Features / Reviews

Truncated Tracjetories in ‘The Master’ (2012, USA, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Master

2008 was a strange one.

An anxiety I had hitherto been unaware even existed materialised from nowhere following a viewing of Suspiria and mounted toward its agonising zenith in the same year.

I lived in a house with eight other guys who – bless them – couldn’t find their pause button when it came to pranks, drinks and loud noise. We would play Mortal Kombat ’til our eyes bled, our motivation increasingly stemming from the knowledge that half the house didn’t share the same appreciation for the beat ’em up’s pride of place in the communal living space. The ascending blare of the TV volume correlated with rising resentment. If I was on the right side of the prank, things seemed very amusing indeed. On the other side? Not so much.

With next to no idea who I really was, I found myself bouncing over all manner of crossroads without sight of an end destination. Cider was consumed by the litre. The next morning became an afternoon, then an evening. Sunlight was a stranger, quick to depart.

I had no aspirations to speak of. Small talk with strangers should typically gain momentum when one asks the other their university course. The answer can provoke wonder or confusion, curiosity or dismissal. ‘Cinema and Photography’, I would say, nudging my toe into the ground, keeping my head down. I never looked for their reaction. I was too ashamed.

People would ask what I wanted to be. My family would tell me what I wanted to be. It was as if there was a preconceived definition of the person I was to become with both those in the know and those wanting to know. I was in the middle, a blank slate on which an idea of a person was to be projected. I told them I was a writer, to send them away and dwell on it if they felt it necessary. But what if they probed further? What would I have to show? My long gestating projects were tucked away in draws as precedence was given instead to alcohol-fuelled misadventures. I realised too late that these misadventures were not inherently wrong, but they were too often. When one indulges in something they desire for too extended a period, misery sets in.

***

HDTV

To put things in a sorry perspective, we must acknowledge my own true aim in this entire year. It was to own a HDTV. All that was wonderful in life was to be contained within full 1080p. Video games be damned – I wanted this for cinema. Web pages were bookmarked on a daily basis as I trawled through site after site in search of the perfect spec. It was a pathetic pursuit, but it was all I really cared about.

On my 22nd birthday, I took the brand spanking new Samsung 40″ 60Hz Full HD TV out from its box and placed it a mere five feet away from me on the desk adjacent to my bed. This is going to look awesome, I thought. I was wrong.

After calibrating the set and shifting it to the opposite side of the room to my bed – realising that I could in fact still see everything remarkably well – I got to work on hooking up the surround sound. Before long, my bedroom was the epicentre of all earthquakes that shook the house windows. Those watching their own scheduling in the living room below were at the mercy of my thunderous bass pushing through the floorboards.

And there was one film I wanted to test out more than any other. There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic about a near-demonic oil man and his consuming paranoic obsessions. I had long admired Anderson’s work as a modern day US auteur and tended to ignore detractors’ blanket dismissals based on claims to riffing on Scorsese and Altman in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, respectively. Whatever styistic flourishes the man lifted, they arrived in service to his own thematic continuity. Anderson’s characters are typically males on the fringes of society, perpetually on the outside looking in at an exclusive haven that privileges anyone but them. It is an impenetrable world, and the frustration in breaking into its sphere is adeptly evoked in Anderson’s ouevre, most laudibly in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.

In those days I was swept up by the tidal wave of There Will Be Blood‘s overpowering form. Jonny Greenwood’s score was like a chugging train ramping rythmically alongside the aesthetic field. It built and built to bursting point, its cathartic mechanical churning supplmented with the gushing release of oil from a burning derrick, reflected in the savage eyes of Daniel Day Lewis’ madman.

I’ll forever remember the moment my mother came into my room to deposit freshly washed socks into my lap, right at the time Daniel Plainview sat with his back to the viewer, waiting. Greenwood’s pounding score indicated an imminent violent outburst, and along with the camera’s own lingering on the scene my mother felt compelled to stand there, in the dark of my room, eyes glued to the screen in expectation of an end, a vindication for the incessant throbbing sound, the churning, the still image that persisted without interruption.

There came an almighty explosion. It swam all around, through every speaker positioned about my bed. It shoook floorboards and rattled windowpanes. My mother’s held breath released itself into a hearty chuckle, and she took leave. My HDTV had been validated.

Five years on and it’s not clear yet what There Will Be Blood means to me in the grand scheme of things. In the annuls of cinematic history, it is but a remarkable blip. A beautiful beacon in the dark recess of 21st Century Hollywood stagnation.

***

the-master-pic0111

When Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was first announced, cinephiles, film buffs and casual viewers alike collectively gasped in glee for several disparate reasons. An ex-solider-cum-lonely-traveller, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) would stumble upon a boat on which would happen to reside Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a movement not unlike the notoriously dubious Scientology. The controversy wrote itself, but for every Joe Bloggs obsessively trying to glean information about the provocational nature of Anderson’s new film, there was a committed cinephile who was simply content to know that Anderson had another film in the pipeline, cult or no cult.

Preconceptions are often a fool’s game, from ‘this film will be about this’ to an optimistic yet equally shallow ‘this film will be awesome’. It came as a surprise to find many of my cineaste acquaintances formerly enamoured with Paul Thomas Anderson found nothing much to draw from his latest. On the other hand, critical opinion was split following its premieres at both Venice and Toronto ever since the reaction has converged into something uniformly positive. This turnaround has resulted in high placements on many a year-end list, including Sight and Sound’s own which is notably drawn from hundreds of leading global film critics.

A forgivable preconception was dismissing the idea that The Master was to be anything but, well, masterful. After Blood‘s violent flourishes, one assumed its followup would elect for similarly magisterial filmmaking equated in the lofty workings of a grand cult leader.

Perhaps the afficionados of Anderson were disappointed precisely because The Master is determinedly less viscerally formalist than what came before it. It possesses a stripped-back aesthetic painted in soft hues, located in a world at least partially more physically recognisable than the hellish landscape of Blood. The Kubrickian symmetry still resides in places, say the dolts, but in a general sense Anderson has refined his palette to accomodate a more intimate setting that seeks to provide incisive insight into the oddities of both isolated and controlling human beings.

Anderson knows how to frame, construct and pace the meeting of two faces engaged in a deeply heated emotional discourse. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are as reliable as any auteur is like to recruit, their performances brimming with conviction. Phoenix’s pained expressions in particular are sensational and do well to remind a forgetful viewership of the talent of this recently elusive talent.

Greenwood returns with a score that sits comfortably alongside the narrative, never threatening to overwhelm it in any positive or negative fashion as was the case with Blood. Despite this, there are traces of his previous effort to be detected here at peaking moments of chugging rhythm. For better or worse, it’s not as strong as an accompaniment as the Blood score, not nearly as necessary in most instances and perhaps not needed at all in communicating or reinforcing any sentiment when the images themselves make do quite capably.

Beyond the pared down aesthetic, fantastic performances – one is compelled to mention Amy Adams as Hoffman’s icy wife Peggy – and perfunctory score, we arrive at what is conceivably the strongest element of The Master and indeed much of Anderson’s catalogue so far: the script. His films are grand comments distilled into character studies, each designed with an unintended side-effect to confound presumptuous viewers conditioned to accept closed character arcs. The script is the carriage.

Unlike a lot of filmmakers, Anderson puts as much stock into his script as his visual talent and in doing so he eschews traditional narrative structure and character trajectories, rendering his output a hard sell for some. Those bewildered by Blood‘s conclusion will doubtless be equally flustered and dismissive of the final few minutes of The Master, but in doing so they fail to understand a key tenet of reality. Life has an abject refusal to adhere to a linear line. Anderson’s characters come and go, progress and regress; they change their minds, come terribly close to attaining whatever it is they think they want before falling far too short and back to square one.

Phoenix’s Quell is a deceptively simple soul. A post-war veteran propelled by his own animalistic id, helpless but to indulge in sex and violence, he comes ready-made to absorb the teachings of Dodd. Quell is an empty cipher, an echo chamber, a mirror image of whomever bestows upon him their own fanciful diatribe. It would be too reductive to say that his relationship with Dodd is as elementary as master-slave. It teems with nuance and rewards future viewings, as does the foreknowledge that the film does not in fact proceed in a straight line. Human struggle fluctuates, the tides turn and our relationships are never as straightforwardly reciprocal as we would so like to imagine.

***

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell

2013 isn’t such a strange one. I’m embarking on a new career, with new friends, a new city, a new home, some new pets and plenty of fresh opportunities out there for me to sieze and relish. If only I could travel back to 2008 – hell, even 2012 – and tell the younger me that, eventually, there would appear some focus, some drive, some reason. The pieces haven’t fully fallen into place just yet, and much like Anderson’s protagonists there’s every justification that I will stumble, fall, pick myself up again and repeat the cycle. But such is life.

No matter how integrated we might feel, there’s always that last piece of impenetrable existence that we strive towards. Most of us never reach it. Even those on the inside are perpetually looking in at something further, more abstract. The golden chase sustains itself.

It’s understandable to look to cinema for painterly fantasies that satiate our hunger for completeness. But any film that professes to have the answer is a lie. Our most cherished filmmakers close in on or circle around a question mark, inviting us to do the rest. And in return, the majority of us transmit our quarrels with shallow complaints over a film’s conclusion, forgetting that life itself only has one ending, and it’s rarely confronted in the multiplex.

Ergo, it’s the journey that counts. Some of us are having a strange one. Some of us are doing alright. And the only thing that’s certain is that nothing is ever certain. This irrevocable tension is the cornerstone of cinema.

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