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March 02, 2013

The Master Review -- Wait for Netflix, Make Sure You Get HD

The Master is about tremendously interesting subject matter, I think. But the film itself is very banal.

It is gorgeous, though. It's so gorgeous that 40 minutes in I looked it up to see if it had won the Oscar for cinematography. It hadn't. In fact, it hadn't even been nominated.

I wonder why. My initial guesses were that I, as a novice, was over-impressed by post-productions tricks being used like oversaturation of color. That's when (this is a total non-expert telling you this from memory, so don't quote me) you use computer software in post to increase the density of color bits in each frame of the film, so it winds up looking richly colorful, as if each shot was a staged shot for a fashion magazine. Miller's Crossing had that kind of rich, supersaturated look, for example.

Maybe experts think this is no big deal, something easily accomplished, and therefore something not worthy of an award?

Another idea I had was this: I think union rules require a separate position for Director of Photography, and specifically state that the Director must not operate his own camera. Maybe there's some Secret Information not widely shared that Philip Thomas Anderson either breaks this rule or hires young and inexperienced DPs so he can just boss 'em around and essentially be DP? So the Academy avoids giving his films an Oscar for cinematography, because they know the person they'd be giving the award to is just a stand-in for the director?*

Well, I don't know. But to this non-expert's eyes the photography here was just terrific. Particularly when he's got a camera on a boat or looking at a boat, the pictures are beautiful. If anyone expert in photographic matters can solve the Mystery of Why the Academy Doesn't Seem To Think This Was a Gorgeous Picture, please let me know.

Apart from the photography and lighting and set design and costuming (it's set in 1950) -- all that stuff involving technicians and craft, which is all well done and looks like it cost a bunch of money -- this movie just isn't very interesting at all.

Here is my exact thought process while watching it:

First ten minutes: Wow, this movie looks great and really seems like a serious and important movie. I'm glad I rented this. I kind of feel like an Intellectual just sitting here watching this.

Minutes 10-30: Is the director trying to make fundamentally interesting subject matter less interesting than it seems it should be? Am I too stupid to grasp some subtle (probably European) aesthetic he's chasing? Is there a Banality of Evil message here?

This is also when a bit of boredom set in and I began wondering if it had won Best Cinematography, and then began wondering why it hadn't.

It's a bad sign for a movie when the viewer -- even an admiring viewer, as I was initially -- is thinking about things about the movie's technical aspects and isn't actually engaged with the material.

Minutes 30-120: Well, this movie is a failure, but it's an Interesting Failure,, a Worthy Failure, and while I don't actually like it, I'm going to half-recommend it to cineastes on the basis that it tried something that ought to be tried. Even a failed experiment, after all, produces important results. Even a failed experiment tells us something.

Last Seven Minutes: You're kidding me-- that's it? Okay now I'm not recommending this movie at all. I'm actually now sort of pissed off that my time was wasted for two hours and seven minutes.

More thoughts below.


Here's the trailer. This will look better on a good HD tv than it does on your computer.

In case you didn't know or have forgotten, The Master is a fictionalized recounting of the story of L. Ron Hubbard -- hack science fiction writer, dreamer of dreams, founder of his own cult religion, Scientology. The story told here is about a severely disturbed alcoholic sociopath with very low impulse control -- "Freddie Quell," played by Joachim Phoenix, a bit over-the-toppishly and mumble-rumble, like he decided "This will be my Slingblade" -- who flees an accidental poisoning he caused. See, he's not merely an alcoholic; he mixes his own "potions" with various dangerous chemicals he steals from hospitals and, I think, wood alcohol as well.

He also drinks gasoline or missile fuel, if given the opportunity. I suppose he's a huffer, then, except his prefers his dangerous huffed chemicals in liquid form.

Why does he do this? Well, from the first minutes we seem him he's just bugfuck crazy. He's like one of those drifters you read about in the beginning of some grotesque True Crime story. From the first moments you see him you know something's wrong and Something Bad is Going to Happen.

I will spoil something for you now: Not a lot bad actually does happen. Some. A little. A touch. But not a lot. I really think this movie needs more lurid juice, more blood, more of a heartbeat, more something, more anything, and around an hour in I began hoping for a murder, just so something would be going on. That doesn't happen.

Fleeing the poisoning, he sneaks aboard a luxury cruise ship departing from San Fransisco. (Interesting trivia: I just discovered this ship was played by FDR's "Presidential Boat.") When he awakes the next morning, he is politely welcomed by the ship's "Master," Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymore Hoffman), who humbly introduces himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all a Man, just like you."

At this point comes the First Hard-to-Swallow Premise you're going to just have to accept. For some reason, Lancaster Dodd takes an immediate liking to this psychopathic, uneducated, bizarre drifter. And a very strong liking, too; for the rest of the movie Freddie Quell will become his student/patient/protoge/handyman and all-around Bosom Companion, for no terribly good reason. You know the writer realizes he doesn't have a Good Reason for something when he offers you three reasons instead of one-- it's multiple choice. Pick the one you find the most plausible:

1. For some reason, since this psychopathic drifter appeared on the boat, Lancaster has felt the cloud of Writer's Block drift out of his mind, and is suddenly more productive in writing his next book.

2. Lancaster really likes Freddie's poisonous "potions."

3. Lancaster believes that he knows -- really knows -- Freddie from the past, and is trying to figure out from where and when. Given that we'll soon find out that Lancaster believes human spirits are over a trillion years old and has lived many lifetimes on many planets, narrowing down where he knows Freddie from is going to be a little more difficult than it usually is.

I'll spoil something and let you know the real answer is 3., and the other two are just offered to you early because the writer figures you won't buy 3. standing on its own, at least at this part of the movie. You also won't buy it at the end of the movie, either, so Phillip Thomas Anderson suggests, I think, that it's really a powerful suppressed homosexual longing between two men who are otherwise heterosexual? I think that's what he's suggesting? Maybe? Possibly?

But it's an odd sort of homosexuality, if it is that, because both men are randily heterosexual otherwise, like real horny buggers that do what horny heterosexual men do, pick up girls and fall desperately in love with them and cheat on their wives, so I don't even know what's going on.

I honestly don't know. I have no idea what's going on with the movie's Main Mystery.

And this is even more of a problem because -- should this be the movie's Main Mystery? Think about all the stuff going on here that's interesting. A cult. A cult which is furthermore a shifty one, in trouble with the law for lifting money from dupes. Questions about people's need to believe, believe in anything, no matter how crazy; questions about how a charlatan goes about exploiting that need, how he detects it, how he cultivates it, how he sets himself up to fill the voids inside people. Questions about politics inside the cult: How does it work? The Master is the Master, of course, but his position can be challenged, can't it?

And do those at the top of the cult believe this horseshit? That is, are they so convincing in making their daft claims because of the Costanza Principle -- "it's not a lie if you believe it's true"?

We don't get much of that stuff, which to my mind was the whole reason for buying the ticket. The thought that went through my head is that "This movie is written in the Passive Voice." The passive voice is scorned by 2nd grade teachers because 2nd grade students rely on it to obscure what they don't know -- a 2nd grade student will write "The Emancipation Proclamation became law" to obscure the fact that he doesn't know who passes a law or how it's done. He just blurs over this with the obscurant "became."

"This happened. I don't know why. It just did."

So many questions here are not only not answered but are hardly even asked by arranging the script so that the most interesting and revealing parts of this story aren't filmed at all. Whenever they want to go Passive Voice about these things, they force the perspective from Freddie's POV, who's not really in the inner circle and so doesn't see the workings of all this, and is also too dull (and drunk, and deranged) to ask questions himself.

So what is the movie about then? Well it's about the most singularly uninteresting aspect of all this: "What makes Freddie (the dull-witted perpetually stoned paint-huffing sociopath) tick, and can we fix him?" It's like a serious psychiatric drama about Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

I think I'm biased here but it's my non-expert opinion that sociopaths are rather dull, actually -- they're all quite similar, or at least they break down easily into six or eight broad patterns of dysfunction. Movies portray sociopaths as more interesting than the Average Person; in fact, the Average Person is far more interesting and complex in his thinking.

Additionally, the many scenes of "processing" (this is the movie's substitution-word for Sociology's "auditing") this rambunctious missile-fuel-drinker are very same-old same-old. The techniques Lancaster uses on Freddie are not novel; it's mostly the Talking Cure (talking about your problems) and Confrontation Therapy (having your triggers put right into your face, to desensitize you to them). These are very stock psychiatric responses -- it's not new or insightful so that we think Wow, Lancaster may be crazy but he's got some insights into how humans work; now I can see how otherwise-sane people believe his insane claims

But nor is is crazy such as to be interesting, so that we think Wow, Lancaster Dodd is really a nut, this is wild! How could anyone believe this nonsense!?

There are two ways these Psychiatry Scenes could have been compelling and Philip Thomas Anderson chooses neither of them. Instead he offers us Been There, Done That talking cure stuff that we've seen a thousand times before.

Well, that's about it. That's what the movie is. You have the stuff I've described, some others in the cult expressing concerns about Freddie, a short bit of legal difficulty, and Freddie pining for an underage girl he's in love with.

Then Lancaster oddly Talk-Sings the lyrics of "Slow Boat to China" (a love song, I think) to Freddie and they have some kind of weird possibly-gay-but-chastely-so spirit bonding and the movie ends. Well, before it really ends Freddie picks up an English BBW barmaid and porks her so maybe they're not gay and maybe I've missed the whole point.

I don't know.

I really don't know.

Really good photography, though.

* On DPs & Directors: Andy Levy says there's no guild rule per se against a director acting as his own DP. Though JustKarl says that a director has to join the DP union if he wants to do so.

So I guess I'm wondering if other DPs won't vote for a director who acts as DP (or who essentially bosses around a young DP so that the young DP really has little creative contribution to the film). Like, maybe DPs don't want to honor someone who's not himself primarily and firstly a DP. DP's would naturally want to honor other DPs, not directors.

The Master's DP does have credits but he does also seem young, based on his resume.

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posted by Ace at 03:35 PM

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