|Can a master actor pull off a masterly cinematic con? Philip Seymour Hoffman as "Lancaster Dodd."|
This weekend I sat through one of the worst movies of the year - simultaneously pretentious, obvious, and dramatically flat. Several folks in the crowd I saw it with lacked my fortitude - people left the theatre in a small but steady stream after about the halfway point. (And they didn't come back with popcorn.)
I admit I envied them, as I asked myself over and over again, "Why are you sitting through this dreck, Mr. Garvey, when you could be doing something far more exciting, like picking up toothpaste at CVS?"
My answer, I must also admit, actually makes me cringe now with self-contempt:
I was sitting there because A.O. Scott had told me to.
The movie I'm talking about, of course, is Paul Thomas Anderson's dreadful The Master (even typing its title just made me shudder slightly, the way you might while discussing something like a barium enema) over which Mr. Scott, the lead critic of the New York Times, swooned last week.
Which, I think, is of far more cultural import than the same critic's pan of (and the ensuing dust-up over) that Avengers movie last summer.
For to be blunt, the culture has far more to fear from the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson than it does from The Avengers. Indeed, what's really troubling about the current cinematic scene is not that the detritus of Marvel Comics meets with popular success; it's that the critics who sniff at such multiplex fodder are seemingly unable to parse actual artistic statement from its simulation. What we're getting at the arthouse as a result is a kind of waxworks avant-garde, in which highbrow tropes and structures are glossily invoked sans cultural salience or purpose.
Not that Paul Thomas Anderson has ever been all that convincing a cinematic con (tellingly, his movies tend to be about swindles - he knows his own type). For some time I've been following this would-be auteur's career - which has proved a professional arc littered with bizarrely clueless accolades. In the beginning - say, with Boogie Nights, which put Anderson on the map - he struck me as an apt student of Altman who had his own way with method actors. He could cajole unforced naturalism from a large ensemble; beyond that he didn't have much to say, though (Altman didn't, either; without a great script he was nothing). But if it was clear that Boogie Nights had no real theme or reason for being (beyond an actor's exercise, that is) - well, Anderson was still young, and I understood why people would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But by now I've sat through almost his entire oeuvre, and maturity has brought forth no apparent original voice or idea; indeed, I'd argue there has been no persuasive raison d'être for any movie Anderson has ever made.
|This bullshit artist is a master all right - of the arthouse con.|
And critics like Scott have been happy to stoke that delusion - indeed, Scott carefully cuts his rave of The Master with hedged praise (the movie "defies understanding!" he crows). Other enthusiastic critics have helpfully explained that the film is "intentionally opaque." Uh-huh. The ploy is obviously desperate, but it's hardly new; indeed, I remember the silly Ty Burr excused the inept finale of There Will Be Blood by claiming it was intended to demonstrate that the movie should have already ended.
But alas, The Master is all too easily understood. A veiled account of the early days of Scientology, it follows a cult called "The Cause, " led by a somewhat L.-Ron-Hubbard-like (only classier) psychiatric-preacher-messiah, "Lancaster Dodd" (Philip Seymour Hoffman). A nearly-disturbed drifter, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who is suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder - along with a complete lack of social skills (his idea of an opening line is "Do you want to fuck?") - falls into Dodd's orbit. Which seems like a good thing, actually, as Freddie's the kind of loser who needs the structure of a cult - and master and man enjoy a weird symbiosis for a while, before there are problems and they kind of break up (maybe).
That's about the whole movie. But fear not, the paucity of plot is overshadowed by a staggering amount of obvious symbology and pseudo-intellectual exegesis; indeed, watching The Master is like working out an acrostic of received ideas. Quell, for instance, is addicted to some sort of vile alcoholic concoction that includes things like gasoline and motor oil - in one scene, we see him draining the tanks of a battleship for a cocktail - yes, he's literally sucking on the poisons of the American military-industrial complex!
If such exchanges strike you as a bit - well, forced, then be warned that they're typical of The Master. Indeed, I don't think over its entire course there's a single line of dialogue that rings dramatically true; you'd have to be pretty far out on the autism spectrum to believe in these people - or their conversations. Everything's in air quotes, or hilariously "symbolic" (when Dodd's wife wants to control him, for instance, she does so by giving him a hand job into a sink - no, I'm not kidding). I had to stop rolling my eyes after a while, though, I was just getting too dizzy. But then who knows - maybe all the bad dialogue was happening inside Freddie's head; there are actually one or two moments of fantasy that suggest the hoary old "It was all a dream!" trick.
To be fair, the movie is handsomely shot, and weirdly, Anderson has hung on to his way with actors - both his leads come through with ferociously convincing performances. Phoenix (above right) is so feral he seems almost pre-human - he exudes an intense charisma while relying on almost no lines at all - while Hoffman proves himself once again a master of an old hack's sleight-of-hand: he often seems to be inflecting a text that doesn't really exist. The performance is shaded and highlighted with such complexity that you keep thinking there must be some sort of intellectual structure supporting all his exquisite bobbing and weaving. But there isn't; you could almost be watching a mime acting out a characterization built only in his head. Indeed, I sometimes got the feeling that Anderson had given his actors all kinds of interesting ideas in his notes - he just hadn't conjured them in his script.
But then the critics seem eager to conjure them for him. (They're all too happy to pretend that two method actors in the desert now counts as a theme, an idea.) And I suppose given the fallen state of the culture, it was inevitable that a charlatan like Anderson should eventually rise to prominence. For what's wonderful about his empty gambits is that they don't really connect with life as we live it; this is "art" that you can "debate" without offending anyone, or even saying anything solid at all. Indeed, many of the movie's fans insist it isn't even about Scientology - it's about "faith" instead. All I can say to that is - would it were! If only Anderson had given us a scene in which Lancaster Dodd faced off against a Catholic priest, or perhaps a Freudian psychologist (both charlatans too, in their respective ways). Then some real rhetorical sparks might have flown, and actual ideas might have flickered on the screen like lightning.
And all those people might have stayed in the theatre.