Thursday, April 07, 2022

LICORICE PIZZA in the Cahiers du cinéma


From the January 2022 issue of the Cahiers du cinéma, no. 783.



by Jérôme Momcilovic

translation from the French by Craig Keller

Making use of roads off the beaten path, to say nothing of the birth of a love affair, Licorice Pizza leaves you in a state of gentle, and paradoxical, amazement. Gentle because the gentleness of the film itself, come to fruition in The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread, but fully unthreading here, beneath the guise of a light and vintage romance, with a novel and nurturing limpidity — dare we use that cliché of film distributors: we’re happy just to get it out there — light, recognizable. Paradoxical because there’s so much here that is absolutely staggering, from the mastery of a filmmaker assertive as never before of his actions, or of the disarming simplicity that’s become his horizon-point. It’s also the fact that, as in his three preceding films, Licorice Pizza takes off without having totally pierced the aura of mystery that has by now surrounded, in varying degrees, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.

A dense mystery, permeating like a fog or a state of intoxication (The Master, Inherent Vice), or even a tiny mystery perceived beneath the form of a light perplexity at the film’s conclusion — what did we just see? have we already seen it? (Phantom Thread, Licorice Pizza): the feeling in each case is that the characters are living a life perfectly independent of the spectator. It has, rather, been regulated by the grand American cinema to feel exceedingly present despite the film’s intentions, incubated by them, pampered by the spectacle — entertainment: “mission to interview,” Daney said. Charming without playing the smooth-talker (difficult without being so, what with the similar sets, costumes, music-cues), Licorice Pizza panders to no-one, no single eye: it takes to the roads that sing its song, and its slightly communal grace owes much to this impression that it is animated by nothing other than its own pleasure in watching what it watches, and in showing what it shows.

What does it show with so much joy and sweetness? Above all two superb characters: a boy and a girl all at once golden and banal, brought together by an amorous urge complicated by a slight, but decisive, age difference. Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is still a high-school student, so the few years separating him from Alana (Alana Haim) provide slim chance for advances that he eagerly throws her way as soon as he meets her and the film starts, in the courtyard of the high-school where Alana has come for the day to assist with school photos. If the urge is called to triumph all the same, it’s that in reality each of them is feeling the other one out with their ages serving as an offbeat sticking-point. Gary’s sixteen years keep him in school, and are often betrayed by things like his chubby figure and light-hearted mood, but a singular spirit of initiative makes of him an already very accomplished man, leading in his spare time a double career as actor and seasoned entrepreneur. On the other hand, Alana breaks down the doors of adult life, held back less by immaturity than by a precocious tendency toward disenchantment.

Here we find an insistent motif in PTA’s cinema, that in which the fiction of the couple apparently plays a classic role of reconciliation between opposites, in order to organize between the two parties a perpetual transfer of traits and positions, an elastic rapport with unforeseeable combinations, reaching for a meeting-point that’s less than safe. Sometimes the point of harmony ends by being found (the complicit pact that closes Phantom Thread); sometimes the film opts for regret and sentences the two parties to their tragic fate as asymptotes, each one drifting out on their own sea, their own astrological trajectory (The Master, Inherent Vice). Licorice Pizza belongs to the first category: it’s there from the first scenes, from Gary becoming smitten with Alana, her long skinny legs and her sardonic grin.

Here then is a second point in common with the most recent Tarantino: Licorice Pizza, like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, believes in destiny. The first point in common is obviously the era, the set-design, which, around Hollywood in the early ‘70s (1969 for Tarantino, 1973 for PTA), was the environment of the early childhood of the filmmakers. Like Tarantino’s film, Licorice Pizza at moments floats in a soft and exhilarating irreality. This isn’t just a matter of the colors, suitable to Los Angeles and the ‘70s. In this respect, Inherent Vice markedly pushed the trip farther, but that was a ghost movie, whereas Gary and Alana are vibrantly alive — singularly alive. It’s also a matter of the strange population that resides within this movie-world neither entirely on the side of reality nor entirely on that of fiction: relatively unknown actors, workers in the shadow of the movie industry, that the two films gaze upon with the same amused tenderness.

But let’s come back to destiny. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood created an unflinching and very moving interpretation of destiny. Since destiny, the film seems to say, is by definition that which must arrive, all there is to do is wait. Await, in the company of the characters, the rendez-vous that fate has fixed for them; wander about in the time of the film; rove about in the era and the setting; kill time to watch. Licorice Pizza leaves a neighboring but sensibly different impression. Its incessant divagations (stories of waterbeds, pinball machines, trucks hurtling through the Hollywood Hills to the point of no return and in reverse: all things pleading in the name of the film for an uncontrolled moment) seem so many unexpected detours, screwball bifurcations, but we can’t really say, once the end-credits roll, if they’ll have mattered much given the dénouement of the story. The films directed by PTA since The Master all have the same atmosphere of cubist odyssey: one comes away with the impression of having taken a grand voyage, but the itinerary remains opaque. The hand of destiny has been displaced, henceforth unable to be found on the surface instead allowing his œuvre to take seed at the subterranean level of the narrative. It suffices here to pay attention to the lyrics of “July Tree,” Nina Simone’s sublime song that accompanies Gary and Alana’s meeting: seeds of love have been planted, it’s enough to wait two seasons. It’s a touch more time than is required, in fact, for the story of Licorice Pizza to reach its goal.

This strategy of diversion has several advantages. In placing his films under the sign of Uranus, “the planet of big surprises” (Inherent Vice) offers of destiny a representation otherwise more inventive than that of his first films (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) in which, by way of confusion between fate and cinema, and with the excuse of being young and virtuosic, he vainly exhausts himself on a puppet theater. To allow destiny to do its subterranean work, lodged beneath the skin of the narrative, which deals on the surface with waterbeds and pinball machines, is for PTA’s cinema to treat itself to two things. First, a powerful emotional vector — this is what the immediate perception indicates: these four most recent films have jaw-dropping endings. Second, and foremost: a liberated period to watch its characters, and so then its actors.

PTA believes that Licorice Pizza owes almost everything to the faces of its two young actors, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. The pleasure that he took in filming them is evident. And we’d be brushing over the essential matter if we didn’t emphasize that these two faces are new to the cinema, and the pleasure of filming them comes across in being the first one to have done it. Just like the twists and turns of the scenario are sewn together from anecdotes told by PTA’s entourage, this daring casting (two young unknowns with imperfect faces, while in the background of the scene such actors as Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper content themselves as apparitions) was already at hand: Alana Haim performs in a band founded with her two sisters who also play roles in the film; as for Cooper Hoffman, he’s the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman — PTA saw him grow up alongside his father, who died in 2014, having shot five films with him.

With this radical and radiant choice, combined with the fact that PTA, having remained faithful to celluloid film, is here as in Phantom Thread as his own director of photography, Licorice Pizza goes all the way to the end of a direction that is slowly digging itself further inside his œuvre. The most recent films can be seen as affirming themselves in a very distinct taste for faces, and adjacent to them, an interest for pale skin in which emotion betrays itself when the blood hits the cheeks — already, when PTA lands on such decorated actors as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams… With the diaphanous visage of Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread made a veritable theorem out of this preference when it came to the mise-en-scène, from which Licorice Pizza inherited an eloquent precaution: no longer that this would-be unknown face would go flush from the first appearance of the characters; those of Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman sported no make-up on set. It’s because there’s something to see here that cosmetics would have masked: not so much the skin itself as a trembling emotion in arrays of pink just under the surface. It’s here that the seeds of love grow in silence, here that resides the trembling beauty of Licorice Pizza: beneath the rosy cheeks of Cooper Hoffman, who has his father’s pale skin.

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