I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Analysis

Calling Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love a romantic comedy seems inappropriate; although it utilizes many of the conventions of the genre, it does so self-consciously, and subverts more conventions than it embraces, casting a knowing gaze on the lighthearted, predictable, and frequently mindless Hollywood fare and twisting it into this surreal, darkly funny, completely surprising and truly original movie of often fearsome beauty. In traditional romantic comedies, as in P.T. Anderson’s film, boy meets girl and has to overcome substantial obstacles strewn across the path to true love; if only more movies could incorporate the use of crowbars, novelty toilet plungers, hundreds of cups of Healthy Choice pudding, harmonium abandonment, and phone sex extortionists into their love stories, a trip to the multiplex would be ever so much more exciting. From the first scenes of Punch-Drunk Love, it is clear we have left the world as we know it and entered the writer/director’s universe, in which the earth seems to rotate and revolve much as it does in real life, only at a rather skewed angle, and everything stands suspended a few degrees away from logic and reality.

The first scene captures Barry (Adam Sandler) in his office at the warehouse, as always, on the phone. In his ridiculous bright blue suit, placed on the left edge of the frame, he is almost unnoticeable, blending into his background. As he walks outside, the camera tracks behind him in one of Anderson’s signature long moving takes, then circles him, finally landing on the street in front of him. Out of nowhere, a moving red car crashes into a parked vehicle, does a flip in the air, and lands, bent and deformed, on the pavement. We barely have time to recover before a Checkered Cab Co. taxi drives up, dumps a harmonium on the side of the road, and disappears as quickly as it appeared.

Of course these actions are never explained, nor even referenced again; the mysterious, arbitrary, chaotic tone of the film is firmly set, only to be heightened by Jon Brion’s hectic score, which surely must be one of the strangest compositions ever put on film. With its eerie, turbulent percussions and jamboree of clicks, buzzing, beats, pulses, beeps, and rattles, the chaotic music is a perfect external representation of the main character’s inner turmoil, anxiety, and uneasiness, which extend to the audience, creating a sense of discomfort and restlessness in the viewer as well. The second scene seems nearly an exact replica of the first. Barry is once again shown in his office, exiting the warehouse with the quickly tracking camera following behind. This repetition creates an almost dreamlike effect, a surreal, absurd incongruity of plot, while also underscoring the tedious routine of the character’s days.

When Lena (Emily Watson) enters Barry’s life in a not-quite-accidental meet cute, she is completely enveloped in light. We can barely make out her facial features because the screen is too bright. Whereas shadows are more commonly used to obscure characters onscreen, Anderson hides his main female character through the warm sunlight and her own radiance, suggesting that Lena will bring light and direction into Barry’s drab, pointless existence. This is also prefigured by the harmonium; out of all possible musical instruments, the director chooses one whose name is a derivative of the word harmony, anticipating the calm and peacefulness in his character’s future.

In Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson subverts the funny nice-guy image the studios pigeonholed Adam Sandler in through a numbing onslaught of mindless comedies. His Barry is a deeply disturbed, angry, desperate young man. His sadness and anger are barely concealed behind polite, embarrassed smiles and impassive expressions, while his dark, obsessive nature comes out through his compulsive collection of Healthy Choice products and coupons. Barry possesses his own brand of passive-aggressiveness, freewheeling between passiveness and aggressiveness seemingly at random: he is the perfect image of poised self-control one second, only to exhibit a total loss of control the next, erupting into sudden bursts of violence.

He has been damaged, perhaps beyond repair, by his abusive family, smothered and trapped to such an extent that his need to break out is translated into his breaking of random inanimate objects, ranging from his sister’s glass porch doors to everything inside an upscale restaurant’s bathroom. In one of the film’s both saddest and funniest scenes, Barry reaches out to his brother-in-law, a doctor, recognizing he has a problem and needs help. The bewildered listener of Barry pouring his heart out embarrassedly stammers, “I’m a dentist.” Undeniably funny, this exchange is also a poignant example of Barry’s impossibility to relate to other human beings; “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong,” he continues, “’cause I don’t know how other people are.”

In the supermarket, Barry asks himself, “What am I looking for?” Of course, he is referring to Healthy Choice products, but this is the fundamental question of his life, and the fact that he has no one to talk to but himself is also revealing. The tragedy of Barry’s character, however, is constantly undercut with comedy. Of course the answer to his soul-searching question has to be the hilarious “pudding!” Like Chaplin, Anderson uses humor to conceal a poignant sadness, not letting either sentiment overpower the other. As Barry looks for his chosen product, cinematographer Robert Elswit rapidly tracks over the endless rows and shelves of supermarket merchandise to an almost hypnotic effect, one product indistinguishable from the next, a wonderful visual metaphor for the mindless repetition of meaningless moments that make up the routine of Barry’s life. The character’s second trip to the supermarket demonstrates a marked change in his life. Having decided to follow Lena to Hawaii, this is the first time the character actually looks happy, doing his little comedic dance in the middle of the supermarket aisle, and he is no longer alone and directionless. He has Lance (Luis Guzman) along for the shopping trip, having commandeered his help using one of my personal favorite lines from the film, delivered in utter dead-pan: “I need to get more pudding for this trip to Hawaii. As I said that out loud, I realized it sounded weird, but it isn’t.”

The path to love truly is riddled with obstacles for Barry, but it is here that we see him truly coming into his own and asserting himself as a character. Something as simple as finding Lena’s apartment in the labyrinthine building takes on significant meaning as he sprints from one apartment number arrow sign to the next in an infinite series of identical, colorless corridors, only to half-collapse on her from his effort after they have shared their first kiss. The dramatic change in the music mirrors the change in Barry’s demeanor, as Brion’s restless score gives way to Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me,” the lavish, swooning music more typical of conventional Hollywood romances. 

The colorful Hawaii setting is similarly traditional and romantic. When Lena and Barry meet, in a beautifully composed shot, they are seen only in dark silhouette in a bright doorway, with dozens of people passing by in the background and foreground paying them no attention. It’s as if time is suspended for the two lovers, and although the world around them continues to move at its dizzying pace, they have made their own, motionless world. In a later scene, Anderson masks the shot, irising in on Barry and Lena’s clasped hands, stopping for just a second between moving on to the next scene. These techniques, however, are slyly used, Punch Drunk Love placing its tongue firmly but affectionately in its cheek. Anderson celebrates the classic romances of the silver screen even as he lovingly pokes fun at their artifice. When Barry Looks around him bewildered and says, “It looks like Hawaii,” it’s clear the movie’s setting is very self-consciously picture-postcard perfect.

Lena’s love gives Barry power and peace of mind, making it possible for him to go to Hawaii, where he stands up to his sister, violently threatening her on the phone to get Lena’s number, and also to heroically deal with the four blond brothers, tire iron in hand, and make his trip to Utah to settle things with Dean. As he tells Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character, “I have a love in my life, and that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” His idealism might seem clich├ęd, but in Anderson’s hands, it is anything but. For the first time, Barry has something worth fighting for, which is by no means a conventional romance. He and Lena are both imperfect, deeply flawed characters, that have found comfort and understanding in each other. There is something indelibly sweet about their endearments the first time they have sex, despite the lines’ disturbing nature. Even Barry’s grand romantic gesture, to make up for leaving Lena at the hospital, is completely weird and unconventional. As he brings her the harmonium, his apology begins with “I called a sex line” and ends with “my puddings need six to eight weeks to be processed.” With a speech like this, how could Lena resist?

P.T. Anderson’s film, in the end, seems to make sense according to its own, warped logic. Capturing the crazy, exhilarating feeling of falling in love suggested by its title, Punch Drunk Love leaves you feeling dizzy, confused, but experiencing an altogether warm and pleasant fluttery sensation.

For a more in-depth analysis of Anderson's Magnolia, click here.

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