The Master has all the trappings of an ‘event’ film and that is indeed what it has become. Paul Thomas Anderson made the decision to shoot his film on 65mm film, but to release it in a standard 1:1.85 ‘modern widescreen’ ratio rather than CinemaScope (1:2.35) or one of the other widescreen aspect ratios associated with the 1950s ‘roadshow picture’. In an interview in Sight and Sound (December 2012) he recognises that he has created a problem with his ‘chamber’ piece which seems to promise to be something else. He thinks that you should ideally see this work on a 70mm film print. In the UK only one cinema (in London) is showing the film in this way with every other screening offered on digital projection. Not surprisingly, the rush of cinephiles to the Odeon West End placed the film into the Top 20 on its exclusive 70mm run for the first two weeks (the Roadshow idea) and the hype built for the subsequent release to 153 digital screens. However, those 153 digital screens struggled to produce a fraction of the screen average for the 70mm print. Instead The Master now looks like a solid American Independent hit rather than a crossover hit.
I describe this distribution history and its media coverage to highlight the problems facing anyone who wants to write about the film now on release. There are already hundreds of words out there – can I justify adding any more to the pile? There are a few things that haven’t been said and some that need a greater airing so I’ll press on. I should say first that I watched the film with interest, even when I didn’t particularly feel taken by the narrative or the theme. It’s a long film (143 mins) and it requires patience. But surprisingly the time flew by. The cinematography and set design/costumes look stunning and the music soundtrack features some lovely songs some of which are on YouTube – though I didn’t notice Jonny Greenwood’s compositions as much as I did on There Will Be Blood. The central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are probably what most audiences notice first. I found them both quite disturbing (especially that of Phoenix) but they do make sense in terms of the characters. Less prominent perhaps, but very effective, is Amy Adams. There is no doubt about Anderson’s talents as a director in terms of both developing a grand vision and orchestrating all his resources. The problems I have with the film are associated more with the narrative ideas and the overall theme. This may be more to do with my increasingly dyspeptic view of American culture and American cinema generally.
If you’ve managed to miss the plot descriptions of the film, I should point out that Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a US sailor who after the Second World War is unable to settle in to civilian work and who becomes a drifter – and an alcoholic – who one day stumbles onto the yacht/steamship being used by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a would be guru who is developing a practical philosophy about living in America entitled ‘The Cause’. He is attracted to the sailor, despite the alcoholism and aggressive behaviour, and a strange relationship begins. Dodd’s existing family have some misgivings about accepting the new convert.
The film is ‘about’ the struggle to marry together dreams of ‘freedom’ and the possibilities of affluence in an increasingly conservative American society in the Truman era. The specific time period I find absolutely fascinating but the narrative about ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’ that is blown up to epic proportions is less attractive. It’s possible to make statements through metaphor and the stories of ‘small’ or ‘ordinary’ people, but the ‘Great American Novel’ and Hollywood appear to prefer ‘big’ heroes with big aims – whether they are ‘leaders’ or ‘anti-heroes’. Freddie Quell in Joachin Phoenix’s performance offers a construction with familiar characteristics drawn from a range of famous literary characters who have in turn been personified in high-profile performances. I’m thinking of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alan Arkin in Catch-22, Frank Sinatra and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (an original cinema creation). I’m not claiming any direct resemblance here, rather that these are all characters either remembered from wartime or struggling in the aftermath to maintain some form of independence/freedom in the face of conformity. The difference here is that one familiar character is placed in a relationship with a second, the father figure and visionary character. The problem is that I don’t see this as a new story so much as an endless stream of references. Watching it felt like being in a kind of intertextual dream. I couldn’t work out why we were shown a scene in the desert and I started thinking about Jason Robards and Paul Le Mat in Melvin and Howard (US 1980). Later I read that one of the plot details in the film was based on an anecdote told to Anderson by Robards. At another point when Dodd is ‘processing’ Quell via a set of questions, I thought of Warren Beatty being subjected to propaganda films in The Parallax View (US 1974).
Part of my problem is that I’ve never found Scientology or other cults particularly interesting (the Dodd character and other aspects of the plot are supposed to be informed by Ron L. Hubbard’s story). The ‘real’ story for me would be the era of the HUAC hearings and the development of conservative politics in America. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a significant number of Hollywood creatives came to the UK to escape the witch hunts in the US. The Master plotline also heads for the UK towards the end of the film and these scenes were quite surreal – and again I started to make connections, this time to the Powell & Pressburger films of 1944-46 and their American GI characters.
Whatever problems I had with the theme of the film I have to admit that the film itself has set me thinking and I feel I should watch it again. Anderson apparently took a great deal from two documentaries – one by John Huston on the ‘processing’ of veterans returning from war in 1946 titled Let There Be Light and the other by Lionel Rogosin in 1955 called On the Bowery dealing with drunks on Skid Row (see the interview with Anderson by James Bell in Sight and Sound December 2012). I suspect I might end up watching the DVD.