Ranked: Paul Thomas Anderson's Music Videos

So now Paul Thomas Anderson’sInherent Vice” has premiered at the New York Film Festival, and has thus been seen by human eyes (ours included—here’s our review), bringing months of fevered anticipation and conjecture to a close. That is, for the few hundred people lucky enough to be able to snag a seat in one of the screenings. Most cinephiles, including most Playlisters, will have to endure the insufferable smugness of those who have seen the film for another two months before its limited opening (if we’re lucky enough to catch it then: it finally goes wide on January 9, 2015).

We’ll obviously be talking a lot more about PTA and “Inherent Vice” around the December release date, but for the interim we’ve taken a look at a lesser-known aspect of Anderson’s career —his music videos. Unlike David Fincher, whose 55 videos we ranked last week, Anderson is not hugely prolific in this regard, and the few promos he has done are either offshoots of his film work —like working with collaborators Aimee Mann, Jon Brion or Michael Penn— or videos for Fiona Apple, with whom Anderson was previously in a relationship. Still, there’s some great stuff in these eight titles, especially for any Anderson fan, as in them you can see him work through ideas that have since become stylistic hallmarks. And who knows? Maybe he’s got another video in him for “Inherent Vice” (full soundtrack here), since the film features new Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood tunes.

Here, then, ranked in reverse order, worst to best, are Paul Thomas Anderson’s eight music videos. 

8. “Limp,” Fiona Apple (2000)
From the middle period of Anderson’s 5-promo-strong collaboration with Apple, this spot finds him on unusually disjointed form, not helped by the fact that the melody and narrative of the song are maybe not be quite up there with the best of the singer/songwriter’s work. Still, some trademark experimentation is evident, especially with editing.
Notable moment: At about 2:29 the images start to be cut to a very fast rhythm, mirroring the track. But it’s more a show of technical virtuosity than a really satisfying experience.

7. “Here We Go,” Jon Brion (2002)
Not a bad video. Just one that used existing (if unseen) footage from Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” —offcuts and alternate takes that didn’t get used in the final film. And so we get two main sequences, of Adam Sandler in his office, and then one finding him going to meet Emily Watson in her apartment. The second half is especially nice, a little odyssey featuring some very Andersonian corridors and push/pull camerawork, cross cut with Watson in her apartment waiting.
Notable moment: At 1:03 when Sandler, sobbing at his desk, reaches into his drawer sight unseen for a Kleenex. One of those funny/sad moments that the film’s growing fanbase will dig.

6. “Fast as You Can,” Fiona Apple (1999)
Another example of interesting experimentation within an Apple video, this lively song’s theme of speed gives Anderson license to play around with the syncing of the vocals to the singer’s mouth. Which is often rather more distracting than enhancing, but Anderson also incorporates other visual hi-jinks, like Apple smudging and “cleaning” the image by rubbing at the lens, and some unusual framing.
Notable moment: At 1:10 when she’s walking up the subway car, it’s all one take, but it starts off out of sync and ends perfectly synced up.

5. “Try” by Michael Penn (1997)
Anderson indulges his love of corridors and people walking down corridors here to a further degree with this Michael Penn video that he shot during the editing of “Boogie Nights.” He also establishes one of his trademarks —a shifting point of view camera, so that sometimes we’re looking directly at the singer, other times we’re following him, and still other times we’re looking at the scene seemingly through his eyes, and often we progress from one state to another in a seamless camera move. Be prepared for a punch in the heart early on, when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up the first time as a very Scotty J-like roadie/gofer.
Notable Moment: Around 2:19, the inexplicable and very visible squibs beneath Penn’s shirt start to go off.

4. “Across the Universe,” Fiona Apple (1998)
Apple covered this Beatles track for the soundtrack of the charming, nostalgic Gary Ross movie “Pleasantville.” For the video, Anderson nods to the film’s setting and themes by shooting in black and white and by having Apple singing the song wearing old-timey headphones while all around her a group of Biff Tannen-like jocks lay waste to a 1950s soda fountain in slow motion. It’s a very pretty and well-achieved spot that again shows Anderson honing the craft of camera movement and placement.
Notable moment: At around 1:25, the camera begins to perform a slow 360 degree revolution, with Apple mounted to it as well so that at one point she’s singing while hanging upside down.

3. “Save Me,” Aimee Mann (1999)
WIth Anderson fully on the record as to the pivotal role that Aimee Mann’s music played in the conception and creation of the film that would become “Magnolia,” it’s the least he could do to put together such an impressive video for one of her key songs as such. Shot during the filming, using recreated versions of the scenes that appear in the film, but retooled for the video, Anderson also relied on his actors —Julianne Moore, Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy and John C. Reilly— to stay in place while the video footage was shot. As a result, it has one of the greatest video casts ever, and, marred only slightly by the fact that Mann seems less comfortable onscreen than PTA’s other music video muse Fiona Apple, it’s a lovely memento of the film for devotees like us. What someone who’s never seen “Magnolia” might make of it we don’t really know, but then we don’t really care what people who’ve never seen “Magnolia” think.
Notable Moment: At 2:15 and the “radium” bit, as we swoop past Tom Cruise, you can really see how the scene was switched around for the film, as sofas and foreground ornaments roll out of the way.

2. “Hot Knife,” Fiona Apple (2013)
A pretty stunning, deceptively simple video for a deceptively complex song, Anderson’s spot for Apple’s “Hot Knife” truly enhances the appreciation of the track by emphasizing its layers and its overlapping, intricate structure. Using split screen, gorgeously lit color and black and white shots of the singer (and her sister who also adds vocals), Anderson visually echoes the lovely Bessie Smith-style rhythms of the song, which is largely a capella, with a drum rhythm and occasional piano accents. Gorgeous and, for a video composed mostly of the singer singing against neutral backgrounds, surprisingly weird.
Notable moment: The introduction of split screen at 1:06

1. “Paper Bag” by Fiona Apple (2000)
Perhaps not the most formally inventive or experiemental of Anderson’s music videos, this “Bugsy Malone“-esque video for Apple gets our top vote just for how much it shows Anderson’s command of the sweeping camera move, and for how much it demonstrates his own cinephilia. A homage to the big musical numbers of old, it’s shot in lush color (the popping red of her dress!) with a cast of 10-13 year-old backing dancers, expertly choreographed in a stunning bar/ballroom location. Bring on the PTA musical.
Notable moment: At 2:00, when we cut to a huge overhead wide that shows off the exquisite location, choreography and the rich set design and period detailing, much of which is reminiscent of Anderson’s “The Master.”

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