On THE CAREER OF PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON IN FIVE SHOTS
By Kevin B. Lee
I made The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots for Sight & Sound Magazine as an online supplement to their November 2012 cover story on Anderson’s The Master.[1. Kevin B. Lee, ‘VIDEO ESSAY: Steadicam progress – The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots’, Sight & Sound Magazine, November 2012 ] To account for its making, I’d like to mention another video I made four months prior, a critical homage to Harun Farocki titled Interface 2.0, produced for the inaugural issue of Frames Cinema Journal[1. Kevin B. Lee, ‘Interface 2.0’, Frames Cinema Journal, Issue 1.1, July 2012. Online at: http://framescinemajournal.com/article/interface-2-0/.]. At this time I had been making video essays for five years, mostly amounting to cinephile appreciations of different aspects of canonical films and filmmakers. Engaging with Farocki’s acutely observant, systematic yet poetic approach to analyzing images engendered new priorities in my own work.
VIDEO 2: Interface 2.0
I’ve produced reflections on Farocki in each of the last three years; taken together they form an extended inquiry into what the video essay could be. In the Frames Cinema Journal piece, I came away with a desire for video essays that could free themselves from the conventional dependence on voiceover narration, and fulfill Farocki’s stated vision of “images commenting on images.” Last year, in writing about the essay film for Sight & Sound [1. Kevin B. Lee, ‘Video essay: The essay film – some thoughts of discontent,’ Sight & Sound, Updated August 8, 2014. Online at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/deep-focus/video-essay-essay-film-some-thoughts], I emphasized the ability of Farocki’s work to stimulate an awareness of how images function within the social systems that govern our daily existence, necessitating a more critical regard for images as the embodiments of those systems.
Writing again for Sight & Sound this year[1. Kevin Lee, ‘Letter to Harun Farocki’, Sight & Sound, August 28, 2014. Online at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/obituaries/letter-harun-farocki.], I elaborated further on a kind of image-making that could stand in purposeful opposition to the dominant ways in which images are deployed. In short, Farocki made me realize that it wasn’t enough for a video essay to analyze the films as self-contained works of art. It was important, even imperative, for video essays to somehow arrive at new forms of audiovisual expression through a critical engagement with established modes of image making. Farocki made me aware that video essays, despite their seemingly secondary or derivative stature, bore a potential to emerge as a transformative form of image-making, bearing a special kind of autonomy engendered by a singular combination of the creative and the critical that is unique to the form.
I must also mention another video, Mapping the Long Take: Bela Tarr and Miklós Jancsó, [1. Kevin B. Lee, ‘Video: Mapping the Long Take: Béla Tarr and Miklós Jancsó’, FANDOR: Keyframe, September 14, 2012. Online at: http://www.fandor.com/keyframe/video-mapping-the-long-take-bela-tarr-and-miklos-jancso.] produced for Fandor a month prior to the Anderson video and which, seen in retrospect, served as a warm-up piece. It was here that I first experimented with maps as a way of exploring two of cinema’s most renowned auteurs of lyrical camera movement. Mapping was clearly a simple and intuitive approach for accounting for the cinematographic artistry of these films; but the means of mapping proved daunting. What software or animation techniques would I need to learn? In the end, I fell back on a makeshift solution, otherwise it would have taken days if not weeks to learn a more sophisticated technique. I employed Microsoft Power Point, a software with which I was comfortable using, even if admittedly it wasn’t designed for this particular task.
But by the time I entered the Anderson project, I was more decisive, even determined, to make the most of this lo-fi solution and embrace it for its own amateurish attributes. There are some video essayists who display remarkable graphical dexterity and sophisticated presentation in their work (kogonada and Tony Zhou readily come to mind), but somehow I’ve never been able to achieve that degree of polish; there’s something doggedly amateurish that I can’t seem to shake in my work. But I celebrate DIY as an aesthetic identity for those who work from the position of disadvantage, and who must rely on what limited tool set he or she has at their disposal. In this sense, the Anderson video isn’t just a reverential appraisal of an auteur (as so many video essays are, perhaps too many), but an articulation of one viewer’s conflicted relationship to that auteur’s work (and the industrialized filmmaking apparatus he has at his disposal) and in doing so establishes its own aesthetic ethos. This aesthetic position is directly linked to one’s position within film culture, informed by specific economic, social and even political relations (in regards to the film industry’s power over cinephiles as a kind of political power). These concerns would stay with me and eventually find their way into my main video essay project of this year, Transformers: The Premake (http://www.alsolikelife.com/premake/).
VIDEO 5: Transformers: The Premake
Rewatching the Anderson video, I remember how much fun it was to approximate the geographic layout of the sets on Power Point slides, using the basic shapes the application provided (the one exception being the overhead craps and blackjack table .gifs I found on the internet, which give the map of the shot in Hard Eight a goofily literal element). And of course there are the fonts, a silly way to pay homage to each film while also accounting for what was available at that time on the internet for amateur access . I also remember being surprised at how much my esteem of Magnolia (which up to the making of this video had been my favorite Anderson film) lessened in the course of engaging with its one shot represented in the video. In deliberating its virtues, I came to realize how gratuitously busy and frantic it was, like the rest of the film. This shift in my evaluation of Anderson’s filmography was accompanied by a shift in my appreciation of different strategies of cinematography: from the more showy and athletic movements through space to a more subtle and resourceful utilization of the camera in coordination with staging and temporal progression.
In rewatching, I’m also struck by the art history professor quality of the narration, which, from my present standpoint, seems to indulge a bit much in the act of interpretation, to the extent that it risks foisting too much auteurial intention on the work. The pros and cons of such an approach are debatable, but one criticism of this video that really stayed with me was posted on the website Catecinem[1. M.J. Schneider, ‘P. T. Anderson: a narrative of tracking shots’, Catecinem, November 20, 2012. Online at: http://catecinem.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/anderson-narrative-construct/]. Its author expressed reservations about the video’s account of an overarching and evolving singular artistic vision in these films, the classic “cult of the auteur” approach which too often neglects the material realities of the production, such as the contributions of other crew (e.g. director of photography, lighting, Steadicam operator). A few months later at the 2013 SCMS conference, my misgivings were redoubled while listening to Katie Byrd, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, discuss in depth the work of Steadicam operators as an exemplary case of “invisible labor” – a moving, floating eye that seems to negate the actual body moving it, and how this relation the experience of a work and the labor behind it suggested a larger systematized logic of social alienation perpetuated by the professional film industry. The specific observations on steadicam labor in her presentation provoked larger questions for me about the extent to which the film industry and cinephile culture is consumed by an impulse to escape material reality, and to what extent this impulse needs to be countered.
It was at this point that I took a more active interest in thinking about how video essays could show the unseen hands at work behind every frame, and less about how the cinematic frame presents itself as a finished work of art (which remains the primary concern of most video essay work). This line of inquiry took me back to Farocki – one of the foremost cinematic investigators of underlying systems of governance and labor within the image – for another round of viewing and reflection. I can’t say that I have pursued these concerns consistently – I still lapse into auteurist fawning on occasion – but having made Transformers: The Premake I can say that I’ve at least given myself a solid signpost to point me further in the direction I think I should go, a signpost that to some extent was planted on the maps of Paul Thomas Anderson’s camera movements.
Kevin B. Lee is a film critic, filmmaker, and leading proponent of video form film criticism, having produced over 100 short video essays on cinema and television over the past five years. He is a video essayist and founding editor of Fandor, and editor of Indiewire’s Press Play blog, labelled by Roger Ebert as “the best source of video essays online.”
Lee also serves as VP of Programming and Education for dGenerate Films, the only specialty distributor of Chinese independent cinema in the U.S. Kevin previously served as supervising producer of ’Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies’, and has written on film for Sight & Sound, the Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out and Cineaste.
He tweets at @alsolikelife.