Friday, July 25, 2008

Beginning to See the Light: Signs of Transformation in P.T. Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love"

Beginning to the See the Light:

Signs of Transformation
in P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love

By Chad T. Johnston


The Velvet Underground’s debut LP, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), was shrouded in shadowy chic, its lyrical themes ranging from drug use (“Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin”) to sadomasochism (“Venus in Furs”) to death (“The Black Angel’s Death Song,” “European Son”), and its music often assaulting the listener with electric violin and brain-lacerating feedback. While The Beatles may have been alluding to drugs in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the Velvet Underground’s vocalist Lou Reed was singing explicitly about them: “Heroin/It’s my life/it’s my wife.”[i]

By the band’s third LP – a hushed, self-titled record released in 1969 – its music had become a vehicle for quasi-religious reflection, with Reed singing about Jesus and declaring, “I’m beginning to see the light.”[ii] Because these songs of enlightenment coexisted with darker pieces like “The Murder Mystery” and “After Hours,” the light that Reed sang about was probably more like a candle flickering in the dark than religious revelation or sunshine. Nevertheless, there is a sense of reverence on this record that is absent from the band’s debut. It seems that a subtle transformation has taken place – a light has been introduced to the darkness. It is worth mentioning that that Reed’s 1972 solo album, produced by David Bowie, was entitled Transformer. It is also worth noting that Reed has gone on to transform himself repeatedly during his career as a recording artist.

Transformation is part of the human story. The idea of a religious conversion experience in which a person “sees the light” and is transformed as a result is a popular story in American culture. It is no surprise then, that Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), the protagonist in P.T. Anderson’s film Punch-Drunk Love (2002) “sees the light” and finds himself transformed. The expression “seeing the light” calls to mind the Biblical account of Saul’s conversion en route to Damascus chronicled in Acts 9: “As (Saul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’”[iii] This event was what transformed Saul into the Apostle Paul. Unlike this Biblical narrative, however, P.T. Anderson’s story is grounded in the experience of romantic love rather than religion, and he explores not only the signifying capabilities of light, but sound as well as he realizes Barry Egan’s transformation.

This essay will explore Barry’s transformation in Punch-Drunk Love in terms of paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs. Before exploring these concepts, however, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the film.

Film Overview

Punch-Drunk Love is, first and foremost, a testament to the transforming power of love. It tells the story of Barry Egan, a sad, self-employed salesman who sells toilet plungers and wears the same blue suit everyday. He is an eccentric, insecure, inept loner who lives in his own world, oblivious to “how other people are.”[iv] He has seven domineering sisters, all of whom are determined to force Barry out of his cloistered world. He does not welcome their intrusions, as he demonstrates when – in reaction to their taunts – he throws a tantrum at one of their houses, shattering three glass doors with three forceful blows. In addition to his problem with anger, he also lies chronically to hide the truth about his inner world, but his lies are clumsy and ineffective, like a child who tries to convince his mother that his room is clean when she knows he has merely hidden everything under his bed.

In his spare time he stockpiles massive quantities of chocolate pudding to take advantage of a marketing error that enables people who buy any ten Healthy Choice products to accumulate ridiculous amounts of frequent flyer miles. In one scene, Barry explains that he can purchase “…pudding at 25 cents a cup … in packages of four. But insanely the bar codes are on the individual cups.”[v]

In an attempt find an island of intimacy in his ocean of loneliness, Barry calls a phone sex hotline. Rather than finding the connection he is searching for, however, he is victimized by the phone service’s corrupt management. Barry’s loneliness ultimately finds its remedy in a woman named Lena (Emily Watson), who loves him in spite of – and maybe even because of – his awkwardness. He is transformed by her love. He no longer lies, for example, but instead confesses everything to her as if she is a priest. Additionally, when Lena goes to Hawaii for business, Barry follows her despite the fact that it is impossible for him to redeem his frequent flyer miles in time for his trip. Before Lena came along, Barry never would have had the impetus to defy convention and act with such bold abandon.

More significantly, before Lena comes into his life, when roughnecks from the phone sex hotline track him down and force him to withdraw money from his bank account, his resistance is laughable, as he is a bundle of nerves and neuroses. After Lena enters his life, however, when the same roughnecks return and inadvertently injure Lena when they slam into Barry’s car, he dispatches them in quick succession with a crowbar. He even drives from his home in Los Angeles to Provo, Utah to confront the hotline’s manager, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). With fire in his eyes, Barry boldly declares to Trumbell, “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”[vi] In this sequence, it is clear that Barry’s anger is no longer the anger of a child, but the anger of a man who will stop at nothing to protect his lover from harm. Trumbell backs down, and Barry and Lena – as the old cliché goes – live happily ever after.

Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Signs

The above summary is incomplete in the sense that it does not account for the influence of signs on the film’s narrative. In Punch-Drunk Love, these signs are instrumental in conveying the intimacies of Barry’s inner world to the audience. On that note, this essay focuses specifically on paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs because they seem well suited to explain how Barry’s story is conveyed in the film. At this juncture, an overview of paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs will be provided, followed by a discussion of the way these signs are used in Punch-Drunk Love.

First, paradigmatic and syntagmatic signs are defined by their relation to other signs. That is, the meaning of any paradigmatic or syntagmatic sign is defined connotatively by its relationship to other signs. In discussing paradigmatic connotation, James Monaco explains,
When our sense of the connotation of a specific shot depends on its having been chosen from a range of other possible shots, then we can say that this is, using the language of Semiology, a paradigmatic connotation. That is, the connotative sense we comprehend stems from the shot being compared, not necessarily consciously, with its unrealized companions in the paradigm, or general model, of this type of shot.[vii]

Monaco then discusses an example of a paradigmatic sign, explaining that a rose could be shot in many different ways, and each shot would convey different connotative meaning: “A low-angle shot of a rose, for example, conveys a sense that the flower is … dominant, overpowering, because we consciously or unconsciously compare it with say, an overhead shot of a rose, which would diminish it’s importance.”[viii]

While Monaco’s definition of paradigmatic signification seems to focus
primarily on comparing shot compositions, Christian Metz seems to suggest that there are multiple factors that might prompt comparison to other possible shots, writing, "For the 'pro-filmic' spectacles are themselves unlimited in number; the exact nature of lighting can be varied infinitely and by quantities that are nondiscrete; the same applies to the axial distance between the subject and the camera, to the camera angle, to the properties of the film and the focal length of the lens, and to the exact trajectory of camera movements. It suffices to vary one of these elements by a perceptible quantity to obtain another image."[ix]

Metz seems to suggest that the variables that factor into the creation of an image become problematic when comparing one image to another possible image. Thus, he asserts that “the paradigmatic category in film is condemned to remain partial and fragmentary, at least as long as one tries to isolate it on the level of the image.”[x] This essay’s approach to paradigmatic signs will resemble Monaco more than Metz, but it will draw from Metz’ list of variables that might factor into “(obtaining) another image.”

Gillian Rose explains that syntagmatic signs, on the other hand, “gain their meaning from the signs that … come before or after them in sequence in a moving image … Thus certain signs in a film may gain extra meaning because they have occurred in a previous scene.”[xi] In discussing syntagmatic connotation, James Monaco returns to his discussion of the rose, explaining that “the significance of the rose depends not on the shot compared with other potential shots, but rather on the shot compared with actual shots that precede or follow it.”[xii]

In discussing Punch-Drunk Love, three examples of paradigmatic signs and syntagmatic signs will be explored, and in that sequence. Because the film’s narrative emphasizes Barry’s viewpoint, it is worthwhile to explore paradigmatic connotation in the film that functions to establish Barry’s identity.

Paradigmatic Signs in Punch-Drunk Love

In order to make Barry’s transformation a reality, P.T. Anderson first establishes Barry’s life as it is before Lena’s influence affects it. The state of Barry’s interior world seems to be mirrored in the exterior world. That is, Barry’s environment is like a silent narrator that tells the audience things about Barry’s inner world.

The first shot of the film, for example, relies on paradigmatic connotation to establish Barry as a loner. It is a long shot of Barry working at a desk in the corner of an otherwise empty, dimly lit office that resembles a basement more than anything else. Anderson could have chosen to shoot a close-up of Barry, but instead he chose to use a long shot instead, emphasizing Barry’s isolation as well as the empty space in the room. The resulting shot conveys a sense of loneliness and emptiness. This connotation is partially the result of the dingy, lackluster appearance of the office itself, and partially the result of calculated shot composition.

In another scene, Barry is shopping for pudding at the grocery store. This is no typical shopping experience however, and Anderson emphasizes this through shots that call attention to the geometric aspects of the grocery store’s aesthetic. Using a wide-angle lens and bright white lighting, Anderson highlights the parallel lines created by row upon row of ceiling lights, as well as the blue diagonal lines that decorate the floor, and the parallel shelves that hold the store’s products. This is not a locally owned, neighborhood grocery store, nor is it Nicholas Mirzoeff’s vision of Wal-Mart, a “big-box store (that) reduces visual pleasure to a minimum.”[xiii] It is visually stimulating, an obsessive-compulsive dream of cleanliness and order. When Barry is shopping in the grocery store, the rigid geometry of the store is in some way transferred to his character. The shots Anderson uses connote structure, order, and cleanliness, and it just so happens that Barry refuses to venture outside of the structured, ordered, clean existence he has made for himself.

In the third and final scene discussed here, Barry calls the phone sex hotline from his apartment late at night. The walls of his apartment are white, and one generic, nondescript painting is centered on one of them. The lighting in the room is soft and dim. He sits at one end of a rectangular dining table, and the camera slowly pans to the left of him to reveal that the opposing seat at the dining table is empty. Additionally, a place has been set in front of this empty seat, complete with plate, drinking glass, and silverware.

It would seem that Anderson has chosen this shot because the viewer will inevitably compare it to other dinner table images. A full dinner table, for example, suggests family, life, and togetherness, while a dinner table occupied by only two people suggests romance and intimacy. This scene, then, connotes isolation and alienation simply by comparison to the other possible shots Anderson could have chosen from. The completely sterile appearance of the apartment only enhances this sense further. This is not an apartment where someone lives – it is merely an apartment where someone exists. The composition seems to force the viewer to wrestle with the shot, as it is claustrophobic and imbalanced; Barry is hemmed in between the table and the right frame of the screen, and the opposing empty chair makes the composition feel asymmetrical. It is as if Anderson wants to call the audience’s attention to this unusual setup.

On a side note, this scene is also a variation on filmic depictions of phone sex. Anderson could have chosen to depict Barry in a state of undress or in bed, but instead he chooses to seat Barry at a dinner table and dress him in a button-up shirt, formal pants, and a tie. During the conversation Barry engages in small talk, gets up from his chair, and walks around as if he is nervous. In this instance, mise-en-scène and dialog work together to suggest that Barry is ultimately calling the hotline for conversation rather than sexual arousal.

The above three scenes provide insight into Barry’s world through conscious or unconscious comparison with other possible images – other possible work environments, grocery stores, and dinner table experiences, to be precise. To understand Barry’s transformation, it is worthwhile to explore the role of certain syntagmatic signs in the film.
Syntagmatic Signs in Punch-Drunk Love

Although one could discuss any number of syntagmatic signs in Punch-Drunk Love, this section will specifically focus on the signs that suggest that Barry’s world is changing; that a transformation is occurring. In one of the first scenes in the film, multiple signs are introduced into the narrative that later become significant from a syntagmatic standpoint.

In this scene, it is morning and Barry arrives at work early. The streets are empty and everything is quiet in the vicinity of his office building. During an outdoor coffee break, however, his world is interrupted by three intrusions: First, as he stands by the road, drinking his coffee, a passing car suddenly veers out of control and violently crashes with no warning, jarring Barry out of his early morning stupor. Despite the horrific nature of this incident, the camera never returns to this vehicle. It seems to be nothing more than a visual non sequitur. Second, a beautiful, friendly woman in red (Lena) parks outside of his office building, asking if she can leave her car there for the auto service next door to repair. This would not be startling to most people, but to the socially inept Barry, it is every bit as jarring as the car crash he just witnessed. Immediately after this encounter, Barry runs into his office building and hides in the shadows behind a nearby doorframe as if he were a frightened child. Third, a truck pulls up in front of his office building and spontaneously deposits an old, beat-up harmonium onto the curb before disappearing as suddenly as it appeared. Barry cautiously picks up the harmonium and carries it into his office.

I see this scene as being significant in a discussion of syntagmatic signs for a few reasons. First, this sequence perfectly illustrates the idea that syntagmatic signs gain their meaning from “the signs that … come before or after them in sequence in a moving image.”[xiv] If these intrusions may, for the sake of this discussion, be considered signs, then each intrusion that punctuates this scene serves as context for interpreting the next successive intrusion.

For example, the anxiety that characterizes Barry’s introductory encounter with Lena is heightened by the car crash that immediately preceded it; it is as if this scene is borrowing anxiety from the car crash to enhance its impact. Furthermore, the car crash and Barry’s encounter with Lena make it all the more reasonable (and yet still surprising) for the harmonium to spontaneously appear without explanation. It is as if these three intrusions work together to open Barry’s insular world to the outside influences of surprise and serendipity, among other things. At the same time, they convey the anxiety that inevitably accompanies the introduction of these new possibilities.

This scene is also significant because it introduces elements into the film that function as syntagmatic signs: darkness and light, and sound (via the harmonium). Both of these elements are instrumental in communicating Barry’s transformation to the audience.

Anderson infuses darkness and light with syntagmatic significance in Punch-Drunk Love. Rose’s assertion that “certain signs in a film may gain extra meaning because they have occurred in a previous scene” is particularly significant here.[xv] Each time Anderson calls attention to darkness or light in the film, it is as if a code is being written that infuses darkness and light with meaning. This means that as the film progresses, darkness and light inevitably draw meaning from every preceding sequence in the film that employs them in some way. Syntax is at work here, as darkness and light are contextualized and defined by their uses in previous sequences.

The first notable use of light in the film, for example, comes in the form of a lens flare that flashes across the screen just before Barry meets Lena. Lens flares – particularly blue-tinted ones – punctuate the film from beginning to end. In some ways, they serve as reminders that the viewer should be attuned to the use of light in the film. They also add an almost transcendent quality to the film, as if they were visually representing love itself.

Shortly after the appearance of the first lens flare, when Barry hides in the shadows behind the doorframe, it initially seems insignificant. However, as the film progresses it becomes apparent that Barry is often depicted in dimly lit environments. When he calls the phone sex hotline, for example, he is calling from a dimly lit apartment. The last shot of this sequence is a direct shot of a bright table lamp, and the camera’s aperture is open wide enough that the lamplight is blinding. Although Barry’s attempt at connecting with another human through phone sex is an artificial, substitute form of interpersonal intimacy, it is enough to introduce light into Barry’s world in some way. Appropriately, this shot is short in duration, emphasizing the transient nature of this intimacy. Additionally, Barry is nowhere to be seen in this shot, as if this intimacy is disembodied in some way, not unlike the disembodied voice of the woman on the phone.

When Lena introduces light into Barry’s life, this light is qualitatively different than the light depicted in the scene above, although enough similarities exist to ensure that the instances are syntagmatically connected. For example, when Barry boards the plane to follow Lena to Hawaii, the end of the boarding tunnel is ablaze with blinding light. The blinding nature of this light syntagmatically relates it to the lamplight in the phone sex scene, although this light is more expansive and intense, suggesting a portal into another world as in a science-fiction film. As Barry walks through the tunnel he steps into the light, and his image is completely eclipsed by it as he passes through. This is not the disembodied intimacy of the phone sex scene. This is love. He is entering into an all-consuming intimacy that embraces him in his entirety. This scene gains additional meaning as an inversion of the scene in which Barry hides in the shadows after meeting Lena. Indeed, it is clear that Barry is transforming, as he no longer hides in the shadows, but exposes himself to the light instead.

When Barry reaches Hawaii, the sun is slowly setting. In an act of spontaneity, he calls Lena from a payphone on a street where a parade is passing through. When he first attempts to call Lena he reaches a wrong number. On the second attempt, however, she answers, and the phone booth’s light comes on simultaneously. It is as if the phone booth has become a conductor for Barry and Lena’s love.

Barry’s transformative journey out of darkness and into the light is echoed by changes in the film’s soundtrack. While image and sound are clearly different filmic elements, both can be used for syntagmatic signification. Furthermore, an essay about Punch-Drunk Love that did not explore the sonic dimension of the film would be incomplete.

First, it is useful to explore the nature of the music in this film. In discussing P.T. Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999), which was released three years prior to Punch-Drunk Love, Jane Dillman asserts that the music used in Magnolia “speaks to the condition of the character as opposed to working in counterpoint to the image.”[xvi] This approach is used in Punch-Drunk Love as well, as Anderson reinforces Barry’s character development with music.

The syntagmatic signification of the music in the film functions to communicate Barry’s transformation. For example, toward the beginning of the film, before he meets Lena, the soundtrack is amusical, primarily consisting of percussive rhythms and electronic blips and bleeps. The music seems to signify Barry’s interior state. As he becomes more nervous, the soundscape becomes increasingly littered with what can only be described as racket. For example, when one of his overbearing sisters enters his office to confront him, the sounds of a marching drumline threaten to eclipse character dialogue entirely.

When Lena enters Barry’s life, on the other hand, the soundtrack becomes musical. This is where syntax enters into the equation: The impact of this music is heightened by its relationship to the amusical soundtrack that accompanies Barry’s life prior to Lena’s influence. This music’s meaning is defined by the amusical racket that precedes it. Barry’s world has undergone a transformation. He has “seen the light,” and this change in music is part of what tells the audience of this conversion experience.

The connection between Barry and music is established when the harmonium appears immediately after he meets Lena. Through syntax, Lena and the harmonium also become related in some strange way. Immediately after Barry carries the harmonium to his office, he attempts to play it. This is the first time the audience hears the harmonium and, although it is a relatively abominable affair, there is a sense of broken musicality in Barry’s attempt. As Lena becomes more involved in his life, the plaintive music of the harmonium appears in the soundtrack with greater frequency until it becomes part of a larger, full-blown romantic score. Eventually, love’s whimsicality prevails as Shelley Duvall’s performance of “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) begins to serve as Barry and Lena’s love song. Barry is under love’s spell, and it is music that communicates this to the audience. Furthermore, it is the way this music contrasts with the amusical scores that precede it that enhances this experience.


The syntagmatic signs that communicate the story of Barry’s transformation from loser to lover – including the three intrusions , darkness and light, and sound – are fascinating in their own right. These signs, as well as the paradigmatic signs discussed earlier, also assist in advancing the film’s narrative. Indeed, when Barry Egan sees the light of love and is transformed, he opens up a whimsical world that is wonderful to explore.

[i] The Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground and Nico, LP, Verve/MGM, V6-5008, ℗ & © Three Prong Music.
[ii] The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground, LP, MGM, SE 4617, ℗ & © Oakfield Avenue Music Ltd.
[iii] The Life Application Bible: New International Version (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1991), 1964.
[iv] “Smell of Blood,” Punch-Drunk Love, DVD, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2002; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2002).
[v] “Date Scene,” Punch-Drunk Love, DVD, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2002; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2002).
[vi] “That’s That,” Punch-Drunk Love, DVD, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2002; Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Video, 2002).
[vii] James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 131.
[viii] Ibid., 131-132.
[ix] Christian Metz, “From Film Language: Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 72-73.
[x] Ibid., 73.
[xi] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies (London: SAGE Publications), 78.
[xii] James Monaco, How to Read a Film, 132.
[xiii] Nicolas Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2005), 44.
[xiv] Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies, 78.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] J.C. Dillman, “Magnolia: Masquerading as Soap Opera,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33, no. 3 (2005): 142-150.

No comments: