Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Master": Another intense period story by Paul Thomas Anderson


In “The Master”, director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson accomplishes something similar to what he did a few years ago with “There Will Be Blood”.  He takes a historical period a few decades ago, puts together some political and cultural history, and comes up with a story, told with intensely drawn characters, of what “might have happened” but didn’t quite.

Here, the protagonist is a troubled Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who,  close to living on skid row, comes under the mentorship of a charismatic philosopher (“The Master”) Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), rapidly becoming leader of a “cult” that not too accidentally resembles the popular  or commonplace conception of the Church of Scientology.  Oh, no, there’s no literal inference.  This just might have happened. 

The trouble for me, at least, was that I did not “like” the characters as much as I did in Anderson’s 2007 film. A story about a "master teacher" and his student (or students) can be promising, but the students need to be promising as people.  Here, Freddie never really gets out of his reckless "masculine" rage (and alcohol abuse), unless you want to interpret the last scene generously.  

The pace of the movie is slow and deliberate. It is enhanced by the brooding French-sounding, syncopated, and moderately paced musical score of Jonny Greenwood.  A particular musical entr’acte will be playing during a scene change, carrying the psychological meaning over to a new setting. 

The film is shot in a 70 MM Panavision original, but presented on an ordinary 1.85:1 screen after a lot of digital oversampling.  This is most effective in theaters that have to crop  vertically to show anamorphic wide screen.  The standard aspect ratio is used because of the extensive closs-ups of the characters.  Partly because of the nature of the cultish initiations and conversations, the scenes, often indoors, tend not to have a lot of clutter in them, and the camera focuses on intense close-ups of faces and sometimes bodies (there is some female ceremonial nudity).  Distant backgrounds tend to look crisper and deeper with the 70MM format, particularly because Anderson tends to keep the composition of his images rather consistent (as in the opening shot of ocean water near a ship, that recurs a lot).  Alfred Hitchcock used this style of cinematography in the 1950s; it worked so well in Vistavision with “Vertigo”, and the look of this film is very much like that of Paramount’s process. Anderson revisits a few of the landscapes of his earlier work, especially in the desert.  The "easy rider" scene is effective. 

The tendency of the camera to dawdle on personal detail is obvious right at the very beginning, on the beach, as it exaggerates male body hair of the sailors, even to showing up an empty area of Phoenix’s chest.  Later, when women are shown, the camera focuses on moles in “personal areas”, making the viewer wonder if they’re malignant.

A couple of the scenes in the previews didn’t show up in the main film (they’ll probably be deleted scenes in the DVD).  One was an image of men jumping from a bridge; another was Freddie, when in jail, screaming to Lancaster, “Tell me something that’s true” -- a line right out of Rosenfels. 

Question:  Had Joaquin Phoenix said he was quitting acting?  Or is he back?

The official site (The Weinstein Company) is here.


I saw the film at the new Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA.  The theater trailer announced that previews would start, but then the feature started without previews.  But there was a 3-minute short film “National Women’s Day” from South Africa, showing how mining companies now prefer to hire women for underground mining jobs. 



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