Sarah: The Master.
Doug: Did we even like The Master?
Sarah: I think we liked the idea of The Master. It was a flawed movie, but the idea of it was kind of cool.
Doug: One thing you have to give our guy Paul Thomas Anderson is that seeing his movies is like being in a book club. Go see one of his films and you will at least have something to talk about. As far as The Master, though, I think it says more about the movies being made today, both in quality and type, that The Master got so overwhelmingly positive reviews. It’s almost like the critics just wanted it to be a great movie, and didn’t maybe make sure it actually was great before calling it great.
Sarah: I did have a moment this week where I don’t know if I was feeling mean or what. But I saw one of those commercials for The Master where they say, you know “Rolling Stone calls it a masterpiece” blah, blah blah. And I just thought, I wonder if they saw a different cut of the movie than we did. I don’t get it.
Doug: Regardless of whether I completely agree with what somebody, especially critics, think of a movie, it’s usually pretty easy for me to at least see where they’re coming from, at least to tell what about the movie makes them say what they say. But I really can’t see where people can honestly say this was fully formed, coherent piece of film making. Or where they would say it was some sort of masterpiece.
Sarah: Definitely not the best movie of 2012, as so many have tried to say.
Doug: It didn’t take a strong enough point of view, although maybe not taking a strong point of view was the point of view.
Sarah: I was thinking about that, too. I know one of our immediate complaints about it was that it didn’t take a strong enough stance on the cult angle of things. But I was thinking that the point of view PTA was taking on that was not so much on cults but on the idea that we all need to serve something. Lancaster Dodd tells Freddie at the end, “If you can figure out a way to serve no master, let us in on the secret.” With the whole animalistic side of Freddie, even there it’s not like he wasn’t serving something. He was driven by something. It’s not good. You might even say he was a slightly better human when he was part of the “cult”. When he was left on his own, he was just an alcoholic womanizer.
Doug: At various points of the movie, though, there were different vibes on that. It seemed like Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to say different motivations for different people, and even different motivations for a single person depending on where you are in your life, your circumstances, etc. To me, Freddie was more or less an evolved ape when it comes right down to it. The only consistency in his life were the times when he decided he needed to get laid. Hey, nothing wrong with that. It’s interesting regarding Freddie being part of Lancaster Dodd’s “Cause”. He was around it for the whole movie, and he kind of sort of went through the motions of being into it, but I never got the feeling that Freddie was fully participating in it.
Sarah: That’s true. We had also talked about how PTA never really got into how people were recruited into The Cause. Part of it was it simply wasn’t part of the story being told. But PTA did touch a lot on the cult of personality, and how Lancaster was so convincing. Considering he was essentially a con. Although even with how Freddie ended up involved with it, it was more about some sort of kinship between Freddie and Lancaster, and not so much about anything larger about Lancaster himself.
Doug: Yeah, Freddie becoming involved really just sort of happened randomly. One of the things I’ve always liked about the best PTA movies, and the best parts of them, is the idea that things can “just happen”. The best example might be Magnolia with the frogs falling out of the sky. The adults in Magnolia look perplexed, like they’re looking for answers. The child genius in the movie, as brilliant and thoughtful as he is, just sits there in wonder with a smile and simply says, “This is really happening.” So, I guess I do sort of like the idea in The Master that Freddie just wanders onto this boat and then, bam, he just is part of The Cause.
Sarah: Although Freddie keeps leaving and going back to The Cause.
Doug: Yes. But Freddie really only leaves once, and it’s after quite a while. And you’re right about PTA not really exploring much about what would draw people to something like The Cause. Honestly, were there really that many more people in The Cause at the end of the movie than at the beginning? Sure, there were more, but it’s not like The Cause had any significant numbers once they hit the convention in, where was it, Phoenix?
Sarah: That’s the problem with them not showing the process of the recruiting, or of any process of The Cause really building toward into anything. It was essentially the story of the personality of Lancaster Dodd, who was basically a con man.
Doug: I sort of feel like sometimes movies need a focus than The Master had. It was all very scattershot. For example, the whole postwar America stuff was interesting, but it wasn’t well explored.
Sarah: Yeah, the mental illness aspect of things after the war. These guys had been through some shit, and they were pretty much told to just sweep it aside and move on. And with Freddie, he was clearly mentally ill. It was a bit of a chicken and egg sort of thing with Freddie as to how much of the mental illness was already in him and how much was caused by or exacerbated by the war. But it’s not like guys like that were being presented with a range of services to help them. As PTA shows it, the country basically said, “So what, you’re messed up. Deal with it. Get out there and make your way.”
Doug: Good point. I liked the symbolism of the little yacht with the wedding party setting sail for the open seas. How that was sort of a metaphor for postwar America. They have a nice little party on the boat. Of course, it comes out later in the movie that Dodd and his people trashed the boat and didn’t pay for the party. A pretty blatant statement on America over the last 60-70 years.
Sarah: How about the performances? I was struck how the second after the movie ended, you turned and asked how we thought Joaquin Phoenix would show up to accept his Oscar. I wasn’t sure if you really meant it, and I know you’ve said since that Phoenix was way too obviously “acting”.
Doug: I was being a little sarcastic when I made my “Oscar goes to Phoenix” comment. His performance was good, but it was so obviously and consciously scene chewing and “look at me” as to almost demand awards nominations. It almost feels designed specifically to win a trophy.
Sarah: And we’ve mentioned before how actors vote for actors in the Oscar race, so you could see other actors looking at the Phoenix performance and saying, “Wow, look at what he did.” I wouldn’t necessarily call Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd understated, but it was certainly more understated than Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie. Definitely a more understated delivery. And for Hoffman, who is an unremarkable looking guy in real life, to give Lancaster Dodd the charisma and pull that he had as a character to draw people in, it was pretty great. Again, Dodd was basically a con man. But he still had to do something to pull people in while spouting all this pseudo-science and nonsense. Hoffman delivered something that was probably harder to deliver than what Phoenix had to do.
Doug: I’ll just say that long section in the middle of the movie where Phoenix as Freddie was going through The Process. Walking back and forth over and over between the wall and the window? It was just so heavy handed. I was so distracted by the performance that I was thinking what Process are we talking about here? The Process of The Cause in the movie, or some sort of elaborate acting Process that PTA decided to film Phoenix going through? Am I watching a filmed class in The Actor’s Studio or am I watching a movie? It was way too over the top. It was distracting.
Sarah: It was amusing, frankly. I was sort of laughing at it. What was even being depicted there? We’ve seen scenes in movies where people go through processes, or hit bottom, have breakdowns, etc. And there is usually an outcome to it. But this didn’t seem to lead anywhere.
Doug: And the thing is, I think we’ve established that I tend to like movies that don’t have pat answers. But I’d kind of like a movie to take some point of view. And with Freddie, we’ve mentioned he was sort of ape like. How are you supposed to “decode” that?
Sarah: Right, how can you save someone like that? There wasn’t really a whole lot to explore there. And you were mentioning how scattershot things were. Even with exploring The Cause and how it may have progressed. Lancaster and his wife clearly had some sort of plan. But PTA never got into that. The scene with Dodd in the apartment with the rich people was a good scene. But it wasn’t connected up to any larger scheme or plan. You know Dodd and Amy Adams as the wife had a plan, but PTA never really laid out what it was. There was a little hint of the behind the scenes conversations they had in the bathroom scene, the shall we say…
Doug: Most horrifying handjob ever depicted on film?
Sarah: Yes. That was the only scene giving any sort of focus point on this husband-wife team. Amy Adams saying that they had to stay focused, that people were starting to come after them and they have to stay on point and message. She was telling Lancaster to get off the Freddie obsession. It almost insinuated a little homoerotic thing going on between Lancaster and Freddie. But this was the only scene that showed that The Cause was aiming for anything on any significant scale above little rooms of rich people.
Doug: And in the context of the time of the movie, The Cause never really did build to anything significant. And, really, Freddie was peripheral to all of that part of it, anyway. Freddie and Lancaster were the father-son dynamic that PTA always has in his movies. But let’s talk about Amy Adams, who was spectacular in this.
Sarah: Amy Adams was possibly the best part of the movie. Because, let’s face it. She was pretty scary.
Doug: Yes!!! Part of the point, I think, of The Master was to have a healthy fear of anything like The Cause that is as rigid or dogmatic as The Cause was in the movie. But I didn’t fear Lancaster Dodd for a moment. There was nothing to fear in Freddie. I was afraid of Amy Adams in every scene she was in. The absolute cold certainty she had in every scene was chilling. She, to me, is the most deserving of anyone involved with The Master of winning an Oscar. Holy crap, she should win just for her appearance in the chair above and behind Dodd at the end of the movie.
Sarah: I agree she should be winning some awards. She was the disciplinarian and the focus. Lancaster Dodd has the personality and the draw and the charisma and brings people in. But Amy Adams was like the principal. Every once in a while you have to go to the principal’s office to refocus.
Doug: And her role was so underwritten that you really have to give her props for making the character what she was.
Sarah: Yes, she made it hers. It was her. PTA may have helped elicit that from Amy Adams, but it wasn’t written into dialogue for her.
Doug: Amy Adams definitely had to color in her own lines.
Sarah: If PTA said, “Here’s basically the scary dominatrix type I want you to play”, you could see that Amy Adams had to figure out how to execute that. Like you said, she didn’t have a whole lot of dialogue to read anything out of. Although, as soon as she read the bathroom scene, she probably could have said, “OK, so this is my character.”
Doug: It was a super gutsy, no fear performance without the flamboyant “look at me” aspect to it that Joaquin Phoenix’s performance had. So, what else about The Master? How does it fit in with the rest of PTA’s stuff?
Sarah: Well, you’re much more of a PTA fan than I am. I don’t know much about the rest of his movies. My main knowledge of PTA comes largely from Kevin Smith slagging Magnolia.
Doug: Of course, it all comes back to Kevin Smith. Tell the story.
Sarah: Well, Kevin Smith completely tore apart Magnolia online. And Kevin Smith was once asked if he had ever been involved in any sort of dustups with any Hollywood types. Smith said no, but he said he was always fearful about what might happen if he ever met PTA. Smith said he ran into PTA one time and thought for sure that if he turned his back, PTA would blast him with a chair or something. But Kevin Smith said it turned out that PTA was a real nice guy and never brought up the Magnolia stuff. Anyway, I’ve never even watched Magnolia all the way through.
Doug: Of course not. Kevin Smith is your guy. If he tells you Magnolia sucks, you’re damn sure not going to watch it.
Sarah (laughing): Of course not. Why would I bother with that? I saw Boogie Nights and liked that.
Doug: What about There Will Be Blood?
Sarah: Never even started watching it.
Doug: Yeah, you’re definitely not a PTA fan then. That movie was pure brilliance. And, honestly, Boogie Nights and Magnolia are very kindred, similar types of movies. Both about imperfect families, among other things. It’s good, at least, that PTA has earned the right to attempt a movie like The Master since Hollywood is making so few movies like it.
Sarah: And the extent to which you might like, or even be OK with, The Master is obviously dependent on what types of movies you gravitate towards, and even the number of other good movies that may have been put out this year. Like you said, maybe critic types are just starved for a movie like The Master.
Doug: For sure, but even for me, who was geeked to the gills to see The Master, it still has to be good, doesn’t it? What you said at the beginning about all the critics calling it the best movie of the year? I don’t necessarily want to go too knee jerk in the other direction and say it flat out sucked. There were lots of bits here and there to like about it. But best movie of the year? Way too many more enjoyable movies pop immediately to mind.
Sarah: If the definition is enjoyment, and that pretty much what seeing a movie should be about, you and I could name 10 movies off the top our heads that I think we enjoyed more than The Master. I think we both enjoyed the acting as the best parts of The Master. But I think you said right after we saw it. If that’s all that a movie has, you probably can’t call it a great film. Doesn’t make it bad, it’s just not a complete experience.
Doug: As a PTA fan, usually the strength of his movies is in the writing. And in The Master, if you just randomly pulled out individual scenes, the scenes themselves were very, very well written. But they didn’t work as a coherent whole. Again, it was all too scattershot and unfocused.
Sarah: Not enough coherence. Not enough of a point of view.
Doug: The Master. Aspects to be recommended, but not masterful.
Sarah: A cool concept, especially the idea of humans needing to serve a master, or something larger at least, but just not executed well enough.