Creative Control

The Master (2012)     ★★★★★

Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Weinstein Company)

Imagine three of contemporary cinema’s most talented actors, and then place them at the mercy of a filmmaker who is exactly what the title would suggest. The Master is not only significant in its challenging outlook of men who domineer and those who wander, but also as an example of what happens when we allow an accomplished auteur of the craft, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, to make the exact film he feels needs to be made. It’s movies like these that simply restore your faith in modern art.

This is a narrative that bypasses the human desire to classify and categorize information, to make sense of things that sometimes cannot be understood. It doesn’t neatly tie story elements and themes into a nifty little package, instead serving to provoke inevitable discussion. Screened at select theaters in 70mm, The Master is an all-enveloping source of beauty, a devastatingly potent, hauntingly funny movie that refuses to tell you what to think or feel. The tone we experience is nearly Kubrickian in nature, if not for the style and content that is undeniably Anderson’s own.

Amidst Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s breathtaking cinematography is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic (and mentally afflicted) World War II veteran who drunkenly stumbles upon the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a writer and philosopher (married to Amy Adams’ character) who is currently spreading word of a new religious movement, a nod to the origins of Scientology. Dodd soon finds inspiration within Quell, as the socially inept victim becomes a more integral member of “The Cause.”

Phoenix, following his self-parodying “break” from Hollywood for his rap-based mockumentary, is extraordinary. Anderson frames many scenes of dialogue by cutting between long-held close-ups of each actor, and there is not one moment when Phoenix isn’t astonishing. Between the paralyzed scowl on one side of his face, scruffy, nonsensical dialect, drunken stagger, and raw conveyance of human emotion / physicality at its most unrestrained, Joaquin is nothing less than perfect, and his character, one that will not be soon forgotten.

As for Hoffman’s performance as Dodd, partially inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, perfection also seems an easy word to throw around. The scenes he shares with Phoenix present a groundbreaking high for onscreen character interactions. This is a man who has dictated power to himself, refusing to accompany the desire of any master but himself. The foundation for his movement is even derived by the concept of past lives, things that have defined us against our current will. We rarely ask whether Dodd actually believes the things he pronounces, mostly because there are so many other questions to be asked.

Lancaster Dodd is a man with such a strong point-of-view regarding human life, that he will go so far as to broadcast radical theories in order to promote his self-believed genius. Adams, as his spouse Peggy, is also staggeringly good. Her support of her husband comes not only from love but of an undying desire to build herself up alongside him, to become immortals amongst those like Freddie, who seemed destined to roam without purpose. Dodd is a charismatic narcissist, claiming to have all the answers and blowing up when his theories are questioned, possibly because he is reminded that they have no root in logic. He comes to love Freddie because he is an ideal subject, one who he hopes can be conditioned in a manner that he seeks to enact upon all humankind. Yet there is a glimmer of hope in Anderson’s handling of the situation; we come to find that Dodd may actually appreciate the man, not just what he represents.

Peggy comes between them as a foreseer of logic in their developing relationship, displaying the image of cutesy housewife, but enacting the aggression necessary for the advancement of The Cause. It is obvious what attracts Freddie to Dodd’s cult, mainly because it involves elements of life that he has been severely lacking – community, structure, a philosophical code, etc. The scenes in which Dodd and his followers manipulate Freddie into commission are deeply saddening, effectively portrayed moments of how a man can be contorted into something he may subconsciously want, but is simply not built for. On that note, I was glad with the approach the film took of not denouncing the moral travesties of cult behavior, but instead observing one man’s experience within such a group.

Anderson matches his penetrative storytelling ability with visual splendor, swapping between every imaginable type of shot, and playing with focus and lenses like a true craftsman (you can tell that he and Malaimare always knew exactly what they wanted to do with the camera). He utilizes his iconic, sweeping camera movements in situations that are essentially ideal to the technique, such as an early scene when Quell assaults a department store customer. He holds shots long enough that we may feel like observers watching motion within a framed work of art, yet somehow being able to obtain a plentiful chunk of wisdom within each instance. There are also the previously mentioned close-ups, in which we are able to see just how talented these actors are, and how deserving they are of individual Oscars.

The Master is arguably a slow-paced film, but its narrative flow, the seamless transitions between both cinematic technique and narrative elements (there are a couple of scenes that can be interpreted as fantasy sequences, or moments displaced from time) is never less than mesmerizing. Give credit to editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, and obviously, Anderson’s script for containing such juicy material in the first place. Anderson knew that he didn’t want to exploit his ideas, but rather provoke the audience to make its own decisions. This choice is exponentially effective, and yes, the dark humor and elaborate symbolism actually do work. Also superb is the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who collaborated with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. The tone it conveys is beyond words, and the film itself, having incorporated each of these elements, feels like a hypnotic journey into the human soul.

There is a scene (possibly the film’s best) soon after Freddie meets Dodd, where Hoffman’s character drills the emotionally torn veteran with psychological questions; a “Processing” exercise intended to relieve Freddie of traumatic events, emotions, and memories that have occurred in his present life, and in succession, will allow him to discover the “self” that is present across all existence. At least that’s the way I interpret it, and despite Freddie’s answering of Dodd’s questions in the best way he can, it becomes clear that he may never reach that point of self-knowledge. The film comes to a conclusion that many will denounce as unfulfilling, and leaves many questions unanswered. But hey, that’s life, and it seems to be what Anderson’s been going for all along.

Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and his seemingly forgotten debut, Hard Eight, have all received their share of praise, and it should come as no surprise that the 42-year-old is considered by many critics as the greatest American director working today. Although it will baffle its share of viewers (abiding by one of many intended aspects), The Master excites me for many reasons. In particular, new generations of filmgoers will see this movie, and as long as we have wonderful artists like Anderson in the early 21st century, new blood will obtain their share of influence.

At one point in The Master, Dodd relays onto Freddie a bit of wisdom that may actually make sense, and in reality, couldn’t be more true. He tells Freddie, “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” Before Freddie went out to sea, love was his master, having hoped to spend the rest of his life with the girl who swept him off his feet. Then it was his country. And now, in a post-war world of utter confusion, it is Dodd. And throughout each transfer, sex, violence, and booze have been along for the ride. What will be the next master, or is Freddie a man who is simply fated to wander from one to the other?

Dodd hopes to place Freddie’s life within his own hands, as he does with all those he teaches. But he also wants to dictate them, shape them, mold them in his own image. To be a god. And what could be more hypocritical than that? As Dodd’s quote exemplifies, no man is free from this basic principle. The most impactful master in Dodd’s life is the drive associated with becoming his own. Obsession, inquisition, the desire to know, to win. Not all men are treated by life equally, but if we stop to look at factors that come to define who we are, leader or not, we begin to discover shared facts of humanity. The Cause is an extended metaphor, and the film of Paul Thomas Anderson, an exquisite reflection on what it means to be adrift in this strange world. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema, one that requires an audience-filmmaker relationship of enduring strength. Give yourself to The Master, and it will give itself to you.



Lost in Time

Looper (2012)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Rian Johnson (FilmDistrict) things considered, please allow me to keep my review of Looper rather concise. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film is not only terrific sci-fi, but as of yet, my favorite film of the year behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. Especially for the first hour, Johnson’s screenplay is so packed with narrative tricks and stylistic boldness, it simply takes one’s breath away. Backed by impressive set design, the intricacies of his self-created world implement heady plot elements, pulpy action, dark humor, a touch of romance, impressive cinematography, sheer ingenuity, and inspiration from other great works of science-fiction.

Although the film continues to lose steam as it reaches its not-too-shocking (yet still satisfactory) conclusion, Looper is a crafty picture that thrills simply on the sensibilities of its killer style, charming those who love movies through a blessed exercise in creativity. And as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt enact the principle characters with warmth and conviction, Johnson’s film becomes a thought-provoking allegory for humanity being caught in one giant loop, making the same mistakes again, again, and again. Additionally, the filmmaker’s interpretation of time travel (which manages to be both direct and subjective) provides the chance to make a momentous “correction” within the narrative. To a less ludicrous extent, our own present also offers plenty of these opportunities; those to benefit our current time, and most importantly, build toward a future where empathy is a feasible alternative to self-actualization.