One is the loneliest number: Paul Thomas Anderson’s lonely people

In the middle of Paul Thomas Anderson’s third and most ambitious film, Magnolia (1999), two damaged, lonely people – Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) and Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) – go out on a rather nervous date.

Until this point, Walters’ character, a coke addict with a history of sexual abuse, has been alone in her apartment becoming increasingly whacked and paranoid. Reilly’s character, a cop, has paid her a long visit – neighbours have complained about the noise coming from inside her apartment including music and yelling. He finds he’s attracted to her so feigns reasons to stay, lecturing her about possible damage to her hearing, drinking a cup of coffee (and then another) and repeatedly asking if she has a boyfriend.

Claudia and Jim get to know each other in her hallway
Claudia (Melora Walters) and Jim (John C. Reilly) get to know each other in her hallway in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia

Claudia observes that they’re ‘just getting warmed up … just getting started’ when Jim’s called away but he doesn’t make it further than the other side of the door when he returns to ask her on a date later that night: ‘I feel like I’d be a bit of a fool if I didn’t do something I really wanted to do which is to ask you for a date’. They decide to go out at 10pm when he finishes his shift.

In the intervening hours, Claudia continues to snort coke and call herself stupid. It starts to rain with increasing intensity and Jim loses his gun over-zealously chasing a jaywalker. He also feels stupid, the chief fool of the LAPD.

Claudia takes more drugs as she waits for her date with Jim
Claudia takes more drugs as she waits for her date with Jim
Jim prays for understanding after he loses his gun
Jim prays for understanding after he loses his gun

Their dinner date begins with Claudia asking Jim, ‘Did you ever go out with someone and just … lie … question after question, maybe you’re trying to make yourself look cool or better than you are or whatever, or smarter or cooler and you just – not really lie, but maybe you just don’t say everything – ’

Jim thinks this is a ‘natural’ thing to do, that most people are scared of saying things that will make the other person not like them.

But Claudia really wants to connect and asks Jim to make a deal with her, to have the guts to say things that are real, to not do what they have done before, a deal not to lie anymore: ‘I’ll tell you everything and you tell me everything and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.’

When Jim calls her up on her use of ‘strong language’ (he’s quite religious), Claudia gets nervy and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. When she returns she seems more confident (more coke?) and kisses Jim on the cheek before sitting back down.

She says that she’s worried he’ll hate her soon when he finds out how crazy she is. Compared to her he seems so straight and put together. But in the spirit of their deal, Jim ruptures this illusion and tells her that he lost his gun and that he’s ‘the laughing stock of a lot of people.’

Jim feels unburdened by his confession and wants to reassure Claudia that she can talk to him and tell him anything, he’ll be a good listener and he won’t judge her. But Claudia feels the pressure’s too much, that her confession is too great and instead asks Jim if he wants to kiss her. And he does.

Anderson has said that he began writing the screenplay for Magnolia with a line from an Aimee Mann song, ‘Deathly’, in his head (the film’s soundtrack heavily features her music; as Anderson has said of his friend, ‘I owe her some cash, probably.’). Mann’s line, ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to, never seeing each other again’, is rephrased by Claudia after she and Jim kiss across the table. She asks him, ‘Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?’

While the date has done something to ease Claudia’s extreme loneliness, she continues to feel unlovable. She asks Jim to let her go and she walks out of the restaurant, alone.

Anderson realises that even giving yourself over to the idea of connecting with another person is a big ask. There is a lot at risk. And for someone as vulnerable as Claudia is, it’s even more difficult. In leaving her apartment, she’s literally left her comfort zone and ventured into the great unknown of the San Fernando Valley. Jim has given her a taste of something different and potentially special in her life, and in asking him that question she’s acknowledging the fear that in showing him her real self it might all go terribly wrong. It’s a preemptive strike, an out before she falls any further in.

Obviously, after this account of one of Magnolia’s many intersecting storylines, you’d be mistaken if you sat down thinking it a happy film about how easy it is to get close and stay close to other people.

After it’s prologue section the film proper begins to the sound of Aimee Mann’s version of Harry Nilsson’s ‘One.’ And what Magnolia delivers, en masse, is a tapestry of characters like Claudia and Jim, struggling with loneliness – a collection of ‘ones’ who want to be ‘twos.’

There’s the ‘Master of the Muff’, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise). He’s the mastermind of a wildly successful and sexist men’s self-help program called ‘Seduce and Destroy’ designed to help men ‘tame’ women. Frank sees life as a game – whether you win or not depends not on what you give but what you take. It’s a twisted perspective given that Frank’s own life has been shaped by a major event – his father left him to care for and eventually watch his mother die from cancer when he was just fourteen. It’s a wound that’s never healed and in the end nothing can quiet his belief that ‘men are shit’.

Tom Cruise as Frank TJ Mackey
Tom Cruise as Master of the Muff, Frank T.J. Mackey

We first meet Claudia at a bar scoring drugs which she seems to pay for with sex. And there’s her father, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the host of the long running kids quiz show, ‘What Do Kids Know?’, whose public persona is a far cry from his private one. He sexually abused Claudia when she was a kid and now with cancer and only two months to live is desperate to make amends for the sins of the past.

Anderson regular, Philip Baker Hall as Jimmy Gator
Anderson regular, Philip Baker Hall as Jimmy Gator

There’s the talent from Jimmy Gator’s show. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a child genius, whose only friends are his books and wants his parasitical dad to be nicer to him. He wants off the show – he’s had enough of performing for adult amusement.

And as a portent of what awaits Stanley if these things don’t happen, there’s former 1960s quiz kid champion, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), whose parents pushed him, scarred him and then stole all his winnings. As an adult he has nothing and no one and hits rock bottom when he’s fired from his sales job at Solomon Solomon’s Electronics on the eve of getting braces for his teeth. Donnie’s misery is intensified by an unrequited love for a younger, hunky barman called Brad. Later, Donnie utters the film’s most heartbreaking truth, ‘I really do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.’

William H. Macy (centre) as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith
William H. Macy (centre) as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith

There’s Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) the much younger wife of the terminally ill Earl (Jason Robards), the former producer of ‘What Do Kids Know?’ Linda’s discovered now that it’s too late that she really is in love with her husband and her guilt sends her to a dark place.

Julianne Moore as Linda Partridge
Julianne Moore as Linda Partridge
Jason Robards as the dying Earl Partridge
Jason Robards as the dying Earl Partridge

Earl Partridge is Frank’s estranged father. Under a morphine haze he confesses his regret for repeatedly cheating on and then leaving Frank’s mother, Lily, his one true love. Receiving this confession is Earl’s day nurse, Phil Parma (the exquisite Philip Seymour Hoffman). Phil’s lonely and so he gets too close to his patients and cries way too much. He is the film’s warmest, most human centre as he sets out to fulfill Earl’s dying wish to see his son.

The wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman as Phil Parma
The wonderfully empathetic Philip Seymour Hoffman as Phil Parma

When Magnolia was first released it was difficult to find people who loved it as much as I did. The subject matter was heavy, the characters universally miserable. Audiences were confused when characters started singing along with Aimee Mann’s ‘Wise Up’ in a pivotal scene. The shower of frogs that rain down from the sky later on baffled others. Each part has a purpose within the whole, and if this isn’t immediately apparent to you, I don’t think Anderson cares. But I’m not saying he doesn’t care because he writes these elements into a film simply to perplex or because he wants to keep you at a distance; quite the opposite, actually. He just wants you to work a little harder to get close. And in a cinematic culture that often asks very little of you as an audience, this can often be a big ask.

But I’m not going to apologise for trying to convert you to the church of Paul Thomas Anderson. I worship there regularly and I think you should too. He is my favourite director working in American film today, sitting atop a pretty impressive pile (the Coen brothers, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Jim Jarmusch, among others). I admit to this despite knowing that he probably frustrates many of you – that for as many people who love him, there are those who find his films overly long, difficult, deliberately obscure, technically showy and even meaningless. It does make me laugh, despairingly, that some people won’t dig any deeper into an Anderson film despite happily walking away from a Lynch film like Mulholland Drive in complete bewilderment. They are the same people who are dazzled by Scorsese’s tracking shots in Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, but think that in Anderson’s hands it’s tantamount to an enfant terrible just showing off.

One of the great writer/directors, Paul Thomas Anderson
One of the great living writer/directors, Paul Thomas Anderson

For me, Anderson is certainly a master technician, but above all, he’s a profound storyteller. Magnolia was written in the wake of what he called a ‘severe cancer spiral’ and the death of a number of important people in his life, including his father in 1997. Anderson is that rare beast – an American auteur, a writer and director – who wants to take us on a journey that will have some kind of satisfying resolution, even if his narratives are not tied up in nice neat pretty little bows. And he doesn’t want it to be easy. His films, like great literature, do require work, the opposite of passivity from you as a viewer, and a willingness to be open to thinking and feeling about what you have seen well after the credits stop rolling.

Intercutting stories, characters singing, frogs falling from the sky – these are not gimmicks. They provide ruptures in the narrative, moments of catharsis that allow characters to move forward, and allow us as an audience to feel the weight of the world Anderson has created for them.

And that’s why for me Magnolia is probably one of the most moving films I think I’m ever likely to see. And it reaches the top of its emotional mountain in its final beautiful and satisfying scene, a scene that closes the film with hope, with something that transgresses and transcends loneliness – its antithesis, connection.

The morning after the frog storm Jim goes to see Claudia. We don’t see his face we just hear him talking, saying he won’t let her go. The camera is firmly on her face as he sits on her bed with his back to us. And then she smiles directly at us. Fade to black. Of this simple scene, Anderson has said that ‘it is a surrender to falling in love, no matter how much shit that’s going to entail.’ It’s hopeful and filled with the promise of happiness and something other than being alone – being together, being accepted, and importantly, forgiving yourself for your perceived deficiencies.

Magnolia's final shot
Magnolia’s final, perfect shot

Magnolia is in part about the workings of chance and coincidence and events beyond human control. Except that the stories that Anderson weaves together in fact suggest something else – that while some things ‘just happen’ we do have the agency to make of these strange events what we will. There is something quite comforting in this, if this is the film’s ‘message.’ Anderson reminds us that even when we are lonely, we are not alone in our experience of the world. And isn’t having this fear assuaged, in the end, why we visit the cinema – to look and see other people like us.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

In an essay entitled ‘God’s Lonely Man’, American novelist Thomas Wolfe, suggested that loneliness is an inevitable part of the human condition, connecting it to his own personal experience:

‘The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. When we examine the moments, acts, and statements of all kinds of people – not only the grief and ecstasy of the greatest poets, but also the huge unhappiness of the average soul … we find, I think, that they are all suffering from the same thing. The final cause of their complaint is loneliness.’

What is loneliness? Obviously, it’s more than just being alone. Think about how many times, even in a group of people, you have felt lonely. Loneliness isn’t allayed by how many friends we have or how busy our social life is. It’s something deeper than that. It’s what we feel when we feel like all those people around us don’t really know who we are.

The antidote to loneliness is intimacy. And we are all desperate to connect, to get closer. Many of us struggle to do it. A question is repeated throughout Magnolia, ‘How do I do this?’ and the realization, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ This is true for so many things. We all want to be close to our friends, loved ones, people we work with and see every day. We want other people to know us, but the fear of rejection can hold us back. We all have love to give but like Quiz Kid Donnie Smith some of us just don’t know where to put it. It’s one of the great paradoxes of being human that the thing we crave most is often the most elusive.

Anderson seems to agree. It isn’t just Magnolia – loneliness, thwarted relationships, and finding where we fit in an often-crazy world, are major concerns in all his films.

Loneliness runs all the way through Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (1996). John C. Reilly was equally affecting here playing a forlorn young man trying to raise money to bury his mother. His loneliness brings a father figure his way, in the shape of professional gambler, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), and the love of another damaged woman, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight
Fathers and sons – Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in Hard Eight

It’s also at the core of the offbeat Punch Drunk Love (2002), which paints a picture of the dizzying effects of falling in love alongside a portrait of Barry Egan’s (Adam Sandler) solitude. And it’s definitely there in Anderson’s most popular and well-known film, the tragicomic porn saga, Boogie Nights (1997) where a group of social misfits connect to form something akin to family.

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) all alone in Punch Drunk Love
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) all alone in Punch Drunk Love
Porn family (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly) goes shopping in Boogie Nights
Porn family (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly) go shopping in Boogie Nights

All Anderson’s films create worlds in which the bonds of ‘family’ are the source of both connection and isolation. This is one part of the extraordinary There Will Be Blood (2007). A mineral prospector and lonely man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) forges a family of sorts in an isolated landscape with the orphan he names H.W. (Dillon Freasier), only to end his days more alone than he started them, an alcoholic living in a mansion with only his butler for company.

Two lost souls create a sort of family in There Will Be Blood
Two lost souls create a sort of family in There Will Be Blood

Fathers and sons, the search for a place or a person called home. Which finally brings me to the real point of this post – Anderson’s latest film, The Master.

The Master reminded me of great Scorsese in more ways than one but mostly because of its relation to one of American cinema’s most fascinating ‘lonely men’, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver:

‘Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.’

This description of Bickle might also apply to The Master’s protagonist, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master
Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master

When The Master begins, the Second World War is ending and Freddie is a man adrift. He belongs to no one and to no place. He has an alcoholic father and a psychotic institutionalized mother back in Massachusetts. He’s also traumatized by the love and loss of a young girl who hasn’t waited for him.

The Master opens with a sequence of scenes that illuminate Anderson’s skill as a filmmaker of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school.

It’s the eve of V-J Day in the summer of 1945. Freddie and other marines are idle on a beach in the Pacific. They amuse themselves by crafting a sand sculpture of a passive female body. Freddie simulates sex with it. It’s a coarse, feral scene, yet strangely compelling. But Freddie also lies down and seeks comfort from this lifeless body. Pay attention – Anderson is showing us everything we need to know to start to make sense of this strange, disaffected man. He’s damaged goods and we want to know why.

Freddie and his substitute lover on a beach
Freddie and his substitute lover alone on the beach

Freddie mixes peculiar drinks with coconut juice and then later drains the juice from a torpedo on ship and drinks that too. From these opening scenes you wouldn’t be wrong to think, as I initially did, that the master to which the title refers is booze, and Freddie’s a slave to it.

It’s a series of almost wordless scenes – really striking images set to a disquieting soundtrack scored once again by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – that reminded me of the speechless, establishing shots in There Will Be Blood, in their visual, visceral impact.

Freddie’s character continues to be built, layer upon layer. Anderson shows us his history in the years immediately after the war, when he is discharged from the Navy for an unnamed ‘nervous condition’. War has made a mess of him, physically and psychically. He has kidney problems (they are ‘all torn up’) and moves with curved shoulders and hands pressed at his sides to alleviate his pain. Phoenix’ embodiment of these wounds is intense and instinctive, manifest in his twisted facial expression and lurching torso. His external state a mirror of his inside. Anderson often frames Freddie within scenes alone – shot apart from others, separated from the crowd and inhabiting the fringes of his own life. This isolation continues later in the film when he is accepted into The Cause’s fold. Together, but alone. He’s a solitary, broken man. We wonder if he can put the pieces back together.

Going overboard - Freddie reads a letter and waits for the war to end
All alone – Freddie reads a letter and waits for the war to end

What follows gives little hope that this will happen. To medicate what must surely be PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) he continues drinking to excess – just about anything he can get his hands on, including cough medicine, paint thinner and darkroom chemicals. His sexuality can only be described as an aberration. Freddie is lonely – he has no master in his life and no cause to attach himself to. He is struggling to make his way in a world that has been turned upside down by war. He is a man with no plan – it’s almost as if he has no reason to live except to follow his basest instincts and desires wherever they may lead him.

Freddie's in the darkroom mixing up the medicine
Freddie’s in the darkroom mixing up his medicine

He takes a job photographing families in a department store. In the postwar consumerist boom, a whole new world is unfolding. Anderson illustrates this with a remarkable scene shot in one continuous camera movement that follows a store model around the shop floor to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’, echoing the colours and textures of magazine photography of this period. It is one of the film’s many highlights. But there’s no place for Freddie inside this burgeoning postwar American ideal, despite the fact that he photographs it. Later, he’ll take work in Salinas picking cabbages before an event occurs that precipitates his escape.

Freddie taking photos of the American Dream (note how he holds onto his kidneys)
Freddie taking photos of the American Dream (note how he holds onto his kidneys)

Freddie reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s major poem, ‘Howl’, and its opening lines in particular: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …’

While a deeply personal poem, ‘Howl’ also captures something significant about the shared experience of the postwar generation set adrift in a culture that had abandoned emotional truth and authenticity for obedience and consumerism. The ‘madness’ at the heart of Ginsberg’s poem comes to life not only in Freddie’s character, but also in the world he inhabits, a period marked by its adherence to conformity, sexual repression, paranoia and capitalist values. In this new world, Freddie is a raw nerve waiting to snap; a hollow shell just floating through his own life. Freddie’s ‘madness’ might be an effect of his loneliness and neglect. No one cares for him (this could pre-date the war; Anderson doesn’t provide any easy answers to this question) and he doesn’t know how to care for himself.

Salvation appears to come in the shape of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). With this man comes the promise of a new beginning and an antidote to his loneliness.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master

Dodd is selling The Cause, his ‘gift to homo sapiens,’ an incoherent ideology that promises enlightenment through a mix of science, philosophy and past life regression. As Dodd’s son points out on more than one occasion, ‘he’s making it up as he goes along’. But he’s also selling something more potent, something that Freddie really wants to buy, really needs – family, connection and direction.

Dodd is selling Freddie the promise of a place to belong
Dodd is selling Freddie the promise of somewhere to belong

Freddie is a drifter (literally and symbolically, at sea) with a deep desire to connect, to find something stable to anchor himself to, to find a family and a place called home. But like all Anderson films, finding a place to belong to, brings challenges and costs.

You’ll have heard (maybe even from Anderson himself) that The Master’s Cause is akin to Scientology. I think this film is much more than an expose of such an organization. It could be about any organization. But for me, it’s a powerful exploration of what happens when two types of men collide. Is Dodd really modeled on L. Ron Hubbard or is he just a personality and a type, a recognizable American ideas man like Cotton Mather or Dale Carnegie selling what people want to buy in a time of uncertainty? Isn’t it the severe effect that the experience of war (the details of which we never do get the full story) has had on Freddie and the consequences of his neglect in a hostile world that really propels this narrative along? These seem to me to be the important questions posed by Anderson here.

The Master is a study of characters, in a very American context – of one man who has followed the script laid out for him by his country and failed and another who decides to rewrite it and create his own world order.

Freddie is always one step behind his master
Despite wanting connection, Freddie is always one step behind his master

Freddie and Dodd’s first meeting is a curious one. Freddie mixes up some of his intoxicating booze (to which Dodd soon becomes hooked) and then submits himself to a session of ‘processing’ (like Scientology’s auditing) that ends with the smoking of a rather homoerotic cigarette. While Anderson doesn’t add anything overtly ‘queer’ about the nature of their relationship, there is certainly something intense and sexual in the bond that develops (made all the more apparent in their final meeting and the singing of the standard ‘(I’d Like to Get You On A) Slow Boat to China’). The men are immediately attracted and repulsed by each other and neither really has the language needed to explain what’s going on.

While Dodd introduces himself as ‘a writer, a doctor, a theoretical philosopher and a nuclear physicist’ he is keen to emphasize his similarity to Freddie, concluding that ‘Above all, I am a man … just like you.’ Yet despite their shared love of liquor, Dodd sets himself apart from Freddie, who he describes, to his face, as aberrated, as a liar, and as a silly animal.

Dodd makes it his mission to help Freddie quell his desires. He will be Freddie’s master and Freddie will be a slave to his master narrative of life: ‘You’ll be my protégé and my guinea pig.’ But Freddie remains mostly a guinea pig as the shift in power required to attain protégé status is never reached. More than anything, theirs is a symbiotic relationship (most powerfully played out in the jailhouse scene, which has a split screen effect) – each needs the other to make sense of who they are. And as Dodd reminds Freddie, ‘Nobody likes you but me.’

I don’t want to say much more about the plot or how it unravels or whether Freddie’s loneliness is ever really quelled and where he ends up at film’s end.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that news of Phoenix’ return to film in The Master filled me with unadulterated joy. He is simply mesmerizing here. It’s a ferocious embodiment and for all the twitchiness some critics have attributed to Phoenix’ performance its most stunning feature for me is its stillness and interiority. Whatever technique he has (and he has loads) doesn’t show – like his late brother, what you notice most are his natural instincts. He builds characters from the inside out. Phoenix gives Freddie an inner emotional life – equal parts quiet and contained, volatile and explosive. Phoenix becomes Freddie with every part of his body.

Phoenix gives an intensely physical and volatile performance
Phoenix gives an intensely physical and quietly explosive performance in this comeback role

(Hoffman is also extraordinary – charismatic, controlled and ebullient – but this really is Phoenix’ film.)

The Master is a masterpiece. I agree with J. Hoberman, writing for The Guardian, when he says that The Master ‘feels as if it could be a part of American literature.’ It is a story on par with John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis, a profound study of characters, a parable about the American experience, about self-made men and the hollow promise of community and salvation.

One last point. You really should see Anderson’s films at a cinema – certainly not for the first time on a television screen and definitely not on your computer screen or phone. You will lose something huge, I promise. Especially with The Master, which he shot on film in the underused large, 65-mm format, which gives extraordinary depth, warm colour saturation and a sense of intimacy that is overwhelming. Shadows and contours are emphasized; the tactility of every object in every scene assaults your senses and wraps you up in them. Anderson has created, as Richard Brody says in his New Yorker review, ‘the closest thing to a 3-D movie without glasses.’

Just one of the many exquisite images that you should see on a big screen
Just one of the many exquisite images that you really should see on a big screen
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2 thoughts on “One is the loneliest number: Paul Thomas Anderson’s lonely people

  1. Wonderful overview of Anderson’s work. I think it’s a testament to his genius that he is able to repeatedly cast some of Hollywood’s finest talent in his films.

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