Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Master

THE MASTER              C+               
USA  (137 mi)  2012  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson          Official site

Might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
Might have money and drugs at your commands, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
—“Gotta Serve Somebody,” by Bob Dylan, 1979  

While the production design of this film offers an extreme clarity rarely seen in movies, the first film in 15 years shot on 65 mm for a 70 mm theatrical projection (good luck finding a theater capable of screening it in that format, also shown in XD theaters), giving it a phenomenally bright and gorgeous look onscreen, this doesn’t make up for the emotional disconnect with the film itself, where the mysteriously vague aspects of Anderson’s storyline plunge us over the deep end into unchartered territory, where much of this feels like a long and empty road going nowhere.  Very similar to his recent film There Will Be Blood (2007), both have the feeling of an epic work, yet both defy categorization without a single likeable character in either movie, and in this film nothing of any real significance happens.  Instead it’s a highly atmospheric character examination of Freddie Quell (a more emaciated Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck sailor from WW II who bounces around after the war, receiving inadequate and insufficient psychiatric help from the Navy for the post traumatic stress, becoming a drifter, never really fitting in anywhere.  Making matters worse, he has a talent for putting together hazardous chemicals, like paint thinner, Lysol, gasoline, or photo developing fluid while making his own homemade alcohol, becoming instantly hooked, subject to huge mood swings including violent tendencies, stumbling around drunk most of the time.  While the opening sequence on the beach features naked male torsos that might recall Beau Travail (1999), with beautifully unsettling, often percussive music from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Freddie’s near masturbatory obsession with sex suggests he lives in something of a fantasy world, becoming attached and sexually enthralled with a sand castle carving of a female anatomy.  His social dysfunction is reminiscent of Shohei Imamura’s THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966), where one character, in hedonistic pursuit of a perfect mate, discovers a wood-carved doll of a voluptuous woman.  He becomes so enraptured with her that nothing else matters, becoming more and more detached from his life, lost and alone on a small boat, carving his doll, oblivious and adrift.  This perfectly describes Freddie’s aloof frame of mind, a loner completely cut off from the rest of the world, where booze and sex are the only things that matter. 

While There Will Be Blood captures the stark emptiness of the endless Texas landscapes, this film explores the cavernous depravity of the human soul.  Beautifully set in 1950, this is a period piece with 50’s jukebox songs that features a shift from war-time mentality to the rise of consumerism, where Freddie gets a job working as a photographer doing family portraits in a department store, but his mind turns it into a Felliniesque surreal landscape where in one of the better scenes, he finds sexual solace with Martha the Salesgirl (Amy Ferguson), where it’s hard to tell if this is really happening or if it only exists in his mind—such is his disconnection from reality.  Eventually run out of the store and perhaps out of town, we see him fleeing across an open field after someone falls ill from drinking his homemade brew, wandering the streets endlessly through the night, finally staggering onto a docked ship where music can be heard and a festive party is taking place on deck.  He awakes in the morning as a Chaplinesque stowaway aboard the ship already at sea, immediately interviewed by the captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a somewhat reclusive and philosophically mysterious gentleman who takes to him immediately, seeing something there in his inherent waywardness that perhaps only he could help, taking him under his wing, even allowing him to live with his family.  Told in a stream-of-conscious style, we lose all sense of time, where subsequent events between them are connected as if by memory or recollection, linking together vignettes throughout the film as brief moments in time.  Freddie is drawn into his world during an intensely personal psychoanalytic interview session known as processing, where Dodd discovers many of Freddie’s hidden secrets, the kinds of things he hides from the rest of the world, like the kind of dysfunctional family he came from and who it is he’s really running from, which turns out to be a 16-year old girl named Doris (seen only in flashback), a kind of virginal image of perfection, though he has to be twice her age.  While the audience learns of Freddie’s tortured past, no such background information is ever revealed about Dodd, a charismatic figure considered by his critics as something of a charlatan, but who sees himself as a visionary healer, where patients (hopefully rich ones with generous pocketbooks) continually undergo processing, often with startling results.                    

Loosely inspired by the sham ideology of L. Ron Hubbard’s secret indoctrinating methods of Scientology and John Huston’s war documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946) following traumatized soldiers seeking treatment after the war, the film seems to sink into the dark abyss of Freddie’s doldrums, where despite punishing sessions with Dodd, aka the Master, often demonstrating his unorthodox techniques publicly in front of small groups of curious onlookers, Freddie never seems to make much progress as he appears incapable of self-reflection or total surrender, but nonetheless remains a zealous believer in the cause, often pummeling non-believers into submission for having the audacity to question or doubt.  Much of the film seems to be about manipulation and power, where one reason Dodd may like having Freddie around is he represents weakness, exactly the kind of passivity he’s searching for in his followers.  The group secretly records all their therapy sessions for reasons that are never revealed, but interestingly much of the dominant power behind the scenes comes from Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth figure who skillfully guides his actions, where he’s the figurehead, the monkey on a leash, a public charmer who rakes in the cash while behind the scenes she exudes ruthless power.  The trick is to goad people in, to make them comfortable with the idea that for centuries people have been lulled asleep and need to be woken up, where Dodd is the trigger and stimulus to a kind of human rebirth, where they must learn to take control over their lives, of course, by abandoning all resistance and sacrificing their own individuality and free will.  There are outlandishly bizarre scenes in this movie, like a fantasy sequence of women stripping completely naked while Dodd sings a bawdy old English ballad, or another when Dodd quietly sings an a cappella rendition of “Slow Boat to China” to a somewhat bewildered Freddie, who never seems to understand his place in the world or this organization. There’s another amusing dream sequence in an immense movie theater with Freddie as the sole customer lying asleep draped over several chairs as the audience hears the onscreen voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost, also a moment when both are arrested and placed in adjoining cells, where their reactions couldn’t be more opposite, one in a virulent rage while the other impassively remains in a Zen calm.  While the look of the film is dazzling, seen in an XD theater using a superbright projector, the film feels as spectacularly empty as the Death Valley desert sequence, an exercise where Freddie on a motorcycle rushes headlong towards an invisible wall out there in the distant horizon, hoping somehow he can break through at breakneck speed rushing towards a fictitious goal that never exists.  With both leads exuding various forms of ego driven madness throughout, there’s barely a hint of personal identification and scant human drama to hold our interest.    

1 comment:

  1. You're like the Jason Whitney of film criticism, but without the astuteness or warmth.