The Career of PTA in Five Shots
Kevin B. Lee
Thinking on what sets The Master apart from Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier films, what strikes me most vividly is a marked difference in camera movement and staging. I wouldn’t be surprised if a proper cinemetric analysis found that up to half of the film’s running time consists of close-ups with little to no camera movement.
This is a far cry from the run-and-gun days of Boogie Nights and Magnolia with their stunning array of sweeping Steadicam shots, push-ins and whip pans. But upon surveying his career film by film, one can trace an evolution in his technique. This video essay examines one signature tracking shot from each of Anderson’s five previous features, showing how each epitomises his cinematography at each point, from the flashiness of his earlier films to a more subtle approach that favours composition over movement.
While The Master offers a couple of swirling tracking shots in a department store, and later a pair of straight-line lateral tracking shots to match the onanistic thrill of motorcycle joyriding, the film settles more often into shot/reverse shot dialogues in cozy interior sets. It seems that Anderson’s camera strategy here has less in common with Scorsese, Altmanor even Kubrick (with all of whom he’s frequently compared) than with Jonathan Demme. Indeed, in the DVD commentary of Boogie Nights, Anderson expresses a profound emulation of Demme, though Demme himself couldn’t recognise a shot from Boogie Nights that Anderson claimed to have blatantly derived from him.
Here the connection is apparent as never before, in a film that seems less concerned with riding the kinetic thrill of a camera set in motion than in tapping the psychic voltage of physiognomies seen up close. In his most psychologically intimate film to date, Anderson largely foregoes his signature camera movements in order to tunnel into the human mind.