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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2015)

7.5. Junun

Paul Thomas Anderson is such an enigmatic director that, sometimes, his movies are even shot in secret. “Junun” is a documentary Anderson directed. The film documents the creation of the album, “Junun,” a collaboration between Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Jewish composer Shye Ben Tzur, and Rajasthan Express, a collection of India-based musicians. Greenwood, of course, has scored several of Anderson's films which is likely how he became involved with this project. The movie wasn't announced until two weeks before its release. “Junun” would be an exclusive to online streaming library, MUBI. The film is under an hour long, making it more like Anderson's 7½ film, rather than his eighth feature. I'm including this as more of a bonus review, since its still enough of a real movie to warrant mention.

When I say “Junun” covers the recording of the titular album, I mean that rather literally. Anderson's cameras where invited into Mehrangarh Fort, a four hundred year old fortress in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. He observed the ancient space transformed into a recording studio. He watched the performers sing and play their instruments. Through his lens, he captures the creative process as it happens. Occasionally, interviews with the musicians and shots of the surrounding city are inserted among footage of songs being performed.

“Junun” covers a genre of music I wouldn't normally listen to. World music is not really on my radar. I don't even like Radiohead that much. However, the music in “Junun” is strangely affecting. The different backgrounds of those involved produces a blended sound. Greenwood's guitar playing and electronic work brings a Western bent to Rajasthan Express' traditionally Indian sound. Some songs are more upbeat, such as an opening number heavily featuring trumpets, or a song heavily featuring some female singers. Others are more subdued, such as a song mostly devoted to a man singing and playing his stringed instrument. I'm not sure I'll be buying any of the songs on iTunes but they are far more aurally pleasing than expected.

Since Anderson was right in there with the musicians, he documents some of the struggles and eccentricities of making an album. Electricity is frequently difficult to maintain in the fort. One scene shows the singers reclining on pillows, on the floor, trying to converse energy until the power is turned back on. Later, a musician blatantly tells the camera that he doesn't know where the power went. Some of the struggles are quirkier. Such as when a musician travels into town and buys a child's electronic keyboard from a music store, incorporating it into their recording session.

“Junun” also drops Anderson and his crew into a small corner of India. This allows the director to capture some of the local beliefs, customs, and culture. An interesting moment has one of the singers pausing, performing a ritual with some incense. He then talks about how he believes all beliefs are valid, taking elements from both Hindu and Muslim practices. Sometimes, Anderson does something as simple as following the musicians into town. We see small glimpses of Jodhpur. Such as kids playing in an exiting car, waving at the camera. Or two men holding hands before parting, which I'm really not sure how to interpret. “Junun” gives us a brief peak into the layered, multifaceted culture of India.

It's evident that “Junun” was filmed with a bare bones crew. There's very little of the elaborate camera work you usually associate with the director. Instead, it's clear that much of “Junun” was shot handheld. This, admittedly, gives the film a pleasantly flighty, improvised feeling. There's even one or two rough zoom-ins! This style was well suited to a movie all about the ebb and flow of creative juices. When Anderson tires of recording stuff on the flight, he employs a series of camera-equipped drones. Getting an aerial view on Mehrangarh Fort gives us a sense of the location's size and history. It also keeps the pace zippy, making sure the visual composition of the film is varied. For much the same reason, I suspect, Anderson also occasionally speeds up the footage, of the band assembling and dissembling their equipment in seconds.

Before “Junun's” final song is performed, an Indian man speaks about how the project has brought together people from different cultures. And, he hopes, has fostered a positive, international connection between different worlds from across the globe. It's a good vibe to conclude the film on. “Junun” is a pleasant viewing experience. Wrapping up under an hour, the watcher is left in a good mood. You get the impression that Anderson made the film more on a whim, or as a favor to Greenwood, yet I'm glad he did. In-between two-hour-plus epics about the human condition, a short film about music is a nice palette cleanser. [Grade: B]

Paul Thomas Anderson's projects continue to be shrouded in mystery. His latest picture is still officially untitled, though most people are calling it "Phantom Thread." It's a drama about the fashion industry in the 1950s. More exciting, it's Anderson's second collaboration with Daniel Day Lewis. (And may very well be Lewis' last film, assuming those retirement rumors stick.) The film is set for a Christmas release date this year, dropping the movie right into awards season. Hopefully Anderson will bounce back from "Inherent Vice" and maybe even get his Oscar, assuming "Phantom Thread" is that good. Either way, the director remains one of the most widely respected and beloved filmmakers working today.

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