Film & TV

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Best Work — on Video

Danielle Haim in the video for “The Steps.” (Screengrab via YouTube)
His alt-feminist music videos for the sister trio Haim celebrate American unity.

The best work of critics’ darling Paul Thomas Anderson is now available online. Anderson’s six music videos, made in collaboration with the California female pop trio Haim, constitute his most emotionally effective filmmaking. Unlike his celebrated wannabe-masterpieces There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Phantom Thread, Anderson’s Haim videos evince charming creativity, which indie movie aesthetics usually lack. It’s surprising that Anderson, of all aesthetes, has revived the music video, a format that has faded into obscurity this millennium.

The Haim sisters — lead vocalist and drummer Danielle, bassist Este, and guitarist Alana — supply the human touch missing from Anderson’s hipster caprices. Each young woman personifies the sisterly camaraderie that was faked in Greta Gerwig’s forgettable Little Women. (Critic Ben Kessler cited Anderson’s videos as a notable alternative to that boutique indie twaddle.) Unlike vapid film actresses, the Haim sisters are what French cineastes called jolie laide — which Americans appreciate as average, relatable, sexy archetypes.

Their harmonious vocal range parallels the hereditary traits that Anderson captures through their physical natures. The newly released Steps and last year’s Now I’m in It, two female heartbreak songs styled after Karla Bonoff but with an impudent swing, go from sad to revived — each girl sharing hurt and resilience. Anderson follows their emotional bond, via his unfettered moving camera, through different locations and stages of growth, while they’re waitressing, at a car wash, or in a bar.

That’s the Haim-Anderson motif. It recalls French director Benoît Jacquot’s series of Nineties skirt-chasing movies (A Single Girl, The Disenchanted), but it’s expressly Californian, with an effrontery that is part shayna maydel and part pure alternative pop. The usually humorless Anderson evokes the Pixies’ light-hearted Alec Eiffel video, taking on the antic quality that has defined pop videos since the Beatles. This probably comes as a surprise to self-serious reviewers who praise Anderson as their cynical neo-Kubrick.

While Anderson’s feature films tend to be imponderable (he is the first director to adapt Thomas Pynchon and has made videos for Radiohead, the egghead alt-rock band), his girl-group video work is absolutely emotionally direct, starting with his Fiona Apple collaborations, peaking with her delightful production number Paper Bag (2000). Like Haim’s A Little of Your Love, Anderson surpasses everything in Damien Chazzelle’s La La Land. His best videos serve the point of shrewd yet gentle female assertion, as in Haim’s striptease and proud, bouncy strutting in the Summer Girls video, heading off the #MeToo movement.

Anderson’s alt-feminist vision shows the same derivativeness as that of his film-geek peer Quentin Tarantino. Haim’s Valentine combines three songs from their first album recorded at LA’s Valentine studio — an experiment in real-time illusion that pays homage to Jonathan Demme’s New Order video The Perfect Kiss (1985), a landmark of post-punk elegance and cinematic luxe that was photographed by the legendary Henri Alekan. So Anderson shoots Haim using 35mm film for visual depth and sensual texture. In Hallelujah, the group’s kaddish for lost friends, Anderson portrays their lament similarly, using live theater devices that have a metaphysical effect.

The art-temple atmosphere of that video is an extension of Robert Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). Anderson, whose filmography shadows all of Altman’s movies, was on-set as Altman’s insurance back-up, and his Haim videos continue that film’s inspiration through Altman’s signature mixed-genre approach and, especially, the sisterly theme that Altman established in Prairie Home Companion, Cookie’s Fortune, A Wedding, and Kansas City.

Every Anderson-Haim video presents the intimate, familial experience of self-recognition and empathy. While Anderson’s feature films encourage exhortations from a nihilistic claque, the little-remarked-upon Haim videos offer welcome emotional accord similar to Altman’s example. Though none of Anderson’s videos matches the great spiritual, political agit-pop of Mary Lambert’s 1989 video for Madonna, Like a Prayer, these images of the Haim sisters sharing one another’s burdens nonetheless remind one of our current political needs. Critic Gregory Solman suggested that “if everyone’s singing the same key, they’re not in harmony.” Anderson’s videos show how the brunette-to-blonde Haim sisters blend soprano, tenor, and alto voices, physiognomies, and personalities. Visually and musically, they demonstrate varied responses to the same social or intimate condition. In the video Steps, Anderson shows the mundane to be universal while Haim pointedly sings, “If you go left and I go right, hey baby, that’s just life sometimes.”

These videos are metaphors for the separation and harmony of powers.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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