P. T. Anderson: a narrative of tracking shots

At the BFI’s Sight and Sound, Kevin B. Lee has put together a video essay analyzing five representative tracking shots from Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, explaining how they function as storytelling techniques, and situating them in the context of his development as an auteur. It’s a great video, and I urge you to watch it (and don’t worry — there aren’t any spoilers, if you haven’t seen all the films discussed). One aspect upon which I’d like to comment a bit further is that Lee never uses the word auteur, either in the video or in the accompanying written introduction. Instead, by emphasizing the narrative of Anderson’s development as a filmmaker, he constructs a teleological narrative, one which tells the story of a young, brash, ambitious artist evolving into an older, just as ambitious, but more contemplative and subtle filmmaker. This raises a number of problematic issues which require some elaboration.

As the essay demonstrates, tracking shots are often the synthesis of a tension between an individual and his context. In Hard Eight, Sydney’s comfort in the milieu of a gambling den and his journey to the head of a craps table is both a psychological portrait and a landscape of the world he inhabits; the two inform each other: Sydney is the kind of man who inhabits this world, and this world is the kind of place that makes and attracts men like Sydney.

In Boogie Nights, Anderson sets the stage for the film to follow, introducing multiple characters and returning to them again in the space of one shot, signaling the multiple, interlaced stories to follow; yet the shot culminates in a closeup of Eddie Adams, who will become Dirk Diggler. The milieu almost swallows the characters, but Anderson still locates specific faces and people amidst the neon and pulsating music that come to define them.

In Magnolia, the clockwork efficiency of a backstage TV studio is expressed in a graceful, balletic camera movement, but the main character introduced in this setup — Stanley — is almost lost track of; one part of the shot tracks a tech for several seconds for no other apparent reason than she will guide the camera (hopefully?) through the darkened, sterile corridor back to our main character.

In Punch-Drunk Love, a shot that opens on a closed door through which the protagonist, Barry, tentatively pushes eventually pushes him into a gathering of his casually cruel sisters, decentering him and keeping him off balance. This shot is overwhelmed by the context of Barry’s sisters, who can’t all be contained in it, even as Barry is trapped helplessly in the kitchen.

In There Will Be Blood, a shot that opens on Eli (mostly in darkness, illumined by small lights) moves to Eli’s darkened body framing Plainview, later opening up the shot to Plainview, Fletcher, and Eli, and then focusing back on Eli, who began in darkness on the left side of the frame, and ends in darkness on the right, suggesting a journey that ends (compositionally) roughly where it started, a pilgrim’s lack of progress. During the conversation contained in the shot, we are invited to survey the subtle interplay among the three men, as well as to survey Plainview’s table, his office, the clothes, whatever.

As charted by Lee, Anderson’s trajectory as a filmmaker is something that initially used context as something to be pushed and guided through, to a stage in his development where the visual context is something that threatens to overwhelm the audience — who is implicitly tasked with navigating it and making sense of it on their own — as well as, or rather than the characters. The meta-context for this trajectory, though, is Anderson’s own development as a filmmaker. Initially, he wanted to capture our attention for himself by deploying intricate, dazzling camera movements; now, the composition within those movements, though much subtler, still seems designed to impress upon us how much he’s matured. At least, that’s the view taken by Owen Gleiberman in his piece describing how he “”fell out of love” with Anderson’s films. The key lines: “When you watch There Will Be Blood, he doesn’t want you, really, to identify with anyone on screen. He wants all your identification reserved for him — for the eye of the storyteller.”

Gleiberman’s pivot in those lines is probably one of the smoothest I’ve ever seen in film writing. Please read the entire essay. It’s actually not an essay so much as a polemic, but it does chart a clear narrative line describing the meteoric rise and fall of a top-tier talent; or, perhaps, the rise and fall of a critic’s infatuation/love affair with said talent. What Gleiberman (and many others) has done is highlight how the films of P. T. Anderson are no longer, in the critical context, simply about the films, what they’re about, or how they’re about it. The cult of the auteur has irrevocably skewed the conversation — the context — toward Anderson’s own persona, quirks, and growth as an artist to a degree not common for most contemporary filmmakers. Therefore, for Gleiberman, it’s impossible to view films like The Master or There Will Be Blood without reference to the critical discussion surrounding Anderson, who is assumed to have internalized his that discussion into the self-directed trajectory of his career. His development as a filmmaker is therefore predicated upon his awareness of his development as a filmmaker. At least, this is the narrative being constructed by his detractors, and it finds support not only in Anderson’s own statements regarding his craft, but in criticism like Lee’s.

By filtering the analysis of Anderson’s tracking shots through the lens of an auteurist narrative, Lee implicitly supports the notion that Anderson’s films cannot be understood apart from his career trajectory. I happen to believe it’s true that films can benefit from contextual considerations informed by an auteurist theoretical standpoint, but it’s fascinating to me how even something like middle-distance film criticism (Bordwell’s term for the analysis of technique’s formal function in film art, and the kind often exemplified by video essays like this) cannot escape the gravitational pull of narrative construction. You don’t have to agree with Gleiberman’s assessment of Anderson’s career arc, but it leapt to mind because it seems that Gleiberman and Lee — and virtually any other critic that talks about “what P. T. Anderson is doing in this film” — are both discussing Anderson and his films in the same terms, but from (what I would guess are understood by their partisans to be) opposing sides. It’s a dialectic of narrativity.

I don’t know that I’m interested in challenging or breaking the hegemony of narrative structure. I do, however, want to draw attention to it and to point out that this structure is, however unconsciously, constructed. Just as Anderson’s masterful technique draws the attention of cineliterate critics to its artificiality and deliberateness, the conversation about Anderson’s technique is based upon just as artificial premises, but unlike Anderson’s tracking shots — about which people make ten minute video essays — this passes almost entirely without comment. Perhaps the problematic element of this critic conversation (at least, the way I’ve framed it) is that this narrative construction is built around a single person. As the video essay unequivocally demonstrates, films are “made” by many people, especially if you consider the act of viewing to be a form of participation, of co-creation. While a single person may spearhead the process of literally making a film, the reception is not so centered… unless that process is is ceded over to the spearhead. If auteurism as a critical theory is a surrender to the personality of a single artist, then perhaps some emphasis should be place on whether it is a conscious surrender or an unconscious one. Where’s the tension between the individual critic and his auteurist-narrative-based milieu?

In Lee’s video essay, there is never a question of whether these tracking shots should be placed in a linear, narrative order that organizes our perception not only of the shots themselves, but of how they illustrate the development of Anderson. This premise is assumed and taken to be self-evident. It concretizes the fear on the part of critics like Gleiberman that perhaps the cult figure in this relationship is soaking up this attention and allowing it to corrupt his instincts. What is problematic, then, is that the relative neutrality of middle-distance criticism has been nudged into the value-laden premises of auteurism, which tends to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

What this means is that Lee’s analysis of Anderson’s tracking shots retains a patina of objectivity while covertly arguing in favor of Anderson’s increasing mastery — and thereby validating his status as an object of worship. Put another way, if the focus is on Anderson’s increased control over his technique implicitly creates the impression that he truly is getting better over time — as implied by titling the piece “Steadicam progress” (emphasis mine) — then the thematic use to which he puts his technique is going unquestioned. This is the danger of middle-distance criticism if employed in the service of auteurism. While Lee may accurately analyze the technical purposes to which Anderson applies his prowess in There Will Be Blood, he’s not challenging the thematic purposes the way that Gleiberman is. By the same token, Gleiberman also frames the debate in terms that centralize the auteur; even if he manages to shift the discussion in a direction that is more thematically critical of the director, the discussion will still revolve around the director. It’s sort of like Nietzsche declaring that “God is dead,” then having philosophers for the next couple hundred years debate whether or not God really is dead, rather than hashing out the ethics of living in a godless universe, which was the point in the first place. Debating the relative merits of an auteur when the focus should be on how to discuss films without ceding pride of place to the director is like debating God’s existence when the focus should be on how to live a moral life in his absence.

Naturally, this analogy stirs up questions about whether a materialist-historicist discourse would be an appropriate rejoinder to auteurism, or if perhaps auteurism is the expression of Western culture’s latent Judeo-Christian bias, and whether or not people of faith need to start theorizing in terms of the authorial hierarchy implied by auteurism. I’m not going to dive into any of those interesting implications right now. At the moment, the only thing I wanted to stress was we allow assumed, unquestioned narratives to shape the way we construct new narratives, and that these narratives frame the way we understand our existence. 1 John 4:1 — “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” The apostle probably wasn’t talking about Paul Thomas Anderson, but this verse is pretty handy nonetheless, and with it as a framing device for the entire preceding conversation, let me leave you with this question: if the critics having assumed the responsibility of prophesying the spirit of cinema, at whose altar do they worship? ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

5 responses to “P. T. Anderson: a narrative of tracking shots

  • Craig Simpson

    Excellent. For all my issues with auteurism, I have to admit that the counterargument would be stronger with an actual theory behind it (Kael’s pleasure principle doesn’t cut it). Perhaps there are such theories in academic circles, but the point is these ideas aren’t reaching the middle-distance critics who – as you implied – serve as linchpins between scholarship and populism. I had a similar reaction to Lee’s vid-essay. I enjoyed the visual layouts while taking exception to some of the wording: “Um, no, you didn’t prove that,” I thought more than once.

    Related, I’m reading Dave Kehr’s “When Movies Mattered,” a book of reviews from the curious timeframe 1974-1986. He doesn’t use the word “auteurism” either, but it informs all of his criticism. I don’t agree with all of it; yet even ideas I don’t agree with I often find have value. Auteurism has value. Unfortunately, in the hands of certain critics, it’s also boring.

    • mjschneider

      I appreciate the thoughtful response, and I think you make an important, parallel point in that auteurism is a problem mostly in that it’s usually used lazily. Pretty much everyone who has ever written a film review since at least the 70s has drawn upon auteurism in an offhanded fashion. (I certainly have, and not to my credit.) Unfortunately, I’m not well-read enough in auteur apologetics to know how much academic heft now lies behind it, but the way it has seeped into the public discourse as a matter of fact is… well, as you say, boring. And/Or frustrating. Partly because it’s utilized in such a rote way, but also because, again, as you say, there is value in it, and that value is being wasted.

  • jubilare

    Fascinating questions… being more writing-oriented than film-oriented, this got me thinking about issues of style serving a story as opposed to style distinguishing the author.

  • The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of November 23 - Parallax View | Parallax View

    […] tracking shots in P. T. Anderson pictures is worth watching in its own right, but even more so for M. J. Schneider’s thought-provoking (written) response, which offers a more nuanced reading of the shots as characters reacting to/defined by space […]

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