The Master

The Master ★★★★★

I hadn't seen this in four years - since the initial release - and always felt I might have overrated it via the "I need to see it again" defense. What does that mean, anyway? It implies that the genius at play is so obtuse and/or ahead of me that more hours watching mean I can fully *understand* what Paul Thomas Anderson is Trying To Say. I for one don't love movies for this reason - my favorite films tend to make their point clearly in stories that only need to be told once but reveal additional details and glories in subsequent viewings.

The reason PTA gets away with this, I've realized, is twofold: first, he gets world-class performances from world-class actors (due, of course, to his writing). The other is his style, which has followed a really unusual course for his career. It makes sense, especially with a director like him who is so clearly aware of what his next step might mean (and what it meant, earlier in his career). He made his name on the then-novel long tracking shots through casinos in HARD EIGHT or discos and pool parties in BOOGIE NIGHTS, and then turned it up to 11 and made an indulgent opus in MAGNOLIA, effectively solidifying his credibility in a wild 4-5 year span that has given him the capital to make whatever movie he wants going forward. I love the apocryphal story that when a studio exec was asked why he had financed a PTA film he responded "Because it was my turn."

Those first three films luxuriate in ambitious and exciting film language, but it's also very obvious. They're immensely pleasurable and rewatchable - even half of HARD EIGHT. But PTA started exploring a simpler sense of style that "peaks" in terms of its conventional technique in INHERENT VICE, a movie with very particular aesthetic decisions that knows to defer to the power of the actors onscreen.

THE MASTER is obsessed with actors, acting, fakery, and family dynamics. You could argue convincingly all PTA films are about these things, but they tend to be so rich with historical themes and other tangents that you could argue they're about anything. But to get back to where I started: I liked THE MASTER a lot in 2012, but felt I had "missed" something. I finally rewatched it and realized I had actually missed very little - it's just a matter of keeping up with the plot or, rather, the holes in the plot that occasionally make the film feel disjointed. Everything else is very simple. There are a few majestic camera moves but for the most part PTA is shooting coverage (70mm in a 1.85 aspect ratio coverage - I think this is part of the joke) or simple static shots of his actors. There's great beauty in this simplicity - both in their immediate aesthetic appeal and how they tie in thematically (like when Dodd and Quell are both in jail, or the way PTA builds tension in how he edits the dialogue heavy sequences). No fewer than three traditional acting exercises play out as setpieces designed to justify Lancaster Dodd's make-it-up-as-I-go-along religion, producing real moments of vulnerability that are chalked up to beautifully written nonsense. Parts of this felt like reading a script of Donald Trump speaking with positive thinking.

It's those narrative gaps that lost me the first time. The first major one is after a bravura sequence manages to completely skip the first time Freddie Quell and Dodd meet. It's magnificently weird storytelling:

--Quell is working on some kind of migrant farm in Salinas. He is making his paint thinner cocktail and gives it to a man, who gets sick and appears on the verge of death. Freddie flees in a speedy tracking shot across a field - seemingly with nothing.
--Quell approaches a boat in San Francisco's harbor. Focus goes from him to the boat, where there's dancing, and back to Quell again. He jumps on the boat like its nothing.
--Another shot of of the boat soaring by at sunset, the American flag against the Golden Gate Bridge
--Freddie wakes up and is called to meet Dodd, who asks him if he can provide more of his delicious poison.

It really is something like five shots from Freddie maybe killing a man with his booze to beginning an unrealized romance with Dodd - and much of what's confusing is they've already met offscreen! During Dodd's ceremony some kind of scene took place where Freddie endeared himself to Dodd, or Dodd saw he was weak, or something. PTA doesn't give us this moment. Lazy or brilliant? I don't know, but its a story and this is how he's telling it. I think the second viewing of his films is coming to this realization that these movies are really quite simple: INHERENT VICE is about a really nice guy who is just trying to help out his ex, his frenemy Josh Brolin, and total stranger Owen Wilson. THE MASTER is about one lunatic character not that far removed from Barry Egan in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE who is looking for something to hold onto. He manages to grab onto a shapeshifter on a boat in the ocean.

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