What did you think of The Master?

Last updated 08:57 19/03/2013

I finally got to see The Master. I say that like it is some grand achievement because it is. You see, this film was released months ago everywhere in New Zealand except Christchurch. I know not why.

Then, all of a sudden, it was released in a multiplex on the eastern edge of the city about two weeks ago. But, in its first week of Christchurch release, it was only screened at 12.50 in the afternoon and 8.50 at night. So, I'm either at work or facing a 1am bedtime on a school night if I want to see it.

But, luckily, I had the day off yesterday, so I drove across town to finally see The Master. I felt it was important to see this film on a big screen. It was shot in 65mm, a format that demands the biggest screen you can find, and Paul Thomas Anderson's previous works have been steadfastly cinematic. His last film, There Will Be Blood, is a stone cold masterpiece and I'm glad I saw it on the big screen a number of times. On DVD or Blu Ray it is not quite the same. The marks of genius are there, but it feels like a contained beast in a cage it is flexing to be released from.

I was blogging nostalgically about missing the age of scarcity the other week. Well, be careful what you wish for. This is a film I had to root out and discover. I had to make a special trip across town on a day off to see it.

A film so scarce it reminded me of the scene in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent talks about his struggles finding the local council's motorway plan:

"It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."

Here was a film hidden away - demanding the effort of discovery. Why is it you cannot escape the thoughtless and noisy films, but thougtful and intriguing films must be sought out?

And The Master is a truly thoughtful and intriguing film. An instant reaction to this film seems impossible. It is obtuse and indirect. Very careful in its portrayal of complex characters endowed with humanity and empathy. It's fascinating and I loved it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a kind of L Ron Hubbard in the process of founding his own philosophy. His life entwines with that of Freddie Quell, a kind of troubled and quietly despairing Bonobo monkey who stumbles into a strange world of odd intellectual ideas.

Quell and Dodd are clearly both sides of the same coin. Both intolerant of challenge, both fascinated by sex and both quietly despairing. But the way they respond to these similar challenges is very different. One builds a strange quasi-religion, the other drinks torpedo fuel.

Phoenix's performance as Quell is astonishing. The bonobo monkey is not a throwaway line. Anderson apparently called the actor Bubbles on set, after Michael Jackson's pet primate. Phoenix's mannerisms, the way he moves and sits, thinks and struggles, all seem inspired by the monkey. His costumes are also tailored to make his arms look long. He looks as though someone found a monkey and domesticated him. But beneath this animal simplicity there is pain and complexity. A pain and complexity he is unable to confront and resolve.

It is as though Quell and Dodd are two parts of a single personality. I don't know a lot about Freud, but it feels as though Quell is pure Id, while Dodd is pure Super Ego. Together they sort of make a whole person. In some ways, they both realise this and are consequently fascinated by each other.

It has echoes of There Will Be Blood in the way that the central characters are damaged people looking for some kind of philosophy that could redeem them. They dabble in strange philosophies, but are frustrated and disappointed when they realise these ideas do not offer salvation, but only hogwash.

You can see this theme in a clip from There Will Be Blood. Watch how Daniel Plainview is almost seduced by the cathartic power of the ceremony, only to realise he has nearly been fooled and begin his mocking anew. At the end of this scene he is never more vulnerable:

 

I'm glad I saw The Master on the big screen. The subject is intimate, but the canvas is vast. It reminded me of a quote I think is attributed to John Ford. He was asked what they were going to film that day and he said:

"We're going to film the most fascinating thing in the world. We're going to film the human face.''

Have you seen The Master? What did you think?

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