Paul Thomas Anderson: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
And I said, PDL’s protagonist is basically a Barry Lyndon who always stayed a mama’s child, who never volunteered for military service which is to say never ran into highway robbers. It’s resemblance down to the disrupted dinner parties and shattered glass, disappointed relatives in varying states of shock, their shared naivete with women. You really expect me to believe it’s accidental, his name, Barry Egan? Egan’s an Irish name too, with the fiery connotations of its pagan namesake Aodha.Reason, The Color Purple
…falling forever, falling to pieces…Nelson, The Argonauts. The different, gendered senses of shattering, of losing control.
We’ll begin with basic symbols. These may be wrong, or ill-fitting, but there is no doubt that Anderson is thinking through color, this film—and by starting here, we can try to understand how. The first is blue for bruised calm; red for fire, for energy. The second is glass—transparent—with its valences of vision and surveillance, isolation and control, fragility/precarity.
The first scene we see Barry he’s on the phone at his desk, sitting in an blue and white room. He’s clad in navy suit with a matching tie.
We’ve entered this story at a strange point—or rather, every story enters at a strange point, when things begin to change. Sometimes you get fifteen minutes of normalcy. Other times you’re tossed in en media res; the “before” is referenced but never seen, like Serena’s party days on Gossip Girl. That history is the history which the entire show, which Punch-Drunk Love, relies on: everything churns around it—Barry, or Serena, is trying to get himself under control, specifically because of what happened when he lost control. But the traumatic event happened years ago; now it only lives on as trauma.
(Which is to say, it lives in their heads—and in the heads of those around them. That memory makes it real in the present.)
This is the deviation from routine. It’s a shot we’ll see repeatedly: Barry, red-faced, and blue-suited. He’s apparently just purchased the suit the day before. Is it going too far to say that the suit is an attempt to keep himself under control—a calm exterior? That the red face is the energy, the violence, which leaks out, which he fails to fully suppress or conceal?
He’s on the telephone, more specifically, he’s in a telephone battle, a strategic interaction over landline. Half of our wars these days are conducted the way royalty did once: dispatches and comms, distant diplomacy, distant threats. The distance is key—two speakers on a phone cannot see each other, cannot monitor or verify the other’s claims, or self-representations. It’s a very different scenario than the evolutionary one, than the ecological proximity of the village.
Barry asks for the service rep’s name and extension, tries to verify the implications of the fine print on a Frequent Flyer program. It’s an elegant way to sneak in exposition: Barry’s saying it all aloud, explicitly, to the service representative, so he can be clear that his interpretation’s accurate. “Okay, so just to clarify—I’m sorry—ten purchases of your Healthy Choice product equals 500 miles. With the coupon, the same purchases would value at 1000 miles?” “That’s it.” “Do you realize that the monetary value of this promotion and the prizes is potentially worth more than the purchases?” A comic cowbell goes off on the soundtrack, like a lightbulb to an epiphany. “Can I ask you your extension and your name possibly?” Carter sounds tired, but offers it: “Extension 215, and the name is—.”
Barry steps outside, into the blue morning light. The sky is streaked with pink dawn. There’s a subtle magical realism to how the harmonium enters his life. The chain link fences rattle, but the streets are quiet and empty. Suddenly, as Barry looks on, what looks like a Hollywood stunt plays out in front of him. A big showy car wreck: the lead vehicle, a red SUV, flips horizontally half a dozen times; a red taxi-van with checkerboard stripes pulls up, unloads the harmonium, and drives off. Alongside the incessant lens flares and abstract interludes by Jeremy Blake, the drop-off hints at a fairy-tale quality, something nearly supernatural. Spielberg, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg included motifs from Jiminy Cricket’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”—this allusion to the film as fairy tale. Those looking for a standard rom-com will be confused—perhaps first and foremost by Lena’s interest in Barry—but this desire for psychological realism is almost beside the point.
(That said, if we do wanna psychologize Lena, the soundtrack’s lyrics on “He Needs Me” are our best clue. A kind of mothering—mattering through those who depend on you. So many Altman references, in this movie—Emily Watson from Gosford Park; “He Needs Me” sung by Shelly Duvall in Popeye.)
Barry looks distressed, shaking his head disbelievingly, but heads back into the office to make some more calls. Then he steps out again, to look down the street at the harmonium. A small white car pulls into the parking lot, catching him by surprise. He backs up a bit, against the wall, but stands his ground, holding his coffee up to his face to signal occupation or else take courage.
When Lena (Emily Watson) shows up for the first time, she’s in all red and pink, blouse and skirt. The other thing with blue and red—blue is boy, pink is girl. Barry is always blue, Lena is almost always pink or red (but sometimes white). As the film progresses, their clothes mingle with traces of the other: Barry a red tie, Lena a blue blouse.
Lena: she runs across the parking lot in high heels, breathy, asks if the mechanic is open yet. It’s seven in the morning; Barry says no. She asks if she can trust him with her car keys. (“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”^) As she walks away, she adjusts her blouse, sways her hips, shakes her hair—conscious of the likelihood she will be watched, altering her behavior toward it. There’s a hollow, rattling sound, almost like a soda can being blown in the wind.
When she leaves, Barry grabs the harmonium from the street, tries to balance his coffee cup atop it, since his hands are no longer free while carrying it—but it falls as he run-walks. Its rattling just blends into the soundtrack, ticking and anxious. His face, when he starts playing it in his office, is lit up red, and the wood of the harmonium, in the light, looks almost cherry.
I remember telling Paul, ‘There’s a funny sound these things make when you first open them up.’ What happens is the billows take in air, it’s like a first breath. It’s sort of like the thing coming alive. It’s an example of Paul being able to see the living analogy, make use of the living analogy…Jon Brion on composing the PDL soundtrack
The rattling has become a full percussive soundtrack, simmering activity and stress that only picks up over the course of the day. Luis Guzmán’s Lance, Barry’s right-hand man at the plunger business, shows up, asks why he’s wearing the suit, the suit we’d otherwise take for granted as Barry’s standard attire. (When we enter en media res, as all stories must, what is novel and what is a continuation are blurred.) The pair talk about the harmonium until the other workers show up; as their voices echo around the garage, orchestra swings swell and the scene breaks into Jeremy Blake’s abstractions.
Barry and Lance show off their plungers to potential clients, talking up a recent shipment from Rio Casino in Vegas, but his sisters keep calling to interrupt him, one after another making sure that he’s coming to a party that night. “This is Barry.” Pay attention now, because we’re being shown why Barry is the way he is, shown the way his every action or utterance is scrutinized, policed. “Hey it’s me. What’re you doing?” “I have some customers here, I can’t really chat right now.” “Chat? Did you just say chat? You just fucking said chat. That’s so… What’re you now, chat. I’m just calling to make sure you show up tonight. You get to go back to chatting with your precious customers, you fucking phoney chatty piece of shit.” “How many sisters you have?” one of the buyers asks when he returns. “Seven,” Barry says. He goes to display one of his non-breakable plungers, by slamming its handle against the sales desk, but he’s picked up the wrong one, and it shatters like glass into a thousand pieces.
Brion’s score is stressful and claustrophobic. It simmers with pent-up energy. These rhythms came first, before the shooting, were played while Anderson shot these scenes. Thus the tempo and cadence bleeds into everything; Sandler’s energy is perfectly synced up with the score.
Like, say, Kubrick’s Shining, the music is everything in this film. Brion:
Paul had been watching old MGM musicals, he had been studying saturation and color of a certain era of movies, and we were talking about the feeling we wanted to evoke… A certain fifties thing. We were out on the street one day talking, and I suddenly got struck and I said, I think what you actually want is the thing to feel like a musical but no one breaks into song, and he went, “Exactly!”Jon Brion
After lunch, a fourth sister Elizabeth—played impeccably by Mary Lynn Rajskub—shows up in person, in a red cardigan, at Barry’s work. It’s a big garage/warehouse type space, tucked behind the auto shop, which he’s rented out for his plunger business; it’s painted all blue and white. She storms in at a speed-walk, fast enough her shoulder-length hair blows up behind her like a cape, and gets “Hihowsitgoing” all one word. She’s come to tell him that she’ll be setting him up on a blind date that night, that she’ll be bringing someone from work. He equivocates— “Everybody would be looking at me.” “It’s a free country, what’s wrong with looking.” “I’d be kind of tense, wouldn’t act like myself.” “That sounds like a ‘you’ problem.” Barry says he might not even come, says he has to get his gym membership, and she’s understandably skeptical but goes along with it: “Well, that solves everything actually. If you’re not gonna come, I can just bring her. Great!” “Please don’t,” he says as she stalks off in high heels. “I’m just trying to be your friend, Barry. Hope you can make it!”
Even as he opens Elizabeth’s front door, he can already hear his sisters talking about him—how they used to call him “gayboy,” how mad he would get. He shuts the door again, stops himself, opens it, reluctantly enters, gives an awkward wave and “hi.” They immediately catch him up: “We were just talking about you. Remember when we used to call you gayboy, you’d get all mad? You’d just freak out. Remember how you were so mad you threw a hammer through the window?” He claims not to remember—strategic epistemology: if you don’t remember, you don’t have to talk about it, don’t have to take responsibility. They debate whether his suit is nice or terrible. One sister wants to make sure he’s using the dandruff shampoo she bought him; another tells him he has “rice” in his hair. He hands over a small cake he’s brought as a gift, only to be told they already have one—a much larger.
So he tries to make small talk with his brother-in-law, is asked how work is going. “Business is very food,” he says—and Elizabeth corners him, pounces: “Food? What is food?” BIL tries to provide Barry an out: “Maybe you said food… because you were hungry?” This is a pattern with Barry. All these linguistic slippages and conflations, it’s as if he can’t keep his internal state from leaking out into his presentation of self. Elizabeth asks if he got his gym membership, and he says “Tomorrow,” and it’s almost cute how even though neither of them believe this story, they go along with it, as if it were.
At some point, Barry loses it. The film shows a wide-shot of the supper table, surrounded by relatives; you can just make out, from the chaos of the conversation, that they’re once again talking about him. “He’s such a fucking asshole, why’d you listen to him?” Elizabeth is apparently explaining why his blind date’s a no-show. “I told him it would be like, totally casual…” The our lens—the sliding glass doors through which we are watch—shatters. Barry’s kicked them in.
(History made present by history repeating itself.)
In the laundry room, Barry and his brother-in-law Walter—Elizabeth’s husband, and the party host—talk quietly.
Barry: I don’t have anyone to talk to things about and I understand it’s confidential with a doctor—I’m embarrassed about that and I don’t want my sisters to know?
Walter: You want a number for a psychiatrist, I can get you one, that’s not a problem. but what exactly is wrong?
Barry: I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with me because I don’t know how other people are… Sometimes I cry a lot… for no reason.
Barry heads to the supermarket, checking price tags to find the cheapest Healthy Choice product with a frequent flyer deal. After frozen chicken and canned soup, he stumbles on pudding: four to a pack, a quarter apiece, bar code on every cup. Then he heads home, calls up an Intimate Affairs hotline spotted while cutting Flyer coupons. He’s dressed like the bottle of Windex on his table—white top, blue bottom. Windex, as in glass cleaner. Barry paces while he nervously hands over his credit card number to the hotline operator—then hands over his social. “What for? And this is confidential?” She says it is, so he complies. We see this repeatedly: He asks someone to keep something private, and then they betray his trust.
His real name’s Barry, he says, but he wants the girl to call him “Jack.” And when she dials him, and he answers the phone, he answers as “Back”—first leaking “Barry,” then catching himself and reverting to “Jack.”
She says her name is Georgia, like Georgia Peach. There’s an underlying conflict in their conversation: they have fundamentally different goals. She’s trying to create and sustain an erotic fantasy—thus she describes her appearance, the supposed size of her breasts and waist, her hair. Thus she asks him, “Are you jacking off yet, Jack?” But Barry just wants to talk, person-to-person, someone to “level” with. So he says he doesn’t really care about those details—he can’t verify them, after all—how can he know? It doesn’t matter, he tells her. And she’s defensive: It does too matter. If he breaks from routine, he strips her of her powers. So she goes on about how her pussy’s shaved, how she’s touching herself while they speak.
And this is important. It’s the distance vs. proximity axis, and what changes when you cross from one side of the spectrum to the other. Barry has no monitoring technology to ensure that she is who she describes herself as, is as she self-represents. Of course, Georgia’s mistake is that—despite actively pulling a representation con on Barry—she’s oblivious to the ways he too can and does lie to her. He says he has a girlfriend, says his business is going well, that he’s considering diversifying. He’s not saying it to play her so much as to keep from feeling pathetic. And later in the film, she’ll take this information and pass it on to her boss, confident that Barry is loaded, that he has money to spare for her rent, for the blonde brothers to pull from his ATM.
Barry gets a call from Georgia before work, pouting for rent money—”This is really embarrassing for me.” She needs $750. “Sorry, I can’t afford that.” She switches to open threats as soon as he refuses. “Maybe I should call back, talk to your girlfriend? Maybe it’d be better to ask her for the money.” Barry slowly backs up into the wall.
At the office, the score is once again buzzing nervously; Barry takes out duct tape and fixes up the harmonium; then he calls the credit card company, says he lost his card, then cuts it up with scissors. There’s a kind of adrenal tunnel vision as he fixes things, an attempt to gain control back which reverses when he peeks outside, spots Elizabeth and Lena approaching. He runs back to his office, hurriedly—breaking composure, tripping and shattering his coffee mug. The pair’s come by the garage to ask Barry out to breakfast. Though to be fair, the request is barely an ask, more of an order. The words tumble out of Elizabeth’s mouth: “This is Lena she’s a good friend of mine from work we were in the neighborhood and she had to pick up her car and we’re getting breakfast before we go in so do you wanna go we’re gonna go eat let’s go.” Barry turns them down, citing work; Elizabeth’s furious. She keeps calling Barry “weird,” keeps telling Lena she doesn’t know why he’s being so weird—wearing the suit, turning down breakfast. Barry manufactures a cover story to show how busy he is—something about a “client” in “Toledo”—but Lance can’t pick up the hint; the failed deception becomes cringing. Meanwhile, Georgia’s repeat-dialing the office landline—another disembodied female voice harassing him, threatening him. “Hey baby, we got disconnected before… You’ve just started a war you can’t afford.” Elizabeth corners him in his office, alone, asks whether he asked Walter for a shrink. “Barry, what’s wrong with you?” Then she storms back to her car, ostensibly to give B + L space, and as soon as her micromanagement lifts, they can breathe. Alone in his glass office, out of the suffocating gaze and attempted manipulations of his sister, he can actually talk to Lena without worrying about E jumping down his throat.
And Lena seems to notice. The high-pressured, railroading approach isn’t working—it’s a set trap and Barry knows it’s a trap, even if Elizabeth says and thinks otherwise. If Lena wants to go out with Barry, she’ll have to ask him herself—tell him what she’s asking for and let hip step through it, voluntarily—and so she does.
At the restaurant the next night, Barry tells a story about a radio DJ, DJ Justice, the way DJ Justice is always cutting people down to size. “He’s not a phoney,” Barry describes Justice—a nice pun on phones, on the way that, without real proximity, over the phone lines, over the radio waves, everyone deceives. Barry starts at a distance from Lena, and she from him, but over the course of the movie they break that distance through confession, create intimacy through truth. Intimacy is something cybernetic, a process of disarmament; you need to get the feedback loop rolling, and never break trust. You step out on a limb, extend confidence, and if they do the same, you end up close after enough iterative cycles. Barry’s been so concerned with Lena’s impression of him—deservedly so, since apparently his sister has been telling her embarrassing stories from their childhood—that he keeps telling her fibs—that he never threw a hammer through a window; that he didn’t ask Walter for a shrink. But eventually those walls will come down, and he’ll confess to reality. Likewise, it comes out that Lena had engineered the entire car trouble, auto garage situation in order to get a date with Barry. The two are similar in this way: They have a strong sense of what they want and how to get it, like Barry with the pudding—but they have an inability to make it socially acceptable; they lack in tact.
Whispering across the table, Barry confides his Healthy Choice scheme—three-thousand dollars for a million miles—in Lena. “I think they’re trying to push their teriyaki chicken, $1.79 a package.” She seems delighted, but Barry’s still having rage problems; when it comes out that Elizabeth’s shared the hammer story with Lena, he heads to the bathroom and destroys it—smashes mirrors, lamps; kicks in a toilet stall. The manager asks him to leave, catching him literally red-handed, knuckles bleeding. Like so many times previous, Barry tries to control the interaction through deception, but fails to hide the evidence, the leaking information that contradicts his story. (Strategic interaction and its blunders permeate this film.) To save face, he tells Lena he “doesn’t like the food” there, hence their sudden departure—but with an escort from management, the reality is once again clear.
And yet somehow none of this turns her off. As they leave the restaurant, and walk down the street, an Atlas Van Lines 18-wheeler passes them; its logo reads “Moving systems… Relocation at its best!”—in blue and red. An accordion is heard in the soundtrack, and it’s all almost Parisian, like a scene from Before Sunrise. Tinsel flags in blue and red hang from a Toyota dealership where Barry’s car is parked. So much of Anderson’s achievement with this film is how gorgeous he makes the modern, the contemporary—the technicolor of the ninety-nine cent store, the Eckhart’s Auto Body shop, here now.
The cinematography, here and across the film, is really something else. Everything is lit or filtered a deep blue; the attention to color and detail of shot are immaculate, somewhere between Kubrick and Tarkovsky, Solaris x The Shining. On the car ride after the restaurant, the changing light alters their faces, turns them into many people. Reflecting on the frequent flyer scheme, she asks, by stating—”You must travel quite a lot.” And then, whether he’s being merely honest, or honest and strategic—attempting to allay potential fears that he is unavailable romantically, is always travelling—Barry says quickly, “No, I don’t travel.” And the moment cools; she’s somehow… disappointed, and he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t experience the outside world much, doesn’t leave his shell, doesn’t leave his home planet. That’s why he doesn’t know how other people are, doesn’t know what normal is. Some commentators have called him Aspie, but it’s probably truer to say he’s under-socialized.
After he walks her up to her apartment, they sit on the couch for a few minutes awkwardly, and then he says goodbye. More precisely he says “bye-bye,” like a toddler—which he repeats, pissed, kicking himself, as heads downstairs. As he walks through the lobby, the security guard stops him, asks “Are you Barry?” and holds up a receiver, saying “This is for you.”
And who knows what the phone brings—news at least, but good or bad, and from whom? Each woman who calls him announces herself, “It’s me,” indexical on vocal print. Each has an agenda. The fear, his and ours, is that it’s Georgia, tracking him down once again, threatening to explode his blooming relationship with Lena.
“It’s me,” the line says. “It’s Lena. I just wanted you to know, wherever you’re going or whatever you’re doing right now, I want you to know that I wanted to kiss you just then.” And he dashes back to the elevator, up and down the stairs. All the apartment floors look identical; he accidentally stumbles out an emergency escape, triggering its alarm.
After the date, he gets hit by the blonde brothers—wannabe thugs hired by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dean Trumbell, who runs the Utah call service where “Georgia” works. He’s been told that Barry is “loaded,” that he’s a businessman looking to “diversify”; he’s expecting some healthy cash flow.
So they grab Barry, plunger king, while he’s taking out the trash, toss him in the back of their pickup truck, and take him to an ATM—positioned right outside the 99c store—for a withdrawal. As he hands over the cash, he weakly explains how little savings he has, how much the $500 means to him, which earns him a beating from the brothers. His dreams and its obstacles are framed by the same shot. He flees, and as their pickup passes him by foot, they shine a spotlight in his eyes, shout “Why are you running? We know where you live.”
LOVE is written on in the cuts of his bleeding knuckles, bright red as he cradles the harmonium. Every time he follows his feelings, gets all warm-blooded—whether it’s angry or lonely or sad—he ends up paying the price, paying for shattered glass, pulling money from his ATM, hearing it from his sisters for eternity. So he learns to be a shell, a mouse, hollows himself out to keep himself under control. Because he knows how much damage he can do when it comes out. Lena, a love in his life, changes the basic dynamic because suddenly there’s a productive channel for all that energy, including the anger. Which is why the tire iron scene, where he beats the blonde brothers senseless, is so cathartic. It’s all flow and release.
But first, he flees the Valley for the Big Island.
Half to escape Georgia, half to find Lena, he sprints past a red semi as he exits the warehouse; he gets to an airport and is ushered on by red-clad attendants. His tie was blue when we started the film, but now it’s red too, except for a brief moment of yellow (continuity error? symbol for sickness?) on the airplane. When he calls Lena’s hotel, from a payphone on the street, the parade-goers are in bright red, accompanied by police in blue. The payphone lights up when he finally reaches her room after an initial misconnection, and it’s beautiful.
The kiss: he’s on a red carpet in front of pink pillars; she dances up the stairs. He offers his hand; she embraces him. They become silhouettes against pastel colors; dozens pass them as they kiss, but the bustle and noise are all tuned out, they’re in a two-person world now.
The music has changed too, now that they’re in Hawaii—its own kind of fantasyland. Instead of the stressful soundtrack from earlier in the film, it’s “Waikiki”’s acoustic guitar, some mellow slide. They sit outdoors on the beach at a restaurant, with a pink candle-holder protecting a flicker flame; the backdrop is all blue waves shoreline. “It really looks like Hawaii here,” Barry says—X equals X—and although it’s literally nonsensical, it means something too. The territory is as promised—as expected—by the map. It wasn’t false advertising, it wasn’t phoney. The representation and the thing are close, almost identical.
They exchange a strange dirty-talk in their hotel bed: “I wanna smash your face with a sledgehammer,” he says, anger channeled into love. The two are cast, here, as the same kind of energy: fiery, red, impassioned—hence the bloody knuckles which signify devotion. This is an odd film insofar as most directors would confirm viewer suspicions of Barry’s “creep” factor. They would reaffirm—reify—the existing landscape of signifiers by making sure these red flags would pay off as we fear they might, thus reinforcing the connection between signal and reality. Barry’d turn out to be unhinged and violent; Lena’s chance on him would be trashed. Instead, the red flags are just flags; the signs just signs.
Barry’s sitting up in Lena’s hotel bed, in a white bathrobe, when Elizabeth calls Lena about a work issue; the pair chat on the phone. Elizabeth mentions that Barry had asked for L’s number, wonders whether he’d called. And Lena says no, that she hasn’t seen him, and there’s a look of relief and wonder and appreciation that passes on Barry’s face. All film we’ve seen him asking people for privacy, for confidentiality—the call service, his brother-in-law, his sisters. Lena’s the first person to really give it to him.
When they get back to L.A., the blonde brothers hit him again, slam into his car with their truck. This time Lena’s with him in the passenger seat; as their car spins out, he looks over, sees a drop of dark blood trickling down her temple. She looks like a doll, her eyes all wobbly. Red for blood, blue for bruises. He gets out of the car, buttons his suit, as if to put himself together. He is total cool—for perhaps the first time in the film, all composure. No emotion bleeds from his face. He punches the first brother—carrying a tire iron—out immediately; he picks up the iron. Barry flips it once in his hand, like it’s nothing, like he’s done it a hundred times before. He knocks the second brother out with a quick upswing. Then the third, as he scrabbles to get out of the truck. Then Barry smashes the truck windows in. The fourth brother is cowering in the cab. Barry hands him back the tire iron, walks to his car, asks Lena if she’s OK, and calmly drives to the hospital. He’s moved directly toward his problem and defeated it, instead of backing away. He’s looked into its eye, instead of looking away. Now that the formula works, he intends to repeat it.
In a pastel green-tiled hospital room, an attendant tests a white-bandaged Lena for concussions. “Follow the penlight with your eyes.” The music is back to the simmering, stressful rhythm section pre-Hawaii; Barry inches behind the curtain, out of Lena’s view, then starts jogging towards his office. He wants to finish the thing, get to the source, and he knows who’s behind it: they gave that info away with their license plate. We hear “Georgia”, aka “Janice,” in a sultry voice: “Oooh, yeah”—a sensuality over the ambient stress of the soundtrack which illustrates the payoffs of sex, the translation of elevated heart rates into pleasure. (“Working it out” etc.) Barry is done rolling over, done with politeness. He yells into the receiver, doesn’t entertain the operator’s lies for a second. “I trusted you! And then you called me, and asked me for money. Am I right? Am I right?” There’s no waiting for an answer; the question is rhetorical. “Get your supervisor on the phone… I want him on the phone, do you hear me? No more bullcrap, I’m not kidding around with you.” Even with his choirboy mouth, the fury’s palpable. The rage works, which is the point of rage. You get angry, people start taking you seriously, like when a dog bares its teeth.
So “Janice” dials Hoffman’s Dean Trumbell, who’s clad—like Egan—in a blue suit and red face. “Yeah? This is Dean.” “Hey, it’s me. This guy from L.A., Barry Egan? He’s calling on the other line, saying all this stuff, he wants to talk to a supervisor or whatever.” “What’d you say?” “Nothing.” “Put him through.” “No no no this is bad.” “Shut up, will you shut up?” So she transfers Egan. “Okay sexy, I’m gonna connect you with my supervisor now.” He doesn’t know what register to use, and he’s operating under the assumption she’s a rogue operator within a semi-legitimate business—so he defaults to a strange, fatherly busting, “You’re in trouble honey.” Hoffman’s Trumbell immediately sets the impression straight: “Shut up.” Trumbell denies any involvement, but Barry doesn’t care. He snarl-yells into the receiver, all venom: “What’s your name, sir. Answer me.” It’s the same line we got in the opening scene, with the frequent flyer guy—except there it was mild-mannered, timid, polite. Here it’s a demand rather than a request. “What’s your name, asshole?” “I’m Barry Egan.” “How do I know? You could be anybody!” Which is a major theme in this movie, distance and proximity, deception and trust. “You’re a bad person, you have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You have no right to take people’s trust.”
Across the phone lines, there’s no way to start a fight, no way to silence someone with a brawl, so Hoffman’s only recourse is volume and emotion. Distance is a kind of powerlessness—when Barry gets the call from Lena, telling him she wanted to kiss him, earlier in the apartment, he had agency, he could do something about it. When Georgia comes calling, asking for money, making threats, he’s more or less powerless. Therefore Trembell, furious in his lack of control, trying anyway he can to silence Barry’s accusation, the leverage he’s displaying in his language, the power dynamics which are altered through their pronunciation: “Shut up! Shut the fuck up! Shut up! Will you shut up shut up shut shut shut shut up. Shut up! Now. Are you threatening me, dick?”
Back at the hospital, Lena asks for the guy in the blue suit, and the nurse confuses her inquiry for the police officer, who came in for questioning. She clarifies no, she means Barry, and the nurse heads to the waiting room to check.
When Barry finally gets back to the hospital, he has the phone receiver clenched in his fist, the coiled landline pulled out of its socket. He asks about Lena, who is no longer in her room; the receptionist asks if he’s a relative, and he states he is so immediately, firmly, and assertively that no one would dare question it. It’s a subtle critique of Barry’s own incessant requests for confidentiality: You breach confidentiality if you care about someone, and want to help them, which his brother-in-law, or sisters, in some warped way do, genuinely, seem to want to. Then Barry heads to Utah, to FURNITURE AND MATTRESS as Western music plays, receiver in hand like a six-shooter.
He finds Trumbell in the back of his shop, getting his hair cut by Georgia. It’s a classic Western showdown: the man from out of town strides into the barbershop or saloon; the double doors swing open; the barber stands there with a straight razor. Silver light glints behind Barry, just like it did when he boarded the Honolulu flight. Plastic-wrapped mattresses frame the stand-off. There’s a pause. Barry stands there in the light, Trumbell pivots on his barbers chair, looks at him. After some seconds of silence, Trumbell: “Fuck you. You’re a pervert.” Barry is all whisper: “Don’t you say that to me.” Georgia tries to butt in, but Trumbell cuts her off: “Shut up.” Barry: “You tell me ‘that’s that,’ before I beat the hell from you”—ostensibly with the landline in his fist. And at this point, Trumbell’s no doubt heard from the blonde brothers; he knows Barry’s not bluffing. He gets up real close to Barry’s face, with the same calm that simultaneously indicates (1) a bubbling sea of violence underneath and (2) the ability to control, and thus wield, it. Their noses almost touch; they’re near-silhouettes; as if they’re ready to kiss. Anger and love, twin sides of passion. “You came all the way from LA to tell me this?” “Yes I did.” “Tell the cops?” “No.” “Aight. That’s that.”
This time, Barry knows which floor Lena’s apartment is on. He’s breathy from running, and carrying the harmonium from the office, which he dumps at her doorstep like an offering. He stumbles out an apology for abandoning her, explains about the call service, confesses and repents his history. He gives her his value proposition, that soon he can redeem his pudding for a million miles, fly with her wherever she needs to go. Which is what she’s ostensibly been wanting; her perspective on all this is vaguely Clooney in Up In The Air. Hotel rooms, flight cabins, life in transition, all interstitial spaces; the deep loneliness of ungrounded living. But she has him where she wants him, has all the leverage. Barry’s begging, so she gets to set the terms and conditions for their peace treaty. “You left me at the hospital. You can’t do that.” And he, of course, assents.
It’s a sky of stars again, the fairytale abstractions of Jeremy Blake. People live in different solar systems, they seem to say. Cosmic islands, isolated—“I don’t know how other people are” Barry confesses to his brother-in-law. They’re connected by telephone wires, unable to verify one another’s appearance or names, their representations. “You got me out of my hotel room,” Lena says to Barry, when he shows up on Oahu. What’s important is closing that distance.