Alternate Unrealities: The Music Videos of Paul Thomas Anderson

Decades from now, when/if people talk about movies from today—that is, when they’re not too busy with their inevitable machine uprising—they will undoubtedly pinpoint Paul Thomas Anderson as a key figure from this era in film. He’s not a prototypical example of how films work in our modern film industry, nor do his films touch on particularly modernist concerns. Come to think of it, many of his films are period pieces (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice). He’s really more an anomalous artist than anything else; but sometimes it’s the exceptions that prove the rule, and, by following a particular lineage and his own visionary path, he unearths filmic fluxuations as an outlier. He’s a singular voice and a lynchpin figure, connecting and referencing multiple eras in film. And, quite simply, all of his films are utterly spectacular in every way. So, anytime he puts out a new work, it’s worth a look, if not a headlong deep delve—for the benefit of future generations.

This week, Joanna Newsom, “beloved warbling wood nymph” that she is, announced her new album, Divers. With this came a music video for lead single (such as this term applies in her particular corner) “Sapokanikan”, directed by PTA. Newsom collaborated with Anderson just this past year on his adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic-noir Inherent Vice, providing the off-kilter narration for the sunbaked film. Newsom’s involvement in Inherent Vice is a key access point for figuring out both what is going on in this deceptively slight music video, as well as how it fits in with Anderson’s curious music video oeuvre. Newsom’s video follows in the mold of several of Anderson’s previous forays into music video territory—singer/protagonist placed in and fighting against a confined space. Throughout, there is a persistent, nearly imperceptible wavering of point of view that complicates the simplicity. And, as with many of his other music video efforts, it acts as a sort of appendix to his most recent film work—in this case, the ins and outs of a city teeming with life and intrigue under a placid surface, captured with a wandering, looser camera.

Backing up a bit, there is a beautiful short scene near the end of Magnolia when Anderson halts everything and all his characters sing Aimee Man’s “Wise Up”. It’s haunting, utterly affecting, and raw. It’s also effectively a music video within the film. It’s a scene that nakedly shows the importance and the magical potential of music in Anderson’s films. With this in, placing Anderson’s features and his music video forays side-by-by side reveals an interesting twinning. His films and his music videos progress in parallel and are mutually informed. There’s a film world and a music world, and they are separate, but people and elements can cross over from one plane to the other; and, when they do, the scaffolding is vulnerable. Anderson has consistently incorporated pieces of his film world into the music videos, directly linking the projects as connected entities (in particular, Michael Penn’s “Try”, Aimee Man’s “Save Me”, and Jon Brion’s “Here We Go”, as well as the borrowed compositions of Fiona Apple’s “Across the Universe”). So, Anderson’s videos often act as supplements and summations, reifying tone, rhythm, and style, but also reassessing and adding dimensions, fleshing out hinted-at tangents from the films. The progression goes, chronologically: “Try” by Michael Penn after shooting Boogie Nights, Fiona Apple’s cover of “Across the Universe” after Boogie Nights (made for and around Pleasantville), “Fast as You Can” and “Limp” by Fiona Apple after Magnolia and “Save Me” by Aimee Mann overlapping with Magnolia, Apple’s “Paper Bag” before Punch-Drunk Love and “Here We Go” by Jon Brion using outtakes from Punch-Drunk Love, “Hot Knife” developed before and released after The Master, and now, Joanna Newsom’s “Sapokanikan” after Inherent Vice.

PTA has always had a reflexive streak, but he really highlights it in his music videos. Throughout his career, he has consistently drawn comparisons to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman for the epic sweep of his films and the intricate choreography he arranges; it’s all very operatic, but also undeniably cinematic. Multiplicity and rhythm create a visual musicality that is stirringly grand but also intimate and attuned to detail. Like these directors, he uses harmony and discord to beautiful effect, whether it is a sweeping Jonny Greenwood score, or a time-period-appropriate soundtrack, the layers of sound and image are constantly ricocheting off one another, coming together and falling apart, swept along and fighting against—think of the non-diegetic to diegetic switch of “My Awesome Mix Tape #6” in Boogie Nights, or the mounting chaos of horizontally stacked arrangements in Punch-Drunk Love, or the anachronistic flourishes and idiosyncratic rhythms of the geyser scene in There Will Be Blood.

Each video places the musicians and their performances front and center throughout while subjecting them to all manner of Andersonian inflections. Intimacy and agency are tumultuous bedfellows in these short works. The camera is both leader and follower. It is alternatingly forceful and submissive in the continuously undulating power struggle between the artist and the gaze. In “Limp”, for example, Apple is fighting against her mediated image, screaming into her own ear. In “Save Me” Aimee Mann matches the gaze of the camera as it slowly drifts past familiar tableaus, focusing on her presence as if threatened. In “Sapokanikan”, Newsom moves through Manhattan without a tether and with little concern for imposed community boundaries, forcing the camera to follow her, to tie itself to her movement rather than to be guided by the machine. Anderson’s trio of muses—Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and now Joanna Newsom—are particularly important to the currents in his music video work. They are three women not easily defined, with strikingly singular voices and a penchant for eccentricity. They are three women who shed (or totally shun) confinement and objectification, and Anderson uses this fully in his videos, crafting mini-narratives that chart their growing agency in and over their surroundings and the will of the camera. Direct address is weaponized in this context, and it is a key motif in Anderson’s music videos. The musicians are frequently center-frame, making direct, sometimes unwavering eye contact with the camera and the onlooker (us). It’s meant to be uncomfortable and intimate in equal measure, and it’s exquisitely balanced between these two contradictory/compatible sensations.

PTA’s music videos offer an inverse look at his film worlds. In PTA films, typically music leaps up, first bubbling then stacking to near chaos. But, in the videos, it’s the cinematic element that is constantly trying to cut across the music. The editing will phase in an out of synch with the tracks, or an unsteady camera will attempt to thwart the pace and smoothness of the compositions, or vice versa. Not coincidentally, there is a marked gender reversal in the music videos as well. Predominately Anderson’s protagonists have been male, and much has been made about the preponderance of surrogate families led by flawed father figures in his films. But, he also riddles his films with fully realized female characters that often suffer equal if not greater devastations and traumas—think Claudia Gator in Magnolia or Amber Waves in Boogie Nights. PTA often constructs rigid patriarchies in his films, and then scrutinizes the rigidity of the framework. The music videos reverse this, by and large, centering the narratives on women (seven of nine are by female artists) and placing them in positions of power. This is most succinctly expressed in the juxtaposition of aggression and tranquility in “Across the Universe”. Agency is always being tested and typically, by the end, the heroines reach something like catharsis. This trajectory feeds back into his features, coloring the hopes, fears, and efforts of his film characters and providing more clarity about their desires and the weight of being marginalized. In “Hot Knife”, “Limp”, “Sapokanikan”, and “Save Me”, in particular, Apple, Newsom, and Mann can seemingly inhabit multiple places at the same time, moving fluidly and spontaneously through space and time. The singers are omniscient onlookers seeing the set, the scene, our perspective, and even their own vantage for what it is. The camera can only look in one direction, and in this most recent work, ultimately it is left alone in search of a new subject.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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