Anderson: Licorice Pizza (2021)
Licorice Pizza is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest hymn to the San Fernando Valley. Many Hollywood directors have filmed in the valley, but it holds a special place in Anderson’s body of work, where it generated the ensemble dramas of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, along with more incidental moments in his later films. We now return to the valley in 1973, where Anderson follows a dawning friendship-romance between Gary, a high school student, played by Cooper Hoffman, and Alana, a photographer’s assistant, played by Alana Haim. Although Anderson was born in 1970, three years before the events of the film, it feels like he’s mining his own early years here – the friendships and romances that first drew the valley into focus.
Over the course of the film, which spans two and a half hours, something seems to unclench in Anderson’s work. Ever since Punch-Drunk Love, his films have become more remote, moving further and further away from the extravagant earnestness of Magnolia. For the first time, in Licorice Pizza, Anderson returns to the warmth of those earliest features – one of the first things Gary says to Alana is “You have a warm smile, which is very powerful.” Part of the warmth comes from the fact that Cooper Hoffman is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son, meaning the film can’t help a patina of nostalgia for the actor who brought so much warmth to Anderson’s first phase. At times, the sweetness of the film seems to belong to an older time than the 70s – as if we’re seeing a residue of the 50s embedded in the 70s, in the same way that Anderson’s later films often seek out the residue of the 70s still embedded in the present. Early on, Alana confesses to Gary that he reminds her of a young Dean Martin, and that mid-century masculinity still feels present here, even if people are starting to move away from it.
Anderson also seems to be reaching back to a more relaxed time in terms of sexual politics. Both of the romantic leads here behave somewhat questionably by contemporary standards. When Alana first becomes friends with Gary, she’s twenty-five (or twenty-eight) and he’s only fifteen, although they don’t kiss until after his sixteenth birthday, and never sleep together. At the same time, Gary is pretty pushy – he pursues Alana with a single-mindedness that also seems fairly distasteful by contemporary standards. Part of the film’s project, however, is to immerse us in a more relaxed set of expectations more generally, which Anderson signals in the very opening shot. We start in a school room, where a sudden explosion and a wave of manic screams immediately conjures up school shooters in the present – only for Anderson to reveal that it’s just a burst pipe, the worst that audiences could imagine in a 70s setting.
After a rough trilogy about uptight patriarchs (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Phantom Thread) Anderson also appears to have relaxed one of the driving concerns of his career: elective families, and elective fathers in particular. Time and again, Anderson has focused on characters who choose their parents, and choose their fathers, but the specific focus on fatherhood drifts away here, perhaps because the father-son narrative is already implicit in the way he has taken Cooper Hoffman under his wing in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. Gary quickly latches onto Alana as his elective family, which makes sense given the age difference, causing her to repeatedly ask him where his family is, and wonder why they aren’t around. When he is mistakenly arrested for murder, she is the one he calls.
All those features prompt a return to the elaborate sequence shots and propulsive momentum of Anderson’s earlier films, which are translated into a series of long walking scenes that are both more languorous and more restless than anything he’s filmed before. We start with the long walk where Gary meets Alana – the queue to the high school photo booth – and from here the two leads feel less like characters than embodiments of the film’s propulsive energy. At some level, Licorice Pizza is much more about the connective tissue of the valley than the two leads, collapsing its sprawl into the erotics of walking and wandering.
While Anderson revels in this languorous yet propulsive ambience, there’s also an eerie edge to all the quietness, just as there are moments when both characters could conceivably become stalkers. As mentioned, Gary is picked up by the police, who mistakenly confuse him for a serial killer. Later on, when Gary and Alana go into business, he encourages her to seduce clients, leading to a phone conversation in which a man instructs her to come to his house, alone. Most dramatically, in their first cipher for having sex, Gary calls Alana at home, speaks to her in a threatening voice, and then hangs up, prompting her to do the same, except that she just covers the receiver and lets him hang. In this odd scene, Gary and Alana take the silence of the valley, the eerier edge of its ambience, and immerse themselves in it as a key part of their erotic communion, evoking a danger that prevents the languor ever congealing.
This creepiness percolates throughout the film, never quite coming to the fore, but contouring the ambience as it blooms through the central narrative conceit – Gary’s invitation to Alana to join him at Soggy Bottom, a waterbed store that’s just moved to the valley. Both Gary and Alana become acolytes for the waterbed, repeatedly recommending it as “the greatest invention in sleeping since the inner spring.” It makes sense that the working title of Licorice Pizza was Soggy Bottom, since this could also be an alternative title for Anderson’s San Fernando Valley – one giant gently undulating liquid surface – especially since it puns on Foggy Bottom, an equally distinctive district on the other side of the county. For Gary and Alana, the waterbed allows them to bring the Pacific Ocean right to the heart of the valley – the name of the parent company is Pacific – and this forms the crux of their marketing drive “Have you ever been to the ocean? You know that relaxing feeling of laying on the water?”
The waterbed is the perfect vehicle for their burgeoning relationship. Instead of deflecting sex into their endless walks around the valley, they channel it into promoting water beds. In the process, they generate a new kind of texture for the valley, which is where the majority of waterbed sales occur. The unique atmosphere of the valley in the 70s crystallises around their rapport, which encourages other people to start thinking of the 70s as a discrete decade, rather than a continuation of the 60s, or a residue of the 50s. More specifically, Gary and on the San Fernando 70s as a cinematic period, and often treat Soggy Bottom as a film. They first meet at the intersection of film and photography – she’s taking the school photos, he introduces himself as an actor – while Gary writes the dialogue for the Soggy Bottom campaigns, which Alana delivers and improvises, giving him notes about the direction of the script. In the erotic kernel of the film, they lie down together on a water bed, which Anderson shoots from below so that it looks like a piece of corroding celluloid, scorched by the heat between their bodies. Burnt and liquid at the same time, it figuratively extends the waterbed into a more volatile and flammable liquid field, pre-empting the oil embargo of the third act.
Before we reach that moment, however, Anderson fuses Alana, Gary and the waterbeds into his own personal mythology of the San Fernando Valley – namely, that 70s style and cinema emerged from the valley, turning Licorice Pizza into an exercise in pinpointing the exact moment it became visible. In that sense, the mismatch in ages between Gary and Alana really works, since as a romance that bridges generations, it captures the emergence of the decade as a dynamic and composite process. In fact, the decade never blooms at one single point here, but dawns somewhere between the adolescent generation represented by Gary and the young adult generation represented by Alana. Just as both leads tend to be enamoured of each other at different moments, due to their different stations in life, Anderson’s mythical valley emerges piecemeal, in fragments, splintering the film into a kaleidoscopic dreamworld.
Licorice Pizza, like Inherent Vice, thus plays as an ensemble drama that unfolds sequentially, rather than simultaneously, as Anderson structures the film as a series of vignettes that mark the arrival of a 70s mindset – or evoke the previous two decades as they fade away from the present. For the most part, these vignettes are generationally messy, and focus on the weirdness of adults even a generation back, all of whom are equally inscrutable – whether it’s a talent agent played by Harriet Sansom Harris, a Korean war vet played by Sean Penn, a producer played by Bradley Cooper, or a restaurant owner played by John Michael Higgins. Higgins’ part as Jerry Frick, owner-operator of the Mikado, the first Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, has been particularly controversial. It’s quite racist – Jerry’s main shtick is speaking to his rotation of Japanese wives in a yellowface accent and then pretending to understand their response. The meaning of these scenes are so inscrutable that I can only assume they were meant to intensify this broader opacity that’s continually attached to the adult world.
No doubt, these vignettes sometimes feel redundant, or disengaging, but’s part of the point, since Licorice Pizza has a 70s pace, conjuring up films that went for a sprawling ensemble vibe even when they had a limited cast – films that weren’t efficient or economical in structure, but still managed a wide enough variety of detours and asides to please most cinemagoers. It’s an elegy for the populist film as it stood just before the blockbuster, which is a good way to describe many of Anderson’s releases since Punch-Drunk Love as well – films that are strange enough and long enough to interest a large number of people for a large number of different reasons, but that could never be framed as blockbusters in the conventional sense.
None of that is to say that Licorice Pizza is sluggish either, since the snaking trajectories through the valley grow faster as the vignettes become slower, stranger and more opaque. The more adults they encounter, the more that Gary and Alana try to hurl themselves into the mid-70s, culminating with the oil embargo, which slows down the city as a whole, but forces Gary and Alana to move even faster. The less gas the city (and film) has, the more desperately its two leads have to search for the future of the valley as they have imagined it through the waterbed. Free delivery is part of the promise of the waterbed, and Gary and Alana take a particular erotic delight in distributing waterbeds back into the broader texture of the valley, so they rush to harness as much petrol as they can to keep themselves buoyant.
At the same time, waterbeds are made from vinyl, which is made from oil, meaning that Gary and Alana are in short supply of waterbeds themselves. To keep the valley going as a giant waterbed, they have to embody the waterbeds even more emphatically in their daily delivery routes. Here we see an echo of the title, Licorice Pizza, which refers to the Los Angeles record store that opened in 1969. We never see or hear about this store in the film, except indirectly, through the vinyl shortage that affected album and waterbed manufacture alike. By rehabilitating waterbeds, Gary and Alana rehabilitate vinyl, and by rehabilitating vinyl, they’re paving the way for the Licorice Pizza stores to thrive in the mid-70s. Moreover, Licorice Pizza was itself named after the texture of vinyl – the colour of licorice, the shape of pizza – just as Soggy Bottom was named after the texture of waterbeds. Anderson thus fuses waterbeds and LPS to evoke a new kind of musical ambience that emerges from the San Fernando Valley 70s.
This creates a complex dialogue between the rhythms of the valley, the ambience of waterbeds, the texture of vinyl and the demands of the oil industry – a dialogue that culminates with the best scene in the film. Upon realising that they are trapped at the top of the valley with no petrol, Alana and Gary “drive” their enormous delivery truck backwards down the hill, taking advantage of the natural inclines and their own intuitive knowledge of every intersection to chart a precipitous decline in the middle of the night. They gather the whole rhythm of the film into their passage, as they parlay the natural undulations of the landscape to bring them to the valley floor, alternating between smooth and chaotic passages that channel the meditative frenzy of the frog storm in Magnolia. Finally, the truck rolls to a halt at the epicentre of Anderson’s mythology – Victory Boulevard, which we now see, as we did in Magnolia, in the first wide shot of the film, gleaming quietly in the middle of the night.
However, lest this ending feel too static for the dynamic 70s, Anderson now moves to a compressed third act, in which Alana and Gary briefly split to channel their shared San Fernando Valley into two new directions. Alana heads to the adult world, where she starts working for a politician dedicated to improving the valley, while Gary heads to the adolescent world, where he channels the propulsive trajectories of the film into a suite of pinball machines that he sets up in Soggy Bottom (renamed Pinball Palace), now that pinball has been legalised for people under eighteen. Yet these two trajectories just energise Alana and Gary’s reunion, as they both draw from and flee the adult and adolescent worlds for one final pair of runs that end in front of a movie theatre, where they collapse to the ground – the clash of primal energies that, for Anderson, unleashes the 70s on the valley, and then upon the world.
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