June 7, 2013 by NowhereButPop
I enjoy pretty much every movie I see. Well, I’m entertained by pretty much every movie. This is a known fact amongst my closest cohorts, as it once resulted in a heated, friendship-threatening argument over the movie Couples Retreat. Sure, there are movies that I hate: Quantum of Solace, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: The Last Stand, and a handful of others. But I didn’t expect this from The Master. I didn’t expect this from Paul Thomas Anderson.
The Master is the prettiest, most eloquent turd I’ve ever seen. But a turd is still a turd, no matter how much you polish it.
There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s previous film from 2007, is arguably the best American film of the last 7 or 8 years. When some poor girl is one day deceived into providing me an heir, and I force my love of film and pop culture on said child, There Will Be Blood is one of those movies I’ll always talk about. The one that makes me explain, “No No No, you don’t understand, I was there.” It’ll be that movie you had to be there for, that you vividly remember seeing in theaters for the first time. I was there to see the bullshit Academy Awards upset, I’ll tell him, when the forgettable No Country For Old Men won out. “No County For Old People?” he’ll ask, “Isn’t that by the Corben brothers?”
There Will Be Blood is a movie about science vs. religion, man vs. god, and passion vs. insanity, surrounded by cataclysmic fires and the enveloping ooze of black black oil. Which is not to mention the performances by Daniel Day-Lewis or Paul Dano, or the score by Jonny Greenwood, or the ending. TWBB showed us not only what great films could look like in the modern age, but what they would look like from now on. Kubrick is gone, Scorsese makes 3D kids movies, and Soderbergh is retiring. Doesn’t fuckin matter, barked There Will Be Blood.
I didn’t see The Master until yesterday, which is why I was shocked when it hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture earlier this year. Don’t they have a stupid rule now where they nominate however many movies they want? And they still didn’t want to nominate The Master? It’s Paul Thomas Anderson! Surely he can do no wrong!
The Master is a great film as much as Buffalo Bill is a woman after he tucks his member between his legs, puts on lipstick, and dances to “Goodbye Horses.” The Master looks like a great film, acts like a great film, thinks like a great film. But ultimately, it means nothing. At times, it so aggressively means nothing that it feels like a satire. Like Anderson decided he was gonna use every cliché in the Paul Thomas Anderson book and put them together in a well-shot mess, as some angry joke on the world, a pretentious attempt to prove that audiences have no taste. Now I don’t believe this is actually true, but it sure feels that way sitting through this nearly two and half hours of crap.
The Good: Well there’s the haunting opening shots of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell at the beach, on a submarine, and then back to the beach as he longingly pretends to have sex with a woman made of sand. Later, there’s the long take of Freddy, a close shot of his breakdown while going through the rigors of Lancaster Dodd’s “Processing,” a set of abrasive questioning meant to get to the root of an individual’s past traumas. It’s a haunting scene, a beautiful scene, a meaningful scene. There’s also the long take of Freddie freaking out after he’s imprisoned alongside Dodd, having fought off police officers that attempt to arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without proper licensing. There’s also the long take of Freddie beginning to cry, as Dodd tells him that if he decides to leave one more time, it will be forever, and that in any subsequent lives, the two will become sworn enemies. Then Lancaster Dodd sings Freddie a song, angrily.
These are haunting scenes, beautiful scenes, superbly acted scenes, and meaningful scenes. Right? I mean, they depict anguish, sadness, anger, and glimmers of joy. They show deeply conflicted and flawed men. They highlight the brilliant performances of Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And these scenes all come with some very long takes, framed fancily and artistically, urging us to peer into the souls of such dark men. Ultimately, though, that’s all The Master is: hollow scenes that look good and sound good, but that don’t really add up to anything meaningful. It’s just the story of two flawed guys who come into, and then out of, each other’s lives. And while they’re in each other’s lives, they get all broody and yell a lot. Nothing really happens, nobody changes, and nothing ever really feels like it’s at stake. The Master is a bunch of shots put together with a great score, great dialogue, acting, cinematography, etc. That doesn’t make a great film.
There Will Be Blood was a journey, a conflict, a struggle. Boogie Nights was the same, albeit in a more comedic, brightly colored way. The closest one gets to defining what the film is “about” is that it follows the post-WWII trauma and aimlessness of two men, Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell. Yet The Master begins after Lancaster Dodd has already become “Master,” and it ends when he still is, though now with more concrete doubt as to whether he’s made up all his teachings. Great movies don’t always have a tight narrative, and they sure don’t have to. But when a movie chooses character over that narrative, you better spend the time studying those characters, delving into their origins, watching them face struggle. Freddie Quell is angry man with a troubled childhood, whose proclivity for violence likely existed even before the war. Lancaster Dodd tries, unsuccessfully, to help him. Dodd, on the other hand, is an angry man who appears well-adjusted, and represses his rage until the weight becomes unbearable. For a movie with no tangible narrative, you’ve got to do better than that. I’ve seen these characters before, plenty of times. They’re not complex, intricate characters; hell, they’re practically the prototype.
My hope is that Anderson’s next film, an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon’s quirky Inherent Vice, will be exactly the right film to turn of these problems around, that can get him away from the pretentiousness of The Master and back to the lighter hand of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. As for the significance of this film’s utter failure, I think it’s this: The Master feels like a check list of everything a great modern film is supposed to have, fulfilling every category with aplomb. But ultimately, it is a hollow film, because it’s only the checklist, and seems to be built not from genuine artistic interest but from an external notion of greatness. With how much the Academy gets wrong with its award winners and nominees, I’d expect them to be fooled as always, like in their obsession with Kathryn Bigelow and their yearly snubbing of either Scorsese or Tarantino. But they got this right. For once, in a really long time, the Academy was right. The Master may be a failure, but gives us hope, a reason to truly celebrate: maybe – just maybe – the Oscars haven’t become completely misguided and meaningless. They managed to recognize that this one particular movie wasn’t Oscar-worthy. That means something, right? …right..?