Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun (2015)

Notable Festivals: New York Film Festival

From the outside perspective of American culture, India is often regarded as a faraway land of personal and creative rediscovery.  Many American artists have made the journey in a bid to escape the confines of Anglo-Saxon cultural values as well as their own individual stylistic paradigms– Wes Anderson did it with 2007’s THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and Danny Boyle followed swiftly after with the Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008).  Following the ambivalent reception of his 2014 feature INHERENT VICE, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson made the journey himself, tagging along with his regular composer (and Radiohead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood as he embarked on an ambitious concept album called “Junun”.  In a way, the trip was a chance for Anderson to repay the creative debt he owed to Greenwood, whose eclectic musical taste had played a crucial role in the director’s mid-career stylistic reinvention.  

The resulting work, 2015’s JUNUN, is notable within Anderson’s filmography for several reasons, chief among them being that it is his first documentary as well as his first substantial foray into the digital video format.  The central conceit of the piece traces Greenwood’s creation and recording of the album in collaboration with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and local brass ensemble The Rajasthan Express.  The music, recorded inside of the ancient Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur, takes its inspiration from a variety of Eastern influences and customs while blending in a combination of spoken languages like Hindi, Hebrew and Urdu, as well as hints of Radiohead’s post-modern sound via Greenwood’s avant-garde touch.   The 1.85:1 HD presentation is relatively unadorned and naturalistic, perhaps even a little lo-fi looking– apparently, a more polished visual presentation was planned, but Anderson’s camera gear was held up by customs and he had to make do with his own personal camera and one of his producer’s drones. Thankfully, we live in a golden age of DSLR cinematography, so Anderson’s consumer camera set-up proves more than capable at capturing the majestic grit of the ancient environs or the stunning character of the light– be it either dusty daylight or amber-soaked candlelight.  Anderson operates the camera himself, taking his cues from the cinema verite documentary style pioneered by D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers.  He alternates between locked-off tripod shots that studiously observe Greenwood and Company’s creative process, and shot-from-the-hip handheld shots that grab fleeting unplanned images in a bid to establish a sense of temporal immediacy and impermanence.  As befitting a documentary about the process of creation, Anderson makes no effort to obscure his own process– on-the-fly ISO changes, various repositions of his tripod and compositions, and even his own off-camera voice prompts are left intact within the final edit.  He also incorporates newer documentary techniques like timelapse footage and economically-achieved aerials via the aforementioned drone.        

JUNUN is utterly devoid of most of Anderson’s signature stylistic traits as a director, arguably a case of the director exercising gracious restraint so as not to overpower his regular composer’s own creative message.  Indeed, the presence of Greenwood in the first place is the most visible signifier of Anderson’s participation.  His long fascination with the cultural significance of the video format, last explored in 1999’s MAGNOLIA, reappears in JUNUN not as critique or commentary, but simply as an acquisition format chosen for the needs of the shoot.  Beyond that, there’s only fleeting instances that bear the imprint of Anderson’s idiosyncratic vision: the brief appearance of a harmonium calling back to PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002), or the frequent cutaways to a pigeon watching from the rafters that serve to highlight the director’s inherent mischievousness.  

Though little seen by audiences at large, JUNUN was well-received by critics.  After the film’s debut at the 2015 New York Film Festival, Anderson embraced the emergent market of digital distribution, releasing it exclusively on the social film site Mubi before making it available on iTunes.  By bypassing traditional markets, he was able to access his rabid fan base directly, and more immediately satiate their hunger for new work.  JUNUN stands on its own merits as an intriguing insight into the creative process behind an admittedly fantastic album, but the question remains: how exactly does it fit into Anderson’s continual evolution as a cinematic artist?  From a technical standpoint, the film seems to follow a precedent set by INHERENT VICE, which saw Anderson turn away from the restrained formalism that marked THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER, finding new inspiration in chaos and spontaneity.  However, there’s a profound emotional shift also unfolding here– the joy that Greenwood and his collaborators achieve while recording in ancient surroundings approaches an altered state of mind– the act of creation and travel is a transcendent experience for them.  Whereas INHERENT VICE’s characters achieved enlightenment with chemicals and substances, JUNUN’s high is purely natural.  Anderson can’t help but be dosed by the infectious rapture of his collaborators, and as a result, delivers a lively meditation on creation and culture that expands his own artistic horizons far beyond the Californian landscape that so profoundly shaped his previous worldview.

JUNUN is currently available as a high definition digital download via iTunes.