The first time I saw a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I didn’t realize I was seeing a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. I invited my dad along to see There Will Be Blood in theaters because I was an adventurous albeit somewhat uninformed film-goer, and the reviews had been glowing. I don’t know that I fully “got it” that first viewing, but I liked it enough that when my friend Brayden (who had — and still has — perfect taste) invited me to watch Punch Drunk Love one cloudy afternoon, “…from the guy who did There Will Be Blood,” was a sufficient selling point. That afternoon would begin my obsession with Anderson’s work, with first encounters with Boogie Nights and Magnolia following soon after. “The one with the frogs?” my mother would ask. The one with the frogs.
I was stunned by that first viewing. I saw in quiet awe as the credits rolled. It was transformative. I couldn’t have told you then exactly why.
I have since tried to share it with other film loving friends. During one such attempt my friend Colin, who is usually exceptionally open to even my most unusual choices, physically shut my laptop less than an hour in. “I’m sorry, I can’t watch this anymore.” He found it a little too precious, maybe. It was stressful to watch. Barry is odd and anxious. Why? There’s this woman who desperately wants to go out with him. Why? He’s obsessed with pudding. A harmonium appears. He calls a phone sex line and becomes the target of a group of violent brothers. He is prone to fits of destructive rage. Why? Jesus, why does anything happen in this movie? It’s posited in the film that Barry is acting oddly, but we have no frame of reference as to how he was before. It’s senseless. Colin was having none of it.
But the reason the audience doesn’t get any answers is because Barry doesn’t have any to give. He does things; he doesn’t know why. Things happen to him; he doesn’t know why. ”I didn’t ask for a shrink – that must’ve been somebody else. Also, that pudding isn’t mine. Also, I’m wearing this suit today because I had a very important meeting this morning and I don’t have a crying problem.” The world throbs around him, demanding explanations, and he has nothing.
“Sir, the bathroom was just torn apart.”
“Did you do it?”
My connection to Barry may have been an accident of timing. This was around the time I would frequently take refuge in the family car, a reliable ‘99 Honda Accord, for fits of uncontrollable screaming. I’d clutch the steering wheel and just wail, safe from anyone who might ask “Why?”. I was one of a thousand of tiny ants crawling along California’s El Camino Real, all so close but never touching, except in the occasional, horrific accident. “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.”
Barry is trapped by his environment, his family, and his own insecurities. We watch Barry navigate warehouses, grocery stores, and disorienting apartment buildings. He’s assaulted physically, emotionally, visually and verbally. Flawless sound editing and cinematography forces the audience to share in his claustrophobia. It’s relentless. You start to understand why Barry looks so tired.
I am not always Barry Egan. I don’t know that a single friend would come away from that film with the impression “God, Taylor, you’re just like Barry…” I’m too happy. Funny. Outgoing. You know, normal. Maybe that’s precisely why Punch Drunk Love is so divisive. Barry isn’t a real person; at least not any I’ve ever known. He is our frightened interior personified. He’s the living, breathing representation of the mornings we wake up already overwhelmed by the world. Please do not make me leave this bed this morning. I cannot do it, I just can’t. The days you know you’ll start crying the moment someone looks at you too long.
I don’t remember how or why, but around the time I started seeing my current girlfriend, I rediscovered the penultimate track on Jon Brion’s score for the film, entitled Here We Go. The Amazon review aptly describes it as a “pop-waltz”. If you pay attention, you realize Brion croons the central message of the movie. Barry’s salvation comes in the form of love. This love is realized by Lena, the persistent woman who offers merciful patience to our lost Barry in the face of fumbled first dates and surprise encounters in Hawaii.
Brion’s ballad became a mainstay of my brisk morning walk to class. “You better hope, that there’s someone for you, as strange as you are…” Barry is transformed by having a love in his life who is patient and understanding and just right for him. What makes PDL, and more importantly Barry, so dear to me, is he serves the same sort of purpose for those who maybe have not found the love in their life yet. I don’t mean “the one”, love of your life, romantic partner love. I mean any kind of love. Love, most importantly, for one’s self. It is a film for those who are not yet so strong. Barry forgives you the broken windows and the bloody hand and the time you started crying in front of your dentist brother-in-law. It’s okay, even if it hurts, and even if it’s hard, and even if you don’t have an answer to the world’s resounding “Why?”