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The Film Lab in Hamtramck is hosting a Paul Thomas Anderson series ahead of ‘Licorice Pizza’

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Heather Graham in Boogie Nights. - G. LEFKIWITZ/NEW LINE CINEMA
  • G. Lefkiwitz/New Line Cinema
  • Heather Graham in Boogie Nights.

This month, Hamtramck's Film Lab is treating locals to a three-film series of works by Paul Thomas Anderson (likely best known for There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights), and it's worth one or several trips — for he's easily one of the best American filmmakers going.

The series runs in anticipation of his newest, Licorice Pizza (which should be out shortly after Thanksgiving) and spotlights works of his set either in the 1970s, as Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice are, or in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, as Magnolia is, albeit in its own late-'90s present. The '70s period and valley locale are shared not just with Anderson's new, rather sweet-looking teenage comedy — sure to be more subversive than its trailer — but also with the 51-year old writer-director's own childhood.

The imprints of Anderson's experience of growing up on the edge of the once-grander entertainment industry are unmistakable in his first few films. Himself the child of ever-busy voice actor and Midwestern émigré Ernie Anderson, P.T. Anderson's breakthrough came with his second film, Boogie Nights, which centered on the rhetorically marginal (but really booming) porn industry of the late '70s and early '80s. Seeing a dumb guy (Mark Wahlberg) with big dreams boning his way to the top of the heap before succumbing to a vain and cataclysmic fall, the film's bifurcated structure hinges on the line between decades, imagining a collective, personal, and artistic arc for those in an incestuous, tight-knit industry — though the same arc may apply just as well to American movies as to the country at large.

Bustling with a soundtrack of old hits that prove more generative than decorative, Boogie Nights, still skates along with a sense of force and buoyancy guided by its characters, cast, and music, seeking and managing to capture the feeling of a scene richer in exuberant aspiration and feeling than long-term reward — but only so much poorer for it. Parceling out attention to a fictional, well-loved band of porn industry leading lights with Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner as their director and reigning patriarch, Anderson treats this group of societal outcasts as a kind of surrogate family with all the complications given the circumstances — both Freudian and otherwise — that might imply. Weaponizing a murderer's row of talent too rich to lay out in print, the film drills down into its characters' feelings with a pressing, cokehead rigor owing greatly to Scorsese and to Goodfellas in particular, celebratory of its milieu but in the end not only that. In Boogie Nights' at-times starkly binary world and whipped-up air, shades of a half-Catholic upbringing and many a Catholic artistic father are present for a director often focused on patriarchs — but so, too, is a rich offering of surface textures and sensitive, honed depictions that can be enjoyed as deeply-rooted pleasures unto themselves. A single line or flourish in performance from Anderson's work can wrench or entertain for many an emotional mile, and his hallmark here and after is the fact his robust tonal, historical, and comedic awareness never cuts the sense of feeling in his work.

In Magnolia, which followed, the case is quite the opposite; it's the feelings that loom large. With its ballooning script marked not just by powder but tears, the runaway, blank-check ensemble production weaves together a tapestry of interconnected characters around the San Fernando Valley (much like Altman's Short Cuts, which covered Greater Los Angeles, or even the bad, Best-Picture Winner Crash of 2004). Deathbed speeches, petrified first dates, childhood trauma, cocaine, and television production make up its fabric, with characters often caught driving through rainstorms on their own, processing an awful lot. Evoking and joining their emotional struggles with the musical stylings of Jon Brion and the cries of Aimee Mann, Magnolia was written in a period of grief in which Anderson had lost not one but three father figures — including his biological dad. Showing no signs of self-censorship and many of his right to final cut, the film's riddled with redundancies, unsanded edges, and personal touches, privileging emotional honesty and its young author's blend of ego and ambition far more than it does anything else.

Taken today, Magnolia feels like a fascinating, somewhat noble failure, still singular for its strained sense of emotionality and its climactic, apocalyptic, and fateful treatment of the everyday — along, too, with a bevy of fascinating, at times radical performances. Blue and mournful, and as funny and sweet when it means to be as when it doesn't, it's the movie that finds Anderson at his most striving and least mediated — or controlled. Letting the intensity of Anderson's affections for his characters mingle with the long, uneven whine of his grief (the script was composed in a great rush), it's a work of big and unusual spectacle (no spoilers) and fiercely attempted intimacy. For this end-of-century work which makes emotional precarity its subject, the film's sterling cast stands today as its best sell. Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (may he rest well) and more circle back to join Anderson for a post-Boogie Nights second round, with Tom Cruise delivering a frightening, tragicomic turn as a misogynistic, cable-aided dating guru.

While Cruise's performance is broad, smug, and finely enunciated (his spectacularly nasty program's called Seduce and Destroy), much of Magnolia is delivered in a lyrical, almost gibbering vocal register in which feelings burst out with an air of the irrepressible, and of half-apologetic embarrassment; at times, characters feel less like whole people than shattered fragments of a single self. Lyrics from Mann (some of which are featured in the soundtrack) spill from actors' mouths, and the confessional, wounded work of Fiona Apple — who was dating Anderson at the time — stands as perhaps its strongest influence. With fragile, upset characters spurning each other either righteously or coldly, usually while cussing up a storm, it's up to the viewer before the movie wraps to offer them an embrace — something audiences may choose to do or not. While cribbing plenty not just from Altman but After Hours' absurd coincidences and Network's odes to feeling, Magnolia still feels like little else, its clenched and haunted sensibility both a challenge and a draw. It's a film — maybe the film — that was About Trauma before nearly everything was.

Humming in the atmosphere of most all Anderson's works is a musing preoccupation with an America in decline, a vibration too persistent to ignore. Rounding out a trio of historical works swirling around this topic (after 1800s-set There Will Be Blood and 1950s-set The Master) is Inherent Vice. A Thomas Pynchon adaptation, a riff on Raymond Chandler's detective stories, and an existentially comic masterwork, the film casts Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello as a hippie detective past his prime fumbling towards a far-reaching form of conspiratorial truth. The film's fuse is lit by Doc's old flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (an emotionally brutal, scene-stealing Katherine Watterston), who wanders back into Doc's life offering cryptic warnings before drifting as swiftly out. Shot on purposefully degraded film, Inherent Vice's hazy air is cut with a sense of curdled idealism leavened by sharp humor and a glowing, verbally agile cast of characters — none of whom it embalms in an air of stultifying dignity or nostalgia.

Structured as a series of interviews (in pursuit of leads, as most detective stories are), Vice is relentlessly but easily funny, moving steadily ahead while fraying and cooking its lead character's nerves. With a druggily romantic, free-wheeling manner that suggests a slippery reality, its sharpest moments jut like peaks above this conjured fog. Enlivened by hushed speeches about vertical integration and matter-of-fact presumptions of corruption all around, Inherent Vice is as real as it gets for being surreal, pulling viewers into a disarmingly funny, bleak yet charming world. It's to Anderson's credit that it never teeters into piety, cheap sentiment, or forsakes humor; like most everything he does, it's a period work approached with a holistic sense of attention, a willingness to experiment, and a nose for what endures.

The Film Lab is located at 3105 Holbrook Ave., Hamtramck. See thefilmlab.org for the full schedule.

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