Sunday, January 20, 2008

PT vs. Wes (vs. the Coens?)

First, I should confess that this is a bit of false advertising. It is simply not fair to compare PT or Wes to the Coen brothers. Even if you believe, as I do, that both PT and Wes have hit on every film that they have made, you can't compare them to the most successful filmmakers of the last 25 years, anymore than we can compare the Coens to, say, Hitchcock until some more results are in. But I do want to talk about PT's new film vs. the Coen's new film, and I'll get to that soon, so consider this a teaser for that post. I know you're excited.

But, for starters, the Andersons. If you haven't been paying attention, we've got some pretty serious similarities here: they're both named Anderson, they were born only 13 months apart, they each had their feature film debut in 1996, they each released their fifth film this year, and they've each brought a distinct style with a dedicated troupe of actors while working within the Hollywood system. That's pretty stunning. So, in honor of this congruence, and their dual fifth films, I want to take stock of each of them, where they've been, where they're going, and (of course) what I've decided about them.

First, my rankings: Wes: 1. The Royal Tenenbaums 2. Rushmore 3.The Darjeeling Limited 4.Bottle Rocket 5. The Life Aquatic (which I liked!)
PT: 1. Magnolia 2. There Will be Blood 3. Hard Eight 4.Punch-drunk Love 5. Boogie Nights
It's hard for me to decide which of these filmographies I admire more. I would take Royal Tenenbaums over any PT film and, yes, most any other film ever made. But I'd probably take Magnolia over any other Wes film, and, yes again, over most of the other films ever made. Integrated, my rankings would probably look like this.: 1. Tenenbaums 2. Magnolia 3.Blood 4. Rushmore 5. Hard Eight 6. Darjeeling 7. Bottle Rocket 8. Life Aquatic 9. Punch-drunk 10. Boogie Nights

So, there's more PT in the top 5, but he also owns the bottom two spots. I just have to call it a push. If you were going to make me choose (desert-island, at gun point, etc), I'd take Wes, because if I were stuck on a desert island with only one film to watch, I'd probably take Tenenbaums, but I'm in charge of this blog, so it's a tie.

This next part breaks my heart, though. I've only recently joined the PT fan club - been in it for about two weeks. I've loved Wes for about 6 years now, and I've been a true cinema lover for also roughly 6 years, so you can do that math. But I think it's PT who has the future, unless something changes. You see, Wes has this brilliant style, this gift for making things feel fantastic and realistic simultaneously, for stylizing comedy until it becomes tragedy and vice versa. He makes people who are real and fantastic, broken and nearly superheroic, and achingly hilarious and achingly tragic at the same times. For this, I admire him as much as any filmmaker. But he also keeps making the same damn movie, with not only the same themes (see Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini for filmmakers obsessed with the same themes over and over again) but with the same stylistic tricks, same color palette, same mix of samey comedy-tragedy over and over again. And he's doing it at a high level (see Darjeeling and Aquatic) but at a lower level than he once was (see Tenenbaums, Rushmore) and with no sign of breaking out of it. Ever. As far as I can tell, he's just going to keep making these brillaint but mediocre compared to Tenenbaums movies, even if the next one is going to be animated.

PT, on the other hand, is certainly less flashy with the color and the camera placement, although his cinematography is superior to Wes' (just less flashy). He's mostly a stranger to irony (generally a requirement for me) and, yes, often seems to work the same themes, especially as they relate to fathers, families, and Problems in the Past. But PT's filmography is a rollercoaster of highs and higher highs. He proved with Punch-Drunk he doesn't have to just get bigger and expand his running time; he proved with Blood that he doesn't need lots of characters to fill that running time, and that he could make a movie set anytime, any place. In other words, PT has got me excited for the future because I don't know what's coming, and I trust that, whatever he tries, it's going to work. Wes, on the other hand, is just going to keep trying the same thing, and it'll probably always work too - but never spectacularly. Looking to the past, I can't pick between them, but in the future, it's a no-brainer.

Also, has anyone noticed that PT mostly works with people with 3 names, or at least an initial? Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Daniel Day-Lewis, William H. Macy. Is this like a conspiracy or something?

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