The Reel Deal
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
“MASTERING THE INKBLOT”
The Master may not be P. T. Anderson’s best film, but it is his most ambiguous. And I, admittedly, am drawn toward ambiguity. Many critics haven’t quite known what to make of the movie. Sure, it’s received a decent amount of good press. It came out of the Venice Film Festival with the headline that it was “too good” to win the top award. It also currently holds an 85 out of 100 on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s not like it’s been critically panned by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s been plenty of backlash, especially among the second and third tier publications, the ones that don’t get aggregated on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. For example, Gawker’s clever, though disappointing, headline was “There Will Be Dud.” Sadly, the Oscar Buzz is slowly fading, and the rumor is that the Weinstein cartel will be switching its priorities and putting its award season weight behind the upcoming Silver Linings Playbook instead of The Master. Of those who seem less than impressed with Anderson’s most recent masterpiece, most have still praised the two performances at the heart of the film (Joaquin Phoenix’s erratic embodiment of troubled drunk Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s controlled portrayal of Lancaster Dodd, the Charles Foster Kane-like master behind the Scientology knock-off “The Cause”). Few disparage Anderson’s filmmaking abilities either–we can pretty much all agree he’s one of the current “masters” of American cinema, can’t we? In fact, it’d be hard to make a convincing argument that the film isn’t beautifully shot with that gorgeous grey-green color palette in epic 70mm. One tracking shot that follows a salesgirl around a store is not only a look at the perfect capitalist fantasy cracking at the seams (and thus hints at an extension of his There Will Be Blood thematic explorations), but is also one of P. T. Anderson’s most beautifully shot and sequenced scenes in any of his six films.
Like many of the minor characters in The Master, the salesgirl is exquisitely rendered in but a few strokes. Her screentime is minimal, and yet that scene stayed with me, and colored my reading of the film (as many subsequent small scenes did). In another of these early pivotal scenes, Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is given a rorschach test during a post-war psychological evaluation. To him all the inkblots look like penises, vaginas, or penises being inserted into vaginas. The blots aren’t actually penises, but they aren’t actually sea creatures or monsters or whatever anyone else might see in them either; they’re blots of ink. The beauty of The Master, in my view, is that, like all great art, it is an inkblot. In that inkblot, I see a film about its own ambiguity and infinite interpretability. Of the many ideas the The Master explores, I was fascinated by its subtle circling around two topics: acting and viewing. (Not so) Coincidentally, those are two of the most essential aspects of filmmaking; they embody what goes on in front of the camera and what goes on behind the camera.
Each of the characters in the film, from the minor roles to the leads, like chess pieces, have their roles to play–even if it all seems futile in the end. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from people who wanted to like The Master but had trouble doing so was: “What’s it all saying? What’s the point?” I think the answer, as with any good film, is complex–more involved than a simple soundbite can make it seem. But if you want the quick obvious answer, I’d say that just as in chess, the point seems to be mastery, dominance, power (hence the telling title). Who masters whom? Is mastery possible? Impossible? Is it inevitable? Escapable? How does mastery relate to art? To love? To sex? To how we live and work and play? To how we see the world, ourselves, and one another?
The two characters who are at the center of this convoluted series of questions writ in celluloid are Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. Like the ingredients in Quell’s homemade hooch, these two men don’t seem like they were meant to go together. They’re combustible, toxic, not meant for consumption. They’re of two different worlds, two different styles, two different tonal registers. And yet I found myself wanting to drink them in, to stomach them together, to see where this moonshine might take me.
Though it’s been noted that Jeremy Renner was originally supposed to play Freddie Quell, I imagine that Anderson ended up choosing Joaquin Phoenix for a specific purpose: Phoenix embodies a certain style of acting. The man was willing to fake a retirement, rap career and psychological breakdown just to portray a character in what was thought by most to be a mediocre movie. (I actually rather liked I’m Still Here, but I suppose that’s beside the point.) Phoenix doesn’t just embody his characters, he seems to live them. He’s explosive; everything feels in the moment, unrehearsed, authentically filled with potential catastrophe. It’s as though he’s never read the lines before he speaks them, he just seems to wake up the morning of the shoot and, like Gregor Samsa, he’s been metamorphosed into whatever monstrous vermin he is set to portray onscreen. Not so with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He represents the other side of method. He seems prepared, controlled. It’s not that he’s not as believable in his portrayal as Phoenix is–he embodies his character as much as Phoenix does his–it just feels like he did his homework. He’s a technical actor, every moment feels defined and refined. Hoffman knows his characters’ every moves. His mastery of the moment is on display. The type of actors that portray these two characters, and the style of acting that they exhibit, ends up saying as much about the characters as anything else. Because, as the film seems to show, life is acting–and thus acting that you have the upper hand. It’s a power play, where everyone and no one is a master, where mastery itself is an act, a false series of moves where one feigns control of both the self and others. “Man is not an animal,” Dodd claims–and yet we know otherwise, regardless of how we act out our created separation between us and the rest of the animal kingdom.
But mastery isn’t only about acting. No, power also comes from viewing as well. The viewer, at least in part, controls what he views, masters it. Everything, in its own way, a rorschach test. It’s an interesting aspect of the film that Freddie Quell, in addition to being a destitute drunk, is a portrait photographer. Quell doesn’t only take photos of customers in the store he works at early on in the film, but also becomes Dodd’s photographer, which complicates further the muddled power dynamics between the two. Just as people in Dodd’s The Cause are “processed” so too are photographs “processed.” Are images truth or just another form of control?
I think people were expecting some sort of take-down of Scientology, or another critique of American capitalism (a la There Will Be Blood), but what they got is a rumination on the interpretive faculty and its relationship to mastery and servility. Who controls a text? The author or the reader? Whose movie is this? The director’s or the viewers’? I think it belongs to both, either, and neither–and P. T. Anderson’s film seems to agree with me. But then again, maybe I’m just finding in the film what I want to find. My very own rorschach penises?
I’ll admit, all this is just one opinion, and as one minor (but crucial) character in the film claims: “Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of a cult.” You can substitute “good art” for “good science,” and I think the line’s just as true. To me, The Master is a perfect example of “good art.” But if you disagree, I’m fine with that. I think P. T. is one of our greatest working masters of cinema, but I’m not interested in creating a cult around him.
The Master is a film written and directed by P. T. Anderson. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future–until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from The Master, Photography Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures