Marveling about THE MASTER

Pop culture is not always the province of art. Creativity? Absolutely. But art?

It's been said that movies are the ultimate middlebrow experience, art for the mainstream. Sure, sure there are those outlier projects, cinematic experiences that push aesthetic, artistic boundaries or strive for narrative and visual novelties outside majority experience. But most of the time, movies reach toward the middle. Despite the spectacular complexity and expense to make one, they're easy and cheap to consume. They require minimal commitment on the part of the casual viewer. They're fun for a date night, a sleepover, a long airplane ride. Most of them are disposable, forgettable.

Still with me? I know this chafes a little, but be honest with yourself. I'm not talking about the many movies you've already woven into the weave of everyday life, to which everyone who knows a readily quotable line can relate. ("You talking' to me?") Fame and sheer memorability do not confer greatness all by themselves.

I love movies; that no surprise. But I find that it's the eternal promise a great movie might--might!--emerge amid the maddening throng is only one of the many reasons I pay close attention to them. It may sound like my middlin' opinion of the form belies a hypocritical sentiment…but I say "no". Instead I believe that an honest regard for the categorical value of something should not offer qualitative appeasements of earnest critical appraisals. There is no absolute measurement of quality, therefore there's infinite potential for discovery. Or, said another way, just because there aren't a long list of great movies doesn't mean there aren't lots of good movies, even interesting ones, too.

In a future essay I'm going to talk about some of the shared attributes that define lasting works of art. But today I'm going to focus on one work, a rare cinematic outlier. It's called "The Master", and while it's most certainly not for everyone, I regard it as one of the great works I've seen in years.

There's a common presumption that real artists can't be happy. The Hollywood corollary to this suggests that this is the reason why there are few real artists who make movies: movies that don't make people happy rarely turn a substantial profit. As a statement of conventional wisdom there are grains of truth here, but I don't believe it's actually so simple. If anything, Hollywood is the problem; serious cinema is not. 21st century moviemaking is much more democratic than it was in the 80s and 90s, with digital technologies forcing budgets down and raising the artistic dreams of independent filmmakers to astonishing heights. "The Master" certainly doesn't find its soul in an imagined super-eight world of backyard suburban sets, but nor does it find itself in the three act world of neat 'n tidy dramas with beginnings, middles, and ends. To be clear: this is no Hollywood film. For starters, it's daring.

Then consider this surprise: who shoots with a 65 mm film negative anymore? Not many, but this crew did. The colors are saturated and lush; the framing wide, yet powerfully intimate. There's nothing like an extreme close-up in a wide format to bring out nuance and saturated emotional vibrations.

The director Paul Thomas Anderson has done something which I consider remarkable. He's made all of the leading characters, most especially the two principals, volatile and intensely flawed. The character of Freddy, played by Joaquin Phoenix, presents a compromised soul to a degree that I don't think I've seen portrayed so honestly before, so richly painted.

I'm not writing a movie review per se, although let me reinforce what you've already gathered: I thought the whole thing brilliant. What prompted me to write about "The Master" were the choices the production team made in an effort to bring it to life. The actors, the production designers, the camera and lighting crews, and the writer/director all must have lived through a single, shared fever dream of rich intensity and soulful honesty. Ostensibly about the power of charisma, we experience the challenges and seductions for both charismatic people in love with their own influence, and those more ordinary folks who follow the charismatic ones. The movie prompts us all to consider why we get up every morning and face the day. The narrative is thick and dense. It does not give the audience lots of breathing room in its urgent portrayal of intense characters, and the vivid visuals offer little in the way of elbow room for us to slacken our focus. But most of all – – and I want to emphasize this above all else – – the movie doesn't show off simply to show off. It's true that creativity of all types and styles by its very nature puts itself on display. Emily Dickinson may have tucked her finished poems in a steamer trunk, but the moment she set ink to paper she decided there was some measure of those works destined for eternity and ultimate presentation.

There are some artistic enterprises that make presentations of self-indulgence a priori requirements. Rock 'n roll, opera, mural painting, Hollywood movies, television commercials, and many other forms of invention strive to grab you, to say, "Look at me". This movie does that too of course; it's just the nature of the form. But that's not the reason for this movie. "The Master" has no gratuitous car crashes, nor "how-did-they-do-that?" camera moves, nor location shots that strain credibility about how the production team gained access. People wear clothes we recognize, they eat food we recognize, the music playing in the background sounds like things we all heard growing up. It's a movie that has the confidence to plumb the murky machinery of people you know, not people you want to ape. It explores beauty in the ugly, in the weary, the busted. It provokes in its precision of voice, and in its precision--for that is the right word-- it evokes a strange interior sensation of hopefulness. Here is a movie that engenders a humane sense of hope because it presents itself in a precise, truthful voice, and considering how much media we all consume that's designed to be anything else but truthful, the sheer audacity to witness the world and then project it brightly back without blinking builds gravitas.

No, this isn't a movie that's going to rake in the mega-bucks. It takes a little work. It's neither disposable, nor easy. But as an antidote to the endless anodyne acts foisted on our media consciousnesses, The Master offers an alternative. It asks us to listen closely; watch carefully; think.

Sounds like good advice for life.


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