Paul Thomas Anderson’s SHORT WORKS (2002-2006)

After the release of 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, director Paul Thomas Anderson embarked on a little hiatus from feature filmmaking that would last for five years. While he decided on what he wanted to develop as his next project, he took on several small-scale projects to keep his skills sharp and his creativity active.


Several of Anderson’s works from this period are conceptually supplemental to PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and his collaboration with Adam Sandler. When tasked to find a purpose for his feature’s deleted material, Anderson decided to forego the conventional route of including them as DVD bonus content. Instead, he whipped several of his leftover elements into a self-contained mood piece called BLOSSOMS & BLOOD. The piece is an artfully-blended mash of deleted scenes, video artist Jeremy Blake’s animated paintings, and the music video for composer Jon Brion’s single “Here We Go”. BLOSSOMS & BLOOD utilizes flares of color and light, as well as a disorienting, experimental sound mix to reflect the abstractly-whimsical tone of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. Freed from the demands of feature-length storytelling, Anderson is able to crank this particular aesthetic into overdrive, giving us a glimpse into Barry Egan’s inner madness and rapture.


The production of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE spurred another set of works for Anderson, and while they are tangentially influenced by the feature, they aren’t as directly intertwined with it as BLOSSOMS & BLOOD is. In 2002, the internet was just beginning to take off as a forum for short-form video exhibition. Anderson, perhaps consciously or not, took advantage of this nascent technology by releasing a trio of very small sketches based around a singular, slap-sticky joke.

The first, MATTRESS MAN, sees the late Philip Seymour Hoffman reprise his sleazeball character from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE filming a commercial for his mattress retail business. The piece is filmed in analog video to emulate the homegrown, lo-fi nature of regional retailer commercials. Aside from being hilariously entertaining in the span of a single minute,MATTRESS MAN is valuable within Anderson’s body of work in that it continues his exploration of video as a medium. Whereas MAGNOLIA’s (1999) Frank TJ Mackey character employed slick, well-lit video to sell his “Seduce & Destroy” technique, MATTRESS MAN shows us how in a different set of hands, video can come off as inept and clumsy.


The second piece from this period is BALLCHEWER, which also appears to have been shot during the production ofPUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. It features Anderson regular Luis Guzman and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s Emily Watson interacting with a pitbull. Curiously, this piece looks to have been shot on film in Anderson’s signature anamorphic aspect ratio, leading one to believe it might have been shot on a lark at the end of one of the feature’s shooting days. The punchline toBALLCHEWER is oblique and a little muddy, making it the weakest of the trio.

COUCH (2002)

The third and final film of the trio, COUCH, continues Anderson’s collaboration with Adam Sandler, who plays a man trying out new furniture at his own peril. The piece is shot in black and white, and told mostly in silence except for exaggerated sound effects. None of Sandler’s restraint or nuance from PUNCH-DRUNK-LOVE is present here. Instead, Anderson lets Sandler go full-on clown mode, creating a dynamic that feels distinctly out of place with Anderson’s aesthetic.

Together, these three sketches form a triptych exploring the fine line between lowbrow slapstick and highbrow art—a conceptual investigation whose promise Anderson ultimately mined better in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.

DEMO JAIL (2006)

Anderson was largely absent from the scene during 2003-2005. His first child (with comedienne Maya Rudolph) was born in 2005, and the same year he served as the standby director on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, directed by his hero Robert Altman (who was ailing in health and was obligated to hire someone to replace him in the event of his death for insurance purposes). Needless to say, big things were happening in his life that necessitated a short break from his career.

By 2006, Anderson’s productivity began picking back up, beginning with a short sketch he directed for (the short-lived) THE SHOWBIZ SHOW WITH DAVID SPADE called DEMO JAIL. The piece riffs on an old joke within the entertainment industry—that of the wanna-be who forces his awful demo on an established and successful friend. David Spade naturally plays the successful friend, who is trapped inside his intern’s car and forced to listen to the same terrible song again and again.

Shot on video, the sketch itself isn’t particularly good, with nothing in its execution to suggest Anderson’s hand. All in all, it’s rather forgettable, but it does serve as a warning shot for Anderson’s career comeback the following year with his staggering epic, THERE WILL BE BLOOD.