January 18, 2014

From 'Boogie' to 'Master': The Evolution of P.T. Anderson's Film Style

P.T. Anderson is a director who has worked within the Hollywood system for almost his whole career and yet managed to maintain an independent spirit exemplary of the sort of personal work typified by the best of indie cinema. He is also a director whose style has undergone a dramatic evolution since the relatively recent start of his career. We investigate some of the homages Anderson has paid to some of the greatest directors in cinematic history, like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Mikhail Kalatozov, as well as his ever-evolving, maturing style.

The one constant in all of Anderson's films (save, arguably, Punch Drunk Love, the palate-cleansing sorbet in his filmography, if you will; here's an article that details some of the influences in that film) has been thematic rather than visual, and that's the strained relationship between fathers (whether biological or surrogate) and sons, from Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights to Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master. Anderson is also a perfect example of a No Film School-style filmmaker, famously attending NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts (known for graduating talents like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee), and dropping out after a few weeks.

It could be argued that style is personality filtered through influence, and Anderson's influences have been excellent, probably owing to his voracious appetite for films. Part of being a director is having good taste, and Anderson's frequent collaborations with DP Robert Elswit, his taste in actors, and his influences have all generally been impeccable. Take Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 masterpiece I Am Cuba, whose rooftop party (the whole thing is great, but the quoted sequence starts around 2:30) was paid tribute in Boogie Nights (oddly enough, also from 2:30 on):

Young Anderson's films were drunk with movement, and frequent and exuberant use of the Steadicam (though, it should be noted, I Am Cuba was made in 1964, about fifteen years before the invention of the Steadicam). Boogie Nights is a prime example, from the aforementioned pool party to the opening sequence, and its resemblance to Goodfellas' legendary Copacabana long-take. (The Boogie Nights sequence below also makes use of another Scorsese device, namely the slow-motion closeup, seen to great effect in other scenes in Goodfellasand, famously, in Raging Bull.) This is not to say that Scorsese was Anderson's only influence here; it's just that we only have so much space! And Anderson has used the Steadicam throughout his career. It made frequent appearances in Punch Drunk Love, for instance, but its use was much more restrained.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYGtXt47HxE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQv8OavpALQ

Like another of his influences and heroes, Robert Altman (for insurance purposes, Anderson worked on Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion, as a "back-up" director) Anderson has made use of a steady repertoire of performers, and, lest we forget, Altman made use of devices such as the long-take to great effect in films like Nashville. Lately, though, Anderson's films have been growing less visually kinetic, as he has begun to explore the use of elements within relatively static frames. According to an essay by the British Film Institute:

[Anderson is] providing multiple steady points of visual focus for the viewer, as demonstrated in this scientific study by the Dynamic Images and Eye Movement project, that tracked the eye movements of several viewers to see what they were looking at in the frame. This steady multiplicity of focal points is something radically different from Anderson’s earlier films, where one dominant point of focus takes our eyes through the shot.

I have previously written about how NLE systems have had an effect on ASL (average shot length), and it would be interesting, as the quoted article points out, to run Anderson's films through the Cinemetrics software, which compares the length of shots in a film. It seems as though in recent years, Anderson has been influenced more by Terrence Malick and John Ford than Scorsese.

One element that has remained consistent throughout his career, though, has been Anderson's consistent use of the closeup. Ali Shirazi recently produced a video which discussed use of the so-called "Golden Ratio," 1.618, a number found in art for thousands for years, in There Will Be Blood. Now he's made a video featuring Anderson's use of the closeup, part 2 in his series on the director's style.

https://vimeo.com/84066129

No matter if the aesthetics of the film are relatively kinetic or static, this video highlights that certain elements of Anderson's style have remained consistent from film to film, no matter what.

What do you think? Do you like P.T. Anderson's shift from the speed of Boogie Nights to the more contemplative pacing of films like The Master? Do you think Shirazi has a point in his choice of films? How big a role do you think Anderson's work with DP Robert Elswit has played in his style? Let us know what you think, in the comments!

Link: Punch Drunk Love Influences -- A2Pcinema

[via Ali Shirazi]

Your Comment

10 Comments

PT did a Q&A that I once saw on YouTube. I tried to find it to post but came up short. Anyhow, he mentioned that there were limitations to his "style" for The Master because of the use of the IMAX cams. I'd bet the "old PT style" will be very apparent on Inherent Vice.

January 18, 2014 at 9:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Nixon

They weren't IMAX cams, they were Panavision 65 cameras, an important distinction as the frames are about a third of the size as an IMAX frame.

January 18, 2014 at 5:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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MG

It's fun to analyze successful directors's work, but I believe that the main conclusion out of all this is that PT Anderson uses the shots that are appropriate for each story. Looking at shots only is looking at outcomes, the questions should be, "What kind of story is he telling? What kind of camera choices is he making for each of these (very different) stories?"

January 18, 2014 at 10:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Ivo

Actually, I think the nightclub tracking shot in Goodfellas is a reference to a similar shot in I Am Cuba, so Kalatozov's influence can be seen there as well. Kolotozov's films are full of these tracking shots that seem almost impossible before the invention of the steadycam. They sure knew how to hold a camera steady. My favorites example is a short tracking shot from The Cranes are Flying, made in 1957. See here, starting at the 0:24:34 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=v0yO6Q9NQyg#t=1470

January 18, 2014 at 10:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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GE

I think one of the things that is most frequently left out of the conversation on camera position is the topic of blocking. The way to make, and remake interesting shots over a longer scene, is triggered by how/when people move. When they are standing/sitting still, there are relatively few places you want to put the camera.

Boy those PT scenes look awesome.

January 18, 2014 at 2:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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ongbak

Great article.

January 18, 2014 at 5:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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maghoxfr

The Stanley Kubrick from Generation X. This boy its a genious; with 30 years old made two masterpiece (Magnolia and Boogie Nights) and a great movie (Sidney).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GGI5mVH6pg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4axdxfDTcE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6esVhCa8XLk

https://vimeo.com/56335284

https://vimeo.com/80654617

January 18, 2014 at 7:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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V4Vendetta

+1 (though the There will be blood through numbers is a bit to much in my opinion).

Thank you for the great links!

January 20, 2014 at 12:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Hi,
In the link "dropping out after a few weeks" above, PTA talks about books, magazines that help him make the filmmaker he is today.

So my question is, People ! What are your 3 must read/have books about filmaking ?

For filmaking ressources (interview, rare clips, screenplay), i love this website : http://cinearchive.org/
Another suggestion ?

January 20, 2014 at 3:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Pejy

Don't know what it is about these long one take opening shots, but they always leave a big smile on my face.

January 21, 2014 at 1:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Rob Dunford