Sunday, September 23, 2012
MASTERY FIRSTHAND: PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON'S THE MASTER
In a couple years, Paul Thomas Anderson will have finished chronicling the entire 20th century leading up to his debut as a cultural figure. There Will Be Blood covered up til the 1930s, with the saga of ur-Evil White Guy In a Suit, oilman Daniel Plainview. His next picture (status quo remaining as is) will be an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, set in the tail end of the 60s. Boogie Nights spanned the 70s and 80s. 1996's Hard Eight (aka Sydney) and 2002's Punch-Drunk Love were set, essentially, in the present day. Thus leaving the 40s and 50s, the post-war years, the era in American history with the highest ratio of mythology to actual analysis. And for those, Mr. Anderson, a man who probably orders coffee with grand, meticulously crafted boldness, has just released The Master.
The Master is a movie about matched pairs, opposition, internal duality, power struggles, lies, truth, truthful lies, lies with truth in them, contradictions, paradoxes, trauma, and healing. It's only about Scientology inasmuch as the years immediately following World War II—which fucked America up a lot worse than we were willing to admit at the time, instead doing that whole “la la la la la la we have picket fences and wives and two and a half kids and a dog and nothing bad happens ever la la la la la la” ostrich head-in-the-sand dance—were a time when charmers offering healing and higher truths had many receptive ears. We had just gotten our motherfucking asses kicked. I mean, yeah, you shoulda seen the other guy, but America was wobbly as fuck once that war ended. Said wobbliness is embodied in the picture's absolutely fascinating protagonist, WWII vet Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Freddie is an exploding mass of voracious desires and impulses, though far from a simple bestial raw id. He's pretty innocent about actually approaching women, more often finding himself fapping or mentally making women's clothes disappear. He's a savant chemist, making his own booze out of the vilest fucking shit imaginable. Like many driven (more?) nuts by the war, Freddie's wandering from disaster to disaster—the scenes where he loses his jobs as first a department store portrait photographer and then a migrant vegetable picker are both gorgeously photographed clusterfucks—when he suddenly, on spur of the moment in California, hops aboard a ship on its way out to sea.
It is on this boat where Freddie meets a strange, charismatic man named Lancaster Dodd, the titular master. Well, in one reading of the title; it's also about the aspiration of mastery over self, and a synechdocical homonym for masturbation (lots of fapping in this movie, both self- and other-administered, not to mention intellectual masturbation, of which there's a lot, but as a subject, not form). Freddie and Dodd bond over Freddie's uniquely horrifying self-made booze, which leads almost immediately to Dodd using his Scientology-ish “therapy” techniques to try and “correct” Freddie's animalistic tendencies. Freddie meets Dodd's family and intimates and the two form a tendentious relationship that spawns several years.
That one sentence doesn't, of course, capture the full scope and substance of The Master, which is a movie less concerned with plot as such and more with characters and subject, which is, to varying degrees, the desire to be led, and the lengths to which one will go to submit to a figure one perceives to be beyond oneself, be that figure father, God, or the Hubbardesque hybrid of the two presented in Lancaster Dodd. The fanaticism of Dodd's followers comes through most vividly through the two principal female characters (doing so in this manner is itself a neat bit of mid-20th century gender semiotics), Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and wealthy Philadelphian follower Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern). Though this is a world in which the women are a secondary focus, neither character is stuck being one-dimensionally worshipful. Peggy is constantly kicking Dodd in the ass to get him to stop fucking up and work, and Helen eventually suffers the wound known to all too many fans: that of realizing, in none-too-gentle fashion that so often the fan cares more about a work than its creator.
As much as PT Anderson is a pure cinema guy—as a child he wrote in a notebook a declaration that he would master every aspect of the medium; hey, there's another “master,” check that shit out—a lot of The Master reminds me of 20th century American novelists, big swinging dick white dudes like Norman Mailer (yeah, kind of, squint and you'll see it too), Henry Miller, and James Jones (less of a dick-swinger, but he's way up in this), with a vaporous hint of late-period F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he'd inadvertently drank himself into Struggling Modernism (that's struggling as in struuuuuuuuuggling, natch). That last manifests itself most prevalently in the extremely unreliable limited third-person narrator that is Freddie Quell. Whole scenes, whole fucking act breaks, may not have happened the way Freddie remembers them. This is, after all, for fuck's sake, a guy who makes cocktails out of goddamn paint thinner and boat motor oil (or whatever that heinous shit is that Freddie drains out of the engines of both his navy ship and Dodd's borrowed yacht). Are you really gonna take his word for it that “yeah, I just hopped over the rail and was on Dodd's yacht and then he did Scientology to me and then I was his Luca Brasi except I'm not supposed to know what either of those things are FUCK AM I DRUNK” or that suddenly all the women at that party were naked—note, in that scene, the only woman who doesn't appear full frontally nude is Amy Adams; even in Freddie's boner fantasy he was like, dude she's kinda scary, I don't want to piss her off—or that an usher brought him a phone in a movie theater? No. But all that stuff does a real good job of portraying the subjective point of view of a guy who's both bombed out of his goddamn mind most of the time and not all that bright to begin with, on which count it can be marked as a formal success on Mr. PT's part. The Master being to a large degree about contradictions, it's only fitting that its great formal triumph is that it consists of immaculately composed images and perfectly assured camera moves, in the service of a deliberately disjointed story told from the point of view of a man whose mastery of reality itself is, to put it mildly, limited.
PT Anderson has earned every right to be discussed as an equal to the directors most frequently cited as influences, dudes in the no-first-names-necessary-club like Altman, Kubrick, and Malick. PT's last two pictures have shown a mind that can keep pace with his balls; don't get me wrong, it's not like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and so forth were dumb or anything, but these last two pictures are like “Time to fucking define the first half of the twentieth century, without breaking a sweat.” The Master, for one prominent example, is a story about the way stories are told and presented, and so shots frequently have frames within frames, as in the one where Dodd is first introducing Freddie to a bunch of rich dipshits in New York, and you see the one lady's “a-hoi, polloi!” facial reaction to Freddie before he enters the shot and you see him just totally not goddamn belong there.
Speaking of Freddie, holy shit you guys. Joaquin Phoenix. Whaaaaatthefuck man. He's stunning in this. Like, he's on the same level as Daniel Day-Lewis' “dude we're not even bothering to ask people to vote for Best Actor this year, we only have four other dudes on on the ballot because of protocol, and seriously, those dudes are on that ballot under heavy fucking protest” There Will Be Blood performance. None of the other weird and exasperating shit Joaquin Phoenix has ever done counts anymore. Any fuckup the rest of his career can be countered and obliterated with “Yeah, but The Master.”
And Philip Seymour Hoffman ain't that far off either. I read a couple things sniffing about how PSH ain't all that in this because he's not as good as Joaquin Phoenix but a) no, b) just no, and c) he's playing a guy who's almost always playing a guy for the benefit of someone or other. The scene where Amy Adams is basically quivering with rage and like dictating his book to him, when we cut to PSH he's just got this look on his face like he's more scared than anyone has ever been scared of anything. This is Lancaster Dodd with his guard down, and PSH calibrated it perfectly. Those moments in public when the facade cracks are great too, and kinda scary to be perfectly honest. They lay bare the lie that people (especially times infinity in post-WWII America) who have their shit together really do have their shit together. Any performance that encapsulates one of the great truisms in the history of this culture is okay enough to not have people shit on it because it's different from the other guy's.
Amy Adams is in constant danger of falling into one of two traps: the first, the “she's always good” one, that can lead to really precise and subtle work getting glossed over because she's doing it right and not tap-dancing with a neon “look at me!” sign suspended two feet above her head. The second is the “she's so cuuuute” trap. Now, the thing with both of these is that they're both true. She is always good, and she is divinely adorable. But that don't mean that when she's real good we don't as movie lovers and connoisseurs of good acting owe it to her to be like, “fuck, Amy Adams was really good in The Master” because, yeah. She's goddamn ferocious in this. And she manages to be so, terrifyingly at times, while still being the same Amy Adams you just want to hold hands and have a milkshake with (though she'll drink your milkshake in this movie, y'all, drink it up).
It's not fair to Laura Dern that her best performance in years comes in fourth, behind those massive main ones. But make no mistake, smaller part or no smaller part, she's back and she's here to remind you so-and-sos who's Laura Dern up in this. I'm not going to say when it is because I've already been a little too profligate with the plot details, but when “the disillusionment shot” happens, dude. Seriously. Laura Dern.
I could go on and on. The Master is a whole lot of movie, but it's surprisingly accessible if you pay close-ish attention, it looks and sounds gorgeous (the whole “ya gotta see it in 70mm” meme is a little annoying but I did see it in 70mm and the image quality was drool-worthy, so annoying ain't necessarily untrue in this case; also, Jonny Greenwood's score is tits and the songs are beautifully selected), and it's a major work by a great director. What more can you ask?
Just this: if you (reductively, of course) read The Master as a movie about a guy who's just trying, in the face of massive obstacles, to get laid, then the ending is immensely satisfying. It's a PT Anderson movie with a happy ending, people. That alone should send you in droves, torrents, deluges (sorry, it was raining when I got out of the theater) to see this movie. You won't have really had a 2012 at the movies without seeing it, too, so no pressure or anything.