How to Navigate and Conquer Paul Thomas Anderson’s Home City
Since the days of Robert Altman, there hasn’t been a filmmaker who has conceptualized and characterized the Los Angeles milieu in such a personal way as director Paul Thomas Anderson. There’s a profound malaise in Anderson’s ‘Los Angeles films’ (Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice). The city acts as a catalyst for his protagonists’ dread — their definitive loneliness. Loneliness is not the only characteristic of his misanthropic cast, however. Each protagonist combats the city’s solitude with their own remarkable abilities — skills and character traits that act as a defense mechanism against their harsh environment. Photographed shallowly in front of the hazy colophon of LA lights, Anderson positions his characters as figures who battle with the city, hopelessly in search of happiness within its intangible and unreachable essence of glamour and hyper-culture. While each character adapts to Los Angeles differently, it is perhaps Barry Egan of Punch-Drunk Love who is best able to come out on top of his surroundings despite the toxicity of the modern Hallywoodian gusto. With Barry’s own remarkable abilities, he can find companionship in Anderson’s loveless Los Angeles.
In what could be argued as his most deceptively surreal depiction of LA, Anderson gives Barry a metaphysical ability to subconsciously escape the ‘cinematic experience’, or the filming whims. At his worst, Barry submits to uncontrollable rage and anxiety that stems from his isolated suffering in an unlovable environment. But, at Barry’s best, he is able to step outside and manipulate the LA miasma. In other words, he transcends the narrative film to gaze upon the spatiality of the real universe. However, as is with all of Anderson’s protagonists, Barry must suffer in solitude before finding his own, quiet strength.
As the film opens, Barry is alone in his large, blue, empty office — a location that represents Barry’s anxious relationship to physical space. Blue is a color that will come to appropriately represent Barry’s essence as he dawns his trademark royal blue suit around Los Angeles’s sunny and brightly multi-colored locations. In the opening scene, Barry speaks on the phone to an unidentified corporate employee as he tries to find companionship in unfurnished and unpopulated space. Throughout the film, Barry avoids physical interactions by finding comfort in metaphysical symbols — ones that only represent human interaction. He speaks on the phone to corporate workers; he tries to find love through a phone-sex hotline, and the only person he relates to is radio-host-stranger, DJ Justice. The telephone represents Barry’s interpersonal reclusive behaviors, the disembodiment from his own social-culture. When Barry leaves the comforts of his office to step into the Los Angeles landscape, the overexposed blasts of light from the outside world blind both Barry and the spectator, showing the essential incompatibility of Barry and the city.
However, the audience finds Barry at the precipice of change. From the beginning of the film, Barry finds small solutions to conquer and transcend the loneliness of Anderson’s LA. He finds and takes a harmonium off the streets, takes it into his office, and for a moment tries to play. It appears as if Barry is consciously trying to play along with Jon Brion’s score — a score that, in this and many other scenes, is almost exclusively percussive. It is as if the drum-heavy backing track is just waiting for Barry’s tonality, or at least his melody, to accompany cohesively. As close as Barry is to making a legible melody in this scene, he gives up before his harmonium and Brion’s score can rhythmically time up. This example of Barry’s transcendence to Hollywood (i.e. the spectator’s Hollywood) is accompanied by other key stylistic indications of a metaphysical transcendence for Barry. Another effort of metaphysics emerges within the distinctively idiosyncratic royal blue lens flares that ubiquitously invade this film. In the scenes when Barry shines, the lens flares shine with him, often from nonsensical light sources. Barry’s lens flares outshine the unfocused neon glow of the Los Angeles skyline. Again, Barry transcends his fictionalized universe. However, the fourth wall is never officially broken, and it is clear that Barry is fixed within the confines of his spatial unreality. Throughout the film, most characters are antagonists, misinterpreting Barry’s passiveness as weakness and exploiting him in spite of it. However, when Barry is introduced to an equally mysterious woman, Lena Leonard, his transcendence from Los Angeles unfolds conclusively.
Barry and Lena take comfort in each other’s misanthropic tendencies, reinforcing the idea that, though Los Angeles culture is exclusive, these two loners may find solace among each other as cultural-rejects. Barry’s blue is harmoniously juxtaposed with Lena’s equally vibrant red, and the screen shares a duet of colors between Barry and Lena’s costume and their matching red and blue lens flares. When the two are together, the stylization of the film shifts drastically as if the characters now have control over the artifice of cinema. It is evident that the two characters do not fit into the culture that surrounds them, but are successful in engineering their own reality.
Their love language is unconventional, to put it mildly. Barry’s words of affection, “I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty,” is met with Lena’s equally macabre terms of endearment, “I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.” Their intensity contrasts with the vibrant colors and theatrical choreography they compose, and it is this intensity that sets them apart from others around them.
When a sex hotline business owner (who daylights as “Mattress Man” the mattress store owner) threatens Barry and Lena’s life, Barry confronts him over the phone, “I have a love in my life, it makes me stronger than anything you can imagine”. In a rage, Barry rips the phone out of the receiver and carries it with him to Provo, Utah to confront the Mattress Man face-to-face. This conscious effort to avoid phone conversation in order to face the Mattress Man is quite the development for Barry’s passivity and, in fact, he carries the phone all the way into the store, confronts the Mattress Man and hands the telephone to a store clerk before storming out of the building. The gesture represents Barry’s resignation from the solace of impersonal comfort to commit to the physical relationship with Lena — their union. Barry is empowered by his new love — one that is proudly outside of the disenchanting Los Angeles perimeters.
Barry successfully avoids the inhabiting Hollywood subculture in favor of a different kind of transcendental refuge with Lena. In his book, Paul Thomas Anderson, George Toles explains, “[Lena’s] Otherness is linked to the protagonist’s unrestrained wish or will to be rejoined to reality, conceived grandly and positively” (64). At the end of the film, Barry takes the harmonium to Lena’s apartment and the two sit together in comfort as Barry plays the harmonium; this time, he accompanies Brion’s score perfectly. The two refugees have found harmony within both their physical relationship and the subtle metaphysical relationship with cinema itself.
Interestingly, Punch Drunk Love is a story about finding love against all odds. It’s about the characters challenging the filmmaker’s own depiction of environmental loneliness and, eventually, finding their own solutions. Like most themes in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, “love” isn’t so simple in Punch-Drunk Love. “Love”, as Barry finds, is not just a social phenomenon but a personal and environmental one as well. As Barry learns to find love in people, it seems Anderson finds the ability to love his home city. When asked about living in LA in an interview with LA Times, Anderson said, “Listen, I’m aware of its shortcomings. I know it’s not the prettiest place to live in Los Angeles. But it’s home! And that just becomes the thing you love”. Anderson uses the word ‘becomes’ because ‘love’ is ultimately a process; one that includes a sense of self-recognition, self-acceptance, and perseverance. As Barry is pervasive in finding love in a loveless city, Anderson is pervasive in allowing Los Angeles to become more loving and to show the remarkable abilities of both his characters — Barry and Los Angeles.