Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (l. to r.) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012)
What’s all the fuss about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master? The first rave reviews of Anderson’s new, well, designated ‘masterpiece’ came on the social media, of course. Friends and colleagues who had seen a 70mm-projection at the Venice Film Festival a couple of weeks ago were mostly in awe and expected a sure win of the Golden Lion (it went to Kim Ki-duk instead).
But it wouldn’t have needed this additional buzz for me to line up with considerable anticipation for the press screening of The Master in Toronto.
After all, this project had been in the pipeline for a long time, and it was the successor to Anderson’s more than ambitious There Will be Blood (2007), which had revealed its blueprint unabashedly: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), only recently dethroned as the best film of all times in the Sight & Sound poll The Top 50 Greatest Films of all Time.
So if there is one director confidently aiming for genius these days in America, it is Anderson. After having seen The Master, we might add: wicked genius, that is. Amongst those who remember Joaquin Phoenix from his 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here (unkempt, overweight, ill-advised) his new appearance probably raises more than a few eyebrows.
He is not only skinny to a degree that should make Christian Bale slightly nervous, but also worked on his facial expressions in a way that would bring new fervour to all the talking of le visage as a landscape (remember Deleuze, anybody?).
Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a WWII veteran whom we get to see first on a Pacific beach, fucking the sand in front of his buddies. He is a driven man, and the best scene in The Master is an early one in which he basically runs away from all the grievances of his life, only to run into a ship in the harbour that is just about to embark. Freddie Quell jumps ship, meaning: he jumps onto the ship, and from now on he is mostly in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sinister and charismatic leader of what in The Master is called ‘The Cause’, a self-help cult with a strange mythology. That the character of Dodd is supposedly based on L. Ron Hubbard – the founder of Scientology, that risible ‘religion’ that nevertheless is something like the open secret permeating Hollywood – has added a lot to the stir this movie has created from the outset. But as it turns out, there is really not much to it. Lancaster Dodd may bear traces of Hubbard, but in all actuality he is just a pompous and thoroughly fictitious figure transpirating paint thinner brandy, and Oscar ambition.
Anderson shows a lot of intense soul searching between the two men. Their relationship is the inner sanctum of the film: their bond is strong, but inconceivable. It is all about radiance and absorption, which in total adds up to: nothing much, frankly. The Master is a zero sum game, radically in love with itself and its inventive and brilliant filmmaking (great angles, magnificently malleable, even modernist score), but somehow completely oblivious as to what this story might actually mean, historically and with hindsight to our depraved present times – depraved of genius, who wouldn’t admit that? But do we need genius? Maybe we rather need stories to comprehend what is going on, and in that sense Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd, those two mad men, are just way too far out there.
In the US, The Master is on limited release since 14 September, and general release from 21 September. UK: 9 November.