“You’ve got a serious artist crush,” Marcy remarked — a statement, not a question — when I sent her a link to a gallery of adorably geeky photographs of Paul Thomas Anderson during the Hard Eight period. Guilty as charged: I’ve been rewatching and reassessing and obsessing over all five of PTA’s films, reevaluating Punch-Drunk Love (which I originally hated), rediscovering the ending of Boogie Nights (much different from what I remembered), and unable to resist the pull of Magnolia even on a matchbox-sized iPod screen.

Sez Dennis Lim:

If the Altman comparisons seem grossly reductive, it’s because Anderson is liberal when it comes to borrowing from the greats. Why not combine Altman’s panoramic outlook with Stanley Kubrick’s formal bravura with John Cassavetes’ messy candor? While Anderson fits the profile of a “hysterical realist,” to evoke the pejorative literary buzz-phrase of a few years ago, his films never indulge in excess for the sake of excess. He’s a born showman—his first three films bore the Barnumesque credit “A P.T. Anderson picture”—but his go-for-broke tendencies are tied to an expansive, humanist impulse.

Lim’s entire appreciation of Anderson is spot-on, and before I swipe his video clips, I’d just like to expand on his last point: seems to me, the unifying theme underlying all of Anderson’s films is the desperate need for human connection. Yes, that’s a cloying phrase, and perhaps that’s why it’s dressed up in such unlikely garb: the incendiary monologues, the sweeping steadycams, the assaultive music, the undulating colors. What all of Anderson’s characters really need is a family, but their real families rarely work: in Hard Eight, Jack’s father is dead, Dirk Diggler’s mom throws him out, everybody in Magnolia is messed up six different ways, Barry Egan’s seven sisters are worse than the furies, and we all know that Daniel Plainview’s an oilman, not a family man.

Instead, Anderson’s heroes create impromptu families. Jack finds a father figure in his father’s killer, porn gives Diggler not just a dad (Burt Reynolds) but a sister (Heather Graham) and a mother (Julianne Moore), too. In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler and Emily Watson start their own family, and Magnolia ends in an orgy of characters coming home to each other. And Plainview? His salvation would have been an impromptu family with a bastard from a basket for a son and a brother who wasn’t his brother-from-another-mother. That he refused them is the tragedy of There Will Be Blood.

Can’t leave you without another word about Anderson’s breathtaking audacity, and you better believe I’m lazy enough to quote Lim again:

The prominent bursts of music—and the way the narratives rely on musical principles like rhythm, tone, and phrasing—result in a kind of delirious synesthesia. His movies set off a crazy multitude of sensory triggers, leaving the impression that Anderson is working from a larger palette than most filmmakers.

Yes indeed.

Hard Eight/Sydney. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996. ***
Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997. ****
Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999. ****
Punch-Drunk Love. Paul Thomas Anderson. 2002. ****
There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007. *****

More from Stu VanAirsdale, who kept notes on his marathon Anderson retrospective. After the jump, videos with choice clips from Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love.

Boogie Nights, featuring Nena:

The Wise Up sequence from Magnolia:

Punch-Drunk Love:

The long take at the pool from Boogie Nights: