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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Is it possible to talk about The Master without talking about the whole conversation surrounding The Master, sucking up nearly all the oxygen in the cinephile community this past week? Not for me, I find, and I feel sorry about that: we're supposed to let movies speak for themselves, not filtered through the things we've heard other people say about them. But the more I tried to do that, the more daft it seemed. This is, I suspect, a problem that would only be faced by the critic who didn't particularly respond to The Master, as I did not; but then, I have a history of not responding to the work of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. But not-responding seems particularly evil of one in the face of the kind of chatter going on around the movie, where it's held to be some sort of unbelievably challenging and deep and ambiguous piece of cinema.

I don't want to commit the sin of accusing people who loved the film of being liars; clearly, something speaks to them that I simply do not see on any level whatsoever, and I'm glad for them - so "deep", then, is a matter of personal opinion. I do think, though, that calling The Master "ambiguous" and "challenging", as has been done, says more about the awful place of contemporary filmmaking; because to me, it seems awfully straightforward, with nary an ambiguous bone in its body until the very last shot, which is inscrutable. Certified Copy, with characters whose identity is purposefully withheld, is ambiguous; Stalker, drenched in symbolism that may or may not also be literal, is challenging. The Master has a lot of ellipses in its plot, and does not hold anyone's hand as it moves through its plot, but that is a different thing - that merely demands that you pay attention, something so few American movies do anymore that when one comes along that actually expects an audience of intelligent, thinking people, we are, as a culture, wholly befuddled by it.

But, in fact, there's a hell of a lot that the film tells us, in a perfectly straightforward manner: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and suffers from what hadn't yet been given the name of post-traumatic stress disorder. To deal with it, he drinks: alcohol, but also a lot of other substances, wherever he can get them, including paint thinner and engine lubricant. This drinking problem, combined with the PTSD, has made it virtually impossible for him to relate to other people, and he fails his way across the country, until in 1950, one of his nightmare concoctions poisons a man in Salinas. Stowing on a passing yacht, he falls into the circle of the boisterous Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a pseudoscientific, New Agey self-help program called The Cause. Dodd and Quell fascinate one another, and the Master, as he too happily permits himself to be called by acolytes of The Cause, decides that he will fix this broken man who never really gives any indication that he wants to be fixed, or can remember far enough back that he knows what "fixed" even means.

The crux of the movie is the relationship between these two men, and it is, I suppose "ambiguous", insofar as there is no scene where Quell pipes up from the corner, "You know, Master, I think the time has come for me to explain exactly why I drink and am defensive and indeed willfully resistant to improving myself", to which Dodd reponds, "Good, and once you have done that, allow me to describe why I'm willing to set aside such a huge portion of my personal energy to working with you" (though actually, this latter point almost is clarified explicitly: saving an unsalvageable man would be the feather in Dodd's cap and the best proof of The Cause's efficacy). I have a hard time believing that there exists anyone who thinks that such a scene would not be to the film's detriment; but it doesn't actually take such a scene for us to start to put together the ingredients of the Quell/Dodd dynamic: the security it offers, the chance for power, a little bit of surrogate father/son going on, just a dash of subdued but unmissable homoeroticism.

To the degree that any of this is hard to follow, that is largely because Anderson wants it to be, and here we wade right into it. I am no real fan of the man's work - There Will Be Blood is a miscast Paul Dano away from being a masterpiece, and Hard Eight is one of the best of the mid-'90s character-driven indies, but his three intermediary films leave me various shades of cold - and if I wanted to be snippy & not engage with the work at all, I'd accuse The Master of being a movie made by a man who took the Kubrick comparisons too much to heart, and has made the film he perceives A Great Filmmaker would have made, resulting in all sorts of self-aware narrative disjunctions and deliberately unfriendly gestures, a self-conscious "look how smart I am" movie.

But I do not want to be snippy.

For one thing, The Master is a glorious work of technique: starting with its extraordinary 65mm cinematography by the fairly green Mihai Malaimare (which, having seen a digital projection, I feel ill-equipped to judge), which is both beautiful and intense, focused on more lingering, assaultive close-up shots than I thought American movies knew how to do anymore, Phoenix's or Hoffman's or Amy Adams's (as Dodd's wife, collaborator and final arbiter of what happens in his self-help empire, master to the Master) faces filling up the screen with all their tiny facial gestures and worn skin. The editing does a superb job of relating disconnected moments while breaking connected moments into discrete chunks, boggling continuity in a way that serves the narrative not at all, but effectively communicates Quell's sense of removal and alienation. Johnny Greenwood's is fantastic, manipulating tones in a way that feels extraordinarily well-suited to the post-war modernism of the film's setting, while also providing a flexible but steady emotional spine to the drama. And on, and on - the film is assembled perfectly, almost as perfectly as I can imagine.

And that's enough to give it a recommendation - we do like good technique around these parts - but not enough to answer the question that, crucially, goes not only unanswered but unasked: why are we bothering to watch The Master? I am sincerely puzzled by this, more than all of the film's other "ambiguities" put together. On paper, there's a lot that could by said by this scenario - on paper, the film is saying it - it could explore the psychic dislocation of the American male in the years after World War II; it could study the sociology behind the self-help movements that began around that time, partially in response to that same dislocation; it could be a critical but not condemnatory look at the founding of the disproportionately influential cult of Scientology that sort of forms the inspiration for The Cause (The Master is "about" Scientology to roughly the same extent that Citizen Kane is "about" William Randolph Hearst); it could examine the appeal of pseudoscientific philosophy in the middle of what was meant to be the most rational century of human history. Hell, it could be a simple character exploration about the relationship between two men, as their relative power to one another shifts over time. And it does of all these things, sort of, insofar as those ideas are on the table; but it does nothing with them. Occasionally, there is an odd scene here or that with a piercing truth to it: for example, Dodd's interrogation of Quell, a one-on-one acting marathon made up almost entirely of uncomfortably tight close-ups and two shatteringly great performances (it's the only moment in Hoffman's performance that I really liked; Phoenix is terrific throughout), resulting in the most severe and easily the best scene in the movie. Or the slow, teasing way that we discover Adams's Peggy Dodd is just as controlling and arrogant as her husband.

But for the most part, the film just sits there, demanding that we do all of the work to uncover... aye, uncover what? Two hours and seventeen minutes go by, and I wait for the moment that's going to make me care about any of them; and while it would appear, from outside evidence, that I did something "wrong" to not see any of that, I certainly don't feel like I did. Just an example of emphatically Not Being On The Same Page As The Filmmaker, maybe, because for all that the film is perfectly-mounted, it is also perfectly uncompelling, keeping whatever ideas it has about all the sociological and psychological forces it observes locked firmly in its handsome skull.

8/10 (but heading with stately grandeur towards a 7, the longer I think about it)

7/10 (I thought about it)


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