Monday, September 24, 2012

The Master



Edited to add: After three different drafts, I finally settled on this one. Because of that, I probably didn't expand on some claims I made throughout this jumbled rumination. Some have pointed out questions they have for me in the comments; I suggest you look there for more (hopefully) lucid thoughts on the film and why I compare the editing to that of a Malick film and why even though I understand that the cyclical (what I call redundant) nature of the film is probably Anderson's point on a much larger theme, I still don't know if that's enough to clear up some of the murkiness of the film's thesis.

One of the most apt images of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, occurs during its opening minutes. The man we come to know as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) dry-humps and fingerbangs a sand-sculpted woman; he then goes and masturbates by the ocean. Two things: we laugh at the absurdity of these actions – bored sailors during World War II on what we assume is a short "R and R" on an island – and then as they continue we kind of groan at the aimlessness of it all. It’s a fitting metaphor for the effect the film had on me: it’s as fleeting as masturbation. Sure, I may have enjoyed it while it was on, but when it was over, I realized that what I had just seen really didn’t mean anything. In fact, I think Roger Ebert’s quote about the film sums it up nicely: “[The Master] is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”


The story concerns a sailor named Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who is struggling to reconnect to society post-World War II. One night after getting drunk, he sneaks onto a party boat where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group called “The Cause,” who is there for the marriage of his daughter. When Quell and Dodd first meet, there’s an eerie sense of déjà vu but ultimately the conversation stays simple enough and revolves around Quell’s drunkenness and his homemade hooch that Dodd is interested in. Dodd and Quell develop a relationship that begins after Quell’s first “processing” session – essentially an intense interview where Dodd asks Quell to recall past traumas. After this “processing” session, Quell becomes Dodd’s project of sorts (much to the chagrin of other members of “The Cause”) and the film is then, essentially, about these two elusive and enigmatic characters that try and make sense of the world they have so much trouble connecting to.

At least, that’s what I think it’s about. The only assured statement I can make about the film is that it has really good performances in it. Phoenix and Hoffman do amazing –AMAZING – things with the usual idiosyncratic Anderson dialogue, and I don’t want to short-change how good and interesting they were in this movie. Especially when Hoffman yells at Laura Dern in one scene, or when Phoenix freaks out in a jail cell, or when Hoffman sings to Phoenix (both Hoffman’s inflections singing the song and Phoenix’s reactions to the song are probably my favorite moments in the film)…well, there is nothing one can do but express gratitude for such acting. It’s certainly one of Hoffman’s best performances in a career filled with them (most of them in Anderson’s movies), and it certainly is the highlight for Phoenix – and actor I am always intrigued by – just edging out his underappreciated performance in James Gray’s equally underappreciated Two Lovers. When I say that I had trouble connecting to the movie, it is no fault of the actors. Phoenix’s facial expressions – his odd tics and giggles – and his face in general tell more of a story than Anderson’s screenplay. It’s an amazing bit of acting that is so good it almost overshadows Hoffman’s performance, which in any other movie would guarantee him every acting award this year. Anderson wisely frames his characters up close that we can study their faces. All of the film’s action is in the facial expressions, and it’s one of the reasons why I was never bored by the film: these two actors were always interesting to watch.

I also love Jack Fisk’s production design and Johnny Greenwood’s music and the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., but so what? Is it enough for me to merely point to these (obvious) things and say, "hey, look at that; isn't that pretty!" What does it connect to? What is the point? Look, I love Michael Mann and Terrence Malick movies; I’m okay with movies not being so much about a plot that drives the action as they are about philosophies or ideas; however, the difference is that those filmmakers (often confused with being auteurs who only value style instead of seeing them as auteurs whose style is also the substance) create engaging narratives that are either about process/duty (Mann) or man’s relation to nature/the nature of the world (Malick). Yes, the ideas expressed in those narratives may be ambiguous, but there’s a driving force behind them; there’s a director’s vision and voice that seems to be letting the viewer know what their intent was. A great film must have both the aesthetics and a narrative that keeps me coming back – keeps me thinking wrestling with its ideas not just its elusiveness – in order to move me beyond mere admiration. Anderson doesn’t give Quell or Dodd any kind motive to make we want to go back and consider what it was all about. Is this my fault that I failed to engage the film, or is the film's fault for failing to engage me? I don't know. Perhaps a second viewing will answer that (then again, do I want to see this a second time). Instead of The Master being some kind of enigmatic, elusive mystery about the motivations of its main characters, I felt like the whole thing was kind of pointless and masturbatory.  Yes, I wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with the film, but not in the same way that I wrestled with, say, The Tree of Life.

Some people have been disappointed in the film because they thought were getting some kind of story about the origins and inner workings of Scientology. Yes, Anderson had problems getting the film made because of Dodd’s similarities to Scientology’s founder L Ron Hubbard, but the film is not really about Scientology. Regardless, I think that’s a pretty silly reason to be disappointed in the movie. No, the reason to be disappointed in the movie is because Anderson’s Malick-like editing (many scenes involving Freddie when he’s not with Dodd seem like dream sequences) doesn’t help the audience get their bearings about what it is they’re seeing, the character their following, or what the director is trying to convey to the audience. It all just kind of hangs there in the ether giving the film an elusiveness that, perhaps, warrants repeat viewings (I’m not willing to give up on The Master just like I wasn’t willing to give up on There Will Be Blood; Anderson is too good of a filmmaker to completely write this off) but also is extremely frustrating in how repetitive it all comes across by the 100 minute mark.

Again, I’d like to clarify that I’m not a person that needs a clear plot to drive the action; however, what I found frustrating about The Master was that there really seemed to be some momentum after Freddie’s initial “processing” session, but after that great, expertly crafted and acted scene (Anderson is a, er, master at creating incredibly energetic and tense scenes of people just talking; whether it's Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly, Reilly and Melora Waters, Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano, et al), the film stalls and seems to play in some kind vicious cycle (especially after the 40th time we’ve seen Quell pace back and forth between a wall and a window, Jesus that collections of scenes was tedious) beating us over the head with the same pointless act after the same pointless act. Anderson may be saying that his life is driven by the same pointlessness and aimlessness that is represented in those island scenes, but, okay, what of it? What’s the point? I sat there in my theater chair and listened and watched with great admiration at the craft in front of me, but ultimately the film failed to engage me.

One last note for fodder: I have seen people talk about disappointed they are the film didn’t work for them. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those rare filmmakers where, for a lot of cinephiles, his films are events. I have to say that if There Will Be Blood and The Master are any indication of where he is headed as a filmmaker, I too will be a little disappointed. I miss the Anderson whose films were filled with such operatic energy, madly paced and laced with (dark) humor. Again, I admire greatly his last two films, but if I had to choose between the Anderson of Punch Drunk Love/Boogie Nights/Magnolia and the Anderson of There Will Be Blood, I’d pick the former in a heartbeat. It’s not that there’s anything wrong or even boring about the direction he seems to be heading – there just doesn’t seem to be anything all that engaging about it. The style of his earlier films seemed to express content (see quote on the right side of this blog) whereas his last two films - as Ebert suggests in the quote at the top of this piece - is a lot of surface without depth. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love, those movies were interesting because the style and narrative coalesced so effortlessly. His last two films are arguably better crafted than those; they’re just missing heart.

36 comments

  1. Nice piece, Kevin, even though it boils my blood!

    "Is this my fault that I failed to engage the film, or is the film's fault for failing to engage me?"

    The age-old question.... Because I disagree with you, I'm going to go with the latter. I think the last two films in Anderson's career have been significant improvements over his previous work, the full realization of a talented, visionary filmmaker who had only been tinkering around incoherently with ideas and inspirations before. I'll admit that I need to revisit those earlier films, but I've had very little interest in doing so. There Will Be Blood is a treasure that I've returned to, happily, over and over, still finding thematic depth and emotional nuance in every viewing, and based on my initially strong reaction to The Master, I can only imagine the same will be the case. At the risk of repeating what I said in my review of the film, let me just say one thing: Anderson's work remains fixated on so many of the central themes it has always been focused on, but now it attacks those themes without flourish, directly and unsentimentally, and the interplay between primal tension and formal restraint is even more pronounced. I see The Master as being about a whole lot of very substantial things, rather than "empty" as so many are calling it. It uses a style that is only deceptively opaque.

    "Anderson’s Malick-like editing..."
    I don't compute. No jumpcuts in this film at all. There are some time ruptures, but still, Anderson's lengthy observation seems the antithesis of Malick's wispy impressions.

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    1. Okay, Carson. Thanks for the comment. As I freely admit in my review, I didn't care for There Will Be Blood at first, but I grew to love it (it's easily one of the 50 best films of '00s) over subsequent viewings. Plainview was a character that I could clearly track with; that doesn't mean I was able to empathize in any way with Plainview, but I clearly understood his motives and what Anderson was trying to say with that film.

      Upon initial viewing -- and perhaps I should have made it more clear that these are just my initial ruminations -- I didn't find myself as engaged. Does that mean I'm missing something? Perhaps. I certainly did after my first viewing of There Will Be Blood. So I freely admit that I could be -- to use the Ebert quote again -- finding that my had "closes on air" because I'm reaching in the wrong places.

      I stand by my claims that film is aimless and fleeting. But I also know that Anderson is too damn good for my response to be that damn simplistic. This is what I've been wrestling with over the last couple of days. I do prefer Anderson's earlier films to what he's been cooking up with these last two films, but I really like what you say about how he "attacks" the same themes "without flourish." That's a great way of putting it. (By the way, thanks for the link to your review; somehow I completely missed it when you initially posted it).

      Part 2 coming...

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    2. Part 2:

      Now, for my Malick comment: I think what I meant -- and I realize I didn't elaborate on this when I should have...the cost of working on three different drafts before I posted this one -- is kind of what Emerson was getting at in his take. That is, it seemed to me that Anderson had himself a film that he really didn't know how to piece together. It loses a lot of the momentum and goodwill it earned up to Freddie's initial "processing" (my favorite scenes, I think, were the ones with Freddie in the department store; loved the production design there). But after that great scene on the boat, the film (sorry for repeating myself) feels aimless. I think back to those moments of Freddie on the beach (that felt ethereal a la Malick) and when Freddie retreats to his fantasies/dreams (meets his pen pal who he finds is 16); there was just something that seemed very Malick-y about the pacing and the way it was pieced together at times. In other words, it felt like I had to do a lot of inferring (which is fine) because it seemed that Anderson didn't know how put the puzzle together and present it to his audience. It reminded me of when I first saw The Thin Red Line. Could I piece it together? Sure. I'd like to think that I'm a relatively good at critically thinking about film. Was it easy? Sure. But easy/hard isn't the point (and doesn't make a film good or bad); what was interesting about the way Malick presented the film was that even though characters dropped in and out and certain characters or themes seem to pop up and then disappear because of the editing...well, it all kind of fit the dreamy, ethereal mood. The way the narration all sounds the same so as to remove the individualism of war; that these were the stories of all of these soldiers that look alike.


      I fear I'm getting off track here, so let me re-calibrate: Clarity of character isn't that important to Malick's films because they're about so much more than just their characters. Anderson is intensely focused on his characters, and even though I freely admit that I'm just not connecting the primary themes of Anderson's film, I just felt that the editing was a tad on the "patched together" side and made for a frustratingly redundant experience after about the 100 minute mark.

      Perhaps this cycle was Anderson's point. I don't know; I'm guessing this will make itself clearer to me upon second viewing. But for now, I just felt that the film had a Malick feel in terms of I could sense what was left out and it effected what was left it. Whereas with Malick, what he leaves out or leaves in doesn't really effect the tone he's going for. Characters are second-place for Malick where they seem of great importance to Anderson.

      Does that make sense? I fear I've rambled on and on here. How 'bout this: I need to see it again! Hehe.

      Thanks for the comment, Carson. Now I'm off to read your piece.

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    3. Yes, that all makes sense to me. It seems you find the film to be perched awkwardly between full immersion in character study and something more abstract and dreamlike; I don't think there's much of a difference between the two modes, because these characters, and their environments, are drifting in a state of limbo, searching for meaning just as Anderson's film seems to searching for its own core as it goes along. What you see as "aimless" and not confidently put together, I see as a conscious aesthetic choice to reflect the sense of aimlessness in the characters. The Master stands pretty defiantly against a conventional narrative structure; it "drifts" into a sense of order and cohesion in a way that still feels oddly calculated. I find it really impressive.

      Also, as for lack of emotional engagement, I just can't agree. Sure, Anderson's colder than, say, Steven Spielberg, but it would be disingenuous to ignore his own brand of "heart." I've always felt a curious empathy with Plainview, and I felt a similar thing towards Freddie. This is clearly a man who yearns for physical contact, which is the only way he interprets intimacy and connection. Some of those close-ups of Phoenix are wrenching.

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    4. What you see as "aimless" and not confidently put together, I see as a conscious aesthetic choice to reflect the sense of aimlessness in the characters. The Master stands pretty defiantly against a conventional narrative structure; it "drifts" into a sense of order and cohesion in a way that still feels oddly calculated. I find it really impressive.

      Well said.

      Now, I'm excited to talk about what I really like about the film. You mention Freddie being a character that "yearns for physical contact" and that that drew you in to his character. Phoenix -- especially those close-ups, as you mention -- is more than wrenching; he's the one thing in the film that felt palpable to me. His face is the most interesting in all of cinema right now, and Anderson is wise to frame nearly every shot involving Freddie so intensely upon that magnificent canvas. His tics and hic-ups and laughs and sneers are just a thing of beauty. It rivals his Two Lovers as my favorite Phoenix performance. Wrenching is a good word for it, too. Just great stuff and the primary thing that has me excited to see the film again. Hoffman, too, who gets some great, unexpected outbursts (my favorites being at Laura Dern and the guy that questions him at the party).

      I have some empathy towards Freddie in certain moments; he's like a rabid dog (the jail scene springs to mind; also the scene where he antagonizes that poor guy at the department story by continuing to toy with the lights), and there are moments (like when he sheds that tear at the end) where I really feel for the guy. It's the other scenes (his own "Processing" session at the end springs to mind) in the periphery that have me a little less engaged with Freddie. But that is no fault of Phoenix, who absolutely owns every scene of this movie.

      I do find Anderson's earlier films to have a heart to them, and it does seem to be his own brand of it as you suggest, but I also think that there is a shift from the kind of heart found in the journeys of Dirk Diggler (definitely more generic, though, then what he did in subsequent films), the entire ensemble of Magnolia, and definitely the tortured Barry Egan than the journeys of Plainview (although that was has grown on me big time) and Quill (which I haven't had adequate time to judge yet). I just prefer the former at this point.

      So, perhaps I'll see these two latter characters and the films they inhabit on the same level with time. I certainly see the thematic space they share, but some just work better for me. I think it boils down to what you were saying about how Anderson's last two films really strip away the "warm" aesthetics found in the three films before Blood (Hard Eight was more toned down, so I don't include it here) for a much "colder" (what I think of as Kubrick-lite), detached aesthetic.

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  2. Kevin:

    "[W]hat I found frustrating about The Master was that there really seemed to be some momentum after Freddie’s initial “processing” session, but after that great, expertly crafted and acted scene, the film stalls and seems to play in some kind vicious cycle [...] beating us over the head with the same pointless act after the same pointless act."

    To be frank, I think that the pointlessness of the film's circular pacing is the point. Part of what Anderson is doing in the film, I believe, is playing with his viewers' understanding of film grammar (and our knowledge of his filmography) to create a sense of expectation. Like Freddie, we feel as though*something* is going to happen, something momentous, if not revelatory. It's not a coincidence that that that the narrative aimlessness and the sense of repetition highlight the fruitless cycles of transgression and repentance that characterize Freddie's relationship with Dodd and the Cause, the sense that of missed revelation. I view the film as a deeply cynical portrait of how the profound failures of ideology--and a rejection of the notion that any damaged person could be mended, if introduced to the proper holy text or messiah.

    http://www.stlmag.com/Blogs/Look-Listen/September-2012/The-Master-A-Man-Too-Broken-to-Be-Mended-by-Either-Cleric-or-Con-Artist/

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    1. Thanks for that link, Andrew. I will add that to my tabs and read it later tonight alongside Carson's review. Okay, now to your comment: I kind of broached this in my reply to Carson, but I think the circular nature of the film is the point, as you say, but I never felt pulled in by it the same way I was with Anderson's previous films. Even Blood eventually won me over, so, like I've mentioned in the piece and to Carson, I'm not willing to write off The Master. I don't want to be mistaken as one of those naysayers that is simply writing off the film because it wasn't what I expected. In fact, as I sat there and watched the movie, I kept waiting for that Daniel Plainview "I'm finished" type scene to end the film. But when Dodd, instead of something crazily violent like Plainview, simply sings "Slow Boat to China," I wanted to stand up and applaud. I thought that was magnificent.

      I can recall many moments that I loved about the film, but again, I struggle with the fact that the film didn't move me beyond admiration for it. And that can only go so far.

      I hope some of my hangups and questions are answered when I see it again. It's a finely crafted film. But is it more than that? I don't know yet. For me, it's just too aimless, cold, and distant. And if that is Anderson's point, does that change my reaction to it? Again, I admire Anderson for doing that -- it is clever and interesting and fun to talk about -- but do I really, truly and ultimately, care at the end of the day? I suppose one could flip this whole thing on me and say that the film has indeed engaged me because of all the questions I'm asking. Again, I hope a second viewing will help un-muddy up these thoughts I have about the film.

      Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to reading your piece!

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  3. Erk. That should read "I view the film as a deeply cynical portrait of the profound failures of ideology, and a rejection of the notion that any damaged person could be mended, if introduced to the proper holy text or messiah."

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  4. I fear I'm getting off track here, so let me re-calibrate: Clarity of character isn't that important to Malick's films because they're about so much more than just their characters. Anderson is intensely focused on his characters, and even though I freely admit that I'm just not connecting the primary themes of Anderson's film, I just felt that the editing was a tad on the "patched together" side and made for a frustratingly redundant experience after about the 100 minute mark.

    This underscores my problems with the film as well. I have the sense Anderson's post-production process is a bit more intimate than Malick's army in the editing room, but it does add up to some issues in The Master, at least, that I didn't feel in The Tree of Life. (Perhaps they're in To the Wonder, I haven't seen it yet....)

    You also, in your piece, helped clarify what I agree are the interminable scenes where Freddie is being "processed" by Dodd - not the initial enthralling sequence with the flashback, but the scenes with Freddie pacing back and forth and being a smartass to Dodd's son-in-law. It's here that the movie should really soar, I think; so why does it fall flat for me? I think in this case it's the writing. How are we supposed to take these scenes: Is Freddie resistant? Is he playing along? Is he genuinely converted? Does Dodd think he's converted? Or is he only pretending to think Freddie is? I'm not sure what we're supposed to take out of what should be the heart of the film, which wouldn't necessarily bother me, except that I'm not convinced Anderson knows either.

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    1. I knew parts of it working at times because I didn't know what in the hell I was watching, and I would laugh out loud at what was happening because -- as I often did in some of the bizarre moments of There Will Be Blood, especially that ending -- I didn't know what other emotion to feel, and laughter is often the fall back emotion for most people when we're uncomfortable and don't know what else to do. Freddie's seemingly endless "processing" session bordered on the comic when I don't think that was Anderson's intent. It's frustrating because I felt that Anderson's (purposeful?) elusiveness in regards to letting us in so that we could understand either Quill's or Dodd's methods/intentions/motivations. You make a good point about Freddie: are we to believe that he's so willingly going along with this? If so, why? Is it all rooted in how good he felt in that initial "processing" session? Is he going through the motions because it's a place with free room and board and food -- just another pit stop in his wandering journey? The fact that it all takes place in the "heart of the film" as you suggest, makes it all the more troublesome.

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    2. I'm also reading a lot about The Master's "pointlessness" being the whole point,. This argument is, from many, very well articulated, I've seen it applied to other films (e.g., Margaret isn't messy, it's about messiness), and I've certainly applied it less articulately myself. I'm starting to question this sort of thing, though. I think a good film is ultimately about something other than how it goes about itself. It may not be clear at first glance (or second, or third), but it's there. And we have all seen examples of movies about pointlessness that do not feel, in themselves, pointless. I'm all for extending and challenging film grammar, but to me too much of The Master feels like gibberish.

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    3. Damn, I missed your comment from a couple of days ago, Craig. Sorry about that. I can't speak to Margaret because I've been a lazy bastard and haven't watched it yet. I don't have much to add to your comment, unfortunately, because it seems like we're saying the same things. So at the risk of sounding redundant, I'll just say, "here, here!"

      Thanks for the comment!

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  5. So I hate to sound trite - but I think the point of the film was that there was no momentum in Freddie's story (that there was no point maybe). He was stuck on the surface level noise/nonsense of the waves churning behind the ships (another repeated image in the film) that represented the false philosophies of The Cause (or earlier in his life the false sense of structure provided by the Navy). And in the end - he chose to move away from that, even turning what he had "learned" into a joke - and went back to his favorite rut - drinking and whoring. At least that was my take. I also think it was a "doomed love story" in many regards.

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    1. Again, David, I admire what Anderson was going for. But I'm not sure I really care all that much for it. It may just come down to an issue of taste. It's one of the reasons I struggle so much with Kubrick's films: do I understand what he's doing in A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket? Sure. But I don't really care for it. It doesn't engage me in any way. More on this when I can give it more thought.

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  6. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love, those movies were interesting because the style and narrative coalesced so effortlessly. His last two films are arguably better crafted than those; they’re just missing heart.

    Well, I love There Will Be Blood, and I think it's full of heart. Full of heart in the sense that it plunges you deep into Plainview's evil, greedy mindset and never shakes you loose from it. I don't fault you for not admiring it on your first viewing -- I'm just saying that I don't think Anderson's last two features are all that comparable. There Will Be Blood definitely ranks with those other great PTA films you've mentioned. Based on my first impression, I'd argue that The Master doesn't.

    Maybe after 1 or 2 more viewings of it I might embrace it as a work of greatness, but right now I can't say I'm all that anxious to run out and see it again. With PTA's other films (excepting Hard Eight, which I haven't seen), I've always been able to easily detect his purpose, and what he finds so fascinating about those worlds his characters live in. Boogie Nights works because we, like Dirk, are seduced into that free-spirited porno lifestyle. There Will Be Blood works because we share Plainview's power-hungry lust to get to the very top. Both films ends in a kind of enthralling chaos when the characters realize how badly they've wasted their lives.

    With The Master, I was never seduced into the characters' world. In fact, I can't say I was ever truly convinced that these were anything other than pathetic people, their lives going in circles, offering no enticing luxuries beyond the occasional yacht party. I didn't understand what Freddy found so fascinating about Lancaster Dodd's world. I understood what PTA was getting at with his whole theme about "being your own Master" and committing to a specific lifestyle, but I didn't think this theme was strong enough to carry the whole movie. Subplots went nowhere, characters made little sense, and my emotions were often cold.

    I didn't dislike the movie, but as of now I might be so cruel as to deem it the art-house cinephile's equivalent of Prometheus. Gorgeous to look at, and never boring, but when it's over you find yourself asking... so what?

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    1. I understood what PTA was getting at with his whole theme about "being your own Master" and committing to a specific lifestyle, but I didn't think this theme was strong enough to carry the whole movie. Subplots went nowhere, characters made little sense, and my emotions were often cold.

      Yup. Sounds like we're on the same page, Adam. After one viewing, I'm right there with you. I like your comparison to Prometheus; I haven't seen that movie yet, but I'm aware of the conversations that surround it. I know I will see The Master, but I'm almost with you in the sense that of all of Anderson's other films, this is the one that I'm least enthused to run out and see again.

      Also, Gorgeous to look at, and never boring, but when it's over you find yourself asking... so what?. Amen, Adam.

      Thanks for the great comment!

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    2. Why did Freddie gravitate towards Dodd? Why does any person gravitate towards religion, cult, consumerism, or even a certain political party? Because they're searching for a sense of belonging, trying on different hats to feel out what their identity might be. It makes complete sense to me why Freddie, a lonely, self-destructive dude with no family or friends, would jump at the opportunity to do "work" for someone who takes an interest in him. As for the characters in general, whether or not they are considered "pathetic" is up to the viewer. They're just people, flawed (that is to say, human) though they may be, and Anderson never takes any opportunity to judge their behavior.

      Duncan Gray's got a good comment over at MUBI on Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's piece that y'all should read. This is a film whose "point" is apparently very easy to miss. It's not a sturdy drama so much as a multilayered allegory.

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    3. That's a great explanation, Carson. I'm going to respond below so that my longer comment doesn't get buried. But I think you're onto something that I may not be giving the film enough credit for.

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  7. Interesting comment from David got me thinking about this anecdote, and I was curious what you guys thought: I'm thinking this comes down to something I tried to mention in my piece about admiration versus love for a film. It also meshes with what I wrote in my Sight and Sound piece last month (and what Jason Bellamy has been talking about on his blog for the last month with his Sight and Sound piece). So, the anecdote: my friends and I often debate Kubrick. One film we really disagree on and debate a lot about is Full Metal Jacket. I claim that the last half of the film is a mess; meandering and pointless. Again, much like Anderson's film, that's part of what Kubrick is saying about war. My friends often point to the ending with the sniper as a landmark in war films. I find it, again, tedious and drawn out. I understand where my friends are coming from. Just because I don't like it and am not drawn in by what I see on screen, doesn't mean I don't admire what it is I'm seeing and what the filmmaker is trying to convey; it just doesn't do anything for me.

    Another example: my brother and I often discuss the merits of Miami Vice. I have made him watch it twice; he understands what I see in the film, and why it's one of my all-time favorites. However, he doesn't respond to it the same way that I do. He understands Mann's motives/intentions -- he gets how the aesthetics represent more than just pretty images -- he just doesn't respond to it. And that's okay. I don't think he's missing anything other than seeing the film through my eyes which is an unfair thing to ask of someone. It's just a matter of taste.

    I'm sure there are a lot of examples I could use, but I just think, for me, Kubrick is the best example considering how much Anderson's last two films have felt like the old masters. So, I just want to be clear: You guys don't sound trite. You are simply explaining what drew you in; I just happen to have a different reaction to it.

    So, again, and I can't stress this enough, I admire what Anderson is up to both aesthetically and thematically -- I get it when there's something to get -- but just because I didn't respond to it initially doesn't mean I'm not onto what Anderson is up to. I just think my ruminations about it are on much shakier ground than David, Andrew, and Carson.

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    1. Understood, Kevin. Of course, at the end of the day, people have their taste, but what's important is to at least see the same things in a film, to acknowledge what's actually there onscreen and not what one's subjectivity leads them to see (or hear). It can be a hard thing to do, but it's the critic's job to do it.

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  8. Kevin, I share your frustration with this film. My comments have been similar to yours. There are great performances and great filmmaking to watch, but there isn't enough story to compel me. Totally agree that tension and conflict rise in the middle of the film - a dramatic conclusion seems promised - and then Quell wanders and the film wanders toward nothing. I found There Will Be Blood much more compelling and complete as a film. I am a very big fan of Magnolia.

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    1. I like that you use the word "compel." Perhaps that is a better word than the one I've been using, "engaged." Since I think it's more than possible to be "engaged" by the imagery on screen and the performances, but whether those things compel me to think about it more deeply or reach for something that I personally cannot find (and that is not affecting me), I don't know. Time will tell whether or not I warm up to this film (as much as one can warm up to it). I'll use another Kubrick example: EYES WIDE SHUT was a film I greatly admired but never felt compelled to rush out and see it again. However, in recent years, I've found myself returning to it a couple of times, seeing it through new eyes and finding myself being greatly affected -- both emotionally and in an eerie, horror film kind of way -- by Bill Harford's strange, dark journey. Perhaps I will feel the same about Quell's journey at some point in the future.

      Thanks for the comment, Hokahey!

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  9. Thanks for the great comments, everyone. I'll get to these bright and early tomorrow morning. Right now, my brain is too fried from work to give this the thought that it needs. I will say this: I went back and read my review for Punch-Drunk Love and noticed some similarities, thematically, between the two films. I've been sporadically thinking today about why I like that film so much - and responded to it so strongly when I first saw - as opposed to my feeling for The Master and what it is attempting to say (and the execution of its theme).

    More tomorrow, but I see some things I wrote in that review for Punch-Drunk Love that I so clearly didn't have problems with that seem to be tripping me up with The Master.

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  10. I just realized I had misspelled Freddie's last name. Quell, Kevin, not Quill. Jesus. Okay, be back to tomorrow to respond to the comments today by Carson and Hokahey.

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  11. [He] is a complex, socially inept person whose social skills seem completely utilitarian (he's not a bad salesman when he wants to be, and he can channel his inner rage at opportune times); he's also deeply disturbed and alien in a world that is inhabited by seven sisters that constantly nag him –needling him about remembering embarrassing past stories until his rage boils over – and wonder why he always wears the same blue suit. This is a tricky character, always on the verge of exploding yet delicate and in desperate need of some reciprocated love.

    Obviously that's an explanation of Barry Egan, the protagonist of Punch-Drunk Love who, like Freddie, is a slouched enigma of a man. Barry's motives are a little more clear than Freddie's, but the primary similarity is that they want to be loved; they want to feel connected to someone or something. Barry collects frequent flyer points because it's a loophole that he feels he has to take advantage of. But when he begins the process, he has no one to go with. It seems like a fleeting (I'll use that word here since I used it to describe The Master) exercise to rack up all of these points but not be able to share them with someone.

    Barry and Freddie both are need of something/someone to settle them down/give them meaning. However, I think the major difference -- and the reason I am more affected by the former than the latter -- is that Barry is shown, in between his fits of rage, to be a really shy, tender, kind of loveable guy. Freddie seems to be nothing more than a man who is capable of drinking and having sex. Anderson has stripped away the sentimentality of Barry Egan and given us Freddie Quell. I get what Anderson is going and the purpose behind the iciness of it all; I just respond more to the hopefulness of Barry Egan than the helplessness of Freddie Quell.

    Barry tries to connect himself to something much more solid whereas Freddie tries to connect himself to something more elusive. I like that idea, and I like the idea that the film actually shares more with Punch-Drunk Love than There Will Be Blood. Quell's character isn't as overt as Egan, and I'm curious to see if I see anything more in him with subsequent viewings.

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  12. It's interesting by the way that the two times I've written about an Anderson film on this blog, I've received the most comments. 40+ on my Punch-Drunk Love and fast approaching that number with this piece. Not important, by any stretch, but just interesting.

    Anyway, one last comment, also from my piece on Punch-Drunk Love, that will perhaps spark a little more conversation:

    [T]he harmonium also acts as a key symbol for Barry's journey from loneliness and darkness to reciprocity, love, and companionship. Barry finds the harmonium on the side of the road, a piece of junk that some people were too lazy to deal with, but Barry finds it intriguing and that it's something worth saving (much like Lena finds Barry interesting, not the piece of junk that his sisters and other have given up on, and worth saving) so he carries it into his office and begins working on it (a metaphor for his life). As the film progresses, so does the restoration of the harmonium (Barry's soul), so that by the end of the film when Barry and Lena are ready to embark on their journey, we see Lena coming into frame as the camera pans with her to find Barry playing the harmonium, in tune.

    I think this sums up best what I'm not getting out of The Master. Anderson is so good at mixing the idiosyncratic with the poignant, yet he's removed the poignancy completely from The Master. Barry/Lena are exactly like Freddie/Lancaster just with heart. When Barry restores the harmonium, it's a clear line we can follow through to the end -- a clear symbol for Barry's own restoration. I didn't anything like that in The Master in what is a similar story about two people in a relationship where one tries to see the hidden good in the other.

    I'm not saying I want Anderson to only make films like this or even that all of his films have to be alike, I think what frustrated me about the emptiness I feel at the end of The Master is that I see the parallels to his other films and their themes and wonder if he could have still said what he wanted to say in The Master by giving us a more engaging/affecting/compelling second and third act.

    If the allegory is buried, as Carson suggests, and the symbolism is a little more hidden than in his previous films, then I look forward to explicating this particular text even further and trying to find those things; I look forward to a second viewing in hopes that it will engage/compel/affect me enough to want to sift through it and find those elements that keep me coming back for more.

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  13. I'm still trying to get my own review out - it is, as you've noted, not an easy thing to do - but in the meantime, thank you for being, at this point, the only critic I've read who seems to have watched the exact same version of this film that I did. More thoughts when they are more settled.

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    1. Thanks, Tim. I eagerly await your take on it.

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  14. In the discussion above, and elsewhere certainly, too, there are two recurring themes ...

    Theme 1: THE MASTER is Intentionally Problematic

    That heading goes a bit far, but many of the film's fans, and even many of its detractors, have suggested that THE MASTER is aimless, distant, unresolved, unsolvable, etc, on purpose. To shove all of that into one not-exactly-accurate-but-close-enough-for-the-purpose-of-this-argument phrase, they have implied that the film is intentionally problematic, in that many of those descriptions (aimless, distant, etc) are often used in the pejorative when applied to other movies. And that creates an interesting scenario, because if we agree that THE MASTER achieves all those qualities intentionally, then those qualities seem not so problematic at all, and yet if THE MASTER achieves them unintentionally, then the movie is ACCIDENTALLY problematic, and if it's accidentally problematic, can it be a great film?

    That leads here: Many cinephiles, me included, take great pleasure in feeling the control of an expert filmmaker exerting his/her will: we respond positively to the comfort of knowing that we're in a filmmaker's steady hand, even if we have reservations about where the filmmaker is taking us. Thus, it's not surprising that many who trust PTA's skill feel that THE MASTER delivers on its exact intentions, realizes its design, and therefore is a SUCCESS for realizing qualities that in another movie would be considered "problematic."

    So my question is this: What if they're wrong? :et me be clear: I'm not saying that I think they are wrong. I'm just raising the possibility en route to this: If some of the film's fans are wrong, and THE MASTER is "problematic" (aimless, distant, unresolved, unsolvable...) ACCIDENTALLY, does it matter? After all, the film doesn't change. The experience you have with the film doesn't change -- so long as you still BELIEVE that PTA is doing exactly what he wanted to do, at least. So intention really shouldn't have anything to do with it. And yet if we're honest about it, for many of us it does -- it matters a great deal.

    I have no great answer here. But it's interesting that a movie that inspires this reaction is, in part, about religion and belief. Because to some degree what many are saying is, "I realize this looks like a movie with problems, but I have faith that those 'problems' were entirely intentional -- intelligently designed -- and thus they aren't 'problems' at all."

    Is someone who sees THE MASTER's "problems" as assets exhibiting a kind of faith? To some degree. And just like someone can feel the spirit of Jesus even if God doesn't actually exist, someone can be awed by the mastery of the film's construction and depth of meaning even if PTA, like Lancaster Dodd, just made shit up as he went along and isn't himself sure that there's any true meaning to all of this.

    Again, because I can't say this enough, I'M NOT SAYING THAT'S DEFINITELY WHAT'S HAPPENING HERE. But, unless we want to get all "Pigfuck" defensive about it, we have to recognize it as a possibility.

    This whole scenario and its nagging questions isn't unique to THE MASTER, of course. But it's especially interesting in this case.

    Theme 2 coming up ...

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  15. Theme 2: THE MASTER is Intentionally Problematic and I Find That Problematic

    Clearly, this builds from an element of Theme 1.

    For many of us, and I think I'd put myself in this camp at the moment, there is little doubt that THE MASTER is an "intentional" work (at least mostly; I don't think PTA needs to have a specific meaning thought out about EVERYTHING on the screen), but the intentionality of the work isn't enough to offset the fact that an intentionally "problematic" and/or otherwise unsatisfactory movie is by rule "problematic" and unsatisfactory.

    I mean, that's not it exactly, but you know what I mean: if PTA wants us to feel the frustration of incompleteness, his movie must remain incomplete. And for many, that's a letdown, especially when it's coming from a filmmaker who is capable of such 'completeness.'

    People in this camp are essentially saying, "Look, I know PTA did exactly what he wanted to do, but I'm just not moved by those intentions." It's the same thought many people would apply to any movie that does exactly what it wants to do but just doesn't appeal connect, compel, stir us. And thus the inherent flaw of a movie like this is that a filmmaker needs to overcome our natural aversion to the things we normally find problematic in order to turn them into strengths. And that's a mighty challenge to overcome.

    Again, I'm not saying this is what's happening. Just observing themes of the reactions to this film.

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  16. One final note: I love any review that uses the term "fingerbangs." Hadn't heard that one in a while.

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  17. Kevin -
    I really enjoyed reading your review and appreciate your honesty in grappling with the meaning and substance of this film. I admire anyone who can put together a coherent review of THE MASTER because I have trouble putting together two coherent sentences about it.

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    1. Thanks, Patricia! I admit, it took me three drafts before I realized I just needed to post thoughts, no matter how confounding, and get it out there, hoping that people would comment and keep the discussion going so that I could further articulate my feelings on the film. I consider the comments here a much needed addendum to my jumbled-up thoughts about THE MASTER. It's been a week, and I'm still wrestling with it; although, I think I'm getting a lot more certain about waiting until the DVD to give it another go.

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  18. And thus the inherent flaw of a movie like this is that a filmmaker needs to overcome our natural aversion to the things we normally find problematic in order to turn them into strengths. And that's a mighty challenge to overcome.

    Okay. I'm back. Jason, your comment is interesting because I think it gets to a lot of how I feel about music. I know some people who could listen to a lot of the music featured on Pitchfork, let's say, and recommend that music to me. These people are my friends, and I trust their opinion...so I try it out. Usually I can get through it once out of respect for my friends, but a lot of the time I just plain just don't like it. If I were more of a music person, perhaps I could make it through some of those albums and understand the nuances of what's happening on the album, but what good does it do if they music doesn't engage me (or to use a music term, hook me) enough to give the album repeat listens.

    I understand the why in terms of people liking those types of albums -- and let's face it, the kind of albums praised to the heavens on Pitchfork is akin to something like a PTA movie -- but they just don't move me. BUT because fans of those kinds of albums like those artists so much -- and often have been with them since the beginning -- it's easier for them to catch the nuances that make the album great in their opinion.

    So, it's interesting, Jason, that you bring up the director here. I think a lot of people may see what I say about THE MASTER and think: "But you liked his other movies...how could you not like this one?" And that reminds me of when I listen to certain albums that I don't like, and my friends say, "Wait, you like this or this band" or "this or this album from the same artist, but you don't like this band?"

    I realize that this example is applicable to any medium, but I like the music analogy because I've always felt that music is the one art form that appeals to our emotions more brusquely than film or television or art. Music is short and to the point and is designed to quickly (relatively speaking) engage the listener and manipulate emotions.

    So to return to your quote that I put at the top of this comment: I'm always up for expanding my music listening experience, but it's a lofty task for any artist that works within a subgenre I don't like to engage me enough to give the album the appropriate amount of listens to try and see what that musician is up to. And I think I've given enough thought to Anderson's films that I can say with enough "authority" that there isn't as much here in THE MASTER as there was in his previous films to entice me enough to come back for multiple viewings

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  19. And so, Jason, I think I really like your observartions about what this particular discussion (and others around the blogosphere) looks like. It reminds me a lot of two groups arguing about music. It doesn't matter much what the album's up to thematically if aurally it doesn't appeal to me.

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  20. FWIW, I finally managed to finish my deep-focus essay on THE MASTER. Readers and comments are welcome:

    http://gatewaycinephiles.com/2012/11/05/the-cause-cannot-fail-it-can-only-be-failed-the-master-and-the-inadequacies-of-ideology/

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