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The Masters of My Eyeballs

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
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. 

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Reader Comments (17)

I admit, I didn't really get anything from Kylie's song. It sounded like something someone quickly threw together over their lunch hour. Pretty banal stuff. But I'm holding out hope that maybe the movie could make the makeup shortlist. Foreign oddities have shown up there before.

What's that you say? It has no chance? LALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU LALALA.

November 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

I more or less agree with you on The Master (except that lengthy wall-to-window sequence - I found it far too protracted and underdeveloped) but I also feel Mike d'Angelo put it well in his review where he said PTA's main shortcoming as a writer is that he loved to chuck in thematic signifiers and pay lip service to grand lofty themes without actually engaging/grappling with these themes and creating meaning.

That was my main issue with There Will Be Blood but the sheer operatic pull of the film kinda overwhelmed its thematic shortcomings. The Master is similarly a grand and arresting and gorgeous film, well worth getting lost into for long stretches. But ultimately it's just too difficult to get past the first-drafty-ness of the script. Just too many strands that don't build on one another.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I suspect PSH is more of a shoo-in for a Supporting Actor nomination than Phoenix is for Actor. Not to say that Phoenix doesn't deserve one himself, but his is a more crowded field and PSH has a lot more going for him:

1) The category fraud factor. He's basically the co-lead.
2) The unexpected song-and-dance talent. Texas Gov. Charles Durning reminded us that that alone can get you nominated.
3) He's Philip Seymour Hoffman. And if they nominated him for "Charlie Wilson's War," what won't they nominate him for?

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

Totally agree on The Master, though I gave it a much lower grade. As much as I enjoyed Boogie Nights, I don't know if PTA will ever top There Will Be Blood. I'm really happy the Academy jumped on board with that wonderful film.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

Damn you Nathan now I have nothing to hold over your head. You've seen The Master and though I'm disappointed with your disappointment I'm not surprised you're one of those who respects it more than relishes its idiosyncratic DNA. I hope it haunts you into watching it again. Not some much for what you've may have missed, more so, because it deserves repeat viewings.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Is it really category fraud for PSH? I haven't seen The Master yet, but I'd love to see PSH back to Best Actor.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Pretty much agreed with you on "The Master". "Holy Motors" on the other hand, as you well know, I think is devilishly entertaining and one of the year's very best films.

As for the Kylie song, it is I think very much the key to the film. "Who were were when we were who we were back then?" Carax spends a lot of the film lamenting the death of celluloid, but then very much turns the tables and acknowledges that "Holy Motors" wouldn't exist without the conversion to digital.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Sorry to hear you didn't love The Master. I do feel that many people left unsure about it on first viewing, will love more on second. It's odd structure enraptures me, and personally, I find all of the conflicting elements (the cult, Freddie, etc) to all come together beautifully upon reflection; it's just not immediately seen.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

I fell asleep during Kylie's song! I remember thinking "That's pretty" and then-- KONK! Zzzzzzzz....

I did like the accordion bit though, having been prepared for it by your podcast.

What about a make-up nomination for HM, Nathaniel?

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan -- I hope so!

Brian Z & 3rtful -- I am very much of the opinion that whenever anyone says "it requires multiple viewings" than the film in question has a problem. I think Pauline Kael felt the same if I recall. I love going back to films and discovering that there are more layers to explore but it has to work on a first screening to work at all. If you ask me... :)

Glenn -- totally on the song.

JP -- charlies wilson war. UGH. must u remind me???

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I'm afraid that Holy Motors will not come to any of the art houses near me, which means I will have to end up seeing on a TV screen (assuming it comes to DVD/streaming). I'm sad I missed The Master, because everything I hear about it just makes it seem like a fascinating film, even if it isn't a great one.

About that "diving into the blue box" thing? Only two movies have done that for me this year, and they couldn't have been more different: Beasts of the Southern Wild (I was right there with Hushpuppy from the very first shot to the very last) and Cloud Atlas (I basically dove in and didn't come up for air for three hours).

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Off Topic here, but have you watched the THR Roundtables yet, Nathaniel? I remember you wrote at length about the last two Actress ones, so I wasn't sure. Its Weisz, Adams, Field, Cotillard, Watts, Hunt and Hathaway. Both this and the actors one are pretty good, and oddly enough Sally Field and Helen Hunt come off the best?


November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArun

I did not care at all for Joquin Phoenix's performance in the Master. Mainly because I could that he was ACTING. What is this body contortion physically painful all out "i'm a tortured soul" histrionics? Does he think he's competing in the thespian olympics? less is more Joquin.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermurtada

Completely unrelated, but...after seeing Skyfall and now looking at Nicole Kidman in Dujour magazine...don't you think she would be a great Bond villain? I imagine her at an exotic location, stepping off a fancy boat in slow motion with "You Only Live Twice" playing loudly while Bond stares and falls for her. I had to share that with the fellow Kidman fans here.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

ARUN, i haven't yet watched it but because i write at length about them, it takes me longer than other sites to post them :)

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

It looks to be a weak field in Original Screenplay this year. Even without the lauds PTA received for TWBB, I think its a lock for a screenplay nom, and might even win.

November 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Nathan, words cannot express how deep my loathing is for this movie. I almost walked out but I was too sleepy from boredom. The Master reeks of snobbish artifice, literally defying the viewer to question its pretentiousness. I don't necessarily need a traditional story or plot of any kind from a movie. What I do need is a semblance of forward momentum, a whisper of character development--any type of sign that the filmmaker isn't too immersed in his own self-important "artistry" to speak to the audience. The Master is an unqualified disaster.

November 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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