A Living Thing: How Paul Thomas Anderson Makes Emotions Visual

With Phantom Thread giving Paul Thomas Anderson his first Best Director nomination since 2007, the American auteur has scored his biggest success at the Academy Awards since the release of There Will Be Blood.

His new film, and his eighth overall, is another enigmatic piece in the puzzle that is his career. Though his films can be mystifying and overwhelming, they can be picked apart and analyzed as superior lessons in filmmaking.

When looking at Anderson’s career, it’s very easy to look at it in two phases—the first being that of a fresh new filmmaker, high on his own exuberance and the second as that of a filmmaker who has settled in to himself. When asked recently about what advice Anderson would give his 29-year old self, even he admitted that he should have “chill[ed] out.” Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) are energetic, fast-paced and propulsive works, humming with intensity and sustaining themselves on grand, sweeping emotions. They are singular films but are unmistakably works from a young filmmaker, one seeking to match the energy of his art to his own energy. With 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, we can see a change in Anderson occurring. The Adam Sandler-led film is still pulsating with anxiety but it is shorter, more succinct and represents, perhaps, a refining of Anderson’s cinematic voice. For the first time in his career, one could look at what was on screen and not be able to easily parse the influences on the film, what filmmakers Anderson was hoping to emulate. After Punch-Drunk Love, however, Anderson launched himself headfirst in to a new phase of his career. He would no longer set his films in the present day, he sought out a new composer with Jonny Greenwood and he, for lack of a better description, calmed down.

2007’s There Will Be Blood remains Anderson’s most acclaimed film, being the only one until Phantom Thread to garner a Best Picture nomination. Despite the clear influence of the films of John Ford, John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, There Will Be Blood was a true shock to the system, both to the general film-watching community and to Anderson’s more devoted fans. A great deal of this has to do with the gradual pace of the film, as can be detailed in the above video essay by Nerdwriter. In the video, Evan Puschak sets himself a very simple task while watching the film: to count the number of shots. Not just count but, also, to look for when the shots cut, thus forcing us to think about why the shots are cutting and what the film is trying to tell us. Puschak’s ultimate determination was that, over the course of the two and a half hour film, there were only 168 shots, averaging out to 13.3 second per shot. This is a far cry from Magnolia, which, according to the website Cinemetrics, has an average shot length of 4.8 seconds. Anderson’s two next films would also contain above-average ASLs, with The Master averaging out to 14.8 seconds per shot and Inherent Vice averaging 13.5 seconds per shot.

The effect in There Will Be Blood is that, in multiple instances, Anderson covers multiple shots within one take. His camera will often move through three different framings—including a wide, a medium and a close-up. By doing this, Anderson abides by one of Puschak’s main points—that the “value of a cut increases as the number of cuts decreases.” In the essay, we hear the words of Blood’s editor, Dylan Tichenor, as he talks about how each editing choice is designed to the audience’s relief. Thus, every time a shot holds for quite some time, the cut delineates the fact that the filmmakers are now deciding to tell us even more than before. Another important factor that Puschak examines is that this ‘lack of editing’ also calls more attention to framing, as “the cut is when the viewer really sees the framing.” Thus, by slowing the pace of his films down, Anderson is creating a truly different type of film. Gone is the messily frenetic pace of his early works and here is a composed and more sedate experience, one where the emotions are allowed to gradually reveal themselves to us. The forceful performances, an undercurrent of dark humor and a powerful father-son story assure that this is still very much a Paul Thomas Anderson film—but it’s unmistakable how different There Will Be Blood feels from everything that came before it.

After another five-year hiatus, Anderson returned with what was preemptively described as a film about Scientology. In all actuality, 2012’s The Master was a very different film from what this initial determination would imply. As FilmRadar digs in to with their video essay “The Sweetness of Freddie,” Anderson draws much more from influences such as John Huston’s post-war documentary Let There Be Light and Ron Fricke’s 1992 nature documentary Baraka than anything related to L. Ron Hubbard and his religion. The Master is incredibly dense in its focus on character, highlighting just how character-oriented a great story should be. In fact, as FilmRadar points out, The Master verges far enough away from traditional narratives that some viewers may leave the experience with a shrug, asking themselves “What did I just watch?” This is a far cry from the propulsive, unmistakable force of something like Boogie Nights.

The directing style employed with The Master represents the guarded and closed-off emotions of both of its protagonists in a subtle, tactile manner. Where characters may have spoken in an earlier Anderson effort, here we are presented with just their face. We never learn much about main character Freddie Quell, as just a few tantalizingly romantic tidbits about his bygone love Doris are relayed to us. As Film Radar shows however, we are told a great deal about the eclectic characters of The Master through their body language. Quell hunches over, almost receding into himself as his body contorts into unnatural positions. Oftentimes we can also see the discernible pain in his eyes while he is attempting to be dismissive. With Lancaster Dodd, there is a simmering seething anger beneath the surface, a signifier of insecurity, insecurity in the fact that he may not have all the answers. Anderson and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s humongous 70mm lenses often do nothing but observe their character’s faces for extended periods of time, telling us a story through the visuals.

Filmed in quick succession with The Master, Inherent Vice is a logical successor for Anderson. That means of course, that it is something very new for its director, this time a stoner comedy adapted from the work of Thomas Pynchon. As CinemaTyler points out, Inherent Vice is still a master class in teaching us what is most important to filmmaking. Tyler’s first point is that filmmakers should take time to work out the scene. Too often, filmmakers will focus on hitting the beats but one of Anderson’s strongest points is that he takes the time to work through his scenes with his actors. This essay includes clips of actors Josh Brolin and Michael Kenneth Williams sharing their stories on set, from casting asides scenes because they feel like ‘duds’ to taking time even when you feel like you can just jump right in. The key for Anderson is for the entire cast and crew to know their characters inside and out even when, from moment to moment, it’s hard to understand a single word of what is going on.

With Inherent Vice, though, you don’t necessarily need to understand what is happening to be engaged in what will happen next. In Phantom Thread, there are numerous moments where we, the viewer, are bewildered with what is happening, yet we are never pulled out of the world. “I never remember plots in movie,” Anderson says, “I remember how they make me feel.” What this video essay emphasizes is that Inherent Vice carefully wades through mountains of exposition while stepping around the pitfalls of it. Characters know each other and have known each other for a very long time. Every new scene is some type of exposition delivery but to what end? In the end, the lovable characters that Pynchon and Anderson have created are what ground everything, proving that though we may have exhausted the number of stories we can tell, there are always new ways to go about telling them.

And now, Anderson has arrived at Phantom Thread. It stands out in his filmography, just like all of his efforts, yet it blends in perfectly. Phantom Thread represents a progression of Anderson’s style, again presenting a subtle examination of character and delivering us a story that may not seem to be about anything as much as it is about character. Working with a fully manned camera team, yet no credited cinematographer, the shots are lengthy, patient and beautifully composed. One key shot has the two main characters, one an obsessive fashion designer and the other his young protégé, flung headfirst into a delirious romance, discussing the future of their relationship. They are framed on a couch while a mannequin stands in the foreground. As the conversation continues, the camera pushes in, slowly forcing the mannequin to the edges of the frame. The entire shot lasts upwards of two minutes and, by the time we reach the end of the scene, fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock has confessed that he needs to change, to push forward. Meanwhile, the mannequin is no longer in frame—it is just the two human beings that remain. We need none of the words to know exactly what his happening and exactly how we feel. MM

1 Comment

  1. wilberfan

    March 3, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    (Typo in the spelling of the name of his editor: It is, of course, Tichenor–not Zichenor.)

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