Song of the Lark: Paul Thomas Anderson's "Junun"

Paul Thomas Anderson's new film is unlike almost any documentary ever made about recorded music.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

Whether intentionally or not, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have spent the last 15 or so years doing his darnedest to avoid being pigeonholed as “the next such-and-such,” to the point that the bulk of his career could probably be plotted out as a series of evasive and flanking maneuvers. What used to be most identifiable characteristics of his style—whip pans, Scorsese-isms, extended Steadicam and handheld shots—are now a thing of the past; the only things that have remained consistent are his superb direction of actors, attentiveness to the craft of making celluloid images, and tendency to tackle themes that are generally described as “big” and “American.”

It makes sense, then, that Anderson’s latest should be a documentary, shot digitally in India on equipment small enough to fit in a carry-on bag, where five minutes will pass without as much as a spoken word. Running under an hour long and framed with a bare minimum of context, Junun documents the recording of the Shye Ben Tzur album of the same title, on which the Israeli musician was joined by Anderson’s regular composer, Jonny Greenwood, and a slew of Indian musicians in a makeshift studio space set up inside a 15th century fortress overlooking the blue-painted city of Jodhpur. It’s a modest work by a director whose features are usually greeted as cultural events, and, in its own peculiar way, it’s unlike almost any documentary ever made about recorded music. 

You see, the interesting and maybe even remarkable thing about Junun is that it’s about the invisible of music—i.e. the composing, rehearsing, recording—but is constructed like a stage-bound concert film, free of the frustration and catharsis that defines insider-y behind-the-scenes documentaries. (Anderson claims it was inspired Bert Stern’s Newport Jazz Festival documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which, oddly enough, looks more like a latter-day Paul Thomas Anderson movie than Junun does.) The musicians and recording engineers here are always doing something—chasing away pigeons, cleaning mustaches and teeth, picking noses, tuning instruments, gesturing to each other silently—but the music itself almost never stops. In lieu of the usual build-up of people working and working until a song comes out in a moment of genius, Junun presents what could be called a holistic vision of music-making. There is no cut-off point that separates the music from all the fusses and last-minute changes that happen behind it.

This ethos extends to the filmmaking, too, because Junun is a documentary where the camera is always being re-positioned or adjusted on-the-fly—a movie about the work that goes into making music that is also, in a sly way, about the work that goes into framing shots. Sure, the much-discussed 700-or-so degree pan that opens the movie effectively underscores the communal vibe of the recording sessions, but it also stops about two-thirds of the way through so that Anderson can fine-tune the focus. (It takes him an agonizingly long time.) In another revealing moment, camera and tripod are picked up and carried to frame a closer shot; a cut to another angle reveals the presence of a second operator, meaning that the re-framing could’ve easily been edited out, but wasn’t, because the re-framing is sort of the point. There are God's-eye-view aerial drone shots, mostly focused on the fortress' pigeons and on the geometries of its architecture—but even in these, the drone's remote operator is often visible, like an squiggly signature in the corner of the frame.

There are plenty of beautiful recording sessions and shots in Junun, but no perfect ones—and that’s the movie’s take on creativity in a nutshell. In a way, it brings to mind Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, in which ramshackle political skits and magazine covers are cryptically interspersed with what's still some of the best footage ever filmed of a band at work. Godard's original plan was that the final version of the title song would never be heard, with the Rolling Stones serving as an image of perpetual revolution, locked in a permanent cycle of adaptation and variation. Anderson’s ends are different, though. The filmmaker has been playing fast and loose with American myth for going on three features (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice), and here, he takes a subtle swipe at a myth that’s very important to the culture of American film, and probably held a lot of personal significance for the onetime director of showily intricate camera movements: the myth of nailing it on the 100th take, and of process as just a lead-up to perfection.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Junun is now playing on MUBI through November 7, 2015.

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