The production of INHERENT VICE in 2014 begat a particularly strong working partnership between director Paul Thomas Anderson and cast member Joanna Newsom, who played the film’s ethereal narrator. The momentum of that collaboration spilled over into Newsom’s other career as a singer / songwriter as she prepared to release a new album titled “Divers”. She recruited Anderson to helm the video for the album’s first single “SAPOKANIKAN” (2015), and when it came time to make the video for the album’s title track “DIVERS” (2015), Anderson again provided his services. With this development, Anderson and Newsom had seemed to cement a platonic version of the creative partnership he shared with former flame Fiona Apple in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Whereas the video for “SAPOKANIKAN” was quite improvisational in its use of handheld location shooting and natural light, “DIVERS” takes the opposite tack, opting for an ultra-controlled and disciplined execution. The video was filmed at the New York City studio of abstract artist Kim Keever, whose particular aesthetic gives the video its central idea. Anderson places Newsom center-frame amidst a fantastical miniature mountainscape, lit to resemble a baroque Romantic-era painting. As the piece plays, Anderson slowly– almost imperceptibly– pulls the camera back to reveal more of the landscape, while brightly-colored clouds blossom in the sky. At this point, we realize that the visual trickery is all occurring in-camera– Anderson is shooting through the prism of an aquarium with perfectly-still water, and the beautiful, ethereal cloud-blooming effect is actually colored sand being poured into it.
After the relative stylistic anonymity that marked “SAPOKANIKAN” and his India-set music documentary JUNUN (2015), “DIVERS” finds Anderson returning to familiar thematic territory. The fascination with portraiture that marked THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) and THE MASTER (2012) is front and center here, with Anderson’s choice to focus on the close-up contours of Newsom’s facial features acting as an echo of the mountains that surround her. The decision to use Keevers’ expressionistic aesthetic recalls Anderson’s collaboration with the late digital artist Jeremy Blake on PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s painterly interludes, further establishing the director’s appreciation for the work of artists across other visual mediums.
In keeping with Anderson’s lifelong defiance of convention, “DIVERS” received an unconventional rollout for a music video. Whereas most are now simply released into the online ether and supported by writeups from a handful of tastemaking music blogs, this particular music video instead premiered in local arthouse theaters throughout New York City, only making its online debut after a brief period of exclusivity. Reaction to the video was mostly positive, with many lavishing praise on Anderson’s stunning visuals and unique approach.
At the time of this writing (April 2016), it’s currently unknown what Anderson’s next directorial effort will be. For a while, he was attached to write and direct a new live-action adaptation of the classic fable PINOCCHIO, which undoubtedly would have been an interesting take to say the least. The stylistic experimentation and embrace of chaos that’s shaped his most recent output leaves us perplexed and unsure what his next move will be– which is exactly where the unpredictable auteur would have us be. It’s hard to believe that the boy wonder who took American independent cinema by storm is now a middle-aged man approaching 50, a fact that only makes his staggering accomplishments in the intervening few decades that much more astonishing. Whatever comes next, it will be sure to intrigue, inspire, surprise, and shock us– and it will further establish Anderson himself as one of the most vital and important filmmakers of our time.
JOANNA NEWSOM: “DIVERS” is currently available in high definition via the Youtube embed above.