American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
I apologize for the lack of postings the last few weeks. A recent flare-up of heart problems left me with little energy to write. But as the emaciated old man in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" says: "I'm feeling much better!"
At one point well into Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" I thought that the movie was going to reveal itself as a story about the meaninglessness of human existence. But that notion was based on a single piece of aphoristic, potential-thesis-statement dialog that, like much else, wasn't developed in the rest of the movie. Which is not to say that "The Master" isn't about the meaninglessness of human life. The line, spoken by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the cult guru known to his acolytes as Master, is addressed to the younger man he considers his "protégé," a dissolute mentally ill drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and the gist of it is that the itinerant Freddie has as much to show for his life as somebody who has worked a regular 9-to-5 job for many years. The point being, I suppose, that for all Freddie's adventures, peculiarities and failures, he isn't all that much different from anybody else. Except, maybe, he's more effed-up.
At other times during the movie I thought it was a "Clockwork Orange"-style study of free will in which a psychologically disturbed sociopath struggles with the forces of social conformity. A former able-bodied seaman in the US Navy who is traumatized by his family life, drink and the war in the Pacific, Freddie is a barely domesticated attack dog. Master identifies him accurately as "an animal." But can he be trained? (I also saw hints of Sam Fuller's "White Dog" here.) Should he be trained? Is it possible or desirable to repair his psychic and physical damage (the guy drinks cocktails he makes from torpedo fuel, paint thinner and Lysol) -- or is he still a worthwhile human being just as he is? How much of a danger is he to himself and others? Should he be in a looney bin, prison, or a free man? Those questions do come up, but I'm not convinced they're the movie's main concerns.
There's also the "Raging Bull" element (a movie you may remember being explicitly referenced at the end of Anderson's second feature, "Boogie Nights"). One scene in particular, during which Freddie throws a temper tantrum in a jail cell, stomps the toilet into white ceramic shards, and smacks his head against the bunk and the back wall, evokes the famous scene in Scorsese's picture when Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) butts up against the dungeon his life has become. The difference is that, in Anderson's movie, we see the adjoining mirror-image cells containing Freddie and Dodd in a single frame, with a porous membrane of bars between them: One way or another, these guys are in this together. The parlor of a Pennsylvania home becomes another kind of prison for Freddie, when as part of his processing, Dodd insists he repeatedly cross the room from wall to window with his eyes closed, describing what he feels when he touches first one and then the other. The Cause seems to have something to do with breaking through barriers via persistent repetition.
"The Master" is also another one of Anderson's contentious (surrogate-)father and son stories, recalling those of John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in "Hard Eight" (aka "Sydney"), Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in "Boogie Nights," Tom Cruise and Jason Robards in "Magnolia," Paul Dano (and Dillon Freasier) and Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"... The bond between these men is strong -- and nearly impossible to live with. There's something about "The Master" that suggests the Terrence Malick of "Days of Heaven" and "Tree of Life," too -- not so much the father-son stuff, but the luminous images (the recurring image of churning, Caribbean-blue waters from the back of a ship; a lighted boat passing under the Golden Gate bridge after sunset) and the impressionistic storytelling approach. I'm extra-glad I didn't watch any of the trailers or clips that were released before the movie was finished (apparently), because of the expectations they would have created -- not only glimpses of what's in the film, but quite a few things that aren't. (The NSFW advance clip of Freddie's Rorschach test is an alternate assembly of the scene in the completed film -- different shots, different angles, different dialog, different music.)
While working on this post, I read that, at the Venice Film Festival press conference, Anderson described a work process (not "processing") that resembles Malick's: he wasn't sure what he had, or what the movie was about, when he got into the editing room, but wound up stripping away almost everything that didn't have to do with the relationship between Freddie and Dodd.* It eventually becomes apparent that this is the heart of the movie: a love story between two men who need each other for reasons neither of them fully comprehends. (I was reminded of the relationship between Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the Coens' "Miller's Crossing" in this regard.) Freddie is a lost cause, the ultimate test case for The Master's sorta-Dianetics-like past-life therapeutic process known as "The Cause," based on the notion that every sensation of our lives, including previous existences, is fully recorded in our minds, as if on film. So, maybe Dodd needs Freddie as much or more than Freddie needs Dodd, to help him overcome his pain, fear, weakness, numbness, drunkenness, rage, etc. As Dodd scolds his bad dog Freddie, "No one likes you but me."
And he's pretty much right. You'd have to be crazy to "like" Freddy, a vulgar, infantile, violent, unstable, mean, selfish, thoroughly unpleasant guy who walks like a duck playing Richard III, stands hunched over as if he were broken (he is) and habitually places his hands on his hips, sometimes like Mick Jagger doing a chicken strut, sometimes like a stern old matron. (Alex, the sadistic killer rapist of "A Clockwork Orange," is more likable -- at least he has a lively personality, a love of Beethoven and a smart-ass sense of humor that extends beyond fart jokes.) But what Dodd feels for Freddie is something closer to pity, which evolves into a kind of love.
What kind of love, exactly? Well, that (like most everything else in the movie) is not spelled out. Surely Dodd sees something of his younger self in Freddie, a misfit nobody believes in. He sees a man who needs help and believes he, and his method, can provide it. If it can heal someone as damaged as Freddie, it would be a stellar validation of the power of "processing" (the form of semi-hypnosis -- or "anti-hypnosis" -- Dodd has developed). In Dodd's mind, Freddie presents the ultimate challenge to his life's work.
Some critics have detected a latent homosexual subtext in the relationship between Dodd and Freddie. OK, but I don't think following that thread takes you very far. Sure, there's some kind of attraction there because (in direct contradiction of one of Dodd's fundamental precepts) we are all animals. And while we tend to want to meld with those we love (part of what we love about them that they make us feel whole; they complete us), that desire to connect is not always explicitly sexual. Yet what are we to make of the late scene in which Freddie uses Dodd's "informal processing" questions as pillow talk while he's having sex with a woman? Has Dodd become his measure of intimacy? Or what about the pair's final meeting, in which Dodd gently serenades Freddie with: "I'd like to get you / On a slow boat to China / All to myself, alone..."?
It's interesting to note that the man who finally causes Freddie to explode, during his time as a department store portrait photographer, turns out to resemble Dodd. He's first presented as an off-screen voice, a happily married man, and something about him -- perhaps the picture-perfect scenario, in Freddie's mind, of a man getting his photograph taken for his wife to frame and keep on her dresser in their bedroom -- absolutely infuriates the photographer. Freddie attempts to pose the poor fellow so that he is nearly burned by the lamps. When we finally see him, sitting on his pedestal with lights trained on him, he looks very much like Dodd,** though Freddie hasn't yet met Master. Later, when he does, Dodd immediately senses something familiar in him and insists that they have met -- possibly in a previous life. That's the focus of The Cause: helping people let go of the burdens of their past lives and restore them to their pristine, natural state of "perfection."
And when Dodd's own son Val (Jesse Plemons from "Friday Night Lights" and "Breaking Bad"), who looks like a more exotic version of his father, becomes disenchanted with the old man's spiel ("He's just making it up as he goes along -- can't you see that?"), loyal "son" Freddie is outraged. Val disappears from the tale after that, his place filled by Freddie and Dodd's son-in-law, Clark (Rami Malek). Only after Freddie has left does Val return to Master's family fold.
Certainly the father-son dynamic involves competitive masculinity. It always does. Dodd carries an air of power and authority, not just as a revered intellectual leader but as a husband and father. Sexually and professionally, however, he is dominated by his steely, ambitious wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Freddie, meanwhile, has an animalistic obsession with sex: he humps a naked sand-woman on the beach (just the first of many times he takes a joke too far), sees nothing but female genitalia in the Rorschach inkblots he's shown, and imagines the drunken Dodd singing and dancing with naked women in a scene staged from his POV (all the men at the party remain clothed, invisible). What Freddie seems incapable of sustaining is any kind of long-term relationship -- sexual or otherwise. Both men seem to recognize in the other a side of their manliness that is missing or underdeveloped. In that sense, the union of the two of them is a form of completion, a yin-yang of post-war virility. When the two fight (separated by prison bars) and Freddie shows off his machismo by trashing his cell and smashing the toilet, Dodd attempts to one-up him by calmly, dismissively peeing in the urinal on his side of the barrier.
The recurring signature image of "The Master" -- which is also the opening shot -- is the aforementioned view of the ocean seen from a high deck on the rear of a ship, the waters roiled by the propellers deep below the surface. As a metaphor, it'll do: the vast, unfathomable sea of the past (akin to the Jungian collective unconscious but with actual lives instead of archetypes) on which all human existence floats. Bobbing on the waves, buoyed by unseen currents, we float upon upon the surface, moving forward but leaving no permanent tracks. There are no fixed routes, but an infinite number of pathways across the expanse, and we leave only the ripples and foam of a vanishing wake behind us... Or something like that. Anyway, the sea is where the movie begins and ends, with Freddie caressing a lover/mother in the sand.
As you no doubt know if you've seen anything at all about "The Master," the production was filmed in 65mm (shown in 70mm at select venues). Anderson says he "loved the look of those old VistaVision films like 'North by Northwest' and 'Vertigo.'" Reportedly, no Hollywood feature has been shot in 65mm since Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film of "Hamlet." Yes, the images (most of faces and bodies) are often striking and almost tactile, but that's not the most striking thing about the way the film is shot. What impressed me above all else is how carefully the frames are composed, often to suggest something just beyond your field of vision. In Freddie's first encounter with Dodd, the radiance of the latter's red bathrobe seeps into the left edge of the frame as though The Master's light were shining on Freddie.
Earlier, in one of the movie's showstopper visuals, a door bursts open on the hazy blue-gray light of a furrowed field as Freddie dashes out into it, pursued by a bunch of migrant farmworkers. The next shot, tracking with Freddie across the field, only once allows a glimpse of the men chasing him, at the far right edge of the frame. Freddie, it seems, is always fleeing unseen threats, and the image shows a man trying to run away from himself. This is followed a short time later by a reverse tracking shot (left to right) along a dock on San Francisco Bay, where Freddie hops aboard a warmly lighted boat carrying Dodd and his family.
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood contributes a score that mixes orchestra, percussion and chamber music -- not unlike some of Matthieu Chabrol's music for his father Claude's later films (I've been watching a lot of Chabrol lately), but the strings aren't as in-your-ear dissonant as Greenwood's work for "There Will Be Blood." Some of the music is drawn from a previous Greenwood piece, which is what disqualified "TWBB" from consideration for an original score Oscar. But again the compositions seem to have been applied to the images rather than composed for them; the cues sometimes play from one scene to the next, as if somebody in the theater had left a record on the turntable. It reminded me a little of when we used to play random piano music behind silent comedies in college if they didn't come with soundtracks, because student audiences just wouldn't sit still (much less laugh) in dead silence.
Anderson has built his last two films around exaggerated, mannered central performances -- by Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will be Blood" and Joachin Phoenix in "The Master." Hoffman's manner is more naturalistic, but still theatrical: Dodd himself is an actor, always in the spotlight, playing a larger-than-life part. Phoenix stylize his posture, speech, facial expressions and movements into something like Method kabuki -- alien, but still (just barely) suggestive of the human. (Maybe the character-defining hands-on-hips pose is meant to be his mie. Not that I know anything about kabuki.) Freddie is a creature who has never felt at home in his own skin, his own head. Everything he does seems driven by desperation, rage and frustration that the world refuses to conform itself to his existence.
The question at the core of "The Master" is: Who are you? When Freddie asks it of Dodd, the older man replies (reciting, as if he's rehearsed his delivery many times, which he surely has): "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man... a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you." Freddie doesn't seem to know who he is, but doesn't seem terribly interested in finding out, either. (That may be just as well. In his case a certain amount of self-knowledge and self-awareness could be even more painful and debilitating than the blind agony of his current state.)
We may also ask: What is this movie? I don't know. I was intrigued while I watched it, but never got caught up in it, emotionally, intellectually or cinematically. It's one of those movies that, even in a vivid 70mm presentation, I viewed as if from a great distance -- like I was sitting way back in the theater instead of up front. I'd seen headlines and tweets from other critics who saw "The Master" in Venice and Toronto, and the ones that weren't raves looked like tentative, ambivalent, qualified assessments -- people saying things like "I need to see it again before I can be sure..." In that sense, it's a film like "The Tree of Life" that many weren't sure they "got" until they saw it again. (In my case, it was the second viewing that convinced me I thought too much of it was twaddle.) And, as with "Tree of Life," I've now read some of the reviews exalting the movie as a masterpiece and don't have much sense of what the film's champions saw in it that made them so enthusiastic.
"You may read elsewhere that there's scant narrative to Anderson's sixth feature," says Peter Howell in The Toronto Star, "leastways nothing as compelling as in such earlier films as 'There Will be Blood' or 'Boogie Nights.' This is emphatically not the case, although the through-line is subtle and a second viewing certainly assists. This is one of the year's best films; it's worth any effort needed to fully appreciate it." OK, but statements like that needs some evidence behind it, and apart from references to "grand cinematography" and references to Phoenix and Hoffman as "likely Oscar nominees" who "command the screen," it's difficult (for me, at least) to get a sense of what the reviewer thinks the movie is about, or what's so special about the picture. Then again, it's only a brief newspaper review; perhaps more space is needed to explore the movie in greater detail. [Addendum: I was talking to a film scholar friend who suggested that "The Master" was a rare thing -- a mainstream American movie that resisted "reviewing" and required a more rigorous critical approach: film criticism rather than film reviewing. I hope to explore that a bit in my next post.]
I think we've all had experiences with movies we didn't take to, or actively disliked, when we first saw them, only to find them gnawing at us the next day or the next week. Some of the greatest movies I've ever seen have implanted themselves in my subconscious and drawn me back to them so I could recognize something in them that may have registered deep in my brain but that I didn't recognize the first time. Is "The Master" one of those movies? Again, I don't know. Yet. Sometimes I plan to see a movie a second time, but never feel compelled to actually get around to it.
But I came across a piece by Stephanie Zacharek at The A.V. Club asking: "Should some movies be taken more seriously than others?" She writes about gut instinct as
... one of the most freeing responses a moviegoer can have, and it's one of the drivers that keeps the movies alive as a popular art form: Anyone with a ticket or the ability to stream can watch a movie and know, in the end, just how he or she feels. Or doesn't feel. Even ambivalence can be a kind of boldness, a catalyst that forces viewers to reckon with what they've just seen, to unfold its rangy layers until some semblance of meaning emerges. But even after all that wrestling, what happens if you still don't like the movie that has been deemed a masterpiece by nearly every critic you respect (and some you don't)? Did you just not watch the movie hard enough, or think about it long enough? Are you just not smart enough to get it?
Is the problem you?
Viewers may or may not have feelings of confusion as they walk out of "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's bodaciously epic act of filmmaking.... Some may love the direction in which Anderson is now headed, post-"There Will Be Blood," and some may miss the delicate genre toughness of "Sydney." Some may yearn to see "The Master" again, while others may feel, even if they essentially liked it, that once is more than enough.
Think about that for a little while, think about "The Master" and read her entire article. I want to go deeper into all these things in Part 2....
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* From the Venice press conference:
"I think we were just trying to tell a love story between these guys. And we had a lot of scenes that weren't about that and we just took 'em out and the narrative, for whatever the narrative ended up being, just ended up being driven by these two guys and their love for each other."
And from an interview in the Washington Post:
"After collecting all this footage, when we got into the editing room it became clear that the marching orders, the party line to attack, was the love story," [Anderson] says, explaining that the film seemed destined to revolve around "two guys just desperate for each other, but doomed. Sadly doomed."
** Thinking back on it, at first I thought the model in the department store resembled Amy Adams, and the girl at the end looked like Doris, Freddie's sixteen-year-old girlfriend.
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...