I went to see The Master last weekend at the Laemmle, although not exactly because I wanted to. Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, seriously messed me up. The Master, inspired by the early days of Scientology with a disturbed ex-soldier as its protagonist seemed like it would be much in the same vein. However, this is Anderson’s first movie since 2007, so it generated an impressive level of art-house zeal that I had to experience.
The centerpiece of much conversation was the film’s use of 65mm film, which no movie has been entirely shot on since 1996. In 2012, if a movie is shot on film, it is probably shot on the cheaper, less crisp 35mm format; besides, many filmmakers are foregoing film altogether and shooting in a digital format. By bringing back huge scale high-definition film, The Master has reinvigorated an ongoing debate about film versus digital.
Few theaters still have projectors for this film, and I was only seeing about half of the beautiful detail at Laemmle. As The Master opened nation-wide in commercial release this past Friday, very few screens are showing it the way Anderson intended it to be viewed. However, the difference in aesthetic between this film and the mainstream fare remained obvious even with the diminished quality.
The Master is first and foremost about the craft of filmmaking. Every pitch-perfect element—from the tensely fanatical soundtrack to the 1950’s-era production design, the slick cinematography and the incomprehensibly good acting—plays its part in the creation of a seamless work of art. In short, it showcased the full capabilities of a 70mm film.
The characters are dynamic as well. Freddie Quell, played by a hunched, grimacing Joaquin Phoenix, stumbles onto the boat “Aletheia” where he meets the perfectly self-controlled Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), “Master” and creator of the spiritual movement known simply as the Cause. Trouble ensues.
However this story is not the point of focus; it is only the canvas of the movie, a universe from which Anderson draws themes to explore visually. Throughout, he displays the concepts of mastery and servility, containment and freedom, and tension and release.
The opening scene is a gorgeous shot of the freely flowing ocean. In echo, Quell mixes and pours alcoholic drinks whenever he can get his hands on any liquid, be it medicine or paint thinner. That liquid is both released to flow as it will and, moments later, constricted into a cup or beaker. It’s simultaneously free and contained.
Similarly, in two beautiful scenes we see Quell’s back as he breaks free. In the first, he throws open a door framing an expansive field and runs through. In the second, Quell rides away as fast he can on a motorcycle in the gorgeous Arizona desert. The feeling of openness electrifies these scenes, but their freedom is short-lived. Like a yo-yo, Quell will always spring right back to a contained state. As one of his many pseudo-psychoanalytic exercises, Dodd tells Quell to walk from a window to a wall over and over and describe the surfaces he feels with different words every time. Quell’s life, much like the movie, is an exercise in finding the little bit of free-fall in the intervals between the window and the wall.
However, the narrative structure does not produce a similar feeling of tension and release. As Quell repeats the same behavior over and over like a clock’s pendulum, the movie produces a feeling of the opposite—a feeling of stasis. Besides the initial hypnotic session between Dodd and Quell, when both men recognize something illicit and forbidden in each other, there is no sense of building tension. Moments that would have shaken me if they were in There Will Be Blood were reduced to sparks. Both Dodd and his wife, played by a terrifyingly devoted Amy Adams, expand and complicate the theme of mastery versus servility first introduced in Quell, but it fails to add structure. The result is messy.
While the film has giant scope, it has nothing for the audience to grasp. The kaleidoscopic poster for The Master is very fitting: images radiate out from the center into infinity. Likewise, the characters give no hint of possible redemption or even complete damnation. Instead they stay the same throughout, victims of an endlessly tessellating pattern. It’s hard to care for them.
If you have a chance to see the film in its 70mm format, you should. It is an experience that is quickly becoming impossible with the digital transition. And it’s fun to see something that revels in moviemaking as an art rather than just entertainment. If you can only see it at the Laemmle, I’ll leave it for you to decide. Since the film relies on its aesthetic quality more than on a gripping storyline, it may not be worth watching at a reduced quality.