Word Salad on PTA, Licorice Pizza, and Secretly Unhappy Endings

The three main stars of Licorice Pizza: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, and running. Lots of running.

Last week I went to the theater and saw Licorice Pizza with some friends. After our viewing we all gathered in the lobby, where we caught up on our personal lives and bantered about the film.

One friend asked me:

“So, what do you think the title meant?”

She affixed her question quickly with her own theory: that licorice and pizza are these two incompatible things, evoking this more general feeling of contradiction that she felt was threaded throughout the film.

I tried my hardest to stifle my cinephilic snobbery. In very distinct cases, I cannot stand these questions of what I “thought” of any such-and-such aspect of a film. Cinema, especially when produced for tens-of-millions of dollars, is an incredibly elaborate and collaborative art form. It depends on precise scheduling and intensive coordination between different departments of artists and engineers. Often times, but not always, film is intentional–everything is plotted precisely and accordingly. In such instances, it’s not up to me to have an opinion or an idea or a guess as to what something could mean. I’m not supposed to think, I’m supposed to know.

I responded casually (but also, very likely, highly haughtily in my confidence) that “licorice pizza” referred to a venue in old LA. That was also part roller-rink. It was featured in the film. I think. I may have read it on the Internet.

Of course, anyone actually aware of the truth would know that I was close, but still wrong. Licorice Pizza was a chain of record stores dotted across the greater Los Angeles area back in the day, its name coming from an earlier turn of phrase that, should they fail commercially, a music LP could at least be marketed as a “licorice pizza,” given its texture and shape.

But I don’t think this little bit of context helps to answer my friend’s question, and explaining it out in writing here and now doesn’t at all speak to my rule of films-as-intention quite just yet. Worded another way, maybe the heart of my friend’s question was:

Why do you think the film is titled the way it is?”

And it is a fair question. Granted I’ve only seen the film just the once, but I don’t recall ever seeing an old Licorice Pizza location once during, and I don’t remember anyone ever even touching an old vinyl.

So, I did some digging. I wish I could tell you that my research depended on a highly developed academic and journalistic investigative method, but it was just as easy as typing in “Paul Thomas Anderson Licorice Pizza Interview” into my YouTube search bar.

I found this Q&A that the director took part in along with the film’s stars, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. Anderson answers the question to the film’s title simply:

He doesn’t know why. Because it reminds him of his youth.

And that’s a fine enough reason to have, even if it doesn’t abide to my principle that so many aspects of a film are deliberate things. Like I said, this doesn’t always have to be the case, and such sentiments are certainly a part of Anderson’s M.O., where in separate interviews the writer-director has called it a “mistake” for filmmakers to concern themselves so heavily with themes.

Rather than try to deliver any sort of ideological message from the outset of a film, Anderson would rather that they “emerge” from the story and develop naturally. This is an unsurprising view for Anderson to hold, as the ultimate lesson of what could be considered his most moralistic film to date, There Will be Blood, could be reduced to a statement as simple as “greed is bad.”

Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a strong performance in the otherwise morally uninteresting There Will be Blood.

That is, of course, a fairly uncharitable interpretation, and speaks nothing to the film’s achievement in music, cinematography, production value, and direction for what may very well be the greatest performance of Daniel Day-Lewis’ career.

No, perhaps Anderson isn’t all that interested in providing some new, nuanced statement on human behavior through his work–and that’s fine. It can be appreciated for other reasons. A Paul Thomas Anderson film is less concerned with educating or enlightening an audience, than it is with engaging and entertaining them. If anything, a lack of any concrete moral stances presented in the films are a way of opening them up more to audiences, generating discussion and intellectual and cultural enrichment in their own way, that the best of art is always hoping to do.

Being away from Licorice Pizza as long as I have now, it’s a pretty good sign that I’m still thinking about it. Unfortunately, it isn’t for the most positive of reasons. Rather than enduring in my mind as some exemplar of art, there is a part of it that is lingering, like a bad taste in my mouth.

Licorice Pizza is the story of Alana Kane (Haim), a 25 year-old woman who strikes a friendship with 15 year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Hoffman). Valentine pines for Alana straight from Pizza’s beginning, and while she (quite reasonably) turns down his advances, she nevertheless teams with Gary on a variety of the young go-getter’s ventures and schemes.

I liked the film well enough. It is a story of frustration, unrequited love, always trying in earnest, and suffering through the crippling self-awareness that too often pairs with journeys of self-discovery.

But most of all, it’s a story about how the ’70s sucked.

This was a decade of exploitative power structures, unsustainable economic arrangements, racism and sexism (both casual and professional), and of just plain, general ignorance. And, as depicted through the framing of Licorice Pizza, it was primarily that way because of the idiot adults that were left to run the show.

Let’s take it all from Alana’s perspective. At home, her relationship with her all adult family is emotionally turbulent, with her borderline verbally abusive father on one extreme, and the cold, uncaring aloofness of her sisters and mother on the other. Seeing out any opportunity that Gary can provide her with, she witnesses the physically violent temper of a has-been actress and the unacceptable accent-imitation of a white, male Japanese restaurant owner. She encounters first-hand the delusions of an aging actor, the passive-aggressive insults of a talent agent, and the menacing come-ons of a certain Beverly Hills personality totally out of his mind.

Sean Penn as Jack Holden with Alana Haim as Alana Kane. Penn plays one of several unsavory adults that Alana crosses paths with on her journey of self-discovery.

It is no wonder then, at the film’s end, after realizing the compromised morality of a closeted gay and personal favorite politician, Alana retreats from adulthood by reconciling with Gary, returning his feelings and admitting her love for him. Gary’s optimism and spirit are a product of his youth. That is what Alana clings to, and as they run off together it is no doubt what she hopes to bring into their shared future. My problem with this ending simply being this:

Is Gary really all that much better than the adults?

Don’t get me wrong, Gary is certainly a charismatic young man with a handsome sense of ambition. It’s just that he’s also incredibly sexist and I think his attraction to Alana isn’t very respectful of her emotional needs. It’s implied that Gary wrote the line in the restaurant ad describing the waitresses as “dolls”; he hires out a woman solely to user her body to advertise his water bed business; does the same to Alana when they open up a brick-and-mortar; and demands that Alana “be sexy” to close a deal, though she could have any other way.

Really, the only time Gary dismisses the rampant oversexualization of women’s bodies prescient in his times is when he is whining that Alana has agreed to go topless in order to secure acting gigs. He’s not mad about abuse of women’s bodily autonomy, he’s jealous that Alana hasn’t yet bore her chest to him. It’s creepy and possessive.

Part of the reason why so many of the adults in Licorice Pizza suck so much is because they’ve brought their past with them. Sean Penn’s Jack Holden speaks about previous roles as if he had actually lived them. Bradley Cooper’s Jon Peters comments that his dangerous lust for women has persisted since he was a boy. Christine Ebersole’s Lucy Doolittle strikes Gary, demanding that she recognize “who she is,” when really what she means is “who she was.” They carry into the present these outdated notions and misinformed senses of self. Their behavior was learned somewhere, and has up to this point been tolerated. Likewise, very rarely is Gary challenged for his own shortcomings.

Though, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Running to Alana’s aid when she falls from the motorcycle speaks volumes to this true moral center. Writing when I did of all the failings of the ’70s just a few paragraphs above, it was not lost on me that these problems remain 50 years later. I’d like to think they’ve gotten better. I’d like to think that they will diminish to eradication, rather than continue asymptotically for all eternity.

That’s it. That’s all I have to say. I don’t really know where I wanted to go with this. I guess that’s just up to you to decide.

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