Licorice Pizza:"Everyone's a hustle"
Our lives are made up of memories and events that we recall in random order. I don’t know of anyone who goes through their entire life in chronological order every time they recount a single incident that has happened in their distant or recent past. We draw from our memory files as we need those moments at the time we’re recounting them for friends, family and colleagues.
In Licorice Pizza, set in 1973, director Paul Thomas Anderson has selected moments from his filing system of memories of his personal recollections of personalities and places for his characters Alana (Alana Haim) and Gary (Cooper Hoffman) to experience as a method of tracking, capturing and exploring Gary and Alana’s unusual relationship.
Gary is a former TV child star, who, as a 15 year old high school student, has outgrown his status as a child. Physically, he is too big; emotionally, he is a tangle of hormones. One thing he does have in plentitude is confidence and the ability to develop goals and reshape them when needed regardless of people’s opinions about his dubious plans.
He strives and he succeeds, whether it’s running a publicity agency with his mother as the employee, operating one of the first waterbed stores in California at the start of the waterbed craze when waterbeds weren’t much more than large balloons filled with water, and then reworking that enterprise into a pinball parlour when he hears insider information about an upcoming plan by local councils to reinstate pinball machines in entertainment venues. Gary is a hustler.
25 year old Alana is an assistant for Tiny Tots, a photographer specialising in school photos. Her life is a collection of loose ends. She is locked into a mindless job with a sexist employer; her other option, joining her father’s real estate business, is of no interest to her. Her job rounding-up students to get photographed is how she meets Gary, who immediately says, ‘I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry”.
Although Alana claims Gary is just a high school kid, she is drawn to his charismatic personality. The precise nature of their relationship fluctuates throughout the film. While Anderson’s specific memories of his own life in Encino, California are specific to his life journey, they surpass their specificity for him and become wider accounts of madcap moments that define and resolve what feelings Gary and Alana have for each other. Anderson’s real memories become Gary and Alana’s fictional life experiences. These slices of life create the film’s energetic core.
Alana & Gary
In the way that each and everyone of us has memories of our childhood and teenage years in places we have lived and visited, Licorice Pizza, uses locations, names and people to define a Southern California experience. Licorice Pizza, the film’s title, is the prime example of a memory that influenced Anderson’s approach to this movie, yet does not appear nor is it referenced anywhere else in the movie apart from the title.
READ: Director Paul Thomas Anderson explains why Licorice Pizza is called Licorice Pizza
I could as easily include references to Civic, The Private Bin, Canberra’s concrete bus shelters, the Starlight Drive-In, the Academy of Science turtle dome and Electric Shadows as slices of memories across time and places to define my experiences while living in Canberra, which would puzzle some people and be easily recognisable by others.
If you don’t know the memories in Licorice Pizza are specific to Anderson, it doesn’t matter. That isn’t their purpose, although Licorice Pizza is definitely a semi-autobiographical movie. They are there to highlight the manic people who influence Gary and Alana and the hustles in which Alana and Gary participate.
Gary, Alana, William Holden & Jon Peters: "Everyone's a hustle"
Andertson’s insertion of these memories is episodic rather than linear. They include Bradley Cooper’s over-the-top performance as Jon Peters, Barbra Streisand’s real life hairdresser boyfriend in 1973; Alana’s dalliance with politics as a volunteer worker for Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), a real world councilman who had to keep his sexuality a secret during his first mayoral campaign in the early ‘70s; and Sean Penn’s outrageous and excessive depiction of self-absorbed screen star William Holden.
These three stories highlight the social, political and cultural elements depicted in the film that frame Alana and Gary’s burgeoning relationship. Persevere with their intrusive nature early in the movie until they make sense collectively. Remember the randomness of your own memories.
The episodes have a wild energy about them that audience’s may intuitively find disruptive and disengaging but over the course of the film they coalesce into experiences that show Alana and Gary’s enjoyment of each other’s company, their acceptance of one another’s annoying behaviours and a genuine love for who they are and what they mean to one another.
Alana and Gary are confused and misguided, rather than starstruck, about their attraction for one another. George's hustles are opportunities that come and go easily without any commitment or fulfilment. Alana’s search for people and moments that will elevate her mundane life camouflage her lack of a clear vision about her life.
Everyone, rather than everything, is a hustle because people engage in a flurry of activity in counterintuitive ways. Alana and Gary negotiate their way around anything meaningful without realising they are really meant to be together. While they are working out that they do belong together, we are witnesses to their unflagging, misdirected and vigorous pursuit of life and love.
Current Release January 2022
Official Trailer Licorice Pizza
Publicity stills, movie poster & official trailer © Universal Pictures
FILM EXTRAS: SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MOVIES
Almost Famous (2000)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Set in 1973, Almost Famous chronicles the funny and often poignant coming of age of 15-year-old William, an unabashed music fan who is inspired by the seminal bands of the time. When his love of music lands him an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to interview the up-and-coming band Stillwater, William embarks on an eye-opening journey with the band on tour, despite the objections of his protective mother.
WATCH: Almost Famous
"Loosely based on Crowe’s teenage years as a music journalist covering the Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin, “Almost Famous” is the story of the 15-year-old aspiring scribe William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when Rolling Stone magazine sends him from his home in San Diego on tour with Stillwater, fictitious rockers on the verge of fame. As they travel, William forges relationships with the guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and a “Band Aid,” or groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson)".
From Almost Famous: The Oral History of a Golden God’s Acid Trip, By Ilana Kaplan, The New York Times, July 23, 2020
READ: These Directors Proved That Semi-Autobiographical Movies Don’t Always Suck
From Fellini to Fosse, these filmmakers had no problem tapping into their personal history
From Inside Hook, March 11, 2021