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Semi Masterful

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “The Master” over the weekend and am still working it out. That it merits this consideration is no small victory. I went in under nearly ideal circumstances having forgotten whatever hype I’d read or who the actors were. When Philip Seymour Hoffman appeared about a third in it was a nice surprise – one of those “oh yeah, this guy’s in it” moments. I might have recalled his billing had Joaquin Phoenix not been so gripping from the onset, a purely disturbing performance that confused and held me from beginning to end. (On a side note, somebody should grab Phoenix before he shakes his current state and start shooting “The Neal Cassady Story” stat. )

The film follows the immediate post World War II experiences of Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a shell-shocked naval vet harboring both a damaged psyche and soul. How much of his affliction is attributable to the war is unclear but it’s established that he was already well on his way before shipping out. He’s alcoholic but this description also falls short. More accurate to say he’s propelled by self-mixed concoctions of both paint thinner and torpedo fuel. After a series of chaotic episodes trying to keep a job he stows away aboard a yacht led by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader of a philosophical movement named “The Cause.” The film follows the relationship between the two men, each seeming to possess some integral part missing in the other. Any definitive interpretation beyond this would be speculation but suffice to say there’s some beautiful pain going on.

Some have argued that the film falls short on a narrative level and fails because it leaves the viewer guessing. They have a point. I can’t defend “The Master” arguing its narrative structure or claim to have fully understood it. I saw it as running parallel to Dodd’s “Cause” –  a tumultuous bag of violence and repressed memory that, stirred with mumbo-jumbo, offers a similar post-ingestion calm to Freddie’s rocket fuel. Freddie Quell runs at breakneck speed, simultaneously in opposite directions. Dodd is a frantic sort also, guised in the calm of a modern day answer-holder. He’s the Dalai Lama at your local tavern; meditative, trashed and confidently asserting “I’m a man .. a hopelessly inquisitive man just like you.”  That’s what I got, anyway. We’re all in the same slow boat to China, alone together, scratching our heads and wondering ‘what the fuck?’ As religions go it’s probably as good as any.

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  1. coleman wrote:

    Right On about the Cassady reference. Was thinking Freddie Quell was straight out of a Kerouac novel. Just saw The Master today. Still trying to make some sense of it. Great performances. And camerawork.
    But the weirdest element in the viewing today was not on the screen. I saw this at the newly refurbished Uptown Theater in Mpls. Now you buy your seats at the window. Yes, you choose your seats. Hmmmmm. In truth, I enjoy walking into a movie theater and sizing up who is already seated and go from there. Now on a Thursday matinee you could have 14 moviegoers in a 200 seat theatre. And have clumps of strangers sitting next to each other. Is this happening elsewhere? I hope this doesn’t trend. I vote no on this but yes on Joaquin Phoenix’s performance (and posture).

    Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    I saw it at Cobble Hill Cinema .. providing freedom of seat choice for as long as I’ve been in Brooklyn, anyway. Yes .. the Neil Cassady Story. There would be room in there for Seymour-Hoffman to play Wavy Gravy, too. And perhaps Burl Ives as Bob Laird.

    Friday, September 28, 2012 at 1:32 am | Permalink
  3. cookie rojas wrote:

    boys it’s NEAL Cassady, sorry to be nit picky prick….PIGFUCK

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  4. admin wrote:

    I stand corrected (and changed the post.) It’s not every day you get your spelling righted by a graduate of the Tony Randall School and fellow Jonah Hill Academy Award Nominee. PS – Peter Brock called .. he wants his chicken game back.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

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