HAIM Walkin' Here

On Paul Thomas Anderson and the Haim Sisters

Let me talk to you about Paul Thomas Anderson and the Haim sisters.

Paul Thomas Anderson is an excellent film director, and the Haim sisters—Este, Danielle, Alana—are an excellent rock band. They’re both from the San Fernando Valley. Alana is starring in Anderson’s new movie with the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman. (!!!!!!!!!!!!) And, since 2017, PTA has directed eight music videos for the band, including a short film called Valentine. Lots of directors have close collaborative relationships with individual musical artists—Melina Matsoukas has directed more than eight videos for Beyoncé, for instance—so, especially in the “visual album” era, it makes some degree of sense to think about these collected works together. That’s maybe even more the case for PTA and Haim, since most of Anderson’s music video attention recently has been focused on this one act (with a brief detour to this wonderful Thom Yorke short film, Anima) and since all these videos were made within a relatively tight span. PTA hasn’t made a feature since 2017, but he’s made eight aesthetically and thematically consistent music videos with Haim. That’s something.

Here are some of the things that happen in these videos:

The Haim sisters walk. They’re always walking! They walk down the street; they walk past each other; they walk in rhythm with each other. These videos are moving. The camera follows these women, but it does so playfully, knowingly. It walks with them. The sisters don’t always acknowledge the camera, but they bat it around, they pivot as it dances around them. And, likewise, it pivots when they dance around it, it makes room for them, it uncannily anticipates their movements, or it gets distracted and has to hustle to catch up.

But it’s more than just PTA Likes Tracking Shots (it is a little bit that). Anderson is rightfully famous for long tracking shots, following shots, walking shots. There are the technically spectacular ones like the three-minute steadicam shot at the beginning of Boogie Nights, but, even when it’s not conspicuous, his camera’s always walking. The centrality of this type of shot and the physical knowledge it asks the camera to articulate about its subject gives his films the visual hitch that makes them feel so cool and familiar. Anderson’s camera intimately knows the people it shoots. Most of the Haim videos are built on familiar—figurative—tracks like these.

Even in the studio scenes of Valentine, in which the three sisters are all tethered to their drum kits or microphones or sound booths, the camera floats around and through them, weaving the room together, mapping it and them in it. And when the camera can’t follow a body in space, PTA manufactures that motion. In the video for “Now I’m in It,” Danielle Haim faints on the street and wakes up on a stretcher being run around the city by her sisters. They prop her up on the track of a car wash, and the moving driveway carries her through. Keep it moving.

Only about half of the videos are “documentary,” in the generic sense. But the shared goal of all of them seems less to illustrate the songs than to document something about the sisters singing them. Sometimes choreography is about the display of skill and precision; sometimes it’s about something else. Not to take anything away from Haim as performers, but the choreography in their videos—of which there is a lot—is more viscerally about watching them take pleasure in nailing it a complicated routine than watching skilled dancers dance effortlessly. They are—as videos like “Night So Long” capture—absolutely riveting live stage musicians, but dancing only seems to be an amateur enthusiasm in their videos. We see them move in unison because their union, its telepathy and its effort, is interesting in and of itself. Their sisterly feel for each other—in sonic and physical space—is the documentary subject of all Anderson’s videos for them.

The videos are a fun watch overall. The “Little of Your Love” video, set in a line-dance bar, feels like a throwback to the discos of Boogie Nights but with a little of the older filmmaker’s deeper understanding of bodies and blur. Co-directed by Danielle Haim, the video for “The Steps”—which involves Este Haim defiantly eating a lipstick—is a kind of pop homage to the Martin Sheen tightie-whities mirror-punching scene from Apocalypse Now. And the fluidity and intimacy of the studio session in Valentine is a really softly resonant capture of collaboration.

One of the videos, though—“Hallelujah”—is really special. It’s spare, but, the other videos feel almost like sketches in comparison. One leans into excess, one leans into fluidity and calm, one leans into comedy, one tragedy. “Hallelujah” feels like a bare, clear visual statement in a way the others don’t.

The song, which is a non-album track, is a seventies singer-songwritery staple—more Cat Stevens than the Leonard Cohen title would suggest. It’s a personal song, each sister gets her own verse (Alana’s is about her best friend, who died at 20), and the musical focus above the acoustic guitar is on their harmony together in the chorus, which is quite lovely. The video, though.

It’s worth watching: here!

The video opens with Danielle singing and playing guitar solo on an empty stage in a theater. It’s earnest in a way we’re used to from both Haim and their director. As the lights come up, the camera slowly pushes in toward her, and we see Este seated, out of focus, in the background. A few seconds in, though, Este swipes her hand through the air, the way a magician or a witch would casting a rote spell, and the camera pans to spin around Danielle. For Este’s verse, she sits on a chair that rolls backward—a very literal dolly shot—propelled only by an invisible rope Danielle (now out of focus) pantomimes pulling. At Este’s lyric, “Now and then, I can lean my back to yours / Travelin’ like our feet don’t touch the floor,” Anderson cuts to the two sisters back to back, floating over the stage. There’s sort of a Leslie speaker filter on the harmony vocal on that line that gives it a shimmering, eerie effect—the song’s produced by the great Rostam Batmanglij—that matches the stunning composition of their levitation. It is, like the frogs in Magnolia or the hallucinations in The Master, a matter-of-fact slap of supernatural possibility. It’s one of my favorite frames I’ve seen in the past few years anywhere.

Danielle turns lights off with a snap of her fingers. She and Este draw stage curtains closed with a gesture. And Alana, singing her verse about her lost friend, walks out over the empty seats. Haim x PTA is magic.

I’m on record as being a sucker for Paul Thomas Anderson, the music of Haim, and small tears in the fabric of cinematic reality. So, this video is very much for me. But there’s an emotional attention to small elements of craft—the director’s logic for their camera’s movement, the simple and effective stage effects, the musicians’ facility at turning acts of tribute into hooks, the producer’s light vocal touch—in this video that makes me return to it over and over. It’s a video about movement and being moved, about the inseparable affective register of art practice. The camera walks with the subject, is there for the subject, is in step with the subject. A tracking shot is a feeling. Stay with me.

Finally Started // Away (Netflix)

This is a series about an astronaut on the first manned mission to Mars—played by Hilary Swank—and the family she leaves behind for three years on Earth. It’s produced by Jason Katims (of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), so you’ll cry a lot. Swank is absolutely incredible, and Josh Charles (Sports Night’s Dan Rydell and Will Gardner on THE GOOOOOOOOOOD WIIIIIIIIIIIIFE) has a whole lot to work with. I hope he takes a big bite out of this role.

Flagging // Dark (Netflix)

Just taking a breather between seasons 1 and 2, really, but, while I have you here: you should read Namrata Verghese’s terrific essay about whiteness and time travel in Dark. “Because everyone looks the same, anybody could conceivably be anybody.” [head explosion emoji]

Finally Finished // I May Destroy You (HBO)

Holy moly. There is so so so much to say about this series—much of which you should look forward to the great Rebecca Wanzo saying next week in a certain Review of Books from Los Angeles—but, there’s an episode in this series that introduces the main character’s mother. She doesn’t have a ton of lines, and it’s not even a standalone episode entirely about her. But writer Michaela Coel and Michelle Greenidge (the actress who plays her mom) build this character so deftly and with such economy. It’s not a big performance or a bravura one, but, when Coel trusts the final shot of the episode to Greenidge alone, the emotional weight of it is a miracle. I’ve said it before, but there are things this show does that I just cannot believe it is doing. Watch this as fast as you can.

Recommendations //

Lots to love over these past few weeks. But I’ll start with a topical throwback: Hunter Harris wrote the definitive profile of Haim earlier this year.

Roxana Hadadi on the sad boy astronauts of Ad Astra just blows the walls off of that movie.

Jane Hu on new Mulan!

This is the essay I’ve always wanted Jay Caspian Kang to write about the NBA.

I am a very big fan of group biographies. That’s maybe dadly of me, or maybe it’s psychotic. But Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents—about Anne Sexton, Tillie Olsen, and friends at the Radcliffe Institute—is one of the best I’ve ever read. Sentence by sentence, it’s a joy to read.

Ed Yong is great. You don’t need me to tell you that, but this recent piece about the U.S. COVID response is as good as you’ve been told.

I mean, they’re popular for a reason, but I have to stump for two modern classics of board bookery that are absolutely lighting it up for Phoebe (who’s one year old): Sandra Boynton’s Happy Hippo, Angry Duck and Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry’s Little Blue Truck. Beep beep beep.

And my friend Dave Alff wrote about watching trains and living in the Rust Belt and being, you know, alive right now, for Avidly.

In Philadelphia, there’s a thing called “butter cake,” which is a short, gooey thing with a kind of crackly crust on top, but that’s not solely the regional food item I want to discuss today. In St. Louis, there’s a thing called “gooey butter cake.” There are differences between these cakes, despite the similar name. Inasmuch as it includes neither cream cheese nor weaponized yellow cake mix, you could maybe describe the Philly variant as more austere. Seven years ago, when we first moved to STL, we stopped at a coffee shop on the way to a party and decided to purchase one of these cakes as a host gift (and also to try it for the first time ourselves). I pointed at one of the cakes on the bottom shelf of the display and said, “Can we get one of those butter cakes, please?” The barista replied, “I’m sorry, what?” To which I replied, “A butter cake. Could we get one of those please?” “A what?” I pointed again and said, “Could we please get a butter cake from the bottom of the display?” The barista gave me a quizzical look, bent down to the display, jolted upright and said, “Oh, you mean a gooey butter cake?” Yes, reader, I did mean that. I was born in a city where putting french fries on a sandwich—more on that later—is a signature culinary trademark, so I promise I’m not being snobby about this. But look, I don’t know in advance if it’s gooey. It’s called “duck à l'orange,” not, “succulent duck à l'orange.” I’ll be the judge of whether this butter cake is gooey or not.

This is not much of a complex recipe, but I have to recommend making smash burgers. It’s so much fun, it’s so simple, it makes me happy, Maeve calls them “slam patties,” and even though she won’t eat them, she helps me smash, or slam, them on the griddle. This is a good tutorial, but this is about as easy and intuitive a recipe as you’re likely to see. You can probably guess how to make it without thinking too hard. I recommend mayo, pickle, raw white onion, but that’s me.

How’d I get this hallelujah,

Phil.