Since 2014’s somewhat-impromptu production of the short performance piece VALENTINE, director Paul Thomas Anderson and the all-female rock band Haim have forged a unique and ever-unpredictable creative partnership. The pairing has produced a half-dozen music videos, each more idiosyncratic and surprising than the last. As a result, Anderson has become enmeshed in Haim’s music far beyond the production of their promotional videos; the photograph of the Haim sisters behind the counter at Canter’s Deli that adorns the key art for their album “Women in Music Part III” was taken by Anderson himself, and he’s often one of the first outside parties to hear their new material— even before their own label does (1). It’s easy to see why these two huge forces are so eager to collaborate: Haim benefits from the unparalleled visual sensibilities of a world-class filmmaker, and Anderson gets the low-stakes opportunity to drop the formal rigeurs of feature production, able to experiment with new ideas that sharpen and refresh his storytelling. As evidenced by SUMMER GIRL’s embrace of no-permit, guerilla-style shooting on the busiest blocks of Ventura Boulevard (1), these music videos have effectively become a college drop-out’s informal return to film school, with all the dynamism and vitality that implies.
NOW I’M IN IT (2019)
From 2019 to 2020, Anderson would embark on a rapid-fire series of four Haim videos, all from “Women in Music Part III”. In the process, a consistent format has emerged in that these videos aren’t exactly planned; they typically begin with Anderson and the Haim sisters spitballing ideas, settling on a loose framework, venturing out to shoot it in a day or two and then releasing it to the public… all within the span of a single work week (1). The first entry in this particular quartet, “NOW I’M IN IT”, is a prime example, being frontwoman Danielle Haim’s buzzing musical expression of the difficulty inherent in keeping it all together in the face of spiraling depression and looming chaos. This translates into a semi-narrative vignette of a woman, played by Danielle herself, barely keeping her head above water as she stumbles through the grind of daily life. She drinks all night at the bar, then pulls herself together enough to leave at dawn and report to work at the diner across the street. Enter her two sisters, Este and Alana, all sharp edges behind impenetrable black shades and underneath slick coats; they whisk Danielle away from her malaise in a literal stretcher, jolting her back to life her former, vibrant self— if only for just the night.
Though the proceedings operate on the level of visual metaphor, Anderson roots the action in a palpable reality, choosing to shoot within the blocks surrounding Sunset Boulevard in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood (an area I’m quite familiar with, having spent every Saturday eating lunch at the now-closed Two Boots Pizza and having shopped for impromptu Halloween costumes in the vintage shop that features in the video). The grungy patina that distinguishes this section of town gives the piece a worn-down feel that is nonetheless buoyed by the everpresent California sun’s warm yellow glow and gorgeous rainbow gradient flares (likely achieved through the use of a vintage lens). Anderson’s camera favors medium close-ups, reinforcing his predilections for portraiture, while its floating movements suggest its subject’s detachment from her surroundings.
That Danielle delivers the video’s performance aspect in the middle of a car wash speaks to Anderson’s idiosyncratic storytelling sensibilities — a visual metaphor, perhaps, for how life’s daily grind can become all the more exhausting in the face of depression. The piece is also a prime example of what several media outlets like AV Club and Vanity Fair have characterized as “the walk”— the Haim sisters’ signature strut, performed in unison to convey an unapproachable cosmopolitan cool. Finally, “NOW I’M IN IT”’s grungy Echo Park setting helps to convey why Anderson and the Haim sisters’ are such an inspired creative pairing: these native Valley kids are electrified and animated by the sun-kissed light and cultural color of the Southland, and are able to redirect those inspirations into artistic, mainstream-askew expressions that are endlessly inventive and surprising.
A mere month after “NOW I’M IN IT” released online, Anderson and Haim would return with another video for the sisters’ elegiac ballad “HALLELUJAH”. Shot entirely within downtown’s shuttered Los Angeles theater, the video uses simple stagecraft to conjure a minimalist, yet poignant aura. Anderson’s camera wanders the empty auditorium and shadowy backstage areas, long since closed to the public but kept frozen in spookily immaculate condition, all the while tracking the Haim sisters as they perform a melancholy, subdued song about the unique bonds of sisterhood.
The piece serves as an opportunity for Anderson to experiment with semi-magical techniques, be it as rudimentary as miming the pulling of an invisible rope or the “real” magic of seeing the sisters levitating mid-air in invisible chairs. Whip pans and dolly work thread each vignette together into a gentle flow of images that speak to Anderson’s impeccable technical pedigree and innate sense of musicality. The chosen location’s historical context brings added richness to the piece, building on Anderson’s career-long exploration of Californian landscapes to include downtown LA’s once-storied Broadway theater district, forever closed to adoring audiences and left to wallow in neglectful darkness. In choosing this particular theater, complete with the outside marquee blinking back to uncertain life, Anderson hammers home the song’s message of renewal and familial strength as embodied by the Haim sisters’ unique bond.
HAIM: “THE STEPS” (2020)
Released in March of 2020 just as the uncertainty of the pandemic was beginning to take hold, Anderson’s next piece for Haim takes on “THE STEPS”, capturing the seductive chaos that serves as the band’s trademark. In an interesting twist, Anderson co-directs with Danielle, spinning a loose vignette that finds the sisters not so much getting ready for the day as they are confronting it. The handheld camera struggles to maintain a razor-thin plane of focus as the sisters rage against their morning routine, angrily smearing lipstick across the mirror and flinging clothing about.
Fittingly, the video’s technical precision is a tangle of contradictions: an inconsistent grain field implies the usage of Super 16mm film in some (if not all) sections, even as the remainder boasts a clean, possibly-digital look; the 2.35:1 aspect ratio associated with epic widescreen vistas has the opposite effect here, constraining the sisters into their cramped apartment; the otherwise crisp light of a sunny Valley day is deadened by pale cloud cover. The sisters frequently appear through framing prisms, like the aforementioned mirror smeared with lipstick, refusing to be seen directly by the audience so as to not be defined by us.
The piece culminates in Danielle finding a semblance of catharsis in playing the drums, channeling the aggression she’s feeling into productive release. The music gives meaning to the daily grind, providing the strength necessary to go through it all again the next day.
HAIM: “MAN FROM THE MAGAZINE” (2020)
An inspired piece for Haim’s track “MAN FROM THE MAGAZINE” rounds out this concentrated series of music videos, embodying Anderson’s innate proclivity for innovation in the art form. The song is structured as Danielle’s withering internal monologue after an episode of casual sexism on the part of a male reporter conducting an interview. Keeping in line with the improvisational nature of Anderson and Haim’s collaborations, the video was reportedly shot on a whim at Canter’s Deli on the same day the album cover was shot.
The resulting video, interestingly enough, de-emphasizes the song itself in order to position it as a kind of stream-of-consciousness expression mumbled under Danielle’s breath as she begrudgingly slings sandwiches behind the counter — subject to the leering stares of the various male patrons. The minimalist nature of the video speaks to this seizure of spur-of-the-moment inspiration; the technique is organic and the aesthetic unassuming. The sound mix favors the clattering ambience of the deli over the actual track, imbuing the 2.35:1 frame with grit and weight.
Of all his videos for Haim, “MAN FROM THE MAGAZINE” feels the most like Anderson’s feature work; the California native’s past renderings of his hometown are reflected in the lived-in, locals-only vibe he projects onto the Canter’s Deli backdrop, while his coverage zeroes in with a laser-focus on alternating closeups so as to hold us firmly within Danielle’s interior perspective with a vise-like grip. The simmering exchange between her inner monologue and her oblivious customers recalls the battle of the sexes fought throughout PHANTOM THREAD, while reinforcing the song’s illumination of the ingrained misogyny inherent to the music industry.
Anderson’s forays into music videos differs from other directors in that the artists he collaborates with are intimately connected to his feature creative endeavors to some degree. His string of videos for Fiona Apple in the late 90’s might have been due more so to their personal romantic relationship, but it’s hard to see how she wouldn’t have inspired his writing from the period. Joanna Newsom’s appearance as an ethereal narrator in INHERENT VICE informs the nature of his subsequent videos for her own songs, while a handful of pieces made for Radiohead can be attributed to Anderson’s repeated collaborations with guitarist Jonny Greenwood as the composer for his latter-day features. The half-dozen videos that Anderson has produced with the Haim sisters arguably stand as his strongest short-form work because of their shared roots; their collaborations seem so effortless because they are vibrating to the same creative frequencies.
It was only a matter of time until the Haim ladies found their way into his features, with their appearance in his 2021 film LICORICE PIZZA being an organic inclusion. Indeed, this string of music videos no doubt helped to inspire LICORICE PIZZA’s writing; both are celebrations of the San Fernando Valley’s sun-soaked idiosyncrasies, fueled by an affectionate nostalgia for the 1970’s that Anderson imbues with his own lived experience and the Haim sisters derive their aesthetic and musical inspiration from. Beyond their value as a promotional tool for Haim’s third studio album, these videos brilliantly serve their additional purpose, which is to provide a playground for Anderson to experiment and field-test the visual ideas that would transform his subsequent feature into a vibrant, immersive, and unforgettable portrait of his own formative years.