A think-piece on my experience of difficulty with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

I wrote in my belated review that:

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an enigma at which to marvel. It consists of virtuoso acting framed within stunningly crisp and gorgeously vibrant filmmaking, showcased by a confounding narrative.  It is beautiful to behold, often mutely passionate, and finally…cold to the touch. If at first your hand closes on air, try try again. Imagine not precisely a narrative but a greatly designed cinematic Rorshach test and you may begin to acquire some inkling of what Anderson is up to here.

Beautifully if curiously photographed in 70mm by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master is the long-anticipated sixth feature by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, my favorite living filmmaker, whose Magnolia (1999) is my favorite film of all time. Why? Because I actually do connect to it in a very personal way. I see myself in every one of those characters and have some even closer connections to some characters and their relationships than others. And it’s extraordinary filmmaking, including the last 1/2 hour or so where many seem to feel it “comes apart at the seams.” Not so. That’s where Anderson’s work begins to take on epic, Biblical proportions and the themes begin to coalesce.

That being said, I agree that while Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (my favorite film of 2007) and The Master (2012) are all extraordinary in their own unique ways, there is something increasingly cold and, in a sense, passionless about them. It does seem as if the filmmaker who from Hard Eight (1997, a genre debut of sorts) onward through Boogie Nights (also 1997) and Magnolia wore his heart on his sleeve has turned his focus away from dazzling filmmaking techniques and characters we relate to toward analytical exercises/exposes of different increasingly masochistic and misanthropic personalities, showcased by brilliant acting – from the lovesick but also prone to fits of ungainly rage Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love) to the vile and hateful Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) to the volatile and volcanic Joaquin Phoenix and his Zen-like counterpoint Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master).

It’s as if the boy who once revered the humanity of Jonathan Demme, the sprawling hyperlink sensibility of Robert Altman and the gritty dazzling cinematic techniques of Martin Scorsese has turned toward the brutal cold splashes of water of John Huston, Stanley Kubrick and the like. Great filmmakers all, but very different sensibilities. Perhaps his changes in focus (influence wise) are to “blame” (?) for his changes in style, tone and, dare I say, feeling?

However, that doesn’t actually diminish the greatness of his last 3 films in my view. It wasn’t till my first viewing of The Master that I became…concerned. While it is brilliantly acted and wonderfully made, it seems to me that it is going almost out of its way in the furthest opposite direction from his early work, even if thematically you have a kind of father-son surrogate relationship which has been at the core of just about every one of his films in one form or another – curiously, the exception being Punch-Drunk Love despite the fact that you usually get a glimpse of a father-son relationship in a Sandler film whether he’s the screwup son or the screwup dad (as in this year’s That’s My Boy).

Oddly enough, it seems to me that this transition to colder, more analytical and stylistically volatile work actually began with Punch-Drunk Love (and not There Will Be Blood, as once was thought) – a film in which the music, the unpredictability of the cinematography, and the structure began to take on a much more organic quality than his previous work – which felt simultaneously made and at the same time from the heart. Now it seems like he’s, to quote Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemmons coming off a recent unpopular turn on TV’s Breaking Bad), “making it up as he goes along” to a certain degree (at least in the writing) but that he nevertheless has films which feel similarly hand-crafted – if that makes sense.

Having walked away from my first viewing baffled and sensing greatness without really feeling it, I felt I owed myself (and the film) some time and a second viewing. This was a wholly different experience. Having sat in the third row center the first time, immersing myself in the screen, I sat this time in my usual mid-theater right-hand aisle seat at an angle to the screen, because a film like this that holds you at arm’s length almost demands that you experience it from at least arm’s length in the theater. This time, I was still set off-balance by the odd shifts in tone and scene transition, but by the end I was immensely moved – as I expected from Anderson in the first place.

By the time we reach the conclusion, an elegiac meeting in England between Quell and Dodd, who appears to feel not that he has failed Freddie but that Freddie has failed him through his evasiveness and seeming lack of will to be helped through his myriad demons, and Dodd warbles in romantic passion, through a tinge of melancholy and just a flash of the anger we’ve seen him capable of: I’d like to get you / On a slow boat to China…/All to myself / Alone…, I understood this to be Dodd’s last attempt at getting through to Freddie, who is moved to tears. He knows that Freddie is so far gone or so stubborn that he is “past help…or insane” but it is the effort, the pure passion he feels for trying to help this man who he maybe knew in a past life (somewhere in Paris, it’s suggested?) that drives him forward. But you can’t help someone who is unwilling to help themselves.

In a curious way, I tend to attribute my viewing of another great 70mm masterpiece, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the day before my second viewing of this film with my understanding of it this go around. In a sense, both films concern men of modest ambition who are brought low by their own hubris – a belief that they are without flaws and rule their own corner of the universe, only to discover that circumstance and other unforeseen elements have different things in store for their fate. It’s a good thing that Quell and Dodd, like Lawrence, have the good sense (if belatedly) to know when to give up.


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