The Master

The Master ★★★½

There'll be a real review at some point, probably, and I'm going to see it again. These are just first-draft thoughts:

1) P.T. Anderson is as talented as he thinks he is. Keith Uhlich's said he finds an air of white elephant about the film, and it's true I almost lapsed into unstoppable giggles when made to sit in the silent dark for 15 seconds until the words "The Master" pop up; it's like Anderson is announcing himself as the titular character. But the first shot (the ocean as Rorschach test) is both stunning and a thematic prefiguration of what's to come.

2) Mike D'Angelo's talked about how (especially, imo, in There Will Be Blood) Anderson "tends to identify Big Themes he wants to tackle, then decline to actually tackle them." I think this works just great for Blood: the opaque conflict between Big Oil and Religion should be just so fuzzily rendered, because are they really in conflict etc. Here we have a more ambiguous conflict (Master vs. Aide, although really Phoenix contributes nothing to the relationship — Hoffman literally talks to him like a dog), but it's still an unambiguously metaphorical Conflict on the stage of the American Century.

3) But The Master couldn't be clearer, literally. In 70mm, a format normally reserved for event films and epic depictions of combat, Anderson depicts one of the most ordinary things in the world: an American con man and his sucker. The Death Valley "climax" invokes (intentionally, I'm pretty sure) Greed. Insistently using this most epic of formats to highlight the banal, Anderson both ensures that (at least in lucky places) his film will be seen on a gigantic, clear screen, and that attendantly you'll be forced to notice the obvious: this story is uniquely American.

4) As a parodic "epic," Anderson's use of 70mm is particularly fascinating: this is the first time (far as I know) that the stock has been used to show a man jerking off on a beach. Sexual frustration (undiscussed in polite American society, even in the post-WWII debriefing that's frank about mental adjustments to civilian life) is Joaquin Phoenix's problem, in a performance so laconically, one-side-of-the-mouth talking Michael Shannon-esque it's probably good the man himself didn't do it; it'd be the apotheosis of that persona for sure.

5) I'm not surprised Anderson's going to make Inherent Vice next (another story), but Phoenix could be a cousin/double of V.'s Benny Profane, wandering the American continent while trying to find a post-war sense of purpose. Let's note that Anderson's sense of humor is unsophisticated. I don't mean this pejoratively, simply as a reminder that e.g. Punch Drunk Love began out of his sincere appreciation of Adam Sandler's work. In many ways, I think The Master is supposed to be funny, in the way that watching two articulate men deliberately being dickhead drunks is funny: the appalling behavior, the antisocial sense of purpose, the shared bond of linguistic shorthand designed to exclude others. (Like Pynchon, with whom Anderson shares a taste for disrupting epic setpieces with just cartoonish vulgarity — so many 70mm farts and songs!) (Also like Pynchon, Anderson enfolds an enormous frame of reference — the set design is beyond perfect — and then uses it to buttress a fantastical distortion of historical reality.) Said buffoonery might be Anderson's "in" to a potentially opaque story: at stage center are two bros being bros.

6) The Visconti-esque 360 tracking shot of the department store model is a jawdropper, almost fell out of my seat right then and there. Shit's straight out of the The Conformist.

7) Anderson used There Will Be Blood to try to pare back the things he'd become associated with: profane motormouth dialogue (no profanity in Blood, and no dialogue for the first reel), almost no blinding lens flare, and (for the first and so far only time) no Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like Robert Downey Jr. (Anderson's next star!), Hoffman has recognizable tics that still work freshly for every part he chooses. In The Master (as widely noted), Anderson chronologically follows up Blood and allows himself to redefine the idea of a "P.T. Anderson movie" as a thing with recognizable constituent shots, devices, sudden noise scare tactics, etc. — a mutating but consistent set of interests."You're sick and tired and need to be away from people," Phoenix is told, just like Daniel Plainview wanted to get away from all of "these people</i>," just like Adam Sandler couldn't talk to anyone in Punch Drunk Love, just like Tom Cruise couldn't handle the world in Magnolia and strove to master it instead.