Yeah, you know, like sand. Like the ocean. Like the Valley

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 14.01.2022

“True love seed in the autumn ground / When will it be found? / True love deep in the winter white snow / How long will it take to grow?” The pitch of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new, ninth film, Licorice Pizza, can be poetically reformulated with Nina Simone’s lyrics of her song July Tree, taken from her 1965 album I Put A Spell On You. PTA knows this and opens Licorice Pizza with that very tune. Way before the film’s main protagonists even meet.

1973, in California’s San Fernando Valley. 15-year-old Gary Valentine is on his way to have his picture taken for the school’s yearbook. He catches sight of a young woman, Alana Kane, who is helping out the photographer. Gary approaches her, roughly 10 years his elder, and although he seems suspicious to her, the two meet at a restaurant later in the evening. Somewhat instantly, a connection, a friendship blossoms between the precocious self-made man and the somewhat lost young woman, despite the seemingly inevitable gulf of age difference. How and whether the friendship develops into something else – perhaps this time without the aid of poisonous mushroom omelettes! – is a question perhaps only Nina Simone knows how to answer. “True love blooms for the world to see / Blooms high upon the July tree.”

Nothing compares anxiety like a little nostalgia, we were told just a few weeks ago in a big holiday season blockbuster (namely, Matrix Resurrections by Lana Wachowski, as reviewed in this very same issue). But no, Paul Thomas Anderson hasn’t gone to the nostalgic dogs at his advanced age – born in 1970 – to stage an awkward and creepy variation on The Graduate as a romantic comedy for teenagers. And if, by any chance, you were genuinely surprised that the director of There Will Be Blood or The Master comes waltzing in with something as feather-light and romantic as Licorice Pizza, you should brush up on PTA’s filmography. To revisit the poisoned mushroom omelettes – Phantom Thread is also, in its very peculiar ways, a rom-com. Albeit a toxic one and ultimately one in which love triumphs as an affirmation of co-dependent relationships. Punch-Drunk Love and especially the plot-line around policeman Jim and the traumatized, coke-addicted Claudia in Magnolia are among the most romantic stories that American cinema has produced in recent decades.

What distinguishes Licorice Pizza from PTA’s just mentioned other films is its sense of direction. If the former feature films efforts still are, in direct comparison, provided with an extroverted, almost youthful gesture screaming for attention – e.g. with elaborate tracking shots and parallel narratives with a dozen main characters and more – this latter now glides through the narrative somewhat utterly carefree with its characters. Again, one could trace another common thread, this time to Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice. Whereas there the fucked-up hippie detective Doc Sportello moved amidst ghostly presences dressed up as living characters in an equally spooky alienated environment, Gary, Alana and the strange but lovely characters they encounter are pretty much alive and kicking. Licorice Pizza is a film about waterbeds, friendships, pinball machines, the oil crisis and love – everything and nothing and nothing and everything. Like the airy and warm string arrangements in the opening Nina Simone song, which when swelling are reminiscent of 1930s screwball comedies, heralding opposing characters into amorous turmoil – nonetheless without resorting to self-mythologizing Hollywood, as, say, Tarantino did in his last film – PTA takes his audience by the hand and invites it to observe. To observe and to fall in love with Gary and Alana in its own right. Anderson would not be Anderson, however, if his characters were not heading towards an inescapable fate. Not the inevitable fate of triumph of capitalism over institutional religion in There Will Be Blood or – We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us – the biblical resetting-to-zero in Magnolia, but of Alana and Gary finding their love for each other.

None of the situations and supporting characters are of imminent narrative importance – they all disappear as they appeared in the first place – and yet the spirit of the Valley would be poorer in its representation if these characters did not cross Gary and Alana’s paths. Whether it’s Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, or Harriet Sansom Harris as a very intense casting agent – they all make way for the (actually) unadorned and made up pure charisma of Cooper Hoffman – Philip Seymour’s son, with whom PTA made half a dozen films – and Alana Haim (and her whole family!) who knows how to soak up Anderson’s 35mm images with her gaze alone. Even if the titular licorice pizza doesn’t seem to exist, the two words put together still stand for very personal memories and with for their associated feelings, smells and tastes. And Licorice Pizza, the film, is just like that: Loose in its individual parts, but coherent, touching, very tasty and warm in its imagery when put together.

Tom Dockal
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