Paul Thomas Anderson has made four movies and one absolutely anomalous work of art. “There Will Be Blood” is probably his “best” film, and its box-office and Oscar tallies make it his most successful, even if it did arguably help bring the studio-indie-arm era to an end. But “There Will Be Blood” is, at the end of the day, a film, and even if it’s a very good film, it remains just a film. “Punch-Drunk Love” is a film, but it is also something else: It creates for itself a new space to exist, in between cinema and painting. It is literally a moving painting, because of Jeremy Blake’s color-field interludes and also because of the way these interventions into the film space seem to haunt the non-painted imagery. But it is also in the same class as a Rothko or Newman or Kandinsky, in that it visualizes the invisible and the intangible, in a way that transcends narrative and forces us to engage with its space and its presence within our space. It is a moving painting — it’s a painting that moves the viewer.
When I came to the conclusion that “Punch-Drunk Love” was my favorite movie released this decade, I went online looking for an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson that I remember reading around the time the film came out, in which the writer-director talked about optioning the story of David Phillips, the University of California at Davis engineer who discovered a loophole in a Healthy Choice/American Airlines promotion, bought $3,000 worth of pudding and actually exchanged it for 1,215,000 frequent-flier miles. I couldn’t find that interview, but I did find a Geocities-era page in which Phillips tells his own story, as well as an interview in which Anderson tells his own. To quote at length from the latter:
“Punch-Drunk Love” is, as Anderson concedes, the first film he has made that is entirely his. “This one came from my stomach,” he says, laying a hand on his abdomen. “It’s referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other movies, other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow — all mine.”
I couldn’t say it any better myself.
Film Salon has invited a group of special guests to write about their favorite film(s) of the 2000s. To read the entire series, go here.