What’s so great about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza”?

What is a master? A rank, a formidable position; a wide shot, an original track. It’s also the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth and weirdest film, the culmination of a career of exquisite oddities, the latest of which, Licorice Pizza (2021) was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. You can imagine that Anderson is now used to this sort of thing: he is, to date, the only filmmaker in history to have won directing awards at each of the three major international film festivals, Cannes, Venice and Berlin. the New York Times newly named 2007 there will be blood the movie of the century. Twitter, at times, can seem like a giant clearinghouse for ghost yarn memes (“damn chic?!”)

Indeed, there’s little to say about Anderson’s work that hasn’t been said before, and breathlessly: his intertwined obsessions with peddling and the state of California; his astonishing mastery of cinematographic technique; its quirky sound design and odd use of music. Each of his films since there will be blood was a period piece and Anderson’s recreations of bygone eras are never anything less than meticulous: these films revel in the resurrection of forgotten objects _ cultural, linguistic, sartorial. His films are often described as bewitching, intoxicating, and it’s true: they produce an effect that is reminiscent of the hypnosis practiced by Lancaster Dodd by Philip Seymour Hoffman on the dupes of his sect in The master. You surrender to the hands of a master – and you try not to blink when he leads you through awkward places.

Licorice Pizza is one of Anderson’s sunniest films and also one of his worst. This ribs: we follow two would-be lovers, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), 25, and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, 15), as they chase their feelings for each other in the San Fernando Valley. Insofar as there is a narrative, it has to do with the ebb and flow of their non-romance as they apply themselves to a series of hustles: stints as actors, mattress salesmen, salesmen of pinball machines, political volunteers and attached to two 1970s. Hollywood characters, both played by real Hollywood stars, Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.

The narrative is episodic, and some of its settings and cameos work better than others. An elaborate scene at a fair is set up only for Gary to be arrested for no reason – then released. Penn and Cooper appear in the story only to disappear a few minutes later. As he matures as a filmmaker, Anderson seems to have grown bored with the set dressing of conventional Western narrative. His stories now prefer to leave open and ambiguous what they would have resolved at an earlier stage in his career. The master represents the most effective use of this type of narrative entropy. It’s a film about trauma, about deception and a kind of willful national amnesia, and the drift of its storytelling – its elisions, its spines and its many asymmetries – is one piece with its haunting characters.

Here, slack just reads as laziness. licorice pizza, to like The master, the movie it most resembles, is about a love story between two people who seem like they don’t belong together: one, a wayward wanderer; the other, a puffy peddler. But there are some notable differences between these two films. First off, the teenage Hoffman is, it’s fair to say, not on the level of the late, great Hoffman (who is?). Second, unlike licorice pizza, in The master. we are not bound to like or even remotely like the couple at its center.

As for filming techniques, Anderson is a great close-up artist, but although his camera in The master resists distance, it also resists infatuation. The lighting in this film is often cadaverous; he has a strange mortuary intimacy – it’s like John Cassavetes through the TV series Forensic files. This is not the case of Licorice Pizza. Here the faces are steeped in gold and soft reds; even the actors’ pimples look like moles.

Such facial blemishes would seem to follow, given a more innocent story – but they’re not innocent. Alana (Alana Haim) is 25 – or maybe 28; it’s hinted that she’s lying about her age – and there’s something sad and strange about her involvement with a 15-year-old boy, a pathos the film never seems interested in exploring. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), meanwhile, is brimming with undeserved confidence. He directs his friends, treats women like lowly employees, and proudly declares that the world revolves around him. In other words, Gary behaves like any of the male characters in Anderson’s gallery of sociopaths – think Daniel Plainview in There will be blood, or Frank TJ Mackey in the 1999s Magnolia- except that, in this case, he is inserted into the role of romantic hero.

How far can we cut a teenager? How long are we going to cut Anderson? He has demonstrated, throughout his career of some 30 years, his love for a particular kind of teenage humor (there’s an essay to be written about his Freudian fixation on dicks. Consider: The House of Woodcock, Tail- o-the -Cock, Dirk Diggler’s “massive cock”, “respect the cock”, etc.) And on that note, there are “jokes” in Licorice Pizza which fall completely, horribly flat.

Steve (Ryan Heffington), Jon Peter’s (Bradley Cooper) assistant, is one of them: a homosexual caricature, a walking caricature of manners and masochism. Worse: there’s Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a little white character based on the real owner of the Mikado, the first Japanese restaurant in Valley Village, California. In the film, Jerry is married to a first and then another Japanese woman, neither of whom speaks English, but to whom Jerry speaks in an exaggerated, demeaning, faux-Japanese accent. to the Mickey Rooney in Blake Edwards Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Nobody in Licorice Pizza asks Jerry about this accent: not the white protagonists, nor Jerry’s women, who silently support his racist language, like statues of humiliation.

When asked, recently, to defend these scenes, Anderson fell on the crutch that they were faithful to the era, then went on to say that he himself had a “Japanese stepmother” and that it “happens all the time”. ”. Maybe yes. What I can tell you is that these scenes add nothing to an already bloated and aimless movie and at the Boston theater my boyfriend and I attended, most people were screaming at the screen.

The expectations that precede any new Anderson film are approaching a sort of religious frenzy. This is partly due to the scarcity of its product on the market. With cinematic presentation disrupted by the rise of streaming, and further hampered by the pandemic, the commercial window for a filmmaker like him – the much-lamented “mid-budget director” – is shrinking by the day. Anderson’s films become more aberrant, artifacts of an earlier phase of the industry: a vintage label that studios cultivate for reward. As things stand, he’s probably one of the last Hollywood movie writers to be able to dictate, as so few other filmmakers can, when his film will be released, in what format it will be released and in what theaters – he will be thrown onto streaming platforms, a pearl in a sea of ​​shit.

Indeed, his creative mastery is enviable: he casts whom he wants to cast, lights his own films, edits his own trailers, decides on the final editing. “We will have more information on [Licorice Pizza] when he tells us what it is,” said Michael DeLuca, director of MGM. Anderson is one of the few directors with that kind of autonomy, and it’s unlikely to be because he’s such a reliable business bet. Four of his nine feature films have failed to recoup the cost of their production budget, let alone marketing expenses, and it’s likely that Licorice Pizza will be the fifth. His highest-grossing film, There will be blood, only grossed $40 million domestically; by comparing, Spider-Man: No Coming Home grossed around $122 million when it premiered daytime. What is his freedom?

“God tier,” wrote David Ehrlich, chief film critic of Indiewire. “A style of prodigious grandeur,” wrote David Denby of the New Yorker. “Like Orson Welles,” said Ben Affleck, at the 2013 Golden Globes. If Paul Thomas Anderson earned his reputation on the power of his films, he maintained it through the sycophancy that surrounds him: critical acclaim and predominantly male directors who are the guardians of Hollywood taste. This kind of hyperbole seems reserved only for Anderson.

In a global cinema of equally gifted filmmakers – Lucretia Martel, Terence Davies, Tsai Ming-Liang, Lynne Ramsay, to name a few – it’s worth asking why Anderson continues to aspire so many delighted praise, even when he comes out with misfires like Licorice Pizza and 2014 Inherent vice. Critic Armond White, writing on there will be bloodmay have accidentally struck gold when he called Anderson “the little white hopeful for Gen Xers wishing there was a Griffith, Stroheim, Ford, Wyler, Vidor or Stevens among them.”

Although Anderson’s films are about confidence men, peddlers and showmen, the films themselves are consciously great American spectacles, epics projected onto 70mm film, even when the subject – as in Licorice Pizza – hardly seems to deserve it. He is at his best when he can see through his characters’ vanity, pomp and smugness – as in Ghost Thread – or when he can show you, unceremoniously, the fraud and damage underlying the myths of supremacy – as in The master and There will be blood. Otherwise, he can seem, depressingly, like an overgrown American teenager, kicking himself high on his own supply, willfully ignoring the world around him. A bit like Gary’s little world in Licorice Pizza where he really isn’t the center of the world, after all, but just a little jerk.

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