6. I Am Cuba (1964, Mikhail Kalatozov)
Much has been made here and elsewhere of the long tracking shot’s importance to PTA’s cinematic style. In Soy Cuba (I am Cuba), the long tracking shot is the occasion for viewing. Kalatozov used periscope technology to film a hotel’s lush poolside antics of wealthy patrons. The whole island was put at Mikhail Kalatozov’s disposal. Thousands of troops were moved for one scene, while the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on!
Make no mistake, this is a propaganda film for a communist regime and its allies. The story contains vignettes of life in Cuba before, during, and after the revolution. The narrator is supposed to be Cuba personified, and if that doesn’t sound awkward enough, the soundtrack is Spanish with hard Russian dubbing over top. One would be forgiven for watching clips of “I am Cuba” online instead of sitting through the whole movie.
However, the experience of seeing the camera handling, while knowing that it was done years before the invention of the steadicam, makes for a rapturous meditation on the powers of man with camera. When PTA was composing the long tracking shots that would make his name in Boogie Nights, he stole one such scene outright from the first five minutes of I am Cuba.
Unlike Robert Altman’s long tracking shots, the technique used in “I am Cuba” is not in service of a realistic portrayal of conversations and drawn-out actions. It is a spectacle, a presentation that offers no ambiguity of interpretation. An ambiguous message makes for bad propaganda.
What makes PTA’s appropriation of the long tracking shot’s power of spectacle so genius is that it is one among many modes by which he gives the movie over to a supernatural point of view. The cinematography of a PTA film is not grounded in character, though he understands his characters deeply. The world they have helped to create holds the camera aloft. It floats amid the atmosphere of their actions and reactions.
7. Badlands (1973, Terence Malick)
This “love and guns on the run” movie was Terrence Malick’s first film. Inspired by real-life teenage killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate, Holly (Sissy Spacek) narrates the progress of her relationship with Kit (Martin Sheen) from teen romance-turned-patricide to a epic journey across the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana.
This crime spree is very different from Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. Holly is a passive witness to most of the killing, whereas Bonnie is a participant and provoker. Bonnie and Clyde keeps the relationship within the bounds of a criminal organization’s needs for money and safety, while Badlands allows the relationship between Kit and Holly to drift around in spacious landscapes.
Badlands has an economy to the camera use that would later influence PTA’s “There Will Be Blood” and mark a transition away from the virtuoso tracking shots of his early work.
This is in no small part due to the influence of Jack Fisk, art director and production designer for There Will Be Blood and The Master as well as Badlands! In creating the look and atmosphere for these later PTA films, we see the focused attention to character interactions expand outward to include their environments and times. For example, There Will Be Blood is as much about the changing world of Western towns as it is about a man grown demonic from greed and ambition.
Another influence that was brought to bear in Inherent Vice was the use of character-narration. In Badlands, Holly tells the story of her relationship to Kit and their crime spree. Her tone is soft, dreamy, suggesting a lack of emotional maturity. There is a childlike naivety to how her commentary on events are imperfect and leaning on the language she picked up from movie magazines. The end result is a film that feels distant from its purpose, like the teenage killers’ distance from their moral transgressions.
PTA used this style of character-specific narration with Sortilège, played by musician Joanna Newsom, in Inherent Vice. Sortilège is a dreamy hippie friend and confidant to Doc Sportello. Her character and her narration serve the opposite function of Holly’s. Sortilège consoles us to the ambiguity of the plot and reassures Doc that he is doing the best he can given the circumstances.
Rather than give a fact-based account of what was going on, she describes the world in terms of astrology and the vague mix of emotions and memories. It is her narration that conveys the hazy worldview of the SoCal beach subculture that contrasts sharply with the manic, hard-lined, paranoid world closing in around it.
8. Walker (1987, Alex Cox)
Just as every era has it’s rebellion, so Hollywood finds a figurehead to represent that rebellion. In the early 80s, it looked like director Alex Cox would be the avatar of punk rock. His first movie, 1984’s Repo Man paired character actor Harry Dean Stanton with scion of Hollywood’s A-list Emilio Estevez for an outrageous adventure through the spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind world of Ronald Reagan’s California.
In 1987, Alex Cox made “Walker” and effectively ended his relationship with Hollywood. Punk Rock outlived the original purposes of its late 70s architects, and Alex Cox has outlived the original purpose of his Hollywood backers.
Ed Harris plays William Walker, the 19th century American venture imperialist who became dictator of Nicaragua for a spell. The mix of self-assurance and delusion he brings to the role is as much a character psychology as a representation of Manifest Destiny in American political history. Walker was always intended to be a critique of Reagan-era corruption, coercion, and invasion in Latin America, but the result is uneven. The second half of the film becomes surrealistic to a point of seeming just ill-conceived.
There Will Be Blood has closer thematic relevance to the critical nature of Walker but Inherent Vice is more madcap in its effort to tease out the shady real estate deals happening behind closed doors, forever altering the lives of many people. Inherent Vice deliberately spins out a plot nearly impossible to piece together.
This is in keeping with the source material, as Thomas Pynchon’s novels frequently flow from one event to the next with little cohesion for reader or hapless protagonist besides the creeping suspicion that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
9. North By Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistakenly targeted by a spy ring for being a government agent capable of exposing them. He is chased across the country, meets a mystery girl along the way, and must dare greatly to reclaim his life. It is a classic Hitchcock formula dating back to his films in the 1920s. North By Northwest has the benefit of Cary Grant’s arresting onscreen presence and the higher resolution, wider format of Vista Vision.
In The Master PTA emulates the classic quality of Vista Vision to reconstruct the special tension for which Hitchcock’s most famous films of the period are celebrated. Reviving the feel of North By Northwest is not a story or plot-based enterprise. PTA says it was about the way the music makes you feel and how Cary Grant could hold the audience enraptured.
Certainly much of The Master is about building up Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s onscreen presence and then poking holes in it. However, it is Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, who electrified audiences with his performance.
10. The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman)
We end where we began: with Robert Altman. His influence on PTA cannot be overstated and is arguably one of the strongest mentorship relationships in American cinema. The Long Goodbye is Altman’s adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, updated to the 1970s and reflects the particularly grim nihilism of that era in Hollywood. The reflection is ironic.
Elliot Gould’s portrayal of Philip Marlowe has almost nothing in common with the iconic Humphrey Bogart. Altman makes Philip Marlowe a 50s antihero adrift in a 70s context. He drives an old car and mumbles Golden Era Hollywood clichés. He wears an American flag themed tie in a Southern California still raging against the war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon. Most essentially,
In this particular outing of Philip Marlowe, an old buddy asks him for a ride to Mexico. Upon his return it is revealed that the buddy’s wife has died and he is wanted for questioning by the police. He becomes a suspect until it is reported that the buddy committed suicide in Mexico. The case is closed but Philip Marlowe remains skeptical, especially when he gets mixed up in a complicated investigation involving the murdered wife, a gangster, an alcoholic writer and his wife, and a self-help guru. The sun-drenched Malibu setting makes for ironic contrast to the usual urban locations of film noir.
Inherent Vice has a similar plot, even including a scene at a private clinic, but the look of the movie has a lot in common with The Long Goodbye too. Altman’s cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was ordered to give L.A. a faded look, like old postcards. Inherent Vice has that look as well, especially when Doc goes to find Glen Charlock at the brothel that fronts as a massage parlor.
The nostalgic coloring of both movies accompanies the nostalgia of the plot. Both directors were in their mid-forties when making their respective film. Inherent Vice looks back on the 70s of Southern California (when PTA was a child) in much the same way that a jaded Robert Altman in the nihilistic 1970s looked back on a time when antiheros would still be described as “neither tarnished nor afraid.”
As of this writing, Paul Thomas Anderson has followed a personal vision of cinema to new territory. His Altmanesque classics like Boogie Nights and Magnolia pushed him to widen the scope of his dramas and expand his casts around the dramatic center of a torrid father-son type relationship. Then Punch Drunk Love was him refocusing on a single man in a short, simple modern fairy tale. With this new focus on character study, he once again broadened his films to capture bygone times with central characters as sublime as their settings.
The Master and There Will Be Blood have now given way to Inherent Vice, which signals a continuing journey. It is an in-between film but the destination has not been given away. Like the final scene, where Doc Sportello and Shasta are driving north with only the occasional gleam of other headlights in the fog around them, there is a comfortable unfamiliarity in the journey. Doc looks at the camera and smiles at the end. He doesn’t know what is next but he welcomes it.
Author Bio: Chris is a 29 year old grant-writer for a meditation retreat center in the Colorado Rockies, but he came here first to make short videos about the center. His favorite directors are Federico Fellini, Kurosawa, Billy Wilder, the Coen Bros., Stanley Kubrick, and Edgar Wright.