Last night, the Music Box Theatre changed the history of English-speaking literature.*
(Paul Thomas Anderson deserves at least some of the credit.)
*I will make no attempt to defend this statement.
Spoiler warning, my friends: if you are going to see The Master regardless of the rest of the world—which is the only way to see a Paul Thomas Anderson film—than you should read this report after you see it.
If you blink, we’ll start over from the beginning.
My brother’s flight landed at 8:40pm. From Midway to the Music Box, I explained to my father and my brother the importance of seeing a film that was shot on 70mm projected on 70mm film. “If I never see this film, it’ll be better than seeing a 35mm transfer,” I said; or something equally hyperbolic. I don’t remember because last night was a day ago and I’ve had a few drinks.
The Master is not a film about alcoholics. It is a film about the thing that alcoholism is about.
The teetotalers have it just as bad.
Joaquin Phoenix vanishes behind his own skin as Freddie Quell. He’s so gaunt and hollow-chested that I recalled Pauline Kael’s self-aggrandizing assessment of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable. De Niro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with: his La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some semi-religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt. He has so little expressive spark that what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro. His appearance–with his head flattened out and widened by fat–is far more shocking that if he were artificially padded.
-the horrid Kael
It is not the task of reviewer to explicate the technique of a film’s artists in pandering tones to the reader/viewer. The briefest argument against this style of film criticism is to point out the difference between a Reader and a Viewer. When you take in a work of prose, the Reader is restricted brutally to the vantage and vernacular of the author. When you watch a film, even if the photographer, author, and actor are miserable brutes, the Viewer selects their own, perfectly legitimate experience (maybe subconsciously) every frame.
If a Reader possesses a colloquial understanding of certain adjectives, and this happens frequently with older works of prose, the Reader will absorb a sentence that the Author did not intend him/her to read. When a 70mm film is projected from a 70mm stock in an auditorium, the Viewer may spend an entire scene fascinated by the grains of sand adhered to an actor’s face and neglect other, perhaps more pertinent, details.
Pauline Kael’s theoretical calculus of De Niro’s emptiness ignores the visceral experience of watching a sullen man suffer on screen. Not all of her criticisms can be transferred to Joaquin Phoenix, but she would not walk away from The Master in an altogether different mood than she abandoned Raging Bull. To which I would like to argue, playfully at first, and then unapologetically later: Didn’t you see all that sand?!
Why would any filmmaker fill those 70 millimeters of silver nitrate with so much sand if you were not meant to savor each grain?
Simple answer: They would not.
Simpler answer: The Master is the best picture I’ve SEEN in my entire life.
Now’s a fine time to mention that I am not without snark. [ahem] Why would one of the best cinematographers in the business bother with 70mm if the lionshare of the film is close-ups? I give PTA the benefit of the doubt. His faces—those beautifully expressive creases and arcs of Mr Phoenix and the thunderous weight of Mr Hoffman’s timidity and vainglorious Wellesian eyebrows—are the picture. Too simple? Perhaps. But see the film—in a 70mm projection—and then argue to me that the grains of sand, the sheen of stubble, the hair-lip, the blonde mustache, the contrapuntal pairs of desperate, angry eyes, et al are not worth the price of admission.
I’ve never seen Magnolia, for reasons that can only be explained by the trailer. How you felt after you saw Punch-Drunk Love, that is how you will feel after you see The Master. You expect another Magnolia and you get Adam Sandler in Hawai’i. I was expecting There Will Be Blood, and instead I got two characters who were both ever farther removed from humanity than Daniel Plainview.
This is one of those films with a story so slight, that any trailer ruins the film. That is, if you’re expecting to view this movie the way you view narrative cinema. Daniel Plainview had a company, similar to Lancaster Dodd’s book-publishing commune. Yet this film eschews the convenient narrative structure of a rise and fall.
I’m not sure I like the picture, but I can tell you that I loved watching it and I will always love thinking about it.
Anderson’s story is without (obvious) consequence. He amazed me on three separate occasions by not supplying the anticipated fallout of conflict. He provides the conflict, he provides the one-two punch of desire and enterprise, but what he has decided not to do, and you cannot see this film without understanding that what he did not do is so much more important than what he did do, is give us the Grecian collapse. Brainless lust and overbearing ego combine in this picture rather early on. Mr Anderson, bless his restraint, has no interest in the furnishings of despair. He has seen Citizen Kane, and he knows we have, too. We know that Kane, on his spiraling path to perdition, must sell his worth to Thatcher, lose a public battle of wills to Gettys, and suffocate himself with the impossible task of delighting a woman he does not love; losing his best friend and his trusted business partner along the way. Paul Thomas Anderson and every other human in the Music Box Theatre (yes, he was there) knew that Lancaster Dodd fled to England against his will and would die a broken, bankrupt, delusional miser. Every single film director, with the exception of Mr Anderson, would have proven this to us. But why did he not? Ah. I must speculate, and like every drunk, I really like my speculation: Mr Anderson reduced the soup of the film’s story to a demi-glase; and it was this sauce that flavored the characters, not the other way around. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have one salient similarity: they are character studies. This may be his least accessible character study but perhaps that’s because he has given us two monumental figures to ponder instead of the single protagonist.
So let’s talk about the characters for just a minute.
I can only say this: The master is a fraud and the pupil is a psychopath. Yet, the fraudulent studies, or applications as they are called in the film, and the scientific purpose behind The Cause share at their core the same life-affirming impetus as all psychological and philosophical studies. The master, of course, believes this to a fault. The audience is meant to empathize with a pathetic man’s lazy practices. A character named John Moore, a skeptic who interrupts a bogus lecture, is discarded from the picture quickly. We are not meant to think skeptically of the master. Even when John Moore begins to mention the severe harm that may come from the master’s nonsense—someone with leukemia who hears that the master can teach them to cure their own illness, for example—the movie silences him with a cut away and a close-up on the master’s wife.
We are not meant to agree with the skeptic (that’s too easy, and of course the humanitarian imperative), we are meant to empathize with the harmful, self-deluding “cult” of believers.
Both the master and his pupil, Freddie Quell (Mr Phoenix), suffer from alcoholism. The film is about why they suffer together and why the non-alcoholics suffer alongside.
“I’m free to go at any time and I choose not to,” Freddie says, clearly citing the leader of the cult.
If the master’s methods feel more like spin-the-bottle than legitimate psychiatric therapy, the results they have on a psychopath are about the same. The effects on the master’s family are very different, however. But you get the sense that the psychopathic pupil is the only one the master cares to “cure” for the simple reason that the psychopath is both a challenge and a prey. (The character of John Moore, the skeptic, is a predator the master cannot with all of his charisma defeat.)
Less than 24 hours have passed. I have not fully absorbed the picture. The character of the master’s wife, played by Amy Adams, deserves her own article. I will revisit the picture when it is widely released; and I hope that others will have the opportunity to see it in 70mm so that I may see it a second time on 70mm.
From this movie I take a single line, (nowhere near the beginning, nor the end) delivered by the master to the pupil: “I am the only one who cares about you.”
I am haunted by the fact that it may be true.
Not that no one cares about Freddie except for this fraud.
But that this fraud could care about anybody beside himself.
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