In Defence Of… Punch-Drunk Love

Following a couple of weeks hiatus, ‘In Defence Of…’ returns, and “stronger than anything you can imagine”, to paraphrase the protagonist of the film under scrutiny.

To mark the rolling of cameras on the set of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I thought I’d take a look at the directors lowest considered film, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. That isn’t to say that it’s a poorly considered film in the grand scheme of things (this is akin to saying that Badlands is Terrence Malick’s low point, or The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne is lesser Bresson; all are very good generally speaking, if not overshadowed by higher considered works within the directors body of work), and while the film is hardly derided, I would like to make a case for it as a genuine masterpiece, well and truly at home alongside the superlative likes of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights.

While its undoubtedly overlooked within the context of the directors own body of work, I’ve also noticed a muted reaction toward the film on the likes of Twitter and other forms of online communication networks of late, with many actually deeming it the “forgotten” PTA. And who could blame the lay viewer? It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the work fell between the cracks of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, the latter one of the greatest films of the 21st Century, and the former one of the finest films of the 1990’s. In terms of oeuvre’s PTAs is as good as it gets. The director is five for five, with every film a standout in its field. Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second even went so far as to declare There Will Be Blood as the greatest film of the last decade.

Punch-Drunk Love always was going to have a task ahead of it; Anderson himself cited the project as one steeped in relief, following the ambitious one-two of There Will Be Blood and Magnolia. Early tales of the project, with folk whispering Sandler’s name alongside the esteemed director with giggles and ridicule, became a thing of folk-lore, many refusing to believe that such a film would ever be made. Alas, it was, and Anderson even went on to win the Directors Prize at Cannes in 2002.

Perhaps most importantly for a film of this ilk, Punch-Drunk Love straddles the right side of quirky, with the surreal elements ground largely in a realistic world.  Yet, and this is the important bit, the film never feels insincere, nor does it patronise, unlike many of its contemporaries within this very specific sub-genre of what is effectively the American romantic-comedy drama. The core protagonists feel like cartoon characters operating out of flux with their environment. That Anderson borrows a musical cue from mentor Robert Altman’s live-action take on the Popeye cartoon is notable too, with that film of course recalling not only the animated, but also the musical. As Shelley Duvall’s ‘He Needs Me’ fills the soundtrack of Anderson’s film one can’t help but be reminded of the golden age Hollywood, with special note going to the Hawksian screwball comedy. In fact, it’s a fairytale by way of screwball comedy. The most Grimmly familiar aspect of the film are our protagonists seven sisters, themselves a stomach churningly vile creation. Straddling the line between comedy and tragedy to a note-perfect level, Anderson has crafted a work that is ground in the timelessness, again reinforcing these notions of the fantastical.

A story of fate, consequence and love, Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson’s most simple work, and was itself a personal commentary from the director on his own oeuvre; following the sprawling double-bill of Boogie Nights and Magnolia PTA reacted with introversion, and an altogether more streamlined film. While it may be scaled back on the sheer ambition of the structure, this in no way reflects in the film at hand. It’s a visually stunning work, with the beautiful cinematography courtesy of Anderson regular Robert Elswit, who would later go on to win the cinematography Oscar for his work with the director on There Will Be Blood. The work of visual artist Jeremy Blake sits alongside Elswit’s photographer in a series of digitally created animated interludes, interesting if not only for the fact that it sees Anderson collaborating on-screen with a separate artist entirely. Terrence Malick did something similar earlier this year by including some of Thomas Wilfred’s work within The Tree Of Life.

Adam Sandler, as Barry Egan, the central protagonist of Punch-Drunk Love, is great for the first and only time to date. Emily Watson is suitably lovely. It’s actually for my money, the strongest Hoffman performance too, his Mattress Man a character whose quirk is only matched by the fear he exudes, and is one of the finest screen villains of the 2000’s. And while his presence may not mean much these days, Luis Guzman, in a role which is significantly more prominent than the usual extended cameo his fans will be familiar with is great too.

Punch-Drunk Love is effectively a post-modern take on the traditional Sandler man-child revolving comedy, a staple of the 1990’s. Following his first outburst, the sort of moment that would be greeted with laughter in a traditional Adam Sandler film (Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison initially come to mind) instead sees the character attempt to seek help, with the occurrence portrayed as a worrying, scary incident. Anderson treats the overwhelming rage within the character as a genuine psychological problem, and not as the hilarious plot point of his earlier works. Elsewhere, the central conceit of the film, concerning a savvy American that spotted a valuable loophole in a pudding offer is actually based on a true story. It’s the sort of story that wouldn’t have been out of place in the opening reel of Magnolia, in which a couple of stories of chance are recanted.

Punch-Drunk Love features great music. As has already been mentioned, Anderson recycled the song ‘He Needs Me’ from Robert Altman’s Popeye. Jon Brion’s score is inspired by and samples the Popeye track ‘He Needs Me’, with tone, pitch and sounds forming the core of the soundscape. In a manner not entirely dissimilar to Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, or Michael Penn’s music for Boogie Nights, Brion grounds his score in thematic notions, with the loose, experimental nature of the themes for Punch-Drunk Love setting the tone in the same way that Penn’s play on the stereotypical sounds of the circus and funfair set the basis for the audio angle of Boogie Nights. The use of the harmonium, the organ-like instrument that also features in front of the camera blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic presentation of aural matter.

The Altman connection extends further than the musical connection; PTA was Altman’s “insurance policy” on his final film A Prairie Home Companion, and the fingerprints of some of Altman’s more well-known works can be felt all over the rest of Anderson’s oeuvre. The Popeye connection is fantastic though, given the similar places both Popeye and Punch-Drunk Love feature in each film-maker’s body of work. The Altman film will feature in an “In Defence Of…” piece sometime in the future.

Like many modern day comic-book and cartoon adaptations, Anderson’s film is structured around a realist world given a magical or surreal edge. The camera work is paced and reflective of the real world, bouncing around the screen at times, with abrupt cuts breaking the whimsical tone as and when warranted. Generally speaking these crashes come at the precise point when the audience would least expect it, with Anderson always keen to break the mood, never allowing said audience to feel comfortable. So, is Punch-Drunk Love that all too rare American commodity, a piece of bona-fide poetic realism? It certainly falls within the loose terms of that particular area of the cinema, with Anderson’s heightened presentation of a serious subject sitting comfortably along the best of Jean’s Renoir or Vigo.


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