The Master: A Look Back on the Works of PT Anderson, Pt. I

Of all the big releases of 2012, perhaps no art house movie is more highly anticipated than Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master. The film spent the past weekend breaking limited release box office records, and it’s not without reason. PTA, as he’s so lovingly referred to as, has made only five other films since his debut in 1996, but nearly everything he’s made has been an unimpeachable masterpiece, and his 2007 film There Will Be Blood was the most frequently picked film for the top of “best of the decade” lists . He has become the modern day Kubrick or Scorsese, his initials shorthand for cinematic greatness in his time. But while PTA’s first five films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) are all recognizably his, there’s been a noticeable shift in style and tone over the course of his filmography.

Fair warning: There Will Be Spoilers.


Like most great directors who made their mark in the 90s (Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Quentin Tarantino), PTA is part of the “VCR generation”, a group of filmmakers who took a diverse swath of influences from watching countless films on video and distilled it through their own sensibility. One can see the influence of filmmakers as seemingly disparate as genre specialist Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Bob le Flambeur was a major influence on Anderson’s debut Hard Eight, to Robert Downey, Sr., whose iconoclastic comedy Putney Swope gave Anderson the idea to use firecrackers as a way to throw the audience off in a key scene from Boogie Nights. As with any director, there are a few key influences who pop up over and over again throughout his filmography. But what sets PTA apart from Tarantino, a Howard Hawks/Brian De Palma nut, and Steven Soderbergh, a Richard Lester acolyte, is how his emphasis on certain influences has shifted.

Right from the beginning of his career, PTA was hailed as his generation’s Robert Altman. 1996’s Hard Eight provides the best showcase for underrated character actor Philip Baker Hall since Altman’s underrated Richard Nixon film Secret Honor, and the film itself takes a satirical, cynical edge on the Las Vegas mentality that anyone can ever win big; it’s almost as if Robert Altman adapted a David Mamet play. Anderson took that satirical edge to the pornography industry in Boogie Nights, but now he had Altman’s scope. With sixteen major characters, it was as if someone had grown up taking notes on Altman’s masterpiece Nashville and said “I’ll show you”. Magnolia, of course, carries that ambition and juggling of multiple storylines further, like a symphonic answer to Short Cuts’ jazz combo. Altman’s influence is subtler in Anderson’s post-90s work, but still important. The director uses the offbeat Popeye song “He Needs Me” to great effect in Punch-Drunk Love, while Jon Brion’s loopy score captures the Altman film’s strange but giddy sense of romance. There Will Be Blood’s expansive look at the California oil business, meanwhile, fits right in next to Anderson’s look at the pornography business in Boogie Nights- his dedication to the late director at the end is more than just a throwback to past influence.


If Altman informed the size and ambition of PTA’s early work, then Martin Scorsese informed the young director’s stylistic bravura. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia are all filled with steadicam shots, whip pans, and the occasional freeze frame that feel like one long answer to Goodfellas. Indeed, Goodfellas and Raging Bull inform the structure of Boogie Nights in particular, with their shared rise-and-fall storylines that gearshift from high times to frantic, soul-crushing lows. But if PTA’s films were just stylistic exercises aping the techniques and shots of the greats, they wouldn’t come off as much more than some snot-nosed kid showing off. PTA has learned lessons from Scorsese as a storyteller as well as a showman.

The much-touted opening tracking shot in Boogie Nights drops the viewer right into the world: big stars (for the porn industry, anyway) hang out and have a good time in the drug-and-sex filled 70s, we meet most of the major players, and finally the camera settles on Mark Wahlberg, now just sweet-faced kid Eddie Adams rather than porn star extraordinaire Dirk Diggler, on the outside looking in, hoping for any chance to make his mark. The director does an even better job in the film’s key gearshift: Goodfellas turned from a vivid, entertaining look at the mob to a nerve-jangling comedown after the death of a major character put a damper on any good vibes the major characters might have had. Boogie Nights takes this lesson to a shocking extreme at a New Year’s Eve party, where the good times of the 70s give way to the paranoid hangover of the 80s after one long steadicam shot where any sense that the self-indulgent lifestyle didn’t have consequences waves goodbye.

Like Scorsese before him, PTA took his critical and relative commercial success as an excuse to go beyond his already considerable ambitions and make a movie like he’d never get another chance again. Much has been made about Magnolia’s thematic gusto, but the film is perhaps even more technically impressive than Boogie Nights. Anderson incorporates the same Scorsese-like tracking shots and whip pans, but where Boogie Nights often let the viewer luxuriate in the world of the film, Magnolia’s technical bravura is more focused on telling an extremely complicated and intricate story with several threads, weaving them together, and somehow managing to sustain a kinetic sense of energy over the course of 188 minutes.

The director takes Scorsese’s propulsive sense of montage to a new height to cut between characters as they simultaneously go through their day, encounter extraordinary complications, and inevitably break down. At one point, Jason Robards’ character launches into a monologue about the regret in his own life over his past mistakes, but while Anderson certainly gives Robards his chance to shine, he also cuts between the other eight main characters as they are all at their lowest point: Philip Baker Hall sick and broken, Melora Walters lonely and self-loathing, John C. Reilly ashamed of a stupid mistake, young Jeremy Blackman retreating from the world, William H. Macy about to go to a terrible extreme, Julianne Moore in suicidal depression, Tom Cruise alone and faced with a past he’s tried to escape, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robards’ compassionate listener, overwhelmed with emotion.

PTA’s early films share another key quality with the best work of Scorsese: an eclectic soundtrack, which is often used to obliquely comment on the scene. Boogie Nights’ first party sequence at Jack’s house weaves together a variety of musical genres from hangout hard rock to emotional southern music to lushly-produced pomp. First PTA brings us into the state of mind of the partygoers with “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Spill the Wine”, a handful of great hangout songs for people to have a good time to. But as the party goes on, PTA shifts towards more emotional territory, first as “Lonely Boy” plays during a cocaine binge for Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves and the first crack in the good time veneer shows through, and again as “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” sountracks the eternally pathetic William H. Macy’s humiliation at the hands of his cheating porn-star wife (played, in a neat note of authenticity, by real porn star Nina Hartley).

Magnolia ups the ambition in this regard as well: Macy’s “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith gets his own trio of songs as commentary on his self-pitying and lonely existence: Gabrielle’s “Dreams”, a hopeful pop song that plays as a bitterly ironic theme song for Macy; Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger”, an introduction into a bar scene where Macy’s hope for love will be brutally shut down; and, most notably, another Supertramp song, “Logical Song”, where the line “when I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful” could practically play as a thesis for the film. More notable, however, is Aimee Mann’s original soundtrack for the film: a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One” that beautifully captures the sad and lonely lives of the nine central characters in the opening moments; “Momentum”, where the line “I’ve allowed my fears to get larger than life” plays as a note on how the characters’ actions are motivated by past injustices they can’t ignore; and “Save Me”, the Academy Award-nominated original song that lets a little light shine through after all the pain and anger.

Scorsese’s influence has become less overt in Anderson’s most recent features. But while PTA has dropped the hyper energy of cinema’s reigning king, he has kept the older director’s key lessons: how to keep the eye engaged, move the camera in subtly impressive ways, and maintain thematic interests. Loneliness has always been a major theme in Anderson’s work, but the sense that has given way to a sense of violent alienation in Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood (and, judging by the trailers, The Master). And who better to take lessons on how to portray that than Scorsese, whose Taxi Driver remains one of the all-time great films about loneliness. Barry Egan of Punch-Drunk Love and Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood share something in common with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle: they fundamentally cannot relate to other people, no matter how much Bickle and Egan might try (Plainview cares less). Punch-Drunk Love is a warmer and ultimately more optimistic film than Taxi Driver, but Barry’s odd behavior is just as destructive and violent in its own way. His sense of right drives his protective actions late in the film and show the full capabilities of his rage; that his driving force, love, is more noble and less misguided does not change how wince-inducing it is when he hits a man in the face with a crowbar.


But while Scorsese and Altman were widely-noticed influences on PTA’s aesthetic, one of his most formative predecessors has gotten the short shrift: Jonathan Demme. Then again, the perpetually underappreciated Jonathan Demme doesn’t get same attention Scorsese and Altman do, Oscar-win and terrific track-record notwithstanding. Some of Anderson’s Demme influence shows through subtle stylistic tendencies, like a subtle-but-effective lighting change in Hard Eight that Anderson lifted from The Silence of the Lambs. Some of it comes from Anderson and Demme’s shared appreciation for kitsch and meticulous production design. Some of it comes from whole sequences Anderson took from Demme- the opening of Hard Eight follows Melvin and Howard’s example that an opening of two characters talking and getting to know each other can be just as impressive as any steadicam shot.

More than anything else, PTA shares two key qualities with Demme. The first is a sense that any minor character can briefly take over the film on some strange but blissful tangent: Dixon’s rap straight to the camera in Magnolia isn’t just a tribute to the end of Demme’s masterpiece Something Wild, it’s an example of a seemingly minor character grabbing hold of the film and not letting go until his moment is done. More important still is the sense of warmth and compassion that Andreson shares with Demme, particularly in his early films. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia are packed with characters who would fit right in with the protagonists of Melvin and Howard, Citizen’s Band, or the more recent Rachel Getting Married. The central characters are sympathetic, often decent people who can’t help but hurt each other, either through selfishness or lack of consideration. Magnolia in particular is a compassionate but honest look at flawed human beings, their failings, and the lasting effects of their actions.

An Actor’s Director

Demme, Altman, and Scorsese are obviously all skilled with their handling of actors, but Anderson also borrows much from the great Sidney Lumet on this front. Lumet, more than nearly any other great director of his generation, knew the power of a great actor and trusted them enough to focus on them for extended periods of time while only subtly shifting the camera. PTA borrows in particular from Lumet’s Network, an ultimate actors’ showcase, whenever he focuses on his film’s great showman or salesman. Hard Eight shows Philip Baker Hall’s character Sydney as a dynamic force of change for John C. Reilly’s character, a man who can seemingly convince anyone to follow him along for anything. Boogie Nights allows Burt Reynolds’ Jack to espouse his philosophy of turning pornography into an art form and, just as spectacularly, gives Alfred Molina a one-scene wonder worthy of Ned Beatty’s one big scene in Network.

Magnolia’s focus on Tom Cruise’s misogynistic huckster Frank T.J. Mackey is a master-class on trusting an actor while using the subtlest of changes to evoke an emotional response. Anderson uses long takes to show Mackey preaching the philosophy of his Seduce and Destroy program to show his magnetism as a speaker, like a more mentally sound and poisonous version of Howard Beale; medium takes during the early interview sessions where Mackey deflects questions about his past while the walls close in on him; and close shots on Cruise’s face as his defenses finally come down.

Perhaps the ultimate example of Anderson’s gift with actors is There Will Be Blood, where the big speeches of Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano play not as Oscar Moments, but as a push-pull dynamic between two powerful opposing forces. Day-Lewis gets attention for the big “I drink your milkshake!” scene, but equally impressive in their own way are the scenes where his Daniel Plainview takes the floor to pitch the promise of the American Dream. Plainview might be a shady character, but he’s a real salesman who knows how enticing the promise of prosperity is to the common people. Dano’s Eli Sunday, on the other hand, has less tangible things to sell, and makes up for it with a fire-and-brimstone fervor that Dano modeled after televangelists. They might not believe what they’re saying- hell, they might not be saying anything- but they’re forceful and convincing enough to draw in those less wily than Plainview, who knows an act when he sees one. In his words, it’s “one goddamn hell of a show”.

Kubrick & Huston

There Will Be Blood marks the big shift over from Altman, Scorsese, and Demme to Stanley Kubrick and John Huston as stylistic forebears of PTA, but to be fair, the latter two directors have the same reduced but effective presence in the directors’ early work that the former three directors have in his more recent films. Huston’s films often concern themselves with men out of place with the world, either by choice or by necessity, who try and fail to buck an unforgiving system. Hard Eight’s Sydney might be modeled closely after the central characters of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, but Sydney’s loner attitude and know-how on cheating a casino would also make him an easy fit with Huston antiheroes like Sam Spade. Porn-director Jack of Boogie Nights resists the oncoming plague of video, determined that film and professional (well, semi-professional) actors are the key to making pornography a viable art form; his integrity is what makes his failure to do so all the more heartbreaking.

There Will Be Blood has the factor that Daniel Day-Lewis modeled his speech pattern after that of John Huston himself, not to mention the fact that PTA’s oil-digging sequences are inspired by the gold-prospecting scenes in Huston’s masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. More important, however, is that thematic similarity of men trying to buck the system and either losing or, in this case, losing their soul. Daniel Plainview is a prickly character throughout, but he’s an independent businessman trying to make something for himself without interference from the big oil companies. Through sheer force of will, Plainview manages to get what he wants, become extraordinarily wealthy, and stick it to his fellow oil men, but at too high a price: he loses his only connections to the rest of humanity, his greed and ambition giving way to the overwhelming corrupting force of capitalism.

“We’re all children of Kubrick and Welles”, as PTA has opined, but few directors other than PTA share Kubrick’s ambition to make a towering masterpiece each time out; few would even try. PTA’s early films show the young director playing occasionally with Kubrickian symmetry: framing scenes of Mark Wahlberg in a mirror in Boogie Nights or scenes from Magnolia with John C. Reilly by a cross or Tom Cruise on stage are both indicative of who these people are and important for the change in context between the scenes. PTA has even thrown in a few fantastic, shot-imitating homages throughout his films to Kubrick: examples include Tom Cruise’s 2001-like introduction in Magnolia, Daniel Day-Lewis’ savage use of a bowling pin in a shot mirroring the ape’s discovery of the first tool in 2001, and, as seen in the first teaser for The Master, an office scene that mirrors an early scene in The Shining. The director has also taken Kubrick’s unnerving use of music- it’s no coincidence that The Shining, a clear influence on There Will Be Blood, uses the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, while the latter film uses a piece by Jonny Greenwood, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, that was originally written as a response to Penderecki. Best of all, though, is how PTA has taken a page from Kubrick’s tendencies to use stillness and deliberate pace as a way to unnerve, as well as Kubrick’s penchant for getting go-for-broke performances from his leading actors.

When it comes to the use of actors, PTA has also made some of the most savvy casting decisions over the course of his career. Burt Reynolds’ casting in Boogie Nights wasn’t meant to be a comment on the star’s own fall from grace and status as a 70s icon, but damned if it’s not hard to see it that way. Tom Cruise’s casting in Magnolia plays not only with Cruise’s mask of invulnerability, but with the tendencies of Cruise’s best films (Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut) to show cracks in that mask. Only where Jerry Maguire shows Cruise’s vulnerability and humanity and Eyes Wide Shut highlights his smallness and insecurity, Magnolia rips out any façade of invincibility and self-assurance away to show a broken, miserable, wounded human being. Punch-Drunk Love, meanwhile, wouldn’t work half as well if not for the casting of a big star like Adam Sandler in the role. Anderson has voiced his enjoyment of many of Sandler’s early comedies, but where Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore play up the angry man-child act for laughs, Anderson cranks up the persona to uncomfortable levels to show a man without a place in the world. And while The Master likely cast Joaquin Phoenix for reasons other than his recent fake breakdown, the sense of unpredictability and alien strangeness to Phoenix seems to have carried over to his new character.


But while attentive viewers can pick apart Paul Thomas Anderson’s films and play a game of “spot the influence”, they’d be missing out on one of the most technically audacious and accomplished narrative filmmakers in recent memory. Anyone can mimic Scorsese, but few could take on the director’s technical bravura and narrative density without falling flat on their faces. Plenty of filmmakers cite or reference Kubrick, but not enough can match the older director’s ability to unnerve the viewer to the core. Anderson, like any of the great directors before him, takes his influences and filters them through his own unique sensibility, exploring deeply personal themes of loneliness, regret, and difficult relationships between fathers and sons. He’s more than just a copycat. He’s the real McCoy.

Part II, on PT Anderson’s thematics and essence as director is up now. The Master is in a limited release now.


Max O’Connell

Max O’Connell is a senior film studies and theatre student at Ball State University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail [Editor’s note: only sorta]. Go read more of his blatherings about film here.

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