I like getting lost at the movies. I live for the moments when you dive into the blue box. Ever since Mulholland Drive, that's what I've called that delirius feeling. That's when a movie with a tractor beam size pull just sucks you in until you're fully immersed in its world. Sometimes it's only for a moment. Sometimes it happens in fits and starts. With masterpieces it can last for the whole running time once you've stopped resisting. In these moments we've left the movie theater behind; the projectionist isn't the only one projecting.
Paul Thomas Anderson movies usually give me just this blue box sensation. I ate at the diner in Hard Eight. I hung out on porn sets and called Julianne mommy while high on coke in Boogie Nights. In There Will Be Blood I fell right in the oil well with Daniel Day-Lewis but only one of us emerged again after that prologue. I even lost myself a time or two in Punch-Drunk Love flights of rage and whimsy.
THE MASTER and HOLY MOTORS after the jump
The Master's opening sequences, light on the dialogue and heavy with sexual tension, and its eventual structural inscrutability combined with the pathologically anti-social vibe coming off of Joaquin Phoenix might suggest an ideal blue box opportunity. If you want to engage with The Master at all, you have to dive in and let its currents and waves toss you about. It's no accident, of course that Joaquin Phoenix's "Freddie" is a sailor. And though the repeated (and dazzling) soulful shots of water at the bow -- which I came to think of as interludes and chapter marks -- are peaceful, they're lying. The Master is dangerously violent at every turn, whether Freddie is popping off or The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife (Amy Adams) are forcibly rewiring Freddie's brain with little worry about whether it will function properly again. The only anesthesia is alcohol and Freddie will have lots of it please.
It's also no accident that Freddie's last name is "Quell" and that the thematic battles are all about control. The most fascinating aspect of The Master is that to control himself, Freddie is asked at (nearly) every turn to suppress his core instincts. Or he is told to surpress his more animal instincts verbally but encouraged emotionally to succumb to them (a sly note in Philip Seymour Hoffman's work). In order to master himself Freddie must essentially hand the reigns over to someone else. Every Master must have his subjects.
Though I admire The Master's bounteous ambition I found myself unable to fully swim along. I struggled to see its core identity as it flipped channels between the creation of cult and disciples, the psychological study of Freddie, and its larger thematic ideas. It refused to take full shape which is a pity since the hypnotic star turn at its core is so distinct. Joaquin's Freddie is all hunched shoulders, jutting elbows, head tilts, and erratic movements both emotionally and physically is. It's a portrait of discomfort that's so painful and funny and fascinating that it becomes a movie unto itself. And perhaps it should have stayed that way. In the movie's strongest scenes -- like a long seminar at a disciples house (Laura Dern, sinfully underused) which forces Freddie center stage to perform a monotonous exercize for hours and a scene in which Freddie imagines the disciples nude as The Master drunkenly sings -- its separate agendas are all working brilliantly together but more often than not they seemed to be at cross purposes or too thick and deep into theme to breathe.
France's controversial Leos Carax (of Pola X and Lovers on the Bridge fame) has been gone from screens even longer than Paul Thomas Anderson but his latest film Holy Motors would sure make a fascinating double feature with The Master. The Master spends hours trying to rewire Freddie's identity but Freddie keeps snapping back, ever the same, a fixed identity. Monsieur Oscar, the actor protagonist of Holy Motors, is his polar opposite, shape shifting so dramatically on his "assignments" -- that he seems to have no identity at all... let alone a fixed one. As with most films that use a vignette structure, Holy Motors is an uneven or at least a schizophrenic experience but it's a fascinatingly inscrutable one with thrilling impulses. I was fighting sleep when I saw it (not the movie's fault) but at various points I was terrrified that it would abandon Monsieur Oscar altogether, our only connection -- however tenuous -- to the film's narrative and then where would we be? Lost on city streets with no map to get back to the movie theater we started in.
(In short I dove in the blue box at least a couple of times.)
The Master Grade: B- (Yes, it's my least favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film. But still worth grappling with)
Oscar Hopes: Joaquin Phoenix is a deserving Oscar contender in Best Actor and one assumes that Philip Seymour Hoffman might join him in Supporting Actor. I'm less bullish on Amy Adam's chances since her character is the least developed. I imagine Screenplay is possible but, given the film's trouble finding an audience and more respect than outright love surrounding it in conversations, other nominations seem unlikely. I'd love to think Cinematography is a possibility...
Holy Motors Grade: B+ (though I should see it again due to the sleep)
Oscar Chances: LOL! Though we should note that Kylie Minogue has a wonderful scene in which she sings an original song and that would be an awesome choice for that category. Not that they don't get wax in their ears when awesome choices start spinning for them.