Although I’m mad for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new picture, Punch-Drunk Love, I also suspect it’s made me a little crazy. Why else should I fall, and fall hard, for the world’s first one-character romantic comedy? The tale of a wheezing, withdrawn young man in suburban Los Angeles and the woman who unaccountably redeems him, Punch-Drunk Love bursts with music, color, movement, wit, passion, suspense–everything you might want, except for the woman herself.
Her absence can’t be an accident. In previous pictures such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson has put dozens of actors onto the screen and given each a delectable moment to play, or more often a chewable monologue. So it’s not just a change in scale that makes Punch-Drunk Love seem a departure from his earlier movies, which ran longer than this one by an hour or more. The deeper difference lies in the way Anderson’s worldview has contracted, so that the movie seems to take place in the head of only one man.
Like Anderson’s earlier characters, Barry Egan walks into the movie with a résumé suitable for realist fiction. He’s got a defining occupation (as a wholesale merchant of novelty toilet plungers), a vivid family background (he cringes before seven bullying sisters) and a behavioral pattern that hints at psychological depth. Barry practices a craven politeness, except when overcome by the sudden need to smash; and since he’s being played by Adam Sandler, a comic actor known for his wise-ass shleppiness, this side of the character comes before us pre-interpreted.
By contrast, Barry’s love interest is so thinly conceived as to approach the wraithlike. She, too, is played by a performer with an established screen persona–although not that established, since the movies in which Emily Watson has appeared, wrapping her suffering in a high-strung, sensuous embrace, have reached a mere fraction of Sandler’s audience. Watson’s presence puts some flesh on the character of Lena Leonard; but without the detail that’s been lavished on Barry, Lena threatens to melt back into the sunlight from which she seems to have materialized.
Lena is, in fact, the third unexplained phenomenon to manifest itself in Punch-Drunk Love. The first is a doomed car, which goes crashing, shrieking, tumbling through a warehouse district of the San Fernando Valley just after dawn, with no cause for this catastrophe other than Barry’s having glanced down the street. The second apparition, which follows immediately, is a red van, which pulls up in front of Barry as if in continuation of the wreck. Unseen workers remove a harmonium (Barry will call it a “little piano”) and place it at his feet. Then, soon after the van speeds off, Lena saunters down the alley to Barry’s warehouse with the sun glaring behind her, so that you make out very little except her red outfit. You might say that Lena personifies the surprises that have preceded her. She sums up an experience of unforeseen, bone-shaking loss of control, and a promise that music might come from a small, still-mute crate.
If Barry were played by a standard leading man, you would be justified at this point in resolving never to see Punch-Drunk Love, and also in ripping to shreds this page of the magazine. The movie would be just another feature-length projection of male fantasy; but then, there is nothing standard about the choice of Sandler for the lead. An infant clomping around in the body of a long-faced, mouth-breathing adult, Sandler seems in Punch-Drunk Love to have no padding on his feelings. His Barry shields his eyes at every light, shrinks back from every noise. Emotions register in him immediately, in a performance that’s as beautiful and unself-conscious as it is unexpected. What registers most in Barry, as he stands before Lena, is something like the sense of astonishment, awe and pain that babies feel when they learn that the mother is a separate person.
To suggest how magically this emotion plays out in Punch-Drunk Love, I must now say something about the words, the suit, the music and the shot.
The words, very often, sound like impromptu poetry of the Ashbery school. A typical Barry utterance: “I have a lot of pudding, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed.” This actually means something, though you could almost wish that it didn’t. More to the point, though, are the words that pop out of Barry’s mouth when he appeals to someone for psychiatric help, and is asked if his feelings seem normal to him. “I don’t know,” Barry answers on a rising tone, “how other people are?” A perfect self-diagnosis, which I fear applies to each of us.
The suit worn by this unwilling solipsist is blue. In interviews, Anderson has explained this costume as a tribute to MGM musicals; think of Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon. But I note that Fred’s suit is a grayish, sophisticated blue. Barry’s is the blue that your mother used to spread on the other half of the peanut butter sandwich. Though Barry tries to dress as a grown-up, the color shows he hasn’t yet got it right.
Music thrums relentlessly through Punch-Drunk Love, as if it were the pounding of blood in Barry’s temples. Anderson has always liked a busy soundtrack; but this time I thought he’d overdone it, until he launched into a sequence scored to a Harry Nilsson song: “He Needs Me,” sung by Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Only a true movie-lover would have chosen this tune, which was the first thing about it that won me over. The second was the experience of being carried out of Barry’s head at last. Presumably he’s the one imagining this sproingy two-step, whose scrawny waif of a melody keeps spiraling upward until it gets dizzy. But in the rapturous babble of the lyrics–“He needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me he needs me“–Barry seems to be guessing his way into Lena’s mind; and what he guesses turns out to be right.
Which brings me to the shot: the climactic moment you may have seen excerpted in TV commercials or frozen in newspaper ads. As the song approaches its high point, Lena flings herself onto Barry. The two are silhouetted, in medium long-shot, against a doorway that opens onto a beach. For a second, they’re alone: two black outlines against a blue rectangle, in the middle of the CinemaScope frame. Then, from the left and right, other silhouettes begin to cross the screen, as Lena and Barry go on embracing. Barry finally knows, a little, how another person is; and now that he does, multitudes of people come rushing in–people of every description–as if Barry were being released into the world.
Or maybe the audience in the movie theater–a multitude of figures in the dark–is released into the movie. As the shot filled up, I felt as if I, too, might walk right through this movie, which had abruptly opened into gregariousness. Here was a moment of pure happiness, discovered at the violent, innocent heart of Punch-Drunk Love. Whether it’s delirium or sanity I can’t say, but I’m very glad to have been included.
Playing cheek-by-jowl with Punch-Drunk Love in the recent New York Film Festival was the extraordinary documentary Love and Diane, produced and directed by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin. Love, in this case, is the given name of a young black woman in Brooklyn. Diane is her mother: a recovering crack addict, now in her 40s, who for years gave up Love and her other children to foster care and group homes. As the film begins, Diane has managed to bring her family back together, physically if not emotionally. Whether she can keep them together seems doubtful–just as it’s doubtful whether Love, in her turn, can prevent a rupture with the next generation. When first seen, Love is 18 years old and unwed and has just given birth to a little boy, who is HIV positive. Before long, Love will be thrashing her way through the child welfare system, trying to win him back from foster care.
I might describe Love and Diane as a movie about two obsessions: Love’s determination to recover her son, and Dworkin’s to make this film. Its running time of two and a half hours covers the events of some two and a half years, when the filmmaker and her crew must have lived like members of Love and Diane’s family. Nothing that happened to them, however private or painful, seems to have been kept from the camera. What’s more, Dworkin gave video cameras to the family members and incorporated their footage into the documentary, so their vision would literally be a part of the story. The most impressionistic, poetic passages in the movie seem to have been made by the family members themselves.
Love and Diane is a tough, sometimes exhausting film. It acknowledges the strength that African-American women can show in adversity–especially the strength of their religious faith–but never once yields to glib clichés about resilience. As of this writing, the film has no theatrical distributor. I hope a third obsessive will show up soon to change that.
* * *
Short Take: Last year, the Australian-born actress Naomi Watts turned in a brilliant, breakthrough performance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Now she’s back, once again casting her blue peepers skyward and biting her full lower lip, as she endures the perils of The Ring. Directed by Gore Verbinski and written by Ehren Kruger, based on a Japanese novel and movie of the same name, The Ring is the story of a newspaper reporter who must race against time to solve the mystery of a murderous, otherworldly videotape. If you’re looking for a TV-is-evil movie, you would do better to rent Shocker by Wes Craven; The Ring hardly bothers to develop this theme. But if you want to get spooked in a movie theater this Halloween, The Ring is clearly your choice–especially if you worry, as Naomi Watts must, whether those little kids dressed up like ghouls just might be the real thing.