3.32 The Master

This is not a review of The Master. I don’t even know what the hell it’s about. Walking with the crowd out of the theatre, I overheard someone say, “That’s two hours of my life I want back.” Undoubtedly, a movie like this garners such a reaction, and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. For me, it was one of those rare pieces of work that reaffirms why I became interested in movies in the first place. http://youtu.be/fJ1O1vb9AUU

The Master also shows that we have been watching the career of a filmmaker unfold and develop into a master himself. Paul Thomas Anderson has only made six films, but all of them seem to be a step towards a higher plane, a place where all artists strive to arrive. I feel fortunate that I tuned into his work early and been able to watch him move from a style heavily influenced by others to being untouched by anyone.

My research being what it is, I read somewhere - I can't remember where -  that Bob Dylan took other people’s songs and started replacing lyrics with his own. He needed to build the confidence in his own vision. Likewise, Anderson’s Sydney and Boogie Nights borrowed heavily from Martin Scorsese’s style and Francis Ford Coppola’s sense of family. Magnolia painted a myriad canvas of emotion, but with this film there was a sense of closure on this phase of his career. He took a right turn with the Adam Sandler romantic comedy Punchdrunk Love, but at the same time, it made complete sense. Punchdrunk Love was a transitional film; he seemed to be removing some of the more meandering aspects of his style.

These films – Sydney, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punchdrunk Love – were all very exciting to watch. I also got a sense that something more was going on beneath the surface. Similar to Dylan and his appropriated songs, Anderson seemed to be making films that were an accumulation of others. He threw everything into his movies, but on seeing There Will Be Blood, there was a shift, he took the same leap as Dylan, and decided to see how far he could push his talent.

I often compare Anderson to Quentin Tarantino, mostly because they appeared around the same time and although made very different movies, dealt in violence and had a kinetic style. I was a total Tarantino obsessive in the 1990s, how could you not? It felt like we had never seen anything like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. The difference between Anderson and Tarantino has been time. Tarantino is now stuck making the same movie just in different genres, and in my opinion, he’s the big screen equivalent of a mashup you might see on Youtube. There’s no substance. Stanley Kubrick believed pure cinema was the combination of style and content. Anderson had the style and the content was there under the surface, but he has surpassed Tarantino into a realm of sophisticated and philosophical authorship.

I bring up Kubrick, not for reasons of comparing specific Anderson movies, just that they both seem to be grappling with big ideas and questions, and view every element of filmmaking at their disposal to communicate these curiosities. When I was watching There Will Be Blood, some sequences fired on all cylinders, each element so well crafted on its own, but in some way, all came together to form a meaning greater than their individual parts. The drastic change from Boogie Nights and Magnolia was extreme, but when these movies are viewed in the context of his other work, many of the same themes emerge. He was always going down this road, he needed the confidence to say more with less.

The Master stands alone. I’ve never quite seen a movie like it, and probably won’t until Anderson makes another one. Every line of dialogue, every shot, every twitch of an actor’s lip, every note of the soundtrack, everything is deliberate and calculated to be unconventional. There is no real beginning and no real ending, and it does not conform to our preexisting sense of narrative. At the same time, it is not opaque, rather, is full of an emotional connectiveness and dives into depths of incredible sadness.

As for the themes, I was fascinated that Anderson explored the concept of a religious movement and the manufacturing of spirituality without an empty Oprah ‘A-Ha’ moment or the main character climbing a mountain and screaming into the valley below. Anderson endowed his movie with a sense of heaviness between the audience and the movie screen, added a layer of thickness to the characters and the story. A sense that these were real people grappling with large problems, although mostly conveyed through small silences or physical nuances by some masterful actors.

Every once in a while, we are lucky that someone like Anderson appears as we are growing up. We are fortunate to watch as Anderson grapples with his talent and pushes the line a bit further along with each movie. I often thought that I always had to experience classic works in retrospect, but in my lifetime, Anderson is to movies what Radiohead is to music and Louis CK is to television and comedy. We are watching their work as it comes out, when it is new – work that will be around for a long time. Work that other people in the future will watch in retrospect. For now, it’s all new and exciting.

I don’t care about sounding pretentious. What the hell is art good for unless it makes us think? When I walk into that theatre, I want some sense that I am not alone. I want the neurons in my brain to have to realign, break apart and reform. These are the things that help us feel. It’s unfortunate that the gentleman believed he wasted two hours of his life, but I don’t think he did. The movie is too haunting for it not to plant itself somewhere in your head. At some point, he’ll remember an image from The Master, and he will be glad he wasted those two hours.