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  • #45: Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

#45: Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

"I don't like myself sometimes. I don't know if there's anything wrong with me because I don't know how other people are"

I actually don’t like myself sometimes. I feel out of place, out of time. There is mental illness, ADHD, health issues, social anxiety, etc. But when I am in front of my keyboard or playing my guitar or with someone close that does care about me, I actually do start to feel an appreciation of my personality, my talents, my great big messy heart. Not to mention when I am watching an exceptional movie that speaks to me too. Paul Thomas Anderson makes several movies that sing to me.

Been in a weird headspace the past couple of days which makes this a perfect time to write about one of my top 20 favorite movies of all time. The weirdness comes courtesy of social media (surprise surprise) and the response to film analysis. Right after the Oscars aired, I became inundated with posts, tweets, articles and comments about the ceremony and particularly, who won. I watched it like I do every year, thought it was fine. It just doesn’t matter to me in the way that watching Punch-Drunk Love on the big screen the night before, mattered.

I feel on the outside looking in sometimes when it comes to loving movies the way that I do. I have a hard time getting into the current discourse. I’m sometimes excited about award season, but mostly indifferent. I’m used to folks getting riled up about who was nominated, who won, who didn’t, but this was one of those moments where I couldn’t participate in the conversation because it just felt trivial to me. Yes, Lily Gladstone could’ve made history, but her time will come. Calm down. I don’t want to read another word about how she should’ve been nominated in the supporting category, etc. It’s over let’s move on. There are so many amazing films of the past to focus on too. I need to remind myself sometimes that I want to love movies in my own way, hence this newsletter.

This is not to dismiss everyone who does contribute to the current conversation - I’m a little envious of those writers / podcasters / influencers who do get a lot of likes, retweets when they do have something smart and articulate to point out about the state of film and filmmaking these days. My brain rarely works on that level to come up with something concise. I’m still on Twitter/X for a reason, admitting it’s a total love/hate relationship. I just don’t know if I’m built for a digestible, succinct summation of an awards show or even a film review.

I approach writing without a lot of thought as to where it might go (hence the stream-of-consciousness introduction to my 45th essay here). Some people just have a lot of insightful things to contribute, whether through a podcast or through 140 characters. For myself, I admit a level of self-indulgence when it comes to my approach. It’s rambly and ramshackle that likely reads more like a diary entry which is why I rarely try to submit to established publications. One of my favorite writers is Thomas Pynchon for a reason. My thoughts and the way they come out can be a little messy, weird and indulgent.

Speaking of indulgence, I will be writing about a couple more of Paul Thomas Anderson movies in the future because he is and always will be my favorite director. Only three years after seeing Pulp Fiction, did my friend Denny and I go to see Boogie Nights together and I still have distinctive memories of his laughter at certain moments or the audience response at the end. (Man in front of us declaring, “Well that was the worst movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction.”)

I have a lot of thoughts, stories, theories, overwhelming love regarding the work of PTA. Many cinephiles do. I’m attempting to bridge the first couple of paragraphs into an analysis of Punch-Drunk Love, which I had just seen again on the big screen for the first time in a long time, in 35mm. Nowadays, you will find thousands of movie buffs declaring their opinions about any little thing revolving around the way a filmmaker chooses to tell their story. Back when films like Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights were brand new, I felt singled out as the “movie nerd” of my high school. Now, they’re everywhere and they all have thoughts/tweets.

My thoughts about Punch-Drunk Love continue to evolve over time. Again, I could go on about the plot and the details but it’s best to focus on the feeling since I think that’s what Paul Thomas Anderson cares about the most. Who remembers certain plot details anyway? I bet if you listen to my podcast, for the most part, my review (again indulgently) revolves around on what I felt watching it more than a deconstruction of technique or if the story is told well. In fact, there have been instances on another podcast where a PTA detractor said that he’s not a good storyteller. My reply was usually, “Why does ‘story’ have to be the focus for every film?” In the words of Mr. Waturi, “I’m not arguing with you,” if that’s how you feel about Paul Thomas Anderson: the (flawed) writer. Though my feeling remains is that he does nearly everything right with every single film.

It’s funny that I often feel a little depressed with the awards season response because again, why focus on that aspect of celebrating the art of cinema? In the same way, when others seem to not connect to a certain film/filmmaker the way I do, I guess I often get a little sad that they don’t experience what I experience. Because there is true euphoria to be had when embracing any art form. I just happen to love music and movies the most and sometimes both come together beautifully right before my eyes, and I turn into Nicole Kidman in the AMC ad.

Punch-Drunk Love is an example of this happening. Right when the song “He Needs Me” comes to an end and Barry walks up to Lena and they kiss, I cry every time because all I can think of in that moment, “this is why I fall in love with movies, this shot right here, it’s a work of art - not just within the frame or the visual, but the music too.” Not an exaggeration or hyperbole, it is my favorite shot in all of cinema. Maybe it’s a bit vanilla of a choice; I stand by it. The poster of this shot hangs above my bed. The stuff dreams are made of, look below.

My first screening of Punch-Drunk Love was memorable. In the winter of 2002, I had become a regular caller on the Nick Digilio Show on WGN Radio alongside friends Erik Childress and Collin Souter. We were all there for the premiere screening of this film at the Music Box Theatre with director in attendance. Sadly, he had the flu and couldn’t make it after all. But I sat there among peers, critics and colleagues and this was around the same time I began attending screenings, one of which will come up again with Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. Suffice to say, I was smitten with the film right from the first viewing.

It’s hard to say how Adam Sandler managed to tap into my own bouts with social anxiety, communication difficulties and overall generalized awkwardness. But the scene where he confides in his brother-in-law was when I first noticed Sandler’s range and the ability to convey deep-seeded insecurity within his brand of humor. The moment where he says, “sometimes I cry for no reason,” is kind of a miracle in that the five times I’ve seen this in a theater, the audience reaction is usually split. Some people laugh at the fact he has an outburst right after saying that, some people let out a wistful “aww” in sympathy/ recognition.

Not to mention the tricky tonal balance of Sandler showcasing true blue depression while his brother-in-law (the great Robert Smigel) delivers an instantly funny retort with, “Barry, I’m a dentist. How can I help?” My favorite moments manage to be both tragic and hilarious, dark and hopeful. That’s what life feels like to me sometimes. I don’t laugh out loud as much as friends I know, but I do see the comedy in everyday life. There’s a reason that After Hours remains my favorite Scorsese film - I’ve experienced a version of a night like this where you eventually just have to laugh at the absurdity of everything going wrong. Punch-Drunk Love walks a fine line between Paul’s idea of a melancholy Technicolor musical mixed with an otherworldly look at loneliness and longing.

“I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum at a young age (by a psychologist not a dentist), after showing many of the basic traits. Eye contact would often be problematic, I’d mispronounce words when nervous, and at times I’d just smash things out of frustration. Initially I rejected the diagnosis due to my doctor seeming worryingly disinterested in me, and still do for the most part, although I appreciate how psychological assessment can help others. Like Barry, the problems I had were with nothing other than people — friends were a bad influence, my family were neglectful, and since then I’ve found a sense of belonging in the world, resulting quite directly in my social awkwardness diminishing, albeit not totally. Our psyches will always be affected by the people we’re surrounded by, it’s human nature. That’s why love is such a gift, and you should refrain from smashing its face in if you’re ever lucky enough to catch it. In many ways, Punch-Drunk Love represents PTA’s first step away from imitations of his hero Robert Altman and his first step towards his own voice, despite details like Shelley Duvall’s perfectly planted ‘He Needs Me’ song from Popeye or the phone-sex smacking slightly of Short Cuts. Either way, it’s always the right decision when it comes down to this guy. Pudding to Barry Egan is what spinach is to the sailorman, and we all need a little pick-me-up sometimes. The best of them all, though, is often the hardest to find, so if you ever do sense that mysterious thing called love hesitantly edging its way round the corner, make sure to seize it as quickly as you can. You’ll wake up one day feeling stronger than you ever could’ve imagined” - Evan T

In Punch-Drunk Love, we also witness Barry explode with either anger, sadness or both due to his anxiety and trauma (likely caused by his seven sisters that berate and belittle him constantly). His repressed rage erupts when he breaks the windows at his sister's house, tears up the bathroom at the restaurant or when he punches a hole through his wall in his office. All of which are examples of seeing Barry on the edge of breaking down, losing control and not having an outlet. But perhaps the harmonium will become his outlet. He’s clearly needed one. Take a look at his apartment as well as his impulsive choice to call a phone sex line run by Dean Trumbull (a spectacular Philip Seymour Hoffman villain).

The moment when he's getting the first threatening calls while also trying to talk to Lena while also dodging questions about pudding while also listening to the forklift disaster outside, feels more relatably hectic than most war scenes. The editing, the rhythm, and the sound design just gush anxiety with an undertone of dark humor that saves it from being too much. After Barry punches the wall, there are two things to take note of: the fact that the word “love” can be seen on his knuckles and the way he gentle caresses the harmonium for comfort. When he snaps out of his sadness, perhaps he realizes that now that both of these things are in his life, he can now move past the anger (unless of course someone ends up hurting his new object of affection - then all bets are off).

Lens flares are everywhere in this film alongside Jon Brion’s impeccable, percussive score that alongside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, remain my favorites and inspire me to this day. Every single aspect of this film on a technical level works its magic on me. I still often think to myself upon rewatches, “how does PTA know exactly what I want from movies?” Really, the only two that don’t strike chords are his first Hard Eight (Sydney) and his last, Licorice Pizza (though I love moments of it throughout). Writing about Phantom Thread here is inevitable for sure since I felt nothing but total elation once the score kicks in and we are introduced to Reynolds Woodcock. Much more to say in the future.

The introduction to Anderson’s – or Elswit’s – kaleidoscopic but brazenly limited color palate – acid-streaks of blue and vibrant red grace the screen, neither literally symbolizing something nor completely and boundlessly escaping any symbolic interpretation – makes a great first impression. They visualize a violent mind searching for stability, connection and coherence but also the freedom of losing control, two goals which may be irreconcilable. There are the colorful interstitials courtesy of artist Jeremy Blake as well that add to the dreamlike feel. I always felt there was more beneath the surface than just another love story where a sad, dysfunctional man meets his dream girl. Upon a 13th viewing (lost count, honestly), I still hear and discover things that suggest there’s more to this than just “Paul’s homage to both musicals and Adam Sandler comedies.” This is another thought-provoking movie with things to decode, deconstruct and parse.

Punch-Drunk Love ends on an upbeat note, as a newly confident Barry comes clean with Lena about his sex phone escapade, which doesn’t seem to bother her; rather, she embraces Barry as he plays the harmonium, and suggests that they have a future together – though what that future might precisely be, we have no idea. Yet for the moment, all is well – and that’s all we can count on in life, the film seems to say. When that moment comes around, grab it; there’s no guarantee it will come again. At intervals throughout the film, the screen explodes in a barrage of shapes and colors designed by Jeremy Blake, exactly as Ozu uses “pillow shots” in his films to link sequences in the film’s narrative together. The whole film, in fact, proceeds like a fever dream, or perhaps a nightmare. So, in a very real sense, Punch-Drunk Love is a studio financed experimental film; a personal statement in the guise of genre entertainment - Wheeler Winston Dixon

Punch-Drunk Love is film of finding and embracing love (even if it’s based on something simple like finding someone cute as Lena declares) and through Anderson's filmmaking, it is expressed almost as a harmony captured on celluloid. The final moment always gives me goosebumps because I almost feel like it’s Paul himself saying to the audience, “here we go, I’ve truly found my voice as a filmmaker, wait till you see what’s coming.” At the same time, it’s Lena telling Barry, “Here we go, let’s see if we can make it through life together now as hard as it may be.” Barry still hasn’t grown up but perhaps he will learn now that he has someone. The harmonium represents a symbol of love and as the music between Barry and Lena evolves, so does their connection.

I won’t lie - the relationship does evolve rather quickly between them and we know little about Lena (she is an only child or perhaps an alien). She’s also a bit too forgiving after he leaves her at the hospital. But this is a hyperstylized idea of a romantic dramedy where some of the interactions don’t need to be based in reality. I would think Lena might be drawn to Barry for reasons outside of seeing a picture of him. Maybe they are both just socially isolated spirits that no longer have to be alone. She travels a lot. Barry barely leaves his apartment. The universe just decided to put them together and off they go. Barry’s willing to come out of his shell now that she’s open to loving him.

There is some evidence to support the theory that Lena is an alien and the crash in the opening represents an arrival on earth, not to mention the television sets which are playing the Apollo moon landing, or the alien-like flares seen throughout, or even the DVD Chapter titles "Lena Drops" and "Alien Abduction.” Also, listen closely to what prompts Barry to go outside of his office at the very beginning. He hears something and I was only able to detect the sci-fi sound design by putting on noise cancelling headphones at home and rewinding the scene. It was wild to me that I had never actually heard this before or noticing the kind of lens flare pointing at Lena’s car (her spaceship?). She also says in the hospital to the nurse, “Maybe people are just too crazy in this world.” I must point to the fact that none of this would’ve ever occurred to me until reading this link several years ago but I kind of buy the alien theory: a2pcinema.com

Watching this movie again, I experience an indescribable emotional feeling that is perfectly contained in the film's title, Punch-Drunk Love. When I feel love, I do feel drunk or high. Whether it’s for a person or an art form. The harmonium both connects and serves as a conduit to love, and it is the visuals, colors, sounds and music which capture their internal states. The film much shares the cathartic and visual spirit of a Hollywood musical (complete with a song from Popeye), and the expression of the film ultimately become that harmony and unconditional love are (like Barry and Lena) aligned. To me, the visuals, the score, the performances, the look, the feel - are harmonious throughout. I get the sense of true possibility within the art form when watching this movie (or any of Paul’s movies).

When I first saw Pulp Fiction in 1994, I thought for sure, that Quentin Tarantino would become my favorite director alongside Sam Raimi. But something changed when I saw Boogie Nights and Magnolia and then Punch-Drunk Love. On a complete surface level, Tarantino’s work wasn’t making me cry. Paul’s does nearly every single time. Even if it just because I’m grateful art like this exists or Brion’s music playing underneath is transcendent, I can’t help but be moved. The goosebumps aren’t going anywhere. Strangely enough, my top two favorites of his are this and the underrated Inherent Vice. It’ll be a very long essay when it comes to detailing how his Pynchon adaptation became my favorite because there are so many things to elaborate on. Perhaps it’s the underdog of his filmography but once again, I am shocked by how moved I am by all of it.

Just like the harmonium that is dropped in front of Barry, this movie felt like it was dropped in front of me in 2002 to say, “this is what you were looking for and you didn’t know you needed it.” I have a love in my life too and it does make me feel better, more connected, more powerful. To where yes, I think I could confront a bully if I thought there was a threat. Some movies just manage to do everything right to where I feel less alone and more connected with the universe. I feel that way about some people I am blessed to know. Punch-Drunk Love is a film that is revolutionary, beautiful, entertaining all at once. It conducts its own unique symphony that comes from someone whose work I continue to revere on so many levels. This won’t be the last time you hear me talk about Paul Thomas Anderson and I cannot wait for whatever comes next in August of 2025. Oh, and to bring it full circle, he never ever needs to win an Oscar. The work is enough.

That’s that.


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