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What is Auteur Theory? – Definition and Examples

What is Auteur Theory and Why Is It Important?

Auteur Theory is a way of looking at films that state that the director is the “author” of a film. The Auteur theory argues that a film is a reflection of the director’s artistic vision; so, a movie directed by a given filmmaker will have recognizable, recurring themes and visual queues that inform the audience who the director is (think a Hitchcock or Tarantino film) and shows a consistent artistic identity throughout that director’s filmography.

The term “Auteur theory” is credited to the critics of the French film journal Cahiers du cinéma, many of which became the directors of the French New Wave. However, according to New York University professor Julian Cornell, the concept had been around for a while prior. The Cahiers critics simply refined the theory.

“In the French New Wave, people developed the notion of the filmmaker as an artist. They didn’t invent the idea, but they did popularize it. A German filmmaker who started as a German theatre director, Max Reinhardt, came up with the idea of the auteur – the author in films. He came up with that around the teens….So, [director François] Truffaut and the French New Wave popularized it, or they revived it.” – New York University Professor Julian Cornell

A filmmaker singled out by the Cahiers critics who was the definition of the idea of the auteur is Alfred Hitchcock. By many Hitchcock was viewed primarily as a “vulgar showman” who made commercial thrillers.

“I liked almost anybody that made you realize who the devil was making the picture.” – Howard Hawks

However, his obsessions that showed up repeatedly in his films and the distinct imprint of his personality that appeared in all of his works made him a prime candidate for critical focus within the context of a theory that fetishizes the idea of a singular, distinctive vision that can be seen clearly throughout an entire career.

In all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, the audience can see certain ideas and images that pop up again and again. This is where the term the “Hitchcock Blonde” came from.

Think of Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Coppola, Fincher, Nolan, PT Anderson, Burton, Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Cassevettes, they all have such of unique style all onto themselves. Many of them have such a strong visual style that you can recognize one of their films from a few frames of the film.

Check out the videos below to go deeper into Auteur Theory.

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The Origins of Auteur Theory

Auteur – it’s a favorite term of cinephiles around the world. But what exactly is Auteur Theory? In this Filmmaker IQ course we peel back pages of time and explore the origins of Auteur Theory from the economically tumultuous adolescence of French Cinema to the culture war waged in the columns of competing American movie critics.


Auteur Theory in Hitchcock’s Work

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What is Mise en Scéne? – Definition and Examples

Working in the film business you hear many “inside” terms on a set like Apple box, MOS, montage don’t cross the line (to learn about the 180 degree line in a past article), etc. One such term is “Mise en Scene” or the translation “placing on stage.”

This is a French expression that refers to the design or the arrangement of everything as it appears in the framing of a film i.e. actors, décor, props, lighting, costumes and others. The term essentially means “telling a story” both in poetically artful ways and in visually artful ways through direction and storyboarding state design and cinematography.

It is also used to refer to the many single scenes that are within the film to represent the film. The term is broad, and it is also used among professional and experienced screenwriters to show descriptive or action paragraphs between the dialogs.

This is because of its relationship to shot blocking. The term mise-en-scene is called the film criticism grand undefined term. The term is so broad, and it defines and classifies a lot in the filming industry. The term roughly means to put into the scene or to place on stage.

Mise en scene is used to describe filmmaking and the process involved in the filmmaking process. In filmmaking, the first process is creating ideas for the film. Here, the right books or plays are bought. These are the source of the initial ideas of the film.

Production Design

Production design is a broad term that covers all the steps involved in putting together a production. It includes everything from sourcing the location, hiring the crew, designing the set and costumes, to lighting and sound effects.

A good production designer should be able to understand the big picture and work closely with the director to bring the vision of the film into reality. They also need to have a solid understanding of film theory and history in order to make sure the visual elements of the story are translated accurately on screen.

There are many different types of production designers, each with their own unique responsibilities. The most common position is that of production designer (also known as production supervisor), who is often responsible for overseeing all aspects of the production.

Another option is that of art director, which involves overseeing the overall look and feel of the production and helping to ensure the film is visually coherent. Other options include production manager, set decorator, costume designer, and others.

Production designers also work closely with the cinematographer, writer, director, actors and other crew members. In fact, if there’s a problem with the set or costumes, it’s often the production designer who is called upon to fix the problem.

The set is the main space in which the action takes place. It can be built before or during the shoot. The set decorator (or set designer) creates a series of set elements and props, or other items on the stage that will be used to create the desired atmosphere.

The set designer plans out the appearance of the set, determining what furniture, decorations, props, and any other elements will be needed for the set to appear as desired. Once the set is designed, the set decorator may build the set, creating any necessary fixtures.

They are responsible for ensuring that the set elements are in the correct locations and orientations on the stage and for making sure that the set elements are functioning correctly. The set decorator may also arrange the set in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.

He or she may also be involved with the construction of the set itself. The set decorator may supervise and direct the crew who are building the set. He or she may also choose which materials to use and how they will be installed.

They may design the lighting scheme and oversee its installation. The set decorator may also be responsible for creating and maintaining the set’s props.

Costumes Designer and Staging

Costumes are the only aspect of mise en scene that is easily noticeable by almost everybody. It includes makeup, hair, and clothes or wardrobe choices that are used to show the personality of the character.

It is important that a costume designer chooses the costumes that will best convey the image, personality, and emotional status of the character. Special effects are another aspect of mise en scene. They are used to make the film more interesting and captivating.

A costume designer is a person who designs and makes costumes for movies, TV shows, and other films. This is a different job than a fashion designer. Fashion designers design clothes for the human body.

Costume designers design costumes for actors, dancers, and other performers. A costume designer is responsible for designing costumes for both men and women. They are also responsible for designing costumes for different types of people. They are responsible for bringing a character from the page to the screen.

You can think of a costume designer as a stylist on a big budget. Their job is to make sure the characters and actors feel like they fit into the world of the film by working with the director, production designer, and sometimes other designers to create the look of the film.

Staging means that you’re setting up your movie or TV show before it’s shot, but only once the cast and crew are ready to shoot. This is why many movie scenes start with a long take in which the actors are introduced to each other and the set.

This allows the director to get a sense of how everyone fits together, and this way, the actors will play off of each other’s body language and expressions as they start to develop a natural chemistry.

Make-Up Artist

The makeup artist is responsible for making actors look perfect. That may sound simple, but it’s actually much harder than it sounds. The main thing a makeup artist does is to make sure that the actor looks natural in front of the camera. There are some subtle things a makeup artist can do to enhance a actors looks.

For example, the actor’s eyes can be made to look bigger and more attractive by darkening the outside corners of the eye. It’s also a good idea to have an assistant or friend help with this job as well, because having someone else see how well the makeup artist did can give a much more objective opinion of the process.

One of the most important aspects of a makeup artists job is getting the right color scheme on the actor’s face. In order to get a good look, the makeup artist must use the right colors and shades. The colors and shades that makeup artist should be using will depend on what type of make up they are wearing.

For example, if the makeup artist is wearing foundation, then they should be using a light or medium shade of foundation. If they are wearing concealer, then they should be using a light or medium shade of concealer.

If they are wearing lipstick, then they should be using a light or medium shade of lipstick. The makeup artist can also use various tools in order to achieve the right look.

Film Lighting

If you’ve ever been in a movie theater or watched a movie on TV, chances are you’ve noticed that when actors appear on screen, they often use a different kind of lighting than you would see if you were watching them in real life.

Film lighting is used to create and emphasize specific things about a scene, object, or actor. The goal is to give the audience something to focus on—something to make them remember. This is why light, whether it’s from a spotlight or a lamp, is so important.

For example, actors appearing on screen may have some highlights (bright lights), some mid-tones (medium lights), and some shadows (dark areas) to them. A typical home light fixture produces only one of these three elements at a time, but movie lighting is controlled with a lot more precision. Lighting engineers call this “film lighting.”

Film lighting can be used for both front lighting and backlighting. Front lighting refers to the illumination that comes from the side of the subject. Backlighting refers to illumination coming from behind the subject.

Backlighting is used to create effects such as the golden glow on a subject’s face, or the bright highlight on a subject’s hair.  Front lighting can be used to create effects such as the deep shadows in a subject’s eyes, or the blackness that appears around the subject’s nose and mouth.

When you watch a film, you are seeing the front-lit image projected onto the screen by the projector, which is a combination of both front and backlighting. Backlighting Backlighting is a technique used in film production to create special effects in the form of highlights and shadows.

The lighting effect is achieved by using a light source (usually an electric light) that is placed behind the subject to be lit, and is aimed so that it shines on the subject. The amount of light that reaches the subject is controlled by the light’s intensity and its distance from the subject.

In the case of backlighting, the source of light is placed at a distance from the subject, so that it does not cast a shadow on the subject.

The Producer

The producer selects the story from the books or a novel or the idea can even be an original idea or based on a true story. The producer then takes the idea to the writers, and they work together to create a synopsis.

They then break down the story into simple paragraph scenes or the step outline as it is called.  The one-paragraph scenes are the ones that concentrate on the most dramatic parts or structures.

After this, they prepare a good description of the story together with its moods and its characters. This stage has little conversations, but it mostly consists of drawings that help them to visualize all the key points. This is also the stage where the screenwriter comes up with a screenplay, and this takes a period of several months.

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The Screenwriter

The screenwriter has all the time to rewrite the screenplay if need be to improve clarity, dramatization, character, structure, and dialogue. At this stage, the film distributor can be contacted and informed of the project for him to assess the financial success of the movie and look for possible markets.

The producer and the screenwriter will then prepare the treatment or film pitch, and they present it to the financiers. The financiers will go through the movie and also assess the likelihood of the moviemaking any profit.

They will contact some known movie stars to get them to feature in the film for publicity purposes, and after this stage is successful, the film can now go to the preproduction stage.

This is the stage that determines if the film will continue or not because, without funds, there would be no cast or crew to work in the film production. The parties involved in the financing will draft the appropriate contracts and also sign them to make a deal.

After this, the preparations for the shoot are made. This is called pre-production where locations for the shoot are selected and prepared before time, the cast and the film crew are hired, and the sets are built.

Here, all the process in the production of the movie is carefully outlined to each and every involved party, and they are also carefully planned. Even with a lot of funding, if this process is not done carefully, the film production can halt or even fail.

The most critical crew positions are outlined and the people to take those positions are named before anything else goes on. The most crucial crew positions that must be there to make a good film are:

These are crucial positions in the film production, and their roles cannot be ignored if there is to be a successful production of the film.

The Production

The production stage is the next one after preproduction. Here, the film is created and shot. There is the recruitment of more crew in this stage due to the complexities of some roles. This is the most complicated process of film production.

Everyone involved in the film production has to take their roles seriously here for the production to be successful. A regular shooting day begins by the arrival of the crew at their call time. The actors usually have different call times, and the crew has to arrive early enough to prepare everything in advance before the actors come.

Set construction, setting, dressing, and lighting is done before because it can take many hours, and sometimes it can even take days. For efficiency purposes, the electric, grip, and production design crews are always a step ahead of the sound and the camera departments.

When one scene is getting filmed, these crews are already preparing for the next one. This means that the filming process will face no problems, and if there are any, they will be easily solved ahead. After the crew prepares the equipment, the actors are already in their costumes, and they attend the makeup and hair departments.

The Actors

The actors will then rehearse the script with the director, and the other departments make their final tries or tweaks.  The assistant director then calls “a picture is up” to let everyone know that the take is about to be recorded, a “quiet everyone” call then follows, and once everyone is ready.

He then calls “roll sound” if that particular take involves sound and then the “roll cameras “call is called by the assistant director who is answered by “speed” from the camera operator once he starts recording. The assistant directors then call “action” once he makes sure everyone is ready. The take is over when the director calls “cut” and the sound stops and the cameras stop recording.

In the film production process, we see mise en scene representing the film production in every step or every setting or arrangement. It, therefore, refers to the staging and acting where it is well known that an actor can make or break a movie, and it doesn’t matter how captivating the story is. It also refers to the lighting and setting of the production stage.

The setting creates a mode and also a sense of place and it can also reflect the emotional state of mind of the character. Lighting is essential in the production of a film, and there are different types of lighting, but each depends on where the lighting is coming from and the kind of illumination it is providing to the stage setting.

This video uses two scenes from the movie American Beauty to show how elements of how cinematic techniques related to mise-en-scène and cinematography can be used to help visually tell a story.

Paul Thomas Anderson: The Complete Guide to His Films & Techniques

Paul Thomas Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson directing

In the larger film community, director Paul Thomas Anderson is widely considered to be one of the greatest living directors in America.  While his output is relatively small compared to his peers, each of his films is of such an impeccably high caliber that his impact on the medium is undeniable.  Affectionately called PTA by his fans, Anderson is held up by his contemporaries as a shining example of a true artist creating truly important work—high praise for a man who has yet to even win an Oscar for himself.

Filmmakers of my generation look to Anderson like the Film Brat generation looked to Stanley Kubrick—a god walking among us, an elder young enough to accessible, an ideal to which we aspire.  It should come as a surprise to no one that Anderson is a profound influence on my own work.  I had first heard rumblings of his greatness towards the end of high school, when all the artsy drama kids could talk about was 1999’s MAGNOLIA during its cult resurgence on DVD a few years after its release.

When I entered Emerson College as a second-semester freshman, my roommates sat me down to watch 1998’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, his second feature and his mainstream breakout.  I was instantly hooked.  Anderson was the first filmmaker where I could actually see how his work was constructed and subsequently desired to emulate it.  He was a role model and a guiding light in the crucial moment of my life when my paradigm of what film could be was radically blown open.

To later find out that Anderson too attended Emerson (albeit only for a year) was a moment of untold delight for me—validation that I was on the right path towards a rewarding, fulfilling career in filmmaking.

Born in 1970 in Studio City, California, Anderson is firmly a member of Generation X, whose filmmakers were raised on an endless diet of movies on videocassette.  The first to cut their teeth using cheap video and not expensive film, they could afford to make mistakes– and they made plenty of them.

Like his peers Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, he broke out as a professional director in the heady days of 90’s independent film, catapulted into the limelight by a formidable debut at the Sundance Film Festival.  But unlike Tarantino and Soderbergh, Anderson came from a family already well-steeped in the entertainment industry.

  His father, Ernie Anderson, had been a late night horror TV show host under the name of Ghoulardi—a name that Anderson would later appropriate for his own production company.

At the age of eight, Anderson made his first home movie, and at twelve he began regularly making them with his father’s Betamax video camera.  His father encouraged his pursuits, unconsciously enabling them by providing the junior Anderson with a never-ending source of creative character fodder- Ernie’s own eccentric showbiz friends.  From this ragtag collection of aging hooligans, PTA drew inspiration and began to forge a distinctive voice for himself.

By age seventeen, Anderson felt ready to tackle his first “serious” project.  He recruited the talents of his father and his friends, and raised the money he needed to shoot by taking on a job as a birdcage cleaner.  He wanted to make a film about John Holmes, the legendary pornographer with a legendarily large package.  He was fascinated by the subculture of pornography, at least as it existed in the late 70’s when it was still relatively underground and unregulated.

Stylistically, he was influenced by Rob Reiner’s THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) and its comedic documentary conceit.  All of these elements converged to form THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY (1988), a mockumentary about the eponymous, John Holmes-inspired porn star with a large endowment rivaled only by an even larger ego.  Clocking in at 30 minutes (noticeably long for a first work), the short plays like an early blueprint for his breakout feature BOOGIE NIGHTS by featuring prototypes of characters and the same basic plot progression found in the full feature.

Anderson’s friend Michael Stein plays the role of Dirk Diggler, establishing the character as a combative, egotistical force of nature long before Mark Wahlberg got his hands on the part. Bob Ridgely, a friend of Ernie Anderson’s, plays the role of director Jack Horner (later inimitably played by Burt Reynolds in his career comeback).

Ridgley wrings a lot of emotion out of his role, despite hiding his eyes behind giant black sunshades. Other core characters from BOOGIE NIGHTS make their prototypical appearance here, like John C. Reilly’s Reed Rothchild in the form of an impossibly buff Eddie Delcore and Rusty Schwimmer’s Candy Kane, an early version of Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves.

HARD EIGHT (1996)

Screening his short film CIGARETTES & COFFEE at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival was a transformative event in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s career.  Not only was he invited to workshop his film in the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Directors Lab, but he was also approached by producer Robert Jones, who offered his assistance in expanding the film into a feature.

Naturally, Anderson went to work, developing his short into a larger story that concerned itself with an aging gambler who will do anything to hide his dark past from a pair of close friends he’s come to love as if they were his children. Anderson lovingly gave his story the name SYDNEY, like he was naming a child.  His experience in making the film, however, was anything but blissful.

He was hamstrung by Jones’ constant meddling and sizable ego, and further compromised by an inept distributor (Rysher Entertainment) that strong-armed his film away from him only to dump it into theaters with little fanfare.  That film exists now as HARD EIGHT (1996)—beloved with immense fervor by Anderson’ cult of followers but completely overlooked by the mainstream film community.  Last released as a bare-bones DVD in the early 2000’s, HARD EIGHT is in desperate need of a latent rediscovery and a restoration of Anderson’s original vision.

In a diner in the middle of the Nevada desert, an old man named Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) offers a forlorn-looking young man named John (John C. Reilly) a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  They get to talking, and John reveals that he’s just lost all his money in Vegas after going there in hopes of winning enough money to pay for his mother’s funeral.  Sydney takes pity on this poor soul, offering to take him to Reno and teach him a little trick that will net him some money at the casinos.

Two years later, John and Sydney are nearly inseparable—that is, until a streetwise cocktail waitress and sometimes-hooker named Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) enters their life.  Initially, the three form something of a family unit, with Sydney acting as the father figure.  However, Clementine risks everything when she makes a bloodied hostage out of a cheap john who won’t pay up.  Fearing the legal repercussions of Clementine’s actions, Sydney urges her and John to flee the city and lay low for a while.

At the same time, he’s approached by John’s friend Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a smooth operator who knows a secret about Sydney’s dark past– a secret that would destroy Sydney’s little family unit forever.

Veteran character actor Philip Baker Hall finally steps into the limelight as Sydney, a paternal and patient soul.  He’s a helper of people, seemingly trying to atone for some great wrong he’s done in his life.  Hall brings a great deal of class and respectability to the film, expanding upon his role in CIGARETTES & COFFEE with an involved performance that might just be his best.  Known primarily for his Judd Apatow comedy gigs, John C. Reilly turns in a rare dramatic performance as the anxious, yet loyal John.

Reilly plays the character like a dog who doesn’t know any better, constantly screwing up and depending on Sydney to bail him out.  John is a lost young man, deeply in tune with his emotions but unable to properly express them.

Gwyneth Paltrow is convincing as the cynical, disillusioned cocktail waitress/hooker Clementine.  Considering her real-life personality, the role of Clementine is an extremely edgy one for her.  She courageously lets her makeup smear and doesn’t shy away from the inherent ugliness of the character’s personality.  As Jimmy, Samuel L. Jackson is dangerously slick and unpredictable.

The 90’s were Jackson’s heyday, seeing him turn in unforgettable performances for directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg.  His trademark pitch-black charm is present all through HARD EIGHT, providing yet another variation on that Jackson persona we all know and love.

Over the years, actors like Hall and Reilly have become a core part of Anderson’s repertory of performers.  A few cameos contained in HARD EIGHT illustrates the foundations of this repertory, like the appearance of Oscar-winning actor and regular Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a cocky craps player, and THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY’s Robert Ridgley turning up briefly as a schmoozing keno manager.

Anderson’s repertory isn’t just limited to the talent, it extends to the skilled craftsmen he employs to help bring his stories to life.  As his first feature, HARD EIGHT naturally sees the first instance of collaboration with several of them.  Robert Elswit serves as the cinematographer, shooting on Super 35mm film and helping to establish Anderson’s formalistic aesthetic.

The film is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but it wasn’t shot in anamorphic, despite Anderson’s desire to do so (budget constraints).  The visual presentation applies the same approach used in CIGARETTES & COFFEE—a classical, economical style of photography that’s short on fuss and long on power.

The gaudy Reno setting and a low-key lighting scheme lends HARD EIGHT a loungy, neo-noir vibe.  This is also reflected in Anderson’s constantly moving camera, which is always precise and never frenetic.  He utilizes graceful dolly moves, using handheld cameras only sparingly to convey immediacy.  More notably, Anderson incorporates several Steadicam tracking shots that create a slick energy and sense of space.

While he would later use the Steadicam to more striking effect in his later films, Anderson keeps its usage in HARD EIGHT relatively simple, following Sydney as he walks through the casino floor, or as he approaches the fateful motel room that will shake up his adopted family unit forever.  Overall, Anderson chooses to cover a lot of his close-ups in profile, which subtly conveys a feeling of precision and thoroughness in his compositions.

HARD EIGHT also marks the first time that Anderson works with the musician Jon Brion in a score capacity.  Brion collaborates with Michael Penn to create a jazzy, cool-cat sound that accurately reflects both Reno and Sydney’s aged sophistication.  The film also contains the first instance of a particular tonal bell cue—dark and relentlessly foreboding.

It works so well that Anderson opts to use it again in his later works, unconsciously creating a musical bridge between his first few films.  A couple Christmas songs litter the soundtrack in order to give us a sense of the film’s wintery setting (because we’re in the desert, we wouldn’t know it’s December otherwise).  Furthermore, an Aimee Mann song shows up in the end titles, which is notable because Mann would later become a very important collaborator for Anderson in his 1999 feature MAGNOLIA.

Of all the themes that Anderson continually explores throughout his career, the theme of the family unit is the most apparent in HARD EIGHT.  The characters have all adopted each other in some fashion, as they all seek the comfort of companionship in a cold world.  Sydney and John share a father/son relationship, while John takes the very literal step of inducting Clementine into his family by marrying her.

Sydney’s unconditional love and uncompromising generosity towards his young charges is revealed to come from a terrible secret that threatens to undo their union, thus the theme gives the film its stakes and driving force.  The tone is very similar to CIGARETTES & COFFEE, with the first scene of HARD EIGHT lifted nearly directly from the short.  Nonetheless, Anderson does a fantastic job expanding the scope and changing the focus of his story while creating a consistent tone.

While the process of production was relatively painless, Anderson’s experience in post-production was a hard lesson in the corporate obstinance of the studio system.  He was faced with a difficult distributor in Rysher Entertainment, who wanted him to change the film’s name from SYDNEY to HARD EIGHT out of a fear that people would mistake the film for being about the city in Australia.

Anderson begrudgingly acquiesced to their demands, but they weren’t about to stop there. Producer Robert Jones became a constant source of headache, refusing to give his consent for Anderson’s request to place the credits at the end of the film instead of the beginning (despite the rest of the cast and crew being fine with it).  When Jones and the studio balked at Anderson’s 150-minute director’s cut, the young auteur refused to make any cuts and was subsequently fired.  Rysher took the film away and re-cut it.

Anderson’s original vision was validated when HARD EIGHT was accepted into Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program—on the condition that his director’s cut was the version to be screened.  After the festival, Anderson’s cut was never seen again, and the finished film languished on the shelf for two years after Rysher suddenly (and unsurprisingly) went belly-up.  Given how much of a mess Anderson’s experience in post-production on HARD EIGHT was, it’s something of a miracle that his debut turned out as assured and confident as it did.

A dismissive attitude towards the film hasn’t stopped the home video market from reclaiming HARD EIGHT as a lost treasure.  Most cinephiles agree that it’s an underrated gem of a film, a work on par with any of Anderson’s best.  While it exists today as an outdated transfer on a bargain bin DVD, HARD EIGHT marks the humble starting point of one of our greatest contemporary auteurs.

Until somebody (come on, Criterion) comes along and releases the director’s cut, we’ll just have to content ourselves with a watered-down, abridged version that provides fleeting glimpses into a brilliant young filmmaker finding his footing.


BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

For most filmmakers, every one has that singular film that serves as a flashpoint in their own individual development; a film that lets them see the whole medium of cinema through new eyes, informing and shaping everything that comes after it. My flashpoint arrived in the winter of 2005—I had just moved to Boston to attend Emerson College, and my film watching experience was limited to whatever was new in theatres or at Blockbuster.

One night, my new roommates sat me down to watch a film by a director I had never of heard of before—Paul Thomas Anderson. The film? Anderson’s second feature:BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). I was transfixed; riveted by the subtle layers and subtext unfolding before me in such rich, dynamic and new ways. BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of my favorite films of all time—a film that I return to time after time for inspiration and guidance.

Despite having previously made the well-received HARD EIGHT in 1996, BOOGIE NIGHTS became Anderson’s breakout force and announced him to the film community as a bold, new force to be reckoned with. The success of HARD EIGHT had enabled access to the executives at New Line Cinema, who wanted to help him make his follow-up.

With these powerful forces at his side, Anderson turned to his 1988 short, THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY, for inspiration in creating the backbone of a new story. He fleshed this little nugget out into a sprawling meditation on the San Fernando Valley’s pornography industry over two decades of success and upheaval.

BOOGIE NIGHTS begins amidst the glittering disco lights of 1977, before the specter of AIDS took away the notion of free love without consequences and spurred heavy government regulation on the porn industry. Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a young high school dropout from Torrance who buses into his nightly job as a bar-back for a disco club out in Reseda.

Eddie is a quiet, unassuming boy, save for his hidden talent: an abnormally large penis, which he uses to generate extra income by masturbating in front of strangers for money. One night, he meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a director of exotic adult films who invites Eddie into his world with a friendly smile and a firm handshake. Eddie eagerly takes Horner up on his offer, quickly ingratiating himself into the larger-than-life world of pornography and finding a close-knit family in the group of collaborators that Horner has assembled around himself.

Eddie takes the stage name Dirk Diggler, and with his inherent natural talent and sexual prowess, soon takes the entire operation into the stratosphere. Diggler and company ride high through the remainder of the 70’s, but a murder/suicide committed in Jack’s house on New Year’s Eve 1979 welcomes the 80’s with a foreboding, bloody omen.

The dawn of a new decade also heralds the arrival of a new technology that promises to upend the industry as they know it: videotape. As video becomes more commonplace, Jack Horner and company find their artistic integrity compromised, and their personal lives significantly altered for the worse. As Dirk strays increasingly further from Jack’s clan, he risks destroying himself upon the very altar of his own success.

Despite dealing with such lurid subject matter, Anderson finds a peculiar kind of dignity and grace within his characters. He shows us that pornographers are people too—just as capable of real love as we are. Before BOOGIE NIGHTS, Wahlberg was “Marky Mark”, a young rapper with a few unimpressive film credits to his name, but the role of Dirk Diggler established him as a genuine acting force that persists to this day.

Reynolds is inspired casting as the patriarch of his little porno family/empire. Like John Travolta in Quentin Tarantino’sPULP FICTION (1994), Reynolds’ against-type performance resulted in a newfound cultural relevancy after a long spell of waning popularity, eventually culminating in an Oscar nomination for his performance. Ironically, Reynolds hated the role and didn’t get along with Anderson during filming. He even went so far as to fire his agent for recommending the role to him.

Julianne Moore counters the two-fisted machismo of Wahlberg and Reynolds as Amber Waves, Horner’s wife and a mother figure to Dirk. She’s heartbroken over her real son being taken away from her by child services, so she turns to Dirk for a surrogate relationship—one that becomes incestuously sexual. Moore turns in one of her most beautiful performances here as a conflicted, inherently sad woman with deep reservoirs of unconditional love, walking away with an Oscar nomination for her efforts.

BOOGIE NIGHTS also serves as an establishment of Anderson’s close-knit repertory of performers—actors who have come to regularly appear in his films throughout his career. These include Luis Guzman (as a nightclub owner and pornstar-wannabe), John C Reilly (as Dirk’s doggishly loyal friend and co-performer), William H Macy (as the disgruntled, cuckolded assistant director), Ricky Jay (as the droll cinematographer), and Philip Baker Hall (as Floyd Gondolli, a smug rival of Jack Horner’s who personifies the encroaching malevolence of videotape).

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On the female side, there’s Melora Walters as a sweet and naïve porn actress, and Heather Graham as the plucky, somewhat-ditzy Rollergirl. Further rounding out the cast is Don Cheadle as urban cowboy Buck Swope, Thomas Jane as cocky bad boy Todd Parker, and Bob Ridgley, who starred as Jack Horner in THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY and makes his last film appearance before his death here as The Colonel, an eccentric dandy who finances Jack’s films.

And last but not least, there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s closest acting collaborator who tragically passed away last week. He left behind an enduring legacy of masterful performances, one of which is found in BOOGIE NIGHTS’ Scotty J, a sexually confused and awkward boom operator who carries a one-sided torch for Dirk.

BOOGIE NIGHTS is the work of a young, ambitious filmmaker with bottomless reserves of zeal and talent. The tone is a distinctive blend of the multiple-perspective affectations of Robert Altman and the volatile, kinetic energy of Martin Scorsese. HARD EIGHT’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, returns to shoot the film in the true anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (achieved this time via actual anamorphic lenses and not a workaround like Anderson and Elswit had done previously).

Bob Ziembecki’s authentic period production design never reads as over-the-top and kitschy, instead popping from the frame in appropriate blasts of psychedelic color. The brilliant performances and Anderson’s bold narrative are aided by a constantly-moving camera that glides through the various scenes like an unstoppable rollercoaster. Even from an early age, Anderson has utilized the camera more confidently and audaciously than any of his peers, effortlessly mixing Steadicam, dolly, and handheld shots into a coherent whole.

Anderson’s use of the Steadicam in particular is worth noting, choosing to cover many of the scenes in long, traveling shots. The most notable of this is BOOGIE NIGHTS’ opening shot, which is, bar none, one of the best openings in recent film history. We start on a neon marquee flashing the film’s title, and then crane down to reveal a lively street scene that establishes both the setting and the time period.

Then, without skipping a beat, the camera operator steps off his platform on the crane and then enters Guzman’s nightclub as Anderson introduces us to all the major players of the story in one unbroken take, a la Altman’s iconic opening to THE PLAYER (1992). Of course, all this virtuoso camerawork wouldn’t be nearly as effective without editor Dylan Tichenor to stitch it all together. The film runs nearly three hours long, but if feels half that length thanks to Tichenor’s breathless pacing and exuberant sense of energy.

A major commercial selling point of BOOGIE NIGHTS was the music—specifically, the glut of 1970’s and 80’s pop hits that likely moved more copies of the soundtrack CD than the actual film itself. Anderson’s ear for music is spot-on, using several well-known cues in interesting ways that fill out the reality and authenticity of the period. The indulgence of the era is reflected in the glitzy needledrops, oftentimes creating an association between song and picture that becomes forever joined in the mind.

One instance of this is a scene where Alfred Molina’s drug dealer character sings along to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” during a particularly foreboding business exchange. It’s an unbearably tense sequence and a master-class in direction even without the music, but its inclusion transforms the scene into a truly transcendent moment.

For the score, Anderson recruits HARD EIGHT’s Michael Penn, who bases his musical palette around an inspired conceit—a carnival. The film opens against black with a somber dirge that sounds like a sad clown flailing around under the big top, a theme that reprises itself later on as a motif signifying Jack Horner’s little family unit.

The strange, carnivalesque nature of Penn’s score reflects Anderson’s bizarre, yet touching display of humanity while highlighting the hidden similarities between two decidedly different performance-based occupations.

Several of Anderson’s thematic preoccupations are present here, coalescing into an identifiable set of tropes. As a member of the first generation to come up under the rise of video, Anderson’s incorporation of the medium is more involved than any other filmmaker of his ilk.

In BOOGIE NIGHTS, the arrival of video is a major plot point, throwing the industry into a state of massive flux and becoming the fulcrum of conflict between Reynolds and Hall’s characters. Videotape highlights the characters as ideological opposites, fighting a war that pits economics vs. artistry—a conflict that can be argued to encapsulate the film industry as a whole.

To the characters of BOOGIE NIGHTS, video is a harbinger of doom and betrayal. Its arrival coincides with the fall of Dirk Diggler and Jack Horner, the fallout on their professional and personal lives being akin to a devastating meteor, or a nuclear bomb. BOOGIE NIGHTS shows remarkable prescience in its insights into video’s role in the video arts. We’re still having the film vs. video argument today, although now the two mediums are virtually indistinguishable from each other.

Because Anderson’s films very rarely have life or death stakes, the driving force and the emotional drama stems from the theme of family—specifically the threat of abandonment or loss. BOOGIE NIGHTS places this dynamic at the core of its story, presenting Horner’s filmmaking crew as a legitimate family, sharing in each other’s big life moments and cheering them on at weddings and awards shows.

Anderson also shows us how Dirk Diggler’s abandonment of his adopted family of pornographers leads to ruin. At the end of the day, he saves himself by crawling back in shame to Horner’s patriarch figure. In ending his story in this fashion, Anderson has created a prodigal son fable for the twentieth century. It’s a parable that illustrates the conceit that tragedy will ultimately befall those who choose to permanently turn away from family.

Anderson’s films often set their stories in his home state of California, and BOOGIE NIGHTS—perhaps more so than his other works—could not have taken place anywhere else but the Golden State. The San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles, has served as the epicenter of the porn industry since its inception. Just like porn plays the redheaded, swept-under-the-rug stepchild to the Hollywood film industry, so too does the Valley sit offset from Los Angeles, stigmatized and dismissed because of its sleepy, suburban airs.

Like it or not, the porn industry is very much a part of southern California’s cultural heritage, so who better to paint its portrait than Anderson, the great cinematic recorder of California himself.

BOOGIE NIGHTS is also perhaps the most frank look at another of Anderson’s key recurring themes, that of sex dependence. HARD EIGHT and BOOGIE NIGHTS both flirt with sex as a paid profession: the former’s emotional tensions that stem from the troubles of Gwyneth Paltrow’s weary hooker Clementine contrasts with the latter’s celebration of sex on camera as an act of liberation and expression.

This also highlights a strange double standard when it comes to paid sex—the presence of the camera, for whatever reason, is the final arbiter between what is legal and what is not. The characters ofBOOGIE NIGHTS come to depend on their sexuality, as if it were a drug. Towards the end of the film, Dirk Diggler is back to where he started, reduced to jerking himself off in front of strangers for a couple bucks.

For others, like Cheadles’ Buck Swope, their past as porn stars hangs like a noose around their necks, impeding their progress in real world pursuits like starting a family or taking out a business loan.

BOOGIE NIGHTS caused quite a stir when it released, with high praise for prestigious film festivals like Toronto and New York leading to three Oscar nominations (one of which was a Screenplay nod for Anderson himself). The film was a breakout hit, its success arguably fueled by a bout of 70’s nostalgia that was pervading pop culture at the time. Thankfully, BOOGIE NIGHTS’ legacy has outshined the trends of it day, enduring to become one of the best films of its decade and ensuring Anderson’s future as a major new talent on the scene.


MUSIC VIDEOS & SHORTS WORKS (1997-1999)

During the period between the release of his breakout feature BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and his sprawling follow-upMAGNOLIA (1999), director Paul Thomas Anderson branched out into other forms of cinematic expression.  He did what many filmmakers do between features to pay the bills: shoot commercials and music videos.

However, unlike other directors, it can be argued that he wasn’t exactly doing for-hire work.  Almost all of his short-form work from these years can be tracked to some kind of investment in his feature work or his personal life.

MICHAEL PENN: “TRY”

For instance, his first music video was made for BOOGIE NIGHTS composer Michael Penn to promote his single “TRY”.  The video was shot almost entirely in secret, with Anderson, Penn, and co-producer JoAnne Sellar stealing away during BOOGIE NIGHTS postproduction for a couple hours.  They shot in what is allegedly the longest hallway in America, located in downtown Los Angeles.  The video follows Penn in one long Steadicam take as he sings to camera and marches through various vignettes.

The piece is indicative of Anderson’s mastery of the camera and sense of movement, as well as his confidence with a Steadicam rig.  Complex moves are pulled off with a dance-like grace that makes the entire piece look effortless.  Anderson is known to be somewhat of a mischievous director, and “TRY” follows suit with a cameo by his close friend and collaborator, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as a slobby sound recordist.

FIONA APPLE: “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”

The success of BOOGIE NIGHTS led Anderson into an echelon of celebrity that was previously unknown to him.  He started dating singer/songwriter Fiona Apple, a relationship that birthed a small run of enchanting music videos.  The first of these was for Apple’s cover of the Beatles’ “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”, a track commissioned for director Gary Ross’ film PLEASANTVILLE (1998).

Anderson adopted PLEASANTVILLE’s black and white midcentury aesthetic for his video, albeit with a twist.  Conceived as a series of long takes, Apple sings to camera while hooligans in letterman jackets trash a diner in slow-motion around her.

“ACROSS THE UNIVERSE” is a deceptively simple piece, with expertly-executed camera movements that give no trace of the complicated rigging and blocking required to achieve such shots.  For instance, in the opening shot we track in directly on Apple, but we don’t see the camera in the mirror behind her (when common logic dictates we should).

The piece is filled with little “how’d they do that” flourishes like this, and like Michael Penn’s “TRY” before it, includes a cameo from one of Anderson’s repertory performers in the form of John C. Reilly as a suit stealing music from the jukebox.

FLAGPOLE SPECIAL

For 1998’s RET Inevitable 1 Festival in New York, Anderson was commissioned to make a seventeen minute short titled FLAGPOLE SPECIAL.  The short apparently works as an indirect groundlaying for the Frank TJ Mackey character played by Tom Cruise in Anderson’s MAGNOLIA.

Based on a random conversation Anderson found on an old audiotape, FLAGPOLE SPECIAL was shot on digital video and features John C Reilly and Chris Penn riffing on their frustration with women and coming up with plans on how they would “Seduce and Destroy” them.  As of this writing, it is publicly unavailable for viewing.

FIONA APPLE: “FAST AS YOU CAN”

In 1999, Anderson made his second music video for Fiona Apple, for her song “FAST AS YOU CAN”.  It’s a much simpler piece, with Fiona performing straight to camera, locked into very precise compositions.  While the video is straightforward and uncomplicated, Anderson does add various visual obstructions to the frame, like smudges and smears on the lens in a bid to make things a little more interesting.

FIONA APPLE: “LIMP”

Anderson’s third video for Apple covered her song, “LIMP”, and takes place in a dark mansion as a lovesick Apple roams the house, unable to sleep.  The piece is full of the graceful, fluid camerawork that Anderson is known for, but he counters the elegance by chopping it up into a series of staccato, rapid-fire edits as the song’s intensity builds.


 MAGNOLIA (1999)

During my senior year of high school, I spent a grand majority of my time in the halls of the campus’ performing arts center. The eclectic mix of creativity and awkward hormonal clashes was endlessly fascinating to me, no doubt because it reflected what was churning inside of me. Within the rigid and confining social structures of high school, it was the one place I could go where I could truly be myself.

Towards the end of my time there, the more literary-minded and illuminated types began talking earnestly about their love for this 1999 film called MAGNOLIA—I film I had never heard of. I even acted in a one-act play whose author made no attempt to hide how much it had been influenced by the film.

I never got around to seeing the film myself until my first semester at Emerson College, where I was introduced to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work by way of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). When I finally sat down to watch MAGNOLIA, it became immediately apparent to me that I was watching a masterwork from a highly confident director who was wielding his camera with a degree of energy and power unlike anything I had ever seen before.

The runaway success of BOOGIE NIGHTS resulted in New Line Cinema gifting Anderson the opportunity to do anything he wanted as his next project. Knowing he’d never again be in this enviable position, Anderson decided to go for broke and make a passion project that he described as the All-Time Great San Fernando Valley film. In plotting out his story, Anderson tapped into great reservoirs of creativity and inspiration.

What started off as a small, off-beat character piece soon blossomed into an all-encompassing statement on loneliness, regret, and chance in a small patch of suburb just north of bustling Los Angeles. MAGNOLIA sees Anderson step ever more firmly into Robert Altman territory by weaving together several disparate threads and slowly pulling them taut to reveal a tightly-woven tapestry of life, love and loss.

Simply put, it is the magnum opus of the first phase of Anderson’s career, capping off a long fascination with sprawling ensemble-based stories.

The central conceit of MAGNOLIA is that the film’s story unfolds along a stretch of the titular street, located in the San Fernando Valley—purportedly all within a span of a few square miles. The idea is to communicate the range of humanity that can occur in such a small amount of space, and how we’re more connected than we think. At the center of the film is an awkward romance between Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), a nervous wreck of a woman who’s been hollowed out by excessive drug use and several emotional trauma.

After playing her music so loudly that the neighbors call the cops, she’s visited by John C Reilly’s Officer Jim Kurring—a gentle giant who finds in Claudia a beacon of hope and a potential cure for his romantic ailments. Claudia’s father, venerated game show host Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), also tries to reach her, struggling to find some redemption from the sins of his past as he loses a fight with cancer.

A short distance away, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child genius and famous contestant on Gator’s game show, is struggling to hold on to his job at a local furniture outlet so he can pay for braces he doesn’t need, all to impress a male bartender that’s caught his eye.

As all of this is going down, an old man named Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) lies on his deathbed, attended to by his nurse Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) storms about town trying to make her own wrongs right in the wake of the realization that only now has she come to actually love her husband.

And last but not least, there’s Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s estranged son and a chauvinistic pick-up guru/artist hawking an allegedly “foolproof” seduction technique, bound for an emotional reckoning of his own.

As MAGNOLIA unfolds, all these story threads draw closer together; the major events rippling like waves through the narrative. Destiny has intertwined their fates. MAGNOLIA explores ideas about chance and coincidence, comparing them against a larger, pre-determined arc of the universe. In a move that’s both inspired and utterly baffling, Anderson uses a counterintuitive image to state his case: a random, inexplicable downpour of frogs, materializing as if from nowhere and hurtling towards the earth with biblical fury.

The film goes to great pains to suggest that these seemingly random events might just be the opposite, and that our fates may indeed by pre-ordained and unforeseeable as a sudden hailstorm of amphibians.

While an expanded budget allows for higher-profile actors, Anderson culled his cast mostly from his pool of BOOGIE NIGHTS alumni. Reilly, Walters, Hall, Macy, Hoffman and Moore all deliver some of their best work, thanks to an unwavering dedication to Anderson’s vision and an eagerness to play against type.

MAGNOLIA is perhaps the most definitive example of Anderson’s company of actors, featuring supporting performances from Luis Guzman as an irritable and impatient contestant on Jimmy Gator’s game show, Ricky Jay as the show’s producer and the omniscient narrator during the film’s prologue and epilogue sequences, Alfred Molina as Macy’s Persian furniture store boss, and even Thomas Jane as a young Jimmy Gator.

Of the new talent, Robards gives a heartbreaking performance in his final film role as a man besieged by regret at the end of his life, and Cruise was nominated for an Oscar in what is generally considered a career-best performance as the scene-stealing chauvinist who uses bravado and machismo to bury his crippling daddy issues. MAGNOLIA is the kind of film that lives or dies off of its performances, and thankfully the collective efforts of Anderson’s brilliantly-chosen cast helps the piece soar to exhilarating heights.

MAGNOLIA is not as visually stylized as Anderson’s previous work, but he still manages to achieve a larger-than-life feel thanks to returning cinematographer Robert Elswit’s virtuoso camerawork. The film’s aesthetic is textbook Anderson: a 2.35:1 anamorphic frame given vigor and color by a mix of confidently executed dolly, crane, Steadicam, and handheld compositions.

Like BOOGIE NIGHTS before it, MAGNOLIA uses long tracking shots to convey space and time, pulling its characters along their cosmic journeys. Elswit and Anderson find the opportunity to experiment with different film stocks and cameras in MAGNOLIA’s bookending “chance or fate” sequences—a highlight being Anderson’s use of an authentic, hand-cranked Pathe camera to simulate the look of old silent pictures.

With MAGNOLIA, Anderson’s regular editor Dylan Tichenor has his work cut out for him in keeping track of all these disparate story threads. If Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory established how editing could be used to tie two separate events into continuous time and space together, then Tichenor’s work on MAGNOLIA serves as the arguable evolution—interweaving the sweeping emotions of human experience into a cosmic tapestry.

Anderson and Tichenor’s edit plays like the film equivalent of a symphony, with harmonies and choruses organized into distinct movements. The movements themselves are distinguished via an inspired intertitle conceit that, instead of conveying the passage of time, notates changes in weather and humidity. It’s an interesting idea that we’ll certainly never the likes of again, further evidencing Anderson’s unique worldview.

MAGNOLIA is the first of Anderson’s features to not feature the work of composer Michael Penn, but he does retain musical continuity in Jon Brion and Penn’s wife, Aimee Mann. Brion’s score in particular is worth singling out, as he has created a brooding suite of orchestral cues that are at once both foreboding and elegiac, giving the necessary weight to the burden that Anderson’s characters must carry.

The score ducks and weaves through the piece, oftentimes playing against or running under diagetic source tracks from Mann and Supertramp. The effect is disharmonious, but in a good way, further solidifying the film’s mosaic conceits. Mann is a huge vocal identity within the soundtrack, providing several key songs such as the showstopping “Wise Up”. The song is incorporated in a strikingly original way, playing over a sequence in which the characters sing along to it, staged within their various individual vignettes.

The result is nothing less than one of the most unexpected and memorable moments in recent film history.

The medium of video plays a huge role in shaping Anderson’s worldview, like it does for several of filmmakers in his generation. However, his treatment of the format undergoes something of an evolution throughout his filmography. In BOOGIE NIGHTS, video was a disruptive, transgressive advancement that held malevolent implications for its characters.

By the present-day narrative of MAGNOLIA, video had become commonplace and commodified. Its power harnessed by people like Frank TJ Mackey as a sales tool— a slick, well-lit means to nefarious ends.

Mackey’s “Seduce And Destroy” operation is indicative of another of Anderson’s thematic fascinations, that of sex dependence. Mackey employs a tactical, scorched earth approach to seduction, viewing women purely as targets to be eliminated with the ballistics rocket below his belt. As his character arc plays out, it becomes quite clear that this militaristic, highly-disciplined and aggressive approach to sex is a crutch he leans on, a shovel to bury deep-seated rage about his past and his family.

Indeed, several of MAGNOLIA’s characters’ dramatic troubles stem from sex in some manner—Reilly and Walters’ fumbling romance, Robards’ abandonment of the love of his life for a fleeting affair, or Hall’s continuing infidelity and the implied sexual abuse of his daughter. MAGNOLIA’s thematic exploration of sex dependence overlaps with his exploration of family dynamics, digging deep into his characters’ insecurities and faults to find an inherent desire for the comfort of home and family.

Like any wildly ambitious film, people didn’t quite know what to make of MAGNOLIA when it was released. The film didn’t do well at the box office, but critics hailed it as a profound expansion of Anderson’s directorial skill. People were just as quick to deem it a masterpiece as they were to deride it as an overindulgent failure. Regardless, MAGNOLIA went on to considerable awards seasons success, winning the prestigious Golden Bear award at that year’s Berlinale as well as an Academy Award nod for Anderson’s screenplay.

Now that over ten years has passed, MAGNOLIA’s legacy as one of the 90’s best films is assured. It is an undeniable technical triumph, and a product of a confident virtuoso aesthetic that, for all its complications and flourishes, never loses sight of the big picture.


MUSIC VIDEOS & TV WORK (1999-2000)

With the release of 1999’s MAGNOLIA, director Paul Thomas Anderson had arguably reached the peak of what he could do with his particular stylistic conceits. As he developed ideas for his next feature project, Anderson dove right back into the world of music videos and short-form work as a way to keep his directorial skills active and engaged.

AIMEE MAN: “SAVE ME” (1999)

Like the music video for Michael Penn’s “TRY” following BOOGIE NIGHTS in 1997, Anderson created a tie-in music video for one of MAGNOLIA’s musical muse, Aimee Mann. The track, “SAVE ME”, appears during the closing scene of MAGNOLIA, and was written specifically for the film. To reflect his, Anderson and Mann settled on an idea that would recreate key moments from MAGNOLIA in motionless tableau form, while integrating Mann singing towards camera in the background.

Anderson’s fingerprints are all over this video, with a camera that continuously dollies forward on Mann with a creeping confidence. He also throws in a little visual variety by way of moving the furniture and set dressing around in elegant, almost impossible ways that reveal the hidden artifice of each vignette. “SAVE ME” is a simple, yet moving little music video—and arguably Anderson’s most popular.

FIONA APPLE: PAPER BAG (2000)

The turn of the millenium found Anderson and then-girlfriend Fiona Apple collaborating on a music video once again, this time for her song “PAPER BAG”. The video finds Apple performing at a bar inside of an expansive lobby, surrounded by little boys dressed as grown men. Anderson shoots wide to feature the location’s beautiful architecture, as well as to showcase elaborate old-school musical choreography.

The piece is again an instance of Anderson’s elegant camerawork, incorporating the same whip-pan technique that he made a motif of in MAGNOLIA.

SNL: “FANATIC” (2000)

By the year 2000, Anderson’s work began to shift away from the sprawling, dynamic style that had made his name and towards experimental explorations into comedy and other genres. The first of such projects was done almost as a lark– less of a serious, cerebral project and more of a fun diversion for him and his friends at Saturday Night Live. The piece is a spoof on MTV’s show “FANATIC”, where a mega-fan gets the chance to meet his/her object of worship.

Anderson recruits SNL cast member Jimmy Fallon as “Fanatic’s” overly-aggro host, who tracks down Anna Nicole Smith’s biggest fan (played brilliantly by Ben Affleck in a role that lets him eschew his romantic leading man persona and ham it up with a false set of horrible teeth and giant braces). While Anderson’s “Fanatic” is undoubtedly a fun little side-project, in an oblique way it still fits naturally amidst his larger body of work.

The handheld video format and the reality TV conceit echoes THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY’s presentation and comedic tone, while Affleck’s quest to make Anna Nicole Smith his mother echoes Anderson’s thematic explorations of family and the search for home.

THE JON BRION SHOW (2000)

During this time, Anderson’s regular composer Jon Brion was trying to launch a new music-oriented variety show, appropriately titled THE JON BRION SHOW. Brion was unsuccessful in finding a home for the show at VH1, so Anderson stepped in to finance and direct a new pilot. While three episodes were produced in total, only the one featuring the late Elliot Smith has been made publicly available.

THE JON BRION SHOW follows a pretty standard, generic variety show format, utilizing multiple video cameras to cover Brion as he guides us through the evening’s playlist. The piece is a very rough, yet fascinating look into Anderson’s interests outside of just filmmaking, as well as a nostalgic little time capsule of a very particular sound that flourished during the turn of the millennium.

While Anderson’s output during these years is relatively small, he was able to capitalize on the popularity afforded to him byMAGNOLIA’s modest success with a string of experimental works that allowed him to broaden his scope and expand his aesthetic.


PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

By 2002, director Paul Thomas Anderson had gained a reputation for long, sprawling features with multiple points of view. He had arguably reached his personal apex with this style in 1999’s MAGNOLIA, and began feeling a desire to subvert his critics and move away from the types of films that had made his name. During interviews, Anderson began to vocally express his wish to make a short romantic comedy with Adam Sandler—a wish that was laughed off by most critics who knew of his mischievous nature.

So imagine their surprise when he actually follows through on his promise with 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, an off-the-rails romantic comedy inspired by the real-life story of a California man who exploited a loophole in a Healthy Choice/frequent-flyer promotion for personal gain.

On paper, a rabidly quirky Adam Sandler vehicle directed by an arthouse auteur would read as a surefire failure, but Anderson’s fourth feature finds him feeding off the energy of a particularly experimental phase, making for the shortest, most idiosyncratic (but also the most charming) film of his career.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE follows Sandler’s Barry Egan, a neurotic entrepreneur of novelty hotel plungers and a man prone to volatile emotional outbursts and crippling anxiety. Despite being surrounded by seven overbearing and suffocating sisters, Barry is a profoundly lonely man who takes a simple pleasure in running a modestly successful business.

One night, a misplaced yearning for human connection leads Barry to dial up a phone sex line, inadvertently exposing himself to a ruthless extortion scheme that thrives off the guilt of so-called “perverts” like himself. As he battles with fraud, he’s introduced to the calm yin to his powderkeg yang: a pretty Englishwoman named Lena (Emily Watson). She’s socially awkward like he is, and their off-kilter chemistry brings out an adventurous side to each other that they never knew they had.

On top of all this, Barry has also stumbled upon a loophole in a frequent-flyer promotion run by Healthy Choice that nets him an insane amount of airline miles at the cost of several pudding packs. Emboldened by his newfound love towards Lena and flailing rage at his fraudulent tormentors, Barry sets about collecting as many pudding packs as he can to rack up miles and take control of his life.

Sandler, one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood, is rightfully vilified for his dumb, juvenile slapstick comedies. To the complete surprise of the stuffy film elite, Sandler’s performance in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE turned out to be one of 2002’s best—his conveyance of a dark, complicated soul is routinely hailed as his finest hour.

Watson’s casting is equally inspired, her gentle eccentricities becoming the perfect foil to Sandler’s tenuous grasp on his temper. The reliable stock company of actors that Anderson had cultivated in his previous three features is largely absent from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, save for the late, brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cocky sex-line extortionist and Luis Guzman as Barry’s loyal, if somewhat dimwitted, business partner.

Much like the title suggests, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a strange brew of discordant influences and tones, taking conventional rom-com tropes and filtering them through Anderson’s unique worldview. Cinematographer Robert Elswit returns to lend some visual consistency to an otherwise-radically different project for the director.

The pair continues their use of the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as dynamic Steadicam camerawork and bold, deliberate compositions. Anderson also builds upon his core aesthetic with several expressionistic visual abstractions, like unmotivated lens flares, harsh highlights, silhouettes, and animated watercolor-painting interludes courtesy of video artist Jeremy Blake.

Production Designer William Arnold also returns, creating a bright, yet drab, every-world for the characters to inhabit. Arnold utilizes a red, white, and blue color palette to convey Anderson’s curious vision. A film’s color palette should be an active participant in telling the story, and Arnold’s work accomplishes it with a minimum of fuss.

The white, colorless walls of Barry’s apartment and warehouse suggest a bland, directionless existence, so when Barry shows up in a bright blue/indigo suit, the act is indicative of Barry opening himself up to the potential of excitement and change. Watson’s Lena appears primarily in a bright red dress, nicely complementing Barry’s own wardrobe with the color of passion—a passion that will fully consume Barry and give him the necessary courage to overcome his obstacles.

Anderson’s musical choices also mark a direct shift away from his past work while still maintaining a degree of continuity. He retains the services of composer Jon Brion, who utilizes the distinctive sound of the harmonium to create a discordant electronic sound that bubbles furiously and echoes Barry’s severe internal stress. Indeed, watching PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE can be a very stressful watching experience, mainly due to Brion’s jittery, unrelenting score.

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Instead of the wall-to-wall jukebox approach that Anderson employed in his previous films, Anderson employs a much more disciplined approach to his needledrops. He limits them to just one: Harry Nillson’s “He Needs Me”, a rather strange little ballad that captures Anderson’s darkly whimsical tone and becomes the de facto theme song to the piece. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is the end of an era for Anderson, with the film being his last collaboration with Brion (as of this writing).

In Anderson’s subsequent hiatus from filmmaking during mid-2000’s, Brion became one of the unfortunate casualties of the director’s artistic reinvention. I don’t imagine that this could be attributed to bad blood between the two, but rather an amicable parting of ways as the result of Anderson’s evolution of style requiring a sound far different than what Brion could deliver.

Despite creating such a radical stylistic experiment for himself, Anderson can’t help but incorporate his major thematic fascinations into PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s story. The film is fundamentally a love story, and love stories are fundamentally about the search for a mate—- with the creation of a family being the larger implication. Barry’s search for a mate, personified in Lena, is a way for him to escape his own family of seven emasculating sisters and become the head of a new one.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s love story also serves as a convenient conduit for Anderson to explore ideas toward sexuality by way of Barry’s varied responses to his newfound feelings. He confuses sex for love, initially trying to alleviate his loneliness in the companionship of a phone-sex line girl. Their conversation is hollow and transactional despite being laced with aggressively sexual dirty talk.

Contrast that withBarry’s wooing of Lena, a dynamic that is almost child-like in its innocence while simultaneously providing a profound, intimate connection and a foundation for love to flourish. Anderson’s love of California iconography and culture is also present, albeit in a subdued form that accurately conveys the colorless palette of the San Fernando Valley’s suburban/industrial outskirts.

A distinct step away from the kind of films people loved him for, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE was a bold gamble for Anderson—a gamble that ultimately paid off when critics hailed Sandler’s performance as one of the best of the year and awarding Anderson himself with the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. While not his best-known film, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE has attained a cult following that’s kept it within cinema’s collective consciousness.

It may be minor in terms of impact and scale, but PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a major shift towards a new phase of Anderson’s career and in-depth character studies that continue to this day.


ANDERSON’S SHORT WORKS (2002-2006)

After the release of 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, director Paul Thomas Anderson embarked on a little hiatus from feature filmmaking that would last for five years. While he decided on what he wanted to develop as his next project, he took on several small-scale projects to keep his skills sharp and his creativity active.

BLOSSOMS & BLOOD (2002)

Several of Anderson’s works from this period are conceptually supplemental to PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE and his collaboration with Adam Sandler. When tasked to find a purpose for his feature’s deleted material, Anderson decided to forego the conventional route of including them as DVD bonus content.

Instead, he whipped several of his leftover elements into a self-contained mood piece called BLOSSOMS & BLOOD. The piece is an artfully-blended mash of deleted scenes, video artist Jeremy Blake’s animated paintings, and the music video for composer Jon Brion’s single “Here We Go”. BLOSSOMS & BLOOD utilizes flares of color and light, as well as a disorienting, experimental sound mix to reflect the abstractly-whimsical tone of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.

Freed from the demands of feature-length storytelling, Anderson is able to crank this particular aesthetic into overdrive, giving us a glimpse into Barry Egan’s inner madness and rapture.

MATTRESS MAN (2002)

The production of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE spurred another set of works for Anderson, and while they are tangentially influenced by the feature, they aren’t as directly intertwined with it as BLOSSOMS & BLOOD is. In 2002, the internet was just beginning to take off as a forum for short-form video exhibition.

Anderson, perhaps consciously or not, took advantage of this nascent technology by releasing a trio of very small sketches based around a singular, slap-sticky joke.

The first, MATTRESS MAN, sees the late Philip Seymour Hoffman reprise his sleazeball character from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE filming a commercial for his mattress retail business. The piece is filmed in analog video to emulate the homegrown, lo-fi nature of regional retailer commercials.

Aside from being hilariously entertaining in the span of a single minute,MATTRESS MAN is valuable within Anderson’s body of work in that it continues his exploration of video as a medium. Whereas MAGNOLIA’s (1999) Frank TJ Mackey character employed slick, well-lit video to sell his “Seduce & Destroy” technique, MATTRESS MAN shows us how in a different set of hands, video can come off as inept and clumsy.

BALLCHEWER (2002)

The second piece from this period is BALLCHEWER, which also appears to have been shot during the production ofPUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. It features Anderson regular Luis Guzman and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s Emily Watson interacting with a pitbull. Curiously, this piece looks to have been shot on film in Anderson’s signature anamorphic aspect ratio, leading one to believe it might have been shot on a lark at the end of one of the feature’s shooting days.

The punchline toBALLCHEWER is oblique and a little muddy, making it the weakest of the trio.

COUCH (2002)

The third and final film of the trio, COUCH, continues Anderson’s collaboration with Adam Sandler, who plays a man trying out new furniture at his own peril. The piece is shot in black and white, and told mostly in silence except for exaggerated sound effects.

None of Sandler’s restraint or nuance from PUNCH-DRUNK-LOVE is present here. Instead, Anderson lets Sandler go full-on clown mode, creating a dynamic that feels distinctly out of place with Anderson’s aesthetic. Together, these three sketches form a triptych exploring the fine line between lowbrow slapstick and highbrow art—a conceptual investigation whose promise Anderson ultimately mined better in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.

DEMO JAIL (2006)

Anderson was largely absent from the scene during 2003-2005. His first child (with comedienne Maya Rudolph) was born in 2005, and the same year he served as the standby director on A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, directed by his hero Robert Altman (who was ailing in health and was obligated to hire someone to replace him in the event of his death for insurance purposes).

Needless to say, big things were happening in his life that necessitated a short break from his career.  By 2006, Anderson’s productivity began picking back up, beginning with a short sketch he directed for (the short-lived) THE SHOWBIZ SHOW WITH DAVID SPADE called DEMO JAIL.

The piece riffs on an old joke within the entertainment industry—that of the wanna-be who forces his awful demo on an established and successful friend. David Spade naturally plays the successful friend, who is trapped inside his intern’s car and forced to listen to the same terrible song again and again.

Shot on video, the sketch itself isn’t particularly good, with nothing in its execution to suggest Anderson’s hand. All in all, it’s rather forgettable, but it does serve as a warning shot for Anderson’s career comeback the following year with his staggering epic, THERE WILL BE BLOOD.


THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007)

The year 2007 was a very special year in cinema for me. On a personal level, it marked the tenth anniversary of my own first short films, an occasion I celebrated with a limited engagement of a feature I co-directed at a local Portland arthouse theatre.

On a wider scale, 2007 saw the release of three of my favorite films of all time (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MENZODIAC, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), by three of my favorite directors (The Coen Brothers, David Fincher, and Paul Thomas Anderson respectively). Now that we’re some years removed, these three films are generally considered to be among the very best films of that decade.

Watching these films was a religious experience for me; I could only imagine that this was what it must’ve felt like to take in the first screenings of films from the French New Wave of the 60’s or the American crime dramas of the 70’s.

It was the height of a very special time in cinema, where visionary auteurs found homes for their passion projects in specialty studio shingles like Focus Features or Fox Searchlight. The aforementioned three films represented the apex of this movement, and were the culmination of an unsustainable model that would cause the whole house of cards to come toppling down only a year later (an implosion I would unwittingly experience firsthand during my internship at Warner Independent Pictures).

Out of these three pictures, THERE WILL BE BLOOD cut through to affect me on the most fundamental level. My initial impression of the film was that it was a staggering achievement—I walked away convinced I had seen the modern equivalent of CITIZEN KANE (1941), and that a new contender for “best film of all time” had just been christened.

Time has softened my hyperbole, but my conviction remains—THERE WILL BE BLOOD will stand the test of time as one of the greatest films ever made. THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s conception was something of an unexpected lark. After the release of 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, director Paul Thomas Anderson was out of the public eye for five years, undergoing lots of personal and artistic growth, building his family, and finding inspiration from unlikely places as fan anticipation for his next project grew to a fever pitch.

While experiencing a bout of homesickness during a trip to London, Anderson purchased a copy of Upton Sinclar’s novel “Oil!”, mainly because he liked the image of California oil fields on its cover. Transfixed by the novel’s cinematic potential, he began pulling further inspiration from the biography of real-life California oil tycoon Edward Doheny and John Huston’s classic 1948 film THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (which he watched nightly).

He gave his project the lurid title THERE WILL BE BLOOD, constructing it as his own version of the great American epic—a grand statement on capitalism and the perversion of all-consuming ambition, embodied by one of the most original and compelling antiheroes in cinematic history.

In turn of the century Bakersfield, California, ruthless oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in a career-defining, Oscar-winning performance) is very rapidly accumulating wealth from his growing oil enterprise. Along with his adopted son HW Plainview and business partner Fletcher (Ciaran Hinds), Plainview negotiates the purchase of the Sunday Family homestead, located in the barren deserts of a village called Little Boston.

Unbeknownst to the Sundays, the land has an ocean of oil underneath it, just waiting to be drilled by Plainview and his cohorts. His supremely profitable enterprise brings unprecedented growth and prosperity to the inhabitants of Little Boston, turning it into an overnight boomtown.

However, success has its dark side, which Plainview learns as he grapples with Sunday’s son, Eli (Paul Dano)—an aspiring evangelical preacher who extorts Plainview into building a church for him and his flock. The two viciously lock horns in a battle that pits capitalism against theocracy for the soul of Little Boston.

Anderson has painted in THERE WILL BE BLOOD a dark portrait of greed, corruption and power that forces us to confront the ugliest aspects of our American ideals. Day-Lewis’s portrayal of blackhearted Daniel Plainview possesses shades of Bill The Butcher from Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), only more intelligent and sophisticated in both temperament and taste.

He simply looms larger than life, and in the process becomes a legendary screen villains on par with Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula or Heath Ledger’s Joker. As Plainview’s ideological foil Eli Sunday, Dano could have very easily been overshadowed by his co-star’s scene-shredding gravitas.

Fortunately, Dano more than holds his own with an amazing performance as a vain, manipulative so-called Man of God whose intentions are just as slimy as the “devil” he endeavors to destroy. THERE WILL BE BLOOD focuses mainly on the duel between these two unconventional titans, thus eliminating the need for Anderson to recruit any of the members of his personal acting company. Working with a suite of fresh new faces, Anderson’s focus is invigorated.

Despite the changing of the guard in front of the camera, Anderson still relies on most of his usual technical collaborators: producers Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar, editor Dylan Tichenor, and cinematographer Robert Elswit who won the second of the film’s two Oscars for his stunning work.

Anderson’s preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio is perfectly suited to capture the dusty, earth-toned vistas and sweeping, confident camera moves. While Anderson’s visual language doesn’t change physically, the dynamic of its intentions has.

Elaborate camera moves project a grand scale that evokes the work of John Ford and John Huston and lends the picture an overall air of myth. The grandeur is almost overwhelming, and would risk coming off as supremely pretentious in the hands of a less-capable director. Thankfully, Anderson’s confidence and mastery of his craft assures the tone attains the right balance of gravitas.

Anderson scores a new collaborator in production designer Jack Fisk, who had already become a legend in his field for his work on Terrence Malick’s films. With THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Fisk does what he does best: bringing an authentic, lived-in period vibe designed to place us firmly in the time and place of the story. Fisk’s attention to detail is truly incredible—everything falls within Anderson and Elswit’s established color palette, and nothing rings as false or out of place.

Anderson’s reinvention of his visual aesthetic extends to the music, where he finds an inspired, creative refreshment in his collaboration with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. The music in Anderson’s films have always erred on the side of quirky, but in THERE WILL BE BLOOD the musical character shifts from Jon Brion’s curiously endearing compositions to something more classical and avant-garde.

Greenwood uses harrowing, discordant strings to pervert the conventional orchestral sound into a droning echo of Anderson’s portrait of brutal capitalism. Anderson supplements Greenwood’s compositions with classical source cues like Arvo Parte’s Fratres suite or Brahm’s Violin Concerto in D Major, creating a distinctly Kubrick-ian vibe.

At the center of the film is a tense dynamic between Plainview and his adopted son HW, a precocious and intelligent little boy whose increasing rebelliousness earns him a one-way ticket to an expensive boarding school far away. The elder Plainview is too consumed by his drilling operation to properly raise his son, and in the process inadvertently turns his little business partner into a competitor.

Anderson’s career-long exploration of family dynamics takes a left turn in order to reflect Plainview’s empty soul. Plainview uses HW to project the appearance of an affable family man, even as he takes over people’s land and robs them of their potential fortunes.

In eschewing a conventional plotline or story-arc, the emotional climax ofTHERE WILL BE BLOOD hinges on this tension between Plainview and HW, which comes to a head when HW is a grown man and expresses a desire to move to Mexico with his wife and start an oil company of his own.

Plainview sees this as an act of betrayal and rejects HW as his heir while revealing his true lineage. It’s a pitiful power play that affords Plainview a temporary, petty victory, but it’s clear to the audience that he’s damned himself to a short-lived future of loneliness and regret.

In Anderson’s eyes, tragedy ultimately befalls those who choose to permanently turn away from family. Plainview’s ultimate tragedy is that for all the material wealth he could accumulate, he would always be emotionally and ideologically bankrupt and didn’t have the wherewithal to recognize it.

Anderson’s other thematic fascinations are present in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, albeit in surprising ways. His stories and characters are inherently Californian in nature, meaning that they always reflect some aspect of the Golden State’s rich cultural heritage.

The oil boom that fueled the rise of cities like Los Angeles is depicted here during its infancy (however, the film was shot, ironically, far away from California in Malta, Texas). The fields of steadily-rocking oil derricks profoundly shaped California’s geography and culture, and one need only to look at the expansive oil fields of LA’S Baldwin Hills to see that oil continues to drive California’s economy to this day.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s true genius is in its understated relevancy to our modern age, and how our actions can reverberate over the course of a century. Despite all of our technological advances and progress as a society, we’re still down there in the muck, bludgeoning our way to prosperity.

Anderson’s filmography is greatly interested in sexuality and the human dependency on it. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is notable in this regard for its curious omission of all sexuality. Plainview is driven purely by greed, and hasn’t the slightest care of what other people think of him, much less the opposite sex.

Even the process of obtaining a son comes to him by way of something resembling more of a business transaction than the result of a sexual act. The absence of Plainview’s sexuality in itself is a profound comment on the intricate relationship between ambition and sexual longing, and how non-sexual pursuits like wealth and power can still be fetishized and obsessed over.

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Anderson’s classical, formalist style had been used to subversive effect in his previous work, but his full embrace of it inTHERE WILL BE BLOOD points to his maturing into a very different kind of filmmaker, one whose work is infused with an almost Orwellian sense of self-aware importance (oftentimes mistaken for pretension).

The palpable influence of Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme, and Martin Scorsese in previous films gives way here to the unimpeachable greats—John Huston, Stanley Kubrick, John Ford. As a whole, THERE WILL BE BLOOD feels very Kubrickian, its opening prologue running for a full twenty minutes before the first line of dialogue is spoken (a surefire nod to the Dawn of Man sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)).

This choice doesn’t come from a desire to deliberately emulate Kubrick, however—instead it comes from a place of supreme confidence in Anderson’s skills as a visual storyteller. In seeing Plainview doggedly persist against a series of debilitating mishaps to get his first oil well up and running, we learn more about the ruthlessness and intelligence of the character far more than a dialogue scene could ever tell us.

Of course, Anderson’s knack for memorable and striking dialogue continues to be put to incredible use here. While there’s less of it, Anderson manages to concoct some of the most-quoted lines in recent film memory. The film would’ve been legendary enough even without the inclusion of Plainview’s “I Drink Your Milkshake” monologue, but its inclusion brings Anderson’s full vision over the top and into the territory of unimpeachable greatness.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD was hailed as a masterpiece when it was released, with critics praising its metaphors for a modern-day thirst for oil, an unquenchable commodity that is widely believed to have driven us into a needless war with Iraq under President Bush.

It is arguably Anderson’s most successful film, with a wide swath of nominations at that year’s Academy Awards (and two wins, but none for Anderson himself). Anderson dedicated the film to the memory of his hero Robert Altman, and in doing so, he closed the book on the first part of his career—a career that Altman had directly influenced—and began an exciting new one, marked by laser-focused character studies and a sense of grandeur unmatched by any other filmmaker working today.


THE MASTER (2012)

It’s symptomatic of a high-concept, tentpole-driven system of studio filmmaking that even one of our most treasured directors must struggle to find funding, despite an unbroken string of critically acclaimed works to his name.

After the collapse of specialty studio shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures who had churned out dozens of dramatically rich prestige pictures (albeit admittedly calculated to snag Oscars) during the mid-aughts, directors like Paul Thomas Anderson suddenly found themselves shut out from a Hollywood game that increasingly favored mindless popcorn fare.

For Anderson in particular, his long-percolating idea about a religious cult inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology was deemed too risky of subject matter for its asking budget. Anderson and his regular producers, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar, struggled to find funding for nearly five years, a fact made all the more excruciating because his previous film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), had generated some of the best reviews and press of Anderson’s career.

For a long while, Anderson’s highly-anticipated project, known by various names asTHE UNTITLED PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON PROJECT and THE MASTER, looked like it would never see the light of day. Enter: Megan Ellison, a hotshot twenty-something heiress with a love for visionary auteurs and their work, as well as the considerable financial resources to help make them.

In an industry increasingly paralyzed by risk and creative bankruptcy, bold figures like Ellison represent a beacon of hope that art and commerce don’t necessarily have to be separate from one another. Drawing further inspiration from LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946), John Huston’s World War 2 documentary about soldiers and PTSD, Anderson centers THE MASTER’s focus on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)—an eccentric, unstable man whose condition was amplified by the shell shock he contracted during the Pacific Theatre of WW2.

reddie can’t hold a steady job, is obsessed with sex, and is slowly drinking himself to death with a potent brew of whiskey, paint thinner, and torpedo fuel. In a drunken stupor, he wanders onto the yacht of a fatherly middle-aged man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is revealed to be an enigmatic and charismatic scholar as well as the figurehead of a new religious following known simply as The Cause.

Freddie and Lancaster share a curious attraction to each other, with Lancaster tickled by the sense that he and Freddie have met once before—perhaps in a past life. Freddie uses Lancaster’s hospitality to ingratiate himself into The Cause’s good graces and inner circle, eventually earning himself a spot as a Lieutenant and Lancaster’s right-hand man.

THE MASTER defies narrative convention in that there’s no traditional story arc for audiences to follow. Instead, Anderson lets the story unfold in a compellingly obtuse way that highlights the leads’ off-kilter orbit around each other.

The result is a strange hybrid combining the starkness and gravitas of THERE WILL BE BLOOD with the eccentric abstraction of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002). There’s no condemnation of Scientology to be found here, like many had simply assumed or believed before seeing it—instead, Anderson’s vision is a portrait of a deeply disturbed individual finding his place within a community.

It just so happens that the “community” also happens to be a cult. The character of Freddie Quell is played with rapturous abandon by Phoenix in his first major role since his staged breakdown-as-performance-art seen in Casey Affleck’s I’M STILL HERE (2010).

He crafts a haunting, Oscar-nominated depiction of a man ravaged by war and self-abuse, commanding our undivided attention in every frame while fully immersing himself in his character (much like Daniel Day-Lewis had done in THERE WILL BE BLOOD).

Likewise, the late Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar in his last collaboration with Anderson before his untimely death in early 2014. Due to his long, rich working history with Anderson, Hoffman had the benefit of the role being written expressly for him, making for an effortless performance that projects a paternal warmth and convincing gravitas.

As one of the last roles of his career and life, Hoffman’s quiet, authoritative presence and un-showy confidence proves why he was considered to be one of the best, if not the best, actor of his generation. And last, but not least, Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, presenting a warm, matronly front as Lancaster’s wife—but behind closed doors, she’s more calculating and manipulative than Lady MacBeth.

In a film devoted to the two titan performances from its male leads, Adams more than holds her own, ending up with Oscar nomination herself for the trouble. Anderson’s regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, was unavailable to shoot THE MASTER, so the auteur enlisted the help of Mihai Malaimaire Jr—currently making a name for himself as Francis Ford Coppola’s go-to cameraman.

The visual style of Anderson’s sixth feature is starkly different from what came before, the chief difference being Anderson’s choice to shoot the picture on 65mm film, making it the first feature to utilize the format since 1996.

This decision informed every subsequent choice down the line, meaning Anderson couldn’t shoot in his preferred anamorphic aspect ratio, and that the 65mm film camera’s sheer bulk limited his ability to execute his signature, dynamic movements.

Anderson reconciled this diluting of style with an opportunity to explore the idea of portraiture. He had always incorporated some aspect of it into his framing in past works, such as the precise profile compositions that dotted HARD EIGHT (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS(1997), but in shooting on 65mm film, Anderson was able to better replicate the look of large-format portraiture photography.

A higher image resolution meant shallower focus and finer grain, and when combined with the deep, stormy blues and greys afforded old-fashioned chemical color-timing, creates a rich picture that draws the viewer into this curious world.

As I mentioned before, the size of the 65mm film camera meant Anderson’s compositions were mostly limited to locked-off tripod shots, which makes for a significantly more sedate experience than any of his previous works. What little camera movement there is takes the form of slow and steady dolly moves, giving THE MASTER a patient, calculated pace that echoes the work of Stanley Kubrick.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s production designer Jack Fisk returns for THE MASTER, faithfully and subtly replicating the look of midcentury California. Every non-organic thing within the bounds of Anderson’s frame—the costumes, the color palette, Lancaster’s trusty yacht—is Fisk’s domain, and his unwavering commitment to authenticity and Anderson’s vision helps to create an engrossing experience that never feels false or out of place.

Anderson supplements Fisk’s authentic midcentury feel by incorporating a few well-chosen needledrop songs from the era, like Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”. Compared to the wall-to-wall disco explosion of 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, the relatively sparse placement of source tracks shows the discipline and restraint of a mature filmmaker secure and confident in his vision.

Increasingly relying on original score to communicate his intended tone, Anderson again works with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who crafted THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s stunning symphony of dissonance. With THE MASTER, Greenwood crafts a lumbering, staccato score that promises mystery and discovery, while echoing the hypnotic techniques that practitioners of The Cause use on their followers.

Throughout the course of his filmography, Anderson’s exploration of family dynamics, sexual dependence, and the cultural heritage of California have evolved in surprising ways. California is notorious for its laidback, inclusive social structures— structures that allowed the rise of Scientology and other fringe religions.

Just as Scientology is distinctly tied to the Golden State in its origins and operations, so too does THE MASTER’s fictional organization claim California (specifically San Francisco and the state’s northern region) as its physical and mental territory.

Despite the film’s storyline taking us to different places like New York City, Phoenix, and Lynn, Massachusetts (the hometown of Anderson’s father, Ernie), Anderson’s treatment of these locales never loses sight of a distinctly Californian approach, utilizing primal iconography like the beach, palm trees, and the desert wherever it can.

Anderson’s continued fascination of family dynamics uses THE MASTER to explore the idea of family in a larger sense: a community, and the sense of belonging to one. As a lost soul without any family we are made aware of, Freddie comes off like a complete mess of a human being.

He travels the world like an aimless drifter, with no real driving force pulling him along besides the pursuit of fleeting comforts like rotgut booze and fast women. It’s not until he’s caught under the spell of Lancaster’s charismatic charlatan that he finds a semblance of peace and companionship.

He’s able to calm his voracious sexual appetite and channel it into what he perceives to be meaningful pursuits in service to something greater than him.  Without the presence of a conventional plot arc, the film’s stakes and key emotional conflict stem from Freddie’s presence within the community becoming a liability and a danger to Lancaster and Peggy, an idea made all the more complicated by the chummy father/son relationship that Lancaster shares with Freddie.

In this way, THE MASTER plays like something of a companion piece to THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Both films hinge on the relationship between father and son, with the father being a powerful man of influence and means, while the initially-loyal son bears the threat of the father’s professional demise. The similarities become most evident in each film’s climax, which both take place in the father’s grand, cathedral-like office. THERE WILL BE BLOOD finds the scene bathed in darkness, as Daniel Plainview venomously rejects his son and condemns himself to a life of wretched loneliness. Conversely, Lancaster Dodd’s office is awash in blinding daylight and, while he also releases Freddie of his bond, he does so in a warm, reassuring manner that’s meant to bring peace to Freddie’s inner chaos.

As a continuation of Anderson’s weighty examinations of profoundly flawed men, THE MASTER was received with great enthusiasm by critics. However, the positive reaction was not as universal as it was for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

The two films are stylistically similar, conceived of and executed in a similar mindset and directly influenced by the work of John Huston. Anderson’s works have never exactly lit the box office on fire, and THE MASTER is no exception. However, its winning of the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, as well as the Academy Award nominations for its three leads, ensures THE MASTER’s place as one Anderson’s defining works.

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FIONA APPLE “HOT KNIFE” MUSIC VIDEO (2013)

For his first music video in a decade, Anderson teamed up once again with his old flame Fiona Apple, crafting a video for“HOT KNIFE”, the closing single off of Apple’s new album, The Idler Wheel. It’s unclear at first glance what the shooting format is, since it appears to be large format like 65mm, but notice that it also incorporates Anderson’s preferred anamorphic aspect ratio. I’d suggest that the piece might be digital, but I ultimately suspect that it isn’t because Anderson has yet to use the format in any of his other works. This seemingly simple, deceptively complex look extends to the video itself, featuring a conventional performance that reveals a layered complexity as the song builds. The visual trickery that marked Anderson’s previous Apple videos returns in somewhat subdued form, showcasing Anderson’s discipline and restraint as his craft has matured.

Anderson shoots Apple against a black background, lighting her in the style of portraiture in an aesthetic conceit carried over from his 2012 feature THE MASTER. The color palette is even similar, featuring cream highlights complemented by neutral, desaturated tones.

He mirrors the track’s layered vocals with a triptych of panels, surrounding Apple on both sides with backup vocalists featured in profile. The result is a subtle tapestry that visually echoes the construction of the song itself.

As of this writing, “HOT KNIFE” is Anderson’s most recent of his released work. Later this year he will release his seventh feature, INHERENT VICE, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel. It will be Anderson’s first adaptation of someone else’s story, and will re-team him with THE MASTER’s Joaquin Phoenix while transporting him back to the 1970’s-era Los Angeles previously seen in BOOGIE NIGHTS.

Without knowing too many particulars of the story, it’s not hard to image thatINHERENT VICE will find Anderson continuing his in-depth character studies of compellingly flawed men.

Anderson’s sixteen-year rise from maverick indie upstart to elder statesman of American prestige cinema has eclipsed his peers, and rightfully so. The assertion that Anderson is one of our greatest living directors is one that’s widely agreed upon by the international cinematic community, and while one might think this would all go to his head, Anderson has shown a remarkable degree of modesty, humbleness, and mischievousness that endears him where other pretentious visionaries might fall short.

By merging old school aesthetic sensibilities with new school storytelling techniques, Anderson has directly inspired a generation of up-and-coming filmmakers while securing his own place among the pantheon of great directors.


ANDERSON’S INHERENT VICE (2014)

Over the course of seven features, director Paul Thomas Anderson has built up a reputation for himself as arguably the finest filmmaker of his generation.  It’s symptomatic of Hollywood’s current priorities, then, that even a director as lauded and widely-esteemed as Anderson has a difficult time getting a film made.

After finishing his 2007 masterpiece THERE WILL BE BLOOD, Anderson struggled for several years to get his follow-up, THE MASTER (2012), off the ground.  This time away from production allowed him to develop several projects simultaneously, one of which was the first novel from cult crime novelist Thomas Pynchon to ever be adapted to the screen.

Titled “Inherent Vice”, the novel’s film rights were promptly snatched up in 2010 by Anderson and his producing partners Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar.  Anderson scripted the adaptation himself, with an eye to cast Robert Downey Jr in the central role of Doc Sportello, a stoner burnout turned private investigator.

However, the film’s extended development cycle caused the director to reconsider his choice, and in the end, Downey was replaced by the leading man of Anderson’s previous film, Joaquin Phoenix.  INHERENT VICE marks Anderson’s return to the studio fold after the independent production and distribution of THE MASTER, but even the increased firepower afforded by Warner Brothers’ backing wasn’t enough to save the film from its own labyrinthine plotting and an ambivalent audience reception.

 After completing two consecutive portraits of powerful, disciplined men, critics decried Anderson for taking a hard left turn into irreverence and mischief– but in the process, he just may have created a new cult classic that’s far, far ahead of its time.

The plot to INHERENT VICE is, in a word, incomprehensible.  The story’s various twists and turns are densely layered and delivered almost entirely in stoner mumble and hippie slang.  Multiple viewings aren’t encouraged, they’re mandatory in order to fully untangle the sea of knots that Anderson has woven here.

 It’s important to note then, that this is not a simple case of directorial overindulgence; in presenting INHERENT VICE in this way, Anderson has faithfully captured Pynchon’s idiosyncratic voice and spirit right down to the letter.

 The story is set in 1970, in the fictional SoCal seaside village known as Gordita Beach (akin to the real-life Hermosa or Manhattan Beach communities).  The Manson murders have brought the Free Love era crashing to the ground, shattering the collective dream of the 1960’s and leaving everyone too zoned out to pick up the pieces.

 Their utopian dreams in shambles, the hippies and the stoners have chosen to carve out their own place within the workforce– one of whom is Doc Sportello (Phoenix) a private investigator who works out of a rented room inside of a doctor’s office.

One night, he’s visited upon by his ethereal ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who pleads for his assistance in tracking down her new beau– a real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who has recently gone missing.  Doc agrees to help Shasta, partly because he still carries a torch for her.

 As he descends into the seedy underbelly of SoCal’s surf culture, he manages to uncover a sprawling criminal conspiracy perpetuated by crooked cops, hedonistic dentists, and murderous white supremacists.  Frankly, it’s hard to keep track of all the disparate elements, and the only thing that’s given a modicum of bleary-eyed clarity is the film’s title.

 Even then, it’s full meaning is maddeningly elusive.  Going by the film’s definition, “Inherent Vice” is a shipping term that describes an item whose decay is an inevitable product of its own internal components (rather than via external forces).  Milk will spoil, chocolate will melt.

 In the film, Doc wonders what the term means when it’s applied to ex-girlfriends– we can surmise that it is our own inherent vices that turns those girlfriends into exes in the first place.  Our weaknesses and indulgence cause us to deteriorate from the inside, keeping us from arriving at our destination in a pristine, perfect state.

Anderson’s approach to INHERENT VICE suggests that the film, then, is about the Flower Power generation’s internal degenerative agents and their attempts to keep their particular way of life alive in the face of a New Conservatism embodied by figures like Ronald Reagan.

Controversial leading man Joaquin Phoenix fully embodies Thomas Pynchon’s eccentric creation in his second consecutive appearance for Anderson.  Much like Anderson’s original choice, Robert Downey Jr, Phoenix is a no-brainer for the role, and could’ve sailed by on the strengths of his own eccentric charisma.

 However, Phoenix disappears entirely inside Sportello’s signature mutton-chops and birkenstocks.  A burned-out hippie in the grand tradition of THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), Sportello is a relic of a bygone age that won’t recognize that it has ended.

 Phoenix charmingly mumbles his way through Anderson’s idiosyncratic caper, but years of heavy drug use have done little to dull his investigative edge.  Josh Brolin’s Lt. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen is almost the exact opposite– a sharp-witted lawman with a particularly blunt approach to justice.  Brolin is effortlessly convincing as the lantern-jawed, masculine ideal of Eisenhower-era America.

The ironclad resoluteness of Lt. Bjornsen is a fantastic foil to Sportello’s squirrelly paranoia, creating a truly entertaining chemistry that fuels the film’s momentum.  In the absence of a true, singular villain for Sportello and Bjornsen to track down, the story compensates by focuses instead on the titanic battle of wills between these two characters– each man embodying the ideals of their respective eras and hellbent on staying afloat amidst the tumultuous sea of change that threatens to wash right over them.

A rogue’s gallery of oddballs and eccentrics populate Anderson’s supporting cast, most of whom are working with the director for the first time.  As Doc’s ex-lover, Shasta, Katherine Waterston is presented to the audience in a manner not unlike a spiritual vision.

She’s a ghost– drifting in and out of Doc’s life without warning, bewitching him with her perpetual pout.  Already a growing presence within the independent scene, Waterston delivers a breakout performance that lingers in the mind, infecting the audience’s memory much in the same way she’s infected Doc.

Better known for her musical career as a singer and harpist, Joanna Newsom lends her ethereal physicality to the film as Sortilege– a character whose purpose within the narrative is never fully explained.  She acts as something of an avatar for Pynchon himself, preserving his distinct prose in the form of onscreen narration.

It’s implied several times throughout that only Doc has the ability to see and interact with Sortilege, which suggests that she might be something of a guardian angel– a soothing voice to calm the paranoid storm raging in Doc’s head.

Despite extremely limited screen time, Benicio Del Toro makes a memorable impression as Sauncho Smilax, an attorney specializing in marine law who acts as a pro-bono lawyer, confidant, and friend to Doc.  The same can be said of Owen Wilson in his subdued performance as Coy Harlingen, an ex-junkie musician and family man who’s been faking his death for the last few years.

Jena Malone is quickly becoming one of the more interesting character actresses of her generation, as evidenced by her turn in INHERENT VICE as Coy’s wife, Hope– another ex-junkie who found God and a set of false chompers after giving birth to their son.

Her recent dental work ends up as a vital clue in Sportello’s investigation, linking her to Martin Short’s demented, coke-hoovering dentist character Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.  Blatnoyd is a member of The Golden Fang, the shadowy crime syndicate that’s seemingly behind this whole mess.

Rounding out Anderson’s supporting cast of note is a quartet of well-known character actors, each of whom effortlessly slip into the director’s idiosyncratic vision of LA in the early 70’s.  Reese Witherspoon plays Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball, Doc’s current lover and a strong-willed, independent woman in her own right.  Curiously, she’s very much a manifestation of The Establishment, an entity Doc has been battling all his life.

This character trait leads to some gloriously off-kilter chemistry between her and Doc, and makes for some of the film’s most memorable moments.  Eric Roberts, also known as the The Man Who Will Act In Anything, displays formidable control of his craft in his brief appearance as real estate mogul Michael Wolfmann.

The mysterious man at the center of this whole caper, Wolfmann is initially presented in photographic form as a rich and successful businessman.  However, when Doc tracks him down at a rehab facility outside of town, Wolfmann is strung out and barely coherent, having been placed under the watchful eye of the feds and doped up beyond all recognition.

Michael Williams, a rising talent with high-profile turns in THE WIRE and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, makes an amusing cameo as Tariq Khalil, a former member of the Black Gorilla gang who has just gotten out of prison, only to find his old hood completely bulldozed to make way for one of Wolfmann’s planned suburban communities.

Finally,SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alum Maya Rudolph– Anderson’s real-life partner and the mother of his children– appears briefly as Petunia Leeway, the secretary at Doc’s office.  INHERENT VICE is a film that often feels meandering and unfocused– the production process was politely described by Anderson’s collaborators as “chaotic”.

Most of the time, this would be a bad thing, but that isn’t necessarily the case here.  Indeed, Anderson’s adherence to Pynchon’s particular voice and his cavalier subversion (or outright disposal) of the genre’s most recognizable tropes make for a singularly unique mystery film.

The cinematography goes a long way towards conveying this notion, with Anderson’s long-time director of photography Robert Elswit returning to head up the production after his absence during THE MASTER.  Having shot most THE MASTER in large-format 65mm film, Anderson and Elswit return to the tried-and-true 35mm gauge, choosing a grainy stock that adds a slight veneer of granola crunchiness.

Retaining THE MASTER’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, INHERENT VICE is presented as a gritty, sunbaked take on the traditional noir genre– some have even go far as to call it a “surf noir”.  The color palette deals in muted, faded tones that were once previously bright– a reflection of the harsh sobriety that followed the collapse of the chemically-altered dream of the 1960’s.

The lighting is bright and naturalistic, save for the nocturnal sequences, which take on a deep, almost-theatrical cobalt hue.  A filmmaker long known for his dynamic camerawork, Anderson’s recent output has seen a noticeable drawdown of flashy techniques in favor of masterful discipline.

 INHERENT VICE seemingly deviates from this laser-focused approach by shooting a substantial majority of setups handheld, yet it also reinforces Anderson’s previous aesthetic conventions in a big way.

The film plays like something of an amalgamation of his prior stylistic epochs:  his early-career fondness for extended tracking shots and current fascination with the compositional conceits of portraiture are present in their own right (like in the long Steadicam shot that plays under the opening title), but they’re also combined to form a recurring visual motif unique to INHERENT VICE.

Many scenes are presented in extended master shots with little to no coverage, with his compositions accentuated by a slow, almost imperceptible dolly and/or zoom movement forward that’s somewhat reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s late-career aesthetic.

Anderson’s foray into comedy in the years surrounding PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) also informs INHERENT VICE, making for his most outright comedic effort in over a decade.  There’s a surprising amount of visual slapstick at work here, along with several playful visual gags like a shot of his characters partaking in a pizza dinner party composed to recreate Leonard Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”.

INHERENT VICE marks Anderson’s first collaboration with a new production designer, David Crank.  Having worked as an art director under legendary production designer Jack Fisk on Anderson’s previous two features, Crank stepped up to the task when Fisk proved unavailable to reprise his role (most likely due to his commitments on Terrence Malick’s forthcomingKNIGHT OF CUPS).

INHERENT VICE takes place in a 1970’s that has yet to see the glittering disco balls depicted inBOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), so naturally the film’s aesthetic hews closer to a late 60’s feel.  Crank’s production design is realistic and low-key, projecting a modest and lived-in authenticity that never descends into camp or exaggeration.

In his third consecutive collaboration with Anderson, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood proves himself an invaluable component of the director’s mid-career aesthetic, much like Jon Brion had been for HARD EIGHT (1996) through PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.

Greenwood is inherently suited towards Anderson’s artistic quirks, enabling him to complement and elevate the footage into a higher, sometimes-transcendent realm.  For all its perceived imperfections, INHERENT VICE’s strongest suit is arguably Greenwood’s original score– a romantic, mysterious and avant-garde effort comprised of violins, oboes, and musical saws that harken back to the ornately orchestral cues of yesteryear.

While he doesn’t lean on needle drop source tracks as much as he did in the first act of his career, Anderson nevertheless uses his lively period setting as an opportunity to employ some choice art-rock and pop classics from the era.

The most high-profile of these tracks is Can’s “Vitamin C”, deployed as a luridly beckoning narrative agent during the film’s opening sequences.  Artists like Neil Young and Sam Cooke also appear on a soundtrack that ably captures the eclectic vibe of vintage SoCal: a broadly diverse palette of crooning country ballads, funky R&B cuts, and psychedelic rock riffs.

The music technically may be from the same era, but it’s a far cry from the bright, cheery pop tunes we heard in BOOGIE NIGHTS.  Indeed, INHERENT VICE’s selection of cues highlights the darker, more-paranoid aspects of the decade.

Throughout the film, Anderson recurringly utilizes an interesting musical technique that blurs the line between in-scene music (diagetic) and soundtrack (non-diagetic).  Oftentimes, someone will be listening to music within a scene only for Anderson to then transition to the next beat while changing the acoustic dynamics of the track to reflect that it’s now playing over the image.

The effect is similar to stream of consciousness–  a cascading flow of ocean waves washing over us and carrying us through into the next moment.  Though INHERENT VICE may be a faithful adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, there’s so much overlap between the source material and PTA’s core thematic conceits that the final product also reads as decidedly Anderson-ian.

His recent explorations into the dynamics of power with THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER is manifest in INHERENT VICEvia the ideological war being fought by Doc and Lt. Bjornsen.  They have diametrically-opposed outlooks on life, but they’re flip sides of the same coin: they’re both inclined to seek out the truth.

As such, their animosity and one-upmanship ironically resembles mismatched buddy cop comedies or the withering pettiness of sibling rivalries.  The off-kilter intimacies of non-blood familial relationships drive Anderson’s characters throughout his filmography, with INHERENT VICE’s contribution being the major subplot that endeavors to reunite Coy Harlingen with his wife and child.

Funnily enough, this subplot ultimately serves as the source of the film’s climactic emotional catharsis in the absence of a tidy resolution to the film’s primary plot.  Bizarre, dysfunctional sexual encounters are another prominent component of Anderson’s artistic aesthetic, a conceit that plays out in INHERENT VICE via a visit to a secret “massage” parlor, pornographic neckties, and a love scene between Doc and Shasta that plays out with such a prolonged sense of suspense and anticipation that it would make Sergio Leone jealous.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of INHERENT VICE as it pertains to its place within Anderson’s larger body of work is its engagement with California’s distinct cultural heritage.  Much like THE MASTER explored how the Golden State’s relaxed sense of independence made it a breeding ground for crackpot religious cults and delusional charlatans, INHERENT VICE examines how the potent cocktail of mind-altering substances and alternative lifestyle explorations in the 1960’s exploded into countless subcultures and communities.

Indeed, more so than many other films to my memory, INHERENT VICE captures that peculiar blend of paranoia and unease that plagued LA’s utopian communities in the wake of the Manson killings.  The sunny LA cityscape has always been a colorful place, culturally-speaking, and INHERENT VICE bypasses the glitz of Hollywood or the glamor of Beverly Hills in favor of the Southland’s drought-choked sprawl.

Distinctly Californian characters like hippies, neo-Nazis and cult leaders clash together in distinctly Californian locales like seaside coffee shops, rehabilitation facilities and canyon-side mansions.

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As his filmography has grown, it’s becoming more evident that Anderson has achieved something remarkable– with the exception of HARD EIGHT, the Golden State has served as a prominent connective tissue between all of his films.

Just as much as the 20th Century could be called “The American Century”, so too could it reasonably be referred to as the “The Californian Century” in that the state was an embodiment of the progressive ideals that drove American prosperity for much of last century.

Anderson’s films mostly take place in California, spanning a wide variety of time periods.  The span is so wide, in fact, that nearly every decade of the 20th Century (save for the 30’s) is represented at some point in Anderson’s work.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD covered the birth and growth of the state from the turn of the century to the late 20’s.  The postwar boom times of the 40’s and 50’s are the setting of THE MASTER.  INHERENT VICE takes place in 1970 but contains flashbacks to the 60’s.

OOGIE NIGHTS’ decadent excess spans both the 1970’s and the 80’s.  MAGNOLIA andPUNCH-DRUNK LOVE explore California’s evolving sense of identity during the 90’s and the turn of the new millennium.  If you were to watch Anderson’s output in chronological order according to their story’s time periods, you’d come away with a weirdly alternate, yet comprehensive history of the American Century as seen through California’s distinct perspective.

INHERENT VICE is the kind of film that’s not easy to love– it takes multiple viewings to even understand its plot, let alone embrace the idiosyncratic quirks of Anderson’s vision.  When it premiered at the New York Film Festival to polarized reviews, word of mouth began to spread that Anderson had made an objectively bad film.

Critics praised the performances of his cast, but they all pretty much agreed that the story was unsalvageable– an overindulgent failure.  Box office receipts were consistent with this reaction, confirming INHERENT VICE’s cultural reputation as a huge misfire from one of our most treasured filmmakers.

Any Oscar campaign plans were probably scaled back instantly, but even the mountain of disappointment that greeted the film upon its release couldn’t stop it from earning Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design.

The collective frustration with the film is very real, most likely a reaction stemming from only one or two viewings at best– relatively snap judgments made by people who don’t care to commit to untangling the film’s myriad mysteries.

Like so many films before it, INHERENT VICE might simply be a victim of unrealistic expectations– after all, Anderson’s previous two works were staggeringly confident and majestically executed, and if the director’s rabid fanbase was expecting more of the same, they were bound to be sorely disappointed.

Such expectations tend to deny filmmakers like Anderson their right as artists to grow and experiment, and anyone who expects their favorite artist to deliver the same thing again and again like its some mechanized process surely misses the entire point of art.

Of course, INHERENT VICE could also simply just be a bad film– it ultimately comes down to individual taste. Just like the unattainable mystery at the center of the film, there will probably never be a definitive critical consensus as to INHERENT VICE’s place in the cinematic landscape.

If I was a betting man, I’d wager that it’ll slowly accumulate a cult appreciation not unlike THE BIG LEBOWSKI as multiple viewings increasingly reveal the full scope of Anderson’s irreverent vision.

What’s less ambiguous about INHERENT VICE is its place within Anderson’s body of work.  As of this writing, Anderson is forty-five years old and has seven features to his credit.  It’s hard to imagine that the hotshot kid who made BOOGIE NIGHTS is nearly fifty now.

By middle age, most successful directors have found an aesthetic that maximizes their personal strengths, inevitably settling into a long period of what one could call beneficial stagnance– yet it’s stagnance nonetheless.  Treading water keeps you afloat, but it doesn’t actually take you anywhere.

Midway through his career, Anderson seems to have found his strongest suit only to throw it away in hopes he might stumble across an even stronger one.  He’s experimenting; pushing the boundaries of his voice.  The results may be uneven, but they keep his perspective fresh and honest.

The irreverent playfulness on display in INHERENT VICE marks a departure from his string of John Huston-inspired power portraits, and while it’s a safe bet that Anderson won’t bring this film’s stylistic approach to his next, he most definitely will continue to refine and rework what it means to be “A Paul Thomas Anderson Film”.


JOANNA NEWSOM “SAPOKANIKAN” MUSIC VIDEO (2015)

In August of 2015, director Paul Thomas Anderson dropped a new music video on the unsuspecting masses.  The piece features his INHERENT VICE star– singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom– performing her new single “SAPOKANIKAN” as she walks through the chilly Manhattan streets at twilight hour.  On the surface, it’s a simple performance piece that’s so low-tech in its execution that seemingly anyone could have done it.  Indeed, upon first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of the prestigious filmmaker’s participation whatsoever.

 It could just as well be a scrappy film school student’s work.  However, Anderson’s deceptively simple approach here reveals some interesting insights for those who would delve deeper.

“SAPOKANIKAN” is a stark departure from Anderson’s previous work in the visual sense, but it stays consistent with his artistic conceits and thematic fascinations.  The piece appears to have been shot digitally, which is a notable factor considering Anderson’s preference for celluloid within his feature catalogue.  It also appears that Anderson is operating the camera himself, shooting handheld in extremely guerrilla fashion using only the natural light afforded by their most-likely-stolen locations.

 The piece’s spotty, inconsistent focus is further evidence of the extremely lo-fi nature of the shoot.  Overall, there’s a great deal of looseness to Anderson’s approach– the piece comes off less like a music video and more like a documentary: very improvisational and naturalistic.

Anderson’s work as of late has demonstrated a fascination with portraiture– a conceit that has generated some of the most affecting close-ups in recent memory.  This dovetails quite nicely with the format of a performance video, allowing Anderson to indulge in compositions that put Newsom’s ethereal visage front and center against a twinkling backdrop of fuzzy light orbs.

When it comes to music videos, Anderson has always been picky about which artists he chooses to collaborate with.  Traditionally, the artist in question is either a close friend/lover (like Fiona Apple) or has worked with him on his features in some capacity (like Aimee Mann or Michael Penn).  Specifically, the artists he chooses to direct videos for tend to be strong-minded and quasi-eccentric female singer-songwriters.

Joanna Newsom, being both a left-of-mainstream singer/songwriter and the wispy, lilting voice of INHERENT VICE’s quasi-narrator/commentator Sortilege, carries on this proud tradition.

“SAPOKANIKAN” is hard to place within Anderson’s artistic trajectory, simply because it seems so off-the-cuff and improvisational.  Without any further commentary by Anderson or Newsom themselves, it’s difficult to tell whether the lo-fi, handheld aesthetic was a result of the production’s limited shooting circumstances or if Anderson is moving away from the structural formalism that marked his camerawork in favor of the loose, playful vibe he began exploring in INHERENT VICE.

 If recent developments on his feature slate are any indication, it might be the latter– he’s reportedly attached to write and direct a new version of the classic children’s tale, “Pinocchio”.  It may very well be several years before we’re able to discern how “SAPOKANIKAN” informs Anderson’s evolving aesthetic, but in the meantime, at least we have a charming promotional piece for one of the music industry’s most enchanting artists.


JUNUN (2015)

From the outside perspective of American culture, India is often regarded as a faraway land of personal and creative rediscovery.  Many American artists have made the journey in a bid to escape the confines of Anglo-Saxon cultural values as well as their own individual stylistic paradigms– Wes Anderson did it with 2007’s THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and Danny Boyle followed swiftly after with the Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008).

Following the ambivalent reception of his 2014 feature INHERENT VICE, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson made the journey himself, tagging along with his regular composer (and Radiohead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood as he embarked on an ambitious concept album called “Junun”.  In a way, the trip was a chance for Anderson to repay the creative debt he owed to Greenwood, whose eclectic musical taste had played a crucial role in the director’s mid-career stylistic reinvention.

The resulting work, 2015’s JUNUN, is notable within Anderson’s filmography for several reasons, chief among them being that it is his first documentary as well as his first substantial foray into the digital video format.  The central conceit of the piece traces Greenwood’s creation and recording of the album in collaboration with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and local brass ensemble The Rajasthan Express.

The music, recorded inside of the ancient Mehrangarh Fort in Jodphur, takes its inspiration from a variety of Eastern influences and customs while blending in a combination of spoken languages like Hindi, Hebrew and Urdu, as well as hints of Radiohead’s post-modern sound via Greenwood’s avant-garde touch.   The 1.85:1 HD presentation is relatively unadorned and naturalistic, perhaps even a little lo-fi looking– apparently, a more polished visual presentation was planned, but Anderson’s camera gear was held up by customs and he had to make do with his own personal camera and one of his producer’s drones.

Thankfully, we live in a golden age of DSLR cinematography, so Anderson’s consumer camera set-up proves more than capable at capturing the majestic grit of the ancient environs or the stunning character of the light– be it either dusty daylight or amber-soaked candlelight.  Anderson operates the camera himself, taking his cues from the cinema verite documentary style pioneered by D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers.

 He alternates between locked-off tripod shots that studiously observe Greenwood and Company’s creative process, and shot-from-the-hip handheld shots that grab fleeting unplanned images in a bid to establish a sense of temporal immediacy and impermanence.  As befitting a documentary about the process of creation, Anderson makes no effort to obscure his own process– on-the-fly ISO changes, various repositions of his tripod and compositions, and even his own off-camera voice prompts are left intact within the final edit.

 He also incorporates newer documentary techniques like timelapse footage and economically-achieved aerials via the aforementioned drone.

JUNUN is utterly devoid of most of Anderson’s signature stylistic traits as a director, arguably a case of the director exercising gracious restraint so as not to overpower his regular composer’s own creative message.  Indeed, the presence of Greenwood in the first place is the most visible signifier of Anderson’s participation.

His long fascination with the cultural significance of the video format, last explored in 1999’s MAGNOLIA, reappears in JUNUN not as critique or commentary, but simply as an acquisition format chosen for the needs of the shoot.  Beyond that, there’s only fleeting instances that bear the imprint of Anderson’s idiosyncratic vision: the brief appearance of a harmonium calling back to PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002), or the frequent cutaways to a pigeon watching from the rafters that serve to highlight the director’s inherent mischievousness.

Though little seen by audiences at large, JUNUN was well-received by critics.  After the film’s debut at the 2015 New York Film Festival, Anderson embraced the emergent market of digital distribution, releasing it exclusively on the social film site Mubi before making it available on iTunes.  By bypassing traditional markets, he was able to access his rabid fan base directly, and more immediately satiate their hunger for new work.  JUNUN stands on its own merits as an intriguing insight into the creative process behind an admittedly fantastic album, but the question remains: how exactly does it fit into Anderson’s continual evolution as a cinematic artist?

From a technical standpoint, the film seems to follow a precedent set by INHERENT VICE, which saw Anderson turn away from the restrained formalism that marked THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER, finding new inspiration in chaos and spontaneity.  However, there’s a profound emotional shift also unfolding here– the joy that Greenwood and his collaborators achieve while recording in ancient surroundings approaches an altered state of mind– the act of creation and travel is a transcendent experience for them.

Whereas INHERENT VICE’s characters achieved enlightenment with chemicals and substances, JUNUN’s high is purely natural.  Anderson can’t help but be dosed by the infectious rapture of his collaborators, and as a result, delivers a lively meditation on creation and culture that expands his own artistic horizons far beyond the Californian landscape that so profoundly shaped his previous worldview.


JOANNA NEWSOM “DIVERS” MUSIC VIDEO (2015)

The production of INHERENT VICE in 2014 begat a particularly strong working partnership between director Paul Thomas Anderson and cast member Joanna Newsom, who played the film’s ethereal narrator.  The momentum of that collaboration spilled over into Newsom’s other career as a singer / songwriter as she prepared to release a new album titled “Divers”.

She recruited Anderson to helm the video for the album’s first single “SAPOKANIKAN” (2015), and when it came time to make the video for the album’s title track “DIVERS” (2015), Anderson again provided his services.  With this development, Anderson and Newsom had seemed to cement a platonic version of the creative partnership he shared with former flame Fiona Apple in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Whereas the video for “SAPOKANIKAN” was quite improvisational in its use of handheld location shooting and natural light, “DIVERS” takes the opposite tack, opting for an ultra-controlled and disciplined execution.  The video was filmed at the New York City studio of abstract artist Kim Keever, whose particular aesthetic gives the video its central idea.

Anderson places Newsom center-frame amidst a fantastical miniature mountainscape, lit to resemble a baroque Romantic-era painting.  As the piece plays, Anderson slowly– almost imperceptibly– pulls the camera back to reveal more of the landscape, while brightly-colored clouds blossom in the sky.  At this point, we realize that the visual trickery is all occurring in-camera– Anderson is shooting through the prism of an aquarium with perfectly-still water, and the beautiful, ethereal cloud-blooming effect is actually colored sand being poured into it.

After the relative stylistic anonymity that marked “SAPOKANIKAN” and his India-set music documentary JUNUN (2015), “DIVERS” finds Anderson returning to familiar thematic territory.  The fascination with portraiture that marked THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) and THE MASTER (2012) is front and center here, with Anderson’s choice to focus on the close-up contours of Newsom’s facial features acting as an echo of the mountains that surround her.

 The decision to use Keevers’ expressionistic aesthetic recalls Anderson’s collaboration with the late digital artist Jeremy Blake on PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s painterly interludes, further establishing the director’s appreciation for the work of artists across other visual mediums.

In keeping with Anderson’s lifelong defiance of convention, “DIVERS” received an unconventional rollout for a music video.  Whereas most are now simply released into the online ether and supported by write ups from a handful of tastemaking music blogs, this particular music video instead premiered in local arthouse theaters throughout New York City, only making its online debut after a brief period of exclusivity.  Reaction to the video was mostly positive, with many lavishing praise on Anderson’s stunning visuals and unique approach.

At the time of this writing (April 2016), it’s currently unknown what Anderson’s next directorial effort will be.  For a while, he was attached to write and direct a new live-action adaptation of the classic fable PINOCCHIO, which undoubtedly would have been an interesting take to say the least.  The stylistic experimentation and embrace of chaos that’s shaped his most recent output leaves us perplexed and unsure what his next move will be– which is exactly where the unpredictable auteur would have us be.

It’s hard to believe that the boy wonder who took American independent cinema by storm is now a middle-aged man approaching 50, a fact that only makes his staggering accomplishments in the intervening few decades that much more astonishing.  Whatever comes next, it will be sure to intrigue, inspire, surprise, and shock us– and it will further establish Anderson himself as one of the most vital and important filmmakers of our time.


RADIOHEAD: “DAYDREAMING” MUSIC VIDEO (2016)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson has long been tangentially connected to the avant-garde rock group Radiohead via guitarist Jonny Greenwood, so it was only a matter of time until he collaborated with the band directly.  In 2016, he did just that, releasing a video for “DAYDREAMING”, a track called off their ninth album– the first since their 2011 release “The King Of Limbs”.

The piece features Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke walking through various locations and environments, stitched together as if it were one cohesive labyrinth.  Anderson makes a repeated visual motif out of doors, stairs, and other transitional architectural structures, imbuing them via the magic of editing with the power to effortlessly transport Yorke across space and time.

Captured in cool, neutral tones with what appears to be a mix of conventional celluloid film and digital acquisition,  “DAYDREAMING” bears Anderson’s cinematic stamp much more explicitly than his recent videos for Joanna Newsom.  Though broken up into a series of vignettes, the video’s editing essentially structures itself as a handful of extended tracking shots, a camera movement technique Anderson staked out for himself as an artistic signature in early works like BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999).

 Whereas he almost exclusively used the Steadicam to achieve these types of shots before, here Anderson also uses handheld camerawork, giving himself a wider berth for spontaneous inspiration.  His camera consistently pushes or pulls us along the Z axis, beckoning us toward or repulsing us away from a singular point of convergence.  Meanwhile, a shallow depth of field works to obscure that distance, lathering the video in a coat of mystery.

“DAYDREAMING” also alludes to some of Anderson’s core artistic conceits, namely the iconography of California and the compositional values of portraiture.  While the various spaces that Yorke stumbles through are meant to be taken as generic, geographically-speaking, they nevertheless remain characteristic of the Californian landscape: sunny beaches, crowded laundromats, grungy industrial spaces, and sleepy bungalows.  Anderson also finds a few opportunities to dwell on Yorke’s face as he stands still, framing his weathered visage inside of a tight portrait.

The video operates primarily on dream logic, and this dreamlike quality– of being removed from an objective, sober reality– generates a feeling of consistency with Anderson’s other output from this period.  “DAYDREAMING” speaks to Anderson’s recent exploration of alternative distribution techniques, in that he unleashed the video on an unsuspecting populace; there was little to no advance notice that there was even going to be a new Radiohead album, let alone a stunning video from Anderson to accompany it.

 As a band, Radiohead has shown a preternatural ability to harness the power of the Internet to find innovative distribution avenues.  If his recent efforts are any indication, Anderson is quickly mastering these same skills for himself.


RADIOHEAD: “PRESENT TENSE” MUSIC VIDEO (2016)

Following his surprise music video, “DAYDREAMING” for Radiohead’s surprise 2016 album, A Moon Shaped Pool, director Paul Thomas Anderson dropped yet another collaboration with the iconic art-rock outfit out of the warm, blue September sky.  In delivering his second video for the album, Anderson has proved himself a cinematic soul-mate to the avant-garde musical character of Radiohead’s new album.

The piece, for the track “PRESENT TENSE”, dramatically scales back any stylistic pyrotechnics in favor of a subdued, intimate performance video.  Sitting against a bare-bones backdrop in warm amber light so dim it could almost be candlelight, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood perform the track through its entirety with their voices, their acoustic guitars, and even a Roland CR78 drum machine.

 Anderson alternates his camera between two separate setups, framing the two bandmates in static medium shots before punching in for a few shallow-focus closeups that further demonstrate Anderson’s fascination with the visual language of portraits.  Yorke and Greenwood give themselves entirely to their performances, achieving a heightened state of mind that calls to mind the similar expressions of artistic rapture evidenced in Anderson’s 2015 music documentary JUNUN.  

From “BURN THE WITCH” to Anderson’s own “DAYDREAMING”, the music videos that have accompanied the release of A Moon Shaped Pool have been nothing less than creatively-arresting works of art.  “PRESENT TENSE” is a much more subdued effort in that sense, but it nevertheless resonates with the conceptual clarity and restrained profundity that has become a hallmark of Anderson’s mature aesthetic.


RADIOHEAD MUSIC VIDEO, “THE NUMBERS” (2016)

The entirety of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2016 output has been exclusively for celebrated art-rock outfit Radiohead, an association that no doubt came about via Anderson’s frequent collaborations with guitarist Jonny Greenwood on the score for his last three features.  The release of prior music videos for “DAYDREAMING” and “PRESENT TENSE” were both surprise events in the spring and summer, respectively, and in the autumn, Anderson released a third surprise video– this time for Radiohead’s track “THE NUMBERS”.

This particular piece recalls the casual, intimate vibe that Anderson created previously for “PRESENT TENSE”, setting up a vignette that finds frontman Thom Yorke and Greenwood sitting on a park bench and performing the song to the accompaniment of a CR78 drum machine.  “THE NUMBERS” take the opposite tack in its visual presentation, setting the action during a bright, sunny day in the California mountains.

Strung together in a series of four distinct shots, “THE NUMBERS” possesses more of a formal approach than its predecessor, tracking in on its subjects from a wide establishing frame via an elegant dolly move.

Indeed, the piece is an interesting mix of the formal and casual; a tone entirely appropriate for this current period of growth and experimentation Anderson seems to be undergoing.  Nestled somewhere between the classical camerawork of his narrative features and the handheld naturalism of JUNUN“THE NUMBERS” further implies Anderson’s hand via the backdrop of Los Angeles’ dramatic mountain vistas and the subtle portraiture of Yorke’s face, captured at an oblique angle.

It remains to be seen if Anderson and Radiohead will collaborate on any further performance videos, but it’s a safe bet that the director’s experimentations here will lay the groundwork for whatever form his aesthetic takes in his next feature effort next year.


“VALENTINE” (2017)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s output since his 2014 feature INHERENT VICE has been emblematic of a seasoned visionary dropping the selectiveness implied by his “prestige filmmaker” status and rediscovering the joys of artistic expression for sheer creativity’s sake.  The 2015 music documentary JUNUN is arguably his most substantial work in this vein, with him embracing the mobility and cost-effectiveness of digital filmmaking for the first time in a bid to capture the recording of the eponymous Jonny Greenwood album.

 His ensuing trio of music videos for Radiohead’s 2016 album “A Moon Shaped Pool” doubled down on this approach, with the latter two in particular content to simply sit and observe Greenwood and Thom Yorke perform the respective tracks acoustically in simple surroundings.

JUNUN and the Radiohead videos were executed under relative secrecy, with the former making a surprise debut at the New York Film Festival and the Radiohead videos dropping on the unsuspecting blogerati with no advance warning.  2017 looks to continue this phase of Anderson’s career, judging by the similarly-surprising release of his music video for indie rock band Haim’s new single,  “RIGHT NOW”.

 Even more surprising is the revelation that “RIGHT NOW” is simply the first third of a longer short film called VALENTINE, so named for the recording studio that the short takes place in.  Clocking in at a brisk fourteen minutes, VALENTINE was produced in secret by Sarah Murphy, Albert Chi, and Erica Frauman, and documents the Haim sisters as they perform/record three tracks off their first album since their 2013 debut.

Anderson’s involvement with the project is certainly unexpected, given his relative celebrity in regards to Haim’s own artistic profile, but just like his prior music videos for Fiona Apple and Radiohead, his connection here is highly personal.  He had reached out to them strictly as a fan around the time of their debut, but through their correspondence, he came to discover that the trio’s mother had been his art teacher (1).

“RIGHT NOW” came about specifically when the band asked him down to their studio for his creative input on the track– a visit that apparently inspired him to document the song’s recording right then and there (1), subsequently leading to the expansion of the project under VALENTINE’s current scope.  Serving as his own cinematographer,  Anderson shoots VALENTINE in a manner indicative of the extremely tight prep window, but which nonetheless exhibits his impeccable taste for composition and movement.

He brings his compelling cinematic eye to the 35mm film image, harnessing the soft ambient light of the studio to create a cold color palette of cerulean & steel tones.  The piece creates a minimal aesthetic by stringing together a series of long takes that echo the spare, deconstructionist nature of the tracks themselves.  Anderson’s camera evokes the sensation of searching as it smoothly tracks, pans, and zooms around the studio and documents the three Haim sisters laying down the tracks using a variety of instruments.

 In this regard, VALENTINE’s execution is relatively straightforward and documentary, but its subtle emphasis on the music’s physical construction via its constituent parts evokes the transcendent joys of artistic creation.  Indeed, VALENTINE is just as much a celebration of creation as it is a portrait of Haim as a band– to the extent that Anderson doesn’t bother to frame out his film lights from several shots, thus evoking the particular joy that the act of filmmaking brings him.

 Anderson typically frames his close-ups in a manner resembling portraiture; a conceit that ably captures the Haim sisters as they lose themselves in the expression of self via their music.  Like the musicians featured in JUNUN, the Haim sisters seem to enter a state of heightened internal connection to their creative engines, manifest outwardly in facial expressions one might describe simply as “rapture”.

VALENTINE would follow the release pattern of his recent musical work, dropping out of the sky with little in the way of advance warning and generating an exclusive “cool-kid” vibe by screening exclusively at the Film Forum in New York for a brief period before making its Youtube debut after months of buzz.  The film might be understated in its execution, but it is an impeccably-crafted and profoundly resonant hybrid of music video and short documentary.

 Haim couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator to kick off the release of their second album, and given Anderson’s history of doing multiple videos for a single album, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were to coax him back for another round.  In the meantime, the cinematic community waits feverishly for his next feature– a reunion with THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Day-Lewis set in the fashion world of midcentury London and slated for release this Christmas..


HAIM MUSIC VIDEO: “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE” (2017)

Towards the end of a particularly prolific year of musical collaborations with zeitgeist-y rock icons like Radiohead, director Paul Thomas Anderson embarked on a couple projects with Haim, an indie band comprised of three sisters celebrated for an old-fashioned sound that was nonetheless cutting edge at the same time.

Following the production of their 2017 short film VALENTINE, Anderson and the Haim sisters reunited on a music video for their track “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE”, an infectious, high-energy pop anthem.  The piece is vintage PTA, adopting a vibe that’s highly reminiscent of his 1997 classic BOOGIE NIGHTS, but it also evidences the remarkable growth he’s undergone in the twenty years since.

The piece is relatively simple in concept, consisting of the Haim sisters singing to camera while dancing along with the crowd in a large tavern.  The execution is anything but, consisting of a series of long takes and fluid tracking shots that almost seem to dance along with the sisters as they sing to camera.  Anderson seems to shoot the video in the same way he shot VALENTINE-– serving as his own cinematographer and shooting on 35mm film.

Aside from the unmistakable BOOGIE NIGHTS vibe, “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE” bears the signature of its maker through its San Fernando Valley setting (seen in the opening exterior shot with the iconic Hand Car Wash sign of Studio City’s Ventura Boulevard in the background), as well as the constant use of compositional conceits that evoke the style of portraiture.

Following Anderson’s short-form release model as of late, “LITTLE OF YOUR LOVE” dropped out of the sky and landed onto the internet without any advance warning, gifting us with a wholesome little Andersonian snack ahead of his latest feature slated for release this holiday season.  The video itself continues Anderson’s string of simple, yet artfully-imagined performance pieces that bring to the music video genre the same kind of eccentric nuance and inspired vision that he’s brought to bear on theatrical features.


“PHANTOM THREAD” (2017)

As one of the most acclaimed artistic voices in contemporary filmmaking, director Paul Thomas Anderson enjoys a level of prestige that’s virtually unmatched by others of his generation.  He’s gotten to this level by refusing to be anything other than himself: an idiosyncratic kid from southern California’s San Fernando Valley with eccentric artistic tastes and an unabiding compassion for flawed characters.

Having already made no less than two of the most cherished pictures of the 1990’s — BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999), Anderson had seemingly reached an altogether different zenith starting with 2007’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD.  This film marked a titanic evolution in his artistry, sparked by its intense meditation on the nature of power & ambition as perverted by a ruthless oil tycoon.

2012’s THE MASTER fanned the flames with a similarly-intense exploration filtered through the prism of a Scientology-adjacent cult.  Anderson’s subsequent picture, INHERENT VICE (2014), stumbled slightly in terms of its reception, but has nevertheless managed to endure in our collective cinematic memory thanks to its stoner dream logic.

Most directors who reach this level of artistic excellence are all too happy to stagnate— it’s safer and easier to go with what’s been working, even if it does tend to yield diminishing returns.  Anderson, however, distinguishes himself yet again, having subsequently embarked on a period of intense personal experimentation with several short-form music videos and the verite-style documentary JUNUN (2015).

These projects would serve to refresh his artistic perspective, offering him the opportunity to experiment with new techniques in a pared-down environment.  Anderson is — if nothing else — a master of self-reinvention, and much like his experimentation with short-form slapstick comedy in the early 2000’s was followed by THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s staggering creative revelations, this new period of growth was setting the stage for yet another showcase of his artistic ascent.

 Of course, he would need the right idea, which he found one day while laid up sick in bed and, in his vulnerable state, struck by the tenderness and care evidenced by his wife, actress Maya Rudolph (1).  He found he could plant this tiny seed of emotion into his developing interest in male fashion designers— specifically Cristobal Balenciaga of Spain, whose strict, “monastic” approach to his work/life balance provided the template for Anderson’s emerging concept about a similar figure dressing royalty and socialites in 1950’s London (1).

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The resulting film, 2017’s PHANTOM THREAD, would prove unlike anything Anderson has ever made before; its oblique narrative about the erratic romance between a powerful man and his seemingly-demure wife sublimely coinciding with the zeitgeist of the #TimesUp movement and its unveiling of toxic power structures.

 The film marks something of a ten-year reunion between Anderson and his THERE WILL BE BLOOD star, Daniel Day-Lewis, building upon the intimacy of their previous collaboration to the point that Day-Lewis actively collaborated with Anderson on PHANTOM THREAD’s screenplay (indeed, the director has conceded in interviews that Day-Lewis should have received some sort of co-writing credit (1)).

 The towering nature of Day-Lewis’ performance is to be expected, but his character of the renowned English dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock surprises us at every juncture.  By turns sweet and ferocious, Woodcock’s urbane sophistication & disarming charm floats atop a churning, roiling brew of discipline, ruthlessness, and tar-black venom.

Molded in the template of THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Plainview or THE MASTER’s Lancaster Dodd, the conceited titans portrayed in his previous meditations on power, Reynolds Woodcock has chosen to marry himself to his work.  Every waking minute that isn’t spent eating is spent on designing his elegant dresses— an obsession that Day-Lewis imbues with his signature authenticity and studied intensity, thanks to a year of apprenticeship under New York City Ballet’s head costume designer, Marc Happel (1).

 His elegant, impeccably-dressed urbanity fuels this highly-disciplined lifestyle, drawing a steady parade of short-term female companions that are so easily cast aside like unwanted leftovers.

Indeed, the only woman that’s managed to stay close to Woodcock is his sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville in an Academy Award-nominated performance overflowing with icy pragmatism.  She runs the day-to-day operations of House of Woodcock, allowing Reynolds the freedom to focus on the creative; as such, the two are inseparable, never missing a meal together (much to the chagrin of his short-lived lovers).  Woodcock’s orderly, monastic life is soon upturned by a chance meeting with a waitress at a small cafe in the English countryside.

This demure and quiet woman is named Alma, but underneath her sweet small-town surface lies a fierce, strong-willed spirit that stands in stark contrast to any love interest that Woodcock’s ever encountered.  French actress Vicky Krieps excels in the role, puncturing holes in Woodcock’s ordered lifestyle as she infiltrates deeper into the House of Woodcock’s operation. Their resulting chemistry is unlike any love story we’ve ever seen— one where affection is shown not by kissing or hugging, but by exertions of power.

Woodcock’s hope is that Alma will eventually fit neatly into his rigidly-defined lifestyle, but she refuses to yield to his egomaniacal expectations.  Instead, she strips him down so that she may build him back up better than before. She does this by lacing his food with the powder from a poisonous mushroom— just enough to knock him flat on his back with a nasty fever for a couple days, at which point she can exert her own power by nursing him back to health. It’s an admittedly bizarre approach, to be sure, but it’s also a uniquely compelling and perversely beautiful conceit that speaks to the unmatched idiosyncrasy of Anderson’s storytelling.

With a production budget of $35 million, PHANTOM THREAD distinguishes itself as one of the most expensive films that Anderson has ever made — second only to 1999’s MAGNOLIA (1).  This relatively-lavish spread of resources, furnished by Focus Features and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, enables him to realize an elegant vision of mid century European class and sophistication without losing his off-kilter edge.

Anderson employs the classical conceits of old-fashioned filmmaking to reinforce this vision, and in the process creates an economy of craft that’s profoundly subtle and uniquely his.  As one can tell in the organic veneer of grain present throughout (especially in close-up shots that linger on the texture of various fabrics) PHANTOM THREAD was shot on 35mm film, but this — nor Anderson’s continued insistence on celluloid over digital in his theatrical work — is not what distinguishes the film’s cinematography.

Having operated the camera himself on his recent music videos and JUNUN, Anderson had been slowly improving his technical expertise as a cinematographer; when longtime collaborator Robert Elswit proved unavailable to return for PHANTOM THREAD (apparently a result of a rapidly deteriorating professional relationship), he felt his experience was sufficient enough to take on camera duties here as well.  As such, PHANTOM THREAD doesn’t have an officially credited cinematographer.  Anderson simply absorbs those responsibilities into his job description as a director, relying on the wisdom of his gaffers and camera operators (as well as his own intimate knowledge of the format) to get him the results he wants (1).

Said results are nothing short of mesmerizing, with Anderson’s melodramatic rendering of color and light recalling the vivid aesthetic of midcentury directors like Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock.  Production designer Mark Tildesley assists Anderson’s realization of 1950’s-era London as a world of cold hues, creamy neutrals, and the occasional punch of warmth.

This heavily restricted color palette reflects the regimented order and discipline of the House of Woodcock, further reinforced by the pristine, anonymizing white coats his employees wear.  Indeed, Woodcock’s vibrant dresses are the only source of saturated color, and rightfully so— PHANTOM THREAD’s somber color conceits better allow costume designer Mark Bridges’ Oscar-winning work to leap off the screen with breathtaking ferocity.

The 1.85:1 frame gives Anderson plenty of room to fashion his characteristically-compelling compositions: a beautiful wide shot of Woodcock designing a dress for Alma by the light of the moon comes immediately to mind, as does an extended tracking shot that follows Woodcock through a raucous, labyrinthine New Year’s Eve party as he searches for her amidst the crowd.

Even the close-ups possess a resonance that eludes the work of Anderson’s contemporaries, imbued with a profound magnetism by virtue of his framing of faces in the style of portraiture. Just as the appearance of Alma poses a disruptive force upon Woodcock’s regimented lifestyle, so too does Anderson subvert the elegance of his classical camerawork with the expressionistic techniques of New Hollywood filmmaking: BARRY LYNDON-esque slow zooms, the breaking of the fourth wall, and the occasional handheld shot (its relative scarcity making certain scenes like Woodcock’s woozy, post-poisoning collapse all the more visceral).

Anderson’s public-facing modesty over his supposed inexperience as a cameraman belies his profound grasp of film’s technical aspects.  Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other word than “impeccable” when it comes to describing PHANTOM THREAD’s sterling visual presentation.  As his artistry has matured, Anderson has increasingly shown the kind of comprehensive mastery of the medium exhibited by consummate filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick.

Anderson’s ability to speak the language of key technical departments facilitates strong relationships with recurring collaborators like editor Dylan Tichenor and his producing partners JoAnne Sellar and Daniel Lupi.  PHANTOM THREAD also continues Anderson’s fruitful partnership with composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who’s Oscar-nominated work here stands in a class entirely above his previous compositions for the director.

The score lends an elegant romanticism to Anderson’s lush images, employing a classy, piano-based theme that reinforces the urbane sophistication of Woodcock’s world. A handful of sub-themes grow and evolve along with the film’s central romance, gradually adding complex string orchestrations aside from other elements.

This approach culminates in the scene where Alma mixes poison mushrooms into Woodcock’s dinner, with a dramatic, bombastic string arrangement instantly recalling BARRY LYNDON’s usage of Handel’s “Sarabande”— and further reinforcing the Kubrickian atmosphere that Anderson has managed to conjure around the entirety of PHANTOM THREAD.  Several piano renditions of torch songs and jazz standards like “My Foolish Heart” populate the soundtrack, further capturing the distinct time period and contained lifestyles on display.

PHANTOM THREAD roughly follows the thematic template that Anderson fashioned with predecessors like THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER, in that the film’s narrative paints a towering portrait of a powerful, complicated, and eccentric man.  Reynolds Woodcock is the natural successor to figures like Daniel Plainview and Lancaster Dodd, each a titan of his own industry, cutting mythic silhouettes that loom over their respective eras.

One could discern these anti-heroes as emblematic of a certain kind of toxic masculinity— one that leverages power and influence in service only to ego, greed, and vanity. They are charismatic in the manipulative manner that these types of people usually are, blessed with a dense, undeniable gravity that pulls other people into their orbit.  Anderson’s characters are guilty pleasures, made particularly attractive by dint of their crackling wit and biting turns of phrase.

His gift for writing idiosyncratic and endlessly-quotable dialogue molds figures like Plainview, Dodd — and now, Woodcock — as eminently-watchable, silver-tongued serpents. This is especially true of Woodcock in particular, his ridiculous name a deliberate decision made by his mischievous creator to perpetually torpedo the dressmaker’s practiced self-seriousness.  He’s always ready with a quip as darkly comedic as it is poison-tipped.

Day-Lewis’ brilliance as an actor is particularly valuable in this regard, giving him an effortless ability to confidently deliver impossible, bizarre lines like “Are you a secret agent here to kill me? Show me your gun!” or “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it”.

Where Woodcock stands apart from figures like Plainview and Dodd is in the fact that he has a companion who can match him blow for blow.  Plainview had no such companion to speak of, even giving up his own adopted son in the pursuit of profit. Dodd’s wife was strong in her own quiet way, preferring instead to work in the shadows and bolster her power by reinforcing her husband’s with an almost-Machiavellian calculation.

PHANTOM THREAD’s Alma possesses a fundamental independence all her own; a resolute defiance that quickly brings Woodcock to heel.  The old saying goes: “behind every great man is a great woman”, but Alma refuses to be a passive agent in Woodcock’s growth.  She has a variety of qualities with which to check Woodcock’s aggression, but — unlike the male protagonists of Anderson’s power portraits — yelling and screaming are not amongst them. She deploys her compassion strategically, quickly making herself indispensable.

Anderson’s decision to frame the narrative from Alma’s point of view allows the audience to more-fully experience her complex inner life, while at the same time revealing more of the personal sensitivity to the female experience that allows him to craft compelling, multidimensional women characters.  Indeed, Alma stands as the latest (and perhaps most vivid) figure in a long procession of memorable heroines throughout the director’s filmography.

With the exception of HARD EIGHT and its Reno setting, nearly all of Anderson’s films have taken place in his native California.  PHANTOM THREAD’s British backdrop marks a significant departure from Anderson’s norm— a development that seems to have sparked a notable shift forward in his artistic evolution.  The experience of watching PHANTOM THREAD, even after having seen it multiple times, is a breathtaking one.

There’s a unique aura that envelopes the film, as if it has already attained the silver glow of classic cinema.  This sheen blinds one from the awareness that it didn’t make very much money at the box office; frankly, its financial performance is an irrelevant footnote in light of Anderson’s monumental artistic achievement.

The word “masterpiece” is thrown around far too often (I’m likely guilty of some misuse myself), but PHANTOM THREAD most certainly qualifies as one when the experience of watching it evokes the same awe and admiration as a timeless film that’s been around for generations.

Unlike many masterpieces of its ilk, however, PHANTOM THREAD would enjoy the luxury of being celebrated in its own time; numerous critics put the film at or near the top of their annual year-end lists, culminating in the aforementioned Oscar nominations for Day-Lewis’ and Manville’s performances and Greenwood’s score, alongside high-profile nods for Best Picture and Best Director (Anderson’s second).

While Best Costume Design was the only one of its nominations to ultimately win a gold statue, PHANTOM THREAD nevertheless continues to accumulate an artistic capital or pedigree far more valuable than any award.

It’s hard to dismiss as mere coincidence that Anderson’s friend and artistic hero Jonathan Demme passed away on the day that PHANTOM THREAD wrapped principal photography (1); Anderson’s own aesthetic evolution had long since superseded Demme’s stylistic influence (once so palpable in early works like BOOGIE NIGHTS), but the latter‘s physical passing in this context feels like a cosmic, posthumous blessing for the former’s artistic development to ascend towards a higher level all his own.

People often invoke Anderson’s name when citing the best living directors, and PHANTOM THREAD serves only to escalate the validity of their claims.  With each successive film, Anderson makes it painfully apparent that his talents are of the kind that only comes around once in a lifetime.  His elegant eccentricity has inspired a generation of emerging filmmakers to follow their own weirdness, ensuring the continued vitality of cinema’s artistic potential.

Anderson’s artistic future remains as unpredictable as the character of his work, but if PHANTOM THREAD is any indication of what might lie in store for his audience, than said future will be utterly unlike anything we’ve seen before.


“HAIM: NIGHT SO LONG (LIVE AT THE GREEK”) MUSIC VIDEO (2018)

Following their series of collaborations throughout 2016 to support the new album “Something To Tell You”, director Paul Thomas Anderson and the buzzy rock band Haim would reunite for yet another music video, released right in the middle of PHANTOM THREAD’s awards season campaign.

The song— “NIGHT SO LONG” — is a spare, gorgeously haunting piece that calls for a matching visual treatment, which Anderson delivers in the form of a live performance during Haim’s sound check and subsequent concert at the famed Greek amphitheater in Los Angeles.  Following in the minimalist tradition of Anderson’s recent music video work, “NIGHT SO LONG” uses its simple construction to better access and capture the transcendent joy or fleeting rapture of musical expression.

Shooting in a low-contrast style with natural light, Anderson — likely operating the camera himself — initially captures the Haim sisters as close-up faces singing into a microphone.  There is little to no context, until a hard cut to a wider shot reveals the girls are performing on a stage by the light of the low-hanging sun. Anderson then shows us the empty amphitheater sprawled out before them, before a hard cut drops the veil of night on top of them and fills the seats with a crowd of fans waving their phones.

 The piece ends where we started, back on a closeup of the band as they finish their sound check, albeit with the audio swapped out for that night’s live performance— leaving us with an invisible crowd of cheering ghosts while the sisters resign themselves to their introspection.

Anderson’s recent string of minimalist music videos differentiate themselves from the pack by embracing subtlety and nuance over flash, or ideological concepts over technical ones.  It’s a testament to his confidence and skill as a filmmaker that he’s able to so quickly and succinctly convey the breadth of his artistic signatures in the space of 5-6 cuts, while still ceding said signatures to the back seat in order to direct our focus onto the band’s own artistry.

 The track is a beautiful, yet unexpected closer to an otherwise infectiously-energetic album, as is Anderson’s visual realization of the emotional truths behind it.

Beyond its immediate pop culture value, videos like “NIGHT SO LONG” stand to remind us of their creators’ continually-evolving relationship to the cinematic medium; that even brilliant and insanely-accomplished directors like Anderson are still finding new avenues of expression within it disproves the idea that the cinema is an outdated art from best relegated to the twentieth century.  Indeed, as long as there’s practitioners like Anderson, the medium still has plenty of life in it yet.


“ANIMA” (2019)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson is quite obviously well-regarded for his contributions to the theatrical feature space.  Case in point: his last three films — THE MASTER (2012), INHERENT VICE (2014) and PHANTOM THREAD (2017) —- were included in a recent (if somewhat premature) ranking by Indiewire of the 100 best films of the decade.  However, there’s another case to be made for his short-form output as perhaps his most radical, experimental, and exhilarating work.\

  His recent string of music videos for Radiohead, Joanna Newsom, and Haim has created an organic creative space for Anderson to refine and reshape his artistic voice with innovative new techniques unfettered by the demands of three-act narrative structure.  Anderson also uses these projects to experiment with alternative distribution strategies, whether it be a surprise online release or an exclusive limited engagement at a repertory theater with serious indie street cred. It seems only natural, then, that Anderson would one day collaborate with Netflix, the current reigning championship of “alternative” distribution.

Shot in May of 2019 — a scant month or two before its release on the streaming platform — Anderson’s semi-futuristic short ANIMA distinguishes itself as one of the most radical, visually-striking works of his career.  Described by Anderson and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke as a “one-reeler” (a term from the silent-film era), ANIMA unspools across a dystopian cityscape over the course of fifteen fleet-footed minutes, driven by the idiosyncratic rhythms of three music tracks from Yorke’s eponymous solo album.

The title of both the film and the album is derived from Carl Jung’s theories on dreams and the collective unconscious (1), suffusing an otherwise-simplistic narrative with a rich subtext about the inner chaos that animates us as well as the ceaseless difficulty of pushing back against the conformity of modern life.

Anderson mixes the undeniable influence of dystopian parables like 1984 with the absurdist physicality of silent-era stars like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin to arrive at a wholly unique, bemusing tone. In short, the narrative follows Yorke’s character as he tries to return a forgotten briefcase to a mysterious woman (York’s real-life partner Dajana Roncione).  His journey unfolds like a sprawling dream, taking him from the twisting underground labyrinth of the city subway system on through to a cavernous quarry-like space.

The piece culminates in Yorke fighting against gravity itself on an abstractified white plane before he’s able to emerge onto the nocturnal streets of a European city and reunite with the woman on a streetcar just before the sun begins to rise.  The choreography, by SUSPIRIA’s Damien Jalet, reinforces the dreamlike nature of ANIMA’s story, forcing the frames’s subjects to contort themselves into impossible shapes that further abstractify Yorke’s surroundings.

After serving as his own cinematographer through his string of short works as well as PHANTOM THREAD, Anderson invites seasoned DP Darius Khondji to shoot ANIMA using a mixture of film and large-format digital acquisition.  A fine layer of organic grain blends the two formats seamlessly, better allowing for a subtle emphasis on their differences: the clean stability of the Alexa 65 image versus the constrained tension of film (it’s unclear whether ANIMA’s film segments were captured on 35mm or on the larger 65mm gauge to better match the digital resolution).

  Anderson’s first-ever collaboration with Khondji yields stunning results, with Khondji’s decades of expertise melding quite seamlessly with Anderson’s strength of vision and own technical mastery of the craft.  ANIMA was shot almost entirely on location, in various urban and subterranean locales around France and Prague.  Following in the tradition of George Lucas’ THX 1138 or Andrei Tarkovsky’s STALKER, the dystopian atmosphere is implied rather than visibly constructed, achieved through a painstaking curation of appropriate real-world locations, costumes and color.

One of the earliest images shows a subway car full of people in the same dark overcoat, cut in an ultra-modern, future-adjacent silhouette. The sameness of the costumes underlines the dystopic, conformist environment into which Yorke is dropped, all the while complementing the slate-beige neutrality of the subway stations, underground industrial cavern, and above-grade streetscapes.

By leaning heavily into earth tones in his locations and costumes, Anderson is able to leverage pops of bright color to striking effect— take the candy-red support poles in the subway car for instance, or the electric chartreuse of the streetcar’s signage. Even the simple contrast between pure blacks and whites sears the eye, best evidenced in the middle section where Yorke battles society and gravity alike atop an unsteady blank plane.

Anderson and Khondji utilize a combination of handheld camerawork and classical tracking movements to reinforce the probing, dreamlike nature of ANIMA as a whole, while the lenses required by the choice to shoot in large-format mediums creates a shallow depth of field that facilitates Anderson’s continued exploration of portraiture’s compositional conceits.  Ethereal lens flares and impressionistic, looming shadows cast onto stone walls further add to the allegorical, highly-experimental nature of ANIMA’s presentation.

Despite Netflix’s rapid emergence as the entertainment industry’s “establishment” over traditional studio structures, it’s somewhat fitting that Anderson’s most abstract work to date would, following an initial limited IMAX release, make its wide debut on a platform wholly dedicated to shattering theatrical norms.

Like much of his recent short-form work, ANIMA’s audacious technical presentation leaves little room for Anderson’s thematic signatures— Yorke’s quest for connection with the mysterious woman echoes the constant search for a sense of family and belonging so often undertaken by his characters, placing ANIMA most in-line with PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE over any other particular film of his.

That said, ANIMA’s very existence makes one acutely aware of the need for Anderson to tackle a future dystopian setting in his feature work; the world on display here  would make for a compelling backdrop upon which Anderson could further the themes of family, power, and idiosyncratic identity that shape his inimitable voice.  For the time being, however, the virtuoso visuals throughout ANIMA will have to sustain our speculation about what new direction Anderson’s unpredictable artistry will take.


HAIM: “SUMMER GIRL” MUSIC VIDEO (2019)

It appears that director Paul Thomas Anderson and I are engaged in a strange dance: every time I think I’m up to-do-date with my essays on his work, he goes and drops a new piece that takes the film world completely by surprise.  This time, however, I was ready, thanks to a cryptic teaser photo that popped up on Instagram last week featuring Anderson with the Haim sisters in front of the New Beverly Cinema in LA, the celebrated director holding a fresh 35mm reel of film labeled “SUMMER GIRL” set to be threaded up on the projector that evening.  Thankfully, the wait wasn’t long for the rest of us.

Set to the new Haim single of the same name, “SUMMER GIRL” positions itself in perfect creative harmony with Anderson’s previous collaborations with the band.  As other music videos become increasingly more complex and cinematic, Anderson’s contributions to the medium have simplified into brilliantly-executed performance videos centered around a core visual idea.

On a surface level, “SUMMER GIRL” finds the band performing to camera as they waltz through various iconic locales around LA— we see them chowing down at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax, selling tickets at the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly Cinema on Beverly, and strutting down the San Fernando Valley’s Laurel Canyon Boulevard shopping strip.

All the while, they pull off endless layers of coats, sweaters and t-shirts, as if digging down to the state of endless summer that inhabits their very essence (signified by the bathing suits that are ultimately revealed). That LA doesn’t have easily-discernible seasons is an amusing paradoxical fact that surely must not have been lost on Anderson.

The video’s stripped-down technical execution is consistent with Anderson’s other recent music video work, likely with Anderson himself operating the 35mm film camera.  The piece favors shallow focus and natural light, harnessing the golden glow of the late afternoon sun to imbue the Haim sisters with a summery luminescence.

Anderson’s constant use of tracking movements also lend a kinetic, fleet-footed energy, beginning with the documentary-style realism of a handheld camera only to bust out a butter-smooth Steadicam for the climactic vignette.  It’s not a particularly flashy video, but Anderson nevertheless infuses it with the intangible aura of a master filmmaker at work; his confidence with technique and his clarity of vision result in an elevated watching experience that stands out amongst the din of an oversaturated market.

Born from a place of melancholy and uncertainty (front woman Danielle Haim wrote the song for her partner as he was undergoing treatment for cancer), “SUMMER GIRL” asserts itself through the prism of Anderson’s eye as an ode to that indomitable California spirit: eternally youthful and vibrant, confident in its own skin, and poised to lead the way into a golden, sun-soaked future.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on taste making online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics, and Indiewire. 

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. 

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Steven Spielberg: Complete Guide to His Films and Techniques

Steven Spielberg

Ask anybody with a passing interest in movies who they think of when they hear the word “director”, and 9 times out of ten, you’ll get the same name:  Steven Spielberg.  The man is undoubtedly the most successful director of our time, perhaps of all time.

He single-handedly invented the blockbuster with 1975’s JAWS, but he’s also responsible for some of the most viscerally powerful “serious” films ever made: SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  He’s one of the biggest personalities in entertainment, recognized the world over with several entries in the top ten highest-grossing films of all time.

His brand has bled over into new media like videogames and television and his influence can be felt in the ambition of every single up-and-coming director.  Simply put, Steven Spielberg IS movies.

There’s a growing pool of cinema enthusiasts who are quick to discredit Spielberg as a studio hack or a peddler of maudlin entertainment.  I’ve certainly been guilty of downplaying his accomplishments on occasion, which is a hard feeling for me to grapple with since much of his work has directly inspired me to pursue film as my life’s work.

No matter your stance on the man, you have to respect his contribution to the art form, as it has indelibly shaped the very fabric of the entertainment industry.  The earliest film I can remember seeing was a Spielberg film.

It was E.T: THE EXTRATERRESTIAL (1982).  I could have only been three or four years old at the time, and I remember it well because it was during a tumultuous period in my brand-spanking-new life.  My younger brother had just been born, and due to our growing family, my parents moved us out of the home in the working-class southeast Portland neighborhood in which I was born.

As my architect father was designing and building the house that I would eventually spend the bulk of my childhood in, we lived in a small apartment out in the suburbs, with a large, vacant field serving as a backyard.  One day my mother sat me down in front of our TV and popped in a VHS cassette of E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL while she prepared dinner.

I don’t know why I connected with it at such an early age—perhaps the film’s suburban setting subconsciously connected with my own alienation that stemmed from my new, similarly-suburban surroundings.  By the end of the film, I was a sobbing mess.  Just soggy as all hell, blubbering as the credits rolled.

My mother leaned out from the kitchen to ask what was wrong.  I remember my reply very distinctly, delivered between wet gasps of air as my little frame shook: “It’s just SO SAD!!!”.

Most people don’t really begin to start forming concrete memories until about four or five.  And indeed, this early period of my life I can only remember in brief snippets, like a hazy half-forgotten dream (oddly enough, I can still remember some very vivid dreams from that time).

But there was something about this movie that just cut right to the core of my little heart, searing itself into my permanent memory before I could really begin to process what I was even watching.  It’s a great illustration of cinema’s profound emotional power in the hands of a capable filmmaker.

Like laughter or music, cinema is a global language in its own right, transcending borders and cultures and connecting us all to the greater human experience.  Spielberg is an aspirational figure for many wannabe filmmakers because he’s proof positive that anyone with talent and passion could go on to become the biggest filmmaker of all time.

Many of these filmmakers, myself included, will find parallels between Spielberg’s development and their own—to a point.  In fact, the parallels stop right around the internship phase, unless you too got signed to a television-directing contract after showing your short film to an executive at Universal. My point is that Spielberg didn’t have the luxury of connections to get him in the door.  What got him there was the singular desire and drive to make movies.

EARLY AMATEUR WORKS (1959-1967)

Spielberg was born in 1946, in Cincinnati, OH to a concert pianist mother and electrical engineer father.  He moved around a lot as a kid, spending good chunks of his childhood in New Jersey and Scottsdale, Arizona.  The Spielbergs came from an Orthodox Jewish heritage, which Spielberg would grapple and explore with in his films later in life.

As a child, he initially found himself embarrassed by, and at odds with, his family’s faith.  As you can imagine, Orthodox Jews were probably rare in midcentury Arizona, so he was self-conscious about its strange perception to his WASP-y set of friends.

Despite his exotic heritage (to Arizonians, at least), Spielberg grew up like any other prototypical suburban American boy in the mid-twentieth century.  He was quite active in the Boy Scouts, and as fate would have it, it was his stint in the Scouts that would lead to the making of his very first film.

The twelve year-old Spielberg found himself with a photography merit badge to complete, but his father’s still camera was broken.  Instead, he got permission to make a movie with his father’s working motion picture camera.  He conceived and shot a short western, called THE LAST GUNFIGHT (1958).  And just like that, Spielberg was bit by the bug.  Hard.

I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years making movies with my neighborhood friends, so it’s reassuring to see that Spielberg did the same thing when he was young.  Even at such an early age, his aptitude for composition, pacing, and grandeur is immediately apparent.

It’s interesting that the subject matter of his early amateur work deals with the same themes as his professional oeuvre.  Amongst his movies in this time period, he shows a preoccupation with alien encounters and World War 2, no doubt inspired by the stories his father would tell him after returning from the war.

He’d later realize a lot of these themes again on a professional level, such as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Looking at the whole of his filmography, one notes that a substantial percentage of his work takes place in the World War 2 era.

It’s clear that the conflict and the resulting cultural shifts profoundly shaped him, giving him an appreciation for history and dramatic stakes.  His 1961 short, FIGHTER SQUAD, would be the first time Spielberg ever tackled the subject of World War 2.

Even in his teen years, Spielberg accomplished big production values with inspired resourcefulness.  In filming a story about WW2 fighter pilots, he used his father’s access to military equipment to achieve an unbelievable degree of authenticity.

He even went so far as to shoot in the cockpits of grounded fighter planes, which he shot using 8mm black-and-white film seamlessly intercut with stock footage of aerial dogfights.  I did something similar in one of my own early shorts, whereby I cut in the climactic explosion shot from Terence Young’s DR. NO (1962) when I needed a big explosion to happen in my story.

There’s a tactile joy and magic to editing when you first discover it, and the purity of youth makes for some charming resourcefulness.  It was this very resourcefulness that would propel Spielberg to unparalleled heights throughout his career.


Also in 1961, Spielberg filmed the short ESCAPE TO NOWHERE, inspired by a World War 2 battle that occurred in East Africa.  Spielberg shot it on 8mm color film with his friends and siblings in the dusty Arizona chaparral that was his neighborhood’s backyard.

Originally running 40 minutes long, there’s only a 2 & ½ minute excerpt that exists for public eyes.  The excerpt depicts a heated battle, with no real coherent sense of geography or who’s who.

Due to the limitations of childhood, Spielberg’s actors are all dressed the same—army pants and helmets, and white t-shirts—and probably all are using the same handful of rifles.  Young boys frequently play war in their backyards, filling in the majority of the battle with their imaginations.

ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is just like playing war as a kid, only fully realized.  There’s a palpable homemade, amateur element to the film, understandably due to Spielberg’s resources at the time, but he makes up for it in sheer zeal and energy.

However, even at age 13, it’s striking to see his craftiness with homegrown special effects (stomping on shovels to kick up dust in simulated landmine explosions) and his imaginative approach to composition and camera movements—one handheld tracking shot is clearly intended to emulate a dolly, etc.  It’s unclear whether the soundtrack on the excerpt—Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries” laid on top of a booming sound effects mix—accompanied the original film or was the work of whoever uploaded it to Youtube.

If it’s original, it shows Spielberg’s innate sense of spectacle and understanding of sound’s crucial role in film.  It also predates his filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous use of it in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) by nearly twenty years.

Regardless, ESCAPE TO NOWHERE is a captivating and chaotic look at Spielberg’s fascination with World War 2 and how it shaped his approach to one of his finest films, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.


Spielberg’s success as a filmmaker can’t be attributed to talent alone.  He’s also proved himself as a cunning businessman and studio head.  The long, (somewhat) healthy life of his own Dreamworks Studios is a testament to his grasp on the business side of filmmaking.

The origins of this aspect of his career can be traced back to his very first amateur feature film: 1964’s FIRELIGHT.  In shooting a story about alien UFO’s terrorizing a small town (a forerunner to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), the 18-year old Spielberg set about making his first serious-minded film.

By this point, he knew that filmmaking was what he wanted to pursue as his career, and he was eager to get started on it.  Shooting again with friends and family in Arizona, Spielberg put in $600 of his own money, emerging with a 150 minute long 8mm sci-fi epic.

FIRELIGHT became his first work viewed by a paying audience when he booked a screening at the Phoenix Little Theatre and charged 75 cents a seat.  The budding entrepreneur turned a profit of only one dollar, but the fact remains that he had nonetheless turned a profit.  It was a formative night in what would become an exceptional career.

tumblr_inline_mpqo5haxih1qafcizUnfortunately, only a few minutes of FIRELIGHT are available for public view, and they seem to be random excerpts taken throughout the film.  Again, however, these excerpts show a young Spielberg already in control of his craft, with his now-signature style beginning to find its footing.

The excerpts depict a dark film, with high-key lighting giving an unworldly glow to the proceedings.  A variety of suburban, Americana character archetypes—the high school couple on a date in dad’s pickup truck, the young child playing in the yard, etc.—look up in awe as a red flare of light (standing in for the UFO) slowly jerks across the screen.

The sound design reflects the grand cinematic ambitions Spielberg has for the story, even if his limited visual resources can’t quite pull it off.  It’s a curious prelude to his further exploration of alien life forms in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005).

tumblr_inline_mpqo5yq1ye1qafcizDuring this early amateur period, Spielberg made another short, the unfinished SLIPSTREAM (1967).  Like THE LAST GUNFIGHT before it, it is unavailable for public viewing so I can’t consider it in the context of Spielberg’s development.  It’s unclear to why the film was unfinished, but it probably owes to the fact that the young Spielberg was embarking on college, and the significant life changes it brought likely derailed the project.

While Spielberg’s amateur work is scarce, the scraps available to us give intimate insight into the mind of an auteur who would go on to help make cinema what it is today.  By starting out in childhood, Spielberg got a head start over his contemporaries.

He had already been making movies for ten years by the time he received attention for his 1968 short AMBLIN’.  Thusly, when Hollywood came knocking, Spielberg was ready.


“AMBLIN” (1968)

When I first decided that I wanted to make films for a living (which was at the tender young age of eleven), I immediately began to dream about one day moving to Los Angeles to pursue that career.  I knew that I’d have to go to film school, and had heard that the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California was the best in the country.

 Naturally, that meant that I would go there.  For the next seven years, all my filmmaking efforts, as well as my school performance, were aimed towards the singular goal of getting into USC.  Of course, you can imagine my crushing disappointment when that rejection letter came in the mail one sunny spring day.  As fate would have it, I was destined for a detour in Boston to study film at Emerson College before moving to the balmy climes of southern California.

It’s impossible to tell whether a USC education would have had a different impact on my still-budding career, but funnily enough, next year I’ll be marrying a Trojan, so in a way I still get to have my cake and eat it too.  I say all this because in those dark days following the USC rejection, I had one bright, shining beacon of hope to guide me onward: the knowledge that director Steven Spielberg, inarguably the most successful filmmaker of all time, had been rejected from USC too (twice!).

By virtue of his association with high-profile USC alumni like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, many people simply assume that Spielberg had gone there as well.  Instead, he attended California State University at Long Beach and dropped out altogether after his sophomore year (he later finished his degree in 2002).  I was reassured in the notion that, if he could accomplish all that he has without the aid of a USC education or family connections to the industry, then surely so could I.

Of course, Spielberg experienced his own trials and tribulations to get where he is today.  During his late teens and early twenties, Spielberg was desperate to break into the movie business any way he could.

Rather famously, he took a tour of the Universal lot and ditched the tram halfway through, wandering around for hours and making friends with various people who then allowed him to sneak back onto the lot whenever he pleased.  This bold move on his part would indirectly lead to him getting an audience with Universal VP of television of production, Sid Sheinberg—a story that I’ll get into a little later.

All this sneaky stuff would be for naught if Spielberg had nothing to show for his own talents.  Obviously, he couldn’t show his amateur home movies (except maybe 1964’s FIRELIGHT) and still be taken seriously.  To that end, he began writing a short script about a young man and woman discovering each other and themselves on a hitchhiking trip to California. Spielberg met an aspiring producer named Denis Hoffman who was looking to fund a film, and they decided to begin work on what would eventually become Spielberg’s first 35mm short: AMBLIN’ (1968)

Presented completely without dialogue for the entire duration of its 25-minute running time, AMBLIN’ is a light-hearted romp through the Joshua tree-dotted landscapes of the Mojave Desert.  Actor Richard Levin plays the unnamed young man, and Pamela McMyler plays his free-spirited female companion.

As they work together to hitch a ride to the coast, the woman coaxes the man into several rites of passage—like smoking pot and having sex in a sleeping bag, to name a few.  All the while, the man carefully guards his guitar case, which only makes the woman more curious to find out what’s inside.

Shooting on a budget of $15,000 with a crew of college kids, Spielberg nevertheless makes the film feel professional and polished.  Together with cinematographer Allen Daviau, Spielberg employs a blown-out aesthetic and sun-bleached color palette.

He resourcefully creates a grand sense of scale by composing his characters as lone figures against the expansive desert landscape (an effect somewhat dampened by the format’s limiting 4:3 aspect ratio).  Spielberg’s camerawork is youthful and energetic to match the tone of story, using dolly shots, rack zooms, and handheld takes that evoke the experimental style of the New Hollywood movement with which Spielberg would later become associated with (a movement that itself was directly influenced by the bold cinematic transgressions of the French New Wave).

Michael Lloyd contributed the film’s score, which plays from end to end in place of dialogue.  Lloyd’s work takes on a boppy, travelling vibe that sounds a lot like the easy-going folk/hippie rock of its day.

The folk-y/western theme song that plays over the opening credits is performed by a band called October Country, which conveniently happened to be one of the acts that producer Hoffman was managing at the time. Spielberg knew he was making a career game-changer, even if his disgruntled, unpaid crew didn’t.

He was so nervous during production that he reportedly puked every day before showing up on set.  Despite the adverse conditions of the shoot, Spielberg came out with a finished film that he could use as a calling card.

This may not seem like that big of an accomplishment in today’s democratic age of filmmaking, where everyone has a short to their credit. But in 1968, the sheer cost of film stock meant that the pool of successful short film directors was pretty thin.

Spielberg had a leg up over the countless mob of LA wannabes simply by virtue of having something to show.  This is where the aforementioned Universal connection comes into play.

After spending a summer getting to know various people on the Universal lot, a copy of AMBLIN’ found its way into the office of television VP Sid Sheinberg.  Sheinberg was so impressed by the film that he signed the young Spielberg to a seven-year TV-directing contract.  With that, the ambitious 22-year-old filmmaker had officially become a paid director.  Achieving his dreams came at a cost, however—Spielberg had to drop out of college and put his education on hold.  Real-world directing would be his film school now.

AMBLIN’ continued playing an influential role in Spielberg’s career by giving him the name for his first big production company, Amblin’ Entertainment.  Amblin’ Entertainment has gone on to become one of the most iconic shingles in cinematic history—every kid who grew up watching movies in the 90’s has that logo (featuring the classic E.T. bicycling against the moon imagery) seared into their memory.

For the film that launched the biggest career in the game, AMBLIN’ has been surprisingly neglected.  Judging by the stream available on Youtube, it hasn’t been officially released since the days of VHS.  The well-worn copy available online has warped the presentation to a far-from-pristine state.

Given the extensive number of film restorations that Universal has been commissioning for its centennial celebration, it strikes me as odd that they wouldn’t preserve the debut work of its most valuable director.  Perhaps Criterion will come to its rescue if it ever decides to give one of its coveted spine numbers to a Spielberg film.

For a film that’s now more than 40 years old, AMBLIN’ comes off as very dated due to its focus on late 60’s youth culture.  Its poor visual presentation doesn’t help either.  However, it is still a fascinating document by the world’s most successful filmmaker at the shaky beginnings of his career.

A far cry from the big-budget blockbuster spectacles that would make his name, AMBLIN’ is a quiet, intimate story with themes of discovery and innocence against the wider world—themes that would come to define Spielberg’s style and chart the course of his career.


NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” EPISODE (1969)

American screenwriter and TV producer Rod Serling was a household name in the 1960’s, due to the massive popularity of his show “THE TWILIGHT ZONE”.  This was not only due to the strength and quality of his work, but also due to the fact that he introduced each segment on-screen in his now-signature enigmatic showman’s demeanor.

In 1969, Serling created a second series titled NIGHT GALLERY that would serve as another outlet for his exploration of the weird, the strange, and the macabre.  It was also around this time that Side Sheinberg,

Universal’s VP of Television, signed the young, twenty-three year-old director Steven Spielberg to a television contract after being impressed by his short film, AMBLIN’ (1968).  To his credit, he was wise enough to see both Spielberg and Serling’s new series as complementary to each other, and thus Spielberg found himself with his first paid directing assignment: one of the three segments that would make up a televised anthology movie/pilot.

Spielberg’s segment is entitled “EYES”, and tells the story of a rich, elderly, and vainglorious blind woman who contracts her (very reluctant) doctor to perform an eye transplant surgery that will restore her vision, albeit for only twelve hours.  The eye comes from some sad sack who is desperate to pay off his own debts, unaware that he’s losing his eyesight forever in exchange for a paltry sum that will be gone just as soon as he’s paid.

  The surgery goes off seemingly without a hitch, only for the woman’s new eyes to fail her shortly after exposing them to light.  Subsequently, she is plunged into a dark nightmare of a night that will take away her very sanity.

As Spielberg’s first big directing job, “EYES” naturally marks the first occasion that Spielberg works with big Hollywood talent.  And during that time, it didn’t get much bigger for him than working with Oscar-winning screen legend Joan Crawford, star of such seminal Hollywood classics as MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962).

In one of her last high-profile performances, Crawford looms large on NIGHT GALLERY’s small screen as the blind Mrs. Menlo, who lives on the top floor of her large Park Avenue apartment complex like a Queen lording over her castle.  Being as such that she is the sole tenant in the entire building, however, she has no subjects to rule over besides her trusted doctor.

Crawford’s performance is “old-school Hollywood” big, much like Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950).  By this point in time, the old guard of Hollywood’s Golden Age starlets were just that: old.  A lifetime of excess and indulgence had made them grand old dames, stubborn in their ways and their collaborator choices.

Upon learning that the young hotshot Spielberg would be directing her on his first time at bat, Crawford reportedly called up Sid Sheinberg to demand he be replaced by someone more experienced.  It could’ve ended Spielberg’s career before it even begun. Fortunately for him (and us), Sheinberg talked Crawford down from the ledge and backed his man.

Despite this early hiccup, Crawford and Spielberg got along famously, even so far as keeping in touch for the remainder of her lifetime.

tumblr_inline_mq06daon7y1qafcizTelevision isn’t the most director-friendly medium, in that directors are subject to an aesthetic and tone predetermined by the producer or show runner.   Since Spielberg was helping to launch a new show, he enjoyed much more freedom in shooting his segment.

While he most likely didn’t have a hand in creating NIGHT GALLERY’s recurring moments (the spooky opening titles or Serling’s on-screen segment introduction), Spielberg gives his segment a bold, colorful, and bright look that sets it apart from the other stories.

Working with cinematographers Robert Batcheller and William Margulies, Spielberg opts for a classical approach to match the elegant production design by Howard E. Johnson.  A neutral color palette accentuates bold punches of color, and high-key lighting adds a lurid quality to the 35mm film image.

Camera-work is fairly reserved, employing both dolly shots and locked-off static shots.  Spielberg covers most of the action in well-composed, evocative wide shots, which gives a greater heft to his strategic close-ups.  Despite the sober “establishment” approach, Spielberg was able to incorporate elements from the transgressive, burgeoning French New Wave movement into his coverage.

He uses a well-placed series of jump cuts to add intensity to an already-intense outburst by Crawford, and creates an expressionistic climax by swapping out a traditional set for an inspired blend of sound design and well-placed pools of light that cut through a harsh blackness.  In doing so, Spielberg shows a remarkable aptitude for turning the ordinary into anything but.

The eye-swapping conceits of the story are highly reminiscent of the same conceits that would shape the plot of Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece MINORITY REPORT over thirty years later.  The imagery of gauze bandages wrapped around the eyes is consistent between both works, and the imagery of eyes in a larger sense recurs throughout Spielberg’s filmography, like the iconic T-Rex pupil dilation shot in JURASSIC PARK (1993).

For his first real directing gig, Spielberg’s contribution to NIGHT GALLERY is a curious rarity in the pop cultural wasteland. The series is highly-regarded amongst cult fans, but even then, it’s difficult to find the TV movie that launched prior to Season 1.

To view it, I had to venture into the dark corners of the internet to salvage an old VHS rip with Spanish subtitles. Hardly the sort of preservation and reverence you expect would be given to the first professional work of the biggest director in mainstream American cinema, but these are the times we live in.

EYES is a humble beginning for Spielberg, a project overshadowed by Serling’s then-celebrity and influence.  His natural talent is immediately apparent; one could be forgiven for thinking that he had already been a working television director for several years.

Due to the quality of his segment, Spielberg would be called to work on several other shows (including another episode of NIGHT GALLERY), and his status as a “director to watch” was affirmed.


NIGHT GALLERY EPISODE: “MAKE ME LAUGH” (1971)

In 1971, the young television director Steven Spielberg was invited back to the scene of his first major directing gig, ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY, for another crack at bat.  His second episode, titled “MAKE ME LAUGH”, told the story of a failing comedian (Godfrey Cambridge) who would give anything just to make people laugh.

By chance, he runs into a self-described “miracle guru” (Jackie Vernon) who reluctantly grants him his wish after his pleas for caution fall on deaf ears.  Sure enough, the comedian shoots to stardom off of his ability to make guts bust at the slightest of utterances.

But he soon finds that this dream comes at a price—no one can ever take him seriously.  For a comedian, this would be all good and well, but his gift becomes a curse when he loses out on a serious dramatic part on Broadway and, subsequently, the career acclaim and reverence that he truly desires.

There are a few notable performers in the piece, led by Godfrey Cambridge, who excels at appearing sweaty and desperate as his dreams unravel before his very eyes.  Tom Bosley, who previously appeared for Spielberg in his “EYES” NIGHT GALLERY episode, plays the comedian’s mild-mannered agent.

Real-life comedian Jackie Vernon seems an odd choice to play a turban’d mystic/sage, but his goofy cadence brings an unexpected flavor to the proceedings.  And finally, Al Lewis—who’s better known as Grandpa Munster—makes a cameo as a gruff nightclub owner with little patience for the comedian’s failings.

As far as NIGHT GALLERY episodes go, “MAKE ME LAUGH” is probably the most straightforward and non-surreal. Spielberg presents the story in a reserved manner with classical camera moves and non-distracting locked-off shots.

Little of the New Wave flourishes that dotted his camerawork in “EYES” shows up here, but he does utilize the scale-generating power of a crane for his ending shot.  I mention this crane shot mainly because it hints at Spielberg’s own internal ambitions and what was likely his nagging desire to graduate from TV into big-budget feature film making.

Even the most pedestrian of coverage angles, the close-up, possesses a strange kind of subliminal vocation in its composition.  Spielberg was trying very hard to be noticed while simultaneously “coloring inside the lines”.

“MAKE ME LAUGH” doesn’t show much in the way of growth for young Spielberg, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.  These were journeyman years for the director, whereby he cut his teeth over the safety net of a predetermined aesthetic and a support group of producers, supervisors, editors, and other craftsmen.

The urge to get into features was growing stronger, but he was only midway through his television phase when he made “MAKE ME LAUGH”.  I imagine that he felt like he was spinning his wheels, but with each successive television gig, Spielberg was  growing stronger and more confident.  When his day in the sun came, he would be ready.


COLUMBO EPISODE: “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, AND OTHER TELEVISION WORKS (1971)

The year 1971 was a fateful one for director Steven Spielberg.  The young hotshot had already racked up some impressive credits on ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY and MARCUS WELBY, MD in the years prior, but 1971 in particular saw the production of no less than 6 television projects—one of which became his break-out into features.


First up is THE NAME OF THE GAME, a series that was well into its third season when Spielberg came onboard to direct an episode titled “LA 2017”.  The show revolved around the magazine industry and was set in the present day, but “LA 2017” used the “it was all a dream” conceit as an excuse to transport the show’s main character (Gene Barry) into a future version of Los Angeles.

Why they did this, I haven’t the slightest clue.  Anyways, the series appears to be unavailable on DVD, and the only version of the episode that exists online is a short fan-made trailer featuring scenes from the episode.  Going off that, it’s quite apparent how much of a deviation it is from Spielberg’s previous television work.

As his first project with a feature-length running time, Spielberg uses imaginative, slightly kitschy production design to create a dystopian Los Angeles of the future.  Based off the trailer, it seems to be populated by geriatric hippies who perform in underground rock clubs.

This makes a strange kind of sense, given the fact that most of pop culture’s predictions about the future are really just projections of the present times they’re made in.  As the father of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg’s career has understandably been heavily associated with visual effects

“LA 2017” marks the young director’s first professional use of visual effects, as well as his first professional dabble in the sci-fi genre.  Judging by the glimpses given in the trailer, Spielberg’s visual style at this time seems to be coalescing around evocative low-angles and compelling close-ups, with camerawork reminiscent of—and no doubt influenced by—the French New Wave movement that was then-unfolding across the pond.

After the successful reception of “LA 2017”, Spielberg contributed two episodes to the unsuccessful television show THE PSYCHIATRIST.  His episodes, “THE PRIVATE WORLD OF MARTIN DALTON” and “PAR FOR THE COURSE”, were unavailable for viewing, as is the entire series.


Later that year, Spielberg landed a plumb job in directing the series premiere of COLUMBO, a property that had already enjoyed a few successful TV movie incarnations.  Featuring well-known film actor Peter Falk as the titular detective, COLUMBO bucked the trend of most television serials at the time by regularly crafting movie-length episodes.

Each COLUMBO episode was self-contained, further leading to its cinematic nature.  Spielberg’s episode, titled “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, featured a “perfect crime” mystery, wherein Columbo cracks the case of a brilliantly covered-up murder.

Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) is one half of a writing team behind a successful series of murder mystery books, but in reality he is the one that does all of the writing.  His partner, Ken (Jack Cassidy) enjoys all of the benefits of the series’ success without actually contributing anything.

This poses a problem when Jim decides to go solo, which would dry up all of Ken’s income.  Naturally, Ken kills Jim and covers it up using a ruse from one of their stories.  Once the murder is discovered, Columbo gets on the case, immediately setting his sights on Ken as a suspect and unraveling his so-called “perfect plan” quite easily.

Ken was so confident in getting away with murder, he neglected to mind that his meticulous plan was laid right out in the open—inside Jim’s own books—for Columbo to find.  Despite being a series premiere, Spielberg still adheres to the aesthetic established in previous COLUMBO TV movies by going with a naturalistic, high contrast look.

Dolly and crane-based camera movements give the episode a high degree of production value, while Spielberg’s use of a handheld, documentary aesthetic in the crime-scene sequence further points to his fascination with the French New Wave.  One of the great things about watching old TV shows and movies shot in Los Angeles is recognizing certain landmarks and how their surroundings looked at the time of production.

I remember seeing an aerial shot of downtown LA in Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRISKIE POINT (9170) and being blown away by how non-existent today’s skyline was back then.  Similarly, I recognized the locale of an early scene in “MURDER BY THE BOOK”, which featured a building on Sunset Boulevard that I came to know very well after working inside of it for two years.

However, in COLUMBO this building was still under construction, having only reached the steel frame stage.  It has no real bearing on my analysis of Spielberg’s work here, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Spielberg would go on to direct an episode for the series OWEN MARSHALL: COUNSELOR AT LAWcalled “EULOGY FOR A WIDE RECEIVER”.  This too wasn’t available for viewing at the time of this writing, so “MURDER BY THE BOOK” is the latest example of Spielberg’s episodic work.

However, it is appropriate given the fact that it was his work on COLUMBO that directly resulted in Spielberg being hired for the television film DUEL (1971).  To him, it was just another TV gig, but fate had other plans.


“DUEL” (1971)

By 1971, the young Steven Spielberg had made significant headway as a television director.  His eye started to wander into theatrical feature territory, but he was uncertain how he’d get there.  Until a better opportunity would arise, the best he could do was approach each TV gig with the same kind of attention to detail that he would lavish on a work of cinema.

Ironically enough, Spielberg’s first foray in theatrical exhibition wasn’t so much a calculated move as it was stumbling headlong into it.  After his successful foray into feature running times with his “MURDER BY THE BOOK” episode of COLUMBO earlier that year, Spielberg’s assistant brought him a short story written by I AM LEGEND author Richard Matheson about a man stalked on a desert highway by a trucker stricken by a serious case of road rage.

The young director was immediately enamored with the simplistic, yet almost Hitchcock-ian story conceit.  Using the rough cut of his COLUMBO episode as proof of his ability, he acquired the rights to the story and set it up at ABC as a Movie of The Week.

Spielberg’s adaptation, DUEL, is ferocious in its simplicity.  A mild-mannered salesman named David Mann (stage and screen veteran Dennis Weaver) is driving through the California desert en route to an unspecified “appointment”.

He encounters a monstrous truck lumbering slowly ahead of him, so he drives around to pass the behemoth.  Unfortunately, this incites a murderous rampage of terror as the truck stalks David’s car across the vast expanse of desert.


Literally driving for his life, David soon realizes the only way to rid himself of the menace is to confront it head-on.  Dennis Weaver gets the majority of screen-time to himself, as his co-star is the faceless hulk of a truck looming ever closer in his rearview mirror.

To this end, Weaver ably holds our attention and interest like one would endeavor to do in a one-man stage show.  His transformation from mild-mannered pushover, to terrified impotent, and finally to cunning fighter is compelling to watch.

The truck itself, however, is just as much a leading character as David is.  It becomes a primal force of nature, belching black smoke into the sky and bearing down in David’s rearview mirror like some vengeful beast.  Spielberg brilliantly never shows the actual truck driver at the helm, thus giving the truck itself a malevolent sentience.

A lot has been written in recent times about “the decline of men”.  In a nutshell, the phenomenon is described as men relinquishing their “traditional” status as heads of households, breadwinners, masters of the universe, etc.  Analysts like to argue that distractions such as video games and pornography have lulled men into a state of submissive complacency, in addition to abdication from parental and social responsibilities.

Now, I personally think a lot of that talk is bullshit, but the greater conversation does have a lot of valid points.  Watching DUEL, I noticed several corollaries that lead me to believe this isn’t a recent conversation at all.

One of the major themes running through DUEL is this concept of emasculation.  David Mann (the last name isn’t coincidental) is initially depicted as something of an ineffectual pushover.  The truck that chases after him is a symbol of a primal masculinity, roaring like hellfire as it mercilessly hunts down its prey.

Those are the obvious signs, but Spielberg cleverly peppers in several other subtle moments that reinforce the theme.  For instance, the film begins with audio from David’s radio: a man calls into a local radio show and expresses his paranoia over his neighbors getting a hold of his tax return and finding out that he has filed his family’s taxes with his wife designated as the head of the household.

Yet another instance finds David entering a roadside diner to gather himself together and eat some lunch, only to find that the trucker that’s been terrorizing him is in there too.  Spielberg blocks the action so that David is sitting alone in the corner of the diner, a section that’s been painted entirely with pink.

The image of a grown man relegated to “the pink corner” is understandably emasculating, made even more so by the curious glances he receives from the line of grizzled truckers eating at the bar. David’s internal monologue, rendered as a breathless voiceover, also reinforces the story’s challenge of his masculinity.

He describes his ordeal as being “suddenly back in the jungle”, with the stakes being reverted to a primal state of life or death. He is the hunted, and he has to become the hunter if he is to survive.

While DUEL was intended for television exhibition (the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is a dead giveaway), Spielberg strives for a grandly cinematic approach in his collaboration with cinematographer Jack A. Marta.  The 35mm film image looks as sun-baked as its desert setting, with saturated orange, red and brown tones burnt into the high-contrast frame.

The camerawork evokes the relentless juggernaut pursuing David by using a restless mix of cranes, rack-zooms, and car-mounted POV shots that speed along the cracked two-lane blacktop.  Since this is the first professional work where Spielberg is truly calling the shots in terms of style, he indulges in a variety of nouvelle vague techniques that make DUEL one of the most visually stylized films he’s ever made.

In creating the film’s score, Spielberg turned to composer Billy Goldenberg, who had scored early television works for the director like ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY: “EYES” (1969) and COLUMBO: “MURDER BY THE BOOK” (1971). Goldenberg creates a driving, discordant score that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock film.

Furthermore, Spielberg uses a variety of bland, generic muzak for the in-radio music.  By using source music that’s devoid of any personality, Spielberg reinforces the tamed, neutered aspect of David’s personality, as well as the film’s theme of masculinity on the wane.

Spielberg once said that he watches DUEL about twice a year so he won’t forget how he made it.  He was only given ten days to shoot—a tall order when you are a relatively inexperienced director and want to shoot everything on location.  He had to fight to shoot the film in the way he wanted.

In those days, television simply wasn’t given the same kind of care and consideration that cinema enjoyed.  Most directors would have shot the majority of DUEL on soundstages using chintzy rear projection techniques, but Spielberg wasn’t like most directors.

He barnstormed through the shoot so fast, that it’s actually something of a miracle that it turned out this good.

tumblr_inline_mqepjmj8zr1qafcizDUEL is consistently rated as one of the best television films ever made.  We all know the stigma that comes with the Movie Of The Week format, so the fact that Spielberg worked so hard to transcend it as a testament to his love for the craft.  When it aired, it scored some of the biggest ratings ever—even by today’s standards.

In Europe, it was released theatrically in cinemas after Spielberg shot a few extra sequences to pad out the running time.  Its association with the cinematic medium has become so entrenched over time that it is commonly thought of as Spielberg’s first feature film.

DUEL comes off as understandably dated now, but the action is still as pulse-pounding as the day it came out.  Its success showed that Spielberg was capable of making a killer film, and that his days in television were numbered.  Indeed, the road ahead was paved with the promise of greater things.


“SOMETHING EVIL” (1972)

Spielberg’s first television movie, 1971’s DUEL, was a big success—even going so far as to screen theatrically in European cinemas.  Before he could go headlong into features however, there was still the matter of that little seven-year TV contract he signed for Universal.

The very thing that had kickstarted his career now held him back from reaching new heights.  In 1972, Spielberg once again tackled a Movie Of The Week, this time for CBS.  Capitalizing on a surge of fascination with demonic possession and exorcism brought about by the publication of the infamous novel by William Peter Blatty (I’m talking about “The Exorcist” of course), Spielberg and CBS embarked on a little horror tale called SOMETHING EVIL.

SOMETHING EVIL is pretty standard as far as horror films goes.  An idyllic, nuclear American family (and almost always white) moves into their dream home in the country—in this incarnation, rural Pennsylvania.  Soon enough, the wife begins hearing strange sounds at night, and before she knows it, she’s caught in the grip of a horrific demonic possession.

In SOMETHING EVIL’s case, the possessed is the family’s young son, and the mother must fight to save her little boy from Satan himself.  The film stars Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis as Paul and Marjorie Worden, respectively.

McGavin is the father who reluctantly leaves their home in NYC for Dennis’ impulsive plea to buy a country house two hours away.  As he is frequently away on business for his high-powered career in advertising, Marjorie is usually alone in the house with the children.   The performances of SOMETHING EVIL are not really noteworthy.


Uninspired at best.  Dennis’s shrill Mid-Atlantic accent is grating on the ears, and I found her overall character to be really irritating.  The usage of such stock tropes, even in the fledgling days of demonic horror stories, points to writer Robert Clouse’s utter disinterest in crafting a television experience that aspired to anything higher than its station.

SOMETHING EVIL could be considered Spielberg’s first (and only?) dabbling in the horror genre, except it’s really more of a melodrama than an outright scary story.  It doesn’t boast a conventionally moody aesthetic, instead opting for a straightforward, unadorned visual presentation by cinematographer Bill Butler.

Unimaginative, sedate camerawork counters Spielberg’s reputation for inspired compositions and moves, save for a few evocative frames seen from a low angle. Despite the success of DUEL before it, SOMETHING EVIL has never been released publicly, so it’s hard to discern whether it looks any good or not.

The only version of the film that seems to be available is a badly-worn VHS dub loaded onto Youtube, which washes everything out into a smear of green and yellow.  As a horror story, SOMETHING EVIL is completely ineffective, save for one singular thing.

Marjorie is woken up in the middle of the night several times by sounds of a baby crying.  Naturally she gets up to find out what the sound is, and spooky-time commences.  Nothing scary actually happens during these sequences, but that damn sound effect Spielberg uses is unnerving.

When I have kids, if they cry like that at night, they’re on their own.  Nope nope nope.  SOMETHING EVIL does contain a theme that runs throughout Spielberg’s body of work, that of the “absent father”.   This theme is a reflection of Spielberg’s own difficult relationship with his father, and tends to manifest itself most strongly in stories with suburban, familial settings.

In SOMETHING EVIL, it isn’t exactly a broken home, per se, but Paul and Marjorie do have their share of marital troubles—namely, his rational disbelief alienating his over-sensitive wife.  A long commute and a successful career in the city takes him out of the story for long stretches at a time, leaving Marjorie to face the forces of evil alone.

And in the end, it is only a mother’s touch that can save a young boy from possession.  All told, SOMETHING EVIL is probably the most lackluster thing Spielberg had done up to that point (at least from what I’ve seen).  As an exercise in horror, it falls flat on its face—making me wonder if that’s why Spielberg has never really attempted a true horror film in his career.

It’s not terrible, it’s just an uninspired hour of television that is as easily forgotten an hour later.  It’s so generic that the writer couldn’t even be bothered to specify what the “evil” was that he was referring to in the title.  SOMETHING EVIL is…. something bland.


“SAVAGE” (1973)

1971’s television film DUEL had generated director Steven Spielberg some significant attention from the cinematic world. Longing to answer their call, he frustratingly found himself still bound in place by his TV contract, which was nearing its end.

His impatience to graduate into feature filmmaking showed through in his 1972 TV film SOMETHING EVIL, and 1973 saw the production of the last television work that he was contractually obligated to.  This project was SAVAGE, a feature-length pilot about a muckraking journalist named Paul Savage (Martin Landau) who investigates rumors of a sex scandal concerning a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Despite the lurid subject matter and its high-profile star, SAVAGE ultimately failed to be picked up as a series.  To this day, it remains unreleased on home video, and the only version I could find on the internet was a five-minute cut-down of various scenes.

From what I can piece together, Spielberg attempted to make something slick and entertaining (unlike the indifferent SOMETHING EVIL before it).  The 35mm film image is appropriately polished and lit by SOMETHING EVIL’s cinematographer Bill Butler.

Spielberg employs various low angle compositions and extensive camera moves as his aesthetic by this point had begun coalescing into something distinctly his own.  Gil Melle is credited as the music composer, but I can’t tell if the music on the embedded Youtube video is from SAVAGE itself or was added for the cut-down.

If it’s original, then the light jazzy mood fits the sophisticated, urban sensibility Spielberg is after.  Like that trailer of THE NAME OF THE GAME: “LA 2017” (1971), I can really only comment on what I can see from the cut-down.

Spielberg– already a TV veteran by age 27– seems to be in firm command of his faculties within the medium.  It’s almost like he knows this is his last hurrah in this world (even though it wouldn’t be), and he wants to go out on a strong note.  SAVAGE also finds him taking on the sort of serious, decidedly adult issues for that he would later explore in films like SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and LINCOLN (2012).

SAVAGE itself looks to be entertaining and strong, but its inability to amount to a successful series dooms it to the footnotes of a career that has all but overshadowed it.


“THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS” (1974)

The success of 1971’s television film DUEL generated some momentum for director Steven Spielberg’s career, and as soon as his TV contract with Universal expired, he decided it was time to make the jump into feature filmmaking.

In 1974, he partnered with producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to make a fictionalized film about a true event that took place in 1969-era Sugarland, Texas, whereby a young couple broke out of jail and abducted a police officer en route to steal their son back from the foster family he was given to by social services.

This film was THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and was a striking debut in the feature film realm for the young director. Boasting a box-office friendly star like Goldie Hawn and with the full financial backup of Universal Studios, Spielberg was able to make an earnest, crowd-pleasing take on the then-popular “lovers on the run” genre.

This genre in particular, kickstarted in 1967 by Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), served as an ideal format for many of Spielberg’s directing contemporaries to make their debut—Terrence Malick had BADLANDS in 1973, and Francis Ford Coppola had THE RAIN PEOPLE in 1969, to name a few.

The story begins when Lou Jean (Hawn) smuggles her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of the pre-release facility where he’s got just four months left on his prison sentence.  Their intent is to get to Sugarland, Texas and reclaim the infant son that was taken away from them and placed into foster care when they were arrested.

  Their escape is briefly foiled by a young police officer named Slide (Michael Sacks) until Lou Jean steals his gun and takes him hostage.  As they make the policeman drive them to Sugarland himself, the couple incites a media frenzy and a police response of epic proportions.

As the sole recognizable “name” talent, Hawn anchors an eclectic cast of solid performances.  Hawn plays well into type as a gum-smacking, feisty redneck queen who doesn’t take no for an answer.  I’m familiar with Hawn mostly as an older actress, so it was striking to see her so young here, looking very much like her daughter, Kate Hudson.

The rest of the cast is relatively unknown to me, but I was impressed by their performances nonetheless.  Atherton is appropriately jittery as Lou Jean’s anxious husband, Clovis.  As Clovis and Lou Jean’s police hostage, Michael Sacks does a great job of portraying his conflicted emotions as he comes to befriend his captors.

In many ways, he is the film’s protagonist, as he undergoes the biggest transformation by the end of the film, which concludes on a shot of him in a moment of solemn contemplation beside a lake.  And then there’s Ben Johnson as Sacks’ superior, Captain Tanner: a seasoned Texan cop whose sensitivity and expertise is challenged by Lou Jean and Clovis’ unpredictable streak of mayhem.


Spielberg fully embraces the opportunity of making a feature film by hiring the great Vilmos Zsigmond as his cinematographer.  Zsigmond had already shot 1972’s DELIVERANCE for director John Boorman, but the man who would eventually lens Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) was still a young upstart when he collaborated with Spielberg on THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.

Zsigmond is one of the best cinematographers to ever work with the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a personal conclusion that’s evident in Spielberg’s film.  The 35mm film image is high in contrast, with a dusty color palette evocative of the Texas setting.

Spielberg had gained something of a reputation in the TV realm for placing a lot of his focus on camera movements and lens choices (more so than his peers), and his comfort with movement brings a great deal of energy to the film.  He uses cranes, dollys, car-mounted POV shots, and complicated zooms to tell his story, as well as employing his now-signature low angle compositions to powerful effect.

Spielberg’s use of a surreal perspective technique in 1975’s JAWS, accomplished by zooming in while dollying out and first used by Alfred Hitchcock in VERTIGO (1958), is heavily referenced in film circles.  What’s not mentioned, however, is that Spielberg first uses it in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, during the climax where snipers hide inside the foster family’s house and wait for the fugitive couple to approach.

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS also marks the first collaboration between Spielberg and world-renowned composer, John Williams.  The two must have gotten along quite well during production, but I wonder if they had any clue that their collaboration here would result a lifelong friendship and several of the most iconic film scores ever produced.

Williams’ score for THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS is considerably less iconic, but still effective in setting Spielberg’s intended tone.  It’s appropriately cinematic, utilizing various folk instruments like harmonicas and guitars to convey the country tone.

There’s even a strange kazoo-like instrument thrown into the mix, which reminds me of SESAME STREET, but seemed to be the sound du jour for this type of picture at the time.  A modest selection of honky tonk source cues fill out the world and place the story inside of a palpable reality.

tumblr_inline_mqif2q6klw1qafcizTHE SUGARLAND EXPRESS fits comfortably within Spielberg’s body of work as one of his more-daring films, ending on a note of ambiguity and uncertainty rather than the cathartic happy endings for which he’s known (and often derided).  It also deals heavily with the concept of a broken family, a theme that runs heavily through Spielberg’s canon.

Here, both parents are to blame for their separation from their son due to their criminal behavior—a stark difference from Spielberg’s other depictions where the father is the main absentee.  It should be noted, though, that Goldie Hawn’s character is the instigator and key proponent of the plot; Atherton is initially reluctant to break out of his pre-release facility to fetch his son, and is more prone to doubt about the success of their mission.

In that sense, the father is not as invested in his family as the mother is, a notion that fits much more easily into Spielberg’s thematic conceits.  Spielberg’s first true feature film was well-received, even going so far as to receive the Best Screenplay at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Most directors don’t enjoy the benefits of making their first film with the backing of a major film studio– a significant perk that made Spielberg’s debut more high-profile than it might have otherwise been.  Interestingly enough, it hasn’t been paid as much attention in recent years by Universal’s home video department.

One would think that their most treasured director’s first feature film would be readily available in the high definition Blu-Ray format, but as of this writing, there are no plans for its release in the foreseeable future.  Time has shown that many films are simply lost forever when they fail to make the jump to subsequent video formats, so we should be concerned that an important work of cinema is at risk of being lost beneath the tidal wave of the massive studio blockbusters that Spielberg helped to create in the first place.

As well as THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was received upon its release, and as much of a career game-changer as it was for the young director, it could not begin to compare to Spielberg’s next film, which would change the face of Hollywood filmmaking forever.


“JAWS” (1975)


“We’re going to need a bigger boat”.

It was an unscripted line, an off-the-cuff remark during a take that somehow grabbed hold of an entire collective consciousness.  The phrase has become a linguistic shorthand for confrontation with insurmountable odds.

It came from the 1975 film JAWS, a seemingly frivolous B-film about a Great White shark terrorizing a small beachside community.  However, something about the movie tapped into a primal fear, generating an unconscious callback to those terrifying caveman days when we weren’t at the top of the food chain.

The fear generated by the film also leaked out into the real world: people refused to go swimming in the ocean, and beachside resort towns felt the sting of needed tourist dollars going elsewhere.  The 28 year-old director Steven Spielberg couldn’t have possibly known what he was getting himself into when he signed on to JAWS.

He had seen the galley version of the eponymous novel by Peter Benchley in his producers’ office, and was drawn to it because of the thematic similarities to his 1971 TV film, DUEL.  He responded to the struggle between anonymous, unknowable evil and an every-man protagonist, and saw an opportunity in JAWS to do for water what he did for the open road in DUEL.  In the process, however, he’d inadvertently change the face of cinema forever.

JAWS is the kind of movie that most of the world’s population has seen, so we are all familiar with its story.  Amity Island—an idyllic, fictional seaside community—finds itself besieged by a monstrous shark during peak tourist season.

The town’s chief of police, Brody (Roy Scheider) is tasked with subduing the shark threat while contending with familial troubles and hamstringing, bureaucratic challenges on his authority by a shamelessly negligent mayor.  As the body count climbs and the town’s paranoia reaches a fever pitch, Brody teams up with a shark expert (Richard Dreyfuss) and a skilled fisherman (Quint) to take down the fish themselves out on the open water.

Spielberg and his producers (David Brown and Richard Zanuck) agreed that hiring a cast of well-known faces would ultimately take away the effectiveness of the shark.  To that end, Spielberg sought actors like Roy Scheider to headline his shark tale.

  Scheider is a strong everyman type, somewhat like Dennis Weaver’s mild-mannered protagonist in DUEL. Scheider gives a tremendous amount of paternal pathos to the part, and many times comes off as an authority figure not unlike Gregory Peck.  The emotional through-line of JAWS is embodied in him, wherein one must conquer their own doubts and believe in themselves if they are to conquer unstoppable evil.

Robert Shaw plays Quint, a tough, salty bastard of a fisherman straight out of MOBY DICK.  I was blown away to find that this was the same Shaw who terrorized Sean Connery’s James Bond as SPECTRE agent Red Grant in Terence Young’s FROM RUSSIA LOVE (1963).

In that film, he’s so young, fit and Aryan he qualifies as Hitler Youth, but only ten years later in JAWS, he’s just as believable as an old, burnt-out barnacle of a man.  Shaw’s performance as Quint is just as iconic as the titular shark itself, although I will say that his accent is bewilderingly ambiguous.  Is it Irish?  Pirate?  What?

Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper, a shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute who’s called in because of his extensive knowledge of sharks.  Dreyfuss is a fine foil to Scheider and Shaw, balancing out their measured machismo with an anxious, nerdy energy and hotheadedness.

JAWS is one of Dreyfuss’ earliest appearances, and one that almost never happened at all—he famously turned down Spielberg upon first approach, only to come crawling back to the production after convincing himself that his perceived “terrible” performance in a prior film would sink his career if it came out and he didn’t have something already lined up.   Given Dreyfuss’ long and fruitful career since then, those concerns obviously never came to pass.

Rounding out Spielberg’s cast is Lorraine Gary as Ellen Brody and Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor, Vaughn.   Gary balances out the prevailing machismo tone fairly well, but is ultimately never really given anything substantial to do besides fret and wail about the wellbeing of her husband.

Hamilton does a great job playing the opportunistic mayor archetype, giving the glad-handing character a smarmy, curmudgeon edge.  JAWS finds Spielberg collaborating with Bill Butler, his cinematographer for the television films SOMETHING EVIL (1972) and SAVAGE (1973).

Freed from the boxy constraints of the small screen, Spielberg and Butler take full advantage of the panoramic real estate that the anarmorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio offers.  For a film with such dark subject matter, JAWS looks surprisingly bright and sunny (as befitting a film set in an idyllic beach community).

Spielberg and Butler have cultivated a palette of neutral tones and striking primaries, especially the blue of the ocean/sky, and the red of blood in the water.  In fact, red is used so little throughout the film that, when it bubbles up from the ocean depths, the effect is acutely arresting.

Spielberg makes no attempt to avoid lens flare, which not only gives the film its sun-bleached patina, but also marks the first instance of a visual conceit that would mark many of Spielberg’s works to come, as well as influence the filmmakers who would follow in his footsteps (I’m looking at you, JJ).

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Spielberg’s first high-profile film utilizes surprisingly primitive camerawork, mainly because of the realities of location shooting under harsh conditions.  For instance, the majority of the camerawork is handheld, due to having to counterbalance the roll of the ocean during boat-based sequences.

The well-documented technical difficulties with “Bruce” (the life-sized shark animatronic) resulted in a lot of unusable takes, so Spielberg embraced the Alfred Hitchcock approach and created a palpable atmosphere of suspense by showing the shark as little as possible.  In a further nod to Hitchcock, Spielberg reprises the infamous VERTIGO zoom technique during a key beach attack sequence, and in the process created a reference-grade example of the technique that he first used in THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS.

Spielberg also ratchets up the tension by continually adopting the shark’s POV as it swims towards its prey.  The underwater photography results in some of JAWS’ most enduring and iconic moments, but many film buffs will be able to see the influence of another underwater monster movie: Jack Arnold’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

There’s one sequence in particular that illustrates the fundamental effectiveness of JAWS as well as the young Spielberg’s mastery of the craft.  This is the aforementioned beach attack that occurs early on in the film.  The scene assumes the POV of Chief Brody as he uneasily watches over a crowded beach blissfully unaware of the shark that lurks in its waters.

Spielberg gives us several character threads to follow—a dog, a young boy, an obese woman—and we see them through Brody’s eyes, with the uneasy tension that comes with knowing something everyone else does not.  Spielberg, along with editor Verna Fields, strings together these vignettes into a suspenseful edit that commandeers our eyeballs and rumbles ominously in our gut.

In addition to the already-virtuoso nature of the sequence, Spielberg had initially planned to cover the entire thing in one continuous shot.  While this conceit was highly indicative of traits shared by many a young, overconfident director, Spielberg was experienced enough to realize that there was little value in an approach that wouldn’t justify the considerable resources he’d need to accomplish it.

Instead, he used screen wipes of people walking past the camera as a way to seamlessly hide his cuts and punch-ins. The “Get Out Of The Water” sequence has become one of the most well-known in cinema, with Spielberg channeling the likes of Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein to remind us of the primordial power of montage.

For the most part, Spielberg brings back his core creative team from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS for JAWS.  The film was production designer Joe Alves’ second collaboration with Spielberg, and he would eventually go on to direct JAWS 3-D (1983) himself.

Editor Verna Fields won an Academy Award for her work on JAWS, and ironically, her work would prove to be too good—many critics attributed the film’s greatness to Fields’ touch instead of Spielberg’s.  In somewhat of a dick move designed to assert his talents better on the next project, Spielberg would never again collaborate with Fields.

Spielberg’s collaboration with John Williams on the score continues, this time resulting in the first of many films together to boast a universally recognized theme.  I don’t even have to describe the JAWS theme to you, because you’re playing it in your head right now.

Williams’ Oscar-winning theme has become the archetypical cue for looming danger, imitated and parodied countless times throughout pop culture.  Spielberg initially thought Williams was playing a joke on him when he played him the two-note theme; he didn’t realize that he was the first one to be hearing what is arguably the most iconic film theme of all time.

JAWS was one of the most difficult shoots of Spielberg’s career, owing primarily to his insistence that the film be shot in the choppy waters surrounding Martha’s Vineyard.  Between various instances of the shark animatronic malfunctioning, the cast and crew getting seasick, or even the Orca boat set sinking in the ocean, the production was literally a baptism by fire for the young director.

What was initially scheduled to be a 55-day shoot ballooned to 159, and Spielberg feared that he’d never work again because no one had ever fallen that behind on a schedule before.

tumblr_inline_mqq2heqn2v1qafcizDespite the hardships, however, fortune was smiling on Spielberg and his beleaguered crew.  Much like the accidental capturing on film of a gorgeous shooting star (which remains in the final edit), there was a magical quality to JAWS that fundamentally connected with audiences.

When he was 18, Spielberg made a $1 profit from his film FIRELIGHT (1964). Ten years later, he found himself the director of JAWS: the highest-grossing motion picture of all time.  If that’s not encouraging to aspiring filmmakers than I don’t know what it is.

All that success at such an early age has its drawbacks.  JAWS gave Spielberg the freedom to pursue any film he desired, with final cut privileges to boot.  Critical acclaim was pouring in alongside the box office receipts, and Spielberg began to believe that JAWS was not only bound for Oscar glory, but would sweep the whole damn thing.

There exists a fascinating home video of Spielberg, literally drunk off of his own confidence, watching the Oscar nominations come in on live TV—only for him to grow increasingly dejected as reality set in.  Spielberg was so confident that he’d net a Best Director nomination that it’s almost disgusting to watch his hubris try to compensate for the subsequent deflation.

I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be so unenthused about scoring a Best Picture nomination at that age.    JAWS eventually won for Best Editing, Score and Sound, and Spielberg would go on to personal Oscar glory for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but I like to think this early disappointment was a learning experience for the young director, and turned him away from the entitled, bratty persona he was dangerously flirting with.

Ultimately, JAWS got something even better than the Best Picture Oscar when it was inducted into the National Film Registry as an important artifact of American culture by the Library of Congress in 2001.  Even with its massive success, the rippling wake of JAWS’ release proved farther-reaching than anyone thought.

Before JAWS, the summer season was a cinematic dumping ground, a clearinghouse of sorts to make way for the big studio releases in winter.  JAWS proved that summer could be an extremely lucrative season for profits, and thus the summer blockbuster phenomenon was born and an entire way of organizing the release calendar was fundamentally altered.

As the “first” blockbuster, JAWS became the benchmark against which all others were, and still are, measured.  It reigned supreme as the highest grossing film of all time until two years later, when it was unseated by Spielberg’s friend, George Lucas, and his humble little space opera.

JAWS itself would go on to get three sequels, but with each one bringing in exponentially diminishing returns, the original remains the only entry that still enjoys relevancy today.  While the rise of the summer blockbuster has resulted in several decades’ worth of cinematic memories, the coming of JAWS could be likened to letting the Trojan Horse inside the city walls.

JAWS’ Trojan Horse hid a battalion of studio executives, who used the film’ unprecedented success to leverage more power for themselves and ring in the age of high-concept spectacle films at the expense of thoughtful, auteur-oriented cinema.  Spielberg is often regarded as an auteur in the same breath as Kubrick or Fellini (and rightfully so), but he is one of the few auteurs whose work has the unintended effect of displacing auteurs altogether.

When one entity rises, another must fall, and as JAWS gave rise to the modern spectacle film, it did so at great detriment to the adult, auteur-oriented cinema of the 1960’s and 70’s—ironically, the very kind of films that influenced Spielberg’s style in the first place.  JAWS transformed Spielberg from a French New Wave fringe-kid into an establishment director, and it earned him just as many detractors as it did admirers.

All told, the effect of JAWS on Spielberg’s career cannot be understated.  The little boy who had grown up in the Arizona desert with dreams of making movies was now the biggest filmmaker of them all.  In doing so, he had—for better or worse– fundamentally changed Hollywood for decades, if not forever.


“CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” (1977)


After the breakout success of 1975’s JAWS, director Steven Spielberg earned the privilege to pursue any project he desired. Instead of attaching himself to whatever high-profile project was currently circulating around town, he chose to go back to his roots.

He updated the central idea behind his 1964 amateur feature, FIRELIGHT, a story about aliens descending on earth as told from the point of view of regular folks on the ground.  Now with a big studio backing him—in this case, Columbia Pictures—Spielberg wanted to expand the story out on a grand scale.

After having already completed what is essentially the rough draft of the film in his youth, Spielberg’s third professional feature—CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)—is widely considered in several film circles to be his first master work.

Spielberg’s story begins in rural Indiana, when an electrical engineer named Roy sees (and subsequently chases after) a fleet of mysterious, blindingly-bright aircraft zipping through the night sky.  He soon grows obsessed with seeing them again, and is consumed by visions of an ambiguous mountain shape.

 Meanwhile, a woman named Jillian Guiler is having unexplained experiences of her own and seeks out Roy’s assistance after her son is abducted in the middle of the night.  And on the other side of the globe, French scientist Claude Lacombe and his aides have come to the conclusion that a string of recent, mysterious phenomena are alien in nature.

These story threads converge at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where an elaborate facility has been constructed out of the geological formation’s bedrock in a bid to establish contact with the extraterrestrials. And once they do, their understanding of the universe is fundamentally altered.

Richard Dreyfuss, who had first appeared for Spielberg in JAWS previous, plays the protagonist, Roy Neary.  In stark contrast to JAWS’ Hooper, Neary is a clean-cut family man, and something of a brute.  His obsession with his mountainous visions spirals out of control, as does his grasp on his own family, who increasingly fear for his sanity.

  This is easily one of Dreyfuss’ best performances, definitely his strongest one for Spielberg, who has come to use Dreyfuss as something like an avatar when the director decides to inject some of his own psyche into a character.  Famed French New Wave director Francois Truffaut—helmer of the groundbreaking 400 BLOWS (1959)—was Spielberg’s first choice for the scientist Lacombe, and an unconventional one at that.

The nouvelle vague style (that Truffaut helped to invent) greatly influenced a younger Spielberg, who was elated to be working with one of his heroes.  Truffaut plays Lacombe as a sophisticated, urbane academic, and holds his own mightily against Dreyfuss.

The inclusion of the acclaimed director to the cast lent a great deal of prestige to the picture, and even though one might reasonably expect two directors on one production would butt heads, Truffaut was gracious enough to submit himself entirely to Spielberg’s direction.  Class act.

Dreyfuss and Truffaut are perhaps the biggest names involved in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, although they can’t help but be eclipsed by the celebrity of Spielberg himself.  The supporting cast doesn’t fare any better, but they turn in solid, effective performances.

As Roy’s wife, Ronnie, Teri Garr gives a good turn as a beleaguered woman who runs out of patience with her husband.  However, the character itself is underwritten, and she ultimately fails to transcend the trappings of the archetype.

Melinda Dillon, as fellow believer Jillian Guiler, proves a better companion for Roy, but Spielberg forces a romantic angle between the two that feels forced.  Veteran character actors Carl Weathers and Lance Henricksen– albeit before the “veteran” part– appear in brief cameos here, but their presence is more amusing than notable.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND finds Spielberg re-teaming with his director of photography from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, the venerable Vilmos Zsigmond.  The film’s visual language deals predominantly in beams of light, so Zsigmond adopts a high-key approach that accentuates the bright blue lights of the alien craft.

Once again, Spielberg shows little regard for lens flares leaking into his shot, which is suitable for the blinding wonder of the film’s starships.  His embrace of lens flares has become massively influential in modern filmmaking, especially in the sci-fi genre.

One very striking aspect of the film’s cinematography is the numerous panoramic vista shots, complemented by the wider field of view afford by the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Many of them are notable for the sheer number of stars visible in the night sky, which is next to impossible to capture using natural methods.

Instead, these shots were accomplished using the tried-and-true matte painting technique.  While it can’t quite compete with the realism that CGI-based methods have to offer, matte painting has a charm all its own that adds to the timelessness of the story.

Spielberg’s camerawork in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND marks a shift away from the experimental, nouvelle vague techniques that peppered his television and early film work, and towards a formalist, locked-off aesthetic (necessitated by the heavy use of pre-motion-control/in-camera effects shots like the aforementioned matte painting joins, etc.).

Another classic Spielberg technique finds its first concrete use here: the dolly-in “wonder/awe” shot.  By this I mean: a character looks up in wonder/awe at something past the camera as it dollies in on the subject.  This could be seen as an evolution of the low-angle compositions that Spielberg frequently uses, and has become a staple of his spectacle-based work.

For instance, look at the compositions in the big “Devil’s Tower” reveal sequence in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND compared to its counterpart, the brachiosaurus reveal in JURASSIC PARK (1993).  They are essentially the same shot, with a colossal object slowly revealed from the point of view of the subjects as the camera cranes up and the score swells.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND also sees the solidifying of Spielberg’s core team of collaborators.  Joe Alves, production designer for JAWS and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), returns to give CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND a lived-in, every-man reality to the production.

After dumping Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her work on JAWS, Spielberg hired Michael Kahn as his editor.  Much like John Williams, Kahn has since become an integral part of Spielberg’s team, cutting nearly every film the director has made to this day.

Doug Trumbull, who created the groundbreaking effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), lends his expertise to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as well, giving a wondrous believability and tangible weight to the UFO sequences that still comes across as realistically as they did over thirty years ago.

John Williams once again returns to Spielberg’s fold, making for their third consecutive collaboration.  Williams crafts a grand, romantic score that gives a sense of wonder to the unfathomable reaches of the cosmos.  In the 1980 Special Edition, he even riffs on this further by playing a new arrangement of “When You Wish Upon A Star” when Dreyfuss’ character enters the starship.

Much like the iconic two-note theme of JAWS, Williams is able to construct an equally-recognizable theme for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND using five notes.  This fragment has a diagetic purpose within the narrative, whereby music is used as a form of communication between the scientists and the aliens.

Because of music’s mathematical properties, it is truly a universal language that can be understood across cultures, so why not use it to communicate with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization?  Regardless, William’s five-note theme instantly became part of pop culture, and has been parodied and referenced countless times since.

Due to Spielberg having complete creative control, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is perhaps one of the most “Spielberg-ian” of his early films.   It introduces many of the hallmarks that would become his aesthetic: the suburban/ Americana setting, WW2-era imagery (the opening sequence with the lost fighter planes), and the sense of childlike wonder and innocence inherent in Spielberg’s awed approach to the story (rather than taking a fearful tack).

There’s even a guy who runs to hide from the aliens in the bathroom, much like the lawyer in JURASSIC PARK hides from the T-Rex.  The most prominent Spielberg-ian conceit is the estranged father trope, which is given focus as one of the main storylines of the film.

As Roy descends deeper into his obsession, he drives his wife and kids to the point of fleeing from him out of neglect.  Once they’re gone and he gets to Devil’s Tower, he proceeds to forget all about them, even going so far as to kiss another woman and leave Earth behind indefinitely to travel with the aliens across the stars.

It’s a peculiar choice on Spielberg’s behalf for the character to indulge in behavior that, while probably justified in his own mind, is inherently misguided in the audience’s perspective.  If anything, it suggests a sympathetic exploration of Spielberg’s own father’s reasons for dissolving their family.

In other words: trying to put himself in his father’s shoes.  Of course, Spielberg made CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND while he was thirty and single, so he had yet to experience a family of his own.  He has admitted in later years that were he to re-make the film now that he’s got seven kids, he would never have Roy get on that ship and abandon his family.

There’s a few other various observations I made while watching CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.  One is the presence of some strangely blatant branding; the conspicuous inclusion of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola imagery seems like a half-baked attempt at product placement.

I remember seeing in a making-of featurette that this was due to an idea whereby the aliens would attempt to establish contact using imagery familiar to the population (hence huge corporate logos), but a coherent follow-through is never applied towards this end.

There’s also the notable presence of a TV playing LOONEY TUNES in the background of a scene, which doesn’t say much on its own but is a subtle foreshadowing of Spielberg’s eventual involvement with Warner Brothers’ 90’s-era re-launch cartoon, TINY TOONS.

A true labor of love, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was released to great financial and critical success. Spielberg’s optimistic approach made for one of the first Hollywood films to portray aliens as benevolent ambassadors, and not destructive invaders.

The financial windfall from the film secured Spielberg’s reputation as a dependable filmmaker of blockbuster spectacles, and even led directly to his first directing nomination at the Academy Awards.  He didn’t win it, but his film did take away two other Oscars: one for Sound Editing and the other for Zsigmond’s striking cinematography.

Like JAWS before it, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2007.   It is widely recognized as the definitive film about UFOs, and has been an inspiration to countless of filmmakers who aspire to follow in Spielberg’s footsteps.

In the years since its release, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has been released in no fewer than three separate cuts.  Spielberg was initially unsatisfied with his first cut, which he had to rush out to meet a December deadline imposed by a financially-struggling Columbia Pictures.

So in 1980, he obtained permission to re-cut the film to his satisfaction, but with the stipulation that he shoot new footage showing the inside of the ship so that the studio would have something to hinge a marketing campaign on.  Spielberg complied, but quickly realized that the interior of the alien craft should have never been shown.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Spielberg was able to go back and create a third cut, dubbed The Director’s Cut, whereby he condensed the best parts of both prior cuts and restored the original ending.  There doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to what is the definitive, superior cut of the film, but logic would appear to dictate that honor probably would go to The Director’s Cut.

For his third professional feature film (and his first done outside Universal, his home base studio), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shows a full realization of Spielberg’s unique vision and promise.  The freedom he earned from the success of JAWS manifested itself in creative control and final cut privileges on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, arguably making it his first true auteur work.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has endured for over thirty years against a yearly onslaught of new films by continuing to capture our imaginations and cast our eyes up towards the stars.  And as long as we wonder about our place in the heavens, Spielberg’s vision will continue to dazzle us.


“1941” (1979)


Director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 feature, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, was the culmination of many years of personal development.  It was a passion project wrought from the skeleton of an amateur feature (his first) that he had shot in his teens: FIRELIGHT (1964).

 Once CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was completed and became another hit for the young director, he found himself with no immediate plans for his next project.  At this same time, a couple of interns named Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were being groomed as Spielberg’s protégés.

They were working on a zany WW2 comedy about the hysteria in America following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which piqued Spielberg’s curiosity enough to attach him to the script as a director.  Spielberg initially saw an opportunity to create a lavish WW2-era musical, but he ultimately chose to pursue the black comedy/slapstick satire approach that his idol Stanley Kubrick had previously employed with DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964).

In the end, however, Spielberg wasn’t Kubrick, and his comedic talents weren’t as well-honed as his dramatic ones. The film as it came to be known, 1941, debuted in 1979 debuted with a lackluster thud at the box-office and was deemed Spielberg’s first high-profile failure.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see why people didn’t exactly cotton to the idea in 1979.  While the story becomes more rewarding towards the end, the picture as a whole feels off-tone and obtuse.  1941 sheds a humorous light on the wave of hysteria and paranoia that swept over America in the days following Pearl Harbor.

A regiment headed by Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd) is arming the coastline while Captain “Wild Bill” Kelso flies like a bat out of hell towards the west coast. Meanwhile, a Japanese sub has surfaced off the coast, their sights set on destroying Hollywood.

  Their geographically-inept soldiers accidentally kidnap a redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood instead, and set about interrogating him to “hilarious” results.  The whole thing culminates in a massive, confused air battle over Hollywood and a standoff in Santa Monica.

If you didn’t know 1941 was a comedy by reading the script, then you’d know once you saw the cast, which is headlined by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE stars John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd, as well as popular comedian John Candy.  The late Belushi gives a great performance as the wild-eyed lunatic Bill Kelso, giving him a kamikaze-like obsession with finding and defeating the Japanese.

Aykroyd makes his film debut in 1941, finding the goofiness inherent in a bumbling salesman persona transposed to the rigid protocol of the military.  As Private Foley, Candy isn’t given a lot to do, but he is nonetheless a welcome, friendly presence.

Spielberg’s supporting cast is equally off-kilter and eccentric.  Treat Williams plays Stretch, a young, handsome corporal with anger problems and entitlement issues.  Veteran horror icon Christopher Lee plays Captain Wolfgang Kleinschmidt– a great casting choice on Spielberg’s part that allows Lee to eschew his Hammer Dracula image and indulge in some Nazi goofery.

A regular of films by Akira Kurosawa (another huge influence on Spielberg), Toshiro Mifune gives one of his very few performances in an English-language film as Commander Mitamora, the gruff Japanese officer leading the charge against Hollywood.  In a quasi-reprisal of his role in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, Slim Pickens serves as a great foil to the would-be Japanese invaders as the redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood.

And apparently Mickey Rourke makes his film debut in 1941 as well, but I never saw him anywhere.  Maybe that was the part of the film I missed when I dozed off on my couch.  Nancy Allen and Lorraine Gary provide a small measure of femininity to balance out the machismo of 1941’s narrative, but for the most part their characters are fairly over-looked and under-developed.

The youthful Nancy Allen is there to fulfill the “ingénue love interest” archetype, while JAWS’ (1975) Lorraine Gary doesn’t fare much better as the “shrill harpy wife” character, even if it’s a marked improvement on her prior performance.  It could’ve been the shitty transfer of the DVD I viewed, but cinematographer William A. Fraker’s work on 1941 is far less impressive than that of Vilmos Zsigmond or even Bill Butler’s work previous (it also might account for why Fraker was fired midway through the film).

The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is consistent within Spielberg’s filmography, but Fraker seems to have muddled the image with a middling contrast and diffused light that blights exterior daylight sequences.   Sweeping crane shots add to an imaginative mix of matte paintings and miniature work, resulting in an epic sense of scale.

Say what you want about Spielberg’s technical proficiency, but the man truly knows how to move a camera.  Overall, he cultivates a hyper-comedic vibe with strangely racist undertones.  I’ll admit that the race humor was appropriate given the story’s midcentury setting, but watching it in 2013, it still felt like it was in poor taste.

Along with editor Michael Kahn, John Williams is one of only two of Spielberg’s regular collaborators to return for 1941. Williams crafts a serviceable score that’s appropriately patriotic to match the heroic, bombastic comedy on display.

Spielberg has gone on record to state that Williams’ march theme for 1941 is one of his personal favorites from the acclaimed musician, but I personally found it nowhere near as iconic as the bulk of their work together.  1941 occupies a strange place within Spielberg’s canon, as it is very self-aware of the fact that it is a Spielberg film.

Obviously, the film deals heavily in WW2 imagery, which Spielberg has trafficked in from his early childhood films all the way to present day.  But this same familiarity is also used for laughs that poke fun at the director himself.  The humor is surprisingly sexual for Spielberg, who has built a bonafide institution around his family-friendly brand of filmmaking.

There’s also the parody of JAWS that opens the film, which replicates the earlier film’s cold open right down to the naked blonde girl and Williams’ ominous two-note theme.  As a native Oregonian, I should also take this opportunity to note that this sequence was shot in Cannon Beach, a very iconic landmark on Oregon’s coastline.

Like I mentioned before, 1941 went down in history as Spielberg’s first big flop.  It wasn’t necessarily a financial failure, but critics were aching for some blood in the water after the one-two strike of JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND—so when they smelled it, they pounced.

By experiencing this kind of disappointment, Spielberg learned a very valuable lesson: even the world’s most successful filmmaker had a ceiling that his talent could not surmount.  The stillbirth of 1941 showed Spielberg what he was best at– and comedy was not one of those things.

To this day, Spielberg has never made another film that could be considered a full-on comedy.  Even the lighthearted, freewheeling nature of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) was counterbalanced by the pathos of serious adult problems.

Every filmmaker will experience a dud at some point in his/her career; it’s inevitable.  1941 isn’t a particularly good film, but it’s not terrible either.  Despite a sluggish opening, the investment in Spielberg’s 150-minute epic farce pays off towards the end with a relatively enjoyable battle sequence over the low-slung buildings of Hollywood and the darkened boardwalks of Santa Monica.

1941 hasn’t been given much respect in the years since its release, and as long the current DVD (with its terrible transfer struck during the format’s early days) remains in print, it’s not likely to gain further appreciation anytime soon.  It may wallow in obscurity and mediocrity, but there are far worse fates awaiting films out there.

Those who do give 1941 the time of day will, at the very least, find a curious look into Spielberg’s career at one of its humbling moments.


“RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” (1981)


Indiana Jones.  Few names have such cultural cache, fewer characters are so instantly iconic.  Indiana Jones and his adventures have tapped into an inherently American psyche, channeling a Theodore Roosevelt-esque masculinity in its attitude towards danger and mystery.

He is a mythic character that was given breath by an inspired Harrison Ford, a performance that defies the ravages of time (even as it acknowledges their inevitability like it does in the fourth installment of the series).  As long as movies are around, there will always be Indiana Jones.

The failure of 1979’s 1941 was a sobering experience for director Steven Spielberg.  Thinking he was untouchable because of JAWS’ (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND’s (1977) mega-success, his indulgent approach to 1941’s making led to its shaming at the box office.

Shaken by his sudden mortality, Spielberg knew that he needed to bring his best to the next project, lest it be his last.  Spielberg turned his attention to an idea he had first heard about from his filmmaking pal, George Lucas.  It was the summer of 1977, and the two were vacationing in Hawaii to escape the hullabaloo over STAR WARS’ record opening.

As they built sandcastles on the beach, Spielberg mentioned his dream of making a James Bond film.  Lucas replied that he had something better:  a callback to the cliffhanger serials of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring a rugged character named Indiana Smith.

Spielberg suggested the Jones surname might be better, and a cinematic institution was subsequently born. Despite Lucas’ STAR WARS clout backing their collaboration, the duo’s idea was rejected by every studio in town until it finally found a home in Paramount.  The result?  1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—one of the biggest, most-cherished films of all time.

tumblr_inline_mr6lq8twqp1qafcizAs depicted in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indiana Jones is a mild-mannered archaeology professor by day, and an adventurous, death-defying tomb raider by night.  He serves as an independent contractor, recovering priceless relics from the bowels of antiquity for museums and academic preservation.

His latest assignment has him tracking down the Ark of the Covenant, the chest built by the Israelites said to contain the remnants of the Ten Commandments.  To accomplish this, Indy will need to team up with his feisty ex-lover and the daughter of his mentor, Marion Ravenwood, while racing against the efforts of the Nazis– who plan on recovering the Ark for their own nefarious purposes.

The action is sprawling, taking Indy to such far-flung places as Nepal and Egypt in pursuit of the lost Ark.  By 1981, Harrison Ford was already internationally famous for playing the role of Han Solo in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

Lucas initially didn’t want Ford to play Indy for fear of overexposure, but Spielberg won out.  In taking on the role of Indiana Jones, Ford escaped the STAR WARS typecasting curse that afflicted his co-stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer.

Not only that, he arguably created a performance in Indiana Jones that would define his career. He inhabits the role so naturally that no other actor could ever replace him.  The fact that Ford’s rugged, gruff characterization is still a model of masculinity for millions of men is a testament to the character’s enduring quality.

For all his skill and wit, Indiana could never make do without the help of his friends and the challenges of his enemies. Karen Allen, then a stage actress from New York, plays Marion Ravenwood with a tough, yet feminine air.  She can hold her own, often proving to be every bit Indiana’s equal (out of all the women Indiana is shown to be romantically involved, there’s a reason that Marion is the only one he actually has children with).

Spielberg’s career up to this point had been littered with lackluster female characters, so Marion Ravenwood is easily his most-fully realized yet.  Paul Freeman plays Dr. Rene Belloq, a sophisticated rival archeologist in the Nazi’s employ.

Freeman’s performance is charming but deceitful, and his dedication to his craft is palpable—at one point, he swallows a fly that randomly lands on his lips without blinking or breaking character.  Jonathan Rhys-Davies finds an iconic role for himself in Sallah, Indiana’s Egyptian ally.  Rhys-Davies plays the character as jovial and boisterous, giving the film some inspired comic relief.

Furthermore, Alfred Molina makes his film debut as Satipo, a colleague of Indiana’s in the prologue who dies after betraying our hero.  Always interesting to see the humble beginnings of such a seasoned character actor as Molina.

In shooting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turns to a new cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe.  Slocombe crafts an appropriately epic feel using the panoramic 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio and warm, natural colors that evoke a romantic, swashbuckling tone.

Spielberg’s camerawork matches the impressive scope, infusing an exhilarating sense of energy and scale through the unrelenting use of dolly and crane movements.  Production designer Leslie Dilley brings an authentic, dusty air of mystery to the set design, while returning editor Michael Kahn blends it all together, in the process managing to create an entirely new visual language for the adventure genre.

John Williams is back on scoring duties, creating his single most recognizable theme outside of STAR WARS.  The “Raiders March”, as it was known on the cue sheets, is heroic and appropriately adventurous while infusing hints of Old-World, biblical mystery.

It’s the kind of theme that most composers will struggle their entire lives to create just one of, but Williams churns these iconic cues out with an almost-superhuman ease.  William’s contribution to the Indiana Jones series is incalculable—without its rousing music, the series would not be nearly as effective and memorable as it is.

With Spielberg’s fifth professional feature, his style has coalesced into something imminently recognizable.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK represents Spielberg’s aesthetic operating at its best, an ironic fact given that the schedule was so tight that the director barely had time to consider aesthetic.

The film appropriates a gritty edginess, eschewing the glossy indulgence that sank 1941.  Spielberg also employs direct lens flares to amplify the scorching sun of the Egyptian desert.  I had seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK several times previously (who hasn’t?), but on this particular viewing, I was uncharacteristically sensitive to the amount of violence on display.

For a Spielberg film, it is surprisingly graphic, what with the on-screen bullet wounds and exploding heads.  There’s a tone at play here that skirts the line between PG and R, and it would eventually lead directly to the creation of the PG-13 rating with the series’ second installment, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984).

tumblr_inline_mr6lwodeta1qafcizA combination of a great character, unparalleled talent, and a strong vision, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK finds Spielberg at the peak of his powers.  He knew that he had to create something truly great in order to come back from the failure of 1941and reinforce his reputation as a blockbuster director.

In the undertaking of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg demonstrates his mastery of that time-honored staple of the spectacle genre: “the setpiece”.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is littered with several, distinctive and memorable set pieces: the boulder-rolling opening, the bazaar chase, getting trapped in the Well of Souls, the truck chase, etc.

And of course, who can forget that infamous ending shot of the Ark all boxed up and stowed away in a warehouse that seems to stretch on towards infinity? It’s the perfect note to end the film on, with each mysterious crate suggested an endless universe of adventures that lay in store for Doctor Jones.

Each sequence is given an incredible attention to detail, and Spielberg’s thorough preparation leads to well-structured sequences where character isn’t lost among the action. Spielberg’s natural ability to deliver well-executed setpieces is arguably his most valuable asset as a filmmaker, allowing him to turn in iconic film after iconic film.

As such, his films feel like full-bodied experiences that invite the audience to actively participate.  As we all know, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a box office hit upon its release, restoring Spielberg to critical and financial glory.

It won several technical Oscars, but also netted Spielberg his third and second Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, respectively.  It also established the Indiana Jones franchise, which has generated untold millions in revenue in the form of sequels, TV shows, action figures, Disneyland rides, etc.

It endures today as one of the most-cherished and loved films of all time, and despite its age, feels truly timeless.  The film’s future was secured in 1999, when it was deemed culturally significant and worthy of preservation by its induction into the National Film Registry.

By this point in his career, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was easily the biggest production Spielberg had ever mounted, and he pulled it off with grace and style.  Having atoned for the disaster that was 1941, Spielberg was back on top of his game, and proved to the world that he was here to stay.


“E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL” (1982)


1982’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL holds a special place in my heart, as it does for a whole lot of people.  It was the first film I ever saw, and as a filmmaker myself, this was understandably a watershed moment in my life.  Despite only being two or three years old, I remember every little detail like it happened yesterday.

My mother plunked me down in front of the TV and popped in this bright green VHS cassette to entertain me while she cooked dinner.  My eyes didn’t move from the screen for the ensuing two hours, transfixed by what I was seeing.  By the end, I was a blubbering mess, and when my mom asked me why I was crying, I responded: “it’s just so saaaad!”.

Something about E.T. connected with me on a primal level.  I didn’t get this kind of visceral response when I watched TV, or even with the next-earliest film I remember seeing (Disney’s PETER PAN (1953)).  I was living in the suburbs of Tualatin outside of Portland at the time, so I felt that the suburban-based events of the film were happening right out in my backyard.

As far as first films go, E.T. is probably a perfect choice, as it truly captures the magic inherent in cinema.  Oddly enough, I can’t remember watching it another time since then, but after re-watching it the other day, I zeroed in on crazy little details that captivated me when I was 2, such as the rainbow blinds in Elliott’s room.

It all came rushing back to me, transporting me to an innocent state of mind, untainted by the cynicism of adulthood.  For director Steven Spielberg, E.T. was also a transformative experience.  It’s the film that convinced him he was ready for a family of his own.

Even though he wouldn’t be married for another three years, the acknowledgement of “readiness” is still an unfathomably huge ideological shift in a man’s life.  As such, E.T. shows a marked change in attitude towards family and responsibility.

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After the success of 1981’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg turned his attention to a long-gestating alien invasion idea called NIGHT SKIES.  After careful consideration, he decided it was better to create a friendly alien, so that the film could be told from a child’s point of view.

He reached deep back into his own childhood, calling on an imaginary friend he had created to cope with his alienation in school and his parents’ growing marital discord.  The lonely child archetype is seen a lot in Spielberg’s films, but E.T. places it front and center.  And in the process, it becomes one of the most personal stories that Spielberg has ever told.

The film is set in a generic, geographically-unspecified suburban town, where an alien (affectionately known to us as E.T.) has been accidentally left behind by his spaceship.  A young, lonely boy named Elliott discovers E.T. has taken refuge in his backyard shed, and they form an instant bond.

Elliott takes the creature in, revealing its existence only to his siblings. Meanwhile, a group of scientists and government bureaucrats are searching for E.T., whom they witnessed getting left behind.  As they converge on Elliott’s home, and E.T. begins to weaken from an Earth ecosystem that can’t biologically support him, Elliott and his siblings have to find a way for E.T. to reconnect with his spaceship before the government finds them.

There’s a common saying in the film business: “never work with children or animals”.  You can’t direct an animal, you can only manipulate it into doing the desired action.  Children are a little easier to direct, but they lack discipline and the level of skill that comes with years of experience.

Spielberg had his work cut out for him by fashioning a story where a group of kids were the focus, but incredibly, E.T’s child performers are pitch-perfect.  Henry Thomas plays Elliott, the misunderstood and lonely boy at the center of the story.

He’s somewhat of an avatar for Spielberg as a child, dealing in the same marginalized existence that the director experienced in his school days.  Thomas anchors the film with an authentic, engrossing performance, and it’s strange that he never went on to a larger career in film after this.

By contrast, Drew Barrymore obviously did go on to bigger fame as an actress, so it’s incredibly striking to see her as Elliott’s little sister, Gertie.  Even as a girl barely out of toddler-hood, she displays the same kind of spunkiness that is so evident in her adult persona.

Knowing her problems with drug abuse later in life, it’s somewhat tough to watch this pristine, innocent version of her—a version completely unaware of the rough years that will lie ahead.  Thankfully, she came through it all okay and avoided the typical Hollywood overdose tragedy.

Seeing as the film is told form a child’s perspective, Spielberg wisely chooses to portray the adults from the waist down for the majority, save for Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote.  Wallace plays Mary, Elliott’s mother who has been left to raise a family of three rambunctious children all by herself.

She whirls through the film in a breathless huff, always on her way to the multiple jobs I assume she has.  The whereabouts of the father are left enigmatic, but Wallace’s stressed, courageous performance goes a long way towards filling in the gaps.  The great thing about her character is that she’s not the “cynical nonbeliever” that adults are so commonly portrayed as.

While she’s initially terrified of E.T. when she discovers it, she becomes supportive of her kid’s attempts to return the creature to his spaceship.  Coyote is the only other adult who’s given considerable attention by the camera.  He plays a man known only as “Keys”, evidenced by the dangling keys that hang from his belt.

For the bulk of the film, it’s implied that he’s this ominous force relentlessly tracking E.T. down—a directorial decision further enhanced by the fact that Spielberg holds off on showing his face until well into the second act.  Keys is ultimately revealed as a benevolent character who is trying to help them after encountering these aliens himself in his own childhood.

Strangely, I found the character to bear a striking resemblance to Elliott, right down to the huge ears shared between both actors.  It’s a far-fetched theory with no further evidence to support it, but I had the distinct thought that perhaps Keys is the adult Elliott, who travelled back in time to save his alien friend.

In terms of Spielberg’s collaborators, E.T. marks the rise of one his closest and most trusted: producer Kathleen Kennedy. Having first served as a production assistant under screenwriter John Milius on 1941 (1979), she rose through the ranks from Spielberg’s secretary to executive quite quickly, thanks to her ability to distinguish a good story.

She co-founded Amblin with producer (and eventual husband) Frank Marshall and Spielberg in 1981, and since then has become Spielberg’s key producer.  She recently became president of Lucasfilm in 2012, so it’s uncertain how future collaborations with Spielberg will pan out.

One thing I will not be surprised of, however, is if she eventually goes on to be the head of Disney– and the company will be all the better for it.  To accomplish E.T.’s iconic visuals, Spielberg recruits a new cinematographer, Allen Daviau.

While the general look of the film is signature Spielberg, there’s one glaring difference: the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio.  Until E.T., all of Spielberg’s feature films had been shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, so why does he change up here?  My guess is that Spielberg felt the family genre had no need for panoramic vistas, choosing instead to emphasize character over spectacle.

There is no doubt, however, that E.T. is one of Spielberg’s most gorgeously realized films (despite the blandness of the suburban setting).  The colors are bright and strong, with the predominantly earth-toned palette giving a natural feel to the visuals.  Spielberg favors wide compositions as well as evocative silhouettes, which creates an inspired hybrid of Rockwell/Americana imagery and intrigue.

In the days before CGI, Spielberg relied on a mix of special effects disciplines to realize his vision, from landscape matte paintings, to spaceship miniatures, to the complicated animatronics of the E.T. puppet.  The camerawork, while classical in nature, is actively telling the story through elaborate dolly movements and swooping aerial shots.

All of these visual elements blended together result in some of the most iconic shots in cinematic history.  Composer John Williams returns, winning his second Oscar from his collaboration with Spielberg.  The E.T. theme is arguably cinema’s most iconic—it’s a sweeping, magical piece of music that’s full of heart-bursting wonder.

They simply don’t make film music like this anymore; you’d be hard-pressed to find a theme so earnest and uplifting today, much less anything so instantly memorable.  Williams’ work adds a substantial degree of magic and emotion to the film, and while Spielberg’s story would be effective without it, it’s Williams’ score that puts the film over the top and captures our imaginations.

If you had to choose only one film that would serve as the complete reference of Spielberg’s style as a director, E.T. would most likely be it.  The film contains all of Spielberg’s trademark visual conceits: lens flares, the low angle “awe/wonder” shot of characters looking off-camera in amazement, the suburban setting, the Hitchcock-pioneered vertigo zoom, jump cuts, city lights laid out in a flat vista, etc.

His recurring thematic conceits are all present as well: the use of aliens as part of the storyline, the broken family with a neglectful/absent father, an innocent/childlike perspective, and the upbeat/optimistic tone.  In many ways, it is the ultimate Spielberg film.

E.T. is easily the most self-referential of all of Spielberg’s films, chock full of little in-jokes to his past films and to those of his RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK collaborator George Lucas.  As such, E.T. is Spielberg’s first movie to openly acknowledge an awareness of his direct impact on pop culture.

For instance, Spielberg indirectly references his work on Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY when one of the characters sings the TWILIGHT ZONE theme (the series that made Serling a household name).  Of course, Spielberg would go on to contribute a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983) as his next project.

There’s a John Ford movie playing on the television in one scene, which is an instance of Spielberg acknowledging one of the filmmakers that influenced him.  The open referencing of elder directors and the recycling of their style is a tradition that largely began with the Film Brat generation, populated by the likes of Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Lucas’ STAR WARS (1977) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) are also heavily referenced, from the inclusion of Greedo and Boba Fett action figures to a Yoda costume during the Halloween sequence (complete with a musical flourish of the Yoda theme by Williams).

Ironically enough, E.T. would go on to secure its own distinct merchandising empire that rivaled Lucas’ creations. Spielberg’s future involvement with HOOK (1991) is foreshadowed when Mary reads “Peter Pan” to Gertie, but this can also be read as an apt metaphor for Spielberg’s child-like approach to storytelling in general.

And of course, there’s the much-publicized depiction of Reese’s Pieces, the inclusion of which not only ignited sales of the candy but kick-started the practice of product placement in mainstream studio film making.

tumblr_inline_mrjg4giw2q1qafcizStill riding high off of the flyaway success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg found yet another massive hit in E.T. Box office receipts surpassed even Lucas’ STAR WARS to become the highest-grossing film of all time (an honor that held until Spielberg broke his own record with 1993’s JURASSIC PARK).

E.T. went on to win a slew of technical Oscars, and critical praise was so near-unanimous that Spielberg was invited to a private screening and reception with President Ronald Reagan at the White House.  Not many directors get to meet the leader of the free world, let alone watch one of their creations alongside him.

This development marks Spielberg transcending his the station of his occupation, becoming recognized as a genuine voice in American culture.

C8853-5When E.T. was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1994, the film became a cornerstone of Spielberg’s cinematic legacy.  The director acknowledged the profound effect E.T. had on his career by incorporating the iconic “bicycle across the moon” shot into the logo for Amblin.  Simply put, E.T. is the kind of film that only comes around once in a lifetime.

Many have tried to imitate it or emulate it, but none have come close to capturing the same sense of magic and wonder as Spielberg so effortlessly did.  My mother didn’t know it at the time, but she was giving me a profound gift when she popped in that cassette tape on that fateful day: a lifelong love of film and its many wonders.

I fully intend on showing E.T. to my own kids, and I suspect many others will do the same.  As it is passed down from generation to generation, it will achieve what eludes 99% of other films: true timelessness.


“TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE” SEGMENT: “KICK THE CAN” (1983)

With the one-two punch of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), director Steven Spielberg was in a position to tackle any project he wanted.  His choice on a follow-up was a surprising one: contributing a segment to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), an anthology feature that updated four of the seminal show’s most popular episodes— each one under the direction of a different filmmaker.

The film also boasts the work of fellow directors John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller, with Spielberg and Landis serving as the producers shepherding the project to completion.  Spielberg’s segment, an adaptation of KICK THE CAN, occurs after Landis’ opening film, and tells the story of Sunnyvale retirement home, where the kindly old Mr. Bloom has arrived to stay.

After an interaction with his crabby houseguests, Mr. Bloom announces that he can help them recapture their past youth, and all they have to do is play kick the can with him at midnight.  He convinces the houseguests to join him, and sure enough, as they play they find themselves physically transformed back into children.

This soon causes a mix of emotions, with the joy of youth countered by the anxiety of having to grow up all over again.  Scatman Crothers anchors the film, who Spielberg no doubt cast after seeing his memorable performance in THE SHINING (1980), directed by his friend and mentor Stanley Kubrick.

Crothers’ performance as Mr. Bloom is pitch-perfect in conveying the necessary warmth and friendliness of the character, but it still comes off too much like the “magical Negro” stereotype most of the time.  It does help that Crothers is so damn charismatic—that dude could talk me into happily jumping off a bridge.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau returns, showcasing the same talent for nostalgic, golden-tinged images that gave E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL its magic.  Spielberg and Daviau adopt the 1.85:1 aspect ratio once again, and fill the frame with a warm color palette favoring brown and orange.

The camerawork, utilizing primarily classical dolly movements, is very reserved and makes for a conservative visual presentation (much like its subjects).  In terms of other key collaborators, producing partner Kathleen Kennedy and editor Michael Kamen also return, with the latter back after sitting out cutting duties on E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.  KICK THE CAN is one of the only Spielberg films not scored by John Williams; instead, Jerry Goldsmith fills those shoes with a generic, romantic score.  The E.T. theme, this ain’t.

Due to its existence as a short film within a larger anthology feature, KICK THE CAN feels like an exercise in amusement on Spielberg’s part instead of genuine artistic expression.  In that regard, he shows no noticeable growth in his craft here—despite turning in top-quality work.

  KICK THE CAN is integrated into the larger TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE narrative, and doesn’t blatantly announce itself as a Spielberg piece.  However, most would be able to easily tell based off Spielberg’s signature directorial style: the low angle compositions, the upbeat/optimistic tone, and even a moment where Crothers breaks the fourth wall (much like John Belushi did in 1941 (1979).

  One curious aspect to Spielberg’s approach, however, is the openly Jewish comedy on display, which gives off a little insight into an area of Spielberg’s personality that he had previously omitted from his work.  While it’s a source for comedy here, it reads to me as Spielberg beginning to reckon with his Jewish heritage via artistic expression, which as we all know, would ultimately manifest itself in his de facto masterpiece, SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).

Initially, Spielberg was going to adapt the arguably higher profile TWILIGHT ZONE episode “THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET”, a factoid that caught my attention because it’s my own personal favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episode and I’ve wanted to make my own adaptation of it for several years now.  For whatever reason, Spielberg chose to film KICK THE CAN instead, which ultimately ended up as one of the weaker segments of the anthology feature.

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE encountered middling success when it was released; it wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t a hit either.  If anything, it only proved that anthology films aren’t a big draw for modern audiences.  The film is largely forgotten about today, eclipsed by the very television series it was trying to modernize.

If it’s remembered for anything, it’s the horrible tragedy that engulfed the film when actor Vic Morrow was killed by a helicopter crashing on top of him during the shooting of Landis’ segment.  Ultimately TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE is a nice callback to past forms of cinematic storytelling, but its legacy stands today as more of a curiosity than anything.


“INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM” (1984)


RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) was a massive commercial and critical hit, with the adventures of Indiana Jones captivating audiences around the world.  Naturally, fans were clamoring for a sequel– something Spielberg had never actually attempted before.

Indiana Jones’ co-creator, George Lucas, persuaded Spielberg to return, citing the need for a consistent vision across multiple films.  Confident in the knowledge that they had a sure hit on their hands before shooting even a single frame of film, Spielberg and Lucas went about assembling their team.

Spielberg recruited producing partners Kathleen Kenned and Frank Marshall, while Lucas passed off a story treatment to writers Willard Huyk and Gloria Katz, who were chosen due to their extensive experience with Indian culture.  The film that resulted, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), is generally considered to be the darkest entry in the series.

While Lucas attributes this to replicating the template set by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s (1980) darker tone, it was also fueled by a dark phase in Lucas’ personal life caused by his divorce from his wife following the completion of RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).  He used the story as a forum to express said darkness, manifesting in ritualistic sacrifices, child slavery, and demonic entities—not to mention people getting their hearts ripped out of their chests (in a poorly-veiled metaphor for Lucas’ own internal state).

It’s 1935, a year before Indiana Jones’ encounter with the lost Ark of the Covenant, and our intrepid hero is in Shanghai dealing with a dangerous crime lord.  A business deal between the two at a swanky nightclub goes south, and Indiana (Harrison Ford) barely escapes with his life.

Making the escape with him is his trusty child sidekick, Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan), and a hysterical showgirl named Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw).  They board a plane out of China, which is subsequently sabotaged by the crime lord’s underlings and crash lands over India.

After seeking directions to Nepal in a rural village, Indiana and company are corralled into recovering the tribe’s precious lost stones, as well as their missing children—abducted into slavery by an evil religious cult operating a temple deep underground.  What Indiana doesn’t expect, however, is that his attempts to recover the children and the artifacts will take him on a pitch-black journey into his own heart of darkness.

Harrison Ford, operating at his prime, effortlessly slips back into the fedora and whip.  However, he also expands upon the character by creating a version that’s appropriately younger and less experienced (given the fact that the film is technically a prequel).

Ford endured excruciating pain throughout most of the production after a back injury, so most of his action scenes had to be completed by a stunt double.  Thankfully though, it doesn’t detract from the film at all—Indiana Jones ably delivers on all fronts.

Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott is the very antithesis of both Jones and RAIDERS’ Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).  Willie is a blonde, ditzy showgirl with an insufferable vain streak and a tendency to complain about everything.  Capshaw, who is naturally very likeable, does a brilliant job depicting someone so inherently unlikeable.

However, her performance is overshadowed by the happy fact that her collaboration with Spielberg eventually resulted in their marriage in 1991.  As the film was shot in 1984, Spielberg was still a year away from his first marriage to actress Amy Irving, but seeing behind the scenes footage of the Spielberg and Capshaw interacting, it’s clear that they’re totally smitten with each other.

Jonathan Ke Quan makes his mark as Short Round, easily one of the most enjoyable characters in the series.  In the wrong hands (aka: Lucas’), Short Round could be a supremely annoying Jar Jar Binks-style character, but Quan succeeds with a winning mix of rakish charm and mischievous innocence.  I wish he was my sidekick!

To recapture the warm, exotic look of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Spielberg brings back its cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe.  INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM also marks Spielberg’s return to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio format, which helps things look consistent and appropriately epic.

Red is used as dominant color throughout, hammering home the fire & brimstone aesthetic of the story.  Spielberg also finds several instances to incorporate his signature visual flourishes, like lens flares or an on-screen shooting star.

Despite a substantial increase in production resources, the filmmakers had difficulty in securing location permits from the Indian government—which combined with a series of other mishaps, translated into much of the film being shot on soundstages.  This has an adverse effect on the film, whereby the look is contained and distinctively stage-y, not gritty and expansive like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was.

In other words, TEMPLE OF DOOM looks a little too polished.  Editor Michael Kahn does an admirable job sewing it all together, utilizing a swift pace that balances the darkness with lighter, comedic elements peppered throughout.  Despite all the doom and gloom, this is a film that doesn’t forget how to have fun.

Just as Spielberg and Slocombe slip right back into the style of INDIANA JONES, so does John Williams effortlessly return to form, expanding on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’s iconic, adventurous theme with ethnic flourishes and dissonant choral chants.  Some of these flourishes—especially in the Shanghai and India sequences—lean heavily on stereotypical conceptions of those cultures’ music.

While it goes a long way towards establishing a geographically-convincing musical palette, it hasn’t aged as well in the context of today’s politically-correct society.  INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM finds Spielberg operating at the peak of his powers as a spectacle director—a peak he still sustains today.

Several of the film’s setpieces—the monkey brain dinner scene, the minecart chase, and the rope bridge finale—stand out as some of the best moments in the entire 4-film saga.  Not only that, they have become classic, enduring moments in cinema at large; a benchmark that most contemporary action films struggle to meet and rarely achieve.

As far as action direction goes, THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is chock full of reference-grade moments.  The success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK also allows for some indulgences on Spielberg’s part, as well.

The Shanghai nightclub sequence that opens the film provides him with the opportunity to combine two types of films that he’s always wanted to make: the Old Hollywood/Busby Berkeley musical, and the James Bond spy film.  Sure enough, TEMPLE OF DOOM starts off with a musical dance number led by Capshaw, which must have surely surprised anyone expecting the same kind of Roosevelt-esque rough rider opening that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK provided.

Likewise, Indiana channels Sean Connery when he appears in a white dinner jacket and tuxedo while dealing with crime bosses in a cool, collected manner.  Complete with hidden guns and shifting power dynamics, the sequence would not be out of place in a Bond film.

Like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, Spielberg includes several references to his past work, as well as those of his collaborators and influences.  The instance of the Shanghai nightclub being named Club Obi-Wan (after Lucas’ seminal STAR WARS character) is well known, but often overlooked is 1941 star Dan Aykroyd, who makes a brief cameo in the Shanghai sequence.

And just like Spielberg cast THE SHINING’s Scatman Crothers for his KICK THE CAN segment in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (1983), here he casts frequent Kubrick character actor Philip Stone (THE SHINING’s ghostly bartender) as a British military officer who comes to Indiana’s aide in the climax.

tumblr_inline_mrnb2wikc81qafcizAs expected, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM was a smash hit when it debuted, but it received decidedly mixed reviews.  Some found the darkness of the story to be off-putting and overwhelming, while others simply found it not as enjoyable as its predecessor.

For a long time, TEMPLE OF DOOM was generally considered to be the worst film in the INDIANA JONES series— that is, until INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL came about in 2008.  Today, TEMPLE OF DOOM simply stands as a solid, albeit flawed entry in the Indiana Jones saga, with an Oscar for visual effects as its strongest selling point.

For all its efforts, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM did manage to make cinema history.  Together with Joe Dante’s GREMLINS (1984), THE TEMPLE OF DOOM is credited with inspiring the creation of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating.

Families with young children lured into the theatre criticized it for its pervading darkness and violence, which was graphic but not enough to warrant an R rating.  As such, it was deemed that a middle rating was necessary, and Spielberg himself suggested the term “PG-13”.

The rise of the PG-13 rating soon became a boon to both Spielberg and the studios, which were able to counter-act years of flagging sales wrought by a growing cynicism among audiences and a wariness of “family-friendly” films.  The rating is still extremely relevant today, with many studio tentpole films going to great pains in achieving it and maximizing earning potential for mature subject matter.

tumblr_inline_mrnb3bj87f1qafcizINDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, while far from Spielberg’s best film, is highly notable in the context of both his career and his personal life.  It was his first full-fledged sequel, and turned Indiana Jones into a bonafide franchise.

But more importantly, it was the film where Spielberg met the woman he’d later marry.  He had given us the gift of magic and child-like wonder for over ten years now, so it was high time that he finally got to experience some of that for himself.


“AMAZING STORIES” EPISODES: “GHOST TRAIN” & “THE MISSION” (1985)

tumblr_inline_mruoxkjuzx1qafcizIn the mid-80’s, director Steven Spielberg had begun to hit his stride as a feature filmmaker.  After the expected success of 1984’s second installment of the Indiana Jones saga, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Spielberg surprised his fans with a return to the medium that created him: television.

In 1985, he joined up with his Amblin producing partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall to create AMAZING STORIES, an anthology-format show that would run on NBC until 1987.  AMAZING STORIES takes its title from the science fiction magazine of the same name, and is notable (to me at least) for its hilarious opening credits, which feature terrible CGI in its earliest incarnation.  Spielberg himself developed a substantial number of the episode stories, yet only directed two of them: GHOST TRAIN and THE MISSION.

tumblr_inline_mruoygc1yo1qafcizGHOST TRAIN begins in typical Spielberg fashion—an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque family moves to a new house in the suburbs, with the frail patriarch/grandpa Opa Globe in tow.  Just as soon as they arrive, Opa begins to ramble about a train whose track used to run right through where their house currently stands.

The train derailed one night back when he was a child, and he’s been obsessed with it ever since.  He soon becomes convinced that the train is returning to pick him up, despite there no longer being a train in those parts.  Only his grandson Brian believes him, with his grown son Fenton and his wife Joleen convinced that he’s gone senile.

However, one night the train does arrive, just as Opa said it would: right through the middle of their living room.  Spielberg uses a cast of mostly unknowns for GHOST TRAIN, with Robert Blossom being the most recognizable face as Opa Globe (people my age will remember him fondly as the creepy shovel guy from HOME ALONE (1990).

In GHOST TRAIN, Blossom is basically playing the same character, only less creepy.  Scott Paulin plays Fenton, Opa’s disbelieving son and father to Brian, while Gail Edwards plays Fenton’s equally-cynical wife Joleen.  Lukas Haas– only a child here– plays wide-eyed and optimistic Brian, fitting well into the frustrated, innocent child archetype that Spielberg is fond of.

Haas had yet to hit puberty when he shot GHOST TRAIN, but the natural talent that would lead him to working under the likes of Gus Van Sant and Christopher Nolan is already evident here.  Cinematographer Allen Daviau returns, which results in a piece that feels very much like E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL(1982) in presentation.

While Spielberg’s composition suffers from the confining 4:3 aspect ratio dictated by the television medium, his tone still feels distinctly familiar.  Naturalistic, muted colors fill the frame, while a pop of ethereal green lighting creates a mystical, magical aura to the climatic train arrival sequence.

Rick Carter, who would go on to become Spielberg’s regular production designer, finds his first collaboration with the director here.  John Williams is once again on music duties, crafting a score that’s not exactly memorable, but unmistakably his.

Several of Spielberg’s key directorial conceits are present in GHOST TRAIN.  Most notable is the presence of kids, which justifies Spielberg’s adoption of their innocent, untarnished perspective.  As a result, the tone feels whimsical and sentimental.

The absent father trope is also present, manifested in the strained relationship that both sets of sons have with their respective fathers.  Train imagery also runs throughout Spielberg’s work, oftentimes in the form of a toy train set chugging through the living room as it did in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), as well as GHOST TRAIN.

tumblr_inline_mruoyso4wo1qafcizSpielberg’s other episode, THE MISSION, is far more affecting and better crafted than GHOST TRAIN.  Set during World War 2, THE MISSION is about an Air Force squadron sent up on their 24th mission into enemy territory to drop some big bombs.

Along the way, they encounter heavy bombardment and take heavy damage to the plane, but come through victorious.  Unfortunately, the gunner in the turret underneath the craft is trapped by debris spewed forth from the enemy plane’s explosion, and to make matters worse, their landing gear won’t deploy.

Tension and emotions flare as the plane limps back to home base and their efforts to free the gunner from his claustrophobic prison fail.  As the situation becomes more dire, the men have to reckon with internal conflicts and decide whether they can salvage the situation, or give their friend the blessing of a mercy killing before he’s crushed to death upon landing.

THE MISSION boasts some high-profile cast members, albeit they’re high profile only in hindsight as THE MISSION was filmed before their careers took off.  Kevin Costner plays the Captain—the superstitious, paternal pilot and leader to the men.

He’s not given the kind of attention on-screen that you would expect for someone of his stature, but keep in mind he wasn’t universally-known at this point in his career.  Keifer Sutherland plays Static, an aspiring engineer and the brains of the ship.

It’s a sensitive turn for Sutherland, who is better known for his knack for cracking skulls on 24.  Relative unknown Casey Siemaszko gives the most captivating performance as Jonathan, the gunner trapped underneath the plane.  His increasing hopelessness and despair is palpable, making for some extremely moving movement as the story approaches its climax.

To shoot THE MISSION, Spielberg hires cinematographer John McPherson—his first collaboration with this particular DP. THE MISSION differs drastically in visuals to GHOST TRAIN, featuring a mostly-gray, smoky color palette and handheld camerawork that amplifies the cramped nature of the aircraft set.

THE MISSION also sees Spielberg working for the first time with the nascent tool of CGI, which is deployed in service to the cartoonish, yellow landing gear that miraculously saves the day.  This being the early days of CGI and all, it absolutely does not fit in with the realism of the other visuals.

Rick Carter and John Williams return as Production Designer and Composer, respectively- with the latter adapting the Air Force anthem (“Into The Wild Blue Yonder”) as a recurring musical motif.  Spielberg’s hand in directing THE MISSION is quite evident.

The WW2 imagery and setting allows him to indulge in the trappings of his favorite time period and the romanticized iconography of flight (no doubt inspired by the stories his WW2 vet father told him upon returning from the war).  The tone is sentimental, with a moving dramatic arc that hammers home despite being a little overwrought in some instances.

THE MISSION is frankly one of Spielberg’s best narratives, and would adapt well into the feature-length format.  In terms of his television work, it’s easily his best (to date).

Spielberg’s work with AMAZING STORIES is indicative of his embracing the role of producer/developer, whereby he’s creating a television series and shepherding it through several seasons.  Much of Spielberg’s current success and wealth derives from his participation as a producer or executive producer in dozens of films, almost as if he was diversifying his portfolio in the business/investment sense

AMAZING STORIES is one of Spielberg’s less-successful projects, ending its run after only two seasons and quietly immigrating into the syndication market for a few years thereafter.  But as his grand return to the television medium, Spielberg is able to channel his experience in directing features and apply its sensibilities into markedly improved TV work.


“THE COLOR PURPLE” (1985)


After several features completed in the Hollywood studio system, director Steven Spielberg had built up quite the reputation as a maker of spectacle-based “event films”.  Due to this success, he had friends in high places—President Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones to name a few.

And it was Mr. Jones who approached Spielberg after the completion of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) with the idea of adapting author Alice Walker’s seminal novel, “The Color Purple” into a feature film.   The plan was simple: Jones would produce, and Spielberg would direct.

In a rare display of humility that’s uncommon among most directors today, Spielberg was initially reluctant about helming the project, citing his existence as a white man disqualifying him from taking on an inherently African-American story.  Jones disagreed with Spielberg’s assessment, and shot back with some clever logic of his own: he wasn’t an alien when he made E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), so why should that kind of thinking prevent him from taking this job?

Jones made a pretty good argument, and as such, Spielberg took the helm.   It can be argued that he also came aboard because he wanted to expand his reputation; no doubt he felt he had more to offer than just big-budget spectacle; this was his opportunity to make a film in the interest of social good.

As such, THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) became Spielberg’s first “serious” film- a streak that would eventually deliver him to the Oscar glory that long eluded him in 1993 with SCHINDLER’S LISTTHE COLOR PURPLE is set in rural Georgia, and spans the years 1909-1937.

A poor woman from a poor family, Celie Johnson (Whoopi Goldberg) is given away by her father to marry an abusive farmer named Albert (Danny Glover).  She endures a lonely, miserable life in which Albert drives Celie’s own sister away from her, while also making a cuckold of her each time he heads into the city to meet a glamorous singer named Shug Avery (Margarety Avery).

One day, Shug comes to stay with Albert and Celie, and the two women soon become friends.  They develop a deep love for each other, whereby Celie’s self-esteem is strengthened—and after a lifetime of being beaten down and humiliated by her tyrannical husband, she finally gains the strength of conviction to stand up to him and assert herself.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for an Oscar for her debut in THE COLOR PURPLE by fully embodying the low self-esteem brought about by a lifetime of mental and physical abuse, rape, incest, and the like.  Her Celie is meek, with a latent intelligence brought about by her sister teaching her how to read.

While Goldberg is now known primarily as a comedic actress, her performance here packs a real dramatic punch—and is easily her best.  Danny Glover plays her husband Albert, a sophisticated yet vindictive force of nature.  He plays the unfaithful, abusive bastard quite well.  T

hen there’s daytime TV mega-personality Oprah Winfrey, who also makes an Oscar-nominated film debut in THE COLOR PURPLE as Sofia, Albert’s son’s sassy, tempestuous wife.  Her character is subject to humiliation and scorn by white people who use her stubborn feistiness as an excuse to put her in jail.  By the end of the movie, she’s a broken shell of her former self.

The Big O isn’t really an actress by trade, but whenever she does go before the camera, she tends to be excellent.  Spielberg’s supporting cast also turns in notable performances, especially Margaret Avery and Laurence Fishburne.

As the beautiful songstress Shug, Avery adds a bit of glamor to the film as well as supplies it with a compelling lesbian subplot that’s never fully explored.  Fishburne plays the bit role of Swain, a friend to Albert’s son and a musician at the rickety dive bar they build together.

He doesn’t get to do a whole lot, but his inclusion is a reminder of his general association with the Film Brat generation of directors (as readers of this series will remember, he was frequently cast by Spielberg’s friend and filmmaking contemporary Francis Ford Coppola).

With the exception of Douglas Slocombe working on the INDIANA JONES films, Allen Daviau was shaping up to become Spielberg’s regular cinematographer.  Like E.T., Spielberg and Daviau decided that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio was the best format to tell their story in (which is a little bit at odds with the scale Spielberg was pursuing).

Bold colors (especially purple) punctuate the frame, with golden sunlight and the pastoral setting rendered with a subtle tobacco-sepa tint.  Despite being somewhat of an intimate character drama, Spielberg employs sweeping crane and dolly movements to exaggerate the sense of scale.

This approach gives THE COLOR PURPLE the vibe of an old Hollywood musical in some instances, but the effect is more maudlin than romantic.  The earnestness of Spielberg’s tone and execution also works against him when the narrative gets dark, with the true horror of Celie’s plight swept under the rug and obscured by sunflowers peacefully swaying in the breeze.

THE COLOR PURPLE is the only theatrical feature film in which Spielberg does not retain the services of composer John Williams.  This is easily explained, however, because with Jones—easily more famous for his music—acting as the producer, it’s only logical that he’d want to do the score as well.  Jones proves adept at creating a sweeping, cinematic score.

Lush, romantic strings evoke Williams’ work to the best of their ability, but Jones’ mimicry of the maestro’s style only reminds us that the maestro himself is absent.  Jones’ score is complemented by a small selection of ragtime source cues, Billy Holiday tracks, and even some seasonal Christmas music.

The subject matter of the film allows Spielberg to indulge in both of his most-used thematic conceits.  His fascination with the 1930’s/pre-WW2 time period (most easily seen in 1941 (1979) and the INDIANA JONES films) gets the opportunity to explore a different, understated side of that era: America’s rural south.

His continuing exploration of the absent/negligent father dynamic is manifested in Albert’s character.  While Albert is a prominent figure within the narrative, we don’t really ever see him being a father to his kids.

They’re simply human presences in the house that he has little interaction with, let alone any sort of paternal relationship with.  Several of Spielberg’s technical signatures, like low angle compositions and lens flares, are all present and accounted for.

05_Flatbed_2 OCTOBERTHE COLOR PURPLE is firmly ensconced in Spielberg’s expansive, earnest style—sometimes to the detriment of what the narrative requires.  This is illustrated in the homosexual subplot between Celie and Shug, which Spielberg shies away from at the last second and never comes back to for the remainder of the film.

Essentially, it’s a wimp-out; a caving to mainstream aesthetics and values.  It would have been much bolder and courageous to flesh out and explore Celie’s lesbian relationship, and most certainly would have created a better legacy for the film than the modest one it currently enjoys.

The film was well-received upon its release, securing no less than eleven Oscar nominations—albeit with the curious absence of Spielberg on the Best Director shortlist (a repeat of what happened with JAWS (1974)).   Objectively speaking, it’s impossible to know why this happened, but we can speculate.

Maybe there was a general notion among Academy voters that Spielberg wasn’t a “prestige” director?  That the success of his spectacle films boxed him in?  If so, it would definitely lend support to Spielberg’s motivations for taking the job in the first place.  THE COLOR PURPLE, to my eyes, hasn’t aged terribly well—its overwrought sense of melodrama is the very definition of an “Oscar bait” film.

Regardless, THE COLOR PURPLE is a very important film within Spielberg’s body of work.  It marks the moment when Spielberg proved that he was capable of making films that were more substantial and serious than his already-emotionally-effecting spectacle work.

In many ways, it began the era of Mature Spielberg, brought about by his ascension to the head of his own family (his first son was born during production of THE COLOR PURPLE).  He had bigger responsibilities now, and as such his responsibility to his art demanded a refined, mature touch.

In shooting his first serious social issues film, he proved he didn’t simply want to be a great filmmaker—he wanted to be an important one.


“EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (1987)


The warm reception of 1985’s THE COLOR PURPLE emboldened director Steven Spielberg to continue down the path of creating serious prestige films instead of his usual blockbuster fare.  Meanwhile, an adaption of J.G. Ballard’s novel Empire Of The Sun had been kicking around Hollywood with one of Spielberg’s key influences, David Lean, attached to direct.

Lean eventually left the project, which opened the slot up for Spielberg (who had been wanting to direct the property himself). Well-respected playwright Tom Stoppard had written the script, and when Spielberg came aboard, the project was infused with a great deal of prestige.

Two years later, EMPIRE OF THE SUN was released, but despite Spielberg’s passion and optimistic expectations, the film was met by an indifferent audience response, disappointing box office returns, and confused critics who found the story muddled and unsure of its message.  Appreciation for the film has only grown over time, and the general consensus today is that EMPIRE OF THE SUN is an underappreciated, overlooked masterwork within Spielberg’s oeuvre.

tumblr_inline_ms05vypldm1qafcizOur story begins in 1941, in Shanghai shortly before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Jamie Graham (Christian Bale) is a young boy, a British ex-pat born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a deep fascination with airplanes and flying.  He lives with his parents in a big house outside Shanghai, oblivious to his parents’ growing unease with events on the world stage.

His idyllic life is suddenly upended when the Japanese march on Shanghai, and he’s separated from his parents in the ensuing chaos.  While he searches for them, he joins up with a pair of American con-men: Basie (John Malkovich) and Frank (Joe Pantoliano), only for the three to be swept up into a Japanese internment camp next to an airfield.

As he languishes in the camp for several years, Jamie learns to survive and forgets all about his past life.  He becomes a contributing member of the makeshift society constructed by the prisoners.  As the events of the Pacific Theater of World War 2 play out beyond the confines of the camp, Jamie experiences an awakening to the wonders of the natural and industrial world, with the cost being his childhood and innocence.

Christian Bale makes his film debut as Jamie, proving his skill in playing rich brats extends all the way back to his boyhood. He captures that unmitigated sense of wonder and fascination that all boys concentrate onto a singular object- in Jamie’s case, airplanes.

He’s always carrying around a toy plane, which becomes the catalyst for him getting separated from his parents.  Even at such an early age, Bale is a striking actor, turning in one of the most convincing child performances I’ve ever seen.

It’s also interesting to watch his performance in light of his later success as Batman/Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY; the early mansion scenes in Shanghai could have been lifted directly out of the flashbacks of Bruce Wayne’s childhood in BATMAN BEGINS (2005).  Veteran character actor John Malkovich brings a great presence to the film as the cool, collected con-man Basie.

He’s rakish, and almost paternal in away, despite a general untrustworthiness and an “every man for himself” kind of mentality.  Pantoliano plays Frank, Basie’s volatile counterpart.  Its surprising to see Pantoliano so wiry and with a full head of hair, having previously been exposed to the characteristic stockiness and baldness that defined his roles in The Wachowski Brothers’ THE MATRIX (1999).

A young Ben Stiller plays the bit role of Dainty, one of Basie’s wild-eyed, buck-teethed goons, with a grungy appearance and awkward body language that belies his future stardom.  Spielberg brings back cinematographer Allen Daviau, who retains the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, big-budget filmic look that defined most of Spielberg’s 80’s output.

The color palette is warm and natural, with strong reds and oppressive greys.  Spielberg uses bold camera movements like cranes and dollies to give an impressive sense of scale.  While this same approach didn’t necessarily work for his previous THE COLOR PURPLE, it works quite well in EMPIRE OF THE SUN—an appropriate choice since the film was originally supposed to directed by David Lean, king of the sweeping epic genre.

Norman Reynolds serves as the production designer, creating a compelling aesthetic that uses artifacts of wealth and privilege as ironic commentary on the rich’s inability to comprehend the struggle of true daily survival.  Expensive furniture, automobiles, statues, etc. gather dust in a large stadium, unattended to and forgotten about.

They take on the form of clutter and junk, their value summarily dismissed in the chaos and anarchy of war.  Even commerce is rendered useless, symbolized by a battered mural advertising the release of the film GONE WITH THE WIND—sticking out of the ruins of Shanghai like a haunting reminder of our collective innocence after having been ripped away by the ravages of World War 2.

Norman Rockwell has a significant influence on Spielberg’s visual aesthetic, arguably more so in EMPIRE OF THE SUN than his other films.  The early sequences in Shanghai before the invasion are almost blatantly Rockwell-ian, with many frames ripped straight from the artist’s paintings.

This serves to amplify Jamie’s removal from that way of life later on in the film, when he posts Rockwell paintings next to his bunk—yet another haunting reminder of innocence lost.  After a brief absence for THE COLOR PURPLE, John Williams returns to score Spielberg’s films, crafting a moving suite of cues for EMPIRE OF THE SUN.

The music is not as memorable as their most iconic collaborations, but it is affecting and cinematic.  Williams uses a Welsh hymnal as Jamie’s musical motif to great effect, giving the film one of its most poetically sublime moments when he juxtaposes it over a dawn prayer ritual for Japanese kamikaze pilots before their departure.

The effect is an inspired blend of eastern and western ideas of honor and reverence, and makes for one of the best moments in the film.  Perhaps it’s best that Lean didn’t direct the film, since so many aspects of the story are so inherently within Spielberg’s wheelhouse.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN is one of the best instances of Spielberg using the earnest, awe-filled perspective of a child as his way into the story.  While E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL’s Elliott is probably the de facto symbolic avatar of Spielberg’s own childhood, EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s Jamie shows another side of the director as a young boy—the adventurous one fascinated by his father’s stories of air combat from World War 2.

A preoccupation with World War 2 imagery and aviation is a staple of Spielberg’s style, but it all blends together so naturally in EMPIRE OF THE SUN that it becomes his most potent, concise statement on the idea.  His signature awe/wonder shots don’t come from a manufactured obligation to story, but rather from a genuine amazement at the modern miracle of flight that translates organically into the story.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN also contains the first instances of several images that Spielberg would explore later on his career to effects both potent (concentration camps and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and insipid (nuclear bombs and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008).  Spielberg’s continuing on-screen exploration of his strained relationship to his father is somewhat inverted in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, which features an involved, loving father who is only absent because he is physically, unwillingly separated from his son.

As I wrote before, critics saw a muddled message in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, befuddled by what they assumed was a simple-minded or naïve narrative.  Twelve years later, a writer named Ernest Rister came up with an interpretation of the film that reconciled many of the problems critics faulted the film with in an insightful essay.

His piece claimed that EMPIRE OF THE SUN was Spielberg’s overlooked masterpiece, and argued that critics simply missed the point of the film.  The general gist of his essay was that Spielberg, for the first time in his career, chose to use a subjective point of view rather than an objective one.

We’re seeing reality through Jamie’s eyes as an unreliable narrator that looks back on his time in the internment camp with rose-tinted glasses, his innocence blinding him to the suffering going on around him.  Rister obviously can explain it better than I can, so I’ll simply direct you here to his thoughtful article.

If this was indeed what Spielberg was trying to capture in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, it’s an uncharacteristically subtle, mature move on his part.  Regardless of what Spielberg was trying to do, the film flew directly over the critics’ and the audience’s heads.

EMPIRE OF THE SUN wasn’t a flop, but it was most definitely a disappointment for a filmmaker whose body of work boasted several of the highest-grossing films of all time.  More importantly, it was a blow to Spielberg’s artistic sensibilities, as his attempts at branching out and becoming a serious filmmaker were met with scorn and indifference.

This began a relatively dark period for him, in which he retreated into the safety of his usual blockbuster work, but his flirtations with greatness now only made him bored and uninspired.  Much like EMPIRE OF THE SUN’s young protagonist, he was feeling grounded—but it was only a matter of time until he took flight again, and when he did, he would soar.


“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989)


By 1989, Steven Spielberg was in need of a career pick-me-up.  When he made the commitment to direct RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), he did so under the assumption that series creator/producer George Lucas would mandate that he direct an eventual trilogy.

The second Indiana Jones outing, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) was a perceived disappointment, and he’d been burned by an indifferent audience reception to his attempts in making serious dramatic works.  As such, Spielberg decided to finish his Indiana Jones trilogy and retreat into the blockbuster genre he knew he was good at.

The story wasn’t easy to crack- several drafts saw iterations as different as Indy exploring a haunted castle, or searching for the fountain of youth in Africa.  Finally, Spielberg and Lucas settled on something far more epic: the search for the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice that Jesus purportedly drank from during The Last Supper.

The result? INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), generally considered to be the best film of the Indiana Jones series and a return to glory for Spielberg and Lucas.

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The film begins with a prologue that shows a young Indiana Jones (River Phoenix) in his boy scout days.  We see his early love for archaeology, while also seeing how several of his iconic character traits came about: the whip, the hat, the fear of snakes, etc.

Decades later, Indiana (Harrison Ford) receives a battered diary in the mail that belonged to his father, Henry Jones Sr (Sean Connery), and which documents his lifelong quest to find the Holy Grail.  Not long after, Indiana discovers that his father has been abducted and decides to venture to Europe to recover him by retracing his father’s latest steps as outlined in the diary.

Accompanying him on the journey are his university confidante Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and a blonde doctor named Elsa Schnieder (Allison Doody); opposing him are the Nazis, who have kidnapped Henry and are after the Grail for their own nefarious purposes.  Once Indiana frees Henry and Elsa is discovered to be a Nazi spy, father and son must race to recover the Grail before the Nazis do and subsequently change the course of history.

Harrison Ford reprises his most iconic role once again, now looking noticeably older as flecks of grey are beginning to pepper into his hair.  Whereas Ford’s Indy was busy establishing himself in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and more or less treading water in TEMPLE OF DOOMTHE LAST CRUSADE allows ample opportunity for Indy to grow in a nuanced way.

The father/son exploration of the film (more on that later) gives us much greater insight into Indiana’s own behavior and conduct, ultimately endearing himself to us in a more intimate way than the cold, aloof archetype he was originally sketched from: James Bond.  Appropriately enough, James Bond himself makes for the perfect father figure to Indy.

Sean Connery was an easy choice to play Henry Jones Sr, but thankfully they subverted his classically suave, sophisticated persona in favor of an esteemed, bookish scholar who was something of a wimp in the physical department.  Connery is responsible for the film’s biggest laughs and lends a tremendous deal of heart to the film in what has become a performance whose legacy rivals even that of a certain British secret agent.

Allison Doody does a fair job as Elsa Schneider, the love interest who stands out mainly because she’s a bad guy.  Other than that, there’s nothing terribly interesting or groundbreaking about the character.

Having previously appeared in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Denholm Elliott’s Marcus Brody character is significantly expanded for THE LAST CRUSADE.  Elliott plays Marcus as casually inept, and a secondary source of comedic relief. Jonathan Rhys-Davies also reprises his role from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the jovial ally Sallah.

And then there’s River Phoenix, one of the most notable additions to the cast, who nails Ford’s mannerisms while bringing a headstrong, inquisitive, and slightly awkward physicality that’s believable as the younger form of our favorite hero.  The strength of Phoenix’s section (the opening prologue) eventually led to the creation of THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES TV show—even though Phoenix didn’t reprise the role himself.

Spielberg re-enlists the talents of cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who has shot both previous installments of the Indiana Jones series.  THE LAST CRUSADE adheres to the established Indiana Jones template: 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, warm-exotic tones, a swashbuckling scale created by expansive crane and dolly camera movements, etc.

It also has somewhat of a Medieval vibe to it, due to the nature of their quest and the locations, which are both very Europe-centric.  Naturally, John Williams also returns to score the film, with that iconic Indiana Jones theme throwing us right back into the fray like we never left.

By 1989, the theme had become such a part of the American cultural fabric that audiences felt like they had been been cheering on the adventures of Indiana Jones for half a century already.  Much like he did for the Ark of the Covenant in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Williams also adds a special theme for the Grail itself that is appropriately drenched in Old-World/Medieval intrigue.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE contains some of the most overt references to Spielberg’s influences and idols of any of his films.  The opening train chase and Monument Valley vistas are highly reminiscent of John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939).

Another early moment finds Spielberg using Indy’s signature hat as the basis for a match cut spanning a vast amount of time and space, much like Stanley Kubrick had stitched together a bone and a spaceship for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).  And yet another instance finds Spielberg re-employing the VERTIGO (1958) lens zoom technique that Alfred Hitchcock invented and Spielberg himself popularized with JAWS (1974).

As to be expected with the Indiana Jones series, World War 2 imagery is highly prominent, with the setting allowing for the use of Nazis again as the main villains— a visual conceit that reaches its arguable apex when Indiana literally runs into Adolf Hitler in one of the film’s most clever moments.  Planes and the phenomenon of flight are recurring staples of both Spielberg’s work and the Indiana Jones series, and THE LAST CRUSADE is no different.

Interestingly enough, Spielberg is able to fuse this fascination with another—his ongoing exploration of the distant father dynamic—into a compelling character setpiece set aboard a zeppelin.  One could argue that Spielberg’ s veiled exploration of his issues with his own estranged father reaches it apex during this sequence, with a literal reckoning between father and son.

They sit down at a table and take a time out from the narrative at hand to address their beef with each other, with Indiana complaining how Henry was always into his work and never had time for him.  In real life, it was around this time that Spielberg’s estrangement with his father began to wind down.

It’s more literal than metaphor (one can imagine Spielberg’s real-life sitdown with his dad playing out exactly in this fashion), but it still offers remarkable insight into the slow paradigm shift Spielberg was undergoing in his personal life—further compounded by his own entrance into fatherhood with the birth of his first son.

tumblr_inline_ms5sb47b011qafcizINDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE was warmly received upon its release, and is generally considered to be the superior Indiana Jones film.  This is attributed to Spielberg and company placing the emphasis on character instead of action, and the exploration of deep character dynamics that shed further light on Indiana Jones and allowed him to grow instead of becoming stagnant.

An Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing further reinforced the public’s embrace of the film. While most consider RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to be the quintessential Indiana Jones film, THE LAST CRUSADE arguably has it beat in almost every way.  It’s really saying something about the quality of your franchise when the third film is just as valid a choice for best entry as the first one.

There was also the bittersweet assumption that THE LAST CRUSADE was the last film in the series, and for the better part of twenty years it appeared it was going to stay that way.  That is, until 2008’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL– but that’s a story for another day.

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE is as fine as film as Spielberg has ever made.  It’s definitely the best within the series, and maybe even breaks the top five of Spielberg’s overall filmography—albeit that’s an admittedly tough call to make considering so many other films in his body of work can make just as strong a case.

After his brief excursion into the prestige/awards film arena, THE LAST CRUSADE marks Spielberg’s return to the spectacle genre that made his name. More importantly, the lessons he learned on THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) were applied here to great effect—in other words, his “popcorn” work suddenly became much more nourishing and substantial.


“ALWAYS” (1989)


In 1943, an unassuming melodrama known as A GUY NAMED JOE was written by legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and released in cinemas.  The film concerned a fighter pilot who is killed in combat, only to return as a spirit and help his love move on with her life.

It came and went without much of a ripple in the grand scheme of things, but it made a world of an impression on a young boy named Steven Spielberg.  Some distance away, it also profoundly affected another young boy named Richard Dreyfuss.

As these two grew up, met, and began collaborating with each other out of a shared love for the cinematic medium, A GUY NAMED JOE always remained at the back of their thoughts, subtly influencing their art.  What began as casual references tossed back and forth between the two men on the set of JAWS (1975) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) soon grew into a strong desire to re-make the film with a modern spin.

In the same year that INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE debuted, Spielberg and Dreyfuss joined forces for the first time in over a decade to create their take: a romantic drama called ALWAYS (1989).  Pete Sanditch (Dreyfuss) is a daredevil pilot who extinguishes forest fires for a living.

He’s one of the best at what he does, but he’s a reckless flier- much to the chagrin of his lover, Dorinda Durson (Holly Hunter).  Just as she convinces him to finally hang up his hat and go to Colorado and teach firefighting techniques to aspiring pilots, he gets the call to execute one last job.

As any dutiful moviegoer might predict, this “one last job” is the one that kills Pete, sending him to a fiery grave after rescuing his buddy Al Yackey (John Goodman) from a similar fate.  To his surprise, Pete wakes up seemingly alive and well in the middle of a burnt-out forest.

He stumbles upon Hap, an ethereal barber who tells him he is indeed dead and he must go watch over a young pilot before he can enter into heaven.  That person is Ted Baker (Brad Johnson), a rugged dreamer with eyes towards the skies and a heart for Dorinda, the girl that Pete left behind.

Pete must now struggle with the conflict of carrying out his heavenly duties against the heartbreak that comes with seeing Dorinda move on and find happiness without him.  Dreyfuss anchors his third Spielberg film in ALWAYS, and has aged quite a deal in the intervening years since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

He’s good at exemplifying a rakish, jovial personality– somewhat reminiscent of a favorite uncle.  Holly Hunter is every bit his equal as the feisty Dorinda.  She’s a salt-of-the-earth tomboy and a convincing love interest for Dreyfuss that also fits well within the man’s world that Spielberg has established here.

As Pete’s kindly, oafish buddy Al Yackey, John Goodman is basically playing…John Goodman.  Brad Johnson’s Ted Baker is the handsome young hotshot pilot vying for Dorinda’s affections, but he’s so impossibly-good-looking that he’s boring. Audrey Hepburn (making her last film appearance ever) plays the God-like character of Hap.

It was shocking for me to see her as an old woman, considering she’s much better known for her youthful pixie appearance in films like BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) or ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953).  Hepburn’s casting is an inspired one, however, and makes for a great secular substitute for God.

Finally, Roberts Blossom—who previously worked with Spielberg on his AMAZING STORIESepisode “GHOST TRAIN”– has a small cameo that plays to his strengths as the hobo that helps Pete communicate with Ted.In accomplishing ALWAYS’ look, Spielberg works for the first time with Director of Photography Mikael Salomon.

The 1.85:1 aspect ratio makes for a large, expansive frame that, when combined with a mix of dolly, crane, and aerial shots, creates a surprisingly dynamic presentation for a romantic drama.  Spielberg’s color palette is mostly muted and naturalistic, save for a heightened blue light for night sequences and a bright orange/red color when sunsets or fires are present.

This treatment also extends to Spielberg’s non-secular presentation of the afterlife.  Heaven is depicted as a circle of untouched pastoral beauty surrounded by trees scorched black by wildfire.  And later in the film, Pete’s attempts to steer Dorinda to safety as she flies through the center of a wildfire is akin to a descent into hell.

John Williams, as expected, scores the film—but his execution is anything but routine here.  Surprisingly, Williams opts for a subdued, low-key score that’s more tonal than melodic.  It’s peculiar for a Williams score in that it doesn’t really call attention to itself.  Instead, the musicality of ALWAYS relies more on source cues from R&B and doo-wop crooners.

While Williams is to be commended for branching out and trying something new, I can’t help but wonder if the inclusion of the type of iconic theme that Williams is so good at might’ve helped elevate the film into more of an emotional and resonant space.  Like EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987), ALWAYS takes Spielberg’s love for planes and aviation and puts them front and center in the narrative.

This approach allows for the natural incorporation of his aesthetic quirks: lens flares, low-angle compositions, star fields, and his trademark awe/wonder shot.  Although the film takes place in the 80’s (present day then), Spielberg’s and Production Designer James Bissell’s hearts are firmly rooted in the 1940’s.

When the firefighter pilots aren’t dressed in a manner reminiscent of old WW2 air aces, they’re blatantly expressing their desire to be like them.  Even Dreyfuss gets in on the act by wearing a WW2-era leather bomber jacket for most of the film (a look that Spielberg himself has employed frequently in public).

Eagle-eared audience members will also catch a very sly reference to Spielberg’s friend and collaborator George Lucas when Dorinda’s proclamation of “I love you” to Pete is met with a snarky “I know”.

tumblr_inline_ms7ml1dxyf1qafcizALWAYS was a modest flop at the box office, met with an indifferent critical and audience reception.  The lack of love given to the film is apparent in its treatment on home video, which hasn’t seen a decent re-release since the dawn of DVD when films were formatted for obsolete 4:3 displays.

The result is a tiny picture surrounded by a sea of black when watched on a modern HD TV.  Hardly the engrossing experience that Spielberg intended.**Edit 12/13/16** ALWAYS has since been released on high definition Blu Ray disc, recapturing its former glory.

Most can agree that Spielberg’s lofty romance, while interesting in its non-secular exploration of the afterlife, never really takes flight.  This might be because his attention was divided by the simultaneous post-production of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE.

This exercise in attention-splitting soon became a regular occurrence for Spielberg, serving as a neat personality division that enabled him to effectively make a big blockbuster and a thought-provoking drama simultaneously. The combination of ALWAYS and THE LAST CRUSADE isn’t a great case example towards this end, but it was great practice for the one-two punches to follow: JURASSIC PARK and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), THE LOST WORLD and AMISTAD (1977), WAR OF THE WORLDS and MUNICH (2005), etc.

To speak of ALWAYS’ legacy is to make a short and (bitter) sweet statement.  Within Spielberg’s larger filmography, its existence is severely overlooked and hasn’t presented much of a case for reappraisal in recent years.  Despite its surface demerits, however, those who give ALWAYS the time of day will find it to be at least an entertaining, if not absorbing, experience.


“HOOK” (1991)


Peter Pan is one of those cultural touchstones which tends to have a profound effect in people’s lives.  For many, it’s one of the earliest stories told to them, and the details stick because a child’s mind—untainted by the lifetime of experiences that await it– is like a sponge soaking up every little nuance.  This was certainly the case for me.

The memory of watching Disney’s PETER PAN (1953) on VHS during my fifth birthday party is seared into my brain, not to mention an even earlier memory of seeing the film during my first trip to the movie theatre.  I was six when director Steven Spielberg’s HOOK came out in 1991, and it was the first instance where I became cognizant of movies as a big, commercial thing.

I remember all the merchandising and tie-ins that was released in the wake of the film, especially the Lost Boys gear.  Much like re-watching E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) the other day, watching HOOK again for the first time in nearly twenty years was a visceral experience for me.

I’ve accumulated a lifetime of other memories since then, but watching it again was like returning to that innocent, primal mindset.  It’s a testament to Spielberg’s pure, visceral power as a storyteller that he regularly makes such profound marks on the minds of young children.

Given the subject matter of HOOK, written by James V. Hart, it’s clear that nobody else could’ve made this story.  But over twenty years later, the question still remains: was this a story worth telling?  People my age love HOOK, united by the rose-tinted glasses of childhood and the common refrain of “Rufio! Rufio!  Ru-fee-oooooh!”.

But in the cynical adult world, HOOK was a very different beast altogether.  It was considered an indulgent, sloppy affair with little redeeming value.  Spielberg himself had been long perceived as the live-action Walt Disney due to the whimsical sentimentality he brought to his films, so when it was announced he would tackle the ultimate childhood tale that was Peter Pan, nobody was surprised.

His involvement with the project began with its gestation in 1983, back when Michael Jackson was attached to play Peter Pan (which makes a perverted kind of sense).

tumblr_inline_ms9hbjan4u1qafcizPeter Banning (Robin Williams) is a high-powered attorney and a (increasingly absent) father of two children.  One Christmas, he and his family travel to London to visit an old friend of his: Wendy Darling.  While he, his wife, and Wendy are away at a benefit gala in Wendy’s honor, Peter’s two children are abducted from their beds.

Left alone to his grief and at a loss for what to do, Peter is visited by the feisty fairy Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) who transports Peter against his will to the magical world of Neverland.  Once he arrives, he learns that not only are the stories of Peter Pan true, but that he is Peter Pan—and all grown-up.

He’s been away for so long that he’s forgotten how to fly, fight, and crow.  He soon encounters Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman), who is shocked at the sight of the flabby, middle-aged Pan before him.

Peter narrowly escapes with his life and joins up with the Lost Boys, who whip him into shape and help him discover his past and his destiny—just in time to challenge Hook to one last fight to the finish and save his abducted children.  In the process of re-awakening the dormant child inside of him, he also learns to become a better father.’

Admittedly, Robin Williams is an eccentric choice for a grown Peter Pan, but I can’t imagine anyone else who could’ve done it better.  He’s convincing both as the workaholic attorney with bad parental skills, as well as the childish, wide-eyed Pan.

It’s a performance reminiscent of his starring turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s JACK (1996)—except inherently more watchable.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at his normal appearance, but Dustin Hoffman is spot-on casting for Captain James Hook.

He absolutely owns the role– so much that friends to this day still use it as a nickname.  Hoffman infuses Hook with the requisite sophistication and gentlemanly airs that the animated Disney incarnation established.  Quite simply, Hoffman is responsible for any joy felt in watching the film, and he’s the best manifestation of the character that ever has been, or will be.

Julia Roberts brings a 90’s edge to Tinkerbell, as well as pint-sized attitude to the grandiose world of Neverland.  Reportedly, she was nicknamed “Tinkerhell” on set due to people finding her difficult to work with (which may have been brought about by an untreated mental disorder, in her defense).

Bob Hoskins is yet another example of pitch-perfect casting as Smee, Hook’s bumbling and jovial henchman.  He becomes such a perfect representation of the character that he’s since gone on to reprise the role in completely unrelated films.  Dante Basco is Rufio, the punk leader of the Lost Boys, and easily the coolest thing about the movie (he still is, damnit).

For many in my generation, his death was the first major cinematic death we experienced and it TORE US APART.  Maggie Smith plays the elderly Wendy Darling, bringing grace and sophistication to a frail old woman who still hasn’t lost her sense of wonder.

And somehow, Gwyneth Paltrow pops up in quick cameo as teenage Wendy, managing to be just as annoying in two seconds as she is in entire films.  HOOK marks Spielberg’s return to the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is used to convey the sweeping, magical scope of the story.


Working with cinematographer Dean Cundey for the first time, Spielberg adopts a palette of bright, bold colors that help Production Designer Norman Garwood’s strikingly imaginative sets come to life.  These sets are further augmented by Spielberg’s inherent sense of sweeping, epic camera movement, which makes Neverland feel like a real, natural place (despite the picture being shot entirely on soundstages).

The stage-show legacy of Peter Pan is also paid homage in the film’s lighting scheme, which opts for a theatrical approach full of deep shadows, moody lantern lights, and even an ethereal green light during the abduction scene reminiscent of Spielberg’s GHOST TRAIN episode for AMAZING STORIES (1985).

Nowadays, Neverland would be entirely rendered in the computer, but the technology’s infancy necessitated the use of matte paintings, miniatures and other old-school techniques to achieve Spielberg’s vision—which has the added benefit of an appropriate handcrafted, childish vibe.  Spielberg’s realization of Neverland is palpable and tangible, and completely captivated my imagination as a child.

John Williams’ score is one of the earliest examples of film music I can remember.  It’s easily the best thing about the film, and far more transcendent than the story it’s meant to support.  The theme as concocted by Williams is soaring and magical—everything that a Peter Pan adventure should be.

While it’s shamelessly manipulative in the sense that it tells us exactly how to feel at any given moment, it’s appropriate for a film like HOOK, which requires a certain degree of checking out on the audiences’ part to fully suspend our disbelief and transport us to the wonderful world that Spielberg and company have created.

To me, William’s HOOK theme is right up there with his best work for Spielberg.  All my childhood daydreams and imagination-based adventures were accompanied by this very theme, and as such it holds a very special place in my heart.

Like ALWAYS (1989) before it, HOOK allows the chance for Spielberg to use the story as a focal point for his own thematic preoccupations.  Even in the adult sequences, HOOK is told from a child’s point of view.   I don’t know why I’m only realizing this now, but it’s clear that his preference for a child’s perspective is why he frequently places the camera at a low angle looking up: it’s how a child would see the world.

Spielberg’s continued use of this technique is appropriate for HOOK, a film whose message is that just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you have to let go of your childhood.  His fascination with flight and aviation is also creatively realized in HOOK.

The film’s story begins with the ironic notion that a grown-up Peter Pan is terrified of flight, evidenced by his crippling anxiety when his plane to London encounters modest turbulence.  Here, flying is depicted as a cramped, regulated and dangerous form of transport.

But later on in the film, Spielberg shows us the exhilaration of soaring, unencumbered flight as Peter takes to the skies with nothing but his own body.  Flying then becomes freeing, transcendent and enlightening.  It’s a physical representation of pure joy and an unburdened zeal for life and creation.

Like INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989), HOOK places the father/son relationship dynamic center stage. Peter Banning is the classical absent dad of the 1990’s: a high-powered businessman attached to his cell phone, too little time for his family and too stern in his discipline.  He’s forgotten how to have fun.

As such, his son Jack is alienated from him, and becomes easily swayed in Captain Hook’s favor when the treacherous villain gives him the attention he craves.  The focal point of the story then becomes the inverting of Spielberg’s “absent father” trope—Peter must fight and risk his life to win his son back, and has to embrace his childhood in order to do so.

Roberts, Spielberg, Williams Watch Dailies on 'Hook' Set, 1991.Any way you slice it, HOOK is a divisive film.  While a lot of people within that perfect 5-10 age range (like me) loved the film when it was released, a huge majority of adults hated it.  Spielberg himself has gone on record to express his displeasure with the finished product.

In my opinion, to cynically dismiss the film as whimsical drivel while not allowing for one’s own childhood experiences to transport him/her into the narrative is to miss the entire point of the film.  Then again, the film was such a magical experience for me as a kid that maybe it’s impossible for me to judge it objectively.

Perhaps the rose-tinted glasses have been permanently welded onto my face.  HOOK made a fair amount of money at the box office, but it was deemed a disappointment in the broad stroke.  Even its several Oscar nominations weren’t enough to improve public perception of the film.

Twenty-two years later, HOOK is an albatross that still hangs over Spielberg’s filmography, quickly glossed over if it’s even mentioned in the first place.  Despite its cheery, optimistic tone, HOOK is representative of a very dark, albeit short, period in Spielberg’s life and career.

On the home front, he was wading through a divorce from his wife Amy Irving, and at work he had retreated to the safety of his spectacle work after he wasn’t taken seriously in the dramatic film arena.  The result was akin to seeing the light but then having to go back into the cave.

Spielberg knew he was capable of so much more, but the constraints and restriction of his bread-and-butter genre now left him uninspired and indifferent.  This indifference is certainly tangible in ALWAYS, but much less so in HOOK.

By 1991 however, things were looking up for Spielberg despite HOOK’s public drubbing.  Spielberg re-married, this time to his INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) star Kate Capshaw.  He also began work on two very promising projects- one about dinosaurs and the other about the Holocaust- that would not only catapult him out of his slump, but throw him headlong into the best days of his career: days that would shake the foundations of cinema forever.


“JURASSIC PARK” (1993)


Every kid is fascinated by dinosaurs.  It’s a universal given, at least in America.  The idea of giant monsters stomping around a lush, primordial jungle is the stuff that fuels pint-sized imaginations, and the fact that dinosaurs don’t exist anymore gives them a mythic quality.

Understandably, a big Hollywood film purporting to feature realistic dinosaurs was always going to be a gigantic hit.  So when JURASSIC PARK was released to record-breaking numbers in 1993, nobody was surprised.

I was very young in 1993, around 8 or 9 years old.  I had heard stories of how scary JURASSIC PARK was, and was terrified at the prospect of seeing people eaten alive on-screen.  As such, I stayed away from the theaters, and I didn’t see the film until I could watch it in the safety of my own home on VHS.

In terms of my moviegoing life and sense of participation in cinematic history, not going to see JURASSIC PARK during its initial theatrical run and experiencing it with everyone for the first jaw-dropping time remains one of my biggest regrets. For all you punks who were yet to be born in 1993, it’s hard to quantify in words how big of a cultural phenomenon JURASSIC PARK was.

It just wasn’t one of the biggest movies of all time, it was a watershed moment in our culture.  The advent of computer technology that could convincingly render living, breathing animals that had been extinct for 65 million years meant we had the crossed a line– the cinematic equivalent of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity.

We now had the ability to render, on film, anything we could dream up.  The possibilities were endless.  Unlike CGI-heavy fare nowadays, JURASSIC PARK’s effects stand the test of time due to mixing new technology with old techniques from the early days of cinema: matte paintings, miniatures, animatronics, etc.

As a result, not only is JURASSIC PARK just as visually convincing as it was twenty years, ago, but it remains the benchmark against which all other spectacle films are measured.  JURASSIC PARK began with author Michael Crichton’s own fascination with dinosaurs, which he later adapted into the novel upon which the film is based.

He had casually mentioned the idea to director Steven Spielberg as they worked together on a medical procedural film that would later become the hit television show E.R.  After an intense bidding war that saw four studios bid for the project with their best directors, Spielberg was bestowed the honor out of his desire to do for land what JAWS (1975) did for water.

Spielberg obviously knew he had (yet another) massive hit on his hands, but he most likely had no idea at how big the film would actually become.  A billionaire entrepreneur named John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has established an amusement park on a secret island off the coast of Costa Rica.

The attraction?  Real dinosaurs, cloned from the DNA discovered in prehistoric mosquitos trapped in petrified tree sap.  Hammond wishes to obtain the endorsement of one of the world’s leading paleontologists, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), so he invites him and his colleague/girlfriend Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) for a weekend trip down to the island, where they would preview the park along with a few other members of Hammond’s think tank.

  Also making the journey is chaos theory mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the anxious lawyer Gennaro and Hammond’s own grandchildren (and target audience for the park), Tim and Lex.  They are shocked and stupefied by their first encounters with the dinosaurs, but their wonder and awe is soon replaced by fear and terror when a tropical storm knocks out the park’s power grid and the dinosaurs escape their paddocks.  Trapped on the island, this ragtag group must fend off Hammond’s vicious creations and restore power to the park if they are to escape with their lives.

Spielberg’s cast is notable in that, despite the film’s supersized production value, there aren’t any superstar names involved. By going with less recognizable faces, he further enhances the believability of his story and its characters.  Sam Neill plays Dr. Alan Grant, the tough rugged paleontologist and our protagonist.

He’s somewhat of a technological luddite, which is perfect for a profession focused on the past.  His unease about the future is also manifested in the fact that he is not fond at all of children.  This was a breakout role for Neill, although he hasn’t really been able to transcend it.

In essence, he fell victim to the same curse that Mark Hamill of STAR WARS (1977) did, whereby an actor becomes so well known for a particular role that it’s difficult for them to stand out in others.  As G