PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON'S official graduation from chain-smoking wunderkind to Great American Director of Film™ happened sometime between 2002's Punch-Drunk Love and 2007's There Will Be Blood. But anyone who saw Boogie Nights in 1997 could see Anderson was a force to be reckoned with from the outset of his career (which actually began one year prior, with the relatively obscure but fantastic Hard Eight). As an extensive new series at the NW Film Center proves, the almost disaffected stateliness of Anderson's later work contains surprising parallels with the exuberance of his first films. Compare, for instance, his two best known characters: There Will Be Blood's scheming, impotent Daniel Plainview, and Boogie Nights' naïve but, uh, gifted Dirk Diggler—the two have more in common than meets the jockstrap.
The NW Film Center's series is titled "The Art of Reinvention: Paul Thomas Anderson and His Influences," and curators Morgen Ruff and Nick Bruno have coupled all seven of Anderson's features with 14 films by directors that influenced Anderson, either explicitly or indirectly. It's an approach they used last year in a series spotlighting another American director named Anderson (Wes). What both series examine is how the Andersons are primarily interested in cinema as an ongoing conversation: While Wes' influences are more offbeat—graphic design, the printed page, children's ephemera—Paul Thomas revels in the wholesale plundering of cinematic history. This is a guy who dropped out of film school in his first week and got the remainder of his education from LaserDisc commentary tracks.
Despite the reinvention suggested in the series' title, common themes quickly emerge in surveying Anderson's films. The most obvious is a Tarantino-esque obsession with cinema and a pathological but skillful repurposing of its parts. (Tarantino's Jackie Brown, from 1997, screens as part of the series on Sat Aug 1.) The NW Film Center could have easily created a full program out of the films that Anderson has "sampled" wholesale, and, indeed, several of those raw materials will screen: There's 1964's impressionist pseudo-doc I Am Cuba (Sun Aug 2), whose groundbreaking, in-and-out-of-water take was reused in Boogie Nights (Fri July 31 & Sat Aug 1). Howard Hawks' 1946 detective classic The Big Sleep (Thurs Sept 3 & Sun Sept 6) is the direct antecedent to Anderson's most recent movie, Inherent Vice (Fri Sept 4 & Sat Sept 5), and they share a pleasant, hazy indifference toward their central mysteries. And Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard (1980, screens Sun Aug 30) might be Anderson's favorite movie: He echoed its opening motorcycle sequence in 2012's The Master (Fri Aug 28 & Sat Aug 29), and the lengthy car conversation between Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat was retooled for Hard Eight (Fri July 24 & Sat July 25). And that's not to mention Robards himself, who Anderson cast in his most ambitious but uneven film, 1999's Magnolia (Fri Aug 7 & Sat Aug 8).
But there's more to this series than a game of "spot the influences," as much fun as that is. Directors like John Cassavetes, Akira Kurosawa, David Mamet, and Anderson's mentor Robert Altman have representative work screening as well, and their tones and approaches—more than specific shots—resound throughout Anderson's movies. (It helps that out of the 21 films screening, all but one—George Stevens' Giant from 1956—are screening on 35 mm.)
The series illuminates Anderson on all sides, providing some much-welcome context to some of his more inscrutable pieces. The devastating bleakness that characterizes his work is threaded throughout, of course, but we're reminded of the long, sustained passages of giddy hilarity in them, too. Taken together, his muses—Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Robert Ridgely—evolve into cornerstones. His sometimes punishing plot points reveal a consistent ethos. And his abundant passion for film, apparent in every frame, can't help but inspire, making this series richly rewarding from beginning to end.