As soon as The Master was released, every day it was, “Ja see it? Ja see it yet? Whadja think? Ya gotta go see it.” Nag, nag, nag.
So to give writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson credit, he’s got crass showmanship going for him. He can crank up the ballyhoo machine, and that’s not nothing in these dull times.
What with all the hue and cry, you find yourself hustling right off to see his latest extravaganza, and only then do you remember how much you hate that little flimflamming PTA fucker. He takes your money and gives you crap in exchange every time—magnificently shot crap festooned in Acting with a capital ACK.
And then, after the last time when you swore to yourself you’d never get taken in by any more of his milkshake cons—he does it again! PTA Barnum!
Here’s Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone, an easy mark for the Barnums of the film world, swallowing their snake oil and then going right out to peddle it himself to all the other gullible types:
I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson. Hollywood films give you zilch to believe in, tying up their narratives with a tidy bow so you won’t leave confused and angry. Anderson refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences.
See how it works? Just threaten the pseudo-ejjicated chumps with the idea that they can’t handle the hardcore mental challenges PTA is laying down, and they’ll fold like accordions every time. This PTA product is so tedious and incoherent and unpleasant, it must be the real intellectual shit, all right! Let’s watch in a spirit of dutiful reverence and then tell everyone who’ll listen how awesome The Master is!
Here’s Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter beating the drum with this review-summary logline:
A bold, challenging, brilliantly acted drama that is a must for serious audiences.
So there’s the gauntlet thrown down, potential audience-member: Are you serious? (Say No right away, and slide out of the whole bogus experience! That’s good practical advice for a happy life!)
“Are you serious?” is a question that could usefully be put to Paul Thomas Anderson as well, with a different spin on it. But nobody ever seems to pose it to him when he leaves these cinematic messes all over the carpet.
Nervous high-culture types know better than to ask, because PTA is canny enough start off every film with a combo of qualities that intimidates them into compliance: daunting pomposity, big technological flourishes, embiggening themes, “daring” subject matter, and outrageous ham acting.
Just to indicate how readily PTA gets the rubes to fall into line, here’s Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, who doesn’t like the film but feels compelled to praise it anyway:
“The Master” opens on a shot of swirling turquoise water, the roiling backwash of an unseen boat.
It’s a dazzling, super-saturated image that recurs throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s film and serves as a fitting leitmotif, not only for the social and emotional churn that the movie seeks to represent, but also for the psychic state of the audience itself.
Ah, yes! The big fat gorgeous significant opening shot, clearly meant to be “read.” What’s it mean, what’s it MEEEEEAN???? Remember Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane opening, the long slow series of dissolves of fences and barriers as you move slowly, slowly, toward the Gothic house on the hill where Kane lies dying, and the sign that says “NO TRESPASSING”? What a perfect coy enticement! No, no, the film seems to say , I won’t let you look, I won’t let you interpret, though I know you can’t help yourselves, you brilliant cinema-lovers, you serious devotees of the arts, bless you but you must stop, it’s hopeless even for you to understand the life of any given human being, much less the life of the quintessential American, Orson Welles, I mean William Randolph Hearst, I mean Charles Foster Kane!
Ya gotta credit the guy, it’s the greatest flimflammiest come-on in the history of cinema, absolute catnip for the critics!
So this was the Orson Welles formula, and PTA is like the offspring of Orson Welles and some carny woman Welles picked up while doing his tacky magic show (Welles’ favorite hobby).
PTA seems to realize this, and is always doing films about the Big Con, featuring grandiose hucksters in the Welles mode. It’s his cleverest move as a filmmaker, deflecting all criticism, and it’s right out of the Welles playbook. He’s not a con artist himself, see—he’s doing serious studies of the American dependence on con artists, our always-burning hope that the next big-talking grifter who comes along will turn out to be the real deal and give us our free pass to Elysium.
PTA even pulled the Wellesian stunt of leaking to the press that he was taking on L.Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, only he couldn’t get too explicit because he’d get sued or assassinated or something, so that’s how come the movie’s not really about L. Ron Hubbard. Only it kinda is, and for all you insiders, the film is full of amazing clues! This generates reams of publicity. Welles did exactly the same thing with newspaper mogul and all-around prick William Randolph Hearst, and it’s never stopped paying dividends for that old warhorse Citizen Kane, which always is and always will be at or near the top of any official Best Films list.
In The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd is absolutely channeling Welles, doing that steady-eyed I-dare-you-to-look-away-from-my-fat-face-which-seems-to-fill-the-room trick that Welles had down pat. And then there’s the sonorous too-controlled oratory, the voice played like a great organ, so that listening to it you lose yourself in its lofty baritone melodies till the sharp shift occurs, sometimes into oily, phony, “self-deprecating” humor, as with Hoffman/Dodd’s smirking line, “Of course, this is all very, very, veryveryvery seeeerious.”
Or sometimes there’s a sudden break into stuttering rage, which seems so “authentic” after all that formal Shakespearean recitation. That’s an old stage trick, a favorite of Welles’, and Hoffman uses it several times in The Master, his voice rolling along mellifluously till it suddenly roars up in volume for “you stupid pigfuck!” or something equally loud and impolite.
That one always wakes the audience up, makes them feel like they’re really getting their money’s worth out of the thespians.
Anyway, if you haven’t heard, The Master is about an L. Ron Hubbard-esque founder of a movement called The Cause and his relationship with his “guinea pig and protégé” Freddie Quell. Quell is supposedly some kind of raging war-traumatized id figure who can’t fit into the buttoned-up postwar world, or something. Endless scenes of Freddie acting out, miming sex acts, jerking off in public, drinking cleaning agents and motor fuel, assaulting people, and so on. If PTA had any sense of humor whatsoever, some of this might be funny, but the whole thing plays out as a dreary solemn plod.
Beautifully shot, though!
As Quell, Joaquin Phoenix contorts himself physically, like an old-time stage actor playing the Hyde side of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He adopts a slope-shouldered, collapsed-chest, droopy-armed stance so extreme he looks like he’s about to go into either his gorilla imitation or a chicken dance at any moment. He squints one eye and thrusts his jaw forward and distorts his scarred lip grotesquely to the point that a lot of his dialogue is unintelligible. Several reviewers have noted a vague resemblance to Popeye, which is an insult to Popeye.
You can imagine the dozen scenes featuring the “clash of the titans” act-offs between Phoenix/Quell and Hoffman/Dodd. They have all the earmarks of Oscar-bait acting scenes, the massive pauses between lines, the pop-eyed staring, the whole arsenal of vocal one-upmanship, over-articulating words vs. slurring and swallowing words, holding very still vs. twists and tics and spasms. PTA even built these act-off opportunities into the script via Hoffman/Dodd’s “applications,” which are supposedly revealing exercises in self-discovery and discipline. For example, Hoffman/Dodd forbids Phoenix/Quell to blink, so we’ll be awed by the presumably genuine actor-pain on display. He demands an exhausting repetition of lines, so we can appreciate all the little variations a trained actor can work into them:
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
This is all ponderously leading up to the big “milkshake moment,” now a PTA authorial signature. The final confrontation between the lead male characters features Dodd facing Quell across a table and singing to Quell in a slow, plummy voice, this old 1940s Big Band novelty tune of smarmy seduction, which goes:
I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All to myself alone.
Get you and keep you in my arms evermore,
Leave all your lovers
Weeping on a faraway shore.
Out on the briney
With the moon big and shiney
Melting your heart of stone
I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All to myself alone.
Dodd sings this whole damn song dead seriously, with the veins throbbing in his fat forehead, goggling at Quell, who begins crying with the intensity of it all.
It is silly almost beyond human endurance.
That this should be treated as a huge revelatory moment in an uninvolving and static relationship that’s been loaded up with homoerotic discomfort from the word Go is typical of the wearying stupidity of the movie as a whole. You constantly find yourself knowing where a sequence is headed, which is nowhere interesting, and having to wait, bored, for the pompous mess to play itself out.
Example: Dodd takes Quell and a few family members out into the middle of the desert for another one of his “applications.” These things go on forever with Quell, because, ahem, you can never really “quell” him. (Love it when character names seem to Stand For Something!) Dodd goes first, picking out a landmark and riding toward it as fast as he can on a motorcycle.
It’s extremely dull and unenlightening, watching this, but as usual, the cinematography is stunning. PTA can really pummel you with the landscape and seascape imagery. If these shots are his doing, and they seem consistent from film to film, he’d make a great cinematographer. I wish he’d change jobs!
Then Dodd comes back. You think, you’ve long since thought, “Quell will go next, and he’ll just keep riding till he literally crashes the bike into the chosen landmark on the far horizon, or else he’ll just keep riding right out of the scene. Either way, he’s outta here.”
Because it’s been thoroughly hammered on, thematically, this rootlessness of Quell’s, how the word “away” is an incantatory work for him, how he never returned to his waiting wartime sweetheart, for no reason that can be made explicit. But you have to sit there and wait and wait till the other characters figure out Quell isn’t coming back and then start trudging out of the desert.
I read a promo-interview for this film, with PTA claiming that he makes films dealing with “old weird America.” And that’s really why I wound up giving PTA one more chance, because I’m obsessed with old weird America (and new weird America), and therefore figured his films ought to have something to offer me if I looked hard enough. But I recognize nothing of his old weird America. It all seems bathetic and phony. But clearly PTA knows the general evocation of OWA sells.
What exactly he’s selling, though, once you look at the films, isn’t so easy to figure out.
If we go back to Welles, he loved the idea of himself as an exemplary and also extraordinary American, as a genius-charlatan, a martyr-monster, and he liked to trot out his gargantuan alter-egos in films, often played by himself . Oh the tragi-comic duality of it all! What a colossus of a man, yet what a grotesque! Let’s look at his immensity in a hall of mirrors so we can see every possibly reflection of him and yet still never fully understand him and how he represents America!
PTA seems right at home in this regime of raging egoism, and his great insight, his Big Con, might be serving up similarly gross flattery to Americans, always lightly disguised as unsparing critique, or serious contemplation.
America, you magnificent unquellable beast you! No one can ever fully drink your milkshake!
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