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Review: Paul Thomas Anderson-Directed Video For Joanna Newsom’s ‘Divers’

Review: Paul Thomas Anderson-Directed Video For Joanna Newsom's 'Divers'

As we’ve already noted, it’s been a very good month for Paul Thomas Anderson fans. We recently reviewed his latest film at the New York Film Festival, the 55-minute documentary “Junun,” now available to view on MUBI. And continuing in a musical vein, his second video collaboration with singer Joanna Newsom (after “Sapokanikan” dropped in August) is about to be unleashed, but you won’t find it online. If you want to see his latest little side project, “Divers,” you’ll have to get out and head over to your local arthouse, if you’re so lucky.

It is admittedly a little strange reviewing a music video, but then again, PTA is one of the most gifted and hero-worshipped of modern auteurs, and there’s also more to admire in this beyond just satisfying cinephile completist impulses. Running just over seven-and-a-half minutes long, “Divers” gazes rather adoringly at Newsom’s face. Anderson’s camera is fixed on her close-up for most the runtime, even more than her small but vital turn in “Inherent Vice.” Shot through what looks like a large fish tank, with an array of colorful chemical reactions swirling around Newsom’s face, the video has an old-school simplicity to it, using techniques invented by Georges Méliès to make it look as if the singer is floating in some hand-crafted otherworld. Anderson and Newsom shot in the New York City studio of artist Kim Keever, whose work—utilizing plaster sets and paint drippings in water to beautiful effect—is used for the artwork of the new album Divers, with the filmmaker’s aim to immerse the musician in the artist’s landscapes. The concept was achieved, the effect works and looks good, even if not much really happens, though. It’s more a series of shots of Newsom in close or medium shots, while the paint drippings begin to take form and look like angry clouds surrounding her. 

READ MORE: Ranked: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Music Videos

It’s refreshing to see PTA in loose mode these days, turning around smaller projects in what feels like a series of creative bursts. For a filmmaker who often takes long stretches between features, it’s smart of him to try new things and keep his filmmaking blood flowing. Though I must confess to being one of the many die-hard fans of the writer/director, “Divers” is nothing more than a fun little curio, more like the last toke off a Doc Sportello joint than a proper PTA fix. I suggest keeping your expectations modest for this.

Because it’s playing in select theaters around the country, it’s understandable if you’re expecting something a bit more grand or even purely cinematic. But that simply isn’t the case here. This is nothing more than a simple but crafty music video (not even fair to label it a short, really). And that’s just fine. Though if this becomes a marketable trend for the music industry to get attention for certain artists, let’s hope more money and a scale more worthy of the big screen are funneled into the projects. 

“Divers” is cool looking and sounds just fine (I could take or leave the song, but Newsom does have a unique style I admire). Playing it as a short in theaters before the feature starts is another old fashioned release strategy that harkens to a time when movie theaters had more showmanship. You didn’t just get the feature; there were cartoons, shorts and news reels before the film and then trailers after that. I personally love the idea of making the theatrical experience more special for the audience, as long as they’re willing to sit longer at the theater. PTA has been at the forefront of using his influence to retain a sense of the past in going to the movies — he still shoots on film, and he took his 70mm presentation of “The Master” on the road in 2012 — and while “Divers” may not be revolutionary as a music video, it could start a welcome trend at the movies. [B-]

“Divers” starts playing in select cinemas on October 16th. See cities and dates here.

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