wielding maniac that he becomes at the end of the film.

There are moments in There Will Be Blood of genuine human compassion that resonate from within the Plainview character. In the moments where he seems to care deeply for his son H.W., though he might be misguided and frightened, the viewer gets the sense that he always wants what’s best for the innocent child. Or when Daniel kills the man pretending to be his brother, he does not revel in the gore and moral turpitude, but weeps and drinks himself into a stupor in an attempt to try and forget, and seek the retribution of ignorance. Plainview is a deeply troubled man, misunderstood even, and it is in the inherent greed and deceitfulness of the American Dream (and capitalism by extension) that steers him towards the film’s final destination, populated by isolation and insanity.

Both Dirk Diggler and Daniel Plainview strive for great things before becoming corrupted by their respective successes. The only real difference between the two is that where Dirk Diggler saw how far he had fallen, and understood his the true immoral nature of his predicament, and reached for help accordingly, Plainview was so far gone, and had become such an evil and hollowed out shell of a man (almost a Kurtz-like figure), that there was no help for him to reach out for in his search for salvation. In the Bible, both St. Peter and Judas Iscariot commit sins against Jesus Christ. Yet Peter was the only one who asked for forgiveness, and by so admitting his transgressions was allowed absolution. Taken in as allegorical figures, one can almost see Dirk as Peter and Plainview as Judas, and America is the great, desolate desert of Jerusalem.

It goes to show that the constant struggles of success and failure that are ingrained in the American Dream were not birthed when the Pilgrims first wiped their boots on Plymouth Rock, but were already resident to the very soil of America. Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood both accurately portray America at different times in its history, and put forth vastly different interpretations of the age old idealism of the American Dream. Anderson has created this wild, panorama of a country, showing it at its most viscerally dark, as well as at its most willfully earnest and hopeful. Whether it be in the classic sense of hardworking America, or in the sense for corruption and corporate greed that pervades underneath, PTA has captured it all in these two monumental pieces of cinema history. He has created something more thematically visceral than the open road, something so resonant that it is almost frightening to look at. With his most recent accomplishment, Inherent Vice, a melancholic look at America at the tail end of the ’60s (taking place, oddly enough, in California, yet again), Anderson has proven he is not only one of the most talented movie makers in history, but also the only one who truly understands his country best (cinematically speaking). While I’m not sure if I believe in Paul Thomas Anderson’s America, I do believe in PTA, and in some way, that’s more than enough.

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Whit Denton
Whit is a movie lover and human being from the Northeast. He likes writing, reading, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. Whit hopes one day to make something truly great.