I Get To Act Like A Professional Movie Blogger For The Master
Haha, professional movie blogger.
As I already tweeted and instagram’d about because everyone needs to know what everyone else is doing immediately, I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City last night. I bought the $10 ticket over a week in advance, not realizing it would be some legit premiere — although I should have guessed considering how awesome a theater it is. Yeah, there were some movie stars and important people but the coolest part was the free unlimited water and popcorn. I made sure to take advantage of that. My dinner was three small popcorns, and it was glorious. Fuck your paleo diet.
All right, enough about the extraneous garbage: I was there to see a film (in 70mm!) from one of the best filmmakers out there, one whose deliberateness in releasing new films makes the anticipation for each one that much greater. Unfortunately, right before the film started, Harvey Weinstein had to bring up politics because it was 9/11, but it was quickly forgotten once the film started.
The Master is not actually about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Master” nor is it about Scientology, despite having some similarities; it’s about Joaquin Phoenix’s broken Freddie Quell, a character in which Phoenix makes himself almost unrecognizable. I haven’t seen I’m Still Here, but I’m guessing that was something of a warm-up for the insane transformation he’s made here. Freddie constantly hunches over, makes unsettling contortions of his mouth and eyes, and slurs his words unintelligibly at times. He’s a violent, unpredictable drunk who cannot assimilate into society after his service in World War II. By total chance he literally stumbles across Lancaster “Master” Dodd (I could see this being a Chris Berman nickname), and a bond forms between the two almost immediately.
I know I said that the film is about Freddie, but perhaps it’s more about the relationship between Master and Freddie. And the performances from Hoffman and Phoenix are pretty much all someone could ask for. It’s an amazingly straight-forward film, especially for Anderson, but these two actors put on some showcases that are enthralling to watch. There’s a devastating scene featuring what Master calls “processing” (this seems like a nod to the Scientology influence) and a jail cell scene where both Master and Freddie absolutely explode. But instead of a climatic scene being the conclusion of the film like There Will Be Blood, The Master chronicles the slow disintegration of their relationship, a process that seems to hurt Master more than Freddie in the end.
If you’ve seen any other PTA films, you know he makes pretty moving pictures. The Master continues this tradition, and being shot totally in 65mm* helps. I cannot recommend enough going out and watching this in a theater equipped for it, but like IMAX, not many people have access to the real thing. Yet while the film is beautiful, I’d say PTA is less showy here than in his other work I’m familiar with (I haven’t seen Hard Eight). Boogie Nights had him aping Goodfellas for that opening tracking shot, Magnolia had raining frogs, Punch-Drunk Love had that scene-transition flair, and There Will Be Blood had the long wordless beginning and the oil rig explosion set piece. TWBB in particular comes across as a showcase for Daniel Day-Lewis, topped off by that final “I’m finished” line. The Master in comparison comes across as a more restrained affair, keeping its hold over the audience for its running time, throwing in a few pieces of comic relief, but leaving many audience members a little empty.
*I know I said I saw it in 70mm earlier, but that’s all I keep hearing, but then I read it was filmed in 65mm. Apparently the difference is the section used for the soundtrack? I really don’t know for sure.
The Master has to be the least entertaining PTA film I’ve seen. It’s not fun seeing Freddie Quell self-destruct, or Master trying to defend his outrageous claims about memory and past lives. There aren’t many surprises or absurdly amusing scenes. Despite the various locations in the film, it’s not detailing the fall of an entire industry, the intertwined lives of a dozen people, or the rise and moral fall of an oil magnate. This is an intimate film that perhaps counter-intuitively coldly keeps its distance. Amy Adams’ character (Mary Sue Dodd) might be the embodiment of that coldness, as she comes across as the true Master in some scenes. It’s a dynamic that shows that she’s helping Lancaster remain Master, stopping him from falling prey to the wildness of Freddie. It’s Freddie’s freespiritedness, undoubtedly fueled by his psychological issues and alcoholism, that draws Master to him. It’s a love story that’s not meant for a happy ending though, unlike the romance in Punch-Drunk Love.
Watching Punch-Drunk Love for the first time right before going to see The Master might have colored my view of the latter, but I enjoyed watching the former so much more. The Master is the work of a more mature, more confident filmmaker, and I’m sure Anderson made the film he wanted to make; it’s just that The Master is not the most fun 160 minutes you could spend in a theater. It plods along at times when it comes to Freddie’s therapy or processing or whatever Master refers to it as. And ultimately, Freddie doesn’t experience much growth, which kinda reminds me of another film that left me cold, Shame. I feel like I shouldn’t even bring that film up, as I think it’s hilariously self-aware about its artistic aspirations. But it came to mind, so I thought I’d throw it in here because I’m not quite sure how critics manage to write long film reviews.
Maybe I need another viewing — this time closer to the screen — to fully appreciate what Anderson has done here. There’s not much to nitpick when I try to critique the film, only the nagging feeling of being somewhat unsatisfied. It could be that I’m jealous of Freddie’s one-track sexual mind, where he’s able to suppress all his dark memories until someone forces them to come out. It could be that we’re all stuck somewhere between Freddie’s compete carelessness and recklessness and Master’s desire to achieve human perfection, despite his own all-too-human flaws. I know that I’ve been lost in my quest to balance the two for my entire adult life.
You were going to see The Master no matter what I said. Go see it.