Punch Drunk Love Music Analysis Essay

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Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

“Here’s a list of things in Punch-Drunk Love that won’t be covered but that I love nonetheless,” writes Miranda July to open her essay, entitled “A Delegate Speaks,” in the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film. She then goes on to list those things, and the list actually takes up about a fifth of her very brief essay, but I appreciate her sentiment: Punch-Drunk Love is a modern classic, and its parts have been picked over by so many, that making grand statements about it at this point feels like so much repetition.

July’s essay takes a personal route instead: She relates herself to both Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), talks about her complicated relationship with her father and his favorite films, and about how she met her husband. Indeed, this is a not one of Criterion’s more academic package—no one tries to ascribe Punch-Drunk Love its place in cinematic history (it has been only 14 years); there’s no commentary track, either. For Anderson’s sweetest, lightest, shortest film, though—the first of his remarkable oeuvre that Criterion has gotten to—I’m guessing most fans will be content to enjoy this lovely new HD digital transfer, supervised by the man himself, in its glory.

The story is well-known. Coming out of his megalithic, Oscar-nominated third feature, Magnolia, in 2000, Anderson wanted to head in the complete opposite direction: to leave death and despair behind for a comedy, to leave Magnolia’s three-hour runtime behind for just 90 minutes, and to leave behind the complex interlocking ensemble for a pared-down character study.

The moviemaker had found relief from the emotional drainage of Magnolia in Sandler’s Saturday Night Live skits, and somewhere along the way he’d determined that the comedian was to be his next star. Anderson had an innate grasp of the Adam Sandler persona on display in films like The Waterboy and Big Daddy, and saw, under the surface, a seething, lonely, terrified man, flailing in a mask of bland, silly inoffensiveness. Casting him as Barry wasn’t casting against type; it was exposing the almost unbearably true nature of a type, a Sandler that was hiding in plain sight (though he’s pretty much gone back into hiding these days).

Throw in Emily Watson’s marvelous portrayal of Barry’s paramour, Lena, who is kind and wry and worldly and self-assured and vulnerable and hopeful. Equally brilliant with even less screentime are the supporting players, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Then there’s the work of DP Robert Elswit, whose anamorphic images glide and swoop and pace with feeling—as when Barry talks to a phone sex operator while stalking nervously around his apartment. Pages could be, and have been, written about Elswit’s virtuoso use of lens flares, which also indicate heightened emotion, particularly between the two lovers—during their first meeting, for example, a diagonal line of light flickers across the space between their bodies, connecting them. (The cover art of this Criterion package plays on the signature flares, framing the title text in a blue glow.). And then there are digital artist Jeremy Blake’s vivid paintings, which act as brief amorphous interludes between segments of the film, lush and delirious at once.

In short, this deceptively simple movie packs a formal wallop. So let’s talk about one element that ties it all together: the soundtrack.

Lessons in Integration

Anderson has established a pattern of close collaboration with favorite composers. (His current relationship with Jonny Greenwood holds a three-for-three record.) Composer Jon Brion had worked with Anderson on both the latter’s debut feature, Hard Eight, and Magnolia before coming to Punch-Drunk Love; he went on to score films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York and ParaNorman. A new interview with the engaging composer on this Criterion release is arguably the highlight of the special features here. Brion recounts in detail his work with Anderson, whom he describes as a bold and generous collaborator who doesn’t take the “scaredy-cat measures most people in town make:” “Always, always, there is a space given for the music to make an impact.” In Punch-Drunk Love, this results in a fully immersive soundscape that conveys so much of story and character. It’s a perfectly conceived sonic rendition of Barry Egan’s psychology.

Most memorable, probably, is the exquisite melody that swells up whenever Barry and Lena kiss, that old heartstring-tugging romantic trope. Brion recalls himself and Anderson watching old MGM musicals, trying to recreate a ’50s feeling. A breakthrough occurred when he said to the director, “You want the thing to feel like a musical, but nobody breaks out into song.” Much of the soundtrack is a throwback—from the Ladies K cover of Andy Cummings’ Hawaiian classic “Waikiki,” to Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s 1980 Popeye, Shelley Duvall’s childlike vocals aptly conveying Barry’s wonder at his budding romance. (“When you steal a song from a twenty-two-year-old movie, you also steal all the tenderness the movie’s viewers have accrued since it came out,” writes July.)

Then there are other tracks of a more “baroque-futurist” nature (as Criterion puts it), like “Hands and Feet,” which plays over a stressful sequence in Barry’s warehouse office. With an antic percussion, discordant tones and noises that veer from animalistic to machine-like, it’s complete sonic claustrophobia. And it comes together so effectively with the chaos and clamor of the warehouse: workers running over to attend to an accident, Rajskub—playing one of Barry’s harpy-like sisters—darting at him aggressively, Lena’s bemused attempts at friendly conversation, the interruptions of Barry’s ringing phone.

How did that all gel so well? The secret, says Brion, was that he started composing long before shooting began, instead of coming on board during post-production after photography had wrapped. This, he says, enabled a “completely integrated process” where picture and sound could work hand in hand, precisely and on equal footing. Anderson would play himself pieces of temp music while orchestrating his long tracking shots, which gave him “a sense of poetic pacing” by which he could feel the scene out. Brion recalls writing these preliminary pieces—sometimes just rhythm—as Anderson sang them out to him; even at that initial stage, just knowing the tempo gave an order, a backbone, to the shooting.

Having that musical skeleton early on helped everything find its balance: Brion remembers Anderson playing Sandler back a scene with the temp score, which made Sandler realize he could do even less with his performance than he had been—the sounds were so evocative already.

Adam Sandler as Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love

Fast-forward to post, when the musical collaboration continued as Brion fine-tuned his own rough sketches. The entire team, led by Anderson and editor Leslie Jones, worked in the same building together, which again made cohesion easy. They sat down every few weeks to watch the whole movie beginning to end. This clarifies how much the various components of the film run into each other, difficult to distinguish, like Jeremy Blake’s layers of color fading, trembling and merging.

Special Features

Besides the aforementioned July essay and Brion interview, the standout new extra on this disc is a conversation about the work of Jeremy Blake (who tragically passed away in 2007), between Michael Connor, curator and artistic director of Rhizome at the New Museum, and Lia Gangitano, gallerist and founder of Participant Inc. The two talk about the artist’s oeuvre, discussing video work like Bungalow 8 and Winchester and One-Hit Wonder, a kind of illustrated screenplay with characters from The Wizard of Oz. (In fact Connor and Gangitano go over many of Blake’s cinematic influences, from Suspiria and Truffaut to the films of David Cronenberg.) They also analyze how Punch-Drunk Love incorporates Blake’s hallucinatory images: shimmering landscapes, twinkling stars, chromatic bars, splotches and (what Connor calls “unsettling”) smears.

On the Brion front, we get a 10-minute behind-the-scenes video of a soundtrack recording session at Abbey Road. There’s also a 2002 Cannes Film Festival press conference with cast, PTA and his longtime producer JoAnne Sellar (during which Anderson drops the memorable line, “I like supermarkets, I like phone sex, and I live in the Valley,” as well as a couple of serious answers); a French studio interview; and a 2000 NBC News interview clip with the real-life “Pudding Guy” who inspired an important part of Barry’s storyline by earning airline miles through a Healthy Choice promotion.

Other supplements appeared on previous DVD options: a fake commercial for the Mattress Man company owned by Hoffman’s character (during which he jumps off a roof onto a stack of mattresses, then falls off); the short compilation of alternate takes, Blake art and music titled “Blossoms & Blood;” 12 Scopitones (i.e. seconds-long fragments of picture, artwork and music); deleted scenes and additional Blake artwork.

The Takeaway

P.T. Anderson, more than most, thinks of his films as overall sensory experiences. He doesn’t separate picture, sound, performance and story in his mind, and in fact pays deliberate attention to making sure all work together in apparently effortless unison. The effect is a movie bursting with synaesthesia, accessing the senses on unusual levels—”your whole body [is] implicated,” as Michael Connor puts it.

If that is your goal, too, spend time nurturing the synergy between the various parts of your vision. Hire a team that is both brilliant and, importantly, able to work together as a collective. And get everyone involved as early as possible. Sure, they’d probably be able to produce good work without this focus on integration… but would they be able to produce genius? MM

Punch-Drunk Love was released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD November 15, 2016. All images courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Other titles in Criterion’s November line-up:

Lone Wolf and CubSword of VengeanceBaby Cart at the River StyxBaby Cart to HadesBaby Cart in PerilBaby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell // Marlon Brando’s one-and-done directorial debut,One-Eyed Jacks,which subverts Western genre norms and reconfigures the legend of Billy the Kid,now given agorgeous 4K restoration supervised by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg // Akira Kurosawa’s Dreamsa wildly imagined entry in the latter years of its master director’s canon that brings to the screen a series of his own subconscious wishes and visions // The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s sardonic yet tender coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn, featuring uniformly excellent performances by Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg.

Criterion Giveaway: Every week, we’re giving away a different Criterion title to one lucky winner. To enter the draw, all you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter! Full instructions here, and follow @moviemakermag on Facebook and Twitter for announcements on every week’s title.

Adam SandlerCriterion Crash Courseemily watsonJeremy BlakeJon BrionMary Lynn RajskubMiranda Julypaul thomas andersonPhilip Seymour HoffmanPunch-Drunk LoveRobert AltmanRobert ElswitThe Criterion Collection

Sometimes an essay is prefaced by a list of topics that will be covered. Here’s a list of things in Punch-Drunk Love that won’t be covered but that I love nonetheless:

Barry’s blue suit and Emily Watson’s red outfit and her face and breasts and nipples and performance, all ordinary and spectacular. Mary Lynn Rajskub. All the things that happen in real time, like Barry waiting for the phone sex worker to call him back. How the movie is shot, including the blue lens flare. Adam Sandler’s performance. I know he was, at the time, this comedy giant, but if you haven’t seen even one of those comedies, if this is in fact the only movie you’ve ever seen Adam Sandler in (other than Funny People, years later)—then he’s just a masterful, if underutilized, character actor. The stupidness of him holding the phone receiver for so long, all the way to Utah. That Watson’s character, Lena, was stalking Barry a little, and that she admits this, and that it’s taken as the compliment it is. I didn’t exactly stalk my husband before I met him, but I knew he would be at that party, and when I saw him I marched over, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Miranda July.” It’s the only time I’ve introduced myself so boldly. I don’t trust relationships that are kicked off by the man. I mean, how’s that going to work? The whole movie would have to
be him persuading her to go on a date.

I don’t totally love the phone sex scenes. I worked in peep shows when I was young, and the territory just stresses me out, especially in movies. I probably wouldn’t have worked in peep shows and been a stripper if it weren’t for Paris, Texas and that Atom Egoyan movie, Exotica—or, I should say, if both of those movies hadn’t been favorites of my father’s. (Although, if Paul Thomas Anderson’s phone sex worker, Georgia, makes you want to be a phone sex worker, then your dad must reaaally love this movie, because there is nothing glamorous about her. I do like the part where Barry is laboriously giving her his credit card information.)

In 2002, five years after I stopped stripping, Punch-Drunk Love came out, and two years after that, I was a fellow at a Sundance lab, workshopping my first feature. The illustrious alumni were invoked all the time (Tarantino, Soderbergh), but I only pricked up my ears when P. T. Anderson was mentioned, and when he was mentioned it was to say that he swore a lot. He was always cursing, they said. Hearing this made me blush and look at my lap. I tried to imagine him cursing around our house, saying I fucking do at our wedding, bitching and assing in front of our babies. Now, many years and many-kids-not-had-with-each-other later, they occasionally mention me at the Sundance labs when they discuss the alums. She didn’t swear is what they say. No cursing from her at all.

My favorite part of the movie is when Barry goes to Hawaii. He suddenly realizes he can just go to her, even without the frequent-flier miles. This is also my favorite thing in life: the sudden understanding that you aren’t condemned to sadness, that you can simply walk toward the thing you want. When I was twenty, I dropped out of college and moved to Portland to live with my girlfriend, all while my parents were on vacation. Some people probably do this sort of thing all the time, but for Barry and me, it’s a big deal; we don’t take anything lightly, ever. Even right now, my heart is pounding as if I’m in a high-stakes car chase—why? Because I’m unclear on my dinner plans. Because there’s a fly in the room. Because the food in the earthquake supply kit is past its expiration date. Paul, P. T., Mr. Anderson does such a good job of describing that perpetually alarmed feeling—the trucks literally roar by like Jurassic Park dinosaurs; the warehouse door rolls up and down, blinding and blackening like the wrath of God. Life really is terrifying.

I just took a moment to consider the ways I’m condemning myself to sadness at this very moment. The problem is that even if you have enough frequent-flier miles to go anywhere with Emily Watson, the anxiety comes with you. You can sort of see this in Lena’s eyes—she loves Barry, but she’s no fool. Sometimes it’s going to be a nightmare having this guy around. Barry thinks he just said, “That’s that” to fear, forever. God, how I wish you could just leave the tyranny of worry and self-loathing at some shitty mattress store in Utah. I did try to fix myself up in time for really loving someone, but as Barry will discover in hotels all over the world, your out can’t outrun your seven sisters. I see them chasing him forever (internally) like the seven horsemen of the apocalypse.

I don’t have seven sisters, but I have one father. Also well-meaning—but jeez. Fuck. Motherfucker. Ass fuck. (Swearing feels terrific! I’m hooked!) Fucking shit, what a legacy of anxiety my dad bequeathed! Though there were some good times. We made Jell-O in a big yellow bowl. He read to me. And together we loved Popeye, the Altman movie. So when “He Needs Me” plays in Punch-Drunk Love, it’s not just Barry and Lena, Olive and Popeye; it’s also me and my father feeling okay for a second. When you steal a song from a twenty-two-year-old movie, you also steal all the tenderness the movie’s viewers have accrued since it came out. All the pain and dashed hope. All the desire. This is why everyone steals all the time, though usually not so openly. An open theft is joyful; it implies that these two men, Altman and Anderson, were so confident, they could share a song. Which adds to the overall glad spirit of the moment—the moment when Barry goes to Hawaii. In just a few weeks, I myself am going to Hawaii for the first time. They say the air smells like flowers there; it better.

In closing, I’d like to thank everyone involved in this production. Thank you to the entire cast and crew, and a special thanks to the people given a special thanks at the very end of the credits. I wish I were one of those people! It would have been amazing to be thanked, in advance, for loving this movie as only an audience member can. But why single out one woman? Why not thank everyone who loves it? The reason is obvious: it would take too long. Especially since the list is always growing. If I served as a delegate, an ambassador of the audience, then it might make sense to include me. As they have, in this release.

I know I haven’t spoken to all of our feelings about the movie—they are wily and specific, like each one of you—but I hope I adequately represented our passion. It only grows. Thank you for the honor, and good night.

Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her most recent work is The First Bad Man, a novel.

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