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Jake Robertson: We Have Full Power Relaxing

On Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun, or, the Madness of Love.

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Image by Flickr user Craig Duffy

By Jake Robertson

Last week, after perturbing fans by quietly deleting its social media accounts, Radiohead released the second single of its much anticipated ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The video for the track “Daydreaming” is directed by the American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, and features front man Thom Yorke dawdling through cavernous industrial landscapes reminiscent of the steely matrixes of Jacques Tati, through middle class houses, and up winding staircases into stark western skies and a sun-bleached strand. The short film visits themes of alienation, seeking, and transcendence that are probed and developed, beautifully, in Anderson’s most recent feature, Junun, which, until last week’s video release, was his latest collaboration with composer and Radiohead lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood.

In early 2015, Anderson loaded up his camera gear and headed to Jodhpur, in northern India, to film Greenwood and the Israeli composer and musician Shye Ben Tzur as they recorded an album with around twenty other local musicians in the Mehrangarh Fort, a monolithic fifteenth-century structure that rises out of the desert plain like a hallucination. The resulting album, Junun, was released in December 2015. About a month before the album’s release, Anderson’s documentary premiered at the New York Film Festival. He granted a short interview to the emcee on an enormous stage in front of hundreds of film geeks and students, one of whom disobeyed warnings that recording devices were not allowed and posted a shaky cell phone video of the interview on YouTube. When the interviewer asks Anderson why he went to India to record his first documentary, he replies with a flip “Why not?” The audience loves this, and he proceeds to talk about other music documentaries he thought of while making the film (Jazz on a Summer’s Day) and the challenges of filming with drones (occasionally they crash). The whole affair is wrapped up in ten minutes and Anderson lopes off the stage in his tennis shoes. The film ran on the subscription-only online art house streaming movie site MUBI for a month after the New York screening and that, as far as I know, was it.

Anderson has a studied affability in interviews that belies the complexity and sometimes baffling poetry of his films. He has this matter-of-factness when describing the technical difficulties he encounters, from shooting to the frustrations of pre-production to his influences—it’s interesting stuff, and makes for good interviews, but he always dodges the questions that really nag his viewers—the un-askable stuff like “what does it mean?” He has the twinkle in his eye of a bright student who seems to know some really great secret that he is unwilling to tell. This obtuseness is understandable for an artist in a medium that relies on visual information, sound, and their relationship in time, rather than words, for most of its explication.

The man politely lifts his head and explains that the electricity has failed, as it often does in India, but reassures us as he drifts off, murmuring, into another reverie, “we have full power relaxing.”

When dealing with the press, one gets the sense that Anderson took a cue from one of his cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick, who (when he still talked to reporters before retreating to his England studios, never to be interviewed again) preferred to divert questions concerning content and meaning by discussing (with amazing erudition) the wider themes and questions he was interested in. When asked on the red carpet during the 1968 premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey why he made the film, Kubrick proceeded to answer in his dry Bronx accent, that, with 100 billion stars in our galaxy, and 100 billion galaxies estimated to exist in the known universe, the chance of advanced civilizations existing elsewhere in the cosmos was statistically very good. The point is that when Anderson, in the only interview I was able to find concerning Junun, says he went to India to make the film just because, the answer may be correct, but it is only a part of the story.

The first time we hear Paul Thomas Anderson’s voice in any of his films is in Junun, and it asks an unsurprising question: “Why aren’t we working?”

The north Indian drummer he addresses from behind the camera is stretched out on the floor, his eyes half focused. A shocking white moustache adorns his lip, suggesting the look of an avuncular sage. The stark noontime sun filters into the medieval seraglio appropriated as a makeshift recording studio for the musicians and technicians pattering about the room. He seems startled that the director is addressing him. Perhaps, in this snoozy, euphoric interlude between jam sessions, he is surprised to be addressed at all. The man politely lifts his head and explains that the electricity has failed, as it often does in India, but reassures us as he drifts off, murmuring, into another reverie, his hands tracing invisible echoes of the music made that day, “we have full power relaxing.”

Despite its lukewarm critical reception in the American press, Junun is an extraordinary film.

This is the seminal moment of the film and hints at a transformational moment during what may be reasonably called the midpoint of Anderson’s career. It is the moment that Anderson, the great artificer of a fictive, self-referential universe, engages a subject from behind the camera directly. It has the uncanny feel of a maker addressing his creation for the first time, a fitting turn for a director whose next feature is rumored to be a retelling of Pinocchio.

Despite its lukewarm critical reception in the American press, Junun is an extraordinary film, especially when considered within the context of Anderson’s wider oeuvre. It represents an exceptional number of firsts for Anderson: first foray into digital, first documentary, first film released exclusively online. All of this may seem totally normal judging by the short, summary press clips, and by Anderson’s own “yeah-we-just-picked-up-and-went-to-India” attitude in the interview chair onstage after the New York Film Festival screening in October, but it ignores a glaring fact: this film is in some ways totally, ineluctably different from anything the director has made before. At the same time, it is also a coherent and deeply felt elaboration of the themes, conflicts, and personal history that tie all of Anderson’s work together. It is a carefully constructed departure from his directorial modus operandi—a freeing, lyrical, musical flight to life and creation in the moment, deeply rooted in the director’s past work.

Junun opens with a call to prayer. The morning azan, sung, filters in from an unseen mosque with curls of gold drenched dust that illuminate the faded frescoes of the ancient seraglio. Johnny Greenwood and Shye Ben Tzur sit cross-legged with a few other musicians. The men are circled around an ornate stone room in the heart of the fort. They prepare to record an album. Persian rugs cover the floor and cords snake around jerry-built mikes and amps that gleam, alien beside the ancient wooden instruments resting silent in their laps. One guy fidgets and picks his nose. In the hands of another director, this halcyon moment might have been discarded, but since PTA is behind the lens, the moment plays out. In Anderson’s filmic world the mundane and the happenstance are shot through with significance because they are witnessed, and because they are expressions of latent historical and inner forces. Without this moment, it feels like the rest of the film could not happen. It is this mysterious sense of presence which is the hidden subject of the film. As in previous works, Anderson probes for the ghost in the machine, and shows us, emphatically, that the human soul emerges from the detritus and chaos of the everyday. In a frenetic time lapse we see production managers for the album and the film setting up recording equipment and cameras within the ancient chamber. The recording, and the film about the recording, a recording of a recording, are revealed from the start as constructed objects, a blend of tradition, experimentation, and technology. The soul of this film is its music, and to reveal this, Anderson often turns his attention to the pockets of time in between the music making, the bustling streets of Jodhpur below, and the peculiarities of place, legacy, and culture that surround the music but seem, strangely, in the moment of its making, exterior to it. This makes the galloping strands of melody that hover over the documentary seem all the more rarified, like a spiritual substance—a miracle raised from dust.

Anderson pays special attention to the subtext of history in this film, odd for a music documentary focused on a jam session.

It is a sort of miracle that Junun exists at all. The album blends the devotional Qawwali music of Sufi Islam, popular Indian brass, and bowed string instruments associated with the Manganiyar musicians of Rajasthan. The Mehrangarh Fort, formally a palace but now a museum, looms over the old city, the houses painted a nether-worldly blue. Concentric walls and gates still bear the scars of battles centuries prior, wrapping around the fort like the physical manifestations of ancestral memory. The memories are real. The descendants of Raja Ram Megwhal still live in the city. Megwhal was buried alive in the foundations of the fort to ensure the site would prove favorable after being cursed by a local hermit called the lord of birds, who was displaced from a cave on the site during its building. The film does not include these anecdotes, but Anderson offers a nod to this peculiar lore in a soaring drone sequence filmed on the roof of the fort. A man placates the feathered descendants of the lord of birds’ subjects by feeding them hunks of raw meat as a daily offering. He claims he is not afraid of the beasts. “I know them, and they know me,” he assures the unseen Anderson. On the MUBI credit page, where the musicians and their instruments are listed, this man is given a credit. His instrument: meat.

Anderson pays special attention to the subtext of history in this film, odd for a music documentary focused on a jam session, particularly one supposedly filmed as a gesture of thanks to Anderson’s frequent collaborator, Johnny Greenwood, who composed the brooding scores for several of Anderson’s films. The Guardian considered Junun an inadequate gesture of gratitude: “Given how fruitful and fascinating the collaboration has been between Anderson and Greenwood…this returned favour is a little disappointing. Anderson has brought much less personality and invention to this project than Greenwood gave to [Anderson’s] movies.” What this and several reviewers in the American press missed was that Junun is, first, all about the music—what is heard. The call to prayer at the start of the film insists on this. Azan is, after all, Arabic for “listen.”

Like other great director/composer duos, Anderson and Greenwood create cinematic landscapes that would be changed utterly by the removal of one of its aural or visual parts. This is the nature of talkies—sound is an integral element of the texture and the inner logic of the medium. Sound helps to smooth and link images edited together in a process called looping. A strong score provides not only accompaniment, but a large part of the emotional basis which embodies, not just comments on, the action and subtexts presented onscreen. In this way, Greenwood has been an extremely effective storytelling partner to Anderson. The dissonant strains of his score for There Will Be Blood trace the outer and inner landscapes the characters inhabit, and conjure the tensions and hatred that sustain the unquiet détente between them. The first tensile strikes of Greenwood’s score in the opening of The Master shunt us on in the wake of a Navy destroyer whose ripples and eddies embody the inner turmoil of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell. To call Junun an unfit compensation not only minimizes Greenwood’s enormous contribution to these films, it misses the point that the beating heart of Junun is the music, and that, unlike Anderson’s films, it could exist without its visual part (which it does, in the form of the album). Anderson continues to organize screenings of his movies with live orchestras accompanying the action. Anyone who doubts Anderson’s appreciation for the musical dimension of cinema should check out the documentary on the making of Magnolia, in which a younger Anderson literally jumps out of his chair when he hears the game show score for the first time. Anderson has even mentioned in interviews that the opening sequence of The Master did not come to him until he listened to what Greenwood had composed.

That said, Junun is more than simply a publicity reel thrown together by Anderson for his buddy during an Indian vacation. It is a rumination on the music that is made. Its content demonstrates a subtle thesis about the nature of art—that it emanates from people bound to history and to each other. In this way, Junun is not only a worthy document of the making of music rooted in a tradition of worship and humanity, it is subtly linked to the themes underlying all of Anderson’s work.

The misfit male protagonists of Anderson’s cinematic universe are all, in one way or other, in search of transcendence.

Qwaali, a form of Sufi devotional music, forms the historical basis of the Junun album. Every Abrahamic religion has its mystical sects, and for Islam, that is Sufism. Qwaali is performed as a kind of ecstatic worship, and was popularized in the twentieth century by performers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A peculiar category of Qwaali is the ghazal, or love song, which seems secular on its face, is concerned with the joys of drinking and separation from the beloved, but may be read as an extended metaphor for estrangement from God, and the soul’s yearning for return to communion with the divine.

The misfit male protagonists of Anderson’s cinematic universe are all, in one way or other, in search of transcendence. They attempt to achieve it in different ways, usual material—by becoming porn stars, by lying, by stealing, by inching across the desert in a rapacious search for oil, by collecting pudding tops, by joining cults, by killing. These damaged men are all missing something, and they endeavor to fill the void by transforming themselves, elevating themselves to some new plain of status or identity. All of Anderson’s tales take place in the United States, the center of global capitalism. These tales become myths of the everyman, of the American ego, and the void in the inner calculus of the system they live and dream in. To leftist readers, these characters’ dissatisfaction and desperate striving for personal transcendence points to some malfunction of the total system, to its material surplus and spiritual emptiness—to its empty promise of a great other, of happiness, satisfaction, or re-appropriated communion with the divine. Junun markedly leaves this milieu and the dialectics that haunt it behind. You may find hints of capitalist surplus as the keyboardist descends from the fort into town to get his instrument fixed at a scrap dealer, but this may also be a self-referential malapropism for Anderson’s own symbol—the harmonium in Punch Drunk Love which follows the retuning of Adam Sandler’s character’s psyche. Even Sandler’s character is only redeemed when he achieves that archetypal American dream: getting the girl. In Junun there is only the joy of the music’s making, and the sorrow of singing of that profound separation native to us all.

Perhaps the most interesting stylistic element of Junun is Anderson’s use of a camera-mounted drone. With it, he soars with the birds over the fort, which seems to possess a kind of total body and personality when viewed from the air. We see the way the chiseled stone emerges from the primordial cliffs, the way the people crawl and point to the camera from its walls, and even the speck of a skinny, greying director with the controls in his hands. The birds fly over, and we fly with them, Shye Ben Tzur’s effusive, insistent hamd, or praise of God, rollicking eternal with the drums.

Jake Robertson is a writer and freelance journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. He writes about food, film, literature, music, science and technology, travel, and culture.

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