Friday, September 21, 2012

A Battle That's Been a Trillion Years in the Making

Paul Thomas Anderson is to contemporary Hollywood something only maybe Terrence Malick can also be claimed as--an heir to the prestige rank of what the New Hollywood of the 1970s had established and set out to do. In his last two films he's found an actor willing to take on a gutsy unsympathetic lead and forged some unforgettable character studies. I bring this up because among the primary narrative elements used in a screenplay--character, setting, plot, dialogue, and genre--Anderson of late has mastered character and setting most. And since the only other top rank big budget director aside from Anderson and Malick that I can think of is Fincher, I find it telling of current Hollywood fiscal trends that Fincher specializes in plot and genre, for that's where the big money is at for artists of their caliber.

While almost every other Hollywood director has gone HD and begun pushing that envelope, Anderson remains committed to the potential of what film can do. A final Fincher comparison to ponder is he and Anderson's key collaborators for both of their last two films, the composer especially. Anderson's DP, Robert Elswit, ASC, was absent from his latest production--for the first time in their careers. That still leaves him with composer Jonny Greenwood and production designer Jack Fisk though. And this suits him just fine.

And some other trivia: Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shot Anderson's new film, shot Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and Twixt (2011) for Francis Ford Coppola, the last remaining figure from the 70s New Hollywood contiunuing in that vein of filmmaking, which Coppola calls "personal" fims.

Elswit first gave Anderson sprawling Ophülsian large canvass ensemble mosaics, then dark, naturally lit-appearing, artifact speckled tableaux. In The Master (2012, Anderson), the cinematography does not call attention to itself; and, no offence to Elswit, but, in a good way.

And Greenwood's score is less prominent.

Okay, here we go.

From the simple windsor font against a black background single title card, Anderson is relentlessly restrained. We're plunged into the world of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and observe him on the beach, post WWII, catching some R&R with some fellow sailors: with little dialogue or context, we begin to study his character through action--his behavior, his rowdy primal lusts and pursuits.

And then, aside from the introduction of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the narrative keeps adding tiny crucially revealing pieces to the layers and layers of Freddie's existence, identity, and ultimate place in the universe.

And after most of our curiosities about Scientology are allowed to explore this similar narrative, imagining the parallels to Freddie's Master in the same way Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant) did with a Cobain analog, it becomes possible to view The Master as an alternate take on There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson). Plainview courted our empathy, but here Dodd does not; and, that leaves us with an even more cynical worldview to process. We empathize with Freddie. If Plainview glorified our dark side, Freddie reminds us how lost we can get.

And that's the scary part of the master. Because by the end, I actually did sympathize with Dodd. Maybe I should leave it at that. These are big questions. What does it take for Freddie to allow himself to be subjected to Dodd's demands? Is he worse off? Maybe not. All's I'll say is I reconfigured my connotation of what a cult is after watching The Master.

Anderson's breakdown has become signature. Plainview bitch-slapping Eli started something. And Anderson's most intriguing when he bridges man's spiritual identity to his animal nature. The Master shows Freddie going rabid on more than one occurence.

Dodd is a return to the nucleus that formerly held the surrogate band of miscreants in Anderson's early films together. And his stalwart wife and daughter remind one of Plainview's reliance on HW to sell his family image to his buyers. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent in the way he truly embodies the charisma that needs to be that believable for this thing to really work, which it does.

I'll just close by saying that a few years ago I did some searches about Scientology, as I had just heard about it, and I read about it for hours. I still can't think of any movies other than A Woman of Paris (1923, Charles Chaplin), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen), The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford), The Last Tycoon (1976, Elia Kazan), Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes) or Last Days ("last" is common in these titles) where the biopic's subject has been thinly disguised while obviously resembling the real he or she quite a bit, but The Master's focus on Freddie safeguards itself against it being a Hubbard bio. The Master remains as a character piece, and one that boldy portrays our weaknesses and most lasting needs we shuffle through along the way to our own searches for a master, on whatever paths they lead us, which often resemble just these kinds of ethical and moral wrestling matches that take place beteween Freddie and his master.


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