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November 25, 2002

Moviegoing: "Punch Drunk Love"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I just caught P.T. Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, and I think it's going to be the last of his movies I'll bother with. He's certainly talented, and his movies have the virtue of being strange, unusual, and ambitious. I have friends whose brains and taste I respect who enjoy his work, and even seem to think he's the great young post-Tarantino hope.

Emily Watson and Adam Sander: Movie love

How do you react to his movies? I think I see pretty clearly what he's doing -- I get it: A panoramic/sociological Altmanesque thing, but done with a hyper-subjective, my-head's-about-to-explode, early-Scorsese intensity. I just don't take any pleasure in it, though bless his heart for persuading Heather Graham to be so uninhibited in "Boogie Nights."

I can't bring myself to write much more, but for the sake of information let it be noted that "Punch Drunk Love" is an absurdist romantic fairy tale (ie., stir a little Demy into the usual Altman-Scorsese mix) in love with the ideas of unlikeliness and the miraculous (Love! Art! Success in both is such a fluke!), and determined to prevail in the face of cosmically bad odds via sheer... via sheer...

Well, to be honest, what I really keep wondering when watching Anderson's movies is "What's this guy on?" Almost everything in his movies is over-intense, over-upsetting. The visuals smear, blur, and twinkle -- here, he's forever using stabs and jabs and flashing -- and the sonics are pure echo-chamber mindfuck. What's he on? No idea. But his films remind me of those final hours of an acid trip when it's too much and you just wish it would all stop. Even after leaving the theater I notice that I'm feeling like I used to the day after taking acid -- flattened, burnt out, with nothing to do but wait for the nervous system to repair itself.

The wife thinks Anderson may simply be high on the idea of being a great director, that being an artist is so important to him that making films may be drug enough. There's no question that he burns to be the creator of '70s-style, mysterious-renegade films -- his whole soul seems consumed by that era.

Which may help explain why some of my critic friends are so high on his work; they're nostalgic themselves for those headstrong old days. And P.T. Anderson helps them keep that miracle alive.



posted by Michael at November 25, 2002


But what about Hard Eight? I thought that was pretty good. Before he got flash.

Posted by: Peter Briffa on November 25, 2002 3:36 AM

I think Anderson's a hack. Interesting filming techniques, on occasion an individual scene is gripping, but ultimately he seems to possess no clue about story structure.

But then I think Altman is also a hack. Last week I finally saw "Nashville" on DVD (gotta have the whole widescreen, no pan and scan for moi), and I thought it was terrible. (And why does Altman always have a scene in which an actress is humiliated via her nudity or simply humiliated while she's nude?) I liked "M*A*S*H" and think it's his one great film. The rest: Feh.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 25, 2002 11:57 AM

Hey Peter, Good to see you dropping by. "Hard Eight" didn't have that "I'm a genius" quality, did it? It didn't make much of an impact on me otherwise, though. Are there other young directors whose work you're more interested in? Nearly everyone youngish whose name stirs my interest (Cuaron, Linklater) is getting middle-aged himself. Fincher's talented, even though I don't like his movies. but he's probably in his mid-30s too. Who are your faves among the young?

Hi Yahmdallah -- You aren't an Altman fan? Gasp. I am, or I am about one out of every four of his movies, and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" is the movie that probably most got me interested in movies. I love a lot of the others too, though it's never been hard for me to imagine why so many other people don't get off on them. Did you ever see that hilarious Onion piece about a tiresome Altman fan? Just about everything he sees in real life makes him say, Look at that, that's just like an Altman film! I went through that phase myself, as Friedrich can attest.

Even if you don't like their work, do you think "hack" is quite the right word for PT and Altman? Where I come from, "hack" usually signifies "guy who'll do anything for money" -- ie., no style, no approach. Traffic manager for hire, basically. Maybe "pretentious bullshit artist" would suit PT and Altman better?

Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 25, 2002 10:01 PM


Yes, it seems I've misused hack to some extent. Of this definition: "working for hire especially with mediocre professional standards" - I was thinking of the latter half.

I think Altman's lazy. Much of the director's commentary on "Nashville" was on how he was able to film long sequences at a time due to using multiple cameras and an innovative 8 track recording process. I don't think he was doing that to create an atmosphere of realism or to dazzle; I think he was doing it to get anything on film as quickly as possible and pass it off to the editor to fix. And he doesn't want to interrupt the scene when he's got an actress stripping or naked. Having to do many angles on that would probably be a buzz kill for him. (Yes, I'm speculating about someone else's motives, my bad.)

So, Altman wouldn't be a hack in the strict sense of the word. He's a charlatan. As is Anderson. (Altman wasn't even the first to use natural overlapping dialogue, which some folks give him credit for.)

Joel Schumacher would be a hack.

I think I should say something nice, now.

The directors I consistently like are:

John Carpenter (except lately)
Carroll Ballard
David Mamet
Lawrence Kasdan
Jonathan Demme
Woody Allen
Joe Dante
Betty Thomas (she has the best ear for lightweight stuff)
John McTiernan (blows up stuff real good - but seriously, his films are always solid and extremely tight)
Douglas Trumbull (I grudgingly love his stuff - it's sooo uber-geeky)

Yes, a very predictable list. But they are good.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 26, 2002 11:17 AM

Schumacher -- a perfect example of a hack. Which isn't to say I haven't enjoyed a few of his movies...

Nothing predictable about your list at all. Our tastes seem to overlap a bit -- I love early Demme, for example, though his later stuff leaves me completely cold. And Carroll Ballard is one of the great underused talents. I agree that Betty Thomas does have a nice touch with comedy -- if I were an actor, I'd want to work with her. And I love "Die Hard" and toy with the idea that it's a masterpiece of corporate filmmaking, done big and proud, just like it should be.

One "but" that I'll bring up only because I'd like to know your thoughts is Woody Allen, whose films I haven't been able to get interested in for years and years. I think the last one I genuinely enjoyed was "Purple Rose." His films these days seem to me like a quarter-of-an-idea, written in a weekend and then indifferently realized. I marvel that people still consider him much of a filmmaker. Can you clue me in? What do you see of worth in his recent movies?

I suspect it's pointless trying to sell anyone on Altman who doesn't simply get his work. Lots of people don't, and such is life. I can say that if you do get his films, they're like drugs, or foods that you just instantly like and want more of. Crave, actually.

I do wish I could get a few people who dislike his films to see that something is indeed going on there, whether or not they like it. But for some reason people who dislike his films simply can't see that there's something there. I had a brilliant acting teacher once who, like you, disliked Altman's movies. He wouldn't even concede that Altman was talented; he just thought Altman was a lousy craftsman.

I wonder if this has a little to do with the nature of his good films, which are quite flickery and fugitive and transient. The effects in his best movies are fleeting, and work on the outskirts of consciousness (at least they do for me and for my fellow Altman-buff friends). Which may mean that they're by nature almost indefinable.

A lot of fancy hoo-hah, huh? But I don't think we Altman lovers are entirely fooling ourselves -- the pleasures are certainly real for those of us on that wavelength, and I'd argue (however ineffectively) that the skills that create those pleasures are real too.

PT Anderson? Now there's a director whose work I can live without...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2002 12:40 PM

I think I do "get" Altman; I just don't like him (with the exception of "M*A*S*H"). I think it is largely due to my personal artistic prejudice and partially with Altman's actual product. Altman does a few things that have always been pet peeves of mine:

- Brings in meandering story lines that have nothing to do with any part of the story at hand - even thematically or in a commentarial sense. Tangents are fine if they aren't simply tangents, but most of his simply are just random tangents that don't add to the mix.

- Lets scenes linger on past (and begin before) the point of their point. This is one of the things that many Altman lovers love. As far as I understand it, they feel this imbues his films with a certain verisimilitude and lets the viewer be more of a spectator since, conceivably, there's more detail or information to absorb that you don't get in a tight story-line or editorial style. For myself, it pulls me out of the narrative and makes me wonder what the hell is going on. (I think I put my finger on it there, btw. His narrative style always shatters my suspension of disbelief. I keep remembering I'm watching a movie - one of the top 5 in my list of no-no's.)

- Not every freakin' topic deserves 3 or more hours. In my opinion, "Nashville" grinds to a halt every time we have to listen to another bad song. If each song were edited, the movie would have a chance of clocking in at under 2 hours. I don't have anything against long run-times per se, but the movie has to make it worth my time. Holding a scene as an actor looks offscreen for a minute does not justify my love.

- I know I keep mentioning this one, and I don't want to give the idea that I'm a puritan, but every movie I've seen of his has a woman being humiliated in the nude. "Nashville" has the girl who thought she was singing at a fundraiser strip against her will, and she's clearly humiliated by it. "M*A*S*H" has Hotlips exposed in the shower (one of the few possible excusable scenes as it's honestly funny), but in the commentary it's pointed out how much the actress did not want to do that scene, and Altman literally tricked her to get the take. "Ready to Wear" ("Pret-A-Porter") ends with 10 minutes of nude models in an "emperors new clothes" gag, you're supposed to be embarrassed for them and not enjoy the stunning beauties. "Short Cuts" has Julianne Moore deliver an entire scene nude where she admits to her husband she's cheated on him (with the unforgettable line "I didn't let him come in me" while you're looking right at the vessel in question - the line forces you to look, even). I have nothing against fun, funny, or even erotic nude scenes, but all of his involve humiliation. I think that says something about him as a person.

- No ending other than the events in the movie have concluded. This is another of the things that Altman fans simply love. I think it's OK to do if the tone of the film more or less demands it, such as "M*A*S*H," but when the story line is concocted ("Pret-A-Porter" and "Dr. T and the Women"), concoct an ending too, especially after three hours fer crying out loud.

- Uh, his movies are often boring. Due to much of the above. I've never felt exhilarated during an Altman film. Ever.

So, my dislike of him has to do with what he does and doesn't do. Many of these things are the very things that Altman fans like him for. So, I'm not disqualifying my ability to give an opinion on him, I just want to clarify it has to do with my personal preferences in film style.
The last Woody Allen movie I loved was "Hanna and Her Sisters." I watch "Annie Hall" practically yearly; and Allen was truly prescient in "Sleeper." But, you are correct, these are all old films. I still end up renting everything he does, though, and I usually end up at least smiling or coming out of them with a warm feeling. Two of his recent ones, "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Celebrity," were both charming, but certainly not classics. I'm looking forward to "Hollywood Ending" coming out on video.

I think what's spoiled Allen for many is the whole Soon-Yi thing. It certainly has tainted my view of the man himself, but I try not to let it creep into what I think of his movies. "Manhattan" would of course be the one exception to that, since he basically chronicles what he does later in life with Soon-Yi, with the small difference in detail that he's not responsible for the "Mariel Hemingway - Tracy" character as a father before he screws her. (Ew. ew. ew. eeewww. ew.)

Not much of a defense for Woody, I admit. But my criterion is "do I still like his/her work?" and not "is he/she putting out timeless classic after timeless classic?"

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 26, 2002 3:24 PM

I have to agree that P.T. is a hack - he has a bit shtick that got a bit of attention, so he does it over and over and if he feels the audience is losing interest, he does it bigger.

If he is more serious than he seems, than dialogue is where he goes wrong - if he made silent films, abstract, experimental films, I think they'd work for me. Even a few words of dialogue, unfortunately, is enough for a narrative, and Anderson simply cannot present worthwhile characters in a narrative. Perhaps he should become a choreographer, I'd be interested in a dance work.

I like Altman, but have always been irked by his treatment of women. Still, he's kinder to my sex than David E. Kelley.

Posted by: tgcm on November 26, 2002 3:43 PM

Great to meet others who aren't dazzled by the PT Anderson rep and myth. I don't mind that he's out there scaring up money, impressing actors and reviewers, and doing his "intense personal vision" thing. I do think, though, that I'll be avoiding the results in the future.

I still don't think "hack" isn't quite the right word for him -- PT is anything but a gun for hire, which is the usual meaning of "hack." If anything, he's got too damn much personal vision. He'd probably benefit from doing some hack work -- learn how to tell a story, get a little perspective on what he's doing, etc.

What do y'all think of "bullshit artist" instead? Or would "pretentious young whippersnapper" suit better?

TGCM, I love the idea of Anderson as a choreographer. It's pretty much what he's doing already anyway, isn't it. So why shouldn't he simply bag the story elements, and just go for movement, mood and spectacle?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2002 10:50 PM

Hi Michael,

Yes I often drop in. I think you guys are a very welcome addition to the world of blogging. Art is much more interesting than politics. How did I ever get into that mess? Anyway, to the matter in hand: young film directors.

For the purpose of this debate I think there are two kinds of director: the auteur and the pro. The auteur either writes, co-writes or at least dictates his material. The pro simply finds scripts that he likes ( or more often gets offered a nice big cheque and asked to do this one ). Obviously, there are grey areas, but I think this is a useful distinction. Thus Woody Allen, PT Anderson, Robert Altman are auteurs.
McTiernan, Shumacher are pros. The auteurs usually start making interesting little movies about people, with scripts they have thought about and honed for years. Then they get successful, get offers to make films on far higher budgets, the opportunities to work with name actors, and before you know it, the spark has gone. Occasionally they come good again,
but things become variable. This happens in lots of art forms, but particularly in movies.
Pros on the other hand, depend entirely on the qualities of the script. Hence our two names directors can make a good film but their next can be a turkey. This is largely because they aren't actually all that interested in the script. They make films for other reasons and the script is the means to an end, not an end in itself. The irony of all this is that pros like Shumacher are much more probably going to make another good film than is someone like Woody Allen. Until the latter starts making films written by others - which he won't - he's never going to come up with the goods. The moral of this? That scripts are far more important than who directs them. Falling Down and Die Hard would probably have been good whoever made them.

Posted by: Peter Briffa on November 29, 2002 5:19 AM

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