Tuesday, March 20, 2012

RUTZ Classic Movies: Punch Drunk Love

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Line that stays with me: “You're being weird, stop being weird ”

Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together.

Every filmmaker has one filmmaker they look up to and connect with on an instant level. Paul Thomas Anderson is that director for me. Not that he's my favorite director because favorite is such a limited word. I dare not compare filmmakers to each other; every filmmaker has something to offer. I am more attracted to personal films which usually will pleasantly surprise us with its storytelling.  Perfect example is David Fincher, I love his work but his films sometimes are so genre based that you do not get that feeling that you are watching something “NEW” which is very important in cinema. That’s where Paul Thomas Anderson thrives. One of the few directors left trying to continue the great tradition of cinema. His dedication to being innovative and still delivering greatness in the fundamentals of cinema such as: beautiful cinematography, great characters, amazing performances, calculated production design and always a wonderful score to keep it all together, is truly something to celebrate.  Most directors get one or two of those fundamentals right, somehow Paul Thomas Anderson has managed to hit all those marks with each one of his films. This is no easy feat!

Before we get deep into Punch Drunk Love, I believe it is necessary to chart the past a bit in order to understand the film and the various nuances it has to offer.  The 90’s was a great time to be a young filmmaker.  The first film that made me feel like I MUST BECOME A FILMMAKER was Scorsese’s "Goodfellas" which came out in 1989. I was only seven years old when I first watched it so of course I had no idea of what to do with my bottled ambition. A half a decade later, I saw Quentin Tarantino rise to fame with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”. This was a great time for any young filmmaker to learn and dream, but still I was only 10 and puberty is a hell of a distraction. Three years after “Pulp Fiction” I ordered a movie on pay per view called “Boogie Nights” (without telling my mother, so I got busted when the bill came in) and I got the same rush that I got from watching “Goodfellas”.  “Boogie Nights” screams of pure cinema. After “Boogie Nights” I got serious about my profession. It had homages of all sorts, Paul Thomas Anderson is not shy about taking someone else’s idea and making it his. “Boogie Nights” had the Robert Altman approach; Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme elaborate shots plus many other lovely homages ranging from classic films like “I am Cuba” to “On the Waterfront”. With all those great tributes on display, Mr. Anderson was called a rip off artist and was dubbed “Robert Altman JR”.  I don’t think that sort of name calling bothered him much. There’s over a thousand starving filmmakers out there right now who wouldn’t mind being called “Robert Altman JR” but in cinema it is very important to have an identity and that’s where Punch Drunk Love comes in.  

After “Boogie Nights” Paul Thomas Anderson made “Magnolia”.  That epic film cemented Paul Thomas Anderson in the high ranks of American filmmakers.  I love that film, so much to admire, but it still has the same visual flourishes of “Boogie Nights” and the Robert Altman approach was intact. With his first three films Paul Thomas Anderson used many great ideas from the vast pool of film history, but after all the excitement of those first strings of ideas have vanished, how do you get excited about your next project? How do you find your true style? How do you find your identity as a filmmaker? "Punch Drunk Love" plays on that riff. The filmmaker and the film itself are truly one.  With every experimental shot in the film which range from shots timed to capture lens flare (I think Paul Thomas Anderson brought that old technique back, then the new Star Trek killed it) , shaky handheld shots in unique moments and stunning long takes, Paul Thomas Anderson was taking a step forward to find his next stage as a filmmaker. To become like Barry Egan is at the end of film, in tune with himself and his world. That’s why I love the last piece of dialog in the film delivered by Emily Watson to Barry Egan, “So here we go”. Throughout the film Barry plays his harmonium, each effort finds him trying to get on same wave length with the score of the film only to always miss a note. At the end of the film, after several tries, Barry and the film are on the same page. It all comes together when Barry finally finds some love in his life. Now you could interpret that as a sweet sentiment on the power of love or as a declaration from a filmmaker trying to reach a new place with his love; filmmaking. Paul Thomas Anderson followed “Punch Drunk Love” with “There Will Be Blood” so I think it’s pretty safe to say that he found that new place with his love.

Paul Thomas Anderson is very intelligent and instead of using some of his usual influences, it’s like he said how about these other filmmakers I love, how about playing with some of their ideas and mixing them with his own new approach. In “Punch Drunk Love” you get homages to the likes of Jacques Tati, Francois Truffaut and David Lynch.  Jacques Tati’s approach to physical comedy is there when we watch Adam Sandler do his little dance in the supermarket or when Luis Guzman hilariously hit the ground from a busted chair. François Truffaut’s romanticism of cinema is in the DNA of this film. The artwork of the late Jeremy Blake is used in the film with the same energy Truffaut had to turn old ideas into new ones.  It seems to me that Mr. Anderson was very concerned on delivering a new experience to film goers. The live sound is recorded in a very different manner, everything sounds louder and robust. Listen to that scene when Adam Sandler destroys the bathroom, that’s not standard Hollywood live sound. Even the score creates new ways to set up a cue for the audience, lookout for that example in the opening scene. The most powerful filmmakers are the ones that know about all the variations of storytelling and use those ideas any which they want to deliver their grand picture.  Sound comes from the radio era, and in the sense of structure Quentin Tarantino is inspired by novels. When you have a large amount of knowledge on how to tell a story, all you have to do is put some of those ideas in the right place and make sure they work together.

The main piece that makes “Punch Drunk Love” work is Adam Sandler’s performance. I remember when the film was released there were many critics who couldn’t understand why this prestigious director wanted to work with Adam Sandler who at the time was only known for his “Dumb Fun Comedies”.  To me that sort of thinking is a perfect example of the kind of truly lame dry world that cinema inhabits right now. That’s why the Oscar’s are always boring; it seems like having fun or making people laugh isn’t “deep” enough, whatever the hell that means.  I understood right away why Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to work with Adam Sandler. I love “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore”.  They are dumb fun movies that you don’t have to take seriously yet still deliver. Especially “Happy Gilmore” which is now a classic in the “Dumb Fun Comedy” genre.  Adam Sandler’s performances in those films are perfect and make those films work. From his moments of rage that make you laugh, to him dancing up the stairs in “Billy Madison”, Adam Sandler is a very unique performer with childlike innocence in his demeanor. All these ideas appear in "Punch Drunk Love" except it’s a love story built around the perfect kind of character for Adam Sandler’s gifts, an outsider with anger management issues who has not yet found his place in society. In the scene where Barry apologizes to his brother in law for destroying his glass doors, he admits to not knowing how other people are. 

The importance of making a connection, disconnection, trying to stand out and finding your identity in life are some of the themes at hand throughout “Punch Drunk Love”. Barry Egan is a character that had no place in the world. He doesn’t get along with his family and even wears a great blue suit to work because he thinks it will make people take him seriously, which winds up being a terrific joke in the film as everybody asks him “Why are you wearing that suit?”  Early in the film we watch Barry creep out into the world, he looks afraid and if you know how the world really is, he has all the right to be scared. He looks outside his shop and watches a car flip over in a horrible hellish manner. Next a taxi comes out of nowhere and drops a harmonium on the street. Now that’s a brilliant scene. Who knows what will appear before us on the road of life. I love watching that moment when Barry Egan walks over to the harmonium, gives it a good look over and then quickly finds the right moment to kidnap it back to his office; it’s like watching a kid filled with fear go through with a daring moment excited by the promise of a new adventure. That’s one of the film’s great gifts; it announces our fears but acknowledges the fact that the things we love in our lives must be stronger than our fears.  What a beautiful idea to capture since fear never dies but only changes as we get older.

Fear of not being accepted, fear of being alone are some of Barry Egan’s problems in the beginning of the film. His sisters call him weird and “Gayboy”. He thinks he should speak with a therapist. This is a person who does not understand the world around him and has probably isolated himself to the point where many people will not accept him. Barry gives a chance to some of the problem solving companies in America by calling a sex hot line and gets taken advantage of. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few directors truly telling American stories. Barry’s problem is an American problem. With this film he is taking us to the dark places brought on by American isolation. What do you do in your valuable free time in a place like America? What if you had no friends? Taxi Driver and this film have a lot in common.  Barry Egan found love; Travis Bickle did not and went crazy. Love can truly save someone from madness. The world as we know it was not built with our best interest at heart. Some things will not make sense to us and other things will not seem attractive to us, even if it makes sense to 100 million other people. Some people will eventually find themselves on the outskirts of the American Dream; Barry Egan is one of those people.

I get a sense throughout the film that Barry doesn’t know how other people are because he truly cannot comprehend America’s façade. In the film Barry is literally trying to pull one over on the “THE MAN” by purchasing a substantial amount of pudding to receive enough frequent flier miles so that he will never have to pay for an airline ticket again. Of course when he tries to turn the pudding in, the company tells him it will take 6 to 8 weeks to process.  In that scene Barry Egan loses it and punches the American map behind him with all his might. Throughout the film we see the colors of Red, White and Blue in that exact order. Another scene has his sister saying one of the most famous American oxymoron sayings “So what, it’s a free country”. On their first date Barry tells Lena that he loves a radio personality named “DJ Justice” because he is not a phony and tells it like it is. America is very much in this film, which makes sense because Barry’s problems are American problems. In a country like America some people will have difficulty being perceived as “normal” and what will these people do? Only love can save them. Love does not require understanding. You could know 10% about a person and fall head over heels for them. After years of emotional beatings from his sisters to society (PUNCH DRUNK) Barry meets Lena, someone who accepts him for who he truly is and he falls in love. His love for her will be stronger than most, after all those beatings he knows how hard and rare it is to find someone who accepts you for who you are. He’s found someone to admit his faults to (I love that scene when Barry admits to Lena that he “Beat up the bathroom”) with no worry about being judged. That sort of love will change your whole life. You will worry less about the world’s problems and your union will become like a PLACE. That’s why I love that shot after Barry and Lena’ first date; when they're walking to the car, a moving truck passes with the words: “Relocation at its best!” on it, I agree.  That’s how powerful love is, it can turn people into places. I have said many great things about this film and still have yet to mention the terrific Phillip Seymour Hoffman performance or Jon Brion’s wonderful romantic score. I am truly Punch Drunk Love about this film especially after 2 decades of watching films. My brain was beaten to death with movies I couldn’t connect with.  Then this film arrives out of nowhere, it gets you, it speaks your language and it makes you fall in love with cinema all over again.

ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Mark L. Lester's Commando


  1. That's a great essay and i think you made a mistake on first paragraph..

    "Not that his my favorite director because favorite is such a limited word."

    It's not that he's my favorite director because, favorite is such a limited word.

    All the rest is AWESOME! Via @PeaceUFO from twitter.

  2. One of the only Adam Sandler films that was good (and it wasn't just good it was great. Cool article and really well thought out.

  3. You took the words right out of my head. This is one of the best films I've ever seen and PT Anderson is one of the few filmmakers I can say is legitimately genius.
    One thing I feel about him is he really seems to bring out the best performances in the actors he works with.
    And the final scenes in PDL are absolutely transcendent; perhaps the most romantic finale I can think of in film.
    "I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine."
    That pretty much sums everything up, to me.