Exploring the visual style of the Academy Award-nominated director’s films.

As we enter the final month of Oscars season, one of the most talked about films is Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature, Phantom Thread. 

The film, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Leslie Manville, received six nominations, including one for best director. Anderson was last nominated for directing in 2008, for There Will Be Blood, his first collaboration with Day-Lewis.

Of course, one does not need an Academy Award for directing to be a great director. Just look at Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, or Wes Anderson. What makes these directors great is not their award totals, but their signature styles. In Hitchcock’s films, it is forward/reverse tracking shots. Tarantino is known for long stretches of dialogue. And in Wes Anderson’s movies, it is, well, you know, colors.

Is Paul Thomas Anderson one of those great directors with a signature style? Philip Brubaker seems to think so. In a video essay for Fandor, he examines a visual device found in all of Anderson’s films: the frame within a frame.

Part one of the essay examines Anderson’s use of films within his films. Examples include a home video in Hard Eight and pornography in Boogie Nights. Brubaker argues that the blending of film forms is Anderson paying homage to the history of film. It also serves as the conduit through which we enter the period portrayed on screen. 

The second half of Brubaker’s essay concerns frames derived from shot composition. Brubaker dissects Anderson’s use of naturally occurring frames like doorways, windows, and hallways. He turns to a scene from Punch Drunk Love, during which Barry (Adam Sandler) finds himself in a tight corridor on an uncomfortable phone call. Feeling awkward, Barry begins to back away from the camera, growing smaller and smaller in the frame. As he backs away, the camera moves in, making it seem as though his movements are leading him nowhere. He is trapped by the frame.

The essay concludes with a few shots from Phantom Thread, further enforcing the idea that the frame within a frame indeed is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s signature moves.

 

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