In his 14th re-view for this site, Erik Jaccard tells us what it’s like to be punch-drunk in love with a work of art. On a personal note, the Ten Years Ago project was built for exactly this kind of piece. Please enjoy.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I wrapped you inside my coat
When they came to firebomb the house
I didn’t feel pain, ‘cause no-one can touch me
Now that I’m held in your spell.
A beautiful girl
A beautiful girl
Can you turn your world into dust.
—Radiohead, “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong”
For those unfamiliar with the world of professional pugilism, to be punch-drunk is to be as one hit repeatedly in the head by a very strong force, usually a man wearing padded gloves, sometimes a number of men bearing naught but their own bony fists, and sometimes simply by the overwhelming force of another’s love and affection. There is, then, a certain intentional redundancy to the phrase “Punch-drunk Love.” Love, which we all know comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and durations, seems always to engage this definition in some way or another. What love, for example, doesn’t entail at least some degree of the exhausting, the overwhelming, the ego-reducing, the self-abrogating? What else is love if not standing in a ring in front of the world, with another human being, and dropping your guard, admitting to yourself and everyone else around you that that person can now pummel you with impunity? What love worth its salt is not some form of being punch-drunk? Think about it: wedding vows are full of descriptions of all the ways people have become punch-drunk, have fallen under the spell of another, and have essentially gone all loco with joy at the prospect of letting another human being take the keys to their sanity. It’s written into the genre of the wedding vow, this heartfelt admission of temporary insanity. And it really is like riding in the passenger seat of an old Buick with the seatbelts removed while someone else does 80 down the turnpike. You can object to the speed or course dimly, but while being so disoriented one also has the feeling that they’re just along for the ride. This is, of course, meant to be a mutual form of emotional bondage, and one encompassing as much potential for a smooth ride as for a fiery crash, as much joy as pain, as much freedom and carelessness as fear and control. With so much mutually punchy drunkness going around, it’s a wonder that anyone would ever coin the seemingly unnecessary phrase ‘Punch-Drunk Love.’
However, let’s take a closer look via the lyric I employ above as epigram to this review. I take a certain fanboyish satisfaction in finally using a Radiohead song lyric as epigram to a review, partly because I am a massive geek for the band, and partly because the obscure B-side referenced above was one of the few pop songs I could think of that featured the phrase ‘punch-drunk’ in its title. Mostly, however, I wanted to start with this snippet because it nicely encapsulates the idea that being held under another’s spell can be the same thing as admitting that the person for whom you’ve gone all punch-drunk has the power to take you apart completely, to reduce you to elementary particles, and to not have to care whether you can finally put yourself back together again. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has made a career partly on transforming this sensation into words. For example, there is a line in Radiohead’s “All I Need” (from 2007’s In Rainbows) where Yorke calmly admits to his imagined interlocutor the simple truth that “I am an animal trapped in your hot car.” On 2003’s Hail to the Thief, Yorke had put it another way, stating starkly in “There There” that “In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape.” Other people’s smothering vehicles, other people’s reedy, blackened landscapes, the ways we willingly—obsessively even—put ourselves into these hazardous situations is sometimes hard to fathom and depressing to consider. It is easy to find the overly pessimistic in this assessment of relationships and power relations, and, indeed, Yorke is often read by those who consider themselves optimists as some kind of ‘Incredible Sulk,’ cashing in on human angst by highlighting only the darkest of our anxieties. But to reduce the truth of this thematic obsession to its admission of powerlessness is to miss just how accurately it sums up the razor’s edge we all agree to sit on when we enter that figurative boxing ring with another human being.
It’s not that the punch-drunkeness of love and, as Somerset Maughaum put it, ‘human bondage,’ is all about constantly worrying whether the person to whom you’ve entrusted your tender little heart is going to leave you. Instead, I like to think that it’s about recognizing that love, and being in love, is about never knowing which way is up. Therefore, as “All I Need” crashes to a close in a cacophony of cymbals, reverb, and thundering peals of piano chords, it seems natural that Yorke should admit that “It’s all right/It’s all right/It’s all wrong/It’s all right.” The uncertainty of the admission is, rather than an exception to the rule, the rule itself. To experience that punch-drunkeness, whether or not you declare it in front of your friends and family as public spectacle is to accept that you’re entering a world in which right and wrong coexist, and are, frankly, often difficult to tell apart. Sometimes doing the right thing for yourself means tearing somebody else’s world apart, which would therefore make it at least partly wrong. On the other hand, when love fades—which it often does—we also often find ourselves doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, prolonging love in form only, even when its content has withered and died. Or, what’s worse, when it was never entirely there to begin with (As Yorke would again remind us, “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.”).
It’s with all of this in mind that I return to you to re-view Paul Thomas Anderson’s sweet, subtle triumph of a film, Punch-Drunk Love. Stripping Anderson of the hype that has shrouded him since the late ‘90s is no small feat, but it seems necessary in order to actually get at what makes this film so incredible, and, furthermore, in order to understand how what makes it incredible is actually quite connected to the space of ten years separating us from the moment when many of us first watched it. Between 1996 and 1999 Anderson just so happened to pass on to the world three of its more electrifying, cleverly directed, and creatively conceived character studies in the form of Hard Eight,Boogie Nights, and the sprawling, Altman-esque opus that is Magnolia. His scripts were tight, clever, and, despite the odd-rainstorm of frogs and not a little eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake, completely human and utterly believable. Like many auteurs, he is famous for his own particular brand of cinematic stylization, and for working with specific actors. As regards this latter point, we have Anderson to thank for energizing and legitimating the careers of, among others, Phillip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, and, to a lesser extent, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy (who also owe much of their success to the Coen brothers and, in the case of Moore, Todd Haynes). Again, like other auteurs, Anderson is a self-conscious creator of cinematic art and his films seem, like those of so many of his famously ‘arty’ contemporaries, sui generis (which is, of course, nonsense—every genius stands on the composite shoulders of all the others before them). For this reason it remains difficult to date his films and, indeed, there is nothing particularly topical about any of the films I mention above. Like any good post-modernist (and I mean ‘after modernism’ as a period, not postmodernism’ as an expression of rupture within or exhaustion of the modern), each is stamped with his own trademarks and auteur-ish constructions. As with his surname analog, Wes, you always know when you are watching one of Anderson’s films. Each does something different and usually new, but each does it in a way that is very typical of the filmmaker. On its own, Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson’s least Anderson-esque film. Part of this has to do with the fact that it is not, in size or scope, epic. In fact, it is his slightest creation, topping out at a mere 89 minutes in what was apparently a purposeful response to the overlong, 3-hour plus running time of Magnolia. Yet, or perhaps because of this, it may also be his most compact, concise, and effective offering as well.
The premise of the film is deceptively simple, tracing a few days in the life of one particularly unremarkable man, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a salesman of novelty bathroom plungers (“fungers”). As far as we can tell, Barry gets up every day and goes to work, he sleeps, he clips coupons and tries to find ways to turn corporate promotions into lucrative opportunities, and he deals with what must certainly be the most devlish and harrowing septet of sisters I have ever seen put to film. Barry is a gentle, good-natured soul whose frustrated and frustrating life makes him understandably angry. He means well and he treats those around him with respect, a respect that is not returned to him. It is the absence of this respect for his life and person that has clearly led to his complete disengagement with the world, and to an understandable fury that explodes in moments of uncontrollable tension or exhaustion. The plot revolves around Barry’s gradual reengagement with and reinvestment in the greater world around him, a story that turns on his relationship with a woman named Lena (Emily Watson), a coworker of one of his sister’s, who sees something in Barry that the rest of the world ignores.
For Barry, falling in love—indeed, being in love—is an uncomfortable sensation and one he is unaccustomed to accommodating without the anxiety produced by his family, for whom he is a black sheep, a ‘weirdo,’ or a ‘retard.’ As far as Barry is concerned, love is as much about brute force and aggression, not to mention betrayal. As evidence for this claim I would simply point to his sisters, all of whom seek to control Barry via something that looks like familial love, but feels like having your face eaten off repeatedly by wild jackals. There is, then, no way for Barry to think about love without thinking of what seems to be (in the film) its inevitable flipside—domination and control, that feeling of being hit over and over again, only, in this case, in the worst of ways. Like most who crave solitude, Barry’s life is somewhat monadic and insular and his initial encounters with Lena produce some of the more awkward and amusing courtship scenes in recent memory, as he attempts to quietly but determinedly move beyond himself for the first time in years, maybe ever. In and of itself, this is hardly a novel premise for a film. Though I’m having a difficult time dredging up another example, there are surely more than a few that work with human source material just like this. What makes it more interesting than the rest, however, is that it gets run through Anderson’s own idiosyncratic mind and comes out on the other side feeling like it has worked within a number of genres (the absurdist drama, the romantic comedy, the black comedy, and even the ‘Adam Sandler’ film (!)) while also transcending them.
Like any self-consciously ‘artistic’ filmmaker, Anderson invests this simple story with his usual ticks and quirks, sculpting the universe through which it plays out in a way seemingly reserved for himself. At the same time, nods to the work of other cinematic savants occur frequently enough and lend the entire piece some of its more satisfying moments. I can only make this statement vaguely, partly because I have superimposed my frame of referentiality onto the film, and also because I’m not a sophisticated or erudite enough scholar of film to point out the conscious odes to the work of the greats (particularly as regards the film’s technical aspects). However, two intertextual elements were obvious enough to me this time around that I find them worth mentioning. By way of introducing both, I would offer the claim that Punch-Drunk Love resembles, in forma and style, a dream that teeters between the nightmarish and the overly sweet (and really, what piece of self-conscious ‘art’ is not, in its own way, a dream removed from the mundane reality of the material world, contemplating in that most Kantian of ways, only itself). Its action seems to take place in a netherworld on the borders of conscious time and space and in this respect it resembles some of the more inspired work of David Lynch, perhaps without Lynch’s trademark fixation on the neuroses and disfigurements that lurk in the subconscious mind. It is difficult, for example, to watch the film’s Lynchian opening scene without recognizing its dreamlike quality. It’s not that a spectacular car accident and a cab pulling up to a curb and disgorging an old harmonium are themselves that dream-like. But events themselves aren’t what make dreams weird. It’s when things happen in extraordinary combinations that they produce that otherworldliness, as though synchronous timeframes were overlapping. As Mitch Hedberg once so concisely and amusingly put it, “I hate dreaming, because when you want to sleep, you want to sleep. Dreaming is work. There I am lying in my comfortable bed. Next thing you know, I have to build a go-cart with my ex-landlord.” Neither the go-cart nor the ex-landlord are exceptional objects in themselves. It’s only when they get thrust together that it seems strange.
And it is precisely in the sequencing here, the sound of high tension wires shaking in a storm, the car crash, and the arrival of the harmonium, that we are able to glimpse a strange logic at work. The constant tension and snapping, the crash, and the harmony that will result from it herald the arrival of Lena. There is a moment in her first conversation with Barry, where she is set against the blinding 7 am sunshine of a regular Southern California morning, that make it seem like what we’re witnessing is so unearthly as to be impossible. And it’s at this point that you already know that what is scripted is also fated, but that fate, a concept which so often takes on a disingenuous air of unreality, is here to be taken not only as a structuring principle, but also as a fundamental truth. In this way Anderson also seems to be making conscious nods—if only spirit and ethos—to Golden Age directors like Frank Capra, who managed to walk the a fated, yet social and material, line between utter destitution and unbelievable joy (despite their good intentions and gentle souls, consider for a moment the desperation of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life).
Moreover, it’s worth considering how what Capra did with his characters—and with the actor chosen to play them (Jimmy (don’t call me James) Stewart)— can be taken as a model for understanding Anderson’s famous use of character as well. As has been remarked upon many times in the last ten years, one of the most interesting things about this film is the choice of its leads, one a silly comic known for juvenile humor and the other a professionally trained English actor, whose performance in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is one of the finest moments in the history of cinema (as far as I’m concerned). While we already know that Anderson has a way with actors, and is famous for ‘getting the most from them’ or some such thing, it is worth pausing here to reconsider just how this abstract process might work. It’s not simply that Anderson knows how to uncover or access hidden depths in previously one-dimensional actors, though there is at least some truth to this. For example, before Anderson got his hands on him, Mark Wahlberg was primarily known as that crazy guy who screams “LET ME INTO THE FUCKING HOUSE!’ in the 1996 Reese Witherspoon thriller Fear. He had a boyish vulnerability that worked in very specific situations and a muscular ferocity that could be turned towards the dark side in others, but that twain had never met before Anderson put him through the emotional ringer as a bashful busboy turned 13-inch porn star wonder stud in Boogie Nights. The point is not that Anderson reveals things in actors that had theretofore remained unseen.. No, what makes Anderson a spectacular talent—and what makes his films often seem so natural, despite their frequent absurdity—is that he is, as any auteur worth a lick in celluloid must needs be, a rhetorical craftsman. He knows where people work and where they are likely to be found most convincing. That is to say he knows how to use actors in unexpected ways by writing characters that speak to suppressed or marginalized aspects of the experiential spectrum.
Having thought through all of this, I’m not hesitant about claiming that Anderson’s choice of leads inPunch-Drunk Love is so pitch-perfect that it may be his best ever. Much was made on the film’s release of just how different, diverse, and suddenly, deep, Adam Sandler had become because in his role as Barry Egan. All of a sudden the man behind the moronic, one-dimensional humor of Billy Madison (STOP LOOKING AT ME, SWAN!) and Happy Gilmore had transformed into something more versatile, vulnerable, and complex, or so we were told. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is complete and utter crap. As Sandler has continued to prove again and again in the ensuing ten years, he is very much a one-dimensional actor with a penchant for doing what he loves best: making moronic, farcical comedies about immature male characters who do zany things in ridiculous(ly contrived) situations. If you were to listen to some of the reviewers of this film ten years ago you would maybe have bought into to argument that Punch-Drunk Love was all the more extraordinary for asking Sandler to move away from this cavalcade of silliness and into a more serious, more adult version of himself. Indeed, ten years ago it was too difficult to look at Sandler embodying a character with depth, full of suppressed rage and fury and sadness, and see anything but something different and radically new—‘a revelation,’ as one star-struck reviewer put it.
But this time around I realized that Punch-Drunk Love doesn’t succeed by asking Sandler to be anything other than Sandler, and Barry Egan is simply the oneiric flipside to Billy and Happy and all the other lovable dopes Sandler has dreamt up over the years. Maybe I’m taking this too far, but I would assert that we’re so used to ignoring Sandler’s characters in favor of the things they do and say (you know, all that ‘funny’ stuff) that we never really stop to think about who they are. And Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and the others are actually full of suppressed (and sometimes blatant) rage and fury, not to mention sadness, guilt, and self-loathing. So focused are we on the comedic aspects, which are admittedly shoved in our face, that we never stop to consider these marginalized aspects of their character. This isn’t our fault, because in Sandler’s comedies there would be no point in doing so. But the idea is precisely that Punch-Drunk Love creates a context in which those neglected registers of experience, so often flattened or ignored in previous iterations, can take on a fullness of their own. Barry Egan was always there, hiding just to the side of Sandler’s various personas. Anderson simply recognized him, shone a light on his face, and speculated on what he might be like without the comedic impetus. Watch the scene near the beginning, where Barry, suddenly and seemingly without direct cause, smashes his sister’s sliding glass door. That is Happy Gilmore in a nutshell. The only difference is that Barry is not doing it because inexplicable rage is funny. He’s doing it because if he does not do it at that exact moment, he will explode. That may sound dramatic, but then again, that is the point of a drama. And if Sandler himself is not the revelation everyone was looking for ten years ago in this film, then the actual revelation is the way Anderson takes the comedy we have come to expect from Sandler and allows it to perform its own internal dramas. Working the other way, the film is undeniably sweet and is, in more ways than one, a true romantic comedy. It just moves beyond the banality we’ve come to expect from both sides of that watered-down Hollywood conflation and does what all excellent romantic comedies do, exposing how the sweetest and funniest things arise as byproducts of dramatic situations.
And there is plenty of drama in Barry’s life, where what we see is effectively a man that cut himself off from the world. He lives an incredibly sad, cloistered life, circumscribed by tedious detail and bludgeoned into submission by an overbearing and emotionally parasitic relationship with family and the world at large. What the film seems to suggest is that Barry needs an intervention, an act of God, an angel to help him on his way. And he finds one in the form of Emily Watson’s Lena. For many reasons, Watson is the exact opposite of Sandler in terms of skill set and career path. Professionally trained and extremely versatile, she is one of those people who both molds herself to cinematic situations and also revolutionizes them. In Punch-Drunk Love she not only manages to play to a character so ethereal as to seem ghostly, she also brings a certain real-world weight to the way she interacts with Barry that keeps us from dismissing her as just another figment intended to help. No, in this film she is more than just the ‘romantic interest.’ She has a role to play that moves beyond that generic designation, and that role is to play a foil to Barry’s hitherto self-deprecating experience with love. I’m thinking in particular of one of the movie’s final scenes, when Barry, having abandoned Lena at the hospital in order to put an end to his feud with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s deranged furniture store owner/phone sex magnate, arrives at her door, contrite, open, and honest. The way she looks at him, reproachful but loving, expectant and stern, seems to gently whisper two things simultaneously: “I knew you would come” and “this behavior is unacceptable in the world we are going to make together.” The way the two of them are able to embody the paradox of love, of being punch-drunk together but also separately, is revelatory and seems like it could only have happened at this conjuncture, with this writer, and with these two actors.
It’s tempting to continue this review by expanding on some of the more questionable things about the film and about what Anderson does as a filmmaker. For example, it would be very easy to ask ourselves whether Anderson’s eccentricities are, in this and other instances, purposeful, or whether they are merely wasteful, pointless, and self-indulgent. The side-plot that unfolds in Punch-Drunk Love seems unnecessary and distracting at times, and I don’t think I would disagree with the assessment that it is one of the film’s major weaknesses. But answering this question may not be the point, any more than deciding whether an ultimate logic underlying Lynch’s Lost Highway would ultimately redeem that cinematic clusterfuck. Plus, I’m not feeling like I’m in a very critical mood. I spend altogether too much time as is trying to convince people that it’s important for us to understand all the things that are wrong with the world, rather than working to understand what might be right about it. I do it constantly with cultural objects, I do it quite frequently to other people, and I am tenacious in criticizing myself. Finally, at the end of the day, this review—these reviews (see also my review of The Rules of Attraction, published Thursday)—has/have all been very personal and to try and make it anything other than that would be to do an injustice to what I’ve already said.
Punch-Drunk Love marks my fourteenth review for Ten Years Ago. By now I have established a fairly set routine for how I go about putting these things together. I sit down with the film, sometimes at my laptop, sometimes in front of a television, and I go to work taking handwritten notes in two registers (Main Review and Random Thoughts and Observations). And never before have I watched the film in question more than once. Given how often I stop and think about what I’m watching the first time through, once is usually enough. But this time I watched it twice. And in watching it that second time, when I had turned my brain towards the film itself, and not my own critical examination of it, something weird happened. I don’t know whether it had to do with what my life has thrown at me this year, hormonal imbalance, a full moon, or simply that I had let my guard down, expecting not to find the unexpected. But as this film closed on me this time around, I started to cry. Which is weird. Not the crying part—I’m a sap and a sucker and not that self-conscious, so if a film moves me, I’m generally not very shy about letting it be known. Nor is it all that remarkable that Anderson could do this to me. There is a scene near the beginning of Boogie Nights, when Mark Wahlberg’s Eddie Adams is being berated by his mother that, to this day, is so immediate and real and painful to watch that it makes me want to assume the fetal position in mind, if not in body.
No, what is strange is the fact that of all the emotionally fraught film’s I’ve considered for this blog in the last two years, it was this strange, wonderful, and almost perversely sweet little piece of art that provoked it. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on, but I think I’ve at least grazed the side of the truth lying hidden there. I needed to watch this film at this particular time in my life. I chose to do so months ago, when things were calm and everything was fine, which makes me wonder what mysterious pathways my subconscious was wandering at the time. But, I guess, though I have nothing logical with which to back it up, I know now, maybe I knew then in some way, that I was going to need a harmonium to fall from the sky right about now. Maybe I knew that I need movies likePunch-Drunk Love because without them I’d find it very difficult to continue believing the half-truths that keep me moving forward with my life. Though I know it’s not true, it nonetheless seems necessary for me to continue believing that there’s an angelic Emily Watson out there who will, for no good reason, come entice me to rejoin the world when it has let me down. I need to believe that Barry Egan can dance with his demons and come out stronger on the other side. I need to know that I am not the only one who has ever felt like smashing a plate-glass window for reasons they don’t fully understand. I need to believe that something as common as a beat up musical instrument can serve as a medium for self-reflection. Most of all, I need Punch-Drunk Love because I need to keep believing in the power of film to help me refract, refocus, and ultimately understand myself and the world. This is lofty sentiment, I know; thank you for bearing with me.
And at the end of all this, a piece of writing, a few days of feverish thinking, at the end of this self-conscious re-view, of this film and of everything, I leave you with the conclusion that the most significant thing about Punch-Drunk Love is that it can be whatever you need it to be, and that this is ok. I’m sure Anderson had his reasons for making it the way he did, but You will see in it what You want to see in it. And no matter how much value we place on the utter incommensurability of art objects, what brings the best of them together is this commonality in difference, a human truth underlying a variety of interpretations. Ten years ago I had not yet figured that out and kept trying to find a way into the maze, certain there was an answer to the film’s plot puzzle and to the questions it poses that would announce itself if only I looked hard enough. But in doing so I only got myself lost.Punch Drunk-Love, because it does not attempt to mean the same thing to everyone, is an exquisite, magical experience, perhaps the finest that Anderson has created, and I’m happy to have had the chance to reconsider it once more, ten long ten years on. Thanks for reading.