On a clear, crisp Sunday morning, Paul Thomas Anderson is driving me around Tarzana, his home turf. Built on the site of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ranch, Tarzana is eclectically nondescript, like all the low-rise suburban enclaves that dot the San Fernando Valley. On Ventura Boulevard, where we stop to pick up some overpriced fruit drinks, the architecture is a do-your-own-thing mishmash that refuses to add up to a Style. Anderson bemoans the eyesores, but he’s a born-and-bred Valley boy. ”It’s where I’m most comfortable in my own skin,” he says. He tried living on the other side of the hill for a year, in a Spanish home in Los Feliz, east of Hollywood. ”It was a great house, but I didn’t feel like I belonged,” he says. ”I had to get back to the Valley.”
There are filmmakers whose work is inextricably linked with a locale—Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese are inseparable from New York, Nebraska is owned by Alexander Payne, Federico Fellini transformed our vision of Rome. Los Angeles, of course, has been the backdrop of thousands of movies since the silent era. We think we know it, but it takes an artist to help us see it anew. In such films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love—all set in his beloved Valley—and in his latest, Inherent Vice, set in L.A.’s South Bay, Anderson leads us down side streets we’ve never taken, arriving at destinations where we’ve never been.
Anderson, 44, lives atop a hill in a sprawling 1940 ranch-style home with Maya Rudolph and their four kids, but before we head up there, he wants to show me the former home of one of his idols. John Huston, whose The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of his favorite films, had an estate just a stone’s throw from where Anderson now lives. Huston shot The Red Badge of Courage in the nearby hills.
Wherever Anderson goes, his Los Angeles is haunted by cinematic ghosts: Every time he gets off the 101 freeway at Vine, he thinks of the apartment William Holden lived in in Sunset Boulevard. After he first saw John Boorman’s Point Blank, he was so obsessed with it he scoured the city to check out all the locations Boorman used.
When people think of classic L.A. movies, the images have always come from the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains. No city has been more filmed. From Double Indemnity to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, from Boyz N the Hood to Blade Runner, Hollywood has repeatedly turned its cameras on itself, for reasons both practical and narcissistic. The iconic signifiers—palm trees, the Hollywood sign, the Venice boardwalk—are known worldwide. But these images never jibed with the L.A. Anderson grew up in. At best, the Valley was a footnote in the Hollywood lexicon, a sunbaked suburban afterthought.
Then, in the early ’80s, it achieved a dubious national identity—like, totally—as the birthplace of Valspeak, the habitat of vapid teenage girls. The first movie Anderson remembers seeing that reflected where he lived was Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He was 12. A decade later, in 1993, he caught a movie that would leave an even deeper impression. ”When I saw [Robert] Altman’s Short Cuts I thought, ‘That looks like where I live,”’ he says. ”Even though it wasn’t the Valley, just the way it looked kind of bleached out and f—ed-up, it looked ugly.”
In 1997, the world got to see L.A. through his eyes. With Boogie Nights, his second feature, the Valley had found its 27-year-old cinematic muse. The film took us back to the 1970s and ’80s, revealing the hidden world of professional porn. The Valley was (and still is) the adult-film capital of America, and Anderson had grown up imagining what went on in the anonymous industrial buildings he’d ridden by on his bike as a kid. In high school, he’d made a short mockumentary about a spectacularly endowed porn star he dubbed Dirk Diggler. He resurrected this none-too-bright superstar for Boogie Nights, casting Mark Wahlberg in the role and coaxing a nuanced performance from Burt Reynolds as porn king Jack Horner, Diggler’s father figure.
Even now it’s hard to believe that movie was made by a young man, and not just because the high-octane filmmaking demonstrated a prodigious command of the medium. What astounds is the depth and generosity of his vision. It’s a movie about the need to create family even in the most unlikely places, about the seismic shift from film to video in the porn industry, about people desperate for self-reinvention. And wasn’t that what L.A. had always promised: a desert mecca where you were allowed to shed your first skin and dream up another?
There are extravagant views of the Santa Monica Mountains from the windows of Anderson’s home: elms and jacaranda and palm trees in the distance, the lush foliage camouflaging hillside homes. With a little squinting you could easily imagine you’re living in the country. Yet just a few miles below is Magnolia Boulevard, which bisects the San Fernando Valley from Encino, to the west, all the way east to Burbank, home of Warner Bros. and Disney studios. It was this quintessential Valley thoroughfare that gave its name to his next movie.
Magnolia was his shoot-the-moon magnum opus, a teeming three-hour epic that follows the intersecting lives of nine lost Valley souls. Like almost all his movies, it was about, among many other things, fathers and sons, and it was made in the aftermath of the death of his own father, Ernie Anderson. Ernie was a voice-over artist who had once, under the name Ghoulardi, hosted a popular late-night horror-movie show on Cleveland TV. In Magnolia, aspects of his father are parceled out between two characters, one played by Jason Robards, the other by Philip Baker Hall. One is a rich TV producer, the other the host of a TV quiz show. Both are philanderers. Both are dying of cancer. Robards’ trophy wife, played by Julianne Moore, overdoses on prescription drugs and is found unconscious by a little boy—an incident taken from Anderson’s life. ”It was the tragic story of a wife my father had late in his life,” he says.
Anderson remembers the period when he was writing the script as both thrilling and chaotic. ”I’d just had this great success,” he says. ”It was the first time I’d had any money. I was coming out of one relationship and starting a new one. All that tragedy was coming out [in the script].” Magnolia is overwrought, exhausting, and magnificent, rising to a biblical rain of frogs that coats the Valley streets—and is never explained. Every character is damaged, yet their creator doesn’t judge them. These emotionally crippled Californians want to transcend their personal histories. But as a line at the heart of Magnolia, and perhaps all his movies, observes: ”We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.”
Anderson vowed that his follow-up—the third in an unintended Valley trilogy—would be no longer than a tight 90 minutes. Punch-Drunk Love was an attempt to lighten up. ”Attempt” is the operative word: This unnerving love story, in which a rageaholic Adam Sandler overcomes his demons to fall in love with Emily Watson, unfolds like a bad dream willing itself, kicking and screaming, into a romantic-comedy ending.
There are no sweeping overhead vistas, no gaudy billboards, no palm trees—indeed, precious few establishing shots—in Anderson’s Valley films. These are L.A. movies made by an insider, and for the most part they take place inside. Los Angeles is a city of private fantasies connected by freeways: Its real life takes place behind closed doors. For a place stereotyped as being about flash and surface, it’s never been concerned with presenting a well-groomed face to the world. Building codes are for places protective of their past, and L.A., ever dreaming, doesn’t like to look back. Anderson’s movies instinctively understand this. Filled with anonymous stucco apartments, generic storefronts, and unadorned warehouses, they accept the non-descript, yet manage to make the nondescript unforgettable.
When Europeans turn their cameras on L.A.—think Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point or John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust—their landscapes can’t help but editorialize: often scathingly, sometimes fondly, usually ironically. In Anderson’s movies, the physical city is a given; his gaze peers elsewhere—into L.A.’s messy, aspiring, wounded soul.
But as Boogie Nights suggested—and his non-L.A. movies There Will Be Blood and The Master confirmed—Anderson is an instinctive historian, with an uncanny ability to capture the feel and psychology of the past.
His new movie, Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, is set in 1970—the year Anderson was born—in fictional Gordita Beach, a stand-in for such South Bay surfside enclaves as Manhattan Beach, where much of it was shot. It’s his first L.A. movie not made in the Valley, and his first true adaptation. A twistedly funny, weed-saturated film noir that both apes and sends up classic gumshoe mysteries, Inherent Vice re-creates the after-the-fall L.A. counterculture without using the usual ’60s visual shorthand. You won’t find any psychedelic freak-outs or Day-Glo VW vans. Though it’s filled with pratfalls and gags, the comedy floats above a steady undertone of melancholy. Doc Sportello, the reefer-toting private eye played by Joaquin Phoenix, is haunted by his old flame (Katherine Waterston), whose sudden reappearance sets off his labyrinthine journey into the netherworld of the City of Angels. It’s a movie about loss—lost love, lost utopian illusions—set in a place where neighborhoods can vanish overnight, plowed under by rapacious real estate developers. We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.
Back at Anderson’s house in Tarzana, we walk down to the converted garage that is his office, a vast, high-ceilinged space lined with books, DVDs, VCRs, and movie posters. He flips on TCM, the first order of business. Is it just coincidence that the movie that happens to be on is 1954’s archetypal Hollywood-on-Hollywood saga, A Star Is Born? As we talk, his eyes are periodically snared by a glorious Technicolor image, and he stops to point out how it must have been achieved. I’m trying to get him to explain his unusual ability to get so deep inside L.A.’s past and present. He shrugs; he’s not one to analyze his own work, or blow his own horn. Boogie Nights? ”It just came naturally, I’d been around it so long,” he says. We start talking about other filmmakers who’ve captured the ethos of a time period. ”It’s funny the things you can get right somehow,” he says. ”You just know: That feels right.” But now Anderson is not talking about other directors. He bends forward. ”The truth is the truth is the truth.” It’s said lightly, almost with embarrassment. To my ears, however, it sounds more like a credo.