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movies / September 23, 2012

 

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?”

“Freddie Quell.”

“What’s your name?”

“Freddie Quell.”

“What’s your name?”

“Freddie Quell.”

“What’s your name?”

“Freddie Quell.”

 

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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82 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Copyrightkilla  |  September 26th, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    I love the Exile, but man o man do I wish to have Mrs. Jones’ talents. That’s the real reason I come back here again and again: to read Mrs. Jones demean my middlebrow tastes in film.

  • 2. Copyrightkilla  |  September 26th, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    *Exiled (no disrespect)

  • 3. Copyrightkilla  |  September 26th, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    @ #51

    AEC sayeth: Eileen Jones doesn’t mind the fanboys, just wishes they weren’t such whiners.

  • 4. skullsneedtobecrushed  |  September 26th, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Here is the synopsis: A raging alchy war vet named Freddie Quell gets taken in by a bloated over-credentialed, stentorian Svengali with a yacht and two last names. There’s a few hours of turmoils, including actorly freak-outs and cultish shenanigans ranging from ponderous to tedious. Then there’s Freddie’s inevitable apostasy followed by an advertisement for Kool cigarettes and an awkward screw. The end.

  • 5. seaurchin  |  September 26th, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    this review is spot on and a lot of fun. punch drunk love is also a terrific film.

  • 6. Copyrightkilla  |  September 26th, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    AEC: Really, fanboys should be chipper and eager to please, not commenting just to whine and poute

  • 7. Copyrightkilla  |  September 26th, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Yep, still here. Still gonna whine about about not being paid attention to. Please recognize that I exist! Please tell me my opinions matte—–

  • 8. The Gubbler  |  September 26th, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    @ 14

    Har Har Har… Har…. Har har…

    Har???

    HAR!!! (croak)

  • 9. Copyrightkilla  |  September 26th, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    You’re right I have nothing better to do than joust with a moderator. (AEC: I know, my son. That is why I watch over and guide you.) You are heartless indeed. (Don’t try to comprehend the ways of the AEC. I, your AEC, work in mysterious ways.) If you’re replying than you are obviously paying attention. (AEC: Indeed, I am always with you my son.) I am a fanboy of The Exiled, that’s why I support it. But I’m not dumb enough to act like Eileen has anything to offer. (AEC: You really are a whiney shit, aren’t you?) Remind me what this ‘critic’ has accomplished in the film industry? Exactly. Did she ever have the balls to try? (AEC: Balls? Why my son, are you a victim of GW Bush’s abstinence-only education. Did they not teach you that females are not equipped with testes?) If she’s anything like this moderator, I know the answer. (AEC: Yes, like the AEC, Eileen Jones is All Knowing, All Seeing in the realm of Cinema.)

  • 10. The Gubbler  |  September 26th, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Blehh!!!

    Reading about Phillip Seymour Hoffman stirs up all sorts of horrible images and memories and feelings of anger and despair and disgust and the like.

    I’m gonna get some beer and watch “The World Of Suzie Wong” again.

    “crazy-mad”

    “for goodness sake”

    Good stuff.

  • 11. metalious  |  September 26th, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Congratulations. I think this review really stands out (unlike other reviews where they like, critique the film and all). I mean how many other critics are willing to put in that extra effort and dedicate 16 paragraphs (actually I stopped counting at 5) just to make the point that the film is derivative? Or who else is willing to go the extra mile to assassinate the character of the director instead of just pointing out why the film sucks.

  • 12. The Doctor  |  September 27th, 2012 at 2:14 am

    He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant – he’s almost up to my standards.

  • 13. The Gubbler  |  September 27th, 2012 at 5:01 am

    I haven’t seen the film yet. It will probably be a while, but I am already imagining a better version.

    A young William Shatner is the master.

    I don’t know who the disciple is yet, but it is not Malcolm McDowell or Dustin Hoffman.

    Definately not Alan Bates.

    Martin Sheen???

    No wait… who is that guy who allegedly drowned his wife??? The guy from “In Cold Blood”???

    Sufficed to say the “Slow Boat To China” bit and others would be modified.

    Also to the guy who so kindly explained “There Will Be Blood”… whatever dude.

  • 14. gc  |  September 27th, 2012 at 6:54 am

    @61

    I mean how many other critics are willing to put in that extra effort and dedicate 16 paragraphs (actually I stopped counting at 5) just to make the point that the film is derivative.

    That’s not the point.

    And I understand why you twerps are saying Jones doesn’t “critique” the fim – it’s just what stupid people on the Internet do when they don’t like a review – but it’s still disgustingly ungrateful.

    In a world where most movie reviews might as well be reviews of the screenplay for all the interest the critics show in writing about anything except writing – and usually they aren’t even any good at that – Eileen Jones gives you a review full of interesting, specific analysis, and you just respond with the usual meaningless whining.

  • 15. Satan  |  September 27th, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Glad I haven’t been to the theater in 12 years.

  • 16. Michael Savage  |  September 28th, 2012 at 9:27 am

    I dug up Allen’s corpse and we went to see this anti-Semitic directors’ “Fagnolia” and “There Will Be Cum” at the Christopher St. Theatre. I had a quick fuck-and-suck at Rupert’s place with a variety of UK nellies, then I did my radio show for the rubes while Glenn Beck rimmed my ass and Galtic Warrior got his AynZion on. BiBi Bi Bi Bi Sexual I love you may we be THE MASTERS and invade Iran.

    PS: Romney’s done it with all 5 of his boys.

  • 17. mookid  |  September 28th, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I will still watch it in its whole shittiness for DAT JOAQUIN PHOENIX

  • 18. Steve Cearfoss  |  September 28th, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Post-modern BS

  • 19. skullsneedtobecrushed  |  September 28th, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    The film should have been titled Masturbation, and the whole thing should have been two and a half hours of Amy Adams jerking Phillip Seymour Hoffman off into a sink.

  • 20. darthfader  |  September 30th, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Do Looper next

  • 21. Flatulissimo  |  September 30th, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Oh god, I just saw Looper. Should have waited for Eileen to tell me not to.

  • 22. tarko  |  October 1st, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    God bless you Mr (sic) Jones.

    You are the anti Manhola Dargis, whose gargling on razor blades name perfectly reflects her pretentious and confused worldview.

    Would that YOU were the NYT movie reviewer.

  • 23. tarko  |  October 1st, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    @David Ginsburg

    ” Any reviewer with any sense uses proper grammar.”

    Might help your argument if you knew how the difference between “revue” and “review,” genius.

  • 24. jimmy james  |  October 2nd, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    This review is like when a Republican tells me why he hates Obama. It’s like, I agree with you, but you have the wrong reasons.

    I mean, PT Anderson humorless?! Sure, the shit’s drier than the Sahara sometimes but I was laughing my ass off during the scene with the psychologist, the first “processing,” and Freddie jerking off in the ocean.

    Though I was the only one in the theater doing that, so maybe I’m the idiot.

  • 25. Taras Vulva  |  October 4th, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    Another movie review as the lead? Are you outta your fucking skulls? We, the disenfranchised masses, demand more snapper reviews, shit with which we can relate. How about ranking some real dives on the home sod?

  • 26. Precious Bodily Fluids  |  October 13th, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Emulating Orson Welles is bad thing? Don’t like media circuses, but writing movie reviews? I’m not whining; but you’ve identified several of the most fun things about this flick, only to excoriate the director for them. Raging egoism and over the top melodrama. What’s not to love?

  • 27. keri  |  October 27th, 2012 at 1:26 am

    i love all the east coast bourgeois who caught on PTA way too late. lol he doesn’t write for you. so yeah it makes sense your pissed. you were too cool too watch magnolia in 99′, and ya the master didn’t change your life, so PTA is now “overrated”. he’s no woody allen, he writes for americans who fucking hate woody allen and all what his descendants have made of hollywood.

  • 28. Tierbess  |  November 3rd, 2012 at 4:27 am

    Eileen is right and you self-appointed critics can go fuck yourselves. The Master is an empty, breathless movie. It’s so mysterious it even leaves the audience in the dark. Admittedly it’s well acted, but at the end of the day there was no plot.

  • 29. TheGrunk  |  March 9th, 2013 at 10:52 am

    This sums up my feelings perfectly. My girl wanted to watch this so I gave it a chance. Bad decision. This was one of those films I had a vague sense of knowing something about and it wasn’t until I saw the end credits that I figured out why it sucked so much. Three words: Paul Thomas Anderson. While he makes beautiful
    LOOKING films, they just flat out suck. Magnolia was so bad I was looking at my pager an hour in and grumbling there were still 2 hours of dreck to go. I saw a woman buying tickets as I left and went up to her and said, “what movie are you buying tickets to? Magnolia? Do yourself a favor and go to a matinee like we did so that way you’ll only feel half as ripped off.” It’s obvious PTA has serious dirt on half of Hollywood to always be given another shot. Fuck PTA.

  • 30. Pig Truck  |  March 18th, 2013 at 12:09 am

    I thought this was a great movie, definitely shines more the second time you watch it. That’s more than I can say for my pitiful “comment”

  • 31. ryan  |  May 24th, 2013 at 10:13 pm

    wow after reading the first sentence , I’m bowled over. Sure I’m a troll, but I fucking love this review. Wish I could write it myself. Oh well.

  • 32. laura smith  |  May 29th, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Please please please keep reviewing PTA, Joaquin Phoenix’, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is brilliant and I want more!


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