Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Master: Art For Art's Sake?

Why was this movie made?
Usually, when I disagree with the mainstream critics, it's because I have found a gold mine they have overlooked; Paul Thomas Anderson's two-and-a-half-hour drama The Master has received fabulous reviews; I do understand the praise for the acting, however, it seems everything in the plot is meant as an exercise for the actors, and naught else. What point there is seems to never exceed that everyone has appetites and we can curb them a little, but not extinguish them. Okay,... in other words, The Master seems to be masterful only at contriving situations to rack up Oscar nominations.
The group is at the house of a follower and Dodd starts singing A Roving; during his song, Freddie, a sex addict, imagines all the women naked as Dodd dances around them. I mean, we can say that Freddie sees Dodd as a genuine man, but "sees through" the facade of the women making over him. The problem is, that interpretation is a real stretch because throughout Freddie is so obsessed with sex that it's just a pit stop in his mind for the audience to see how sexually focused Freddie is in every situation; there was little artistry in this film but a lot of ego.
When Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) first meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Freddie has awakened from a drunken stupor and is taken in to meet Dodd who wears red pajamas (pictured below); Dodd informs Freddie that Freddie had been drinking all night then reveals that Dodd sampled the alcohol in Freddie's flask and drank the whole thing, then wants to know if Freddie can make more. Red is a strong color, and for a character to be wearing that when we first meet them and it means one of two things: either they are strong in their ability to love and they will love to death (red is the color of blood which is shed for the one we love) or they are a person of the appetites (love is the opposite of the appetites because love is given yet the appetites take). Since he emptied a flask of strong alcohol, we can assume Dodd is a man of the appetites and he doesn't disappoint us.
Dodd loves the drinks Freddie mixes, and drinks them up the way Freddie drinks up the questions Dodd asks him, especially about Freddie having sex with his Aunt Bertha. We see Freddie mixing the drinks and at least one time he includes paint thinner in the brew; why? It's a commentary on what drinking does to us all, it thins down the paint of the facade/mask we wear in society and reveals what is really there. I can go to a bar to find that out, thank you.
But this is the only real conflict of the narrative: even as Dodd's writing condemns the appetites, and he focuses his energy and "wisdom" on trying to save Freddie from Freddie's boozing and lust, Dodd gives into his own appetites. Each member of the Dodd family wants to ex-communicate Freddie from their midst because he brings out the worst in each of them, specifically, the lust and greed each thinks they are above: Lancaster Dodd, on the other hand, wants to keep Freddie because he thinks he can cure him (which is Dodd's ego appetite). By the end of the film, when Freddie engages in casual sex with an English girl, and repeats like a stumbling parrot questions Dodd asked of him, it appears that his time with "The Master" has changed him, but not significantly so.
And that's about it.
Am I being too hard?
No.
There is such a notion as Art For Art's Sake which posits that art is not bound to serve any purpose, it exists merely for the sake of being beautiful, bound in no way to serve politics, religion or any agenda but beauty (Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde strongly believed in this). I can adhere to this ideal completely, but it begs the question, "What is beauty?" and "How does one communicate beauty?" which beings us to the question of the role of the artist and issues of "quality." (I'm really sticking my foot in it today, aren't I?).
This brings us to another question: is it morally acceptable for a film maker to make a film based on their bet they can get an Oscar for it? On par with that could be a politician who changes or adopts a certain platform to get votes from a particular segment of society so they can hold office.
 This is a worthwhile discussion because there are times when we don't like certain films, various songs or other works of art, like painting and poetry, and it's just as important and personally fulfilling to be capable of articulating why you don't like something as why you do like it. An artist has a duty and a responsibility, regardless of their medium, to communicate with their audience. They have the exemplary calling in life to hold up a mirror to society and attempt to show us what we need to see but can't or won't; during the 2.5 hours I was watching The Master, I never felt Anderson acknowledged me as his audience, I never felt the actors considered me their audience, but were, rather, performing for other actors. In other words, I felt the whole film was phony, just like Freddie finally figures out that "The Master" is phony.
This is the best shot I can find of it, but Freddie has a tendency, throughout the whole film, to keep his hands placed on his hips. In terms of body language, it's meant to accentuate the penis and his male dominance over others in the situations in which he finds himself (it might also be a subliminal message that he is thinking of his sexual needs more than the situation he's in, which was antithetical to "The Cause" of the group) but Freddie can't dominate anyone, rather, everyone dominates him (which may be why he resorts to violence so often. Freddie also has incredibly small, hunched shoulders, revealing that he is unable to carry the basic burdens of life (everything "weighs down" on him). Freddie always talking out of the side of his mouth indicates that his appetites are crooked (the mouth is the primary location for the appetites).
Even if The Master is an exercise in Art For Art's Sake, it has failed to deliver anything of beauty or knowledge. Again, the characters seem more like hook lines for accolades than characters (Mrs. Dodd jerking her husband, Freddie making it with a sand woman on the beach, then jerking off or Elizabeth fondling his leg or a room of naked women... what am I supposed to say? Isn't that edgy? Wasn't that daring? Fearless performance! I won't say any of that about contrived circumstances for someone to show-off what they think is acting with no regard for their real audience). There is a tension in the narrative that is always there but just haunts instead of propelling events; if Anderson's point is so subtle that we can't discern it, he has failed to communicate with his audience.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner