Vibing with PTA
A lot of popular filmmakers in this era are less about narrative than about what has come to be called vibes. Whether this is due to trends in film education or in the arts generally, or generational change, or lead-based paint, I can’t say, but even though the trend is decades old it’s still a little weird for me as someone who grew up with movies that tended more toward obvious three-act structure.
In 1982, for example, I would walk into, say, Fitzcarraldo with a different set of expectations than I had for, say, My Favorite Year. The former could meander all over the place and have lots of privileged moments and I wouldn’t much mind, but with the latter I would expect (and get) cues to laugh, gasp, and sometimes cheer. Today, I don’t expect anything like that from big American movies except for genre pictures and the occasional Hollywood throwback like Green Book.
I think this is at least partly due a loss of faith in traditional dramatic strategy, and post-60s filmmakers deciding to bring the more abstract stuff they were seeing in revival houses into their own work. But dramatic structure, like any other kind of structure, imposes form, and when you get rid of it what’s left may not hold together. Take Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, a pretty good model of a major motion picture 21st Century Style. We learn early on Manson and his hippies are bad, and near the end, when they show up at Rick Dalton’s place, it’s cool to see them get their asses kicked. But what happens in between has almost nothing to do with that; it’s mostly just vibing on Hollywood 1969. If the movie has any meaning at all, it’s that things were cool then and it’s too bad no one took a flamethrower to those damn hippies so it could have stayed cool forever.
But that doesn’t mean vibe movies have to be dumb. (Antonioni movies are vibe movies, aren’t they? So’s Renoir’s The River, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) The film audience is still being invited to share a common experience and, if it’s done right, that experience can be meaningful and even profound. I don’t know if Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70s young love story, is profound, but I certainly found it meaningful, although the San Fernando Valley is a world away from my own teen milieu.
PTA is something of a vibemaster; Boogie Nights was barely about anything but 70s Valley vibe, pornmaker division, and even though Inherent Vice is a PI picture the point of the investigation dissipates like the abundant dope smoke of the Nixon era L.A. hippie demimonde. If I have an easier time following his tracks in movies like There Will Be Blood and The Master, it may be that the conflicts are more overt —almost dramatic! — or it may simply be that I’m more in sync with their vibes, though as a critic [canned laughter, slide whistle] I hate to say so.
In Licorice Pizza, we’re back in the Valley and there’s plenty of side action and scene-setting, with segments featuring a slightly sleazy waterbed business turned pinball arcade, an earnest but closeted politico, a half-crazed agent, a movie star so egotistical he’s inverted, et alia. As has been extensively reported, Anderson pulled a lot of these incidents from his own and his friends’ growing-up experiences. That doesn’t seem like much to a hang a $40 million budget on.
But the focus is on Gary (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana (Alana Haim), and they make all the difference. Gary is a slightly chubby child actor who’s aging out of his career opportunities. This sounds like a grim premise but Gary is boundlessly confident that things will work out; they have so far, haven’t they? Better still, Gary’s confidence never curdles into entitlement or resentment; he wants things to work, but when they don’t he just tries something else.
The only thing Gary won’t budge on is Alana, whom he meets when he’s getting his high school yearbook picture taken and she’s assisting the photographer, a placeholder job she has no idea how to get out of. Gary tries to get her to go out with him by pushing his resume details, along with pickup lines that are so silly there’s no way they should work, especially given that he’s 15 and Alana’s 23.
But they do work, and here we see, right up front, why this movie is going to work, too: From practically the start, Gary and Alana have chemistry. He’s kind of pushy, but he’s also sincere (even when he’s transparently lying — you know how it is), and gentle and non-threatening — a big difference, we and Alana can see, from the photog who casually smacks her ass while he’s lining up a shot. She keeps amusedly shooting Gary down, but he keeps bobbing up — and we can see, in the slightest softening of Haim’s face, her pleasure at blowing him off turning into pleasure at his attention. This may be vibe cinema, but the boy-meets-girl is as old as the movies.
Gary and Alana have a not-a-date (“don’t be creepy”), and then more not-a-dates that turn into a business partnership on the waterbed store. Gary gets frustrated that she won’t give it up. Alana is steadfastly unsexual with him, but she gets a frosty crust whenever Gary makes her jealous. This can be funny — as when, clad in her showroom bikini, a stoned Alana stumbles onto the sidewalk, makes out with a stranger for five seconds, then stomps off — but the hurt is obvious and real. Their arguments get more intense but never dangerous or disturbing because neither really wants to hurt the other, so they wind up arguing over which one of them is cool and which one of them is not cool.
At the same time, Anderson keeps coming up with little crises to remind Gary and Alana that they care about each other — getting arrested, falling off a motorcycle, sometimes the old where-is-he/she-if-only-cellphones-existed thing. This motivates most of the running scenes you’ve probably heard about; most romantic movies get one, but I swear this one has at least four, and, because we’re invested in the relationship, they’re all thrilling.
The biggest and best-developed variation on this comes when Alana, really cheesed off at Gary this time, goes off on her own to work with a male friend on an idealistic councilman’s mayoral campaign. She begins to feel like she’s getting it together — winning praise for her work, maybe having a shot with the male friend, maybe even a shot with the candidate. Then [mild spoiler] she’s made privy in the course of her job to the candidate’s romantic secret that makes it necessary for him to deny his love in order to succeed in politics. Anderson stays trained on Alana as she witnesses the lover’s quarrel and its aftermath, and we can see it all click. Then, the last running scene, and the big reunion.
OK, so it’s not A Farewell to Arms — for one thing there’s nothing so big at stake, though it could be argued that love, wherever it happens and whatever form it takes, is big enough. But Anderson has one thing in common with Frank Borzage: he knows actors have to carry a love story. Cooper Hoffman is fine, with a quality that’s like innocence but more, well, dumb; you see it when he tries to tell an adult pinball customer to be gentler with the machine, gets told to fuck off, then starts haplessly ordering around some little kids — he has a way to go toward being a really good person, but he’s off to a good start.
If you don’t hear much about Hoffman, it’s because everyone seems to be transfixed by Alana Haim. Anderson certainly is; his camera’s so tuned in on her it’s practically von Sternberg/Dietrich, Altman/Duvall territory. But boy, does she put it over. Her Alana is a proto-Valley Girl, hip to the girl’s room code, and when we get to know her we realize that she could have figuratively cut Gary’s dick off and stuck it up his ass if she’d wanted to. That she doesn’t is a sign that she’s ready for more than the vague dissatisfaction she’s been living with, brave and dumb enough to make mistakes (“But I’m sexy, right?”), and smart enough to learn from them. Movies have changed a lot, but they still make stars.