Saturday, February 25, 2012

Art House Adam Sandler Movie

Here are the prepared remarks I delivered before last night's screening of Punch Drunk Love at the Doc Film Series at the University of Chicago. Its a collage of material taken mostly from the PDL chapter intro, some other parts of the chapter, and some last minute stuff thrown in. Not as in-depth as I would have liked, but its impossible to get very detailed in a 12-15 minute speech. js

"The Art-House Adam Sandler Movie"

I’d like to begin by thanking Scott Dunham and the Doc Film Series at the University of Chicago for inviting me to speak a little with you this evening. This opportunity is something of a dream come true. I have said in the past, with only slight exaggeration, that I wrote a whole book on Paul Thomas Anderson’s films just so I could write one chapter on Punch-Drunk Love. Punch Drunk Love is today the “forgotten” Anderson film (not counting his modest first effort, Hard Eight)—the one that slipped in the cracks between Boogie Nights and Magnolia in the 1990s and then the sustained critical success of There Will Be Blood a decade later.

When Anderson first told a group of reporters at Cannes in 2000 that he wanted to make his next film with Sandler, he was reportedly laughed at. No serious director would make a formulaic movie with a Hollywood star whose fortune was made playing the King of juvenile humor. Meanwhile, when Punch-Drunk Love finally debuted in late 2002, both Anderson’s cinephile devotees and Sandler’s legion of fans alike were often completely bewildered by a movie that was utterly unlike either Boogie Nights or Magnolia, not to mention—on the other extreme—such bona fide box-office hits as Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison or The Wedding Singer.

I’ve called my talk “The Adam Sandler Art House Movie,” because it nicely encapsulates the contradictions and difficulties in approaching this movie. Punch Drunk Love responds to, and even builds directly off of, the stereotypical roles that Sandler usually inhabits. But, at the same time, it is all presented within an off-beat, challenging, visual and aural style that comes right out of an aesthetic stretching back to the days of the New Wave.

Its also what Anderson himself called PDL in interviews. Critics often read this as implying that the star had been molded into an art house formula, but really Punch-Drunk Love is an exercise in Anderson’s own reinvention of the pre-existing genre conventions in which Sandler thrived.

The film was explicitly written as a vehicle for the star. After Magnolia bombed, Anderson had a falling out with New Line, who had produced both that film and Boogie Nights while giving him unprecedented freedom. Anderson was able to do PDL because Sandler had a lucrative production deal with Revolution Studios—who let Anderson do what he wanted as long as Sandler was in it. In a way, he was a kind of “hired” hand with the movie—literally brought in by Revolution to shepherd an “Adam Sandler film.” Its the closest that Anderson came to being an old-fashioned Hollywood studio auteur—the kind of filmmaker who works within the pre-existing genre confines and expectations of something like Sandler’s frat-boy mode of comedy.

By that same measure, the notion of Punch-Drunk Love as simply a variation on the “typical” Adam Sandler film also misses so much more—namely, it was also the one most clearly Anderson’s film in its stark cinematic originality. It is here—while ironically working in dialogue with Sandler’s persona—that I would argue Anderson began to fulfill his often premature industrial and cultural claim to auteur status.

Although Punch-Drunk Love references many other styles, films and directors throughout, it is not beholden to any of them. Instead of latching onto the genre of neo-noir, or emulating the look of Scorsese or the scope of Altman, Anderson created something alarmingly original—something that felt unlike anything that either he or anyone else had made before. The initial reaction for some was to hold this against him, as though he was just goofing around with his SNL pals, and thus wasn’t trying hard to do something “profound” or “important,” as he had with Boogie Nights or Magnolia. In retrospect, the film’s unexpectedness is one of Punch-Drunk Love’s finest qualities. As Anderson told The London Times in 2003, this film “came from my stomach. It’s referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow—and I’m proud of that.”

There were many accidental moments in the writing and making of Punch-Drunk Love. At one point early in the film, Egan mumbles that “business is very food,” rather than “good,” when asked by his brother-in-law (Robert Smigel) how things are going with his novelty toilet plunger business. The line was originally a typo when writing the script, but the filmmaker left it in—seeming to intuit that such misspeaking fit the socially-awkward, ill-spoken character perfectly. Later in the film, as a steadicam tracks Barry around his apartment, the frame briefly shakes as the camera bumps the coffee table, after moving in too closely on its subject. The effect was originally accidental—a gaffe that occurred during a test-run of the scene, but Anderson was pleasantly surprised by the jolting effect it created, and thus too left in the mistake on subsequent takes. These unplanned moments in Punch-Drunk Love are not only individually effective, but they also speak to a larger ephemeral aspect of Anderson’s film—a certain sense of unexpectedness. Fittingly, the film’s opening prologue ends on Barry’s pitch-perfect declaration, “I do not know”—an appropriate contrast to the omniscient voice-over in Magnolia’s opening.

On a first look, Punch-Drunk Love does not give its audience as much on the surface—simply the story of an emotionally unstable toilet plunger salesman (Barry) whose verbal abuse from his seven sisters, and a regrettable encounter with a corrupt phone sex line, complicates his newfound romantic relationship with a mysterious woman named Lena (Emily Watson). The first half of the plot largely revolves around Barry’s elaborate plan to expose a flaw in a Healthy Choice food products’ promotional giveaway, in order to acquire free frequent flyer mileage—a plan that works, but not in the timely fashion Barry would have liked. Meanwhile, the second half of the film focuses more on a Utah-based phone sex line that blackmails, and later physically threatens, Barry after he uses the service late one night.

Much is inspired by true stories. A few years earlier, an engineer from the University of California, discovered a loop hole in a Healthy Choice promotion, exploiting a discontinuing line of pudding cups for the individual barcodes. The result was that purchasing $3,000 dollars’ worth of pudding eventually netted him one million frequent flyer miles. Other aspects of the film spoke back to Anderson’s own experiences, which suggest that Punch-Drunk Love is every bit as autobiographical at its core as Magnolia. Perhaps unsurprising, given the unabashed childhood obsession with porn that paid off with The Dirk Diggler Story and then Boogie Nights, Anderson also frequently used phone sex services. Sandler later joked that, for the role, “Paul did all the research for me [. . .] Every time I tried to call him, he’d tell me he was on the other line and asked me to wait for two minutes.”

Like Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love’s plotline highlights the emptiness of the commodified sexual experience, and subsequent guilt involved, while contrasting the “strange and distant” feeling of his passive phone sex activities with the movement towards a more genuine connection with Lena later on. Equally autobiographical is Barry’s large family, dominated by sisters. In real life, Anderson grew up the youngest to three older sisters, though the director has resisted the implication that they’re anything like the verbally and emotionally abusive siblings in the film. Anderson has also conceded that he did, like Barry, struggle with anger issues. The film conveys the futility of such anger, while also resisting easy moments of resolution to Barry’s expressions of violence, which are at times quite shocking. At one point, Barry completely destroys a restaurant bathroom in a scene that took four takes—enough for Sandler’s own hands to start bleeding from the performance.

The intensity of Barry’s violence is one of many ways in which Punch-Drunk Love works beyond its quirky little storyline and operates through a more complicated set of affective registers. At the film’s center, Barry is a likeable, but distant, character, whose anger and social awkwardness keeps audiences at arm’s length, and who inhabits a depressingly barren, colorless urban landscape. The plot goes in seemingly random directions, culminating in an awkward love affair involving a man with serious anger problems and a woman who may well be a stalker, and whose courtship largely involves busted up restrooms, moments of miscommunication, doses of self-loathing, and pillow talk that centers on affectionate descriptions of human mutilation.

Then, as soon as it’s begun, Punch-Drunk Love ends at a very brisk 95 minutes (literally half the length of its predecessor). The audience is left with a touching moment of romantic reconnection that is undermined somewhat by its fleeting nature, the slightly off-kilter emotional states of its two partners, and the larger sense that—in this film—our most intense feelings of affection are as often savage (physically, verbally) as they are reassuring. So, what to make of this “romantic comedy” in the end? Its sincere displays of affection are marred just beneath its surface by a cold, unresolved, vision of a lonely life within an alienating consumer world, and of people’s emotional imbalances, while its considerable humor seems often to instead reflect and reinforce profound feelings of sadness. And, throughout all this, at no point does Anderson cheat narratively or thematically by telling us what to think or feel. There is no “but it did happen;” there are no grand speeches about regret, or not wanting to die.

At the same time, Punch-Drunk Love does share many similarities with Anderson’s earlier films. He returns to a smaller story, focused essentially around one clear protagonist (like Sydney in Hard Eight), while also presenting us with a salesman who seems to be struggling with a sense of his own identity after years of trying to please others, just like Donnie Smith in Magnolia or Buck Swope in Boogie Nights. Centered on a small business owner who’s deeply unsatisfied emotionally by the modest financial success he’s achieved, Punch-Drunk Love is another Anderson movie about isolation and loneliness, about finding a possibly loving environment, amidst the alienatingly bland, materialistic consumer culture of Southern California.

Meanwhile, the film’s playful intensification of Sandler’s persona builds on a similar meta-commentary offered by the performance of Tom Cruise as the hyper-masculine misogynist in Magnolia. The meditation on the nature of a star’s persona, along with the narrative emphasis on a single, violent salesman, will also anticipate Anderson’s next film, the more celebrated There Will Be Blood (2007). Thematically, meanwhile, Punch-Drunk Love continues Anderson’s obsession with guilt, often of a sexual kind, and with characters being forced to pay for mistakes they’ve made in the past. The line uttered to Barry late in the film by his tormenter, Dean Trumbell—“Do you think you can be a pervert and not pay for it?”—could fit just as easily within Anderson’s other films. And, ultimately, Punch-Drunk Love ends on a hopeful note that, as with earlier films, seems complicated by the sense it is fleeting at best. Believing that Barry and Lena will simply live “happily ever after” is a superficial reading that ignores unresolved problems which both of them raised throughout the film.

In closing, the beauty and difficulty of Punch-Drunk Love is that it never really resolved the contradictions of its critical, aesthetic and commercial status as an “art-house Adam Sandler movie”—a perfect description, but one that suggests there was ultimately no easily built-in audience for the film. Instead, the film reveals itself slowly—through layers of irreducible tensions between beauty and violence; bodies in motion and still-framed landscapes; love and anger; harmonious music and unsettling sounds; Jeremy Blake’s stunning artwork and Barry’s barren world; richly intoxicating soundscapes and long moments of awkward silence; and periods of remarkable old Hollywood grandeur disrupted by discordant instances of experimental disruption. Punch-Drunk Love avoids the alternately amusing and horrifying shock value of Boogie Nights, as well as the grand, sweeping emotions of Magnolia. But what it does provide lasts longer, I think—all the more so because this richness is irreducible to such simplistic thematic observations as the historical rise of video, the ephemera of celebrity, being haunted by one’s past, or the serendipity of everyday life.