Written by Toby Wertime
“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty windowpane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct. Those vanished years, as if through a piece of dust-laden glass, can be seen, cannot be grasped. He has always been thinking about everything in the past. If he can burst through that piece of dust-laden glass, he will walk back into those long-vanished years.”
On Christmas Day, Paul Thomas Anderson released his ninth picture, Licorice Pizza, to widespread critical and popular acclaim. Starring newcomers Alana Haim – the youngest member of the sisterly rock trio Haim – and Cooper Hoffman – the son of late PTA stalwart Philip Seymour Hoffman – as Alana Kane and Gary Valentine, the film is, without a doubt, Anderson’s most personal feature to date.
PTA’s latest already feels like it bears the etchings of a classic. Zig-zagging their way through joint business ventures, side flings, and encounters with narcissistic, coked-up film producers, the voyage Alana and Gary take is intoxicating, while seemingly random. Yet, the bells and whistles of Anderson’s story serve as the backdrop of a more enlightened pursuit. The film is Anderson’s dazzling homage to his own upbringing, and in the mold of a seasoned auteur, he exhibits the nostalgia for a time and place he holds dear.
To its core, Licorice Pizza is about an unmistakably human endeavor: to yearn. Despite the film’s rapid pace, this yearning is carefully and slowly cultivated. It begins with Gary, the boisterous child movie star, striking up a conversation with Alana, the much older photographer’s assistant. Though she rebuffs him because of his age, they establish a quick rapport, which serves as the vehicle for their misadventures, as well as the catalyst for their own spiritual growths. Gary, realizing that he has aged out of childhood stardom, with few prospects of graduating into more mature roles, acts on his entrepreneurial impulse. Alana joins him, taking on new pursuits and graduating from her own prolonged adolescence.
All the while, a lingering – even criminal – conceit begins to loiter in the background. What are they? Here, Anderson takes on the role of puppet master. As Alana realizes faint romantic feelings towards Gary, he pulls back to her chagrin. As Gary regains interest in her, she takes off with Sean Penn. The pendulum begins to swing more violently as their mutual respect and shared tenderness devolve into petty masquerades designed to arouse jealousy in one another. This animus reaches a breaking point beginning in the film’s third act. As Alana takes on a desk job in the office of a rising local political candidate, Gary ventures into the newly legalized world of pinball machines. They trade jabs at one another, ones predicated on their central difference – age. She’s old, he’s immature, they both leave unhappy. Yet, in the end, the happenings of Golden Age San Fernando Valley led them to frantically search, return, and admit their love for one another.
Anderson’s direction plays a key role in the conveyance of yearning – borne out of the protagonist's attempt to resolve their shared passion against society’s implicit rules and the conflict of their own personal growths. It is through this ritualistic questioning, ‘are they or aren’t they!?!’, that provokes a sense of compassion for our protagonists.
This carnival of emotions and delicate romantic interplay reminds me of one of the premier tales of unrequited love: Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love. Don’t get me wrong, these are very different films. Whereas Licorice Pizza is a sprawling series of colors and events, In the Mood for Love strikes a languid, deliberate approach. Two disenchanted Hong Kongers, portrayed by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, move into adjacent flats in the early 60’s. Their respective spouses often travel for long periods at a time, leaving them in their rooms alone. Common solitude gravitates them towards each other, where they begin to openly question their respective spouse’s fidelity.
They begin something of a romance, regulated under the watchful eye of their overbearing landlady, and the refusal to degrade themselves to the level of their spouse’s perceived infidelity. Instead, they eat; watch the odd film; and lament about their loneliness together. Finally, Leung’s character asks Cheung to move to Singapore with him. But she arrives too late to the meeting point, soiling their opportunity to be together.
In the Mood for Love really is about what the title purports: the mood to love. We do not see any overt acts that we associate with love. There is no kissing, no sex, not even the odd furtive rub. Instead, Wong’s careful craft conveys a more expressive, heart-breaking feeling. They truly yearn for one another. This sentiment is most striking in scenes depicting Cheung and Leung alone. Through the monotonous tasks that punctuate their day – working, walking, smoking cigarettes – their longing becomes more palpable, bordering on masochistic. The score enhances this feeling – a lone maudlin violin sounds against the backdrop of an orchestra quite literally plucking at your heart strings. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography makes this juxtaposition just that much more difficult to overcome. There is so much red: adorning the walls, on Cheung’s cheongsams, in streaks emanating from the few light sources in their cramped tenement housing. You want to scream “just fuck already!” But that’s not the point; it never was.
Putting Wong’s work in dialogue with Licorice Pizza draws many discrepancies. They are different in almost every measure of filmmaking, from soundtrack, to cinematography, to even genre. And yet, both filmmakers masterfully interrogate the placid nature of unrequited love. Our protagonists are responsible for managing their complicated feelings in light of societal customs and norms that suggest otherwise. In Anderson’s work, that otherwise is age; for Wong, it’s fidelity. But by chiding against these constraints, empathy abounds. We ache for the characters, feel their longing as if they were our own.
I would argue that this yearning, prevalent in both In the Mood for Love and Licorice Pizza, emotionally derives from the same source: nostalgia. Licorice Pizza, like most of Anderson’s works, is set in Southern California, where Anderson grew up. The film itself seems to be replete with references from Anderson’s memories of his childhood: the Mikado restaurant, oil crises, Bowie’s Life on Mars? Even the title, Licorice Pizza, refers to a chain of record stores in Southern California. It also happens to be the two words Anderson most closely associates with his childhood.
Similarly, Wong Kar-Wai is virtually synonymous with Hong Kong. His earlier films, like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are excitable, replete with the trappings of modernity and chaos that many associate with the city-state. In the Mood for Love deviates from this trend. The film is Wong’s first feature after the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, a time of great disillusionment for the city-state. Considering the political circumstances, In the Mood for Love feels like an elegy to the Hong Kong of days past; one that simply no longer exists. Indeed, most exterior scenes of the movie weren’t even filmed in Hong Kong; they were filmed in Bangkok, which more closely resembled the Hong Kong that Wong grew up in. The famous diner scene, where Cheung and Leung ruminate about their spouse’s affairs, takes place in one of Hong Kong’s oldest western-style restaurants which, coincidentally, opened the same year that In the Mood for Love takes place in.
Both pictures were painstakingly crafted to reflect the directors’ memories of their youth. The nostalgia, however, is further embedded into the romantic poetry of the characters. Leung, Cheung, Haim and Hoffman serve as conduits – or better yet, symbols – of the director’s wistfulness and heartache. These aren’t just films; they are the meditations of people longing for vanished time. And in their wake, we are lucky to come along and bask in the emotional splendor of it all.