The Event of Cinematic Sense in the Films of PT Anderson (with Reference to “Clueless,” “Rushmore,” “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” and more!)

The Sense of Characters: “Clueless” and “Rushmore”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)?

This is what comes up when I Google “Licorice Pizza.” These commonly asked searches reveal a certain technology of sense making, certain assumptions about what it is to watch and make sense of films—as if films need a “point” or need to be explained rather than experienced.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store