3.01.2018

From Inhuman Generality to Human Particularity: On PT Anderson's Great Trilogy and "Phantom Thread"


It is a grand entrance: an ominous promise — There will be blood — against utter blackness that lingers a tad too long before the desert and mountains emerge monumental, inflected by Jonny Greenwood's dissonant crescendo. The scale is epic. It's literally and figuratively big — big shot, big music, big promise. And the main character who we're introduced to alone, underground, wielding an ax is big.

But he's not big in the way, say, Darkest Hour's Churchill is. His magnitude is not due to his human endeavors; it's due to his ahumanity, to terrestrial forces that are bigger than all of us. To be clear, I don't mean his inhumanity as we generally use it to mean cruelty (which is funny in that few things are as distinctly human as cruelty). Daniel Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview is not really human. There's a competition in me, he says and this is what we witness: a force of the earth, specifically of oil's combustible black seething viscosity. While being in what seems like every scene, this is not a movie about Daniel Plainview, about a great, complicated man impacting the world around him, about his trials and tribulations, his loves and pains. No, we don't experience him as a human being; we experience him as a force.


PT Anderson followed this with The Master. Once again, the opening scene is big. Only this time it's not the earth but the ocean inflected by big angular strings. The Master, like There Will Be Blood, is not about things — for example, the founding of Scientology or post-war America — even if these details add texture. No, we are once again in the realm of forces and wills that exceed and animate the human — Joaquin Phoenix fucking the beach and jerking off into the waves. This is not a human story; it's a spectacle of a certain ahuman madness that runs through us.


Inherent Vice, Anderson's next movie, may seem at first like a break as we get beach houses, a glimpse of the ocean, kids running before we see Joanna Newsom, a halo of sun behind her, telling us a tale. Only this is not a tale of love or mystery. It's really note a tale as much as it's a series of trajectories that might or might not cohere here and there but happen nonetheless, all meander and event, all drift and coincidence. Inherent Vice, which I'll admit may be my favorite movie of all time, is structurally all Pynchon as it lives in the space between order and chaos, structure and its relentless collapse.

The brilliant film writer and maker, Ryland Knight, argues that these three films form a trilogy of the face (There Will Be Blood), the body (The Master), and the spirit (Inherent Vice). This is a keen reading that deftly weaves the three films together without unifying them. And it speaks to their scale: they are big movies in ambition and scope (while only The Master is shot on 70mm, the other two feel as though they should be). 

Phantom Thread marks a break. It's a smaller film, literally, shot in 35mm and almost exclusively indoors. It's all tight frames of tea cups and spouts, of flowers and glances, of that narrow foyer, that tight winding staircase, the ripples of a dress. If the trilogy is all grand folds of ahuman forces, Phantom Thread is tiny pleats of human being.

Indeed, from one perspective, this movement from grand ahuman generality to local human particularity is the story of the film itself. Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, deals with the form of woman, of women, as he creates dresses for them. He does not love any one woman. He has no interest in any of his clients, however renowned they are, whatever their class or royal pedigree. (The woman closest to him, his sister, he addresses as "My old so-and-so"  — even she is a generality.) All he sees, all he cares about, is the way the dress gives elegance, shape, form to their shape and form. He can't understand why he's invited to a long time client's wedding. And when that woman behaves unbecomingly, he storms into her apartment and takes the dress back.

And then he meets Alma who, at first, may be another woman in a series of lovers for whom he seems to have no real interest, sexual or otherwise. But Alma is different. Sure, in the beginning when he dresses her, she feels her own movement from an oddly shaped body to a perfect woman, to the generality or ideal of woman. This, however, doesn't last or doesn't suffice. She has taste; she has will; she has desires — at least enough to get her in trouble.


Her insistence on herself as this woman with these desires ruffles him and his house. In one of the more comical scenes, we see her pouring tea and buttering toast noisily — or what he calls "too much movement." But it's not just that it irritates him — an experience we've all had with lovers. No, the problem is that it disrupts his working process, his production of dresses. Which is to say, her way of going is not just juxtaposed with his way, a common lover's quarrel. It's that her particular way of going interrupts his process of making dresses that forge the ideal woman. On the one hand, then, we have women in general — his work, his passion, his "genius." On the other, we have Alma who is this woman with these desires, this way of buttering her toast and pouring her tea. Such is the conflict and structure of the film.

Unlike the trilogy, this film remains tightly focused. The entire film takes place, more or less, in two houses. And we don't ever even see the whole of these houses; we are privy to a room or two but never get a sense of the layout. There are few wide establishing shots. And the one or two we get only make the scene more focused. We get a few mentions of the scope of the Woodcock house; he has dressed royalty and their court from baptism through coming out to wedding.

If this were a common Hollywood movie, a fictional biopic, we'd see the royal wedding shot from afar in all its splendor. It'd tell us how important this man Woodcock is, how important fashion is, how his genius played a pivotal role in post-war European history. Oy! The very thought of this nauseates me.

In PTA's hand, the focus remains small, local, tight: we see the historical figures enter his frame — his pleated house of spiraling staircases — not the other way around. The one time we see him at a wedding, the camera never pans back: we see him and Alma at a table grimacing at the drunken bride in his dress. There is no wide view; everything remains tightly framed. Even when they're driving, we don't see the wide road around them; all we see is Alma and Reynolds, framed by the body of the car.

This image performs the tension of the film: woman as just another woman with a number in an infinite series vs. this woman here and now. It's the tension of the ideal generality vs. all-too-human particularity.

Alma is stubbornly human. And, despite his will to forge the ideal of woman, Reynolds is all-too-human, as well — persnickety, jealous, longing for his mother when's sick and afraid. Alma is a woman who can partake of the generality — we see her above bearing her number 20, another in an infinite series of female forms — but who has a will of her own, a particularity. Reynolds and his sister try to discipline this out of her but, due to Alma's clever and sadistic move, to no avail. They find their way of going in this movement from the general to the particular, from the strength of the ideal to the frailty of the human.

And such, alas, is PTA's own movement from his trilogy to Phantom Thread, his camera moving from the generality of the face, the body, and the spirit to the absolute particularity of this man, this woman, this situation. As Phantom Thread makes clear, this is a laborious movement fraught with pain, vomit, and the risk of death. But it also promises something beautiful: intimacy and love.

No comments: