(Inherent Vice, 2014)
Even when it comes to a companion piece, their partnership is constantly curving to fit, their understanding of the project complete and rigorous.
By Joe Inman
On release of his last film Inherent Vice (2014), Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA for the remainder of this article) was used to suffering the indignity of such reviews as “filmmaking of a higher order”, ‘“pure hallucinogenic pleasure” and “kaleidoscopic, languidly compelling”. Many citing him as the greatest American film maker since the 70’s new wave – the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman. This could only have been suspected – PTA had just released his third film, since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, to universal acclaim. Inherent Vice also happened to be Anderson’s third successive collaboration with the Jonny Greenwood, guitarist of Radiohead. Drawing from a rich history of film collaborators, showing that through this partnership PTA and Greenwood have created the best, most complex and rigorous, American art of the 21st century.
Film teams have usually been between Directors and Producers. ‘The Archers’ – consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – made some of the most beautiful and poetic films of the 1940’s. The Coen brothers have spent their whole career in each others arms. Their partnership combined both writing, producing and directing credits. There are small, famous anomalies. Ingmar Bergman found his vision was nearly always improved by the cinematography of Sven Nykist. Sven’s vision, his subtle play with light, made him inseparable from Bergman’s picture of the oppressive church. Sun light slinks through the window – while god dies. Quite the dramatic juxtaposition. This inherent understanding between creatives seems to allow the division of labour to spread through the films components – each person with another authorial presence to excel in their particular medium. A contrast in ideas, something that will be important to looking at the success of PTA and Greenwood, can create a dance between the different components of a film. They feed off each other, a call and response that echoes through the film.
The real champion of this way of working, and a particular hero of PTA, was Robert Altman. Throughout the 1970’s Robert Altman became the antithesis of Hollywood. He made films because he loved making them. He was so intent to create a working environment inductive to creative thought – his crew became his family. When shooting on location it was not unusual for Altman to ask the crew to bring their families with them (Altman had a large family himself). This seems to be because he felt so strongly that the creation of art was inherently fun that a person couldn’t function as well away from their family. Leaving it to P TA own words; “If people want to call me Little Bobbie Altman, then I have no problem with that at all.”
There Will Be Blood begins with strings. At daybreak the strings whir into sirens. They scream through the landscape, the American west, (the year 1988) bouncing off the surrounding mountains – daunting the prospector below. Strings then – silence.
Jonny Greenwood has always been happy to be silent. Through his career, as guitarist of Radiohead, Greenwood has found a way to create atmosphere. The last Radiohead records have had the underpinning of Greenwood being able to sit back and lay the foundations for Radiohead’s sound. This he brings to There Will Be Blood. The film has long periods of silence. He has been able to not only score the film but – by understanding the relationship between music, diegetic sound and dialogue – been able to punctuate every word in the film.
PTA creates a film that utilises space. A film that emulates the stiff, yet violent, characteristics that are seen in character Daniel Planview (Daniel Day Lewis). Long shots see him brood – extreme close-ups a reaction to his charisma, the attention he brings in those communities – the fire bursts in beautiful colour – the oil is the deepest, richest black. Yet Greenwood punctuates it, exposes it flaws, condescends and mythologies in equal measure. When they are promising the ease in which they can dig oil, Greenwood’s score is rapid, frenzied. When underground, prospecting, the musical doom shows the ruthlessness of the conditions that the characters faced. If PTA pushes one way – Greenwood finds the gap. He splits the films answers in two. Shining a light on the characters contradictions and, on a even bigger scale, the way that films set out in describing these times – their music and their sensibilities. This coming to head in a finale of pure, dazzling perfection.
The success that this partnership had, in the aftermath of There Will Be Blood’s release, must of pushed them to collaborate again. “This is a film by Paul Thomas Anderson that has overshot the runway of movie modernity with something thrillingly, dangerously new.” – Pete Bradshaw. The freshness cannot be denied. It has blown the cobwebs off, making films look backward for their lackadaisical scores.
The Master (2012), therefore, seemed less monumental in comparison – getting very little attention and a botched release. It is a film that is sometimes seem as a slight work in the PTA oeuvre. It is still working on the same tracks as There Will Be Blood. A charismatic, sometimes brutal, man (Joaquin Phoenix) meets another charismatic, sometimes brutal man. It is interesting to note how these three films are all loose literary adaptations. The Master is a pumped up biography of L. Ron Hubbard – seen through the eyes of Freddie Quell. Freddie is the rock – Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman channelling L. Ron Hubbard) the hard place. The film is centred on their conversations. The tricks, the mind games, the lust that burns under the surface – a lust for understanding.
Where the stripped back orchestra of There Will Be Blood stream lines and contrast the usually full orchestra of the ‘Western’ – The Master has a soundtrack of the world. The ships that Freddie has belonged to – the wild natural world he’s discovered. It bleeds with natural syncopated rhythms. It could belong in a cannon with ‘My Life In The Bush of Ghosts’ by Brian Eno and David Byrne and Salif Keita. The music is harsh. Intense and simple it uses instruments that sound hand made. Percussion from various cultures. Juxtapose this with the coconuts Freddie cuts at the beginning and the lovely western 20’s music Lancaster is enjoying when they meet, you begin to see what Greenwood is trying to achieve. In this film of wills and temperaments – the first movement’s music almost emulates what Freddie’s character brings to their friendship. Its wild, mysterious, it’s been to the edge of the world and back. What Lancaster sees in Freddie – we see in the music. A more subtle achievement. The film differs, it strength in its interiors. It has a great sense of repetition and syncopation that draws you in. It also sees the start of Greenwood using pre-recorded music as part of his scores. Although this would take to the fore in Inherent Vice, it was here were Greenwood found its place in film. Anderson had already used pre-recorded songs in his film Boogie Nights (1997). This, though, was to smother the film in ‘feel’. Its characters so obsessed with the pop culture of their time. The Master finds it in very odd places, a quite moment for a girl to sing a lullaby, the sound of the radio in the lighter moments of the film.
Inherent Vice is most comparable to Boogie Nights – Anderson’s sophomore film. Yet Anderson has moved from the uneasy showiness of Boogie Nights and is, at this point, one of the most confident film makers around. The film lies deep within a fog of weed – circling round the head of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) – its reluctant lead. Greenwood, now utilising a vast array of pre-recorded music, enhances the decline of the America the film addresses, with the pomp of a high radio DJ. His timings are perfect – the intro being a particular high point in Scorsese-esque editing.
Yet Greenwood’s actual score is very subtle. It plays deep in the mix, very rarely coming to the fore. Strings that hum under, emulating the dichotomy between convolution of plot and the uneasy sense that the world is changing. Bob Dylan said ‘You know somethings happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr Jones?’ This acutely sums up what Greenwood brings to Inherent Vice. It is a movie of sun bleached photography and measured, wonderful Pynchon dialogue. So Greenwood sits back, casts his rope round your neck, and slowly pulls you in.
Unity is something that is admired in film. The partnership of director David Lynch, and composer Angelo Badalamenti, has always worked within the same parameters. Lynch’s films strive to better themselves as each one progresses. Looking to intensify Lynch’s dream world each time. Although the collaboration has been long, and produced great work, it has never broke free of its own limitations. The same could be said for Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell. Although the inventiveness of the score in Requiem for a Dream (2000) was praised – it only settled for backing up the visuals. No partnership has found the war of ideas like Greenwood and Anderson. Their understanding runs so deep that a surface reader might assume they’ve missed the point. That genre conventions should be adhered too. It is this ingenuity and sheer will to tackle new ideas that makes Anderson and Greenwood the masters of the last fifteen years.
PTA followed Greenwood on his next project, an album recorded in India. He made a short documentary to accompany the record ‘Junun’. The work seems to back up the idea that, more than anything, they enjoy each others company. Even when it comes to a companion piece, their partnership is constantly curving to fit, their understanding of the project complete and rigorous.