After two sprawling epics, director Paul Thomas Anderson took it down a notch and came along with a small and low-key romantic comedy called Punch-Drunk Love. The film centers around Barry Egan, a thirty-something basket-case who leads a dull life. During the day he tries to sell toilet plungers, while at night he desperately seeks deep conversations with sex hotline workers. He is emotionally unstable and trapped in his little world of borderline, crying fits, and a deep-seated longing for a significant other. Until one day, an unexpected encounter turns his life upside down…
I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with me because I don’t know how other people are.
Broken down to the basics Punch-Drunk Love is basically a film about mental illness and how sometimes only love can heal you and make you strong enough to face your inner demons.
P. T. Anderson has once again worked with his regular composer Jon Brion. The score was produced while the film was still being shot and the music was partially played on set for the actors to respond to. Brion underscored Barry’s inner turmults with chaotic rhythm sections, noise literally, which only gets relief every now and then in the form of a rather unusual instrument called a “harmonium”. In both the film and the score, this quirky piano plays a major role, as it serves as a kind of emotional anchor for Barry, helping him to handle difficult situations that otherwise would push him over the edge.
I remember telling Paul, ‘There’s a funny sound these things make when you first open them up.’ What happens is the billows take in air, it’s like a first breath. It’s sort of like the thing coming alive. It’s an example of Paul being able to see the living analogy, make use of the living analogy.
In addition to music, the film relies heavily on colours and various styles of saturation and lighting. Like e.g. Barry walks around in a navy suit throughout the entire film. It seems like he only purchased it to distract from his red-faced persona, his occasional outbursts of anger. This blue shell symbolizes his emotional armor, which only begins to crackle when an adorable girl named Lena – coincidentally dressed in red – steps into his life.
P. T. Anderson intersperses these visual contrasts of blue and red over and over again across the entire film. The more Barry opens up, the more they gradually converge, giving way to a pastel pink. This is beautifully visualised by the abstract color-morphing projections by digital artist Jeremy Blake. These – I’ve read the term “art hallucinations” somewhere else – are bookmarking the film, but also interspersed throughout the plot whenever Barry experiences whirls of emotions, whether it is head-over-heels love or furious temper. They show key moments of the story in an abstract language of forms and colours, which allows the film to convey emotion in a direct, unfiltered way, without having to take into account the mundane imagery of reality.
I picked up on these colour schemes and used them as the basis for my custom covers collection. The official cover (#1) shows a key moment from the film, overlaid with a coat of paint. I replaced this coat with selected excerpts from Jeremy Blake’s work, creating several alternatives to choose from (#7 to #14).
Another part of the film serves as the basis for another one of my covers (#5, #6). The story involves a subplot revolving around Barry who discovers a loophole in a food company’s discount promotion that allows him to get frequent-flyer air miles for a fraction of the actual price. This leads to him buying loads and loads of pudding (since it’s the cheapest product within that promotion) and stockpiling it in his business warehouse.
It’s actually a real-life story of a man called David Phillips who managed to earn 1,253,000 frequent flyer miles just by buying Healthy Choice pudding.
During my research, I came across this Punch-Drunk Love book design, and that gave me the idea to use the gift coupons as the inner record sleeve of an imaginary vinyl edition of the soundtrack. It would be really fun to see who would go so far as to cut up the paper sleeve just to get the equivalent of 240 free airline miles. Would you?