In a podcast almost as heady and packed as their latest film Uncut Gems (2019) and cheekily titled “Seduce and Destroy,” after the particular brand of sleazy pickup artistry promoted by dating coach Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), Josh and Benny Safdie talked to Anderson about, among other things, how their respective films could serve as metaphors for filmmaking with their protagonists appearing as stand-ins for themselves. New York jeweller Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) in Uncut Gems is as compulsive in his chaotic world of opals, betting and loan sharks as Phantom Thread’s (2017) London couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in his pastel realm of delicate fabrics and ’50s high-society fashion. Their obsessive natures are both seductive and destructive in equal measure, charting patterns all too familiar for their similarly driven makers. The need to find connections is an idea present in this lively segment both in the points of the conversation and also in the mere act of bringing directors together to discuss their shared medium. It also inspired this writer to dig through Uncut Gems to find what connects it to films apparently dissimilar and led to the pleasing discovery of resemblances in style, theme, character and motivation.
Gems opens in an Ethiopian mine and sees two workers extracting the stone that will upend Howard’s life in faraway New York. In There Will Be Blood (2007), Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) digs deep inside the earth for silver ore in a mineshaft, an act that will soon be replaced by progressively larger operations headed by him to extract oil during the Southern California oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Apart from the fact that both films’ central objects of desire (opal and oil) are products drawn from the bowels of the earth, there is also a sense of the sheer physical hardship and labour involved in the process of extraction resulting in broken limbs very early on in both. It is the early recognition of the value of these products and the urgent need to capitalize on them that also links their fiercely ambitious protagonists.
The mine in Gems tunnels right through to Howard’s colon in an enchanting sequence that not only situates the gem deep within Howard’s being but also visually connects the film’s themes of the mystical with the everyday. Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man (2009) has a similar title sequence where the camera emerges out of another human orifice, an ear canal in this case, before pulling back like in Gems to reveal the instrument plugged to it. Apart from the spectacular visual ingenuity of each sequence, what is interesting is their subtle establishment of larger themes. Just as in Gems, where the moment signals the stone’s importance in Howard’s life even though at the time of the colonoscopy he is still waiting to receive it, in A Serious Man, the thumping beats of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” accompanies the sequence. The song plays on the radio connected through an earpiece to a boy’s ear as he sits through a dull school lesson and the scene cuts to visuals of his father and the film’s hero Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) being examined by a doctor. The strains of this song are heard over and over again through the film, through sex dreams and during the significant closing shot of an approaching tornado. In a film about uncertainty, doom and the mysterious workings of an essentially unknowable Creator, this recurring aural motif possibly hints at how simple human joys and desires are repeatedly and inevitably dashed.
The Safdies’ filmmaking style has been typically marked by a hectic, claustrophobic, anxiety-inducing quality. In Gems, this is achieved not merely at the plot level with Howard’s impulsive gambling which gets him more and more entangled in a mess created by and increasingly dependent on lies, loans and luck, but also through jarring noises, close-ups, incessant chatter and constant movement as Howard walks up and down the block pawning, selling and hustling. Gems feels similar to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and not simply because of the presence of the cast-against-type Adam Sandler who delivered two explosive and yet remarkably modulated performances in them. There are moments in the latter film where a percussive score coupled with a variety of external forces, like threatening phone calls, bossy sisters and bumbling colleagues, hint at the tension brewing inside its shy, nervous leading man who like Howard feels hounded and cornered. The Safdies mention the firecracker scene from Boogie Nights (1997) in the podcast and indeed, while re-watching Anderson’s sprawling saga about the San Fernando Valley porn industry of the ’70s and ’80s recently, the scene of an apparent drug deal, crackling with danger and uncertainty and punctuated by the intermittent bangs of firecrackers appeared similarly and thrillingly tense.
With Howard’s crumbling family life and his simultaneous creation of a relationship of desire and trust with girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), Gems reminds one of a familiar Anderson preoccupation with biological and adoptive families apparent in films like Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Gems also roots its story of bookies and basketball, auction houses and celebrity athletes, and a Jewish jewellery trader in New York’s Diamond District, unearthing a frantic and crowded world of great historical and cultural interest in the way films like There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice (2014) brought to life stories and characters from distinct periods of American history, each governed by geography and soaked in the aspirations and anxieties of its era. Finally, in spite of his baffling recklessness and self-centredness Howard is never unlikeable, a trait he shares with most protagonists in films by the Coens and Anderson. Messy, troubled and out of control, these characters however remain thoroughly relatable, evoking empathy and reflecting more often than not our own bewildered, adrift selves. Howard belongs to that group of people we root for until the end—to rectify, to win, to live.