When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”
Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
Paul Thomas Anderson has been characterized as the wunderkind of Studio City, Los Angeles. He cycled through several prep schools, dropped out of NYU, and eventually found his mentorship at the Sundance Film Festival, where he screened the short film that he would expand into his first feature length movie, Hard Eight.
Like other directors stepping into the movie business in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s success, PTA is not coy about his influences. He freely admits that his early films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia were continuations of Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking. He champions the educational value of watching movies with the director’s commentary track.
His fanboy enthusiasm belies a personal magnetism and intensity of purpose that has since become synonymous with his movies. Here are some films worth watching to understand the cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson, commentary-track not required.
1. Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)
This multilayered adaptation of some Raymond Carver short stories shows the lives of twenty-two Los Angelenos looking for solace and meaning in a modern city given over to every possible diversion. The story somehow remains focused and clearly observed.
For all the celebration of Altman’s realistic dialog and his orchestration of large, A-list actor ensembles, his true genius is in camera style. Nashville might have been more representative of what Robert Altman’s cinematic capability. This list settled on Short Cuts because the story does not overwhelm the style, which is essential to the understanding PTA’s debt to Altman’s movies.
PTA was a back-up director for A Prairie Home Companion and while Altman was not at his best with that movie, he provided PTA with the formula that would establish the younger director as a critical darling. Stylistically, PTA borrowed Altman’s long-takes. These kinetic visuals and big casts showed Anderson how to make big statements and conceal flaws in storytelling so that the message of the movie would remain pristine.
With a wealth of focus points on the screen, each giving the viewer another piece of the dramatic puzzle without making the plot into a puzzle, shows the maturation of PTA’s style from the focused, dominate perspective of a single character like Sydney in Hard Eight to the wide-ranging perspective found in the climatic scenes of Magnolia.
2. Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
By way of Scorsese’s Americanization of the Italian Neorealist story structure, PTA learned that a protagonist’s dramatic weight is not measured in pounds per performance, but in the subtle errors that culminate in a final downfall. Goodfellas is based on the life story of Henry Hill and the group of gangsters he knew growing up.
They reached the heights of their demimonde only to deteriorate into their own personal hells. The genre of gangster films either emphasize the audience’s desire for the hero to escape punishment or to get the punishment that will rectify their errors. Goodfellas punishes the hero with an escape into the Witness Protection Program.
PTA took studious notes on Goodfellas when crafting Boogie Nights. Both are is essentially a story of how the pleasures of a subculture become rancorous with the changing times.
While there are cross-over ambiguities between the world of organized crime and the world of porn in the 1970s, it is not the legality of the occupation tying together the characters that interests the audience. In Boogie Nights, we do not wish to see Dirk Diggler punished for being a fornicator. We wish to see his character rounded out from the comfort of a woozy world of easy sex, vice and money to become a wiser person.
More technically, Anderson adopts the dynamic camera of Goodfellas to introduce us to the subculture and the player’s relationships. The famous Copacabana nightclub scene in Goodfellas is reproduced entirely in Boogie Nights.
PTA is known to rely on tight crews and ensembles of actors because it allows him to give the actors room to adjust the story. His scripts are his own, so he has no loyalty to their word over their intent. While making Goodfellas, Scorsese reportedly allowed Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro and others to ad-lib their lines and improvise. He made transcripts of these sessions and had the best results added to the shooting script.
3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme)
At one point, when PTA was asked to name the three directors that had the largest influence on his work, he said “Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Demme.” When PTA met Jonathan Demme he was worried that Demme would take exception to all the bits PTA stole for Boogie Nights. Demme was unaware of any thefts.
This thriller-to-end-all-thrillers features Jodie Foster fourteen years after her debut in Taxi Driver as FBI agent Clarice Starling who must tangle with Hannibal Lecter if she’s going to catch a serial killer. Anthony Hopkins plays his legacy role as the brilliant, cannibal psychiatrist who holds the key to the mysterious murders.
Both directors give priority to filling the backgrounds of their stories with life that may exist outside the camera’s attention. The tonal shifts from shock to empathy and the ability to coax unprecedented performances from their actors makes Demme and Anderson directors of intimate spectacles.
They use slow-encroaching close-ups to draw the audience to the edge of their seat. One feels as if they have been put across the interview-table from characters, or at their bedside. One becomes an intimate of dangerous characters like Hannibal Lecter or Daniel Plainview.
4. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
Struggling alcoholic Jack Torrance agrees to become the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during the winter off-season. He brings his wife and child, who has psychic powers, to stay in the grand, empty, historic hotel. The dark secrets of the Overlook hotel become unavoidable as Jack becomes hellbent on killing his family.
Kubrick’s use of steadicam, his hyper-realist color palette, and his plot centered around the emotional torment inflicted by a father figure inform much of PTA’s cinema. Punch Drunk Love is a prime example of how Kubrick’s style is utilized to tell a story of personal anguish in a detached, clinic visual style of bold, primary colors. Both films feature a bathroom scene where the lighting and the framing convey sadness, detachment and a disturbing emotional reaction to the pressures exerted on the main character.
Based on the novel by Steven King, Kubrick’s The Shining has essential differences from its source material. In the book, Jack is the victim of evil powers. In the movie, cabin fever is a plausible explanation for much of the hauntings. It is neither a shock-fest nor a tedious study of one man’s descent into madness. It is both and more.
5. Stray Dog (1948, Akira Kurosawa)
Filmed amid the rubble and suburban boom of post-war Japan, Stray Dog is the cop movie that set the formula for all cop movies where a rookie gets paired with a wise old cop. Toshiro Mifune is the handsome, dapper rookie cop who at the very beginning of the movie has made his grave error: he was too hot on the bus to notice a pickpocket stealing his gun. Freudian symbolism aside, this is a story about the twists of fate that make one man a cop and another a criminal. Expect the best that the genre can offer when sitting down to watch Stray Dog.
PTA loves this movie for its simplicity. “You can say it in one sentence: a rookie cop loses his gun. It’s unbelievable.” And perhaps the simplicity informs his later career move away from dazzling tracking shots and ensemble cast performances, but more to the heart of this movie is an auteurist eye for the individual crawling through the wreckage of a society in crisis.
The crisis in Stray Dog is both personal to the rookie cop, and societal to Japan as it tries to recover from utter devastation. The veterans and other lost souls refuse to be swiped under the rug by a new country with a non-god Emperor and a newfound fascination with baseball. It is a Japan that must reconcile both its rubble-residents and the bright suburban families that carry the weight of reconstruction on their collective shoulders.
Similar reconciliations are at the core of The Master—PTA’s post-war film—and Inherent Vice, where the beach bums and flatlanders are both California and neither wishes to relinquish what they have to create the next California. The extreme summer heat in Stray Dog oppresses the people in the story, heightening their drama. Inherent Vice does the same with the extreme paranoia of 1970s Los Angeles in the wake of the Mason Family Massacre, and the extreme alienation of WWII vets in post-war America that brings Freddy Quell to Lancaster Dodd and “The Cause”.