Decoding “Licorice Pizza” (With an Epilogue)

When I say “this phase,” I think Anderson’s filmography thus far has a dividing line, with Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood on either side. Starting with Blood, Anderson stopped making movies set in his own day and age and turned to the past, along with whatever it could tell us about the present and future. Moreover, as Anderson got obsessed with 70mm, his canvas opened up into something grander, a way to find the epic even within the quotidian.

The first three films Anderson made in this phase have all aged brilliantly, for better or for worse. In each of them, he highlighted without preachiness or moralizing a social ill, and his choices only hit home more and more when considering all that’s happened to the world since he released the last one in 2014. There Will Be Blood is about the destruction and moral degradation wrought by unfettered capitalism. The Master, the human susceptibility to charismatic individuals and cults that promise to give you all the answers and success you want in life and the ultimate soulless emptiness you find. And Inherent Vice, the pain of a society that makes everyone feels unmoored and aimless, and only some great personal urge can spark us out of our share of collective ennui.

(Writing the above paragraph felt waaaaay too close to home.)

Then in 2017, Anderson switched things up. Using the same epic style, he made Phantom Thread, a movie that zeroed in on a romantic relationship between two people. A bizarre relationship, one that by the time the film reached “the end” could come across as incomprehensible to the other characters in its universe, but which we understood was one in which both people gave and received exactly what they needed to fulfill themselves. And in having this story play out against his grand backdrops of 1950s London, Anderson made sure that Reynolds and Alma stood out as suitably empathetic protagonists, people who fit into and dominated the greatness around them.

This backdrop is important because in Licorice Pizza, the ideas of There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Inherent Vice have a head-on collision with the emphasis on the interpersonal relationship found in Phantom Thread, and in doing so, through the figures of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine and how they transform over the course of the movie, Anderson, I believe, finds a way, at least a first step, to resolving the conflicts and tensions of Blood/Master/Vice.

To begin with, one of the main ideas running through Licorice Pizza (pun intended) is that everyone in the story is projecting an image to one degree or another. It may be an image rooted in reality or not, and there are different motivations for why they do so, from trying to sell this concept of themselves or help them sell something else, to wanting to hide a part of themselves, to creating a general air of magnetism. But there’s a gap between the public image characters want to show most of the time and their full reality.

When Licorice Pizza opens, Alana Kane gives off the air of a person who is snappy at best and hostile at worse; she seems to openly despise or laugh at much of the world around, reflected in her language, peppered with sarcasm and swear words. (By the way, I’d listen to Alana Haim swear all day.) She shows little interest in anyone or anything. But the truth is that at age 25, Alana’s in something more than a quarterlife crisis; she still lives with her parents and sisters, stuck in Encino and an existence she don’t relish at all with no prospects on the horizon. However, while she hates her situation, she’s also not taking any noticeable steps to change or escape it. This is not a critique of Alana’s character, because, like so many people, including this writer at several times in his past, she feels there’s not a point to it and that any such step would change nothing because she herself isn’t interesting or capable.

Then she accepts Gary’s invitation to dinner, I think because of the lightning that flies between them in their first meeting, which prompts her to say yes because she’s curious about what would happen. That saying “yes” to something unexpected is the shot in the arm for Alana.

More than one writer has compared Gary and Alana’s relationship to that of Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell in The Master, and there’s a surface-level truth to that in how Gary opens up Alana’s world to so many possibilities. But it’s not the best analogy because Alana never shows the submissive devotion to Gary that Freddie does to Lancaster, especially so by the film’s final third.

What’s important is the nature of what Alana does with the path she stumbles upon thanks to meeting Gary. It’s twofold. First, she starts taking chances and trying all sorts of new things. Initially these things are linked to Gary; becoming his right-hand woman in the waterbed business, trying to launch an acting career with a powerhouse confidence she hasn’t shown before, and, in the film’s most exciting sequence, driving that truck down the hill with no gas so they can escape from Jon Peters’s mansion. It’s heroic. But then we see the way Anderson films the aftermath. While Gary and his younger friends celebrate, Alana looks close to a breakdown. It’s in that moment she realizes that the near-fatal truck run is a metaphor for most of her life thus far, a careening in which she’s barely steering her own ship and in the end may come to nothing. So even though her time on the Joel Wachs campaign disappoints for extraneous reasons, it’s also her actively choosing a field for herself, and moreover finding she’s really good at it! What other avenues, she must now wonder, could she excel in?

Second, Alana’s world of new pursuits leads her into entanglements with other men, and she discovers each of them, despite their success, is capable of being ridiculous or causing pain in one way or another. Lance, the colleague of Gary’s whom Alana briefly has a relationship with, cannot connect or ingratiate himself with others due to his self-centeredness. Similarly, when Alana auditions for a starring role opposite Jack Holden (who is really an Oscar-winning actor of the same last name), she is flattered that he asks her out, only to find that he’s an alcoholic show-off uninterested in her and eager to talk about his past adventures, ultimately showing no concern for her. Jon Peters is a man of arrogant bravado who is so aggressive it becomes cartoonish. And Joel Wachs, who attracts Alana with his progressive politics, is someone willing to lie and hurt those closest to him to advance his career.

XXX

One of the things which my friend Sarah Welch-Larson said to me about Licorice Pizza, a film she also judged to be special,was that everyone has a problem with it and those problems are different. I would be remiss writing about this film without discussing some of the main problems, not to excuse them but to understand them.

What shatters Alana’s perception of and attraction to Joel Wachs, to the point that she turns down an advance the film says she would have otherwise accepted from her besotten colleague Brian, is her getting asked to help Joel out personally, only to find her assignment is to be the beard for his partner Matthew. Alana ends up having a moment of mutual empathy with a deeply hurt Matthew. The real Joel Wachs is gay and eventually became an advocate for gay rights, but the way Anderson depicts this scene feels overly cruel. I think the point is that narratively, Alana perceives that Joel isn’t any better than the other people she’s met along the way and it’s important for her to not be in fealty to anyone, but there were specific choices made regarding how to do that when other alternatives were probably out there.

XXX

Anyway, at the film’s end, Alana still doesn’t know what her place in the world is yet, but she does know, in a way she didn’t before, that she possesses multiple talents and abilities, and that she can stand toe to toe, or even higher, in terms of action and character with people who have achieved success. She’s ready, even eager for a future.

At the same time, Gary Valentine, in living out his picaresque narrative, is maturing as well.

Although Gary is only 15, he is leveraging his modicum of fame as a child actor and his mother’s small PR firm into a business career. In the world where everyone projects an image, Gary’s is the most persistent, that of the smiling, utterly convincing figure who can get you to believe his venture will succeed, someone so convincing that the adults he seemingly is on close terms with all through the Valley take him seriously.

XXX

The worst sequence in Licorice Pizza, in my opinion, comes when Anderson wants to draw a contrast between Gary, who is fiercely loyal to his family and friends through every stage of his career, and one of those adults, Jerry Frick, the very picture of an unappealing, exploitative businessman. Not a bad idea. But the entire “joke” is built around Asian stereotypes and mockery…Jerry marries two different Japanese women and can’t speak the language as he opens up a Japanese restaurant…that’s all but impossible to swallow.

XXX

With all that said, Gary is also well aware he’s putting up an image, and combined with the aforementioned devotion to those closest to him AND his unwillingness to lie about himself makes him an attractive character. Very few people who’ve written about this movie point out what I believe is the crucial scene. Gary, his waterbed business in shambles and his acting career a thing of the past, goes to work on the Wachs campaign with Alana until he learns from Wachs that Los Angeles County has now legalized pinball. Boom! The waterbed store becomes an arcade and Gary buys up coin-op machines left and right. When Alana discovers this and confronts him that he’s not committed to the cause the way she is, Gary flat out says that this is who he is: at his heart his goal is to make his own success and do so on his own terms, terms Alana understands better than anyone. This sparks what almost becomes a true rupture between them, but it’s also something Alana remembers by the film’s end, when everyone else has lied to and disappointed her in one way or another.

And what Gary realizes, for me, ties into the one-scene appearance of Rex Blau, a film director based on Mark Robson (who in the real-life timeline was about to direct the blockbuster Earthquake…and he’s also played by Tom Waits, which is the best). Rex is in his sixties but he possesses Gary’s magnetism, his ability to walk into an environment and draw attention and excitement to himself. Like Gary, nothing seems fake about Rex. He’s eccentric, funny, comes up with ideas on the spot, and the cinematic language says that people know him and genuinely like him.

Gary’s maturity comes from figuring out he needs those kind of people in his life, now and for all time. Anderson in interviews describes Gary as someone who gets enthusiastic about an idea for fifteen minutes and then switches to the next big thing; a typical teenager. And there’s no sign that he’ll stick to one idea for life just yet. But the profound sadness and desperation that flickers on Cooper Hoffman’s face as the Pinball Palace has a truly grand opening night, the most successful thing he’s ever done, tells him that some businesses and projects may come and go, but people who know the real him and will constantly be there for him is what truly can round him out.

All of the above leads to the final piece of this puzzle: Alana and Gary’s relationship.

The movie initially presents the idea of Gary being attracted to Alana deeply, her turning him down on that front, and their becoming friends…

XXX

Most infamously, Licorice Pizza is centered around a connection between a 15 year-old and a 25 year-old, and moreover that said relationship keeps introducing romantic and even sexual notes. (One of the key moments from the trailer is Alana showing Gary her breasts.) I cannot tell you why Anderson makes this choice. I’ve seen multiple theories on why the age difference is there, none of which suggest it’s cool, all of which attempt to justify its existence. I’m not sure. I think an entire essay could be written about that alone.

XXX

But Anderson doesn’t make things that simple because the emotional bond between them becomes something neither can deny to themselves but…again, putting up an image…they won’t admit to the other person, in part because of the age difference, in part because of their both fumbling towards a deeper maturity and figuring out how to say it. Instead, they launch a cycle of both of them paying attention to other people in an attempt to make the other jealous, then reconnecting and expressing themselves in a purely physical/sexual yet not especially emotional manner, as if on a dare, and it frequently being something neither of them deep down really want, and then reestablishing the friendship before the cycle resumes.

What they really want is expressed in the soundtrack. A lot of people have seen the trailer which uses David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” a song perfectly used in the film to represent a step into the unknown. But there’s so many other key uses of music that represent their inability to communicate on this necessary level. There’s needledrops of songs which are about trying and failing to say what you want to say, from Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” to Paul McCartney and Wings’s “Let Me Roll It” (which Lauren Wilford wrote about in her amazing, crucial Letterboxd entry for this film). And there’s Jonny Greenwood’s aching, longing theme music.

Finally, with minutes to go, Alana and Gary come to the conclusion that knowing each other has changed them for the better, and things have to be done and said. What’s done…the entire film has the motif of them running, running to stave off disaster, to get to each other, to together eagerly escape another bizarre situation. Now, they make a last run without any idea where the other is, Anderson cutting back to earlier runs in the edit, until they finally collide outside a theater showing Live and Let Die: a title that suggests some things in them will be put away in the name of them living fuller, better existences. And the whole movie ends with them, in cascading slow motion, happily running to somewhere new, and the words “I love you” actually get said.

“All you need is love” is a horrible sentiment. Love alone isn’t enough to save the world. But to love someone and to know you are loved, to be fully seen and adored for who you are and to fully see someone else, is an act of selflessness that can make you into someone new, someone who can go up against the selfish capitalists and the single-minded figures of deceit, someone without ennui but with self-esteem and purpose. And that kind of person can save the world, which may well be why after not initially “getting” Licorice Pizza, I knew it was pulling at every one of my heartstrings.

A FINAL NOTE

Since I began writing this, I have gotten to see half of the Best Picture nominees for this year, specifically the half that got corresponding Best Director nominations. The five films all present very different styles and approaches. Kenneth Branagh does a great job shooting from a classical approach with every frame judged to be as within a proscenium arch, with his eye for detail arrangement and shot variety excellent…his film is the worst of the nominees because Branagh the screenwriter is less than half as good as Branagh the director. Ryusuke Hamaguchi makes a long, lingering, meditative story, taking its time and creating an immersive world which draws out our emotions by so firmly putting us in the place of his characters. Steven Spielberg, an unparalleled master of both craft and heart, used his talents for the first time ever to make a full musical with all the color, spectacle, and widescreen framing to make a tour-de-force. And the best director this year, Jane Campion, made a picture that effortlessly switched between the epic and the intimate, creating moods better than any other filmmaker this year, and used visual language to tell even more of a story than she’d already brilliantly put on the page.

Where does this leave Anderson? I would say what makes Anderson stand out is that, for his impeccable 70mm eye, this film doesn’t feel planned. So much of it gives the impression of footage caught on the fly, the camera just barely able to keep up, and that helps make it special.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s