Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pick a Point

For those more time-sensitive readers, the first three paragraphs may suffice, but I get at a lot more of the film, including the title, which is no small thing, in those that follow.

Near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a cult religion known only as The Cause, takes three members of his "family" - his daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), her husband, Clark (Rami Malek), and an itinerant war veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) - out to the desert to engage in one of his many ill-defined exercises. Previously, he'd asked Freddie to walk from one end of a room to another, describing what he feels when he touches a wall and a window. Later (or perhaps simultaneously), he had Freddie and Clark stare at one another, saying whatever came to mind, and forbidding each to react to the other. The exercise in the desert is the first to have a name - it's called "Pick a Point."

In the scene immediately preceding this, Dodd had unveiled the apparently-long-promised "Book Two" to the assembled followers, which was met secretly with derision (Bill (Kevin J. O'Connor), who served as Dodd's welcoming committee in New York, simply tells Freddie "it stinks," and that they should have condensed it to a three-page pamphlet to hand out on the street), and in a more confrontational manner with heavy doubt. Helen (Laura Dern) is a devoted follower, having hosted Dodd and his self-assembled family in her home in Philadelphia, and has now traveled all the way to Phoenix with the urgency and eagerness of a Harry Potter fan, determined to read the new book the moment it's available. Indeed, Dodd has no sooner concluded his introduction than she's already on page thirteen, where she has found a major change to one of the foundational aspects of their belief system. When she, rather politely, asks Dodd about it, it's clear he's given it no thought, and is aghast at both her determine to undermine him and his own lack of conception of something he truly seems to believe (and perhaps a great many other things; much dramatic development in this film is pointedly not depicted).

So when Dodd takes these three out to the desert, and tells them to merely hop on his motorcycle and drive as fast as they can towards a point picked nearly at random, it's not hard to divine the larger thematic undertones. Dodd is now grasping at straws, determined to find purpose in whichever direction he stumbles (his cries of "yahoo!" as he speeds through the desert are not the most convincing). Yet unlike a character in a movie who becomes consumed by his own neuroses and flailing ambition, Dodd will actually become more successful thereafter. And unlike a story in a movie, writer/director Anderson tells his without any real concern towards dramatic structure, character development, or arcs. As is the experience for most of us, is certainly the experience for Freddie, and is the case with The Cause as a whole, The Master stumbles from one event to the next, not always concerned with creating connections between them, but finding commonalities; bowling without restraint towards its determined direction, then turning around when the wall doesn't provide the answers we seek.

As such, the hints the film provides at anything resembling a resolution will ultimately come up dry. Near the opening of the film, Freddie is shown in some sort of hospital undergoing psychological evaluation immediately following the end of World War II. And unseen speaker addresses the group, telling them that many people in the outside world won't understand the condition these men have, which we understand in modern parlance to be posttraumatic stress disorder. Then, it was more commonly called "shell shock." But to chalk up Freddie's erratic behavior (his predatory sexuality and violent outbursts are most common, but he's also given to depression, adolescent humor, alienation, and he alternates between attempting to appear much smarter than he is and satisfactorily owning his intellectual limitations) to merely the effects of war is a limiting perspective. For starters, his mother was committed to a mental institution and his alcoholism has turned towards utilizing household chemicals (and a little torpedo fuel), which can't be doing the holes in his brain any favors.

But more than that, Freddie is the expression of the void, the inherent denial of the constructs of civilization and surrender to our base instincts. Freddie will likely never be able to maintain a stable home, job, or relationship (romantic or otherwise), though he's shown to be such fine company that many will take him in along the way, and Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodd's wife, is probably right when she says he's beyond help (and even more right when she says he can't take this world straight), which she assumes is Dodd's primary reason for taking him in. It's both more personal and more sinister than that, though - in Freddie, Dodd sees a perfect method of expressing his belief system, both because Freddie is easily manipulated and because, in the course of Dodd's instructions, he reveals things even Dodd could have never dreamed up. Dodd's son, Val (Jesse Plemons), is correct to a certain degree when he says that his father is just making it up as he goes along, but in direct contrast to his supposed inspiration, L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd is never shown to be a writer of fiction. One man's "making it up as he goes along" is another's continual inspiration, and we see how he takes elements revealed to him by Freddie (laughter is a big one, but also Freddie's conclusion at the end of the wall-to-window exercise) and divines from them larger "truths." Dodd is searching for meaning every bit as much as his followers; he just had the initiative to start writing it down.

Hoffman and Phoenix play off of one another beautifully, opposed as often as in unison, but complementary of one another in the way the brain's right side more dominantly manages arenas of thought the left does not, and vice versa (called to mind forcefully when Dodd is thrown in a jail cell adjacent to Freddie, and we see their very divergent reactions to imprisonment in one beautiful frame). Phoenix's performance is the kind of towering feat that will be remembered by force, an actor whose own lack of restraint dares the film to similarly expose itself. It's the kind of "big" performance that some would assign merely to an actor's ego, were Phoenix not so willing to look so pathetic much of the time, never mind the success he achieves on whatever terms you assign. To say he plays a big role in opening up Freddie's psyche would reflexively undermine an actor's inherent contribution, but it's hardly all there on the page - Phoenix reacts in ways you would never expect, constantly calling into question your conception of his character, a notion matched by the film, aesthetically. Especially at the start, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. lights Phoenix so that he almost looks like Two-Face (yes, the Batman villain), deep and shadowy on one side with almost exaggeratedly divergent eyes, intuitively asking what else about this man is will go unrevealed.

Indeed, as much happens off screen in The Master as it does on. We don't get a precise fix on the timeline, but several unseen events are directly alluded to (Dodd and Freddie's initial meeting, the scenes in which anyone other than Dodd learns about Freddie's background, the moment of decision at which Freddie decides to leave The Cause), never mind the many conflicts that are left unresolved. We never find out what happened to the salesgirl who Freddie drags out of the store with him following his violent assault on a customer, nor the man whom he might have killed with his homemade alcohol. We never learn exactly what was in the letter from Doris - we understand it to be unwelcome, but Freddie is surprised to hear she's been married three years when he finally goes back to Massachusetts to try to talk to her. Indeed, we don't even learn much of Freddie's life immediately following the war, which leaves a reasonable five-year gap between then and when he meets Dodd, who states the year to be 1950 in his initial attempt at "processing" with Freddie. We get pieces of his life, and generally understand him to be a wanderer, but five years is a long time, and Anderson makes no apologies for the inherent inability to fully tell of that span in a few minutes. But he does get at the nature of that period of Freddie's life, just as he gets at the nature of the events and people to follow, however elliptical his expression (never mind that the drama he does depict is absolutely arresting cinema). Rather than feel frustrated by the film's limited viewpoint, I felt freed, invited much closer into a truer experience of life in which meaningful events cannot be sufficiently summarized in a two-hour film. We're trusted with a collection of moments that add up to something significant, but which the film doesn't come out and state; a sense of longing and loneliness and the vague hope of finding some truth in our relationships.

Which brings me to the matter of the title. Anderson has long expressed an aversion to titles that are stated within the film itself, and his work prior to this bears that out, so it's worth considering what, exactly, "The Master" is all about. Most simply, many people refer to Dodd as "Master," much more often than he's called by his real name (I think only the police and judge use it in addressing him, but I may be wrong), and Hoffman conducts himself as something of a master of ceremonies. I like what Bill R. wrote - "Dodd is an ideal character for [Hoffman], as it lets him do just about everything an actor could want to do." Hoffman has enjoyed quite a career so far, especially in the years since Capote, for which he won an Oscar. He's been able to be as wild and untamed as only a film like Mission: Impossible III would allow, a forceful and determined presence in Doubt and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and extraordinarily sensitive to the human experience in Synecdoche, New York and Jack Goes Boating, his directorial debut. Lancaster Dodd seems custom-tailored for him, utilizing all his talent for humanistic comedy and authoritative presence, while also revealing quite a bit more of his range - his character's desire to hide his own self doubt. It's a tricky line to toe, but his Dodd is never fully in control nor fully without a grasp on the situation.

But getting back to the title, there is also Dodd's treatment of Freddie, as a friend, certainly, but more to the point, man's best friend. Constantly using condescending compliments like "good boy" and "you're the bravest boy I've ever known," never mind his more aggressive statements, when he might as well be whacking Freddie over the nose with a newspaper, Dodd is taking his manipulative abilities to their natural conclusion. And his general ability to wrangle Freddie to do his bidding, typically expressed a series of tricks designed for his guests' amusement, becomes more and more grotesque as their relationship evolves. Soon after their initial encounter, Dodd gives a speech to the people on his boat about taming a dragon, and the way Anderson cuts between Dodd and Freddie provides a clear link, and a hint of things to come. Dodd is not purely manipulative towards Freddie anymore than a man is to his dog, but there's little doubt as to who Dodd feels is truly the "master" of their relationship. Until the end.

The confrontation between Dodd and Freddie in England left me reeling, and is the chief reason it took me until the next morning to really conceive of my own feelings towards the film (both times I saw it, at that). It's not the choice I would have expected Anderson to make, or the natural choice for anyone to make, but once again, The Master is not the kind of story we're used to seeing. Somehow, Hoffman and Phoenix wring so much emotion from this scene that's all about past lives and Paris and losing only two balloons in the worst winter on record and a heartbreaking rendition of a song I'd never heard, so that when the former tells the latter that if he leaves, that he never wants to see him again, and if they should meet in the next life, he'd be his sworn enemy..."or you can stay," we're just about in tears along with Freddie. This is as close as Dodd can get to pleading, but it's not something Freddie can satisfy.

Dodd gives him a compliment I'm not sure he entirely means, nor would he entirely deny (characteristic of many of his statements), that he admires Freddie for finding a way to live "without a master," which points not just to their past relationship but towards Dodd's own sense of place in the universe. If Freddie is commendable for this, then Dodd, too, serves someone, or feels he does. There are indications that Peggy holds this position, but the way he speaks points to an existential sadness greater than a man merely trapped in a bad marriage (one of many). It's perhaps that he's a man trapped by his own designs, forever struggling to live up to the image he's built of himself, and which others have expected him to.

The final true scene of the film is between Freddie and a woman he picks up in a bar. They're having sex and, contrary to our conception of Freddie's sexual impulses (the man is forever a mystery), it's actually very gentle, caring, and fun. But when he diverts for a second to the intellectual sparring that initially bonded he and Dodd, he opens up the possibility of alternate lives. She says, "I hope this is not my life."* Anderson repositions her upright, fully exposed (in several ways), and for just a moment, deeply sad, until she and Freddie go back at it. And The Cause promises at least that much; that whatever your troubles in this life, they are but a sliver of the totality of your soul's experience. This is not to apologize for a cult mentality, and I don't think Anderson is either - rather, he's revealing the inherent sadness that comes from searching and not finding, from never being truly certain that anything more lay beyond the temporal, and that the void Freddie expresses may be closer to the truth than the absolution Dodd promises. Among a great many other things, of course.

*I deeply regret that I cannot recall her specific phrasing, but it's close to this.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Busby Berkeley's Spectacular Humanism

As one would imagine with a film not only choreographed, but totally directed by Busby Berkeley, 1943's The Gang's All Here is not terribly motivated by, nor concerned with, the emotional tension for which many other directors would mine its premise. Concerning a soldier who falls for a nightclub singer, in spite of his unspoken, family-bred engagement to a nice suburban type, and the various machinations that result in them all coming together for a weekend at the country, Berkeley's Technicolor wartime spectacular doesn't even approach the conflict with a depth of a romantic comedy. Rather, his premise allows him to move effortlessly from one jaw-dropping musical number to the next, a never-ending carousel of the set pieces typically reserved for the finale of the films with which he was previously involved (Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, etc.).

Yet I don't buy the tag that Berkeley purely exploited the human form for his own mechanistic whims. For one, The Gang's All Here contains a great deal of pictorial romance, from the gleaming (and, it should be noted, gloriously inauthentic) starlight to the opening shot, bathed in near-total darkness, to some visions towards the end that I dare not spoil by failing to describe them. Let's just say Berkeley was very attuned to the possibilities of the "moving picture."

But more than anything, Berkeley's work feels overwhelmed with the joy of collaboration, the possibilities that exist when you throw people together to create one glorious collage. And rather than feel dehumanized, there's actually a charming disharmony to the movements, a sometimes slight, sometimes rather pronounced reminder of a number's underlying humanity. A couple people will come in slightly off-beat, or one will land just off their mark, and while it's easy enough to say, well, you can only get it so perfect, that assumes Berkeley was aiming for perfection, which I doubt. These are, in essence, grand experiments, the kind that can only be tested on a large scale, and it feels like Berkeley was as interested in the results as he was in his vision.

To take that point a step further, this kind of massive collaboration casually builds up the necessary public morale at an uncertain time, certainly through the Depression but especially during the war years. A "we're all in this together!" mentality wasn't just espoused by the propaganda machine; it was embedded in the public conscious (and, for that matter, conscience). Without coming right out and saying it, Berkeley was illustrating what amazing things can be created when people pool their talent and resources. Which, to me, is far more inspiring than the standard triumph-of-the-individual narrative so pervasive in Hollywood cinema of any era.

The Gang's All Here is playing for the next few days at Cinefamily in Los Angeles in a brand-new, astounding 35mm print. Beyond the more esoteric qualities to which I alluded above, it's just a gas of a picture, constantly keeping your feet a-tapping and your face a-smiling. See it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Naruse is on Fire

Okay, so that post title only works if you mispronounce his name (NA-roo-say is the correct way), but I never was good at titles. All of this is to say that over at CriterionCast, we've gone positively nutty for the largely-overlooked, but supremely talented Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse. In addition to my ongoing series on those films of his available on Criterion's Hulu channel, David Blakeslee and Robert Nishimura were kind enough to ask me to join them for the second episode of their podcast, The Eclipse Viewer, to discuss his surviving silent films. Even without my involvement, I'd be happy to recommend the program, into which they put an incomparable amount of work, diving into research and analysis, making for an incredibly informative monthly show. They mentioned to me off-air that their aim is for these episodes to serve as the supplements that Criterion's Eclipse series lacks, and they do a hell of a job at that.

It goes without saying that if you haven't waded into Naruse's silent work, or any of his films for that matter, they are an absolute necessity. Everyone in the West tends to have "their guy" when it comes to Japanese cinema, and while I love Kurosawa and Ozu (and Mizoguchi, but I'm really just getting started there), I've quickly become overwhelmed by Naruse's passion and formal precision. His silent work is considerably rougher than that which follows, so perhaps start with When a Woman Ascends the Stairs or Yearning and then go back to see where he comes from, but with a little contextualization, few cinephiles would be hard-pressed to not be immediately drawn into these silent films (all of which are also available on Criterion's indispensable Hulu channel).

So let me, David, and Robert provide that, and give the latest episode of The Eclipse Viewer a listen. Whole worlds await you.