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Questioning “The Master”

There is no excuse, in 2012, for making a movie that looks bad. There are dozens of film schools churning out skilled technicians. Sub-standard acting is rare, too: the supply of dedicated, hard-working performers is huge and top talent routinely aces the most challenging roles. Miraculous special effects?  More common and less expensive every year. So, can we agree that a professional, skillful film is pretty much a given? But what about when we all too often say, semi-apologetically, “Well, it was beautifully shot,” or “The performances were great,” or “The effects were awesome!” Don’t we want more?  Don’t we prefer to say, “What a great story! I was on the edge of my seat!” Or, in the case of films with literary aspirations, “I laughed, I cried, I was totally involved in the characters’ emotional predicaments!”  Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master plainly has literary aspirations. Big ones. As is his wont, he delves unstintingly into a dysfunctional patriarchal relationship, certainly a classical theme. And yet, here there is precious little to laugh, cry or chew one’s fingernails about.

But does literature require a story? Perhaps not. Maybe it’s enough to show people as they are, warts and all, with unflinching 65mm depth and clarity, preferably when they are bigger and stranger than life. Maybe it’s no longer important, in a post-Derrida age, that characters rise above or fall below their ambitions — or that they even seem to have ambitions. That they either extricate themselves from or are consumed by the obstacles of a narrative. Maybe it’s unimportant whether they end their two-plus hours in our presence somehow different than they began — or at least in a different place in their progress through life. Perhaps it’s enough to reveal character without impelling it forward, backward, upward or down. But darn it, don’t we thrill to literature precisely because it reveals the transformation of others to us as we remain, boringly, ourselves?

Let’s not go too far into the plot, such as it is; there are plenty of other venues in which to discover the details. (One thing it is not about is Scientology. Be prepared for that.) “The Master” follows the awkward 1950’s relationship between a totally failed human being (Joaquin Phoenix) and a group of emotional basket cases who are barely holding failure at bay by pretending that their little cult, led by a dyed-in-the-wool charlatan, can “program” away the angst of human existence. (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliance at portraying scumbags is a priori.) Given the Rorschach methodology of his pseudo-religion — and the hermetic vagueness of pretty much everything else in the movie other than the main characters’ sociopathy — it will be “about” different things for different viewers. If development is not what you’re looking for, if characters who are transformed, who achieve or are defeated by arduous goals are not what you enjoy in a fine-art film, then “The Master” will be your cup of tea. Get a good seat in a good theater and be prepared to marvel at texture and color and expert, organic performances that flirt dangerously with scenery-chewing. If you’re the sort who can spend 135 minutes craning up at the Sistine ceiling for the story that it tells, you’ll love “The Master.” It is as static as a fresco. This old-fashioned writer squirmed in his seat, waiting for Mr. Phoenix’s painful antics to lead somewhere or please, please end. Perhaps if you, the lover of all things cinematic, go without too many expectations, you will enjoy the detailed handiwork of a virtuoso director and crew; hair-raising scenes that cannot have been captured on film without extensive, daredevil improvisations; and a score that challenges your ears to stay in sync with your eyes. But if it’s a story you’re after, stay home and watch “Breaking Bad.”



  1. Chris Pandolfi says:

    I offer my own review as a counterpoint:


  2. Carroll F. Gray says:

    The Master lacks a story, as Jim Houghton saw it… yet as I sat and watched this quite compelling epic unfold, I was struck by how brilliantly the screenwriter and director had avoided the apparently eternal necessity of telling a story.

    I was reminded of the sense I had reading Frank Norris (1807-1902) when younger, his work challenged the very foundation of what it is to read a book. For instance, the disturbingly venal and uncouth characters found in McTeague are Freddie Quell’s archetypal progenitors.

    Also, the generally abusive atmosphere of The Master reminded me of Norris, shoving abusive relationships and fantasies of rape in the readers face, without comment and without judgement. Norris with McTeague, fills us with dread at what is to follow yet also with curiosity, while adopting the point of view of an old-school reporter, telling us what happened, and to whom, and when and where and, perhaps, why.

    I would be very surprised if The Master’s screenwriter wasn’t pondering Frank Norris when he began his screenplay.

    There are also several scenes in The Master which have direct parallels to scenes in the silent era film made of Norris’s McTeague.

    So, Jim H., if you were as unsettled as you seem to be by The Master, pick up McTeague (first ed. 1899) and become even more unsettled, to your likely delight and amazement. The transformational nature of literature is not always meant to be applied solely to literary characters.

  3. Carroll F. Gray says:

    (correcting my typo on the dates for M. Norris… of course, it should have read “1870-1902” not “1807-1902”)

  4. Robert Pincus says:

    I felt that this review offers rather weak criticisms of a strong film. There are different ways to create a powerful narrative. The approach in “Breaking Bad” is valud, no doubt about it. But “The Master” is more subtle and leaves a more insistent impression in the mind — which is what I think Anderson is trying to achieve — and does.

  5. Robert Pincus says:

    Correcting a snafu in my comment above.

    It should read:

    I felt that this review offers rather weak criticisms of a strong film. There are different ways to create a powerful narrative. The approach in “Breaking Bad” is valuable, no doubt about it. But “The Master” is more subtle and leaves a more insistent impression in the mind, which is what I think Anderson is trying to achieve — and does.

  6. I recommend getting the soundtrack and listening to it more than once. As the overture swells and falls; as the band swings with Ella’s ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan;’ as the character Doris’ single unaccompanied voice breaks one’s heart, the movie returns scene by brilliant scene.
    The story, I believe, is (among other strands) the 20th century. Anderson gives us a figure large enough to encompass Frank Lloyd Wright; Harry Stack Sullivan; Gurdjieff; Aimee Semple McPherson, et al — a list that I offer free of value judgment (i.e., artist/architect, psychologist; mystic; evangelist) until it gets to one particular apotheosis: Hitler.

  7. Tala OFM says:

    Great review. I honestly think that despite sumptuous cinematography and sublime acting, Paul Thomas Anderson’s didn’t’ do that much of a great job here.

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