The Emperor ain’t naked, but he’s down to his socks and pants – Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’

21 Nov

It’s now three days since I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, and this is my third attempt at writing a blog about it.

Why is that? I hear you ask.

Well… Where to start? I guess most films can be placed in one of two categories: “Instant Hits” and “Slow Burners”. Take my favourite films of 2011. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an Instant Hit. By the final reel, I wanted to stand up on my seat and cheer. It’s the closest I’ve come to applauding during the end credits of a movie outside of a film festival.

Fuck yeah.

The same year’s Melancholia, directed by Lars Von Trier, was a Slow Burner. After the credits had rolled I was dazed, unsure of what I’d just seen. It was only when I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days, weeks, even months afterwards that I realised just how brilliant it is.

Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, was a slow burner. It took a few days, and two viewings, for me to fully appreciate it, and I’ve watched it countless times since. I still maintain that it’s the greatest film to come out of the US in over 20 years. So maybe, in taking my time, I was hoping the same thing would happen with The Master. 

Sadly, it hasn’t.

The Master tells the story of World War II veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Well… Kind of. You see, Quell is an alcoholic whose only real talent lies in making cocktails from just about anything. Engine oil, paint thinner, developing fluid. If it’s a fluid and smells like it would take the roof off your mouth, he can turn it into a mean faux-jito. (See what I did there?) After being kicked out of numerous jobs, Quell finds himself aboard a boat leaving San Francisco, bound for New York, in the company of charismatic “philosopher” and pseudo-scientist Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka ‘The Master’.

Dodd takes the sex addicted, inarticulate and socially inept Quell under his wing, introducing him to his self-discovered, cultish belief-system-cum-therapy, ‘The Cause’. Dodd believes that our souls are trillions of years old, and that only through revisiting past lives, through a kind of hypnosis, can we cleanse ourselves of our hangups and neuroses.

Sounds familiar? Well yes. That’ll be because ‘The Cause’ bears uncanny similarities with Scientology, and Lancaster Dodd is pretty much a dead ringer for Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Otherwise known as Suri Cruise’s Sperm Daddy*. (*For legal reasons I should point out that there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone other than the film actor Thomas Cruise Mapother IV [also known as Tom Cruise] is the father of Suri Cruise, let alone a drug-addled con artist who has been dead since 1986.)

Anyone expecting a scabrous exposé or critique of Scientology can, however, think again, because The Master is nothing of the sort.

So what is it? Well… I wish I could tell you. Though it starts as a fairly intense character study of Quell, the minute Dodd turns up this focus shifts. Suddenly Quell is sharing screen time and the narrative’s point of view with Dodds, but this doesn’t result in a character study of two men, because while Seymour Hoffman acts his tits off in this movie, we’re never really given any insight into Dodd’s mind. We know he’s a charlatan, and we know that many around him (including his own son) are aware of this. We know he’s pretentious (I particularly liked the shot of Dodd posing for a portrait while holding a quill). We know he can’t stand being challenged or questioned by anyone. But then what?

As for Quell, by the end of the movie we’re none the wiser. He’s still socially inept. He’s still an alcoholic. He’s still alone. Has he learnt anything from his encounter with this larger-than-life fraud and his crazy clique? Not that I could tell. Is the fact that he remains unchanged by this encounter a commentary on the inability of cults like Scientology to cure all ills? Not sure. If it is, it’s a point being made a little too subtly to have any lasting impact.

In trying to decide whether or not I enjoyed The Master, I kept hitting two snags.

Snag 1: The sheer number of things I loved about this film. The opening 20 minutes, showing us the crazed last days of World War II and Quell’s struggle to get by in post-war America, are incredible. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography is stunning, like an Edward Hopper painting brought to life. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood proves once again that he’s capable of so much more than shoe-gazing rock (he also wrote the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood) with a beautiful, eclectic, and often disturbing score. Phoenix turns in a career best performance, and Hoffman and Amy Adams (playing Dodd’s wife) are both on splendidly creepy form.

Snag 2: My inability to describe the film without comparing it to There Will Be Blood.

This second snag was the real cruncher, because it struck me that the seeds of what’s wrong with The Master can be seen germinating in There Will Be Blood, and the critical reception it received. I remember reading a review – I forget who it was by – that declared, a little pretentiously, that Paul Thomas Anderson had invented a new form of narrative cinema. Now, that’s a little grand, but I kind of understood the point being made. There Will Be Blood challenges many narrative conventions: The film opens with a repetitive, dialogue free 20 minutes focused on a single character; there’s a jarring leap forward of about 15 years between the penultimate and last act; almost every single line of dialogue in the film is about oil or  money…

Or milkshake.

…But, importantly, it still has a conventional – and very strong – narrative arc. It’s the story of one many’s spiritual – if not financial – rise and fall; the way in which avarice and greed corrupt absolutely. Those who found it a little cold didn’t grasp that it is a deeply moving portrayal of a man who throws away every shred of his humanity in the pursuit of money. What’s more, it does all this while having something to say, being a timely (not to mention surprisingly on-the-nose) allegory for the relationship the West still has with oil rich, theocratic regimes.

And there… I’ve done it again. In a review of The Master I’ve just spent two paragraphs talking about There Will Be Blood. But you see, that’s the thing. With all those critics celebrating TWBB‘s idiosyncrasies, perhaps Anderson lost sight of the very things that gave the movie a solid structure, and made it an emotionally powerful and thought-provoking experience.

In contrast, The Master feels like an exploded narrative, a series of long, sometimes interminable scenes that go nowhere, strung together with enigmatic montages. I could have understood this if it had been adapted from an epic, 700 page novel from the mid-1950s; if in translating it to the big screen too much narrative was excised, leaving the finished film feeling insubstantial and slight. That happens all the time. However, this was written for the big screen, and there’s only so much experimentation a narrative can take before the bubble bursts and we’re left with nothing but soap suds.

Anderson has denied, in several interviews, that ‘The Cause’ is based on Scientology, or that Lancaster Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard, and perhaps this hints at another problem with the film’s development. Though an innovative film-maker working on the fringes of Hollywood, he still operates very much within that system. He has, in the past, worked with Scientology’s Crown Prince of Crazy, Tom Cruise (on Magnolia).

Does this even need a caption?

Tom Cruise is still a powerful person in Hollywood. As the makers of South Park can confirm, you become persona non grata to any Scientologist the minute you openly and explicitly criticise or lampoon their religion. (Isaac Hayes quit his role as ‘Chef’ on the show after an episode mocking Tom Cruise and John Travolta.) Is it too much to suggest that in approaching the subject of pseudo-scientific American religious cults of the 1950s, Anderson had one hand tied behind his back?

How much more powerful a film could The Master have been had it dared to take a run at the Church of Scientology with all guns blazing or, in a different vein, focused almost exclusively on the character of Quell; his run-in with Lancaster Dodd and ‘The Cause’ forming a much smaller part of the story?

Critics who hated the film have called it pretentious, comparing the film’s more enthusiastic (often quasi-beatific) reviews to The Emperor’s New Clothes, as if those reviewers daren’t voice their disappointment for fear of being labelled philistines. They may have something of a point, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. I don’t think the Emperor is bare-bottomed, but he is down to his socks and pants. Perhaps someone should have a quiet word with Paul Thomas Anderson, before he turns in a movie that’s genuinely stark bollock naked.

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5 Responses to “The Emperor ain’t naked, but he’s down to his socks and pants – Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’”

  1. Catana November 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    I’ve been reading the very mixed reviews about The Master and am looking forward to seeing it when it comes out on DVD. The two stars would be enough of an attraction, and Anderson, of course. Even before I reached the end of your review, I was thinking that this might turn out to be another slow burner for you. I have a small stash of movies like that. They may take longer to appreciate, but they don’t wear out like the instant hits.

    • thedaillew November 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

      Thanks for your comment! Despite what I’ve written, I’d urge you to catch this on the big screen if you can, because it really is beautiful to look at. And you may very well be right, it may be a film I have to revisit and reappraise in a few months, but I wasn’t blown away first time around!

      • Catana November 21, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

        I wish I could see it on the big screen, but the cost and inconvenience have made movie-going impossible. Two buses each way, plus ticket. And nobody to go with anymore.

        I remember scratching my head after my first viewing of There Will be Blood. It can take a while. I’m still scratching it over Jim Jarmusch’s Limits of Control. Fascinating in parts, but snooze-inducing if you don’t have the patience. Apparently, most people hated it.

      • thedaillew November 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

        I haven’t seen Limits of Control, but I’ve loved many of Jim Jarmusch’s films. I don’t mind *slow* films – ‘The Straight Story’ is one of my favourite David Lynch movies, and I adored the documentary ‘Sleep Furiously’ – but they should still *say* something, and I’m not convinced ‘The Master’ does. Not yet, anyway!

  2. Catana November 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    The Straight Story is one of the few Lynch films I haven’t seen. I do prefer films that say something, but I’m also comfortable with ambiguity that leaves it up to the viewer to decide what it’s saying (if anything). And sometimes, I can just sink into the visual beauty even if there isn’t much substance.

    I don’t know how I missed any mention of Sleep Furiously. I just read the Guardian review, and it sounds all too familiar. So many US towns are dying slowly. The quote at the end of the review really got me — “Koppel’s movie ends with a powerful epigraph: “It is only when I sense the end of things,/ that I find the courage to speak/ the courage, but not the words”.” I sense the end of things these days, but it’s almost impossible to write about them. Thanks for turning me onto this one.

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