The late Joan Didion ― essayist, critic, and native of California ― once wrote ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?’
The temptation to recollect ― to look back, to step inside one’s mind in the hope of understanding why and what it remembers ― is central to the greatly anticipated Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s personal requiem for 70’s Southern California: an ode to a time frighteningly, increasingly remote from our own. It begins one morning at an unspecified high school somewhere in Encino. It is yearbook picture day for student Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman), where he chances upon one of the photographer’s staff, the enigmatically terse twenty-five-year-old (or twenty-eight-year-old) Alana Kane (Alana Haim). ‘What are you, twelve?’ she asks, endeared by his brazen approach to charming an older woman, a woman whom he immediately predicts will be the ‘future Mrs Valentine’. At Gary’s invitation, they go for a drink at his local haunt (a bar where he’s known by name) under the pretence, established by Alana, that they are meeting only as friends. Here and after as they continue to meet, Alana appears stoically and coolly directionless; she tells Gary that she doesn’t know what she likes or what her interests are, much less what she wants to do with her life.
Gary is played by the phenomenal Cooper Hoffman, the son of Anderson’s frequent collaborator, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. His resemblance to his father, a resemblance visible sporadically and momentarily, is undeniably captivating, eclipsed only by his exceptional performance. Alana is played by the exquisite Alana Haim, one of the eponymous Haim sisters (they also feature in the film as Alana’s on-screen family, as do her parents), who, like Anderson, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Shrouded with Anderson’s self-awareness of his own nostalgia for the place in which he grew up and continues to live, Licorice Pizza guides the viewer through a tapestry of locations recognisable to those who know this region of California: it treasures the sight of the Hollywood Palladium, the El Portal Theatre, Cupid’s Hotdogs, even the film’s title refers to a Southern California chain of record stores. Places are tenderly filmed as they were, or at least how Anderson remembers them. Straddling local specificity and oneiric, decade-spanning nostalgia, Licorice Pizza is a film of dazzling proportion and of a greatly uplifting tenor. It is a sugary, infectious rhapsody. A bright flower in the sand.
The film’s multiple subplots (those which help categorise the film as a ‘hang-out’ movie) see Gary and Alana bask in a kind of intensity reserved for adolescence, or rather, a sense of nostalgia for such. One remembers the reception or experience of romantic feelings as heightened in retrospect – it’s memorable to feel desired. Despite their age gap, one Alana is embarrassed by (‘is it weird I hang out with fifteen-year-olds?’ she asks her sister), Gary and Alana gravitate towards each other and embark on various business ideas. Their relationship blossoms under the guise of more official matters. Alana is initially employed (by Gary) to be his chaperone as he attends a reunion-style TV gig for the fictional sitcom Under One Roof, his claim to fame as a child actor. They eventually take to entrepreneurship as partners selling and personally installing à la mode waterbeds. In savouring what is left of her waning youth, Alana embraces opportunities that jolt her out of the mundanity of growing up. She makes clear that she does not want a future working in real estate, like her oldest sister and her father. In Gary’s boyish ambition and undaunted confidence, she finds something to wake up for. For them, the world, or at least Encino, is another exciting proposition; theirs to be conquered.
Bonded by their tangible on-screen chemistry and brilliant timing as a comic duo, Gary and Alana float through Encino as a sun-soaked amusement park where everything is possible; they climb in and out of cars; they run to and from a police station (they run everywhere); they take over Gary’s mother’s office to conduct business matters. Despite their believable inhabitance of the various settings ― one can certainly imagine both Haim and Hoffman as inhabitants of 70’s Encino ― their surroundings are, in a sense, self-conceived. Unspoken though certainly in sync, Gary and Alana occupy the same conceptualisation of Encino: a projection wrapped in the promise of endless possibilities and harmless, hopeful optimism.
One only has to turn a street corner to discover a far less romantic state of affairs. A near-imperceptible veil separates a teenage kingdom from a sordid underbelly. It is, after all, 1973. California is laced with a malaise difficult to articulate but impossible to ignore. Perhaps its malaise rests somewhere in death ― in the mourning of an era, of old Hollywood, of Jimi Hendrix, of Janis Joplin, of Jim Morrison. Melancholy hangs on the senses like dirt under the nails. And yet, Anderson is able to capture this period with childlike resplendence. Merging Alana and Gary’s shared worldviews ― an enticing harmony of fearless abandon and earnest curiosity ― Licorice Pizza pulses with a lust for life; for the freedom to choose to do or be anything one desires. Gary opens a pinball arcade seconds after hearing of its re-legalisation. Alana volunteers for mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (played by Ben Safdie). ‘I’m a politician,’ she tells Gary, as if saying it makes it so.
Amidst a gas shortage, a racist restaurant owner, paranoid politicians, and dangerous celebrity encounters, Gary and Alana resist acclimating to their environment and instead choose to skate its surface, one that is self-paved and glimmering, ripe with potential. In their mutual refusal to live ordinarily ― for Alana, to get a serious job, for Gary, to attend school ― they find something sacred in the transience of each other’s company. As flighty and temperamental as each other, the pair slip in and out of each other’s lives and moments together are increasingly precious. They realise their inability to live in Encino without the other. This is the film’s most profound depiction of love: the way an individual can transform a place, how someone can unknowingly etch themselves into one’s idea of a place and render the prospect of their absence inconceivable. Licorice Pizza represents for Anderson what Alana and Gary represent for each other; a luminous mirage of days spent beneath the sun, a realization of their wildest, most tender ambitions — an awareness, even then, that 1973 Encino will burn in the mind for years to come.