The Event of Cinematic Sense in the Films of PT Anderson (with Reference to “Clueless,” “Rushmore,” “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” and more!)
Despite its seemingly familiar territory — young love in a summer hang out flick — Licorice Pizza is an odd film. If you read reviews, the divergence of opinion is conspicuously stark, people either hating it for being “pointless” (I’ll address moral critiques, the critical mode du jour, as well) or loving it for its “dreaminess.” None of this is surprising as PTA does not work with the basic units of cinema that people are used to — story, character, ideas, and images. No, for PTA, the basic unit of cinema is something else: events.
Bear with me.
The Sense of Characters: “Clueless” and “Rushmore”
Consider this opening of Clueless. The montage is saturated with signs that could not be more explicit as, through images and voice over, we are told quite a bit about this character. The entire opening works to establish this character, Cher, both socially and emotionally in a way that is immediately recognized by the audience. Her voiceover joins the exposition, letting us know who everyone is — her father, her missing mother, her step-brother, her friends — and their relationships to each other, both practically and emotionally.
This is a common approach in films, a straightforward way to let the audience know who’s who and what they’re up to. Everything is grounded: we know how we, as the audience, stand towards her—as well as towards the film. We don’t whisper to our seat mates: Who’s this? Why’s she doing that? What’s the point? Everything is known, fixed in place by pre-existing and well known referents. It’s as if the director is building a house, everything in its place— film as spatial rather than temporal. An edifice, not an event.
As the film progresses, Cher inflects the clichés that have worked so diligently to situate her. Such is the way of a character driven film: we follow the character’s personal reckonings, in this case, the movement from obsession with material and social status to falling in love with someone who doesn’t fit her ideal of a boyfriend—a clear arc, like a building’s buttress. Indeed, the very notion of a character’s arc is an architectural figure, not a temporal one. Even if there is change, which is inherently temporal, the viewers don’t move; they witness the movement of someone from one room to another.
Or take this opening of Rushmore. Unlike Clueless’ Cher, Max Fischer can’t be so readily situated. The semiotics are clear enough — he’s a student at an elite private school—but they don’t add up to something we know, to a preformed signified. Unlike Cher, Max is aggressively sui generis. That’s in fact the very engine of this film — this kid is different. We get a montage in which we see all the clubs to which he belongs (or founded), none of which are cliché per se. He is a character in every sense of the word.
The modus operandi of the film is to reveal this quirky character who defies cliché from the outset. As the film opens, we are literally privy to his internal workings writ large before us. It’s his daydream, his internal workings broadcast for all to see. Rushmore is a film built on character, on characters, that are then put in a particular situation — in this case, a love triangle of sorts. We learn about him, see his internal life, learn of his family life, his social life, then watch as he negotiates the vicissitudes of growing up.
This is the film’s grammar of sense, how it presents us something that can be known and understood. Despite proffering a sui generis character of emphatic quirk, Wes Anderson makes no effort to defy our ready comprehension. Our position as viewers is never unsure. On the contrary, the film works to make these quirks something we can readily grok—and enjoy.
It’s hard not to mention Wes Anderson’s style, his image making, which is conspicuous and well known—and which are emphatically architectural, which is to say, spatial. While his symmetry and whimsical fastidiousness are constitutive of his films’ sense, his films are premised on characters in spaces. Their structure, their sense, remains its characters and their relations — from The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom to Fantastic Mr. Fox and my favorite, Life Aquatic, his films are powered by strong characters who are boldly front and center and whose antics we follow through wondrous constructions.
Like most films, Rushmore delivers a character, a situation, an arc, and a space. Even writing this, I feel a little silly for this is how nearly all films function. It’s what we, as viewers, expect to see when we pay our $12.50 or hit play on our smart TVs. Think about how we discuss films: What’s it about? we ask our friends. Filmic sense is constructed as referring to something, being about something. Defy that grammar and you lose the majority of your viewers (and studio funding), as if the film were suddenly speaking an alien language.
The Sense of Characters and Images (with some ideas): “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver”
Now let’s take Goodfellas. That’s a character driven film, too, as we are led into the world of the mafia by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta, RIP). Note that his behavior is kept in check — never that violent, never that scary, never that alien. He’s like us, sort of. If you read the book, Wiseguy, you’ll learn that Henry Hill was a much more violent gangster than Scorsese portrays. But that wouldn’t work for Scorseses’ grammar, for his construction of cinematic sense that turns on our identification with the central character. If Henry were too violent, too scary, he’d become too “other” — which would shift the terms of sense, of how the film stands towards the audience and how the audience, in turn, stands towards the film. Which is not how Scorsese forges sense.
What makes Goodfellas different than, say, Clueless, is that while Scorsese has constructed a character driven film, he simultaneously deploys images as key components in the grammar of the film. Take the scene where Henry, Jimmy, and Tommy dig up Batts’ body — that ominous red, the characters’ silhouettes. The story might be poignant — digging up a body — but the scene privileges the image above the revelation of the characters. The camera does not zoom in on Henry (even though he’s vomiting from the horror); in a film with a lot of voiceover, we don’t get Henry expressing his disgust or fear. Scorsese’s use of voice over is not solely expositional as the actions on screen at times veer from the voice over’s claims, such as when Morrie gets whacked. This is Scorsese privileging image just as he does in the clip above. We get a mood, an affect, not exposition.
We perhaps see this more explicitly, if surprisingly, in Taxi Driver. Yes, Travis Bickle is a strong character who drives the film; he is what people think of when they think of Taxi Driver. But Travis remains alien, as much an image as a person. The film itself is a series of images that echo and reference the history of film, different genres framed by exquisite images that are less expositional than aesthetic. It’s a film of shots and moods more than it’s a story of characters.
In fact, Taxi Driver barely hangs together as it pushes at the limits of coherence. Ask people about the film and many don’t remember that Albert Brooks is even in it. What makes the film an object that make sense is its characters, sure, and some story, but it’s images and, of course, Big Ideas (it is Paul Schrader, after all, who always has something to tell us) that forge the sense of the film. Clueless and Rushmore, on the other hand, are nearly bereft of ideas (that’s not an insult or compliment, just an observation). And while Clueless may be visually delightful, it’s not glued together by the behavior, power, and sense of images. Scorsese, on the other hand, often privileges the image over character, story, and ideas.
The Sense of Characters and Ideas: “The Wire” and “We Own This City” (with brief reference to Tarantino)
Davis Simon’s brilliant TV show, The Wire, is rich with subtle and abundant characters operating within the confines of story. But, for Simon, the sense of moving images is forged by ideas. Every scene in the show is an ethical exposition. It’s what drives the show. What makes the show so astounding, for me, is that Simon rarely lets ideas eclipse the sense of characters. In the more recent We Own This City, on the other hand, he reverses the equation as story and ideas dominate, characters falling by the wayside as we are preached to over six episodes.
Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, disdains ideas. He leads with characters and dialogue and images. It is what has some people dismiss his films as fluff, believing ideas are what matter, are what linger in art, are the very reason we make and watch films: to present and reckon important ideas (ideas that are, more often than not, cliché, dead on arrival — for Simon, it’s the war on drugs and the quantification endemic to modernity). Ideas don’t make films bad. But didacticism at the cost of character, image, and story is painful to endure, murdering the art before it even has a chance to create new possibilities in the world. (Although one way to look at philosophers is as artists whose medium is ideas. Ideas per se, then, don’t kill art. Cliché does. But it’s not so easy to forge new ideas while it’s too easy to fill your “art” with known ideas that confirm people’s sense of the world. I recommend reading Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon on the issue of cliché in art.)
The Sense of Story: Nearly Every Hollywood Film and Contemporary TV Series
Story, story, story. Hollywood loves its stories. Take nearly any film out right now— Hustle, Jurassic Park, Elvis—and they are driven by story. This doesn’t mean there aren’t great characters or images but it means the driving force of the film is plot. What happens next? the audience wonders, sitting on the edge of their seat.
Look at the bevy of disposable TV shows running on the various platforms. Stranger Things, Flight Attendant, Search Party, or the bizarre proliferation of “true crime” series. There may or may not be exquisite images, good characters, or profound ideas but we watch them—even when we don’t love them—just to find out what happens next. Such is the way of stories: they have a logic that links scenes together, that make sense: This happens therefore that happens which makes this other thing happen. Stories are logical arguments in which the elements are linked together by something other than character, image, and idea. Stories have a momentum — a sense—of their own.
This is neither good nor bad. People love stories and so filmmakers make films driven by story. And stories can be compelling, incredible, life changing. But there are other modes of cinematic sense.
The Sense of Events: “Licorice Pizza”
Now, finally, to PTA and Licorice Pizza. As the film opens, we don’t see any of the rich semiotics of Clueless. Nor we are privy to the internal life of Gary as we are of Max Fischer. Rather, we get an encounter. Everyone is in motion, readying themselves in the bathroom mirrors, the camera peering from the corner. We don’t yet know where we are; we don’t know who these people are. Someone yells cherry bomb, the boys run, and we get the small yet potent explosion.
Sure, we can assume it’s a school. But we don’t know whom to look at, who matters. No character takes center stage. We don’t know what matters and what doesn’t. As if to emphasize the absence of a center, the scene is shot at an obtuse angle. And then, boom, the cherry bomb goes off. It is an event — not a character, not a plot line, not the exposition of an idea, and no image to entrance us with its mood and affect. No, all we get is an event — not an event happening to someone; not an event propelling the plot; not an event of beauty or interest. No, we get an event and (almost) nothing but.
And with that as our entrée into the film, we get another encounter: Gary approaching Alana. Both are moving, in opposite directions at first. We don’t know the terms of their relation. Our introduction to both characters and plot happens as if it were all a reverberation of the cherry bomb. The film does not even try to inform us, to situate either the characters or the audience. Cherry bomb! and suddenly everything is in motion. No one is situated; everything is sloshing about — characters, camera, viewers, as if the film is taking place on the water, no place to stand firm. Or, perhaps, that the film is itself liquid, sloshing about the container of the screen (pace Deleuze’s Cinema books).
Gary and Alanas’ exchange is a continuation of the event. It’s an an encounter rather than, say, the meeting of two characters to propel the story. This isn’t Max Fischer meeting Bill Murray. Very little is known and the film does not exert effort trying to explain or situate. The film tell us nearly nothing of who they are or what they’re doing there. Yes, we learn that Gary is trying to ask Alana out. But as he lists his bona fides, we are no clearer as to who he is or what’s happening. On the contrary, his litany of accomplishments, meant to woo Alana, only confound us more. He’s an actor? In what? None of the names of the films — are they films? — reveal or confirm. And how is he an actor? This is not a scene of characters entering the frame to be situated, to be revealed, for the audience to find its footing. Everyone, from Gary to Alana to us, is moving from that initial bathroom explosion.
What’s an Event?
All movies depict events. Things happen to characters — they meet each other, misunderstand each other, kill each other, plot, die, scheme. Without a doubt, movies are filled with events. But showing events is not the same thing as deploying events.
And all movies are events. When a friend asks if you want to do something and you say go to the movies, it’s because watching a movie is doing something. You are moved in various ways — you laugh, cry, scream, learn. Some movies lead with this aspect, creating an immersive experience. Quentin Tarantino defends calling Speed one of the greatest movies since 1994 by asking you to remember what it was like watching it in the theater — the tension, the excitement. I had a friend who hurt himself trying to run up a wall after watching The Matrix: he was stirred by the event of that film.
When I say that for PTA the basic unit of cinema is events, I don’t mean events in either of those senses. He doesn’t present or depict events. He deploys events as the very stuff of his films.
What do I mean by that? Well, as the French philosopher Henri Bergson argues, motion is not the sum of spatial points covered: Point A + Point B + Point C. Motion is indivisible, irreducible to the space covered. Events are temporal, motion, the very act of the world configuring and reconfiguring and deconfiguring itself. Mountains emerge from the collision of continental plates that get populated by flora and fauna only to erode over time and become something else. The process doesn’t begin and end per se but is always already happening. In the world of philosophy, this is called becoming as distinct from being.
Being supposes something to exist before time enters the picture. For example, I am me, Daniel Coffeen, and then I enter the world where things happen to me — I eat, fall in and out of love, have a child, teach, and so on. Becoming, on the other hand, refuses any fixed identity as things are always and already in a state of change. I am not Daniel Coffeen per se; that is just a name that facilitates legal and social discourse across the flux of all this. Behind or within or absent this name, I change constantly, even if the changes are subtle—although the changes are surely conspicuous. I look at pictures of myself as a baby, toddler, preteen, teen, young father, now bald aging man and wonder what makes me me. In the world of events, we don’t say that I am; we say that I happen or, better, am happening. I am not a thing; I am closer to a liquid (and, sometimes, a gas).
Most films — as well as most philosophies and popular thinking — presuppose being as the ground of life. A character is such and such a person…and then something happens! What will they do? But PTA doesn’t deploy that sense of cinema, not as his go-to. No, he deploys events.
Technologies of Watching Films with Reference to “The Master,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “Inherent Vice”
The way we watch movies is not natural. The manner in which we perceive and assess films is a technology — a technology of making sense. We focus on certain things, ignore others, all while employing certain criteria of critique. Was it believable? Were the characters likable? Was it cool to look at? And these days a focus of critique: Is it problematic? Is it moral — or does it need to be removed from public view (“cancelled,” I believe, is the term of moral expulsion; please don’t yell at me — I am not judging; I am observing)?
It’s funny how that word, problematic, has changed its role within the technology of sense making. There was a time when it was good to problematize something; it meant you took something that was fixed in place, locking ideas and people into an often cruel mold, and made it unsure, complex, multiple — a deconstruction. But, today, it seems problematic means that whatever it is is morally offensive. My point is not to judge this practice but to point out that the way we watch films — what we want from them, how we make sense of them — is not given but rather is taught, knowingly or not, by a conglomerate of forces (schools, film critics, bottom up film reviews, Reddit, and such).
For example, I taught a class on film entitled, “Bring on the Strange,” in which I asked students not to identify with characters — she’s just like me! — , not to assess the believability of the story—hot tubs don’t get hot that fast! (pace 30 Rock)— but to actively view films as an encounter, a confrontation rather than a confirmation. The class introduced a technology of watching films in which the task was not to know.
We are taught in school and the media to make sense of things — books, films, art, people — in such and such a way. For instance, students are asked to write psychoanalytic interpretations of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, feminist readings of Juno, postcolonial readings of Gandhi. This is in fact the dominant technology of making sense: putting things in pre-established categories — this is Freudian, this is postmodern, this is patriarchal, this is capitalist, etc. That is how we teach people what it is to know something — to assign it a place in pre-formed buckets.
In my pithy tome, Reading the Way of Things: Towards a New Technology of Making Sense (I apologize for linking to Amazon but Bookshop.org doesn’t keep my book in stock, much to my chagrin), I refer to this technology of sense making as exemplary reading — reading the new for how it’s an example of something older or more general such as an idea or theory. But that’s not the only way to make sense of things. In my book, I offer a different technology of making sense called immanent reading: reading the new thing to see what its terms are, what worlds and relations it creates — an active seeking of the novel rather than the confirmation of the known.
Think about all the things we take for granted in how we talk about films. Tell someone to watch a certain film and the first thing they’ll ask is: What’s it about? That seems innocuous enough a question. But it assumes that films tell stories about other things — events in the world, characters, people’s shenanigans. And films are not necessarily about anything. For instance, what’s Licorice Pizza about?
I rarely read film reviews mostly because the technology of sense making they use doesn’t jibe with me. But, as I began writing this, I was curious what people make of Licorice Pizza, how they talk about it. It seems people either love it or really despise it. One reason for people disliking it is they don’t like what it’s about — a friendship, with brewing romance (though no sex other than a kiss), between a 15 year old and a 25 year old. But is that really what Licorice Pizza is about? Is that the defining driver of the plot or the film? Is the film in fact about much of anything? Could it be that the film deploys events in which bodies and stories ebb and flow and eddy rather than refer?
While Lolita may put the age difference between its protagonists at the forefront, Licorice Pizza does not. And while some people may refer to this as problematic, it’s only problematic if we begin with a preformed world of known and inflexible categories rather than a world of emergent sense.
Licorice Pizza does not lead with characters as if they were preformed and pre-known elements like Cher, Max Fischer, and Henry Hill. Rather, the film deploys events in which the possibility of pre-set categories in which everything is known beforehand is undermined by the very movement of the film. To focus on the age difference as a moral issue of the film is to assume the film is first and foremost spatial, everything fixed in place — so that a 25 year old crushing on a 15 year old is inherently problematic. But Licorice Pizza is first and foremost a temporal film — a liquid film — in which age is not pre-known and fixed. (If you have moral problems with the plot, I won’t disagree; I am just deploying a different technology of sense making. Perhaps you find my technology amoral—and you’d be right.)
(I came to learn that the other thing people found problematic in the film were the scenes with John Michael Higgins — scenes that, as far as I could tell, depict the racism of the times rather than advocating them. As a kid in high school reading Oliver Twist, I didn’t find Charles Dickens calling Fagan “the Jew” throughout problematic as it seemed to me depictions of racism are different than the advocacy of racism (I won’t mention the depiction of Jews across the media that are rife with what is today called problematic). But I will admit, readily, that perhaps I’m reading those scenes with a technology rife with blind spots; and I would never dismiss someone’s personal sense of offense.)
This is in fact what makes PTA’s films so beguiling to people. Consider There Will Be Blood. Is it really a story about Daniel Plainview and the rise of oil conglomerates? Or is Daniel Plainview himself an event, an ever-emergent body much the way a continent is? Or, perhaps, much as the fossil fuel below our feet winds and oozes, pools and seeps?
And I defy you tell me what the heck The Master is about. Some emergent cult figure who likes to get fucked up with this amorphic, traumatized man? Is that it? Would any description of what the film is about suffice? Or get you to watch it? Or does the very structure of the film, its grammar and sense, the events of people in the throws of becoming, stubbornly defy the readymade notions of subjectivity and characterization that, frankly, have done terrible violence to people for millennia?
Or take Inherent Vice, personally my favorite film of all time. What is it about? It certainly has plot lines to spare. But are they what drive the film? The plot, as it is from Pynchon, teeters relentlessly between sense and nonsense, between coherence and chaos—a labyrinth rather than a trajectory. And while rife with quirky characters, there are no Max Fischers, Chers, or Henry Hills to anchor us. We get Doc, stoned as all get out. There are no ideas really to speak of. There are no doubt images galore—O, PTA can make images that make your heart skip a beat, all sumptuous affect I could linger in all day (and I do, often). But there is something else working here. And that thing is events.
While the film opens with a time and place, we are not firmly situated. The voiceover tells us and doesn’t tell us what’s happening—at the same time! Such is the very logic and behavior of events: contradictory things can happen simultaneously, and do. We are at the edge of the sea, the ocean’s swirling tumult mere feet away, running towards it with glee. Inherent Vice doesn’t want to situate itself or you; it doesn’t try to explain or argue. On the contrary, it meanders as water will and does, with all the joy and fear and angst and happiness but free of rigid characters, stories, or ideas. Here, sense is forged as images and events—all the way down.
Mind you, no film is purely character, story, image, idea, or event. It is always a distribution of elements that create a conspiracy of sense.