#17, NOVEMBER 2004



On Punch-Drunk Love
by Tom Smith

In this essay I shall explore certain psychological underpinnings - primarily those relating to family, its dysfunctions, and variants on the near-universal desire for acceptance within society - central to an appreciation of the seriocomic oeuvre of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, and his unheralded 2002 romantic ode Punch-Drunk Love. Employing Russian post-formalist philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival (with its inherent, roiling galleries of grotesques) as a locus of “dialogical” imagination, and with a respectful nod to French psycholinguist Jacques Lacan and his “split-subject” formulations, clues to divining Anderson’s diligently non-ironic, shamelessly fervid aesthetic will be examined. To Bakhtin, the carnival represented an oscillating field braided within the triggers of anti-hierarchical charges which blasted through formal narrative orthodoxies. Juxtapositions and incongruities thus lay shattered, lacerated; midway funhouse mirror shards fragment an already distorted social order. To Anderson, sudden, miraculous and fateful intrusions are a matter of perverse course. Fate is itself a character, and reason is its frequent bumbling foil. Within this exhilarating milieu – one which resonates with petulant, forceful intertextuality – a careful reader might also identify at least one of the reasons why P.T. Anderson would likely assail this introduction. (He rejects formal critique.) His prose is discolored, livid, and his direction seeks not the soul of the actor or the fathoming of the depths of their emotions but a mine-sweeping of the hidden ticks that mask or seek to draw attention from collective anxieties and prosaic truths so steeled and grounded that they almost completely repulse critique. Through these graceful labors he presents a portrait of humanity at once at odds and in love with itself. His characters yearn for completion, forever seeking approval. Their discourse is constantly interrupted, and external diegesis is similarly fractured. This is good. Dialogue is seldom linear, and less often punctuated by the profound. Anderson’s skills as a screenwriter are formidable – given the blithely dysfunctional nature of his protagonists (Phillip Baker Hall’s grizzled, sentimental gambler in the little-seen Vegas neo-noir Hard Eight, Mark Wahlberg’s damaged, delusional, and risibly pragmatic porn star in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise’s grimly clinical self-help guru in Magnolia, and Adam Sandler’s browbeaten, emotionally paralyzed nebbish in Punch-Drunk Love), he deftly eludes narrative mawkishness while imbuing his avatars with a knowing, thoroughly rooted melancholy. His creations characteristically lament their too familiar post-modern ills (disassociation from home and hearth, anomies induced both by hard living and conscious, reckless disregard of their better interests), but in the process of inhabiting the roles demanded of Anderson’s dystrophic sideshow they manage to exude extraordinary heat and suffuse banalities with gleeful, sometimes shockingly non-subversive humor. That is to say, the subversions of irony and transgression have wizened, grown stale. Anderson winked along with us during sections of Boogie Nights, true, but with the elegiac Magnolia and the sublimely concise Punch-Drunk Love he learned not only to pull his best punches but to toss the gloves, the medicine ball and the cursed ring itself into the incinerator. Such Olympian sleight-of-hand demands more than cursory analysis; in this examination Lacan’s unconsciously bifurcated “split-subjects” – distorted by the forces of libidinal energy and unfettered repression – can perhaps be overlaid as a corrective gridwork to better focus the aims of this inquiry.

No subject was ever so split as Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan.

There have been sundered characters throughout the history of comedic cinema; most often they are routinely limned avatars, rarely cognizant of either their formidable nescience or the force(s) which conspire or conjoin to catapult them to such pitiable emotional redoubts.

Barry Egan is only too aware of his predicament. He is recognizable; he is not a cipher. His pains are medieval humors, and his passions woeful, desanguinated vanities. Fully realized, he is almost unutterably repressed. Anderson’s screenplay is a marvel of concision, a human genome sequence etched and caricatured on the blunt edge of a Post-It pad. Egan is honorable, despite dishonors endured. His thrift and apparently limitless diffidence abuts in jolting opposition to his sisters’ brute fecundity and unrestrained, unreasonable hostility. It is not surprising then that Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard conducts a campaign of aggressive subterfuge to dismantle Egan’s emotional fortifications. In the spiral(ing) universe of Punch-Drunk Love, family is both the locus of the malign and the whole cloth from which samples of a slightly less horrendous future are spun. Familial chaos is a recurrent theme in Anderson’s films – bonds are viscous, rheumy, something grey-green and unsavory at the back of one’s throat. Love is an overdose, a suicidal everyman on the dull cusp of infinity; family is a bored hotline operator dozing between abyssal howls. And love, thankfully, is hallucination. Family, thoughtfully, is a rickety rope bridge tethered between hopelessness and septic self-absorption. Crawling, recoiling from the wreckage of juxtaposition, Barry Egan’s first instinct is to flee screaming through the streets of a bleak San Fernando Valley suburb.

His desires wrested from one, appalling representation (that imposed on him by his sisters) to another, equally foul but far less accommodating refraction (perceived through the bleary, unblinking eyes of the quadruplet thugs), Egan endlessly oscillates from repressed walking mania to obliterative psychosis. Each under-saturated, overfed frame of Anderson’s sordid, honey-flecked oeuvre depends, turns on the liberating arrival of a deus ex machina to provide swing, soul, to lift the hem of Lady Luck’s skirt and distract Death from banal toil. In Hard Eight, Sydney is the God-Machine, a shark-skinned golem with a soft spot for the numbed and regretful and no compassion for the unequivocal. There is little humor in the film, and little that reeks of humorlessness. It is predicated on the application of a healing unguent – melancholy, stripped of mawkishness or trivial subversion – to the spirits of the comically hopeless. In Egan’s rapacious disengagement we find disturbing, salubrious parallels. In Boogie Nights, Eddie Adams’ outsized penis is Allah, a god removed from machinery, God made flesh, God stumbling toward an inane fate of lubricious annihilation. Each character in Anderson’s exquisitely wrought – and often side-splittingly risible – screenplay is activated or stilled, caramelized or obliquely defamed by the notion of phallus as psychic liberator. Sexual transcendence seems the least likely result of the salty labors of Jack Horner’s extended porn family – such reveries are eternally reserved for private retreats. In Magnolia, a literal rain of frogs suspends narrative, slashing through characterization with the offhand torpor of a bored god gone to seed. Supplications are fixed within amphibian slime, scraped from the asphalt, and discarded. God, in Magnolia, is a resin, a receptacle, a placenta.

Barry Egan’s prayers, conversely, are pitched to the incorporeal, into nothingness itself. The distorting shards of the funhouse mirror reflect a doleful sap occluding hair-trigger horrors and split, with nature’s abrupt, punch-drunk trepidation, into primary, Bakhtian character colors: the slurred grey-greens of the tout, the salmon pinks and wood-paneled browns of the geek, and the weeping ochres and flaring cobalt blues of the human pin cushion. Egan’s equally fractured sense of self-control can be traced, in reverse Andersonian chronology, to the raffish, palpitant yearnings of the adult Donnie Smith in Magnolia, to the tragic insouciance of Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, and to the ill-fated John, a character almost wholly adverse to the lure of the rational, in Hard Eight. It’s an extraordinary lineage. John is impelled to broker poisonous alliances, Amber is cajoled by a comforting stasis, and Donnie loses his teeth in a witless bid to catch the eye of a mannequin. Barry, no less flawed, prefers the peripheral to the subjective, simulacra to viscera. As the oddly alluring Lena Leonard walks away from Egan’s warehouse redoubt following an initial, jittery encounter, director Anderson’s camera frames actress Emily Watson in the center of a bleached, compressed tableaux. The morning sun flares in the top right corner, while broad, diagonal shadows streak across asphalt, contrasted aggressively by white warehouse walls. Lena’s threadbare Geo Metro coupe draws one’s gaze, centering perception as might five pounds of raw whale blubber at the pin reset gate of a suburban bowling alley. The scene quivers, jostling the senses. And then you are given the provocation, the upended railway carriage, a rain of falling spikes: Lena/Watson’s derriere, a fulsome, womanly ass, suffused with an erotic charge equivalent to, or at least capable of utterly obliterating, each tic, twitch and self-abnegating reflex in Egan’s armory of grief and defeat. In her red skirt, pink blouse, and dirty blonde hair, lashing through the frame in bold, swaying, emollient strides, Lena absorbs the heat of the sun, sucks the glare from the sky. Barry is reduced to idiocy, to a cooing, drooling cipher, a zero quantity, subjugated, distilled. Through Lena’s inexplicable largesse, Egan receives a new lease, or at least an option to fritter away a down payment on a new lease. Here, despite gurgling subtexts, Adam Sandler portrays Barry Egan with astonishing nuance; the relinquishing of control that the actor had been perceived as having endured during the making of the film seems in retrospect all too canny a PR conceit, a sort of neuro-cortical feint. Arc, process and product may be similarly measured, and are ultimately mirrored, in the giddy, luxuriantly naked performances Anderson extracts from his leads. Unsurprisingly, Punch-Drunk Love is the most sexually potent film of the director’s still-nascent oeuvre. It reeks of the erotic. Boogie Nights, after all, was the story of a family of pornographers, of a clan wed to representation. Punch-Drunk Love is, as advertised, an exegesis of the emotional slipstream, an ode to the precariousness of flesh, to Cupid’s perfidy. In Nights, Amber Waves remains in flux, in amber, narcotized in familial embrace. Egan and Leonard, conversely, are repelled by family, adrift, unbound. Lena strikes hard, repeatedly, unceasingly, to penetrate Barry’s defenses. Egan is the soft underbelly, a sun-bleached patio bean bag, a 100-pound sack of flour. His resistance is as immutable as his desire to be exhumed; thus, another portrait of flux emerges, but one less tied to resignation, to exculpatory, voyeuristic balm. Barry wants out, but flinches from the touch of his rescuer. The violence expressed by Leonard and Egan in the moments prior to their lovemaking in a Hawaiian hotel room is, in tone and color, analogous to the first, pincer-like movements of a dervish dance, an azure tarantella performed by absinth-addled clerics and passed down to giddy novitiates of a Sardinian erotic order. Their words have heft, sufficient spittle, but sway, jolted from menacing axes. Bathed in whites and blues, swept up in bold brushstrokes, they slash across the constricted frame. Mock aggression is buttressed by a collective understanding that these characters have known great pain. Violence is the vector through which pleasure may intrude, mollify. Humor, however inappropriate or unintentional, abuts into the processed decorum of everyday reality as a reaction to stimulus. The more acute (or traumatic) the circumstance, the more mordant and unhinged the comic impulse must necessarily be. Cut again to Lena and Barry’s pre-coital aria and we are dumbstruck, hypnotized

BE: (shaking his head side-to-side after kissing Lena) I’m sorry I forgot to shave.
LL: Your face is so adorable, and your skin and your cheek and… I want to bite it. I want to bite your cheek and chew on it, it’s so fucking cute.
BE: (looking for the words, then whispering) I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it, you’re so pretty.
LL: (becoming more aroused) I wanna chew your face and I wanna scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them. Chew them and suck on them.
BE: Okay…

Anderson connects his familial patchworks with sutures of born of deep regrets, of primal opprobrium. He understands the necessity for noir to provide no succor for its protagonists save the acknowledgement that they have indeed survived, have tasted the hurts and horrors that propel, ignite, and fan the human conflagration. Sydney, John, and Clementine from Hard Eight emerge with little, save their skins (which they likely first purchased from a suburban Vegas strip mall pawnbroker) from the fire. Amber, Eddie/Dirk, Jack and Rollergirl from Boogie Nights scavenge dignity (however normatively blunted) and bruised purpose from the inferno. That the filmmaker steadfastly refuses to pass judgment on the extended Horner clan only serves to deepen the melancholy that burns through the film. Linda, Donnie, Claudia, Frank and Jim from Magnolia are more obtrusively disconnected from their traumas than previous Anderson protagonists, but the arc of their salvation and awakening (especially pertinent in Linda and Frank’s painful resuscitations) is leavened (but not diminished) with an almost irascible absurdity. Punch-Drunk Love, however, is direct, unequivocal, an aesthetic insurgent’s pipe bomb tossed between the gears of our collective emotional machinery. Throughout Anderson’s liver-spotted oeuvre, comedy splits from pathos, is reflected via melancholy into prismatic absurdity, and bends back onto itself as light is subdued by more powerful gravitational forces. His characters live within oscillating skeins of burnished reflexivity, and huddle together both in the moth-eaten recesses of carnival caravans and amid the artful clutter of less humble dwellings. Apartments scream, cars weep, and harmoniums bray, while human characters gaze wistfully into voids of their own conjuring. P.T. Anderson’s comic impulse takes the form of a scab-like saucer and careers through the corridors of thematic conceits, scuffs and abrades their faux-finished surfaces, and sends both the lunatic and the tragic into a centrifugal whirl. Carnival and catastrophe merge, seamlessly, infusing protagonists with extraordinary depth, nuance, and visceral élan. (Yes, even those portrayed by the likes of Adam Sandler.) Punch-Drunk Love is, for now, the apex of Anderson’s creative arc.

"Fully realized, he is almost unutterably repressed."

"His thrift and apparently limitless diffidence abuts in jolting opposition to his sisters’ brute fecundity and unrestrained, unreasonable hostility."

"Barry Egan’s prayers, conversely, are pitched to the incorporeal,
into nothingness itself."

"To Anderson, sudden, miraculous and fateful intrusions
are a matter of perverse course."

"His characters yearn for completion, forever seeking approval. Their discourse is constantly interrupted, and external diegesis is similarly fractured."

"And then you are given the provocation, the upended railway carriage, a rain of falling spikes: Lena/Watson’s derriere, a fulsome, womanly ass, suffused with an erotic charge equivalent to, or at least capable of utterly obliterating, each tic, twitch and self-abnegating reflex in Egan’s armory of grief and defeat."