starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
It's the opening of his four-book "Endymion", a work that spans roughly 4,000 lines and recounts a semi-obscure myth about a shepherd beloved by the moon goddess, Selene, that Terrence Malick was set to tell in Q, his aborted follow-up to Days of Heaven. I mention it because Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master looks and acts like a Terrence Malick film in its sublimity and Romanticism. I mention it, too, because The Master can be read as a loose adaptation of the first book in Keats's cycle. When hero Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) tells an army shrink that what he's really suffering from isn't shellshock but "nostalgia," The Master identifies itself as something Keatsian as opposed to something from Thomas Pynchon (as its opening would suggest) or Joseph Heller (as its humour would). Interested in neither satire nor Citizen Kane-esque excoriation of a public figure, the picture seeks instead to present belief systems and seekers of truth as ridiculous before the sharpness of knowledge gained through experience. It suggests that there is only experience--everything else is the anticipation of it or the disappointed post-coital regard of it--and that all of life's aspirations are directed at experience. For Keats, that sublimity in abeyance meant an eternal suspension, a "consummation sublime" where action, fleet, gave way too quickly to a destruction of some holy ideal. A thing of beauty is a joy only until the point that it's known, worried over, worked through, robbed of its poetry and, with it, some measure of eternity. I don't agree with that, but I understand the sentiment.
The first time Freddie tries to get laid, his partner is a woman made of sand, and it doesn't get any better from there as he washes out of the Navy, finds himself a photographer drinking cocktails of developing fluid ("an endless fountain of immortal drink, Pouring unto us from heaven's brink"), adrift with itinerant workers, and finally the right hand of author/cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), upon whose boat he stows away one night. He has a girlfriend too young for him (Madisen Beaty), and so he goes away; once he returns, she's gone and lives on as a shining thing--an object of nostalgia and the self-diagnosed cause of his madness. I think he's not far wrong. But The Master is about more than lost love; it's about the loss of idealism and, in that way, it represents an unusual conversation about the "Greatest Generation," about how we see them and how they see themselves in one sense. And in the direct reference to John Huston's long-suppressed shellshock documentary Let There Be Light (1946), it's about how their vision of the world was changed by their participation in the last "just" conflagration. Film has always hinted around at the disconnect between this and our elevation of this generation as paladins of light with the noir cycle, Anthony Mann's dark westerns, even the roles that everybody's all-American Jimmy Stewart chose upon his return from the Front. What The Master does is present its vision of failed attempts at epiphany through that lens of our men returned from war and the idea, eternally ironic, that these conversations we have through the agency of art (poetry, film, music, and the rest) are always had at a remove from the actual living of life.
Dodd is a jack-of-all-trades huckster not unlike, as it's been widely documented, L. Ron Hubbard. He, like Hubbard, is at the head of a quasi-scientific movement that marries elements of psychiatry with physical science, seeking through regression therapy and other New Age mind-trips...truth? Beauty? Functionally, it seems to strip away artifice from the feeble-minded and others seeking a path through the bramble, to make them more susceptible to Dodd's suggestions and gathering sway. Freddie becomes Dodd's enforcer and chief mixologist, applying his experience fashioning impromptu drinks from torpedo fuel to the task of intoxicating Dodd. The intoxication appears mutual. There's a scene about midway through where Freddie and Dodd are in jail together in separate cells. Freddie begs for Truth from Dodd, for one authentic thing. It occurs immediately after another moment in which Dodd's son (Jesse Plemons, on the verge) warns Freddie that his father is making things up as he goes along. But the revelation that Dodd doesn't have a blueprint for the universe isn't the conflict of the piece, nor is the tension as to when or if Freddie will discover he's following a fraud. Rather, that Dodd is lost is part of a larger reality that all the characters in the film are lost and so are we. There's a brilliant scene where Dodd is confronted with passages in his new book that directly contradict laws set forth in his old one that touches on the terror that pulling back the skin of the world reveals only hungry chaos underneath. It isn't just Dodd, it's not just Freddie, it's implication--yes, sublime implication--that the only truth is something as impossible to define and ephemeral, yet completely universal and all-compelling, as Beauty.
Now, if this earthly love has power to make
Men's being mortal, immortal; to shake
Ambition from their memories, and brim
Their measure of content; what merest whim,
Seems all this poor endeavour after fame,
To one, who keeps within his steadfast aim
A love immortal, an immortal too.
For Anderson (for Keats, too), "Beauty" in this sense is the promise of consummation--of physical completion and release, knowing, even in the process of it, that the aftermath is hollowness and self-loathing. The thing that pulls The Master from vignette to vignette along Freddie's journey is the characters' futility in trying to enjoy a "natural" physical relationship. Consider Dodd getting jerked off by his harridan wife (Amy Adams), or Freddie's vision of all the women naked at a party, unattainable and mocking. Or consider the moment where Freddie goes back to claim his child bride--she's gone, and only her mother is there to console him in the twilight. Then consider that the final shot of the film is Freddie in joyful coitus at last, laughing about Dodd's discoveries and revelations, each to a one made ridiculous in the face of the friction between cock and pussy. It's edifying to this idea that rapture, Truth, only occurs in the immediate, literal ecstasy of the act that Anderson ends his picture right in the middle of Freddie reaching this moment in his journey. Freddie's victory is fleeting--the victory against the anxiety before and the fear after is always fleeting--but the image of it is a lovely rhyme of another that occurs earlier when, during one of Freddie's "sessions" with Dodd, Anderson peers in through a picture window to see our hero encased, gazing out, his hands flat against the glass. The brilliance of Anderson's entire oeuvre, looking back, is that it consists of smart movies about the boxes we build for ourselves when we overthink things--when we create things to substitute for biological creation, or build religions on foundations of dissociation and loneliness. It's at once a critique against criticism, and a recognition that our lives are constructed of brief moments and then long intervals between them that we spend trying to contextualize those moments, or refashion them into something more permanent.
Phoenix is remarkable. Bent into a question mark throughout, he is the literalization of the modern man lost, all muttering and distraction and retreats into distorted, modified realities. He is Dodd's greatest challenge because he represents the urge to seek without the commensurate idea of an object to be sought. He's on a quest, but there is no grail. The end of the journey is a launch into maelstroms over water--it's in this way that Romanticism gave way to Naturalism, then Modernism. What Phoenix does is create a vortex, and it's astonishing work. Hoffman is likewise astounding as a creature of desperation and fictions. It's not so much his words as his desire to contextualize the Universe; his task as Dodd is to contain a void--and it's fruitless work, of course, though it's in our essential nature to undertake it just the same. If Freddie represents our Natural state, Dodd represents our desire to contextualize that within ourselves; the wonder of The Master is that in the end, the only conclusion it can offer is that we should stand up from our screens and go for a walk, preferably naked, in the wild woods and howl. Life is for the living of it, and we are too, too devoured by nostalgia and regret. A perfect film to watch with Jane Campion's Bright Star, The Master, by itself, gives lie to the idea that Americans don't make great, nuanced, complicated films. It's sublime.
by Bill Chambers On Blu-ray, The Master has the almost lacerating clarity you'd expect from something shot in 70mm (the actors are beautifully lit but fundamentally deglamorized, with worry lines and wind- and sun-chapped skin brought into sharp relief), combined with the cleanliness and supple dynamic range that are the hallmarks of large-format. Grain does surface in the densest areas of shadow--that's what happens to celluloid of any size if you shoot in low-enough light, and this film often favours a Gordon Willis darkness. Some handheld material was shot in 35mm but blends well because of the movement involved, and the cyan-dominant, photochemical palette is digitally interpreted with fidelity. (The department-store darkroom's sulphuric gleam looks remarkably unaffected.) At less than half the resolution of 70mm, the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is obviously no substitute for the real thing, but it's a hell of an approximation. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is simultaneously precise and transparent--Jonny Greenwood's score seems to come from the sidewalls. Voices are acoustically persuasive and modulated with genius against other voices, music, ambience, and a vacuous silence that consumes the soundstage now and again.
Like the compilations on the Punch-Drunk Love ("Blossoms and Blood") and There Will Be Blood DVDs, "Back Beyond" (HD) combines outtakes and deleted scenes into a montage scored by Greenwood. It's a non-linear but cohesive tangle of footage and dialogue fragments that--initially, at least--seems to use the "time hole" as its organizing principle, turning Freddie Quell into Billy Pilgrim as it skips around his life during the service and in Lancaster Dodd's service. The piece reveals that Anderson regular Melora Walters played the singer in a trio that entertains at Dodd's book party, as well as an amusing subplot about Freddie being entrusted with guarding a box that's a little unfathomable out of context. "Back Beyond" ends with Hoffman repeatedly cracking Phoenix up with a "these pretzels are making me thirsty"-esque line of dialogue, which feels very cathartic after the picture proper and this fairly heavy distillation of it.
"Unguided Message" (8 mins.) is a standard-def behind-the-scenes featurette that's kind of interesting for showing the unseen margins of a convincingly un-movie-like set, and I like a part where the unidentified videographer is following Paul Thomas Anderson and becomes obviously distracted by a pretty P.A.. Alas, the crappy camerawork and lack of structure are alternately torturous and tedious. Last among the longform extras is John Huston's landmark Let There Be Light (58 mins.), presented in unrestored SD but still a hell of a purchase incentive. In the moment that seems to have most directly inspired The Master, a black soldier tells the military doc that he's suffering from nostalgia, induced by a photo of his "sweetheart." He goes on a crying jag. "To be perfectly honestly with you," he tells the shrink, "I'm very much in love with my sweetheart." It's devastating. Though the movie does have the prescribed happy ending of propaganda, that didn't stop the U.S. government from blanching at its frankness, and The Master is a true spiritual sequel. Nine quasi-experimental teaser trailers for The Master round out the disc. The Anchor Bay BD is bundled with a DVD, a Digital Copy download code, and a postcard featuring Lancaster Dodd. Mail it to the girl back home.