Oct 4, 2012

What's wrong with The Master

"There Will Be Blood establishes its central character, Daniel Plainview, as a deviously unscrupulous and manipulative sociopath, a tycoon-crackpot obsessed with oil and money at the expense of everything else, within its opening 40 minutes. Basically, he acts the same way, and does the same (immoral) thing, in scene after scene after scene after scene. Not to be overly lowbrow, but where’s the arc in that? Now, it must be said that Daniel Day-Lewis, channeling the voice of John Huston and the demeanor of Snidely Whiplash, throws a sickly mesmerizing party of one. He has great fun turning up the heat on Daniel’s monstrousness one meticulous Bunsen burner click at a time. Yet if there’s always a kind of suspense about what form his corruption will take, there’s never any doubt that he’s going to lie, and cajole, and dominate over and over again. The result is, on the one hand, a grand didactic parable of capitalism. (Message: It’s ruthless.) It’s also a movie in which there is no essential person to identify with....  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.  
[In The Master] Joaquin Phoenix, as Dodd’s drunken, troubled loser of a disciple, certainly turns in a broodingly accomplished piece of disheveled-antihero acting, but the movie invites us to stare at him like a tormented animal at the zoo. We never really grasp the basic issue of why Dodd even bothers with this chump in the first place. Dodd, in the few moments that he reveals his own wasp sting of anger, is shown to be a human being with a passion for control, but the rest of the time he’s got his mask on, and he’s cut off from us too. Why? Because 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
Couldn't agree with this more. The Master is a masterpiece of direction at the expense of being a good movie. The film is directed, excellently, and that's all there is to it. Everyone else is simply under orders — grist to his will. None of the actors give the slightest indication of understanding the various psychodramas they've been asked to act out, but then Anderson isn't really interested in coaxing performances out of them.  He's riffing on them like Hendrix on his guitar strings: putting them through the fuzz-box, amping up the distortion, looping the feedback loop. (If There Will Be Blood resembled a two-hour Hendrix solo, The Master resembles a two-hour solo by both Hendrix and Eric Clapton, simultaneously). In a cunning show of superiority over Hollywood character "arcs" Anderson's conception of character is almost entirely static.Our take on Hoffman's cult-leader — that he is a puckish phony — is the same in the first scene as in the last. Our conception of Phoenix — that he is a heartbeat away from breakdown — remains as fixed as jellied snake.  Anderson'fascination with spiritual entropy gives  his performers nowhere to go, except louder: the second half of the movie is basically the first half, replayed, only with more acting. It's like the second half of A Clockwork Orange replayed as a method workshop (Richard Brody actually pointed this out as a plus, as if an allegory of method acting were the sort of thing one regularly hears the public clamoring for).   "There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming," wrote A O Scott in his review of The Master. "Count me in." Almost every reviewer performed a similar act of critical out-sourcing, darkly hinting that the film wasn't going to be to everybody's liking, but not giving any clue as to who these people were. Certainly not this reviewer, they quickly added. I haven't read one bad review of The Master  any of the quality outlets. It's the third best reviewed movie of the year (I haven't even heard of the top two. That's the kind of company it's keeping.) The nay-sayers, skeptics and unbelievers, on the other hand, have turned out to be.... those poor pumpkin heads, the public, who have quickly discovered Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece to be about as enjoyable as a hangnail. It's a masterpiece, alright: one of those solitary masterpieces Kubrick used to specialize in, wherein only the director (and those on this astral plane capable of channelling him) get to have any fun. 


  1. I felt like Dodd went after Phoenix's character for a couple reasons, 1) to try to prove his lie to himself by changing someone who seems beyond saving and 2) develop a disciple who believes and follows him in a way no others do. He doesn't get this from his wife who clearly exerts her control over him, and since he's a man obsessed with control he needs to assert it over someone else.

    As for the lack of an ark, I don't see why someone necessarily needs to change over time. Not everyone changes. And in There Will be Blood I think we see Plainview start out slightly more human when he takes in H.W. I don't imagine he immediately puts together the marketing ploy that his son becomes. But any compassion or heart is drained from him throughout the film.

  2. I’m pretty much with you all the way, Tom, on what neither of us, presumably, wants to call your overarching theory. And I haven’t seen ‘The Master’, so can’t comment beyond saying that PTA’s name being on it isn’t going to change how I feel about it when I do.

    But I wonder if you’re falling into an argumentative trap. It’s understandable, I suppose, if only because the fun-opposing forces are legion. Still, even if I agreed with the take on ‘There Will Be Blood’ (and Plainview seems to me a character who requires all that force of will to resist change), then there’d still be a problem. Do we have to throw away the idea that people don’t change, that people can’t change? It may be unfashionable, in an era of emotional journeys and the like, and I don’t want everyone at it, but the odd film suggesting the possibility now and again, preferably with some jokes, that would be okay. (And parts of ‘There Will Be Blood’ are very funny indeed.)

    Oh, yes, that description of Affleck in the post above is simply superb.