Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Master


I was a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson in the late 90s and early aughts. In watching Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights, I was witnessing a director claiming and channeling the influence of directors such as Scorsese, Altman, and Kubrick with the same zeal and energy I spent watching their movies. Indeed, P.T.'s early films are driven by the confident enthusiasm of immature cinephilia. They rarely stray beyond southern California, and when they do, it's to the even more comfortable world of an alternative cinematic universe where a rainstorm of frogs and a deliriously complex tracking shot or two carry as much emotional weight as human relationships. But there was more to the young P.T.'s talent than just youth and there was more to those films than invigorating immaturity. He was chronicling the present-tense movie-filtered reality of the American southwest through characters living special, fraught, distinctive lives; they talked and acted in a certain way - and to each other - that felt as distinctive as Quentin Tarantino's movie people, but deeper. Whatever show-offy pleasure P.T. was taking in discovering and wielding his enormous cinematic skill with those first movies, he was also getting at real human pain (in Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, especially) which suggested that simple technical skill would never be enough by itself. 

With his last two films, Kubrick is now the primary source of P.T.'s anxiety of influence, and perhaps my dislike of The Master simply boils down to my personal preference of Altman and the loose, jaunty film aesthetics he emblemizes. But to have to make this choice seems false in the first place. In retrospect - and even at the time - the shift represented by There Will Be Blood seemed sudden, and simply weird. Much of P.T. was still there, of course, and enough to suggest the same auteur was in place: The seductively obtrusive music, which offered the ear an aesthetic signpost through which the eye could find ways into the widescreen imagery; the willingness to give over a meticulously crafted narrative to the work of actors; the gestures of camera movement and framing, regarding the characters askance even while giving over the narrative drive to their thirsty ambitions. But much else was lost. The great warmth, and love, for the characters - a nearly musical love in Punch-Drunk Love and Magnolia - was replaced by a visionary, epoch-grasping fascination for their greedy ambitions, and for the new way this fascination, as the primary source of a skeletal cause-and-effect, seemed to provide an excuse for exquisite images. The Altmanesque interest in collaboration was still there, to the enormous credit of Anderson and his crew; the most focused and exciting performances in any Anderson film can be found in the work by Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood.

But instead of great stories, with the characters themselves taking us on miraculous journeys (that end in frog rain or love-soaked sojourns in Hawaii), Anderson's films now have vision. Rather than following his characters the director is now relentlessly, distantly looking at them. The grunt and shit of war, the reason why Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is the way he is after World War II in The Master, is never quite felt, which makes his eventual turn to a strange pseudo-religion known as "The Cause" more enigmatic and puzzling than revealing. I admire any filmmaker who eschews simple, pre-digested psychological explanations, but the early P.T. films eschewed those, too, and remained interested in exploring psychology, in guessing, in the heat of the emotional moment, at how it might work. By contrast, I am not sure what Anderson means to say through the relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd (the eponymous Master of "The Cause") and Phoenix's Quell. Athough their relationship takes up a good share of the running time, their bond is not developed enough to take on the complexity of the father-son pairings in his earlier films, and for some reason the film also pulls its punches with the homoerotic subtext (which would have been a new shade to Anderson’s oeuvre but is barely a suggestion here). The real frustration with the movie, however, is, now squarely with Anderson's now strangely unloved characters. Everyone in this film is a figure, an abstraction, rather than a character; and that seems strange for a director who burst out of the gate a postmodern humanist.

Abstractions, of course, are not an inherent problem. Lawrence of Arabia pivots around a dizzily beautiful, politically fascinating Anglo-Saxon abstraction played by Peter O'Toole. But what remains fascinating about that film (ongoingly, in a startlingly beautiful 4k digital restoration screened on October 4 at many of the same theaters also showing The Master) is the ability of David Lean to find an emotional and physical context for that abstraction, and to poetically uncover a few of the historical mechanisms which made that enigma a possibility. Although Lawrence's motivations for uniting Arabia remain locked behind Peter O'Toole's thirsty blue eyes, Lawrence is ultimately interesting because of the historical and physical landscape into which his confused quest is thrust. In The Master, by contrast, both history and landscape are foreshortened where they should be explored, framed in fussy still images when we should be moving through them.

There Will Be Blood has a grand vision and a great performance at its middle, and although I don’t emotionally connect with it, I feel that grandeur in every frame. There, Anderson's vision was enough; it resulted in a suitable shaping of form and content into a passionate moral investigation into the fraught marriage between American capitalism and religion. By contrast, The Master shapes images and frames people without investigating them, composes theses in shot compositions instead of making us feel its ideas. Both films are important works of art, and should be seen, repeatedly; The Master's mastery is never in question. What is mastered here, and to what meaningful purpose, is another story.