By Cubie King
(This article was originally published in the online film journal, Senses of Cinema; Issue 35, April-June 2005)
“This one 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.” –P.T. Anderson (1)
“…for every part of the life of man has need of harmony and rhythm.”
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It has been firmly established by now that Paul Thomas Anderson is a formidable young director at the forefront of American cinema, but with his latest film Punch Drunk Love it can be argued that Anderson has taken a seminal step into the realm of auteur. Prior to Punch Drunk Love Anderson’s first three films (Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999)) dealt with themes of alienation, regret, dysfunctional families, and ultimately, a character’s search for someplace to call “home.” Each film ends with slight optimism that is nonetheless overshadowed by its transience. Punch Drunk Love is an evolution of these films, while sharing similar thematic issues; it attempts to tell its story semantically. Unlike Anderson’s first three films Punch Drunk Love creates its own distinct cinematic vocabulary (shedding influences, whom he cites, such as Altman, Scorsese, and Demme) becoming the first film he can call distinctively ‘his own’. With trenchant use of mise-en-scene, Anderson integrates cinematography, sound, production design, costumes, and locations to offer a purely subjective experience seen through the eyes and emotions of his protagonist Barry Egan (Adam Sandler).
Punch Drunk Love is by far Anderson’s most complex film, challenging its audience to consider choices of color, to battle through unconventional sound design, and to find meaning in objects that may initially appear to be irrelevant. One could suggest the central image of the film is the abstract artwork of Jeremy Blake. These abstract montages immediately introduce the audience to a more venturesome, ambiguous approach unseen in Anderson’s works thus far, an emergence into a more conceptual form of storytelling. The uneasiness of these montages, and their sheer beauty, within seconds, capture the mood of the film. They serve not only as brilliant segues within the film’s narrative but also contribute to a larger purpose of imbuing the viewer with an intense, discombobulated sensation that can only be described as ‘punch drunk.’
Anderson also uses colors as key indicators of Barry’s psychological battle; blue, red, and white being the most prominent. Blue is largely seen in Barry’s workplace and home, it is also the color of Barry’s suit that he curiously begins wearing the day the film begins. Barry is literally blue throughout most of the film. Red is used more frequently, most obviously as Lena’s (Emily Watson) red dress; but it is also placed strategically throughout the film to take on a very important meaning, as I will show. White is not used as strategically as red, but its usage is just as important. It can almost be said that red and white are in contention with one another due to their polar purposes.
Red serves as the color that leads to Barry’s happiness. Very precise red objects throughout the film visually direct Barry out of his damaged life (or psyche) and points him in the direction of escape and/or change. Take for instance the first scene in the supermarket. Barry walks down an aisle whispering to himself, “what am I looking for?” As he utters this, in the far background, a woman in a red dress is visible. When Barry turns his head and notices her watching him she quickly walks off (fig 1). This woman could be seen as Lena, but more importantly a manifestation of the ‘idea’ of Lena, what Barry is actually ‘looking for’. Because the woman is never identified the color red becomes the most important aspect of the sequence. Anderson answers Barry’s question, “what am I looking for?,” visually, (there is no motivation otherwise to explain this) thus showing us tangible elements of Barry’s subconscious in an environment which we assume is entirely real.
The usage of the color red goes well beyond Lena’s dress (which she wears in all but a few scenes), a red arrow can be spotted pointing the way to escape from the four blonde brothers (fig 2) or in the supermarket a red arrow points in the direction of where Barry will find the pudding (the pudding offers a way out for Barry). Another scene has Barry leaving his workplace in pursuit of Lena who is Hawaii; a red diesel passes the frame (fig 3) as he runs in the same direction. In the foreground of the following shot, Barry walks down an airport terminal; two stewardesses dressed in red await him (fig 4).
White, on the other hand, takes on a much more sophisticated role. White is the color that coats many of the barren rooms throughout the film. If red works towards Barry’s mirth, then white works in the opposite, as his oppressor. Throughout the film Barry travels through all white environments that are sparse, isolated, nondescript, and cold. Instances such as Barry’s workplace resembling a large white box or scenes of Barry running like a trapped mouse through white mazes while attempting to escape the blonde brothers or finding Lena’s apartment door demonstrate its recurring influence. White is also the color of the oppressive blown-out light which floods in and suffocates Barry from the outside world; thus emphasizing a greater suppression Barry feels in all his environments (figs 5-7). This suppression correlates to the film’s many compositions that imprison Barry within the frame.
The tale of a young Barry throwing a hammer through a sliding glass window is recalled a few times in the film (at the family get together, Lena mentions it on their first date). This motif of Barry imprisoned behind a glass barrier is prevalent throughout the film, like a person trapped in a fish bowl, a strong visual and thematic metaphor. Barry’s work office is a room entirely surrounded by glass; he’s literally trapped within, continuing the repression Barry’s felt since childhood. In one scene Barry actually walks straight into the glass door. Earlier scenes show Barry’s frustration build to such a crescendo that the only way he knows to deal with it is through physical violence, hence the breaking of sliding glass windows at the family get together (fig.8; also the bathroom in the restaurant), but as he begins to fall for Lena he learns to restrain his rage. Not coincidentally, when Barry finally resolves his problems with the D&D Mattress Man, Dean Trumbell (Phillip S. Hoffman), a low shot reveals the mattress warehouse is made up of large glass windows. Barry has now freed himself from his mental and physical imprisonment (fig 9).
A constant duality is always at play in Punch Drunk Love, the oppressive white light that constantly engulfs Barry is contrasted by the warm yellow light which emanates from the harmonium the first time he attempts to play the instrument. This same warm light appears again atop a telephone booth the moment Barry hears Lena’s voice in Hawaii. Anderson, in the role of cinematic painter, does not use his color palette arbitrarily, but fastidiously, utilizing color as a vital component of his story, indeed a modern Expressionist. Beyond color Anderson also uses objects such as unpacked boxes, pudding, diesel trucks, and a harmonium to lend meaning as well.
A vacuous, empty space is present in almost all locations throughout the film and successfully captures the enormous lack of love Barry feels. The austere, almost “unlived-in” homes (and workplace) of Barry and Lena, are peppered with unpacked boxes lying in various corners. The boxes reinforce Anderson’s preeminent theme of wandering, of being unsettled, characters always searching for family, home, and/or love. The drifting diesel trucks can also be read in a similar fashion. These are vehicles that move boxes from place to place and are never stationary a perfect symbol of his characters. In fact the opening shot of Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, is of a diesel truck passing the frame seconds before we met his first wanderer (see figs 8 and 9). Other vehicles play an important role as well; airplanes represent an escape for Barry, and a red taxi drops the harmonium in the middle of the road for him.
The harmonium is the most multifaceted of objects in the film, open for several interpretations, and the mystery of it is essential in understanding its purpose. When Barry first brings the harmonium in his co-worker Luis (Luis Guzmán) asks, ‘why is it here?’ The harmonium is there to bring Barry love, for in a sense, it is a symbol of Lena; more exactly, a symbol of their relationship. The root word of harmonium is harmony. The harmonium, like Lena, appears suddenly in Barry’s life; when things are going poorly for Barry the harmonium is somehow mysteriously ripped; and like his new relationship Barry must learn to find its harmony. Only after Barry rids himself of his sex hotline problems does this harmony take place. After returning from Utah, Barry grabs the harmonium and physically brings it to Lena’s apartment door, thus combining the two elements that bring him joy. It is as if Barry has suddenly recognized their connection, a surreal moment. The entire film Barry pecks notes on the harmonium, as if in search of some secret it possesses, it represents an enigma to him, and ultimately, to the audience as well. But in the final shot of the film the puzzle is solved. Barry plays the exact notes from Jon Brion’s score for Punch Drunk Love, playing the harmonium almost concurrently with the music that plays nondiegetically over the scene. The diegetic and nondiegetic music playing together is a moment of cinematic harmony; Barry, Lena, and the harmonium are now in sync.
The strength of Punch Drunk Love comes from showing us Barry Egan’s emergence into a larger world, both mentally (expressively depicted) and physically, which he obtains through Lena’s love. As described above Anderson takes large strides in showing Barry’s repression, but he also deftly shows us Barry’s transition into this ‘larger world.’ Compare a photograph hanging in Barry’s office (a sad aerial photo of his workplace) to a larger painting we see of a Persian-esque setting during his first date with Lena (figs 10 and 11), this hints at the expansiveness Lena’s attention and love has on Barry’s psyche. The compositions alone show this great contrast. The same way the glass windows are meant to imprison Barry, the supermarket represents a land of opportunity. It is in the 99-cent supermarket where Barry’s dreams of escape are most obtainable (through his pudding scheme), and one must note how expansive, clean, and vibrant this environment is shot, resembling a similar vividly photographed supermarket by Andres Gursky taken in 1999, correspondingly named 99 Cent (fig 12 and 13).
Anderson takes this idea of entering into a larger world to staggering heights when Barry flies to Hawaii. The Hawaiian locations explode with colors and sounds, and for the first time genuine life and freedom is felt. Anderson places his protagonist in a noisy parade filled with happy faces and happy cheers, amplifying the emotions felt by Barry through this spectacle. When Barry and Lena finally meet, framed in a silhouette, they kiss, and as they do a multitude of people are unleashed into the frame, signifying Barry emergence into a larger setting, a more idyllic environment, and a greater state of mind; a brilliant moment.
One last technique Anderson uses which should be discussed is the use of lens flares. In moments of affection shared between Barry and Lena Anderson makes use of a pinkish-blue lens flare near the bottom of the screen perhaps hinting at the real emotion the characters are experiencing. When Barry speaks to the Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on the phone near the end of the film he asks Barry, “did you just say go fuck yourself!?” Barry replies, “yes.” The next shot of Trumbell the lens flares are now highly visible (fig 14 and 15). This systematic use of lens flares show us visually that Barry’s love for Lena is indeed real and it becomes a physical element of the film itself.
The same way in which a poet pens a poem in search of capturing the feeling of love, or a musician sings a song, Anderson uses this aesthetic technique of flaring his lens to hint as something which transcends his frame. He attempts to show us something grand through these lens flares, for they confine and display something that is unexplainable and impossible to physically photograph, the feeling of love (figs 15 and 16).
One can’t help but draw comparisons between Punch Drunk Love and the 1927 silence masterpiece Sunrise (F.W. Murnau). Both are romance films, both have leading men who are in constant struggle with their environments, and both end with the world (and the film) back in harmony with itself. But more importantly both films take important steps in forwarding a cinematic language based less on dialogue (Murnau had no choice) and more on how a story can be told replete with image and sound, “cinema to be cinema.” (2) “The camera angles, the lighting, the sets and the costumes were meant to convey the psychological complexities of the characters,” renowned cinematographer Nestor Almendros wrote of Sunrise (3). This analysis touches briefly on many of the major ways in which Anderson expressively shows us his romantic comedy, but much more can be said and uncovered.
Anderson represents a small handful of young American directors looking to forge new ground in the way cinema is approached, wrought, and presented. With Punch Drunk, he has shown that he is well on his way in defining his own craft. Like his character Barry Egan who finds harmony within the film one senses Anderson has also found a harmony within this new artistic approach; perhaps this is the reason for his first happy ending. One can only patiently wait to see what this young auteur will come up with next.
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1. Ryan Gilbey, “Interview: Paul Thomas Anderson,” Times (UK)- 2/2/03
2. Nestor Almendros, “Sunrise,” American Cinematographer, April 1984, vol. 65,
no. 2, pp 28-32
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