Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Touching the Void: The Master

Over Paul Thomas Anderson's still rather young career, he's repeatedly drawn male characters whose ambition seems to be a direct byproduct of intense loneliness. Some of these characters do well to mask their inner turmoil and thus tend to succeed immediately and obviously in the eyes of those around them, in spite of their suffering (Dirk Diggler, Frank T.J. Mackey, Daniel Plainview), while others struggle to suppress their isolation-induced anxiety beneath a paper-thin layer of confidence, even if they find private yet meaningful triumph later on (Buck Swope, Jim Kurring, Barry Egan). In that respect, the two main characters in Anderson's sixth film, The Master, are quite familiar. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is a direct descendant of Frank T.J. Mackey and Daniel Plainview, a calculating snake-oil salesman and ringleader, composed yet volatile, who is singularly focused on a mission of conquest, while Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a hard-drinking sailor turned photographer turned cult lab rat, has a damaged aimlessness that reminds chiefly of Barry Egan. And yet what's strikingly different about Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell, in relation to Anderson's oeuvre, is that for all the ways they evoke their antecedents, and for all the time Anderson allows us to observe them, they are very difficult men to know.

The same could be said of The Master itself: it's a difficult movie to know. Filmed in 65mm, it offers luscious visuals with rich colors and dramatic focal contrasts, and yet its themes are opaque. For example: Lancaster Dodd's "The Cause" movement, focused on returning man to his "inherent state of perfect," clearly mirrors L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, but The Master doesn't seem to be a commentary on Scientology specifically or religion in general; Lancaster is the architect of "The Cause," but we can only guess what motivates him; Freddie is a lost soul, but we never fully understand what disturbs him; the relationship between Lancaster and Freddie is both paternal and homoerotic; Lancaster's wife, Amy Adams' Peggy Dodd, is a dutiful servant of "The Cause," or maybe its secret puppeteer; and so on. Anderson might be interested in how cults prey on the vulnerabilities of the purposeless, or he might be using Freddie's post-World War II trauma as a stand-in for our modern wave of war-inspired Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or he might be intrigued by the contradictions of someone like Lancaster, who seems to believe what he's peddling despite an awareness that he's making it up as he goes along. Or maybe all of those things. Or none of them. For certain, The Master is about characters searching for and struggling to find a deeper truth, and audiences may find that the film's deeper truth is equally elusive.

Maybe that's as it should be, because a man who is truly lost has no deeper truth to discover. Freddie Quell is that lost man, played by Phoenix in one of the most fully committed performances you'll ever see — one that, more than ever, makes his stunt turn in I'm Still Here seem like a terrible waste of his time and talent. Freddie's posture is like a question mark, or maybe a hooded cobra — back hunched, shoulders thrust forward. His expression suggests a serpentine question mark, too: Freddie's mouth, save for a few rare smiles, is stuck in grimace of anger and apathy, and his eyes, when not flashing with rage, are dark and empty. But what stands out above all else is Freddie's odd energy. If the phrase "uncomfortable in his own skin" didn't already exist, we'd have to create it for him. Several scenes in The Master contrast Freddie's fidgety air, enhanced by Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score, with the calm of purposefulness around him. Freddie is going several directions at once and yet nowhere at all, and we can see it. In terms of awesomeness, Phoenix's Freddie Quell is right up there with Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview (maybe these guys are "brothers from another mother"), and yet despite a pair of scenes designed to unlock Freddie's trauma by exploring his remorse over a lost love affair, Freddie remains a more distant figure. He's not unlike a zoo animal — an image Anderson appears to suggest in a lengthy sequence in which Freddie paces between a wall and a window in front of an audience fascinated by his odd antics, and another scene in which Freddie is actually caged.

By comparison, Lancaster Dodd is more approachable, and yet he isn't more accessible. Not at all. Whereas Freddie's oddness seems to have a simple explanation (plain crazy), Lancaster is truly enigmatic. We can only speculate about Lancaster's self-awareness, his goals, his desires and his inspirations. About all we know for sure is that "Master" likes a stage — which is why Hoffman, one of cinema's most arresting performers, is the perfect man for the role — and that he likes Freddie. As a curiosity? As a challenge? As a son? As something more? Again, we can only speculate. But what's interesting is that Freddie, who doesn't like much of anything beyond a hard drink, likes Lancaster, too, albeit without believing in "The Cause." (At least twice, Freddie lashes out when someone speaks against "The Cause," but those outbursts are a product of his desire to protect Lancaster, not the movement. In fact, it's unclear if Freddie even understands the movement.) Lancaster is the only friend that Freddie's got, as Lancaster himself reminds him, but for all the ways that Freddie needs Lancaster, perhaps Lancaster needs Freddie even more: if "The Cause" can't cure Freddie, maybe man's inherent state isn't "perfect" after all.

The most powerful scene in the film puts Lancaster and Freddie across the table from one another in a staring contest confessional in which Freddie must answer a series of personal questions without blinking. This "processing" exercise looks a lot like Scientology's "auditing" exercise minus an E-meter, but the intensity of the exchange creates an electricity all its own, with Freddie fighting to keep his eyes open and dropping his guard in the process. This scene reveals what I believe is Anderson's greatest gift as a filmmaker: his talent for connecting us with the emotional vibrations of characters at the breaking point. It's Amber Waves after she's lost her custody battle in Boogie Nights. It's Jim Kurring after he's lost his gun in Magnolia. It's Barry Egan after he's lost control in the street in Punch-Drunk Love. It's Daniel Plainview after he's lost his best friend (his son) in There Will Be Blood. It's the half-dozen similar examples from PTA's work that probably came to your mind as you read those past few sentences. (Note: I've left out references to Hard Eight only because it's been so long since I've seen it that I don't trust my memory; I need to remedy that.) And so the disappointment of The Master is that it provides unblinking views of these characters without allowing us much of a chance to get beyond their defenses.

This uncharacteristic absence of empathy is counterbalanced to some degree by Anderson's unmistakable passion for filmmaking itself. The Master's production design is magnificent, and many of its images rival the best of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick: a small ship (or is it a large boat?) sailing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; sailors with flashlights climbing through the jungle-gym innards of a warship's torpedo bay; Freddie running for his life across the soft topsoil of a freshly plowed field; and so on. The Master never makes it difficult to be "in the moment" — it has a tremendous power of place — but it is difficult to feel its emotions. Watching it in 70mm at the AFI Silver, I was struck by a sensation that reminded me of seeing Steven Soderbergh's Che and Olivier Assayas' Carlos: every second is impeccable, but very little of it is affecting. Still, I'm already making plans to see it a second time next week, reminding myself that Magnolia is the only PTA picture that moved me without reservation the first time through. Maybe I'll find a portal into the film's deeper truth next time, aided by the analyses of other critics that I can't wait to start reading. But for now I look at The Master the way Lancaster Dodd looks at Freddie Quell late in the film: fascinated by what's in front of me, yet unconvinced I'll ever get beyond the void.

16 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

Sounds like we agree, Jason. I'll have more to say tomorrow morning. I'll re-read it then, too, and then offer up some comments when my mind is more alert. Your final two paragraphs (and I'm glad you mention Reilly from Magnolia -- I know we both share an admiration for the "find the gun, Jim!" scene) are real standouts, and you echo a lot of what I'm wrestling with. More tomorrow...

Tony Dayoub said...

Not every film needs to be emotionally "affecting," which is what you seem to be most disappointed about. Anderson's distancing effects in THE MASTER are quite deliberate. It's one of the iciest films I've seen.

Jason Bellamy said...

Tony: Agreed. Not every film needs to be affecting, and, yes, personally that's what I'm most disappointed about, because to me PTA makes powerfully affecting films, and this lacks some of what I most appreciate about his filmmaking. That's just me, and I tried to frame it that way.

Agreed, too, that at least many (and perhaps all) of Anderson's "distancing effects" are quite deliberate. And I find to be positive in many ways, which is what I was trying to get at here:

"For certain, The Master is about characters searching for and struggling to find a deeper truth, and audiences may find that the film's deeper truth is equally elusive. Maybe that's as it should be, because a man who is truly lost has no deeper truth to discover."

Put another way, THE MASTER might indeed be all about the uncrossability of that void that I mention in the final sentence and allude to throughout. In which case, PTA has made a film that perfectly mirrors the underlying theme. And at least by those terms (and certainly others) that makes it a hugely successful realization of his artistic vision.

But there are drawbacks to the approach, one of which would be that we might grow to see THE MASTER like Lancaster appparently grows to see Freddie: a promising puzzle worthy of wrestling with in the short term but ultimately a false riddle with no deeper vault to unlock.

It's far too early for me to figure out THE MASTER's long-term effect. What I'm trying to do here is describe what I saw in the movie and didn't see based on a single viewing.

Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

The problem with Anderson is he's way too generous and compassionate. MAGNOLIA might have worked as black comedy, but Anderson just had to hug and weep with everyone.
Altman, Scorsese, and Linklater knew better respectively in NASHVILLE, MEAN STREETS, and DAZED AND CONFUSED.
It's one thing to understand and empathize with one's characters but quite another to go boo-hoo-hoo-let-me-wipe-tears-off-your-face with them, especially if they're a bunch of silly dolts. I can understand weeping for/with the mother in PATHER PANCHALI. I mean it's devastating to lose one's daughter. But in MAGNOLIA filled with self-pitying clowns? It should have been a black comedy, not an Oprahic drama. The movie should have called for empathy but NOT sympathy. The Tom Cruise story is the only one that works emotionally because the character tries to be 'strong' and not show emotions but breaks down at the deathbed of his father. There was tension between his tough exterior and vulnerable interior. That was moving. But everyone else is waaaaaaah from beginning to end. They cwy, Anderson cwies, and we are supposed to cwy too. Yuck.

Anderson is also too generous with his actors. If some directors-as-dictators try to control their actors too much, Anderson generously allows his actors run free on the range. This is a bad idea because most actors are vain drama kings and queens to begin with. Letting them run free is like giving an alcoholic all the alcohol he can drink. Actors will overdose on their vanity to show off, and so we had Julianne Moore go into total radioactive meltdown in MAGNOLIA. Idiots confuse that for 'great acting', but it's overacting to the nth degree. It's like a conductor who allows players do what they want, resulting in each instrumentalist playing as loud and crazy as possible to draw the most attention. That is no way to make music.
And Anderson's way is no way to make a movie. Director is supposed to direct. Anderson should be called a hugrector. Anderson knows how to make movies but his sensibility is all wrong. But because of his natural talent, I do hold some promise for him. Someone needs to toughen him up. Actually, I was impressed by the first third of THERE WILL BE CLUD, but then the movie got lost and it was Lewis just overacting drunk on his vanity as the greatest actor of all time.

MAGNOLIA is the movie that really made Anderson's reputation as a great auteur. A lot of viewers think they are wonderful people for sympathizing and emoting for the loser-characters, but I think it's really a form of narcissism. Why? Because a lot of viewers IDENTIFY with the losers on screen and so their sympathizing with the characters is really a way of feeling sorry for themselves in a self-aggrandized way.

Gimme the tough-minded Mamet. Or gimme even Jill Sprecher's very special CLOCKWATCHERS. Or how about DAYTRIPPERS, a movie that finely balanced absurdity, pathos, humor, and ridiculousness.
No GAGNOLIA for me.

jake said...

Thanks for this, Jason, I've been looking forward to your review. Seems like you're initial reaction is similar to many of ours; when my brother and I left the theater, we immediately started talking about how we need to digest it before really getting into it. All we knew was that we loved it.

Over the next couple days, all we did was talk about it. I'd agree that there are no obvious answers in this one. "Opaque" seems to be the popular word. It's so loose from a narrative standpoint that it meanders at times.

But at the end of the day, I can't imagine another filmmaker coming close to PTA's skill level; the direction was just so masterful, and surely no performances this year are anywhere near as dynamic as Phoenix and Hoffman's.

These initial praises, coupled with the fact that all we've done is talk about it for 5 days straight, seem to me to be enough to hail the film as fantastic.

I feel like I was the subject and PTA was the cult leader whose spell I was under - it was like no matter what the film's shortcomings were, I was determined to worship it. Which I felt self-conscious about while walking out the theater, but over the last couple days - and a 2nd viewing - I feel fine just reveling in the magnificence of the filmmaking.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I'll post two comments since I don't wan to risk losing a long comment...

Part 1:

And so the disappointment of The Master is that it provides unblinking views of these characters without allowing us much of a chance to get beyond their defenses.

I like that you mention prior to the above quote that Anderson’s greatest gift as a director is his abillty to connect “us with the emotional vibrations of characters at the breaking point.” That’s extremely well said, and I like the examples you give from his other films (I would add T.J. Mackey, in MAGNOLIA, sitting through the interview in silence, biting the bottom of his lip once the questions turn to towards his past; this is one of my favorite moments where Anderson so intensely focuses his camera on his actors’ faces), and the example you give from THE MASTER seems to be the one thing that is universally agreed upon as the standout scene of the film. It has that aforementioned intensity and the outrĂ© acting choices from Phoenix.

When Phoenix slaps himself and psyches himself up to not hesitate and blink during the questioning, I remember being so engaged by that moment that inched forward in my seat in anticipation of just what in the hell may happen next. When the scene is over, I remember sliding back in my chair, relieved that the scene was over and that I could catch my breath. Sadly, there wasn’t another scene like that “Processing” scene where I felt the urge to inch forward in anticipation. The only other scene that really intrigued me was when Freddie projects his own point of view of Lancaster’s song and dance number by imagining all of the women naked (the scene in the jail cell was intense, but not in the way the “Processing” scene was; it was mostly intense because Phoenix and Hoffman yelled a lot).

Kevin J. Olson said...

Part 2:

This uncharacteristic absence of empathy is counterbalanced to some degree by Anderson's unmistakable passion for filmmaking itself. The Master's production design is magnificent, and many of its images rival the best of David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick: a small ship (or is it a large boat?) sailing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; sailors with flashlights climbing through the jungle-gym innards of a warship's torpedo bay; Freddie running for his life across the soft topsoil of a freshly plowed field; and so on. The Master never makes it difficult to be "in the moment" — it has a tremendous power of place — but it is difficult to feel its emotions.

Yup. I think we’re on the same page here. I took it a little further by questioning whether I was at fault for not engaging in the film or whether it was the film’s fault for not engaging me. I don’t know that there’s any kind of deep answer or observation in my review/thoughts on the film; all I can say is that it may just boil down to a matter of taste. I don’t like this icy, new Paul Thomas Anderson. I miss the Anderson that laced his films with humor and favored the influences of Scorsese and Altman over his recent Kubrick-looking films. When I read that list of images you list, I think to myself, “Yes! That’s a great film right there!” But then I try to think beyond those images and what they mean, and it I agree with you that it is indeed “difficult to feel its emotions.”

I liked your reference to CHE because THE MASTER left me feeling the same thing I did for Soderbergh’s film. Thank you for that reference because I didn’t want to just keep relying on Kubrick examples to explain the problems I had with THE MASTER’s lack of affecting emotion. Just like with Soderbergh’s film, I felt that I understood what Anderson was getting (especially compared to how he views other lost souls in his previous films) but found it odd that I wasn’t moved by it in the same way that I was with something like PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE or MAGNOLIA.

But for now I look at The Master the way Lancaster Dodd looks at Freddie Quell late in the film: fascinated by what's in front of me, yet unconvinced I'll ever get beyond the void.

Finally, I love this final line of your review. Sums up perfectly how I feel about the film. This doesn’t mean in any way that I’m not willing to give it another shot (I do plan on seeing it again soon); it just means that I’m not fully convinced my opinion will change based on what I’ve wrestled with the last few days. I did find myself warm up to THERE WILL BE BLOOD with each subsequent viewing, and perhaps that’s what will happen with THE MASTER.

Steven Santos said...

While I plan to see the film again to see what different meanings and interpretations I could get from individual scenes and the film overall, unlike what you stated, I certainly felt Anderson was pretty clearly commenting on religion. Perhaps, as a non-believer, I felt "The Master" was certainly suggesting religion (and not just Scientology) is a rather useless tool for dealing with the very deep problems of Freddie Quell, Lancaster Dodd or anyone for that matter. For example, making Freddie pace back and forth across a room was ultimately a meaningless exercise, though one can substitute any religious ritual for it. It still doesn't make him un-see what he saw in the war or regret any less leaving behind the woman he loved.

And, emotionally, I never felt the film was icy at all. In fact, Anderson's worst movie "Magnolia" resorts to characters bellowing and cursing for forced drama and emotion, though they often felt like out of control actor improvs. There was a great sadness to "The Master". If Dodd hadn't invested himself so fully into being a charlatan, perhaps he actually could have been a better friend and help to Freddie, who probably reminds Dodd of his younger self. Dodd certainly was intrigued by Freddie's concoctions. Perhaps, both have been happier boozing and fucking and indulging their free will. The key scene was their giddy wrestling on the lawn after being released from jail, while Peggy looks on horrified. I wasn't necessarily sold on the notion that Peggy was in charge, as much as representative of the true believers who hold their fake messiah to continue his ruse because they need someone, something, anything to believe in. Once the ruse is up, what exactly do they devote their lives to?

But it is strange how I see myself react to films, as compared to others. Never really found Kubrick cold, except for "The Shining". Nor did I find either "Che" or "Carlos" cold either. Meanwhile, Malick's labored poetry in his recent films and Nolan's relentless bombast makes me struggle for human connection. Tarantino's reliance on homage has disconnected me emotionally from his work more. And, recently, "Cosmopolis"? Only when Giamatti showed up at the end did it show me something that resembled any recognizable human emotion.

And since I am on other auteurs, I will also add that I have read complaints about how Anderson doesn't really demonstrate why Freddie believes. Yet, ironically, if there was a feature film to truly mirror how movies are discussed on the internet, it's this one. Freddie believes in the Cause for vague reasons, but uses it as more of a salve to deal with deep-rooted problems. Any challenge to Dodd and the Cause results in threats and violence from Freddie (tell me if this sounds familiar). And his belief in the Cause is problematic due to his inability to separate the man from the symbol. And, perhaps, the symbol, the Master (auteur if you will), is too screwed up of a person to impart knowledge on how to live one's life properly. Am I the only one who sees this?

After showing how capitalism and religion boost each other for selfish purposes in "There Will Be Blood" until, ultimately, money trumps religious icons, I feel "The Master" represents Anderson's next big step into the kind of ideas I feel original, great filmmakers have been lacking. Considering I felt Anderson was a highly-skilled homagist early on his career (except for "Magnolia, which played liked sub-par Altman), where he has gone in the last decade has really excited me. There isn't a complacency in his work that I feel I have been witnessing amongst auteurs lately (who will get the praise they will always get from their most rabid fans, so they pound the same note from film to film). When I always yearn for directors who evolve and change up from film to film, Anderson represents to me how it is possible.

Jason Bellamy said...

All: These are just magnificent comments. Thank you! I want to respond to each of them in more detail, but the day has run out on me and I don't have the energy to do it right.

That said, I can't resist jumping on one thread of Steven's recent comment:

The scene in which Dodd is first challenged on "The Cause" did indeed remind me of too many movie debates in which The Certain (Dodd, in this case) takes offense at the mere suggestion that there might be an alternative. Beyond that, there were a few times when Freddie's behavior reminded me of the worst parts of Twitter: namely his habit of saying nonsense ("I want to fart in your face") when the silence of his own mind became unbearable. I reflected on both of those a bit, but while they seemed to have a message in isolation, I didn't feel they were tied strongly into THE MASTER's more apparent/consistent themes.

OK, I want to write more but I've got to shut it down for the night. Again, thanks to all who commented. More tomorrow!

Jason Bellamy said...

OK, some more replies ...

Andrea (and Steven) on MAGNOLIA: Let me start by saying that your assessment of what is happening within the frame of that movie isn't all that different from mine; we just differ on the effect. Which I suspect is also what's happening with THE MASTER. But we'll get there.

I don't want to ramble on MAGNOLIA here, but the thing to remember is this: the movie ends with everyone joining in a group song and then frogs falling from the sky. So, yes, it is as intentionally exploding with over-the-top crisis as THE MASTER is intentionally eluding our simple understanding.

There are many MAGNOLIA fans who recoil at Julianne Moore's famous drug store outburst, precisely because it is so out there that it looks like awful acting. And that is exactly what I love about it. It's just naked and unashamed and raw. Melodramatic to the point of cartoonishness? Yes. Oh, yes! But it fits within that world. A world in which everyone can join in the same song and frogs fall from the sky.

Obviously I'm not going to talk you into seeing the movie that way; but that's my angle of approach in thinking it to be not PTA's best film (that's THERE WILL BE BLOOD ... another movie with some major over-the-top performance, by the way), but his second best.

My only quibbles: My memory might be incorrect, but I think BOOGIE NIGHTS went over far better with critics than MAGNOLIA. And I'm not sure I've come across anyone who likes MAGNOLIA because they feel better about themselves for feeling for "loser" characters, so that seems misapplied.

Still ... You brought the kitchen sink with that comment, and I loved reading it. So thank you!

Now, back to THE MASTER ...

Jason Bellamy said...

"...but over the last couple days - and a 2nd viewing - I feel fine just reveling in the magnificence of the filmmaking."

Jake: My second viewing will be next week, and I'm really curious to see how it hits me. I think there's a very good chance I'll walk away with all my reservations suddenly seeming insignificant, and I'll groove to the film at its intended frequency, and I'll wonder why I didn't feel its reverberations so strongly the first time. But I also think there's a good chance that I'll find out that thinking about this film, trying to puzzle it out, makes it seem more worthy of analysis than it really is, and that I walk away still impressed with the performances and the technical craft (impossible not to be) but deflated that it's all going toward a film with no deeper truth -- not even the lack of a deeper truth as a the deeper truth, if you follow me.

I hope it's the former. I won't be stunned if it's the latter. We'll see!

Jason Bellamy said...

"I would add T.J. Mackey, in MAGNOLIA, sitting through the interview in silence, biting the bottom of his lip once the questions turn to towards his past; this is one of my favorite moments where Anderson so intensely focuses his camera on his actors’ faces"

Kevin: There are just so many moments where PTA taps us into the emotional vibrations of characters at the breaking point, and not just in his more melodramatic films like BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE.

In THERE WILL BE BLOOD, there's ...

Plainview dealing with his deaf son; trying to turn a 'deaf ear' to his deaf son at the train station; realizing that his brother from another mother is no brother at all; boiling with rage in the company of Eli Sunday; and of course the "bastard in a basket" and "milkshake" scenes.

Point being: It's not as if PTA needs to stick with his earlier, messier style to get those emotions across. Which leads to ...

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: Yes, THE MASTER is full of sadness. And rage. And madness. And tragedy. But it's at a remove, compared to his other films especially.

It's funny you mention Malick because there were a few moments when I thought, "This is what a Malick movie would look like if he ever sacked up and avoided voice-over (as he has planned to do many times but never actually done)." There were these striking images. There were these striking expressions. But at times there seems to be no tow-line to those images and emotions -- which in a Malick film is where the voice-over always comes in.

I'm not suggesting this movie would have been better with voice-over. But I'm not ruling it out either.

As for religion ...

Yes, it's useless to cure Freddie. But, well, for all the prayer that religious people resort to in the face of severe "illness" -- from insanity to cancer -- how many of those people actually expect God to fix it? Can't be that many. Even among the True Believers there's an awareness that some things are beyond prayer and heavenly intervention. Point being, is it really a black mark on The Cause that Freddie isn't cured? He was beyond being cured? And beyond that, PTA doesn't treat The Cause like an established religion anyway but as the outright fabrication of a conman -- and that's not what religion is...not to the religious. Follow me? In other words, maybe Catholicism, to pick one, is no more accurate than The Cause, but the application of Catholicism is entirely different, unless you think that all the religious leaders are, like Eli Sunday, conscious false prophets. So all PTA would really be doing there is exposing the fraudulence of a bullshit cult, which is different than revealing that "religion" is bullshit (which is closer to what he does in THERE WILL BE BLOOD).

That was a jumbled mess. But hopefully you could follow that OK.

Now, about the four Cs -- CHE, CARLOS, COSMOPOLIS and "cold."

I didn't find CHE or CARLOS cold. But, compared to the films that make me say "This is fucking great!" (to refer back to my Sight and Sound response) I also didn't find them as Compelling (fifth C) or as deeply Connecting (sixth C). It's all relative. For example, yes, THE MASTER is cold compared to some pictures, but compared to COSMOPOLIS it's too hot to handle. (I felt about that film EXACTLY as you described.)

Finally ...

"There isn't a complacency in his work that I feel I have been witnessing amongst auteurs lately. ... I always yearn for directors who evolve and change up from film to film, Anderson represents to me how it is possible."

I identify with that, and I do find Anderson's technical and thematic metamorphosis thrilling. But there is an element to THE MASTER that reminds me of one of your complaints about Malick: it feels somewhat retroactively formed rather than destination driven. I have no idea if that's true (the last thing I want, TRULY, is to hear from Anderson the movie he was trying to make); but there's a precision of craft that I don't see applied to the thematic explorations.

Hokahey said...

The discussions of The Master have made this a stimulating week. Jason has presented a fine review and has received and replied to some very interesting responses.

I don't have any profound interpretations to offer - but I will just say that my feelings about the film are similar to Jason's. Check my post if you wish.

I will just respond to a couple points brought up -

Magnolia. I love it. It's an amazing movie in its intricacy and its emotional drive. And I LOVE THE DRUGSTORE OUTBURST! Having had issues with pharmacies and hospitals in regards to critical family things, I have always thought about Marianne Moore in that situation.

I like this observation from Steve: Meanwhile, Malick's labored poetry in his recent films and Nolan's relentless bombast makes me struggle for human connection. Tarantino's reliance on homage has disconnected me emotionally from his work more.

All these things are true about three of my favorite directors - and yet they achieve so much that these faults become small in my observation. One could add in PTA and say that he has trouble with endings (The Master and Blood), but God how I love him.

Bruce Reid said...

While The Cause is clearly portrayed as an exploitative scam, bestowed unto Homo sapien by a fraud obsessed with denying his own animal nature, I'm not so sure it doesn't help Freddie a bit. With his crooked stance and exaggerated akimbo arms--all knobby elbows and protruding shoulder blades; you think tapping him anywhere on his body will thud hard bone--Freddie simply doesn't fit anywhere.

In the white expanse of the shopping center he snaps bright pictures of a life he'll never have till he snaps and assaults one of the contented subjects. Escaping to the hard labor of migrant fields he's expelled from a nighttime maze of cramped beds and chicken wire. That sliding tracking shot of him stowing away on the yacht gains a dreamy queasiness from the inability to ever focus on Freddie and the boat at the same time.

So he's not a part of that world either, but it seems he may be, for a while, when the self-proclaimed man gazes fondly and fancies leashing his new dragon. We have to dig up the past, go into past lives; well, the movie opened with the churning waters of a ship's wake, and the image recurs enough to suggest where you've been will be as important, more so, as where you are.

So Freddie dives into a false belonging, letting himself become the rage Dodd can't quite keep suppressed. Right up to the end, when Dodd's wife tosses off that curious anagram, Freddie greets foreign and unfamiliar concepts with immediate, emotional understanding, immediately followed by admitting he doesn't know what those words mean.

And it's all a lie, and all a fraud, and his crossing the ocean a needy, desperate supplicant, four Kool packages his present for his king, ends in rejection and misery. But if he returns to the sexual obsessions that have driven him, we're left with a curious but playfully frank assertion that this contorted, knobby peg has, for once, found a place to fit. It fell out, he says, put it back in.

Jason Bellamy said...

Bruce! Lots to chew on there. ("It fell out; put it back in." Now there's a line I never considered might be packed with meaning!)

Your comment reminded me of something else I meant to note in my reply to Steven: I'm also not so sure that The Cause doesn't help Freddie. Maybe it doesn't transform him. But PTA suggests that the puppeteers of this bogus movement are genuinely interested in easing Freddie's pain, and that it doesn't work is implied to tell us as much about Freddie as it does about The Cause -- maybe more.