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Peter T Chattaway

The Master (2012)

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I was reading the "View New Content" area, and your post closed " ... The Mater Spoiler". I was thinking, "Hm, how do you put a spoiler on a pickup truck? I bet somebody has tried..." To the GIS I go! And yes, of course they have, and it looks just as bad as you'd imagine.

http://www.inverse-s...ruckSpoiler.jpg

... tangent neutralized.

Edited by David Smedberg

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I think The Master has no clothes. I think if the exact same film was directed by Paul WS Anderson and not Paul Thomas Anderson, it would be dismissed as a pretentious failure -- and yes, I think a film needs to be able to stand on its own. Brilliant acting, brilliant set design, brilliant cinematography, all in the service of murky, uninspired, visionless emotions and ideas.

I really only appreciated this as an intimate/epic that attempted (unsuccessfully) to explore American religion, following the successful intimate/epic exploration of American oil commerce in TWBB.

Edited by Scott Derrickson

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Hmmm, I think I neglected to post this article by Owen Gleiberman way back when:

- - -

Why I fell out of love with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson

Boogie Nights was such an act of filmmaking bravura that after that movie, I wanted, and expected, great things from Paul Thomas Anderson. At the time, a lot of critics didn’t feel that way about him. I still remember the awards-voting meetings in 1997 for the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics’ Circle. There was a lot of love for Burt Reynolds, but the movie itself fared only modestly. (When I voted for it for Best Picture, I truly felt like odd man out.) In the 15 years since, however, Anderson has made four features, and during that time his status has slowly and surely risen. When you read reviews of his work, they are now suffused with reverence for the grandeur of his talent. Yet I’ve gone in the opposite direction on Anderson. I think that there is brilliance in every one of his films, and I like different things about all of them. But I can’t say that I love any of them. I can’t escape the feeling that something has gone wrong in his work, and while there is now a cult for Paul Thomas Anderson, and a great many fans who just about think he’s God, the crucial problem, for me, is that one of the people who now thinks Paul Thomas Anderson is God is Paul Thomas Anderson. His films have acquired an Olympian sense of their own importance. They are Major Statements, but partly for that reason, they are no longer — at least to me — great movies. . . .

That’s what bothers me not just about the movie, but about how much other critics love it. There Will Be Blood seems to reinforce, as a viewing experience, the very inhumanity that it’s about. It basically invites us to revel (with a thin veneer of “judgment”) in Daniel Plainview’s misanthropy, and it doesn’t offer any vital dramatic-emotional alternative. (The wispy glare of Paul Dano can’t compete.) But it’s not that Anderson wants you to identify with Daniel Plainview. When you watch There Will Be Blood, he doesn’t want you, really, to identify with anyone on screen. He wants all your identification reserved for him — for the eye of the storyteller.

That, I think, is why so many viewers find Anderson’s new film, The Master, intriguing in a somewhat baffling way. It’s actually quite a coherent movie, and there’s power in Anderson’s vision of the early days of Scientology — or, at least, a fictionalized psychology/religion very much like it — and, by implication, the New Age self-help rackets that grew out of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd really is making it all up as he goes along. The precise steps in his systems and “processes” and group rituals don’t really matter, because the thing that does matter is that he’s getting you to follow orders. He’s creating personality fascism. . . .

Paul Thomas Anderson now wants to sever our connection with the people on screen, so that nothing gets in the way of our link to the magnetic pull of his directorial voice. It’s a warped vision of what a movie is. But when a director who, in Boogie Nights, made the humanity of his characters sing now insists on making movies as if he’s “the master,” and is hailed for it like he’s the indie-crossover answer to Orson Welles, maybe it’s not necessary for us to love his films. Maybe worship, in its way, feels better than love. . . .

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, October 3

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Like all other PTA films, I need to see this one again. It was strangely moving, in an uncomfortable sort of way, and strangely brought back memories of power plays I've seen in the heart of evangelicalism. The greatest moments are when Dodd is challenged by those who are willing to step up and speak out. Freddie, in jail with him, tells Dodd what his own son cannot: that he's making it all up as he goes along. The Laura Dern character points out obvious problems in the second book that are contradictory to some of the things they've understood as foundational to their belief system. Dern's character, if I remember correctly, disappears, and Freddie goes on to beat up a fellow who admits he thinks the book is rather crap.

So it's caricatures and not characters, right? That's how we know to view PTA. It fits perfectly in the things I've seen. When the preacher goes a little batty and starts calling out for things that you know are kinda goofy, there are the 70% blind followers, then there are the ones who only gossip about it in the background, and then there are the ones actually willing to step up and confront him on his inaccuracies or power trips. Of the latter, only the ones that matter to the preacher himself, for whatever the reason (usually that this person is good at some task in the church), stick around. The others tend to disappear, probably finding a different master on down the road.

This I found personally fascinating, having seen this kind of dynamic at play many times.

Other than that, however, it really does feel to me like an empty shell of a film. Great performances, no doubt. Riveting, no doubt. But by the time we get to the end, there's nothing really there but a lot of fluff, kinda like Dodd's evolving pseudo-religious practice. Huh, I wonder if that is an intended parallel.

I do not hold to the belief that this is a film about Freddie needing to get laid. And I think the final scene is actually meant to show us the difference in Freddie himself and not his sex life. His words, his change. How dealing with the Cause has shaped his way of speaking, of trying to connect. Look at the difference in the way he talks to the British gal and the way he spoke to the woman in the developing room. I think he at least knows at the end that there is a deeper connection that can exist. Whether he knows how to get to that connection is hard to say, but he can easily parrot what he's seen from Dodd in his attempts.

I took two days to read through the thread, but I haven't gotten to the bulk of your reviews, and I want to. I guess the only thing that surprises me still is that people walk into an R-rated film and complain about its adult content. That, I will never understand.

Edited by Persona

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Barbara Nicolosi on the Patheos Facebook page:

Doh! Turns out the Christian critics flaying themselves in abject adoration of The Master, now just look really odd. The semi-porn disaster justifiably died at the box-office and now has been snubbed at the Golden Globes and SAG. Oscars up next.

At last we see clearly how Nicolosi measures excellence.

Since I don't see the Oscars, the Golden Globes, or the box office as an indicator of any excellence or integrity, none of the things Nicolosi lists affects me any more than another laugh and another round of head-shaking over how fickle, superficial, and popularity-driven all three of these things really are.

Edited by Overstreet

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Wow. That's such a terrible quote and dumb insult. Presumably she occasionally makes intelligent arguments/statements/reviews/etc. but it's hard to believe it after that. "Christian critics flaying themselves"? "Abject adoration"? "Semi-porn disaster"? What relation do any of these words have to reality?

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Am I wrong in thinking that this statement is so ludicrously offensive that it actually becomes kind of funny?

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Many thanks to David Dark for highlighting this LA Review of Books consideration of The Master. Great stuff.

The film is more concerned with the feeling of these images than their dramatic logic; in this, it is again a foregrounding of the consciousness and dream-inducing magnetism of movies (and Modernism) themselves. Finally, it represents an intentional challenging of the viewer, a kind of keep-up-if-you-can quality based not on irony (in our contemporary use of the word) or "cool," but on an almost sacral concentration on the possibilities and complexities of narrative technique. The film asks (forces) the viewer to be so deeply immersed in its dream that it is the dream itself that leads us; we are in the land of what Tarkovsky called "poetic reasoning," in which sequence and image and medium all tug us onward and forward towards the receding object that is the aim of this kind of art.

So why does all of this matter? Why should we care? Why should we engage with something that will challenge us in this way? By its nature, ambitious art cannot be morally reductive, nor can it ever fully subscribe to the lie that at last, because of this final algorithm or microscope or silicone wafer, or, indeed, because of the insights of any particular narrative, we have mastered the understanding of the world around us. Art is a human enterprise, and it is bound to suffer from, as well as explore, the limits inherent in this source: emotion, illogic, arrogance, idealism, incomplete knowledge. The value of films like The Master thus lies exactly in their refusal of ease and in their artistic and emotional density. This is not a matter of being "highbrow" or "art-house." It is a matter of trying earnestly to come to grips with the conditions of the world in which we live, and the conditions by which that world and ourselves, as well as our art, were created.

Forgive me for posting such a substantial excerpt here, but this is so refreshing after being publicly punished for promoting "pornography"...

The author is not simply telling a story; he or she is engaging the medium to the fullest of its capacities to communicate: the medium itself cannot be separated from what is being told. Thus, in The Master, charisma becomes both a narrative subject (a quality of its characters) and the medium of the narrative itself; the film is in part a meditation on cinema's ability to submerge, beguile, and arrest us. Two sequences stand out in this regard. The first is a scene in which Lancaster Dodd performs a song for an entranced group of his followers at an evening party. He begins to sing, there is a cut, and suddenly every woman in the room is watching or dancing, just as they were, but without clothing. The reason for this is never explained, and critics have forwarded three entirely divergent readings of the scene. The first is that we are meant to understand that Dodd, as a measure of his power and potency, has convinced all of the women to disrobe. The second is that we are meant to understand it as a shift into Freddie Quell's point of view, allowing us to see the world through his frustrated and obsessive gaze, in which all women of any type appear naked. The third is that this is meant to be an intimation of the point of view of Lancaster Dodd's jealously protective (and pregnant) wife Peggy, suffering because everyone around her is under the spell of her philandering and flamboyant husband.

But what seems clear is that this scene is interested in presenting not so much a narrative moment, or a specific point of view, as a moment about the nature of the medium of film itself. The multiplicity of readings is the point: Anderson is after exactly this disorientation, this feeling that the answer is there but just out of reach. This ungraspable wanting is, after all, the feeling instilled by cult leaders, American charisma, and movies. In projecting this, and leaving it undecipherable, Anderson is corporealizing the experience of the medium; it is a moment in which the material elements of this medium (in this case the created dream of film itself, its existence as projected and controlled fantasy) become palpable. The second sequence is the one in which Quell makes his break for freedom. This begins with the scene of Quell riding the motorcycle away into the desert, and then cuts to a scene of him showing up on the East Coast, at the house of the girl that was his lover before he left for the war. It ends with him passed out in a movie theater. In terms of the plot, Quell is breaking free from Dodd, struggling to confront the dreams and failures that have haunted him for the entire film, and finding himself again alone and desolate: it is in the theater that Dodd will locate him and ask him to come to England. But in terms of its construction, what Anderson again delivers is indeterminacy. There is no overt indication that Quell is fleeing Dodd (he simply rides off; we see Dodd unhappy and walking through the desert after him; we cut to the childhood house of Quell's lover, thousands of miles away). There is also a deep resistance to explaining the nature of the flashbacks to Quell's pre-war love story. He arrives at the girl's house to find that she is gone, and we cut to scenes showing the time when Quell and the girl were together. And yet in these scenes it is not a younger, innocent Quell at all, but the same scowling figure, with the same drooping visage that we have been led to believe is a result of his traumatic war experiences. Is this, then, a literal rendering of an earlier moment, or is it a projected memory? Is it meant to be a "real" scene, or a broken man looking back to an imagined beauty? We are not told. We end with him slumped in a deserted movie theater. Has this all been a dream, analogous to the one we are watching on the screen? A man approaches carrying a telephone; it is Dodd on the line from England. "How did you find me?" is Quell's first question. Indeed.

Edited by Overstreet

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I read that first piece from the LA Book Review and I thank you.

Before I had no desire to see the film; now my lack of desire has been enconsced in cement... and I can now sound intelligent in explaining why!

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Last night, my second viewing of the film last night was even more revealing than the first. This time, the second half of the film did not feel weaker than the first; in fact, each scene opened up scenes from the first half in new ways. I am not done writing about this film; I'd like to write a series of posts on the first 20 minutes, "unpacking" how each scene establishes the themes of the film; how it talks about money and the exploitation of the poor, the damaged, and those who suffer from PTSD; how the speeches given to the soldiers upon their return inform the way we should think about Freddie for the rest of the film; how the spokesmodel at the department store prepares us to interpret the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster; how the man Freddie fights in the store prepares us for the same thing... etc... etc.... At this point, I'm tempted to call it a tie with Moonrise Kingdom for my favorite film of 2012, in that I can't think of another film from this year that I feel I could teach a class about and find plenty of material to fill a whole semester.

Edited by Overstreet

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That's great, Jeffrey. I look forward to reading more from you about the second half, which struck me, on second viewing, as even crazier than it had the first time around. It didn't lessen my admiration of the film, but it left me, if anything, even more puzzled by the story's direction and destination.

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Yeah, I'm particularly interested in any revelations you might have had in the last 20-25 minutes of the film on a second viewing. I've still only seen the film once.

Edited by Nick Olson

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Ooooh... good news. (Although I believe the reviewer means to say "no Blu-ray" rather than "any Blu-ray" in that first sentence. Otherwise it just doesn't make sense.)

... the image on Anchor Bay's 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray is nothing short of stunning, with density, detail, sharpness and sheer against which any Blu-ray I have seen to date can favorably compare. Colors range from the cool (intensely cool) blues of the Pacific locales where Freddie Quell serves as a sailor to the warm and just-too-saturated palette of the New York party where Dodd is the guest of honor and the Philadelphia home where he takes up residence. The film's visual design, and indeed the inspiration to use large-format photography, had its inspiration in portrait photography (one of Freddie's many jobs), and scene after scene harkens back to this initial concept, with the camera locked down for an extended take, allowing the viewer to soak up the detail within the frame and be drawn into the scene.

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This may be common knowledge, but I didn't know that

"I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China" was a well-known phrase among poker players, referring to a person who lost steadily and handsomely.

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Anderson talks to Lynn Hirschberg.

The Master
is not supposed to be a riddle,” he said, when I asked him if he intentionally made the film hard to embrace. “It’s not meant to be medicine. It’s not meant to be something that you have to work hard at deciphering. It’s a same old – same old story presented in a new way. It’s about Freddie and Dodd’s love for each other, what it means to be a master and a subject and vice versa. I don’t find it particularly difficult, but maybe it’s operator error.”

[ . . . ]

But he didn’t complain when I suggested that his Catholic upbringing might have contributed to his deep sense of forgiveness. “Talk about a cult,” I said. “Catholicism holds on to you.” “It does,” Anderson replied. “I haven’t gone to church since I was 16 years old but it doesn’t matter. Even then, I would lie in confession. I would never say what I really did. I would be too embarrassed. And that’s a sin. I knew the priests behind that flimsy little curtain knew who I was and, deep down, I did not feel like I could trust them.” Anderson smiled. “What good is a Master if, at a certain point, they aren’t teaching you to not have a Master?” Anderson paused. “Then again, there are always going to be those Masters that lurk around the edges of your life. In my case, it’s my kids. They are pretty hard to resist.”

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A wonderfully insightful thread on the most (only?) fascinating film of 2012.

Nobody though has mentioned the Casper cartoon that Freddie is watching when he gets the odd phone call in the movie theater. What do you all make of it, and all its "the captain must never leave his ship" dialogue? (Maybe relating to Dodd's haunting "Slow Boat to China"?) Anderson emphasizes the exchanges in this cartoon, and some of it can even be seen in the deleted scenes montage on the home video.  Maybe it's just random after all...

Speaking of which, does anyone find that 20 minute montage intriguing as I do? There's Clark's revelation to Freddie that Dodd had "died" for seven minutes on an operating table in 1945, and afterwards he was inspired to write "Split Sabre" which apparently caused all who read it to kill themselves or go insane - which is why Dodd buried this dangerous manuscript. I also like the additional scene of Doris with Freddie (not looking quite as haggard as he does in the scene in the finished film which the above comic strip makes fun of) and Dodd's interaction with the pretty "A tisket, a tasket" singer (it's Claudia!) (who is heard but unseen in the movie.) And, speaking of "Slow Boat to China," we see Freddie (in his sailor blues) pinning a sign saying "Gone to China" on a bulletin board as the picture fades to a shot of him dozing on the navy ship.

Edited by Mark R.Y.

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I had forgotten to revisit this thread, but in the past year and a half since I first saw it THE MASTER has become one of the most important staples of cinema in my life. You can bet I'll be revisiting this film again today, paying even closer attention to Hoffman's role. Truly one of the most captivating character performances of the decade.

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Nathan Rabin kicks off The Dissolve's movie of the week series:

 

 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s deeply sad 2012 psychodrama The Master was inspired by the life of author L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. But Anderson has also paid vocal tribute to Let There Be Light, John Huston’s Army-funded (and then disavowed) 1946 documentary about a military mental hospital where men shattered by World War II try to pull themselves together for the sneakily rigorous demands of peacetime. As Light’s narrator asserts, these men have spent years with a goal—to kill without being killed—that has no place in their peacetime lives, assuming they don’t want to join law enforcement or re-enlist.  

 

Hubbard was transparently the model for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd in The Master, but the men interviewed in Let There Be Light are the primordial ooze out of which Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell emerged. Their wartime trauma is an apparent, almost unbearable burden. They shake, they stutter. They’re in such intense psychological pain that it can be difficult to look at them. In the film, psychologists use a variety of tests (like Rorschach blots) to analyze the men, but they also use futuristic-looking gizmos like an EKG machine. The process calls to mind the one-on-one auditing, e-meters, and heavily controlled communication of Scientology. That’s one of Scientology’s ironies: Hubbard declared psychology the enemy of mankind, promoting an violently anti-psychiatric belief system that still draws extensively from psychology’s tenets. The mind-healing techniques employed in Let There Be Light, such as an altered form of hypnosis, reappear as mind-healing techniques in The Master. It isn’t a coincidence.

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