When he was seven, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote in his diary, “I want to be a writer, producer, director, special effects man. I know how to do everything and I know everything” (p. 1). For this millennial wunderkind, it would seem his pre-adolescent gall was not mere lip service but foretelling. Anderson directed three star-studded films before turning thirty; his frequent collaborator, Daniel Day-Lewis, is one of the most renowned contemporary actors; and, at the time of this writing, Anderson is rumoured to be working on several projects, including a possible adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland. 

Anderson’s arrogance has endeared him to some and frustrated many. And, in Ethan Warren’s debut book, The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson: American Apocrypha, Warren meticulously explores this prickly, populist auteur through reviews, interviews, and close readings of Anderson’s films. Warren, a former editor at the independent online film journal Bright Wall/Dark Room and a graduate of the master’s program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, brings his cinephilic eloquence to bear upon unknotting the enigmatic plots of, or characters in, Anderson’s films as well as Anderson’s ethos. To be sure, this is not a film theory text. Rather, Warren’s biography holds this boy genius (or brat) up to the light like a prism and slowly allows every refraction of Anderson to shine. 

Relying primarily on interviews, reviews, and Anderson’s scripts, Warren’s biography eschews chronological order of Anderson’s films’ (much like Adam Nayman’s 2020 book Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks) in favour of “reshuffl[ing] the deck in a way that might expose new insights into Anderson’s unique strengths, as well as his shortcomings and biases, a task best served by aligning distinct slices of these works for comparison” (p. xxv). Ergo, Warren arranges his chapters by concepts or themes such as “On Domesticity,” “On Gender Performance,” or “On Alienation Effects” to allow Anderson’s nine feature films to speak to one another across release date and genre. 

That said, Warren does label Anderson’s first three features Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999) as “thesis films,” whereas the next three, Punch Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012), are grouped as “antithesis films.” Warren defines Anderson’s thesis films as marked by ensemble casts, “kinetic camera work” (p. 4), and “overt expression, in which…characters say what they mean and mean what they say” (p. 82). Conversely, Anderson’s antithesis films follow single protagonists, embrace “oblique storytelling” (p. 11), and “the protagonists’ feelings and motivations are often best inferred from their nonverbal behaviours, with their dialogue more often serving to obfuscate their true interiority” (p. 82). Outside the diegesis of his films, Anderson also notes that the director who emerged into his antithesis phase post-2002 was a much humbler iteration of his former self (p. 10), less prone to the tirades and verbal outbursts of his early days where he lambasted his alma mater NYU (he dropped out after only a few days) or arrived to the red carpet donning flip flops. No longer would Anderson be “‘the young filmmaker with fuckin’ pizza in the interview’” (p. 10). The movies did not just change post-thesis: the man, according to Warren, did as well. 

Through Warren’s atemporal approach to, and reframing of, Anderson’s filmography and biography, recurring themes of Anderson’s bubble to the surface like an army of frogs. By closely analysing family dynamics in films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, or Phantom Thread, Warren illustrates how Anderson’s ongoing preoccupation with family life is not unlike Leo Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”1 From Amber’s concurrent maternal and sexual attraction to Dirk Diggler to Alma and Woodcock’s sadomasochistic and scatological romance, violence or incest often tinge the idiosyncratic gendered dynamics of family in Anderson’s work. Even Licorice Pizza, perhaps the most “wholesome” of Anderson’s films, cannot escape the Tolstoy adage as it concludes with a kiss between an adult and a minor before they merrily dash into the sun-streaked streets of the Valley. 

While Warren deftly underscores familial disquiet in his chapter “On Domesticity,” it is in his chapter “On Gender Performance” where Warren’s analysis of gender, sexuality, and sex in Anderson’s films is at its sharpest, albeit with some shortcomings. Though in his introduction Warren evokes “reception stance, used to refer to a viewer’s psychological posture relative to the screen” (p. xxii), Warren never explicitly draws upon feminist film theory’s notion of spectator identification within an ideological, formal, and semiotic structure that recurrently underscores woman’s symbolic lack, rather than her presence. To be fair, Warren is more interested in the socially constructed woman in the audience, as in instances when he cites “the former New Line marketing executive Karen Hermelin [who] describe[s] the script [of Boogie Nights] as ‘completely misogynistic,’ but added, ‘I loved it’” (p. 113). In addition to Hermelin, Warren often draws upon real life audience members’ reactions to Anderson’s films. And yet, Warren misses an opportunity to engage with feminist film theory or criticism more robustly in order to close-read Anderson’s formal choices, particularly Anderson’s cinematography.

In Warren’s reading of Boogie Nights, he focuses primarily on the script and characters to underscore the centrality of the phallus in the film. And while it is true that Dirk Diggler’s (played by Mark Wahlberg) endowment drives the narrative propulsion of the film, I would argue it is a film also equally attentive to the gaze. When pornographic actress Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and closeted Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) look at Dirk swimming the pool before he becomes a major star, there are a pastiche of Classical Hollywood references more traditionally used to frame a woman of desire, rather than a man. When Scotty glimpses Dirk, Anderson zooms in with an iris, capturing Dirk and only Dirk in the crosshairs of the camera. The iris foregrounds Scotty’s voyeurism and Dirk as an object of visual pleasure. Additionally, as Amber placidly smiles, Anderson cuts to a slow motion shot of Dirk jumping off the diving board. In her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey writes that a similar formal choice is often made for female characters “to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.”2 While one might argue that what we are witnessing is merely a “female” and “queer” gaze in this sequence, I would argue that the pastiche of Classical Hollywood film references renders these desires as highly artificial and kitsch. Yes, Dirk’s youthful beauty is made a spectacle in this moment, but a woman and gay man’s desire is also rendered as a spectacle. 

Though Warren performs no such analysis of Boogie Nights’ cinematography, he does closely analyse a recurring shot within Anderson’s films where “a character stands before a seated one, their crotch positioned in the face of their intended inferior” (p. 103). The framing asserts power and sexual dominance, as in the case of Sydney standing over Clementine in Hard Eight. An inversion of this power dynamic occurs in Inherent Vice where Shasta stands over Doc, though Warren is right to point out that such an inversion does not symbolically shift power from men to women. As he writes,

[s]eeing a woman made submissive to a man, even by a choice as simple as framing, has an essentially different connotation of sexual threat than the equivalent shot of a man made submissive to a woman, and to suggest that this could be read as simply a coding of which character has control of the scene would be to ignore the full implications of this semiotic choice (p. 104).

Warren goes on to write that such role reversal “may arguably come across as more smirking than truly provocative” (p. 105), an assertion that seems apt for a director who “has been vocal in his discomfort over appearing to make any overtly political statements in his work” (p. 120). Warren’s close-reading of the framing in Hard Eight and Inherent Vice is one of the only moments in the book where he enacts his own analysis, rather than drawing upon others’. Yet, Warren refuses to assert whether he finds such a role reversal to indeed be Anderson “smirking” at gendered politics, rather than formally gesturing towards parity. 

Plenty of people have asserted that Anderson’s work peddles patriarchal plots and characters. To wit, Aleksander Hermon claims Phantom Thread is “propaganda for patriarchy” (p. 106). Warren does not dismiss Hermon’s claim, but he does situate that film’s release within the still newly bristling #MeToo world. A character like Reynolds Woodcock (exacting, brusque, and sometimes downright mean) greeted post-Trump audiences oversaturated with innumerable stories of men behaving badly both on and offscreen. Without invalidating Hermon’s criticism of Phantom Thread, Warren reflects on why such a comment would be made by a critic in 2017’s social and political climate. In promoting the film, Anderson “admitted a squeamishness about addressing the novel’s sociopolitical themes too directly” (p. 92), and one can’t help but wonder if Warren’s refusal to squarely support or refute Hermon’s claims are a mirroring of Anderson’s own reticence to bring politics into play. 

Warren’s examination of Anderson’s work also illuminates his anachronistic bent toward dialogue and race, not just gender. For example, Licorice Pizza was criticized by the watchdog group Media Action Network for Asian Americans for stereotypical portrayals of Japanese characters which Anderson dismissed as being specific to that period of time, not his own personal politics. But it is worth noting that the scene in question, when Jerry Frick meets with Gary and his mother regarding the copy description of Frick’s Japanese restaurant, Anderson always frames either Gary or his mother between Frick and his Japanese wife. As the white, American Frick imitates a Japanese accent, speaking gibberish meant to sound as if it’s Japanese, the audience sees Gary covering his mouth in the background of the frame. Anderson literally frames the scene as one meant for comedic effect. Magnolia faced similar criticism for its paucity of racial diversity, especially for a narrative taking place in the Valley. Anderson retorted that the film “was meant to be ‘a representation of spending a couple of days in the Valley; that’s how much colour would come into your life’” (p. 32). Warren underscores Anderson’s tone deafness around whitewashing the Valley and the narratives of his films, but he also does not play armchair psychologist to the reasons why this is so. Rather, Warren let’s Anderson speak for himself, however misinformed he appears to be. While Warren’s analysis of Anderson’s work is always careful, and, thus, caring, he never succumbs to sycophancy. 

The word apocryphal comes from the Latin apocryphus “secret, of doubtful authenticity, uncanonical.” Anderson’s filmography recurrently demonstrates an anachronistic (for 21st century audiences) approach to race, gender, and sexuality, as evidenced by Warren’s book. Yet, while Warren diligently sifts through copious interviews, original screenplays, and audience reception to Anderson’s oeuvre, he is ultimately, by and large, unwilling to take a definitive stance on the political ramifications of Anderson’s narrative and formal choices. In bell hooks’ essay “The Oppositional Gaze” she writes, “The ‘gaze’ has always been political in my life.”3 For Anderson, the ability to eschew and sidestep the politics of representation is a privilege he recurrently flaunts. As an Indiewood icon, Anderson joins a bevy of white male directors like Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, and David Fincher indebted to the careers of New Hollywood white male directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman. 

To wit, in Anderson’s foreword to the book Altman on Altman he claims, “‘There’s nothing that hasn’t been done’ is true – as long as we agree that Bob did it first” (p. 46). As Warren writes, Anderson’s assertion “place[s] Altman in a curiously apocryphal light, positioning the New Hollywood era as the generative point for what we now consider filmmaking” (p. 46). In other words, Anderson has a propensity to both rewrite history, as well as the history of cinema. Though Warren goes on to say that Anderson admittedly cites other earlier directors such as Godard and Kurosawa as influences, Warren allows that Anderson’s quotation in Altman on Altman may “preserve the notion that white male narcissism and ennui [as] central to the soul of American cinephilia” (p. 46). While engagingly well-written and researched, I still believe The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson: American Apocrypha might be a more compelling text if Warren assertively assumed a central position in respect to Anderson’s narrative and formal choices. Does Anderson perpetuate white male narcissism or productively complicate it? I would like to definitively know what Warren thinks Anderson’s filmography ultimately says. 

Despite his antics as a breakout director in the ‘90s, his dearth of racial diversity, and his muddled, if problematic, approaches to female and queer characters, Warren suggests that Anderson is a director who fully imbues his diegetic worlds’ with quirks, verve, and vitality. Through an equally attentive look at Anderson’s tenuous relationship to studios, box office profits, and audience reception, Warren argues that remaining on the outskirts of the popular or profitable has perhaps allowed Anderson to pursue an ever-entertaining apocryphal approach to historical events and characters. Love him or hate him, Anderson does not yet know, as he once prophesied, how to do everything, but he does continue to contribute to 21st century cinema in ways that will divide, incite, and delight audiences for years to come. 

Ethan Warren, The Cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson: American Apocrypha (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023).


  1. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), p. 1.
  2. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, Sue Thornham, ed. (New York: New York University Press, 1999), p. 63.
  3. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 115.