Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Free Winds and No Tyranny


[Beware Spoilers]

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love might seem to be a strange film to act as a bridge between what now seem to be two very distinct phases in his career, but after seeing his new movie The Master, and thinking about it in relation to 2007's There Will Be Blood, I'm left unable to draw any other conclusion. I've been a fan of Anderson's from the beginning, and I feel no conflict in continuing to love his first three films -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia -- while regarding each of them as very much the work of a young man. This stands to reason, as Anderson was a young man when he made them: 26 when Hard Eight came out, 29 for Magnolia, and then after a three year gap -- not so long in the grand scheme of things -- we got Punch-Drunk Love, a superb film. No more or less superb than what had come before, I'd say, but gone now was the sprawl of characters and storylines that seemed like it might be his calling card after Hard Eight, gone was sometimes stretched-thin plotting that seemed like it existed only because Anderson thought it should (I'm thinking mainly of the middle of Hard Eight here), gone was the flashy stylistic debt to Scorsese and, save for a nod or two towards Popeye, Altman. And in fact Punch-Drunk Love is very specifically a film about a man who, while professionaly okay, was a social mess, a child who understood he should have gained something more in the years he's lived, and is frustrated to the point of violence that he hasn't. It's that among other things, but it's also that.

What it all really boils down to is style, both visually and narratively, and there's an unstructured looseness to Punch-Drunk Love that is as much to its favor as the almost mathematic precision of storytelling was to Magnolia. There was also a lot more empty space, and silence, and sunlight that wasn't necessarily warm but white and desert-like. California was starting to look more blasted than it had in his earlier films. There was somehow a new texture to everything. Even as Punch-Drunk Love exploited Anderson's sharp comedic instincts in the way that Hard Eight and Boogie Nights had (and for me, those moments are Boogie Nights at its best), there's a sense that something is being left behind, and Anderson was emerging from under the shelter of his influences and creating something that was very much his own. This would perhaps help explain why his daring, sinister, weird There Will Be Blood, Anderson's next film, five years down the road, feels, in the best possible way, like the work of, if not a different person, than at least a different artist.

Now here we are, again five years down the road, and The Master is, if anything, weirder and more daring. Maybe not more sinister, but that sort of thing is really more dependent on the subject at hand, and the subject at hand in There Will Be Blood, if I may be permitted to boil down that unclassifiable film into something easily digestible, is misanthropy. And as twisted as The Master can be, it's not misanthropic. Some level of misanthropy might have been assumed, given that everyone who hadn't actually made the movie (this obviously includes myself) possessed an undeniable certainty that the primary goal of The Master was to blow the lid off of Scientology, whose lid was blown long ago in any case, but the prospect that Anderson would dramatize that lid-blowing process, and use his frequent collaborator and no-fooling great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as the film's version of Scientology's mysterious, pulp science fiction writing con artist L. Ron Hubbard was simply too wonderful, and made it impossible for anyone to credit the early protests (not vehement in tone, but more in the "wait and you'll see what we mean" mode) from Anderson and Hoffman that that wasn't exactly what The Master was going to be.
They were right, of course, up to a point. Which isn't to say there was any dishonesty in those protests, but more that while The Master certainly doesn't depict The Cause, the film's Scientology-like cult religion, in a positive light, Anderson also hasn't made the muckraking expose' that we all for some reason or another thought we wanted from him. No, what it is is this: well, no, hold on. What it's about, in terms of story, is this: Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a former Navy man and veteran of World War II who, when we first meet him, is as messed up a human being as one can imagine existing outside of the prison system. He seems irredeemably laser-focused on two things, sex and booze, the sex taking the form of molesting the naked figure of a woman his fellow sailors have playfully built with sand, past the point of any reasonable joke, and then later masturbating on the beach, not really out of sight of anyone at all, but his back is turned so maybe that counts, and the booze manifesting as moonshine of his own concoction, using whatever was handy, which, in the civilian world, tends to mean things like paint thinner and photo emulsifier. We see Freddie bounce through a couple of jobs, including one as a portrait photographer at a department store that ends when he becomes weirdly aggressive, and finally violent, towards a customer, and another as a cabbage harvester among migrant workers, one of whom he almost kills with his hideous booze. Anderson depicts all of this with no connective tissue. We aren't shown how he arrived at the cabbage farm from the city where he worked in the department store, and we don't see how he gets from the cabbage farm to docks where he will stowaway on a yacht, where he meets Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd. The occasional narrative strain of Hard Eight, the need to get his characters in trouble and just hammer out some scenario that will allow the ending to make sense, drops away here. I don't know if Anderson feels any relief in this new, cut-to-the-bone narrative style, this method of writing and filming the parts that are vital and leaving the pedantic continuity concerns for the birds, but it's a curiously thrilling relief for me as an audience member, and inspiring in a way it would be unseemly to get into here.

Anyway, Anderson makes it clear that among Freddie's problems is a rough bout of post-traumatic stress disorder, but I've seen some critics basically say "That's what's wrong with Freddie, now, moving on..." but there's clearly much more wrong with the man than that. The war perhaps freed his mangled brain to act as it had always dreamed to, but there's actual on-screen evidence that the war was just part of it. Whatever difference that makes to you – it makes a lot to me, as taking in all the evidence makes it much harder (and this is crucial) to hang Freddie’s frightening instability on any one peg – Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie as a bent, scarred, hungry, scrabbling little creature, or a rat who, in addition to being a rat, also dimly understands that he is losing his mind. It’s this understanding that drives him towards bottles of paint thinner, which, I can only assume, obliterates far more of what you’d want obliterated, and never mind the path it’s rotting through your guts, than anything you’d be able to find in a liquor store. It’s an astonishing performance in any case, one I don’t think I believed Phoenix, who before this was a very obviously talented actor, was capable of. It’s a big performance, too, like Daniel Day-Lewis’s in There Will Be Blood, though in the body of a character who is considerably less sophisticated, articulate, or industrious. But the hunch of Day-Lewis’s Plainview at the end of that earlier film is mirrored, which is not to say copied, in every step and every second of Phoenix’s Freddie in The Master. Plainview may have gotten there with regular booze, but he’d also been working at it much longer.

But perhaps Quell has found some kind of salvation on Lancaster Dodd’s yacht. The yacht is sailing at the moment because Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) is getting married (Dodd himself is performing the ceremony), so Freddie has stumbled already into what would appear to be a relatively high class celebration, where there is booze, and has, against all odds, been accepted. Freddie wakes up from a blackout and is ushered by a young woman into Dodd’s cabin, where Dodd tells him about a conversation they’d had the night before that Freddie doesn’t remember, something to do with Quell offering to work for him, and Dodd, seeing the damage and on-the-brink psychology radiating from Freddie’s entire body, invites him into his cult. Because let’s not beat around the bush here. Anderson doesn’t, as that word is actually used at one point in a terrific scene later on where an outsider (Christopher Evan Welch) overhearing Dodd’s line of nonsense grills Dodd with all the civility and reason he can muster, and it turns out to be just a hair too much for Dodd to bear. I’ve seen some talk that The Master treats the idea of this fringe, cult religion with ambiguity, implying that its benefits as a system of belief or as a guide for one’s life are not commented on one way or another. I think this is exactly wrong. There’s quite a lot of philosophical space between the outright, hammer-on-nail condemnation we all thought The Master was going to dish out and a non-committal “Well who can say if such things work?”, and The Master falls very clearly in the negative area. It doesn’t outright condemn, which may be the issue here, but it shows The Cause failing to work. But I’m pretty sure I’m getting to that.
Along with Dodd’s little minx of a daughter and her new true-believer husband (Rami Malek) the main cast is filled out by Amy Adams as Peggy, Dodd’s wife. Adams’s performance is very strong, and sure to be overshadowed by Phoenix and Hoffman (about whom more etc.), but I’d say of the three leads hers is easily the most subtle. It took me a while to get any sort of fix on her, and I think this is a side effect of how Amy Adams normally is in films – prim, usually, sweet, often, sometimes feisty, but good, and good-hearted. All of these things she certainly seems to be as we get rolling, and she welcomes Freddie Quell onto her family yacht, and invites him to eat with her, and tells him that he has inspired her husband – who in this initial phase of his relationship with Freddie regards him as an experiment through which he can prove his theories, and also as someone who makes crazy-strong booze that Dodd quite enjoys drinking himself – to write more than she’s ever seen him write. So she’s a nice lady, apparently, though you’d have to also think a somewhat naïve one – how else to explain how this outwardly smart woman could devote herself to a man who preaches past lives, theories on an Earth that is trillions rather than billions of years old, and so on? But as the film goes on, she’s revealed to be somewhat more prickly than that. I’ve seen her described as a Lady Macbeth figure, though this must be counted as a stretch, unless your definition of a Lady Macbeth figure is broad enough to include a woman who isn’t always nice to everybody. Peggy does have her own agenda, but within the world of the film, and more to the point of her family, both marital and biological as well as the family of The Cause, it’s an agenda that she believes will benefit many. She also plots, but plotting to get your husband as well as your new friend to stop drinking paint thinner falls in my book somewhere short of regicide. Still, she does become rather unpleasant by the film’s end, as she grows to disdain the outside world that she views as being filled with ignorant people who want only to mock and destroy The Cause, and hardens to it as all successful cults eventually must.

As the world Anderson is depicting in The Master expands, which in this case means only that he’s expanding to more fully show the world of The Cause and the people who inhabit it, other viewpoints into Dodd and his work are allowed some brief but key introductions. With them they bring cracks to The Cause and Dodd’s façade, but the only progress toward anyone seeing through this madness is communicated by Anderson through the reactions Freddie, and even Dodd, have to these moments. Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) says to Freddie that his father is making everything up as he goes along, and shortly thereafter, when Freddie and Dodd are carted off to jail together, Freddie’s anger and frustration spills out, and in his tirade he repeats these same words. Later, when Bill, a long-time advocate of Dodd and his work (Kevin J. O’Connor), confides to Freddie that he thinks Dodd’s new book – the first being The Cause, this second entitled The Split Saber -- is “shit”, Freddie attacks him. Meanwhile Dodd, who has already shown his inability to deal with someone who demands that he explain himself (I did briefly flirt with calling this post Pigfuck!), finds himself, in the same sequence of scenes during which Freddie assaults Bill, gently cornered by long-time friend Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), who is confused and concerned by a change in wording found in the new book, which she is smart enough to understand changes pretty much the entire basis of their shared beliefs. Dodd handles this moment poorly. So while Anderson’s mission is to not furiously dismantle Scientology, or cults similar to it, he does understand that common sense can take what’s laid before it and do the job perfectly well all by itself. These three moments, which I’ve described in the order they occur in the film, depict levels of disillusion. Freddie is easily won back (he’s very susceptible to any number of things), Bill was merely disappointed in the actual book, not in Dodd’s theories, whereas Helen…she’s probably on her way out. Maybe not for a while yet, but she can’t have walked away from her conversation with her messiah feeling particularly bolstered. Regardless, this is a superb scene, one that Laura Dern plays very well (I had no idea she was even in this movie), but Hoffman’s the show. Dodd is an ideal character for him, as it lets him do just about everything an actor could want to do, from humor to rage to despair, but Dodd is a man who has to keep it together, and he’s starting to have trouble. If there’s some ambiguity in how The Master regards The Cause, it shows through how Anderson writes Dodd. I think there’s some reason to believe that Dodd is not merely a charlatan, but might be someone who actually believes this nonsense – might, in fact, not realize that it is nonsense. If he doesn’t for most of the film, though, he’s beginning to, and his conversation with Dern could be the moment when the balloon pops.
This section of the film, which is a long one that begins roughly at the point when Dodd and his people arrive at the home of Dern’s character, is when The Master begins to gain structure. Prior to this, the film was intentionally aimless, but here some specifics of The Cause and of Dodd’s methods begin to take shape, and Freddie begins his training, or schooling, or whatever you’d want to call walking across a room from a wall to a window and describing each over and over again for what appears to be hours, in earnest. The aimlessness of Freddie’s life, which the film adopted as its ephemeral construction, now hardens into some kind of purpose: The Betterment of Freddie Quell. It’s after this section that many people who’ve seen the movie believe The Master begins to lose its way. And the film does become more willowy once the disenchantment sets in, but this is because the purpose has once again scattered into aimlessness. Freddie may be slow on the uptake, but he’s able to find a source of some kind of momentum in his life by very consciously breaking away from Dodd during one of his especially ridiculous and pointless exercises. The Cause may have given Freddie the boost – essentially, the idea -- to take the step he takes towards the end of the film, but nobody, including Dodd (Freddie’s only friend, as Dodd insists, and this may in fact be true) ever told him to actually go do the thing he should have done years ago. To do that would be to tell a member of their cult to contact the outside world for reasons other than to proselytize, and this is something that Dodd, and especially Peggy, cannot have. If Freddie is to leave one of the various places The Cause calls home to do something besides furthering The Cause, then Peggy would just as soon cut him loose. And it’s true that there is some reason, some small reason, for hoping that Freddie might not be a lost cause. It’s worth noting, I think, that for all of Freddie’s obsession with sex, he’s only shown actually having it once, near the end, and the experience seems to be a pleasant one for both parties – I’m not at all convinced this is routinely the outcome for Freddie in these situations. This, of course, being after he’s cut ties, or ties have been cut for him, from Dodd. And it’s Dodd he’s separating from, more than The Cause. The men were close, and when they part for good, in a strange scene involving Dodd singing “Slow Boat to China,” Freddie is moved, though I doubt he could explain why (I also doubt that I could explain why). But then it’s back to aimlessness, as we began. However, it’s not the film that becomes aimless, as some have contended, but Freddie who has returned to that state. This is the structure. It’s hard enough for a filmmaker to let go of the architecture of traditional cinematic storytelling, but if anything it’s harder for the audience. That is, if the film doesn’t announce itself as such. Something by David Lynch, or perhaps Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy can be more easily absorbed for what they are because they present themselves as that thing, or at least clue us in early enough. But Anderson is playing a different game, building a film that appears to be a Film As We Know It, but isn’t actually – it’s one that, like its protagonist, skips and drifts along. Mind you, this is no easier for me. Just in writing this review, in trying to weave plot summary into all the stuff I’m trying to bring to this – I don’t know, analysis or whatever – I actually thought to myself at one point “My God, I still have them on the yacht! I have to get them off the yacht!” This is Anderson’s business, though, not mine, and he gets them off the yacht with no trouble.

The film ends on a beach shot that could be regarded as gentle, if we hadn’t seen Freddie in that exact position earlier, when his psychological future was considerably less rosy. Not that it’s especially rosy by the end, either. His one attempt to step away from The Cause didn’t go as he’d hoped, and all that’s left in his mind to deal with everything banging around up there is what Dodd taught him. The sad part is that at the end he doesn’t really understand that everything he went through with Dodd didn’t work. But it didn’t work. It couldn’t work.

9 comments:

Greg F. said...

But then it’s back to aimlessness, as we began. However, it’s not the film that becomes aimless, as some have contended, but Freddie who has returned to that state. This is the structure. It’s hard enough for a filmmaker to let go of the architecture of traditional cinematic storytelling, but if anything it’s harder for the audience.

I don't think those contending it becomes aimless (I'm one of them as you kind of know from our first reactions to it) confuse Freddie's aimlessness for the story's. I think that we get Freddie being aimless, then he meets Dodd, then we go to the party and have the guy question Dodd which pisses him off and Freddie goes and beats him up. And now, we think, the whole story will blow wide open. Now we see The Cause grow, become more powerful, more controlling and Dodd become a worldwide figure and Freddie becomes increasingly alienated towards him. Or something like that (it doesn't have to be that, that's just an example).

The point is, the first half of the movie develops a particular structure that it abandons for the second half. It's not that it doesn't develop the story the audience wants, it's that it stops developing any kind of story altogether. That, I think, is the problem several people are having. It becomes Freddie hitting the wall and the window and wandering about and riding off on a motorcycle and then falling asleep in movies and so on. It just stops developing any kind of story, just when it was hitting full stride with the story of Freddie, Dodd and The Cause.

We may not know how a story will develop but we have a feel for the main thrust of a story and how it will continue. Imagine Kramer vs. Kramer (I mention it only because we brought it up the other day) starts just like we know it does: Streep leaves, Hoffman has to take care of kid and starts to adjust. Now, the second half is different. Instead of what happened imagine a different tack in which Robert Benson decides to stop developing the story at all. The second half shows Hoffman working on ad projects, we barely ever see the kid and then, it ends with Hoffman at his kitchen table putting the final touches on a proposal. He closes it and says, "Done." Fade to black.

Okay, but what just happened? What happened to the kid story? The divorce? Where'd it go? Does the wife ever come back? What's going on? That's a lot of the feel with The Master. The story just kind of disappears. Almost as if Anderson either ran out of inspiration or just decided he was bored taking it any further than he already had.

I think the movie's first half is by far the stronger of the two. And despite what I wrote above, I think the first half is strong enough to carry the second half but by just a hair. I would still recommend it but mainly, I think, for the performances of pretty much everyone in the film (especially Phoenix and Hoffman).

bill r. said...

But Anderson doesn't abandon his story the way Benson would have been doing in your KRAMER VS. KRAMER scenario. I honestly believe the way the film sort of trails off is completely intentional and completely in keeping with Freddie's character. The film is about him more than anything else, and I think Anderson is depicting in a very authentic way how someone like him would drift into the orbit of something like The Cause, and then drift out of it again. I don't think Anderson succumbed to boredom or an absence of inspiration -- I think he was showing us the stuff that most movies would leave out.

Patricia Perry said...

I'm among the people who were frustrated by the aimlessness of the final scenes, but it never occurred to me that Anderson was abandoning the story or had run out of inspiration - I just figured he was going for something I couldn't grasp.

The more I think about THE MASTER (and I've thought about it a lot since seeing it this past weekend), the more I come to couple of conlusitons:

First, I don't really care if Anderson fucks with our expectations in the final act - in fact, bring on the ambiguity! The confounding nature of the film is part of what makes it both impenetrable and impressive.

Secondly, I think all the uproar about THE MASTER exposing Scientology and other cults is just so much hoo-hah and ultimately beside the point. As you note, Bill, it's really Freddie's story, and I'm not sure ANYTHING could have saved Freddie. Obviously, the Cause is working for some people, nonsense though it may be, giving them a belief structure and a sense of purpose to build their lives around. But I'm not sure that Freddie could have been helped much by ANY system - he seems irretrievably destined to loneliness and disconnection. One scene that reasonates with me is the one where he and Dodd's son in law are handing out pamphlets on the street. The son in law radiates an palpable peace and calmness and almost everyone he approaches accepts his pamphlet, whereas Freddie says the same things but his efforts are so obvious and he seems to repel everyone he speaks to. It seems that no matter how hard Freddie works at it, he's incapabable of making basic social connections.

I think you make a great point by noting that we only see Freddie making love exactly once (he gropes the department store model, but falls asleep at dinner on their date). To me, that final image says it all - Freddie looking calm and contented with his head resting on a breast molded out of sand. It's an intimate pose with no real intimacy, since there's no other human involved, and underscores Freddie's ultimate incapability for human connection.

Anyway, those are my thoughts - I may be completely full of shit, but until I see it again (and I will), it's the best I've got....

bill r. said...

No, I don't think you're full of shit. That all sounds about right to me. It's tough to say if Freddie has any hope of success. He at least seemed willing and excited to follow Dodd's teachings, for a little while. That has to count for something. But I've read some people suggest the ending of the film is optimistic, and while I can see where they're coming from, I also very much disagree.

Greg F. said...

That flyer scene is great, by the way, and I didn't have time to mention that when we talked about it after seeing it. There's a part where someone not only doesn't take the flyer but makes a mumbled comment and you see Freddie ever so briefly, almost unnoticeably, turn towards him before remembering he's in public for The Cause and going back to trying to hand out the flyers. It's a great setup by Anderson and required just enough body language from Phoenix to make it work but not make it obvious.

Also, every time I see "The Cause" written, I see "Tom Cruise." It's driving me crazy.

Jason Bellamy said...

I read this on the way to work this morning on what turned out to be a long day. But what a great start!

As I said on Twitter, I really enjoyed the way you engaged with the movie.

Just a quick comment ...

"She also plots, but plotting to get your husband as well as your new friend to stop drinking paint thinner falls in my book somewhere short of regicide."

Well, yes, that's true. It's well short of regicide. But I have a feeling that Adams' character will be the one who seems most different the second time around -- knowing what we know now. I didn't call her Lady Macbeth in my review, but I did write that Peggy Dodd "is a dutiful servant of 'The Cause,' or maybe its secret puppeteer."

What I can't shake is that final scene of the three of them: Freddie has crossed the Atlantic for what winds up being a very short meeting, as Peggy sizes up Freddie and refuses him, leaving her husband to send him on his way, never fearing that Lancaster will disobey her, because she's running the show.

I'm not predicting this, but I think it's possible that on a second viewing I'm going to come away thinking that "The Cause" was Peggy's baby, as much as Lancaster's, from the very start.

bill r. said...

I really liked in the flyer scene how you could see Freddie picking up on the words Bill was using and then try them himself. You could see him trying to do a good job.

And Jason, first of all, thank you. Second, I don't necessarily disagree with you about Peggy, I think what you're saying about her role in the creation of The Cause is possible, but I think her coldness is more a function of her pragmatism than anything else. She's seen enough of how these sorts of things play out that she's become more hard-nosed about it. Referring to her as "Lady Macbeth" is completely overboard reading of her, I think. With Freddie, all she's saying by the end is that this unstable person will never change, doesn't even really believe what Dodd is teaching, and could even bring harm to The Cause, and she's probably right.

Fox (Mark Osborn) said...

Bill-

Good stuff. You made me replay essential parts of this movie in my head as I read through your summary/analysis.

Full disclosure: I'm not somebody who is fully impressed by P.T. Anderson. I think PUNCH DRUNK LOVE is a great film. The three preceding that are fun (save for maybe MAGNOLIA, which strikes me as naive nowadays...), and I disliked THERE WILL BE BLOOD. I guess my reason for getting that out there is to note that I didn't carry any fan-like expectations into my viewing of THE MASTER, other than I hoped Joaquin Phoenix was good in it (he was).

I think you're exactly right on your assessment of Anderson's career up through PUNCH DRUNK LOVE in that that was the film that finally felt like his own. But after that, THERE WILL BE BLOOD and now THE MASTER - to me - feel like aimless efforts that simply give a good arena for talented actors to play in. I know in your review you argue that the aimlessness is the point, but the lack of "umph" for me feels like Anderson doesn't really have much to say.

I would have liked THE MASTER to focus solely on the ambling sensory-obsessed Freddie than have anything to do with Scientology. And I while I agree that THE MASTER is Freddie's movie, the Scientology backdrop feels like a cheap pathway to showing how he is a broken man seeking the type of refuge that religions/cults/gangs regularly offer to the emotionally distraught. My gut tells me that Scientology was the easiest form of religion or worship for Anderson to portray negatively without catching much slack from the public. Scientology is already routinely whipped in our culture as it is, so there wasn't much risk.

The climactic message that emerges in the final table scene where Lancaster tells Freddie that there is no pathway through life which doesn't include serving some kind of master seems to be a swipe at the idea that spirituality/worship are healthy crutches to some people as they push through life. Since I belong to no religion and don't believe in a god, I don't find that insulting, but it does strikes me as an arrogant endgame to Anderson's film.

Following that moment, we're left with the image of Freddie tenderly cuddling up to his big-breasted sand castle woman again. This "animal" side of Freddie (and the film) is much more fascinating to me. I wish it had steadied itself there and used a much different backdrop.

O. J. Miscarige said...

Let me assure you that everyone here in the south east can hardly wait to get our chance to see this. So far I've only been able to read your first 100 words, but as soon as I get our Chinese-provided wireless properly debugged we'll read the rest with relish!

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