Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few American filmmakers about whom it can be said that the release of their new film is an event – at least among cinephiles. With the release of The Master, due on September 14, cinephiles have something to look forward to. It is also occasion to look back at Anderson’s career and how his reputation was cemented.

Surely part of the anticipation of a new PT Anderson film is due to the fact that he’s made so few. Over a roughly fifteen-year career, The Master will be only his sixth film (compared to, say, Michael Bay, who started out in films around the same time as Anderson and has made ten). Of course the real credit is due to the films themselves, for Anderson is also one of the few American filmmakers with a distinct and unique voice. He’s already racked up five Academy Awards nominations and while he may be polarizing – people seem to either revere him as a wunderkind or find him bloated and pretentious – his films are never less than interesting.

Anderson’s first film is Hard Eight, a character study of two men – Sydney (played by Philip Baker Hall) and John (played by John C. Reilly) who form a father-son relationship as Sydney teaches John the ropes of gambling. As John comes into his own, he gets mixed up with some bad people and has to rely on Sydney to help him out, leaving Sydney at risk of John finding Sydney’s dark secret. That’s a not great description for what is a great movie. When I first saw it, I remember being struck by how sure of itself the film was. It has all the hallmarks of what would come to define Anderson’s style – a more formalist approach of long takes and slower pacing, as well as an emphasis on character over plot. Hard Eight borrows elements from standard genre fare (such as the crime thriller) and elevates them into something all its own.

If Hard Eight was evident of Anderson’s confidence as a filmmaker, his follow-up, Boogie Nights, was downright ballsy. Chronicling the rise and fall of a late 70s/early 80s era porn star (played by Mark Wahlberg) Boogie Nights is an ensemble piece with quadruple the cast of Hard Eight. Instead of taking baby steps, Anderson made a giant leap, and he pulls it off effortlessly – which is especially remarkable given the potentially difficult subject matter. The film made Wahlberg a movie star and also began the trend of Anderson basing his films on real people and events (in this case, a loose dramatization of John Holmes). The film is so meticulous in its details and each of the 20 or so characters are so clearly and specifically drawn, you’d think someone who was actually once in that world and of that era made the film. Alas, Anderson wasn’t even a teenager at that time, and he wasn’t even thirty when he made a second film that looked and felt like the work an older and much more experienced craftsman.

Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of Boogie Nights[/caption]For his third film, Magnolia, Anderson took a kind of side-step by going with another large ensemble piece, this time following several interwoven stories of lonely and disconnected people in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Again one has to admire Anderson’s commitment and ambition. Anderson opens the film with a narration of three stories of coincidence and then asks the viewer, over three hour later, to consider those stories again now that the film is over – with no clear connection between them. A disappointment in commercial and critical terms, Magnolia still has some enthusiastic supporters and is what began the debate of Anderson the genius vs. Anderson the blowhard.

Perhaps sensing some of the disappointment in Magnolia, Anderson went back to the character study roots of Hard Eight with his next film, Punch-Drunk Love. The film is probably best remembered for starring Adam Sandler in his first attempt at stretching his acting ability and trying something beyond his usual sophomoric humor. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a quick-fused loner who is constantly belittled by his sisters as he tries to find love, while also buying mass quantities of pudding in an effort to exploit a contest loophole to win frequent flyer miles. That’s another description that doesn’t really do the movie justice and also another example of Anderson using actual events (the pudding promo) as a basis for his film.  The film has a bit of a cult following and while it’s at least more cohesive than Magnolia, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag for non-Anderson aficionados.

Paul Thomas Anderson directing There Will Be Blood[/caption]To speculate again, this time perhaps sensing that he may have pulled in the reigns a bit too much for Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson went swinging for the fences yet again with his next film, There Will Be Blood. The film would garner Anderson his best critical and commercial success since Boogie Nights. Which is fitting since the two share some common traits. There Will Be Blood is another epic (as in three hours) rise and fall tale set in a bygone era, only this time it’s a morally corrupt oil tycoon in the early 1900s. Featuring a typically brilliant, if over the top, performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, the film got 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, as well as a win for Lewis as Best Actor. I personally found it overblown but it does prove that Anderson is an expert at creating character and mood and capturing a time and place.

All of which bodes well for Anderson’s upcoming film, The Master, which is allegedly based on L. Ron Hubbard and the rise of Scientology. While I am admittedly an Anderson skeptic, I join in the excitement for The Master’s release. The trailer looks great, and I know that Anderson is capable of greatness even if he doesn’t always reach it. Anderson is a rare and true talent, and as a cinephile I appreciate and applaud anyone who is attempting to do something different or is striving for something better – which Paul Thomas Anderson clearly does. So since it’s worth his trying, I think it’s worth our checking out.