The inability of P.T. Anderson to aim for resolution degrades his imaginary canon. None of his films end. Conclusively, we get up out of our seats once the velvet black leader hits, but the moment seems arbitrary, as if there's eight or eighty pages of script left. As technique it's a miss every time. Sure it raises eyebrows, but it needlessly reminds the audience of how hypnosis ends. Huh, where was I?
Anderson's latest gonzo-Mad Magazine epic is the stark and loony The Master, a slanted, obscured biopic of L. Ron Hubbard. Here he's known as Lancaster Dodd, played by the endlessly aging Phil Hoffman. The riffs, pulses, even music cues all seem left over from the slightly better There Will be Blood, but the ethos is the same. It's an atheist's unaware satire; the crass dissection of a religion/science-fiction cult by a boy know-it-all. All the conflicts of a teen-like Wes Anderson film, instead acted gravely and angrily. It's deadly serious, sonorous speechifying bookended by outbursts of teenage violence. Problem is, it's adults shaking out their anger, not teens and it's other adults, mostly female, that empower them. Opening with a too serious vision of churning aft-sea, Master sets up its interior conflict in the rangy Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Pacific fleet enlisted man who spends the first few minutes of the film mixing Schlitz and coconuts, humping a reclining sand sculpture of a nude woman, and jacking off into the sea breeze. Anderson wants to show us what kind of man has been swept under the rug in the U.S.'s post-war elation, and effectively, Quell is our insect. His intoxications are just that, toxic. His mixology escalates from beer to bomb juice to photochemicals in the span of a few scenes, and by ten minutes, he's rolling down the aisles of a swank department store, customer's necktie and neck in his grip. His hangover from the latest juicing gives him the neandrathal ability to pick fights with his patrons: photo subjects who come to the store to pose for glossy 8x10s. It's the only inward comment from Anderson in the whole film, Freddie's drinking stuff similar to what processed the 65mms of negative rattling through the gate wherever the film is projected.
Slumming for moments in a Salinas cabbage patch, Quell finds himself one night skulking around the San Francisco waterfront, stowing away aboard a boat filled with revelers, and the mechanics of the film are off and running. He's stumbled into a little bit of Americana presided over by Dodd/Hubbard, who has already sampled the latest mix of a sleeping it off Quell and decided Freddie might make an excellent voyage partner. Anderson's Dodd is like Freddie's mixes, a partial assembly of 50's Hubbard. It's a skeletal version that only rattles his joints. This is no flesh & blood & spirit Hubbard. He's more a guest villain slumming in from Star Trek. We never get a thorough enough view of Dodd or his religious structure. Crassly, Anderson's already denounced Dianetics era Hubbard (ignoring how the cult of a book or a man became a religious structure) before the film begins. We never see the key transaction the film needs, the recruitment of the everyman, we're left with Quell's vague indoctrination. A sociopath's induction is precisely what the film doesn't need, because it offers no control for comprehending whether Anderson really 'gets' Scientology, whether he even understands human collectives. He can sure cast 'types' like no one else, but to what end? He stares down at them from his microscope and only sees bacteria attracting themselves to the science fiction aspects of Scientology. All we glimpse are generic cult-programming and punctuations of fury from Dodd that scare off his supporters. In aftermath, Lady Macbethish rallying by Dodd's wife seems to glue the flimsy structure together. He's hinting she may be the true 'master,' but what does it matter? The vector the unspoken religion-cult provides is illusory, background. This primitive view of Scientology and its adherents is so simplistic, it reads like a junior high school term paper aped out by great actors. I'm not asking for proof that any religion 'works,' merely that it works for the inhabitants in the film, that it creates believers. Great filmmaking is subtle enough even when stylized or mannered to give the audience credit for making up their own minds about controversies like cult-religions. Here, your mind is made up for you. The view is so microscopically episodic you have to wonder why he chose this film of any to record with 70MM. Is it merely the clicking tock of Kodak's last production of its stock? The values and concepts are puny, the disjointed time shifting is a needless veil, while the imagery is needlessly grand.
And with any episodic work, we're left with pastiche to assemble Anderson's awareness of the how and the why of America's love-to-hate religion-cult of the moment. If this were 1913 instead of 2013, Anderson would be hitching Quell to Joe Smith's wagon-train and no doubt he'd be mixing the same sexual aspects of pleasure and pain. The problem is the episodes add up to very little, they're irresponsibly left vague. And by vague, I don't mean ambiguous. Anderson hovers in human nature enough to know plot-emotives like desire have many faces: Dodd's daughter tries seducing Quell in one scene then denounces him to Dodd in the next, that's ambiguity. The problem is vagueness. It stems from Quell's cipher-as-lead. He's no different from any Mad Magazine caricature who master-bates ape-like then curls his rictus grin as he flirts with women by writing "do you wanto fuck?" He's portrayed as a mysterious ape among humans lacking any direction in life. Obviously employing him as the key test subject for the film's religion-cult is going to backfire, no one in the audience can identify with him. They can sense his pain, but they don't know what it means. Conversely in Clockwork Orange, we can sense Alex's joy; the film completes its journey as we see Alex truly experience pain at the hands of the state's mind-control. Here, we only meander randomly with Quell. We know less about him the longer we know him. Not a good sign. Finally, when Quell's journey ends, he's back to his old devices, free of Dodd, now in an English pub. He meets a girl and seems to complete the quest the film began with: the mating of an ape with a human. Anderson's treated Dodd as a blip in Freddie's rear horizon moments after bidding adieu.
Maybe more difficult beyond the plot itself, is the technique: the centering of a great majority of the conflicts interpersonally. They're all character-based and are largely caricatured, if only slightly. A character quality like Tarantino's, only his are backed by dramatic visual conflicts. In a movie like Django caricatures follow caricatured visuals. Zero Dark Thirty like Master isolates most of its conflicts interpersonally and hedges its visuals into nearly pure aesthetics. Which means their visuals aren't telling us complex things. They're just types of slightly stylized reality. Zero's one visual metaphor is the monkey cage whose interred are killed offscreen by local guards, and though it's apt (ZD30 after all, is a film about walled compounds [read them as cages], at war), it is one of only very few metaphors visually laced in the film. A predominance is offered to only the most basic aesthetic metaphors (you know this one "wind-for-storm-is-coming"). Broadly brushed, little of it flows sequentially. It just looks good. Think about the visuals Anderson's offering us: churning seas (three times), buried treasure and glowing lethal mixtures.
The audience leaves, their heads shaking. Can't wait for the Mad Magazine version of it (this review is titled for one). Maybe it'll 'explain' the movie to me...ps: want to see the intelligensia try and 'read' this flick, here's John Emerson's "What does it all Mean?".
Ghost Story of Yotsuya, pulp masterpiece among seven other definitive Shintoho productions making their NY/US premieres at The Japan Society's "Shintoho Mind Warp" Festival. (Except Yotsuya, which got itself shown at Spectacle not too long ago). Shintoho is the anomaly-house. Kind of like Republic and the early days of Universal. More graphic, less costly, wavering acting. All are probable must-sees.
Part of the Brooklyn Museum's efforts to expose its vast collection of Native South, Meso and North American artifacts is the fifth floor show Life, Death and Transformation in the Americas. The "Manto" is a cloth found buried in a tomb on the southern coast of Peru. The embroidery is complex and jarring. Bodies of deities and spirits extend from the cloth in all directions. A 'sister' cloth held by the British Museum was used in the BBC's 100 objects of the world.