The Steadicam [is] very much abused. But if you realise what it feels like, which is kind of dreamy, and kinda floaty, and you apply that and you know that that’s what it’s gonna do, then you’re using it well.
– Paul Thomas Anderson (1)
In each of the four feature-length films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, there is at least one visually arresting moment when a Steadicam follows a moving target in a long take, effecting a continuous trajectory forwards, backwards and sideways – descending from the heavens, winding through corridors and plunging into swimming pools. These shots respect dramatic time and space because of their continuity in both respects. This instance of visible continuity does not imply, however, the construction of a realistic diegesis in the Bazinian sense, for the content might originate somewhere foreign to our reality.
The focus of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films lies more on the spectacular presentation of their material than is the case in the films of Robert Altman, a director to whom he is inevitably (albeit simplistically) compared. Altman’s goal was a humanistic realism – the mimetic representation of daily conversations, for example. Anderson uses this kind of ambiance as one layer of his storytelling fabric, onto which he adds spectacular audiovisual imagery that no longer adheres to the laws of physical nature.
A self-made filmmaker without any film school education, Paul Thomas Anderson has written all of his films himself; he is the purest auteur of the contemporary movie industry – even obtaining the exceptional right of final cut on his projects.
The long tracking shot is a way for the director to display (in almost boastful fashion) his skills as a conductor of complex actions over time, and many of today’s top filmmakers have tried to top each other, sometimes completely undermining the credibility at the root of these shots’ success. David Fincher’s widely quoted tracking shot in Panic Room (2002) – the camera seemingly descends a staircase, enters a keyhole and proceeds to shoot past the handle of a coffee pot – is unashamedly manipulated by special effects and strictly speaking doesn’t even qualify as a continuous shot. While the tracking shot that follows Bruce Willis past an apartment building, through a hole in the fence and across an open field in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is noteworthy, it contains but a single character and travels in only one direction: forward. Much the same is true of another long Steadicam take in the same film, where Vincent Vega (John Travolta) walks around the Jack Rabbit Slim’s diner: forward movement, one central character, no dialogue.
In this regard, Anderson distinguishes himself with a firm grasp of mise en scène – he uses a multitude of props, characters, snippets of dialogue, music pumping full-blast on the soundtrack and pitch-perfect choreography – that remains engaging because of the cinematic energy he conjures up in the process.
The Golden Thread of the PTA Canon
Paul Thomas Anderson’s impressive visual virtuosity is not limited to his feature films. At first glance, The Dirk Diggler Story (1988), a 30-minute short film directed by a teenage Anderson, is a collection of interviews conducted after the death of the titular central character. In what could have been a modernist set-up for a mock documentary, Anderson pauses during the climax to provide a visually significant event: in a take that lasts 70 seconds (2), Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera tracks forwards, sideways and backwards around a pornographic film crew in prayer. It is a take filled with black humour and contradiction: having asked the Lord’s blessing that Dirk Diggler (Michael Stein) should perform without premature ejaculation, the take ends when Diggler has overdosed in the bathroom.
The singularity of the take’s visual form, the tracking shot that lasts much longer than anticipated, together with the narrative content, the supplication of divine action (prevention of flaccidity), creates suspense and expectation. These hopes are met with a decidedly downbeat response: the death of Diggler (even though still unbeknownst to both the viewer and the characters) and a cut. The moment of the great supernatural having passed, harsh reality intervenes and smashes the poise of the preceding shot.
Anderson’s next short film was the 24-minute Cigarettes & Coffee (1992) and is set almost exclusively at a small diner near Las Vegas. Anderson establishes an evident connection between the characters – two couples and a man – by means of tracking shots that link the conversations at various dramatic pauses. A spectacular low-angle push-in (or brief forward tracking shot on a static object) appears smack in the middle of the revelatory sequence of events that acknowledges a build-up of spatial and temporal coincidences. The shot neatly frames the mysterious stranger, whose fragmented presence right through the film is given meaning by the previous conversation and given stature by the visual form that Anderson employs. The push-in also demonstrates an energy that elicits a feeling of elation and exhilaration in the viewer.
With Hard Eight (1996) (3), his first feature-length film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s bravura use of the Steadicam allows much more elaborately staged tracking shots, and his subsequent films all benefit from very skilfully directed long takes filmed with this apparatus that smoothes out the camera’s movement. In fact, Anderson’s very first shot is a Steadicam tracking shot accompanying Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) as he crosses the road, walks over some stepping-stones and stops in front of a crestfallen John (John C. Reilly) sitting next to the entrance of a roadside diner. The director immediately emphasises what would become the basis for the signature shots of his films: the crafty tracking shot.
Half an hour into Hard Eight, hard on the heels of our first glimpse of the film’s fourth and final major character, Sydney crosses the length of a hall filled with slot machines and bright lights in a complex tracking shot that starts off filming him frontally, then from the side and finally from behind. The shot lasts 74 seconds. Sydney is the centre of attention almost throughout, except when the camera briefly pans away – while remaining in motion – and picks up Sydney elsewhere in the room moments later, when he reaches a craps table and throws the dice.
Framing the crucial dramatic turn of events in a motel, Anderson’s camera first executes a tracking shot, following Sydney from his car in the parking lot, up the stairs, along the outside corridor, to the door of the motel room. After an intense interior scene, the Steadicam tracks backwards, keeping the moving characters inside the frame, even as they descend the staircase, and ends the shot outside the parking lot, in the main street.
The first shot of Boogie Nights (1997) – a combination of Steadicam and crane work – is astounding in its complexity and is unmatched by any of Anderson’s previous (or subsequent) work. While Anderson tends to use his camera to explore the physical trajectory of his characters, this particular tracking shot uses the vertical axis and thus evokes a feeling of the impossible becoming possible. The camera descends from above to mix with the porn community below. Anderson’s aptitude as a director shines through not only in the complicated staging of the camera movements, but also in his mise en scène: the orchestration of his cast in a take that lasts 165 seconds – the longest shot duration in Anderson’s entire career.
Anderson’s dynamic camera work calls to mind the cinema of Martin Scorsese and it is only to be expected that this tracking shot will be compared to Scorsese’s legendary Steadicam shot at the Copacabana nightclub in GoodFellas (1990).
At a pool party later in the film, the camera eavesdrops on two separate conversations, snaking between the guests and the other sunbathers, and, after following a girl into the swimming pool, breaks the surface once more to show the character of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) jack-knifing into the pool from the diving board. Recognising his debt (4) to the audacious construction of a particular shot in the first five minutes of Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964), during which the camera dives into a hotel swimming pool, Paul Thomas Anderson spends as much time and effort developing his characters and establishing a communal space in which they and the camera can operate without restraint as he does in setting up a technically complicated shot and executing it with great skill and flair.
Another filmmaker who grew up on films as a way of forming himself in the craft of filmmaking is Quentin Tarantino. As an interesting comparison, a scene at the beginning of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) supports the contention that the crane shot possesses some supernatural implication. The camera tracks back, from the altar to the front lawn of the church (a symbol of the divine), where the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DIVAS) arrives. They enter the church and proceed to kill most of its occupants whilst the camera ascends without losing sight of the killing spree. The camera may be seen as God (symbol of Good), who exits the church and allows the DIVAS (symbol of Evil) to enter and kill – He is watching from the heavens and does not interfere.
A more classical approach to the tracking shot, especially to its function as a complete narrative element with a set-up, a complication and a resolution, is evident at one of the evening parties Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) in another demonstration of Anderson’s very impressive use of the Steadicam. William H. Macy’s character, Little Bill, enters Horner’s house through the front door and, whilst trying to locate his wife, wanders through the crowd. He finally manages to track her down among the madness and is stunned when he discovers her having sex with one of the guests. Little Bill returns to his car, takes his pistol, walks back to the bedroom and shoots both his wife and the other man. This continuous shot lasts 161 seconds and, while constantly focused on Little Bill, the camera executes forwards, backwards and sideways moves relative to him.
In Magnolia (1999), Anderson ups the stakes on every level. Dealing with coincidences and criss-crossing numerous major storylines in a film that lasts more than three hours, Magnolia’s climax seems to have been taken from a myth. The major tracking shot in this film occurs within the world of television (the world of images), at the studio where a television quiz show called What Do Kids Know? is being shot. The camera, starting outside under a heavy downpour before entering the production building, follows or accompanies an assortment of characters as they pass each other in the corridors, into elevators and greenrooms: 1) Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) and his father (Michael Bowen); 2) Stanley, his father and Cynthia (Felicity Huffman), the show’s coordinator; 3) Stanley’s father; 4) a production assistant; 5) Stanley and Cynthia; 6) Mary (Eileen Ryan), the assistant of Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall).
The shot lasts 122 seconds and ends – at first glance – without a significant climactic event. The last image we see before the cut to another brief tracking shot (picking up Mary, in post-modern fashion, at an angle perpendicular to her movement) is a big drawing of Gator’s face on the door. This image of an image (Jimmy Gator is a television icon), like the slow-motion used to highlight Dirk Diggler when he appears at the end of Boogie Nights’ opening shot, reminds us that the tracking shot is made up of both natural and unnatural elements, the latter sometimes revealing that reality is still one more step away.
The art form of the opera is often invoked (5) in discussions about this film and with due pertinence. Magnolia is indeed operatic: it is a melodrama from beginning to end, glossed over with many of Aimee Mann’s songs, has a musical number (in which nine main characters sing one song together with disregard of all logic of space and collective presence) and even features a direct citation from an opera when Stanley sings an aria from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. A professional opera singer subsequently repeats this aria on the soundtrack, as if called upon by the young Stanley.
The previously mentioned musical number – in which most of the cast participates across the spatial divide and without any definite musical source – and the biblical climax are further events that blur the distinction between natural and preternatural. A spectacle creates a feeling of “being overwhelmed” and this sensation is produced by the capable hands of Anderson when he uses his camera, his editing (or lack thereof) and his screenplay in innovative ways to create a vital energy on-screen.
The poster image of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) features Adam Sandler and Emily Watson kissing in silhouette in the archway of a Hawaiian hotel. The Magritte-like image visually pinpoints the surrealism (or a sense of heightened reality) that pervades the entire narrative and interestingly it is the only shot taken from a fixed position within a cluster of seven shots – the others being either push-ins or tracking shots, symmetrically surrounding this central image. Immediately following the magical image of the kiss, the camera meanders through an outdoor restaurant, swerving around tables, and finally fixes on the newly formed couple. Much like the impressive opening shot of Boogie Nights, the camera starts as an autonomous entity roaming freely (but propelled forward by a very audible soundtrack) before focusing on and accompanying one or more characters.
“So now then…”
While Paul Thomas Anderson’s tracking shots are much shorter and less elaborate than Alfonso Cuarón’s visual constructions (6) that serve as complete scenes (the single-shot sequence of especially the neo-realist filmmakers whom André Bazin held in such high esteem), the desire for the supernatural – to increase the spectacular aspect of his storytelling – is evident in these particular shots.
Furthermore, the extensive presence of magical realism in Anderson’s most recent work should be emphasised. Certain events occur that the characters do not perceive as something totally out of the ordinary, and yet these events are always exceptional, and at times downright impossible. Magnolia’s sing-along and the falling frogs certainly fit these categories. So too does the occurrence of the digits ‘8’ and ‘2’ throughout the film, ostensibly referring to Exodus 8:2 (directly cited at numerous intervals) – the biblical passage reporting on the imminent plague of frogs.
Punch-Drunk Love is even more liberal in its treatment of reality. A mysterious light, that seems to emanate from the instrument itself, lights up the face of Barry (Adam Sandler) while he plays the harmonium for the first time. Luminous red, white and blue spots of unknown origin appear in the background during the car accident at the end of the film. Finally, there are the puddings that physically call out to Barry and instruct him (“Come here! Barry, come here!”) when he is most in need of assistance. Barry (highly-strung, but definitely not hallucinating) does not bat at eye at the apparent absurdity of this phenomenon.
The tracking shot fulfils an essential function in the creation of an illusion of the film’s realism, and the presence of some extraordinary elements within these supposedly unfettered slices of reality casts a beautiful glow over the entire shot. Conversely, the presence of the long tracking shot within the structure of the film stabilises any tension that supernatural elements might otherwise create within a realist narrative. In this respect, Anderson’s tracking shots normalise the extraordinary with equally extraordinary panache.
André Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, What is Cinema? Vol. I, translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 41-52.
- This quotation is taken from the commentary track (director and cast) of the Region 2 collector’s edition DVD of Hard Eight.
- A considerable length in a film with an average shot length (ASL) of 14.89 seconds. The film contains 121 shots and my NTSC VHS copy of the film had a total running time of 30 minutes and 2 seconds (excluding the credits on black). If the static interview segments, the black screens and full-screen photos are subtracted, in order to give a visual average of the action proper, we get an ASL of 12.61 seconds (93 shots in 19 minutes and 33 seconds).
- Originally entitled Sydney, the film was renamed after the production company Rysher Entertainment took it away from Paul Thomas Anderson for re-editing. In the end, the director’s cut was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. While Anderson prefers his original title, the film has since been marketed and distributed as Hard Eight. This has been widely documented; among other resources, see Sharon Waxman’s Rebels on the Backlot (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), pp. 89-91, and James Mottram’s The Sundance Kids (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 145, for further details.
- Paul Thomas Anderson explicitly cites I Am Cuba as the inspiration for this shot in the director’s commentary of the Boogie Nights DVD (Region 2 collector’s edition).
- Roger Ebert begins and ends his review of the film with sentences mentioning the particularly “operatic” aspects of both the production’s ambitions and length; see Roger Ebert, “Magnolia”, Chicago Sun-Times, 7 January 2000. James Mottram implies an exaggerated melodramatic tone to Anderson’s films with the following statement: “P. T. Anderson […] gives new meaning to the term ‘soap opera’, raising the everyday to an operatic intensity.” (p. 142). Alain Badiou goes even further in his assessment of the film’s operatic characteristics: “Every actor, like an opera singer, has an aria – in other words, an opportunity for him to show what he can do.: (p. 62; my translation) Alain Badiou, «Oui à l’amour, sinon la solitude», L’art du cinéma, No. 38, Autumn 2002, Paris, Cinéma Art Nouveau, pp. 56-77. Many more examples are to be found, from Emanuel Levy in Variety to Janet Maslin calling it an “artfully orchestrated symphony”; Emanuel Levy, “Magnolia”, Variety, 10 December 1999; Janet Maslin, “Magnolia”, The New York Times, 17 December 1999.
- In particular, a combination Steadicam-crane shot of a shoot-out on the open road in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) comes to mind.