Monthly Archives: August 2012

Grappling with The Master

The general consensus of the initial reactions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master could adequately be summed up as, “I need to see it again.” Indeed, this story of an unhinged WWII vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in with a cult and has his existence challenged by its enigmatic and charismatic leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is fiercely cryptic in theme and narrative. Between the allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, the references to the shifting cultural conscience of America post-WWII, and the equivocal nature of the characterization, The Master doesn’t make for lite watching—it does, however, make for easy watching, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

By easy, I mean “easy on the eyes.” Ever the stern formalist, Anderson has officially joined the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsaio-hsien as a master of the long take. Many of the best sequences in the film play out in a single camera track, which were made all the more stunning thanks to the film’s screening in the epic 70-millimeter format. (I share my thoughts on that over on the Bleader; while you’re there, make sure to read J.R. Jones’ nuanced observations of the film, in which he surmises that he, too, will need a second viewing). The crispness of the image and the tangibility of its contents were nothing short of remarkable. With any luck, the film may be the final word in the whole digital vs. celluloid debate—whoever runs the North West Chicago Film Society Twitter account said it best: “The characters construct a reality; the hyperreality of 70mm & the enormity of the big screen let us see through it. DCP? Hm!”

So if the narrative is impregnable, consider the visuals transformative. But in getting back to the narrative, Anderson has said the film is simply a story of a WWII soldier who falls in with a cult after the war—and I agree. Allusions to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard are certainly present, but The Master is less concerned with the construction of a religion (or cult or following or whatever) and more concerned with the susceptibility of the human mind when faced with mass trauma. This theme ties The Master closer to 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love more so than Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), with which it shares only superficial similarities—both films are period pieces about larger than life figures framed in a historical context that they ultimately transcend, but there’s a deeper current of human behavior present in The Master. If Punch-Drunk Love reads like an examination of the Agitated Modern Man, then The Master depicts the birth of the Agitated Modern Man.

The sexual panic that plagues Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is comparable to the sexual aberrations that plague Freddie, particularly in the way both afflictions inform virtually every aspect of their behavior. Anderson often harvests this maniacal and erratic behavior for humor: laughter filled the Music Box throughout the film, even during scenes that arguably weren’t designed to be comical. Like Punch-Drunk Love, whichis structured as a romantic comedy, this humor stems from a place of deep anguish. In spurts, both films occasionally resemble a sort of demented Jerry Lewis film, the psychological underpinnings rendering the humor uncomfortable and even a little disturbing. (There’s also the interesting parallel of Hoffman, who acts as Barry’s reckoning and Freddie’s, well, master.)

Furthermore, a desire for belonging and familial structure can be found in each of Anderson’s films, dating all the way back to his 1996 debut Sydney (aka Hard Eight), a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flembeur. The surrogate family of Boogie Nights (1997) appears most analogous to Dodd’s motley crew of wayward souls. Boogie Nights is yet another humanist examination an impressionable soul (Mark Wahlberg) whose behavior is governed by sex.

Placing the film within Anderson’s oeuvre at large is simple—placing it in a larger context, not so much. He’s always shown a penchant for sprawling stories, filled with diametric characters that exhibit inscrutable behavior. An Anderson narrative has come to be defined by the confusion and conjecture they inspire. This doesn’t speak to a lack of authorial control—no filmmaker as meticulous as Anderson would let anything fall by the wayside—but it is indicative of an author intent on requiring, well, a need to “see it again.” Like a good novel, The Master is likely to only grow richer with repeat visits.

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“Henceforth, there is cinema…”

And the cinema is Nicholas Ray—at least according to Jean-Luc Godard, who bestowed this honor upon Ray in his review of the 1957 masterpiece Bitter Victory. Today is Ray’s 101st birthday—although the Lacrosse, Wisconsin native is essentially ageless: As the director of such films as They Live By Night, Knock on any Door, and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause, he’ll always be remembered as a harbinger of youth culture, a defender of the wayward souls lost in a world that refused to understand them. His sensitive yet bracingly honest depictions of contemporary America went grossly underrated for the bulk of his career, but today we recognize Nicholas Ray as one of the cinema’s greats who told classic stories of the misunderstood.

But as masterful a storyteller as he was, Ray wasn’t married to his scripts. In fact, like most classic Hollywood directors who were worth a damn, he frequently revamped and reconstructed the screenplays he was assigned to direct. His greatest film, 1952’s The Lusty Men, was virtually made on the fly; Rebel Without a Cause was similarly produced, as he said in 1970, “[It] was being written all through the shooting… I didn’t even follow my own camera placements.” Ray would go on to say in the same interview that “the relationship between improvisation and the script usually begins with the director’s dissatisfaction with the way the scene is coming alive.”

Indeed, Ray’s films have a distinct air of discovery in them, as if what’s unfolding on screen is the result of a director who’s unsure of what will happen next. You get the sense that he’s feeling out the scenarios much in the same way the audience is, with each scene exacting some sort of nuance or sense of subtext in a way that feels organic and realistic. Sometimes he simply observed the action; other times, he gripped it by the throat, as in the climactic scenes of films like Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life. A Ray narrative is unpredictable, but it has distinct respect for the viewer, both for its intelligence and its desire for emotion, resulting in a sort of harmony wholly unique to his artistry. Watch as he details this approach quite plainly during scene in 1950’s In a Lonely Place, a movie I, like so many others, am rather obsessed with: