This is the sixth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.
Paul Thomas Anderson always seems to want to lead us somewhere, and when
we finish his films, we always feel like we've arrived, but we're
generally not sure where, or why we were headed that way in the first
place. Sometimes, to see the shape of a journey, you have to return to
its beginning. This is especially true of the auteurist career of someone like Anderson, who summed up his directorial
mission in the plot of his very first film, for anyone who had the
patience to perceive it at the time.
That's the anatomy of revelation... you seek some sort of benevolent outcome, or some spiritual validation... the where and the why. But ultimately, the revelation is buried deep in the process, which works its obscure influence upon the pilgrim in ways initially unforseen. The Hierophant is the shepherd of this process, the bridge between the human and the divine. He is a force of conservatism and duality, of knowledge and insight, but sometimes of deception.
Anderson's films have been more and more about the how: the process, the events themselves. In There Will Be Blood, the finale was harrowing, a sort of zen of evil (find God by destroying the one held over your head). In The Master, the climax is so understated as to be counterclimactic; the only way to see the film without frustrating yourself is to find some meaning in the events themselves. Freddie's journey is an endless fight against his own nature, which he perpetually loses, failing to dominate his own impulses; if he is led to any God, it is by sabotaging his relationship with his savior and accepting his own depravity and perversion. In making this journey, of course, Freddie unmasks his own hierophant, Lancaster, as an opportunist whose cause is but a pretense.
Each of Anderson's films, in turn, can all be read as a series of trials, a succession of destructions and rebirths of the protagonist. They don't build evenly, and they aren't anticipated by some formula of timing; each exacts its own particular changes in the main character. Each protagonist eventually passes their series of tests and becomes a sort of patron saint of their own destiny: the corrupt oilman, the wild wandering neutoric, or the porn star.
As I said before, it's that last one that gives the clearest blueprint of Anderson's vision. Boogie Nights, PT Anderson's first major film, was another story of trials and deaths and rebirths, but its stage was pornography, and its conclusion was much more explicit (har har): the tale of a pilgrim who finally found his God, the cock, in a dressing room mirror.