'…we move further away from Tarkovsky time towards moron-time in which nothing can last - and no one can concentrate on anything for longer than about two seconds. Soon people will not be able to watch films like Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses Gaze or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from on interminable scene or sentence to the next.' (Geoff Dyer, Zona - a book about a film about a journey to a room)
It'll come as no surprise to anyone who has watched (or endured, depending on how you view such things) Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, The Master that it's aroused strong debate. His films always do. But the debate seems so, well… quotidian. Is the film boring? Pointless? or (worst of all) pretentious? Overlong? Well yes it is all of these in places. But look at Dyer's quote above (which is about Tarkovsky's Stalker) and you see the problem.
Personally the film is fascinating because it dares to be ambiguous about the worth of modern spiritual and philosophical leaders. Critics who seem disappointed that that the film isn't a straight biopic of Scientology founder and all-round scamster L Ron Hubbard seem to have ignored the recent interviews with Anderson where he states categorically that the entire basis for The Master was Hubbard. But instead of an easy hatchet job (reading the Wikipedia entry for LRH is hilarious. he even managed to scam money from other notorious spiritual con artists) Anderson gives a balanced power struggle based on mutual need for people to find meaning following wartime service and also the need for those who would lead us astray and fleece us to validate their causes by adopting the truly hopeless among us. Trust me, try attending any spiritual/self help group any night of the week and you'll find plenty of fuck-ups. Whether the promised epiphanies follow is down to your own view of such things.
The central protagonist/anti-hero, Freddie Quell seems to be as much of a con artist as his substitute father/lover, the pseudo-guru, Lancaster Dodd (played with beaming, effervescent bounce and verve countered by a streak of vicious meanness by Philip Seymour Hoffman: a man who, I think we can all agree, no matter what dreck he's in gives stunning performances). Freddie's damage, we finally learn comes from the effect of WWII. He's a PTS case, cruelly stunted by his duties. ie: killing several japanese soldiers. Following the war he drifts into chemical abuse and through several jobs until his and Dodds' fates become entwined on a wealthy benefactress' yacht.
Before seeing The Master I read two significant pieces on the film. The first was this month's edition of Sight & Sound which, predictably, regards Anderson as an auteur and whose films always represent genuine attempts to challenge our notion of cinema (phew). The other was Rachel Cooke's main review in The Observer.
Cooke made The Master her film of the week, tacitly acknowledging its importance while then proceeding to slate it for its seeming pointlessness. But what really got to me was her opening paragraph where she seems to be taking a swipe at the male cineaste hegemony and their unswerving devotion to a man they regard as a Master in his own right (see what I did there?):
'Paul Thomas Anderson is the critics' director, or one of them – and as if to prove it, at the press show of his latest epic, The Master, there were agonised male groans (my emphasis) when it was announced that, rather than watching 70mm film, we would have to make do with digital (insoluble technical problem, apparently). Not that many of us left our seats, even though some had already seen the film at Venice, or wherever. This is how much the critics love Anderson: most were ready and willing to submerge themselves in his film's murky depths again, digital or not.'
While I see her point I can't help feeling that this is sexual politics at the expense of something that raises itself well above such banality.
Is nerdiness a male trope? Maybe, but if so isn't that preferable to other more socially acceptable male tropes? Frankly, I'd rather have a conversation about the lost original print of David Lynch's Dune or the structuralism of Peter Greenaway's early shorts (his films, not his actual shorts, although I could happily talk about that too, if needed) than about how Chelsea are doing this season or whether Kim Kardashian is 'fit'.
The Master isn't (to my mind) remotely sexist. It portrays a man who's unable to relate to women in any adult, meaningful way. We discover that Freddie left his teen bride-to-be behind, running away from his dysfunctional home life in an attempt to grow up and allow her to come of age. But this seems to have stopped his own sexual development in the process. Only right at the end when he's finally left/been rejected by Dodd's Cause does he have sex on screen. Up until that point he's shown to either abdicate any responsibility (he gets dead drunk and passes out when propositioned by a woman) or behaves like a naughty schoolboy, dry humping a woman made of sand on the shores of Iwo Jima or some such Pacific shore or slyly writing lewd notes to women on Dodd's borrowed yacht as they dutifully transcribe the Master's ponderous pontifications. The key scene is the one where, as Dodd lasciviously prances to some bawdy Elizabethan ballad, we suddenly it scene from Freddie's stoned perspective - with all the women undressed. It's a juvenile view of female sexuality, a childish peep show.
Yet following this scene it's both men who are upbraided by the steely wife, Peggy (played marvellously by Amy Adams). Dodd who is warned about any dalliances in a scene that must rate as the most astonishing of the year (it involves a hand job as a reinforcement technique) and Freddie, who through the film shows incredible inventiveness in his ability to whip up mind-blowing cocktails from anything to hand - is warned to kick the booze. By the end of the film you're left in no doubt who the real power behind the throne is, while Dodd can only sadly sing a sad song of unrequited love to Quell.
To address Cooke's other main points: namely that the film's too long, is full of boring repetition and that (worst crime of all) it ends up with nothing solved and with no answers, essentially leaving us back at the beginning - well, has she never seen, say, 2001 (actually, probably not - no women and no answers - real manly stuff)? Firstly, who says that a film has to have a linear progressive narrative? Surely we dispensed with that notion around the time of Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera? Also, the film does have a narrative thread , it just has to do with the fact that both men hold each other in some kind of stasis but are ultimately unchangeable on a basic level. Yet at the denouement Dodd is obviously on an upward trajectory of wealth and power, while Freddie seems to have learned to cross the male-female divide.
As for repetition, well of course, this is how Dodd bends people to his will, and this film wouldn't be true to its subject matter if it didn't represent exactly what he's peddling, would it?
So how does The Master fair amongst critics in general? Surprisingly well, given its heavy subject. A single-star panning from The Mail seems to be a big plus for Anderson. If it's pissing off the Home Counties he must be on the right track. Both the ES and Independent seem to acknowledge the film's skill and importance and, most amazingly, The Sun loved it! There's a double-edged compliment for you…
In the end, despite Sight & Sound's habitation of the cineaste zone that Rachel Cooke seems to object to, their review by Nick Pinkerton seems to contain the most accurate summation: 'It's not a great film, but it has a great film rattling around inside it'.
As with all Anderson's films, ugliness and the terrible power of loneliness are never shied away from. Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Freddie never once lapses into sentimentality, his parasitic nature, grim self-loathing and just general vileness never falter for a second. I think it's the best performance I've seen on screen for a long time.
And Cooke's a fine writer, but on this point (and I'm taking this out of context - on this particular Sunday all of her reviews for the week's releases grated somewhat - seeming to be more about her ability to turn a poetic phrase than actually give critical insight) she seems wrongheaded. Maybe as a literary critic she's less well-suited to write on such matters.
I really hate to snipe at other writers, but in this instance I came away wanting to lock Cooke in a room with a screening of Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse.
Then she'd know the true power of boredom and repetition.