The Master arrives, like all the PT Anderson films before it, on waves of hype and praise and some complaint - I suppose I could review it, but the world abounds in reviews, and I have other things on the mind, so I think I will just make a list of things that caught my attention...
1) My first impression of the film is of how perfect Joaquin Phoenix looks for 1950 USA. That lean, hard body, skinny, strong, but with no definition - I look at old pictures of my father and uncles in the 40s and 50s and they look exactly like that. It goes a long way toward selling the character. Freddy looks right. Now, his behavior, his movements, ways of standing, and so on, are mannered, sometimes to the extreme - though I doubt they are as extreme as they look to 2012's eyes - but his body, face (and hair, clothes, and so on) are uncanny. He looks like 1950 come to life.
2) I saw two films last weekend, The Master and For Ellen. I liked For Ellen - a carefully observed character study, a quiet acting tour de force for Paul Dano - a nice little film, though that's all. (It's enough, of course, though perhaps underwhelming against the competition. Like all those perfectly acceptable little indie films in the spring that disappeared on contact with Moonrise Kingdom.) But reading through the reviews, I find For Ellen described as "poetic" - probably more than once. And this is something that bothers me.
I am taking a class on poetry just now, Modern Poetry at that, so it is in my head. I've written about it here before - I have theories, which I confess are a bit idiosyncratic. I think, for example, that film resembles poetry more than any other written form - I think its basic structure, the compilation of shots, as discreet units, arranged in a sequence, and building meaning out of their sequence, their arrangement, and out of a host of connections from shot to shot, sequence to sequence - is a process that is much closer to poetry than to prose. Film is poetic by its nature. But I think its poetry lies in its construction - poetry itself is defined, I think, by the heightened language - and by the structures patterns of language. By line breaks I am tempted to say.... And if a poem itself can be more poetic by being more explicit about its ambition, and its derangement of language, then so can a film, by highlighting its construction, its derangement of images. And so - how is The Master not poetic?
Why do people call For Ellen "poetic" but not The Master? I suppose it's obvious - it's the slow pace; it's those long the long held closeups of faces, of people alone, mostly Dano alone, thinking, waiting, holding the screen. It's the inserted symbolic shots - the sky, trees, the roads, motels, and so on. Those are the things that signify poetry in films. The Terence Malick stuff, I suppose. The lyricism, the contemplation.
But there's a lot more to poetry than lyricism. We are reading Ezra Pound just now in that class, and soon will be reading T. S. Eliot, and when you read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or the Wasteland, or you read Hugh Selwyn Mauberley - what do they have to do with films like For Ellen? And how are they not almost perfect prefigurations of a film like The Master? Look at what it is - a film that follows a man, his passage through life, through a period of time - but impressionistically, discontinuously. It is large and sprawling, but so is Whitman - so are Pound and Eliot - Milton, Dante. And look at how it works - dense, allusive, built around patterns, rhymes and rhythms, condensed to hard, specific images, arranged to play off the images around them. How is it not poetic?
As it clips along, Freddy on a beach, Freddy at sea, Freddy insane, Freddy trying to work in a store, Freddy fucking a store model, after half poisoning her with his concoction of photography chemicals and whatnot), Freddy fighting with a complacent bourgeois, Freddy among the migrant workers, Freddy running across a field, Freddy on the waterfront - the scenes come, without connective tissue to the last, a device you will find, I say, in Pound and company, in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, to name a name. Not just as ellipse - but with even sequential moments (as Freddy's fight with the workers, and flight from them across the field), the scenes can be constructed as if they were completely unconnected. And it continues, and like poetry, it builds patterns across scenes - runs multiple patterns: as simple as the way Jonny Greenwood's music seems to run separately from the scenes - layered over them rather than sculpted to match them. It's in the ways individual images can overpower the flow of images - Freddy running across a field; Freddy trashing a jail cell - or just Freddy's way of standing, walking, the way he seems placed against the grain of every scene he's in. It shifts tone, between scenes, within scenes. It repeats images - moments, images, memories? or just the way an alcoholics' life falls into dreadful repetition - though the film never announces anything like that, anything like a clear meaning to the images it gives you.
3) I love it without loving it. I am in awe of it, without feeling the overpowering sense of its rightness I feel, for example, with Moonrise Kingdom. Is P.T. Anderson the equal of Wes Anderson as a filmmaker? He might be, to tell the truth - but Wes is more to my tastes. But - it's hard to ignore the coincidence of the names (I can ignore the coincidence of the two Paul Andersons, however) - but it really comes down to the fact that they have separated themselves from the other (American) filmmakers of their generation. No others match them - some may get there (Kelly Riechardt? Ira Sachs? etc.) - but none have yet. But the two Andersons have, I say, lifted themselves into the ranks of their forebears - Scorsese, Lynch, The Coens. They are in the ranks of the best world wide, the filmmakers whose works I wait for years between - Costa, Denis, Kurosawa, Apitchipong, older filmmakers like Hou and Kiarostami. I don't think it's an unjustified comparison. It took me a while to get there with PT (while I was with Wes from the go) - but this and There Will Be Blood seem to me to deliver what they promise, and what he has been promising - utter mastery of the medium, put in service of stories that show you things in the world you might miss. So yes: I can't say I have taken the measure of this film, not by a half, but I think I can say it is a great one.