Sustenance

Published on January 30th, 2018

Alex writes about The Post and Phantom Thread.

When I saw The Post last Friday, it was a fascinating experience before the movie even started. Walking into the mostly full 500 seat theatre during the previews, the reflection of the Mamma Mia 2 trailer on a sea of bald heads and their white-haired counterparts was brighter than the screen itself. I found my customary seat in this theatre I adore – conveniently, my seat of choice is always empty – and settled in amongst the 400-or-so people not of my age. I was not surprised by the turnout. Seeing movies among a collection of octogenarians has been an occasional occurrence for me for 15 years now – this is what happens when you go to a Sunday matinee of Mystic River or a Super Bowl Sunday matinee of Michael Clayton, or a Friday matinee of a Steven Spielberg movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Sometimes, your tastes skew old.

We all watched The Post together: myself, a smattering of adults with their parents, and a borderline comical number of older couples who seemed pretty excited about this particular movie. And the experience was deeply fun, for all the reasons going to the movies with a lot of people can be fun. It was a Steven Spielberg film, after all, so we knew we would be getting expertly crafted entertainment. We felt the cast would be able to sell some of the hack lines that come from a script co-written by the writer of Spotlight and guided by the man who – despite his staggering career high points – also directed War Horse. The audience was thoroughly entertained as well, and even full on applauded a particularly satisfying moment in the latter half of the film, and then applauded again as the credits rolled. I heard the word “prescient” in three separate conversations as I sat in my seat during the credits, and I was caught in a totally acceptable aisle roadblock caused by a mishap with a walker for a couple minutes after the credits ended. It was a legitimately fantastic experience and it has surely elevated The Post in my mind as time has passed and I continue to think about it.

When discussing The Post the next day with somebody who had not seen the film, I praised it in the way I had praised Bridge of Spies two years previous. The blocking, I said, was staggering. Everything that has been said about Spielberg as a formalist remains true. In response, my fellow film fan said, “These are things only you will care about.”

This is probably true. There are parts of The Post where my attention drifted from the dialogue to the movement of the camera, and the various ways Spielberg can direct the viewer’s attention without the assistance of a cut. In hindsight, these are the things that stick with me about a Spielberg movie: not so much the story itself as the filmmaker’s ability to keep us engrossed in that ongoing story.

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In a recent conversation with director Patty Jenkins for the Directors’ Guild of America podcast, Spielberg said some predictably annoying things, but he mostly said predictably interesting things. Discussing the first scene Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks share in the film – which was also the first scene the pair shot together – Spielberg addresses why the scene plays out entirely in the master wide shot, despite the assembly cut being built with elements of the ample coverage Spielberg shot.

“When I got to the end of the day I realized they were so comfortable with each other,” he told Jenkins, “I said, ‘this is playing like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, why cut? Why even use any of the coverage?’ So I played that entire scene in the master.”

Watching the film before having heard this discussion, I recall being surprised there were no cuts found in the scene in question. It’s not unlike Spielberg to have a long-ish take in his movie – he’s famous for them, and there are numerous beautiful examples of them throughout The Post – but those are usually designed in a more elegant way than they were here. In this particular scene, I was struck by how the camera moved to follow Streep’s entrance as she sits down with Hanks, before the camera settles into a static position next to Hanks. This is where I assume Spielberg always thought he would cut, because – after a pause – the camera dollies back over to Streep’s side of frame. Spielberg never shies away from using intriguing blocking to keep the viewer interested for a longer take, but this was a decidedly non-Spielberg move. It felt like he always intended to come back to the master shot for the move back to Streep, but that the interim would be filled with coverage. It was the type of movement that indicated he always thought this scene would have a more conventional editing structure. Which it did in his head, until he realized he didn’t need it to anymore.

“Because you know when we cut to a close-up, we’re editorializing,” Spielberg continued. “The second we make a cut, we’re making a statement. We all know why we’re making the cut, and the audience subliminally is supposed to feel the purpose of the cut, but it’s totally editorializing. And I thought, ‘why don’t we let the audience do the editorializing? Let them choose who they’re most compelled to listen to and watch the most by not involving coverage.’ And so that was just an example of how I think that scene just cooks better in a three minute sustained master just with the two characters talking than it did when I saw the first cut which was all coverage.”

Disagreeing with Spielberg about the constructions of filmmaking is like disagreeing with Michael Jordan about the effectiveness of fade away midrange jumpers, and as such I will not do that here. Spielberg’s comments on editorializing are exactly correct, but the restraint it takes to hold to that conviction requires a level of confidence most people don’t have (as well as a pair of actors that pretty much everybody likes watching). It’s especially telling that, in making his comparisons to other actors, he compares Streep and Hanks to actors whose heyday came a full half-century ago. He could have simply said, “because everybody likes watching Tom Hanks and everybody likes watching Meryl Streep,” and yet he felt it important to invoke the past, because he always does.

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The other film I saw earlier that same afternoon, Phantom Thread, utilized camera movement and long takes in totally different ways that are similarly built into this auteur’s style. In the later work of director Paul Thomas Anderson (what will presumably one day be called mid-period PTA, starting with The Master), Anderson has become interested in holding static shots for an extended period of time. Either there’s no cut as a conversation plays out, or the camera holds on a character’s face for longer than most would dream of, or there are multiple people in the shot and the camera slowly moves in to reveal the nature of the conversation.

Anderson has always been obsessed with the talents of actors, and as time has passed he has become more willing to let his complicated, fast-paced camera ideas evolve into more patient ones. (The man who devised Julianne Moore’s staggering introductory shot in Magnolia is gone, or at least experiencing a period of prolonged dormancy.) Less so than Spielberg, Anderson’s long-ish takes are often static, or feature a camera moving only ever so slightly; it is uncommon for these takes to play out with any real flourish of camera movement anymore.

Anderson has always been a filmmaker young enough – and his influences accessible enough – that somebody my age can generally gather where PTA’s ideas are coming from. He has always professed a love for Robert Altman, and the camera movements that we all remember from Boogie Nights (aka porn by way of Goodfellas) and Magnolia (aka Nashville and Short Cuts by way of Goodfellas) are pure Martin Scorsese. From that point on, Anderson began a transition to what I have come to see as a strong appreciation for Stanley Kubrick. Punch-Drunk Love was a transition movie created within a period of experimentation, and There Will Be Blood was his stab at Barry Lyndon. The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread form a sort of “I love Eyes Wide Shut” trilogy, each film about going in circles, each film ending on a quiet note of defeatism.

When I watch early Anderson films now, I always feel like the edits are more driven by pure aesthetics (and perhaps cocaine), whereas when I watch something like Phantom Thread I tend to think there’s a real reason behind most cuts. When a director is willing to hold onto a shot for so long, chances are there’s a good reason they eventually broke that hold on their viewer. Whether or not this belief is something Anderson and his team intend, it is true that the less you obviously editorialize, the more confident an asshole like me is going to be in saying you’re cutting to inject meaning.

Take Phantom Thread, a movie that almost feels specifically designed to be claustrophobic. It seems the entire production took up their home in whichever set they were working in, and if Anderson’s word is to be believed, no work was done on a soundstage. The crew had to carry the lights up and down the stairs to shoot in the house, because there wasn’t the comfort of an elevator to help them transport the gear. The finished film is full of gorgeously cluttered long-lens static shots, compressing the character in a frame that is frequently adorned with out of focus obstructions in front of them. Each character is stuck in a world of clutter but deeply alone, the exceptions to the aesthetic rule only coming when they fit the story.

One notable shot with multiple characters in frame comes after Reynolds Woodcock’s first recovery from illness. Reynolds wakes up Alma from her couch-bound slumber, the pair framed in a wide two shot next to a dress Reynolds damaged after his illness caused him to collapse on top of it. While he recovered, said dress was fixed by others, and as such it becomes a symbol of this perfectionist’s own insignificance. Through his illness, Alma was the one person Reynolds felt he needed around him, so as soon as he is healthy he asks her to marry him. This scene is told in a two shot because, as opposed to the majority of this deeply solitary film, Reynolds felt willing to invite somebody into frame with him. Furthermore, the camera creeps in throughout this extended take, leaving a stool and other objects in the foreground behind to end on a clean shot as Alma agrees to marry Reynolds. We’re pushing past the obstructions to be together, this shot says, and its lack of edits shows us this is a moment worth leaving unbroken.

If there’s one continued theme in this recent run of PTA films, it’s the cyclical nature of our lives. Each of his three most recent movies revolves around a character learning what they should have already known at the beginning of the film: this is what life is. You can accept it, or you can live through another series of the same cycles before eventually accepting it anyway. At some point, you’re pretty much set as you are.

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When I go to see a Paul Thomas Anderson movie today, I go in thinking that I might be about to see my new favourite movie, because that’s basically what happened in September 2012 when I first saw The Master. This 2012 occurrence is only possible, though, because I didn’t have the same, vaunted opinion of PTA many already held in a post-There Will Be Blood world. Contrary to popular opinion, I think There Will Be Blood is possibly as low as his second worst film (it’s still a great movie, just saying), and that gave me a freedom to be blown away. I didn’t go in with a set of preconceived notions; I thought this guy’s last movie was more than slightly overrated, then I saw his new movie and became his biggest fan, and that experience more or less excluded me from ever having that experience again. Life’s funny that way.

By the time I saw my first Steven Spielberg movie, I’m pretty confident I knew Spielberg’s name. He’s simply that famous. He’s the Michael Jackson of filmmakers. (It’s possible I saw E.T. at a very young age and didn’t know who he was, but I was reading Spielberg biographies by the time I was 10.) By the time I was born, Spielberg films had been pre-editorialized in so many ways: I knew what I would find goofy about The Post before I saw it, and it turns out I was right. I knew what I would love about The Post before I saw it, and it turns out I was right. I did not expect the ensemble cast to be as exciting as it was, but that’s a relatively mild surprise. The Post was entertaining in the exact way I anticipated, and annoying in the exact way I anticipated. Sometimes, you’re right. Life’s funny that way.

When I walk into a cinema, it’s unlikely I know nothing about the movie I’m about to see; I have constructed my life in a way that basically ensures that is an impossible occurrence. When I walk into a theatre, it’s unlikely I know any of the people sitting around me. When I get up, I don’t know these people any more, and anything I had time to learn about them is exceedingly tangential. I live my life in a way meant to ensure the former is the case much more than the latter. I don’t want to walk into a room without at least a slight expectation of what I’m going to find there. In the best-case scenarios, what I find is different from what I expected, even in a scenario where I thought I knew what I was getting. This is a cycle that will only keep repeating itself.

Anderson is (debatably) the defining filmmaker for my generation, where Spielberg has an utter dominance over a generation that came before. I’m far enough removed from that generation to want to make fun of it, and as such I come prepared with barbs about how divorced parents will get back together or how that dead son isn’t really dead or a way too cutesy tie-in to the Watergate break in. Anderson gets more benefit of the doubt because his thematic ideas weren’t well known to me by the time I was in high school. At some point in the decades to come, Anderson will release a film that I’ll be there for on opening day, and there will be some douchebag in his early 30s with a curiosity to watch a legend at work. That dummy will be silently thinking to himself, “Really? Another film about an alienated serious man?” not unlike how I groaned at the kid with the lemonade stand in The Post. I’ll call the new PTA film prescient, and my walker will block the aisle for a minute after the credits. I will be embarrassed, but people will understand.

You will keep walking into rooms filled with people you know nothing about. In almost all of those situations, you will learn little to nothing about those people, and in most of these situations what you do learn is about as much as somebody using the word “prescient.” It’s hard to tell a whole scene in a wide, let alone a whole story. You’ll never be able to experience a life where you don’t want to cut away, but knowing you want to fix your gaze at the same place for an extended period of time is better than most of us ever get.

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