Omelette à la Alma | Phantom Thread riff



Rambling Preamble 

Phantom Thread (2017) is the eighth feature film by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. I have been a fan of Anderson’s work since I saw Boogie Nights (1997) in my freshman year of college, and have watched each of his subsequent films in the theater. The theater is the proper place to watch Anderson’s lush, luscious films, although they are also so strong as narratives that they hold up just fine on, say, a 19″ Toshiba television with a built-in VCR, which is how I repeatedly watched Blockbuster-remaindered cassettes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (1999) circa 1998-2001. But again: The theater is the proper place to see an Anderson film, and Phantom Thread is exceptionally lovely on the big screen—one doesn’t so much watch it as imbibe it, or perhaps, in a reversal of that metaphor, sink into it. What I’m saying is: Watch Phantom Thread in the theater.

Is “Watch it in the theater” not enough in the way of argument, reader? Perhaps you want, like, details?

Here are some details I knew going in to the film (I generally try to avoid reviews and any press on any film I plan to see): The film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis portraying a fashion designer; the film is set sometime in the 1950s.

My wife and I went to see the film yesterday afternoon and we loved it, then discussed it at length at dinner, and then again this morning over breakfast (perhaps prompted by “breakfast” itself, one of the film’s motifs). It’s a strange, beautiful, perplexing romantic comedy that will disarm and unsettle audiences. I can’t wait to see it again.

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The Plot and the Major Characters

1950s. London and countryside environs. Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a famous fashion designer who dresses the highest of high in European society. He and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) run the House of Woodcock, following a precise, obsessive routine. At the film’s outset, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a countryside restaurant. He asks her to dinner that night, and from there the two enter into a strange relationship. The film’s trajectory explores the conflicts and confluences of that strange relationship, tracing how Reynolds’ and Alma’s romance intertwines with Cyril, business, design, and art. (Oh. And Reynolds’ and Cyril’s dead mother).

Cinematography, Score, Costume Design and Set Design

Gorgeous. Like I said, go see the film—the aesthetics are marvelous, rich, sumptuous. I’ve been writing about Paul Thomas Anderson as an auteur (and will continue to do so), but his production team is fantastic, and I think there’s an implicit argument in Phantom Thread itself against the whole auteur concept. (If you listen to or read interviews with Anderson, he will often use the pronoun “We” when discussing his work).

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Phantom Thread’s Place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Filmography

Phantom Thread might be Anderson’s “best” film to date: it is certainly one of the best-acted, best-shot, and best-directed, and its editing and pace move with a more precise rhythm than his looser and more sprawling films. I loved it, but it’s not necessarily my favorite Anderson film. If pressed to choose a favorite, I might point to the weird sprawl of Inherent Vice (2014) or the perfect imperfection of The Master (2012)—or just settle on There Will Be Blood (2007). Many Anderson fans point to Anderson’s shortest film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) as his best.

In some ways, Phantom Thread has more in common with Punch-Drunk Love than his other films. They are both romantic comedies featuring emotionally-challenged leads who find their way to a strange resolution. In any case, Phantom Thread is an engaging character study focused on just a few intense personalities—like The MasterPunch-Drunk Love, or There Will Be Blood. It’s more focused in its vision than Boogie Nights or Magnolia, and more emotionally “true” than Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight (1996). Those first three films seem to me particularly beholden to Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, but Phantom Thread continues to show Anderson overcoming his anxiety of influence. (Although I’ll admit that I was occasionally reminded of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993) while watching Phantom Thread—probably because of the luxuriant imagery. And Daniel Day-Lewis. Anderson’s film is superior).

The Goddamn Movie Trailer

The discussion of the film that follows contains spoilers, including descriptions of the film’s ending 

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Every animal, after coition, is sad.



From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. I’ve found the book indispensable for years now—its discursiveness is a lunatic joy to get lost in. Anyway, the above passages extend/unwind from the root ap/apo; I found it while looking up the eytmology of poseur.

Please Unplease Me: A Review of Laura Frost’s The Problem With Pleasure

First, I want to get a bad joke out of the way: it seems cruelly apt to review a scholarly text titled The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (Columbia UP 2013), especially one, while passionate and provocative, that may preclude pleasure for the casual reader. To be expected from a scholarly text, hence the bad joke, but Frost’s study of the vicissitudes of modernist unpleasure performs its argument quite well — The arrays of Unpleasure found in this book do delight and prod the reader in its investigations of everything from stalwart modernist topoi to perfume and farts. Frost’s mission, in her own words, is to “present the interwar debate about pleasure and the rise of unpleasure … as a new way of defining literary modernism more capaciously” (14). Frost wants to collapse the schism between the two divergent interwar poles of “high” and “low” culture and their shared mission to re-stabilize the shocked and distended interwar subject. Frost’s contribution to her field isn’t quite revolutionary, but the methods in which she ties the affect of text and media on the body is pressing and important, and carries weight outside the academy. For it is not simply that the “high” modernists wanted its world to repudiate fast & easy entertainment to engage with the post-World War One space. Rather, they wanted their readers to engage with pleasure in a different key — unpleasure. Seeing the beginnings of literary modernism with the more inclusive Unpleasure rather than Eliotian disdain or Poundian militancy allows us to see how literary modernists not only critiqued vernacular entertainment, but how  Jean Rhys, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley were themselves subject to mass cultural motifs in their own texts.  “High” and “low” culture were not as mutually exclusive as previously thought, Frost asserts, and the interwar period set the stage for our current moment of pleasure, cultural division, and technological innovation considerably more than we think.

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A Riff-Report on Elisabeth Sheffield’s Fort Da: A Report

First steps in my Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and the exponentially more crushing and debilitating fear it would produce each step I took outside of my apartment, required morning chats with my brain. As in: “Brain, when I go out there today, you’re going to make me think when I see y. I know you’re going to do that, and expect it”–and here’s the worst part of it–“so bring it on.” I still do it. And it helps. And the silliness of that last phrase hasn’t left. Maybe because of pride, or because it does offer some small affirmation that OCD is distinct from me or, instinctively, “I” feel all therapy is fundamentally justification and posturing. But a necessary justification and posturing nonetheless. This might also apply to literature, criticism, philosophy, art, etc. Bernhard: “When one thinks of death, everything is ridiculous.” Kraszhnahorkai, in an interview with The White Review, says, “there is no medicine.” Just because there is no medicine does not mean that we can not strive for medicine, even if that medicine is “there is no medicine.”

Alternatively, I might try something that the narrator/character/subject/patient/object Rosemarie Romeo Ramee from Elisabeth Sheffield’s novel/report/study/apologia Fort Da: a report (FC2) employs. “Disguised” as a report on her “affair” with a pre-adolescent/pubescent Cypriot boy named Aslan, Ramee confesses and searches for understanding and empathy by externalizing her self, “RR,” in a supposed strict description of the events to a Ms. Wall, who we learn was RR’s AP English 12 instructor. We begin at the end of RR’s story, writing from some where that’s part-prison, part-clinic, with legal prosecution waiting for her. RR’s “account” of the ways in which she sexually, emotionally and physically consumed Aslan is dissociating the “I” away from her own constructions of Self. (For more on this, I recommend Michael W. Clune’s fantastic essay on Beckett and Bernhard at NonSite). My therapist suggested a similar approach. In not so many words, he said “write out your trauma as if it were a play, like stage directions.” But in the attempt to objectify and externalize an ostensible past iteration of my self, at least to Ramee,  presupposes failure.

For we know at this stage in evolution, the amygdala has a greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on the amygdala–allowing emotional arousal dominate and control thinking. A person doesn’t want to be unreasonable, but feeling is a variable that cannot be discounted. // Another is the nature of memory. The inherent inexactitude of the internal record of external events–this must be acknowledged. Yes it must be acknowledged that the neuronal record of reality is selective, if not capricious, a spotty chronicle at best. … Also, it must be conceded that an illness such as cerebral malaria can diminish the reliability of the record even further, smearing the ink, so to speak, deleting entire pages. … Therefore, this account will probably fail as an etiology–the sequence of cause and effect being incomplete. Nevertheless, it will be as rigorous as possible. And she will try not to cry. (19-20).

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Derrida’s Terror

“I Want a Third Pill” — Slavoj Žižek on The Matrix, Fantasy, Sexuality, and Video Games

Siri Hustvedt’s Living, Thinking, Looking (Book Acquired, 5.15.2012)


The whole point of these books acquired posts is to try to document interesting stuff that comes in before it winds up in my pile for months (to put things in perspective, I got a reader copy of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son back in January, and have finally gotten around to reading it just now). I usually spend a week or two looking over the book, maybe  publish a blurb or an excerpt of the book along with a photo, and then file it in one of three stacks — now, later, or never. Anyway, Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays Living, Thinking, Looking ended up never getting stacked anywhere, because I kept going back to it, poking into her essays on Goya, Gerhard Richter, Freud, reading her riff on sleeping, which somehow synthesizes Macbeth and Nabokov and REM science, pausing over her consideration of the Bush admin’s rhetoric. I haven’t finished the book but I will. Hustvedt combines her keen intellect with a range of ideas to explore her subjects (primarily, if the title didn’t tip you, living, thinking, looking). There’s a lot of lit here, a lot of psych, and plenty of art. Good stuff.

Slavoj Žižek Uses Norman Bates’s House in Psycho to Illustrate Id, Ego, and Superego (Because Why Wouldn’t He?)

Kate Beaton Explains Psychoanalysis at Hark! A Vagrant

Kate Beaton’s take on psychoanalysis. From Hark! A Vagrant.

See the Trailer for A Dangerous Method: David Cronenberg Does Freud and Jung

“It Comes Straight from Freud” — Tom McCarthy Talks about His Novel C

The National Post profiles Tom McCarthy about his new novel C. Here are a few choice lines from McCarthy–

  • “I think the historical thing is a red herring. I don’t see C as a historical novel. I see it as completely contemporary. It’s about media and our relation to media and to emerging new media and to networks.”
  • “It comes straight from Freud. Trauma is the condition of our identity. Trauma is the most basic condition of our existence.”
  • “It’s a dual trauma, Serge’s seduction by Sophie his sister and then the loss of the sister.”
  • “The way I got the idea with the book was I had a long-standing fascination with this movie by Jean Cocteau, Orphée, his retelling of the Orpheus myth.”
  • “Orpheus in this movie interfaces with the underworld via a radio and what he picks up are the voices of the dead poets.”

From Cocteau’s Orphée–

On Kindness — Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

On Kindness seeks to answer why “It is now generally assumed that people are basically selfish and that fellow feeling is either a weakness or a luxury or a more sophisticated form of selfishness.” Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor quickly demonstrate that up until the “so-called dawn of modernity” in the Enlightenment, people simply believed themselves to be naturally kind. The advent of the ideals of self-reliance and independence (along with the appeals of aggressive mercantile capitalism) led to a zeitgeist–one that still exists–in which kindness is a form or weakness, or a type of duty, like philanthropy, that negates its own purity. In short, Phillips and Taylor point to a general feeling that real kindness might not exist–and then argue, quite convincingly, against this general feeling.

The book’s second chapter, “A Short History of Kindness” outlines the philosophy and social practice of kindness from the time of Seneca through to Freud. Phillips and Taylor choose Jean-Jacques Rousseau as their champion, with Thomas Hobbes (and his famous dictum of bellum omnium contra omnes) as a recurring villain. But it’s Freud who dramatically problematizes modern attitudes toward kindness, with the radical idea that “aggression itself can be a form of kindness; that when aggression isn’t envious rage or the revenge born of humiliation, it contains the wish for a more intimate exchange, a profounder, more unsettling kindness between people. In short, psychoanalysis makes sentimentality and nostalgia, not hatred, the enemies of kindness.” This complicates the relationships between children and parents; psychoanalysis renders kindness unnatural. The resulting confusion leaves us open to the idea that acts of kindness might leave us radically exposed or otherwise in harm’s way. Even worse, modern society elevates and idealizes kindness into “a virtue so difficult to sustain that only the magically good can manage it” — this “destroys people’s faith in real or ordinary kindness.” But, Phillips and Taylor want to assure us, real and ordinary kindness does exist. “We depend on each other not just for our survival but for our very being,” they argue in their final chapter. “The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.” So, what are the solutions? Philips and Taylor clearly argue that the pleasures of kindness they advocate cannot stem from “moral superiority or domineering beneficence or the protection racket of good feelings. Nor are acts of kindness to be seen as acts of will or effort or moral resolution.” Instead, our authors argue for “a revived awareness of something that is already felt and known.”

On Kindness is a compact, tightly-wound tract of 114 pages that can be read quickly by a general audience, but nevertheless takes some time to digest. Picador’s trade paperback edition (new this month) is handsome and small enough to fit into a cargo pocket, purse, or beach bag. It seems of a piece with Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series, erudite works that consider big subjects without ever falling into traps of academic solipsism. Recommended.