“All we got to do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.”
As I walk into the theatre I notice two things: first, this is the busiest screening I’ve been to since Jurassic World, and second, the pre-show crowd murmur is a few semitones higher than I’m used to. It’s not unpleasant, but it is distinct enough that I pause to look over the audience. I’ve heard the rumours: based on some survey with undisclosed methodology and little to no oversight, ninety-six percent of this audience should be female. I’m rubbish at estimation, but that seems about right. I briefly consider sneaking into another theatre where I’m less likely to be quizzed on why I, an unaccompanied straight man, am here. I decide that it’s likely someone would see my overwhelmed deference and laugh at me the way girls laugh at boys who misunderstand any aspect of female anatomy or physiology, and so I stay—though this isn’t easy, as few seats are available beyond the first few rows. As any frequent filmgoer can tell you, being at or at least near the latitudinal centre of the screen becomes exponentially more important as you move closer to it. There is a lone empty seat, dead centre of row three, but it is flanked on either side by large groups of friends. I ask a group of about six pre- or barely-t(w)eenaged girls if—sorry, if I could just… ‘scuse, I’m just trying to sorry, sorry, sorry. I make a point not to look at them during or after this procedure, but I get the feeling they’re looking at me. What I hope is that somehow the group of girls to my left will think I’m part of the group to my right, and vice versa. The guy to my right leans over and says “you know, I’m surprised how many men are here.” His pitch is highly varied, his vocal stops are slightly affricated, and he has hyperexpressive sibilance, so I quickly run the odds on convincing the girls to my left that we’re a couple. I realize I haven’t responded yet. I retroactively listen to him. I say something about how Channing Tatum is now a respectable, masculine actor whom respectable, masculine men can appreciate ever since he put on a leotard and rolled around with other men in Foxcatcher. My fake boyfriend doesn’t remember Foxcatcher, and the joke falls flat. I stare at the seat in front of me. I say nothing. I regret coming. The movie starts. I proceed to have one of the most revelatory and downright engaging experiences of the year.
The loss of a certain kind of innocence… That’s always sort of fertile ground for a story.
— Paul Thomas Anderson
She hates when I do this and so do I, but things get twisted around in here. To say anything is to pretend like this sulking has some legitimate source; to say nothing is to continue sulking. She has asked if I’m O.K., which the answer is yeah, but the interrogative offspring are “what is O.K?” and “wait, am I even feeling anything right now?” which despite their facileness take up rather too much headspace and leave me quiet and only barely nodding. What has happened is simple and unimportant: I have seen a movie, one I expected to like, but one which, when it came right down to it, I didn’t, in fact, like. This event’s monumental lack of significance is a part of the problem. “Stop caring about it, right now.” To say this is to care, and round and round it goes.
I thought I would like Inherent Vice because I’ve always liked Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. Or, I have since a high school media studies professor accidentally described Magnolia with a whole bunch of superlatives I’ve forgotten but which provided ample encouragement to pirate and watch,1 this high school teacher thus being in the awkward position of having told a sixteen year-old boy to watch a movie in which a sweaty Tom Cruise yells “TAME THE CUNT!” on more than one occasion. I have nothing but thanks for this recommendation. My reasons for this appreciation are either complex or else not very coherent: I tend to give a different answer every time I’m asked. Once, I said it eroded my preconceptions about Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly, and William H. Macy,2 and so therefore about actors in general, opening me up to a world of possibilities beyond my petty celebrity grievances. Another time I said I didn’t realize it wasn’t a standard two hours in length until a few minutes after it finished, at which point I realized bedtime had long since gone by. Some poor soul got an earful of me describing how it’s singularly effective at painting a broken and pained world and yet it still maintains—well perhaps not a happy ending, but some sort of hope. Someone else pretended to listen while I went on and on about whip-pans. One, some, or all of these explanations is or are probably true, but what’s most important in this context is that, whatever the reason(s), Magnolia made me feel something very particular, something that spurred me to watch the remainder of what was then Anderson’s filmography.3