Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Drink THE MASTER's Kool-Aide.
I've never been the biggest Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I've seen Magnolia twice, sure, but even after viewing There Will Be Blood, his notable shift from Altman-esque dramedies to Kubrickian psychological essays on American greed, I've come to realize he's always been a director I've admired for what he was trying to do rather than actually liking or appreciating his films.
So why did I drive an hour to Santa Clara, take the train to San Francisco, wait in line for two hours to snag one of the last remaining 200 tickets for an early screening of his latest The Master at the legendary Castro Theatre, wait another two hours before the movie started? Well, sometimes I just feel I want to be part of something I know will be important, something where I won't be alone in my pop culture obsessions. The communal appreciation for going to a packed screening has been threatened by the shooting in Colorado, but maybe because of the horrible tragedy, they've become more important than ever. Roger Ebert once longingly wrote that in 1969, he saw a record line of umbrellas for every person waiting to see Godard's Weekend. The digital era is opening up new models of distribution, and closing theatre doors in the process. What a shame that is--standing in that line, chatting with other movie fans, it truly did feel like a blast from the past, never mind that Anderson shot most of The Master on the now almost ancient format of 70mm (though IMAX's popularity shows it won't be dead forever). Hell, even celluloid is becoming a relic with Kodak halting all future production of 35mm.
Anderson recognizes this nostalgia in the early moments of The Master. In one of the earliest scenes, an army doctor confronts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, a welcome sight after 3 years of semi-retirement) about a crying spell he once had, to which he replies that he was having a bout of nostalgia brought on by reading a letter by his underage sweetheart. Nostalgia may be Freddy's excuse, but it's also fairly clear he's suffering from PTSD and unresolved family issues. Freddie's deep tragedy lies in his inability to see the manipulation around him, even from Mary-Sue Dodd (Amy Adams as you've never seen her before, a Lady Macbeth in lamb's clothing).
The Master's greatest achievement is linking the post-war condition and the uprise of new religions. The "processing" sessions between Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddy are composed of nebulous, lowest-common denominator questions concerning guilt and potential past lives. It seems that if Lancaster Dodd hadn't found Freddie, someone else would have, and exploited him just the same. The similarities between The Cause and Scientology are there, for sure, from the film's timing of the early 1950s, the name of Dodd's wife Mary-Sue and their living on a boat, the Cause's claims to be able to reconnect to past lives mirror Scientology's claims to cure dyslexia, among other things. But Tom Cruise and co. can sigh of relief that The Master's gaze on Scientology is only in soft-focus; although Freddie does eventually suffer from disillusion, the arc isn't as neat as you'd think.
So if The Master isn't about Scientology, what is it about? It's more about one man's wading through the remnants of his post-war life and trying to find some sort of purpose. I have a feeling some will find Phoenix's performance as too over-the-top, his character too childish or feral. Re-watching Phoenix in Two Lovers reminded me how physical of an actor he is, but in the end it all comes down to his eyes. This is put to best use in the "processing" scenes, where Phoenix's intense physicality is put against Hoffman's effectively charismatic Orson Welles impersonation, and it's a joy to watch the two great actors to toe-to-toe with each other in intense close-up. If there's any justice both will be nominated for Oscars.
Anderson's use of 70mm is also put to beautiful use. Images in The Master linger with the same scent of a Wong Kar-Wai film after you've pushed your body off the red velvet seat. The very first image of the ocean. The tracking shot of a mink model selling her attire, and then herself, at a department store. A montage of beautifully re-created vintage family portraits. The rack focus of Freddie walking at twilight, then focus on the yacht in the background where he will eventually be swallowed into The Cause, then back to Freddie. The ocean. Lancaster playing his own game of "pointing to somewhere into the distance, and then riding as fast as you can towards that point" in the desert. Freddie's sweetheart Doris looking longingly at him, haunting his memory as the truest person in his life. Lancaster Dodd situated in England, with a huge window behind him lighting his immense office. The ocean, again, and again, always changing, always drifting.
The Cause might not cure cancer, but The Master should cure the public of viewing P.T. Anderson's films with hesitancy that he is now anything less than a master filmmaker.