The Cause

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Well, I meant to see THE MASTER on its cinema release last year, honestly I did. But both Edinburgh Filmhouse and its Dublin equivalent were making vague noises about 70mm screenings, and I decided to hold off seeing it digitally so I could have a rare celluloidular encounter — and ended up missing it completely. So I end up seeing it on DVD.

Where it still impresses. The palette of the film is subtly unlike any other modern movie, though neither is it a pastiche of late 40s cinema. It can evoke that era flawlessly when it wants to, though.

There’s something slippery about Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie-making that defeats my efforts to write about it. With this one I may be closer to figuring out a theory to account for him, though. I think his scenes alternate between bravura passages of pure cinema, like the wordless opening of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with acting masterclasses designed to showcase how remarkable his performers can be. I’m not convinced there’s any overall concept to dictate what kind of bravura cinema or what kind of acting is needed, other than PTA’s own taste in such things, which makes his process closer to sixties arthouse filmmakers like Fellini than to the seventies American directors he originally seemed to be following (particularly Scorsese and Altman).

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HARD EIGHT is probably the only PTA film to follow a plot, strictly speaking, which means it has the most satisfying conclusion of any of them but doesn’t deliver the open-ended, elusive quality of the subsequent films. BOOGIE NIGHTS concludes with a series of happy endings, but a friend of mine complained that there was no reason or justification for them — it’s just that suddenly everyone’s happy. The problems tormenting them a couple of scenes back are just forgotten, not resolved. Should we see this as a fantasy? Perhaps so — Anderson’s statements at the time that the seventies porno scene could have evolved into a truly adult cinema in which sexuality was explicit but only one element of many suggests that the utopian scenario here is a kind of alternative universe.

MAGNOLIA’s frogs ex machina conclusion is somewhat prepared for by the references to the work of Charles Fort dotting the film’s running time — I tried to explain this to a couple of baffled women afterwards but they simply refused to accept that frog showers were a well-observed real-world phenomenon. Though I haven’t heard of one as catastrophic as the one LA is subjected to in that movie. Desperate wrestling with that film’s sprawling run-time may have resulted in some of the story’s more baffling lacunae, and the success of this may have inspired PTA’s subsequent casual approach to narrative structure. But I’m still at a loss to explain anything about PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. I quite enjoyed it though.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD ends with violence and a slide into self-parody, which both seem like the coward’s way out of a tight corner, but combined together are at least amusing. I think I’d have preferred tonal consistency, since the first two-thirds of the film are seriously compelling. I dunno.

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THE MASTER… may be PTA’s most successful evasion of what would normally be considered his responsibilities. The tone feels consistent, despite enjoying the freedom to vary itself; the tendency to not come right out and say what it means is established early on and stuck to, perhaps taking its cue from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s evasive guru who never seems to finish any of his Deep Insights; the showy acting is particularly showy, but not as exuberantly theatrical as D-Day Lewis’s John Huston impersonation. Beyond that, and admitting the great aesthetic pleasure derived from Johnny Greenwood’s score and Mihai Malaimare Jnr’s photography, with its searing cyan hues, I could do little but list the questions I was left with — I think you probably would have your own.

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23 Responses to “The Cause”

  1. Simon Kane (@slepkane) Says:

    “PTA’s Most Succesful Evasion” should have gone on the marquis. I kept thinking of Popeye the sailor… I’m not sure how useful this was. I think my main problem with The Master was that, apart from the opening tribulations in the department store, I didn’t believe it. All those cult practice set-pieces just felt like guesswork. They felt like writing exercises. If he’s going to that I’d rather he went back to showing off. I adored and miss the sheer entertainment value of the old PTA’s earlier sprawls. For some reason watching ten or so characters all in search of a hole to crawl into to is just a lot more fun than watching one or two.

  2. frogs ex machina

    That’s delightful, so much nicer than what a bitter friend said on Usenet many years ago – “What was that, deus ex FROG?!”

    To me, PTA’s color palette is reminiscent of Minnelli, Tea and Sympathy especially. Mihai Malaimare’s cinematography was impeccable; he did a little film called The Time Being right after The Master, and though the visuals were lovely, they were so on-the-nose in expressing which character’s worldview we were to be sympathetic with that I was taken aback.

  3. I found The Master to have shockingly little to express about the 50s, about dependance and post-modern cults. The film is beautifully recreated but aside from the opening section of Joaquin Phoenix drifting from place to place, there’s nothing exciting. The movie goes down the drain when he lands on that yacht.

    And I have to say, PTA talked about Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT when he made the film but aside from obvious recreations and steals in the opening, the film doesn’t explore post-war trauma well at all.

  4. If there were no Paul Thomas Anderson, there could be no Paul Thomas Anderson re-enactments.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    I truly hated this film…but not as much as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, where I found Daniel Day Lewis’s big dramatic climax so ludicrous that I nearly got thrown out of Filmhouse One for laughing so hard!

    Paul Thomas Anderson has become one of the great ‘naked emperors’ of contemporary film. It hurts to say that, as I really liked both BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA.

  6. I’d say DDL’s Big Dramatic Climax is intentionally comic. I don’t know why it should be, but it definitely is. So you were the one responding correctly, David.

    Nice reenactment!

    I don’t think the film can be about post-war trauma since there’s no indication of any wartime trauma. Phoenix seems to have a pretty good time — it’s like South Pacific only without actual dames.

    Given how motivated PTA must have been to trash scientology (he lost friends to its malign influence) there’s something perversely heroic about the way he holds back from turning the film into a straight polemic. But it’s kind of frustrating too, like Oliver Stone trying to be fair to Nixon and Bush… (I’m reading his Untold History of the USA and it’s much more lucid than his movies).

  7. Whoa Mr. Wingrove, don’t hold back! Tell us what you REALLY think.

    I find Anderson a complex mix of the genuinely interesting and ambitious (There Will Be Blood, The Master) and the “Parade Float” poseur (Magnolia, Boogie Nights)

    The grand finale of There Will Be Blood is especially marvelous in its recreation of the Mulholland murder (as big an L.A. criminal event as anything depicted in Chinatown) climaxed by D-D Lewis’ weirdly triumphal cry of “I’m finished!”

    Do try and see The Master in 70mm if possible because this now outmoded form has its visual delights, particularly in the department store sequences — which recreate the department stores of my childhood with letter-perfect accuracy. This is most impressive as PTA is old enough to be my son if I were straight.

    The connection to Altman is plain not only stylistically but temperamentally too, as Anderson was assigned to step into the director’s chair on A Prairie Home Companion had Bob bought the farm during shooting. Consequently he was on the set at all times. Trouper that he is Altman waited for the shooting of his meditation on death to be over before expiring.

    I was “rushed” by the Scientos back in the 60’s when they were hawking their snake oil as a “self-realization” technique. Not wanting to pay taxes L. Ron claimed it was a “religion” (cha cha-cha) The routines depicted in the film are typical of what they were doing back then.

    I’m very much looking forward to his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, particularly as he is collaborating with the reclusive genius on the script.

    Now if we can only get someone to do V (my favorite Pynchon, perfect for Losey — who has alas “left the building”)

  8. It definitely feels like there are two PTA’s, and most people only like one or the other. I think I prefer the recent psychodramas, but both styles rely on leaving a lot for the audience to add, and could be dismissed as incomplete by those who don’t care for that kind of thing. Even the fulsome spectacles have this quality, though there’s so much going on in them it’s more disguised.

    Inherent Vice is an interesting one — I didn’t find the book very exciting by Pynchon standards, though it’s more obviously filmable than most. But any adaptation will have to address the lead character’s resemblance to Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski — the hippy private eye genre doesn’t have room for too many entries.

  9. a) I do believe I would’ve thrown Mr Wingrove out of the theatre myself had he been that insensitive to the other audience members who just possibly might – like me and the hubby – have been experiencing TWBB entirely differently from himself.
    b) The Master was shown in 70mm at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome just a few months ago. A marvellous experience; there were 12 people in the theatre.
    c) ” … figuring out a theory to account for him” ? Why? I don’t understand the need for theories to account for things. I have visions of you leaving a screening room declaring “That’s THAT one done and dusted”. Please explain.
    d) I don’t understand the vitriol with which people who obviously would think of themselves as engaged movie-watchers dismiss or disparage films that, whatever their qualities, have taken weeks, months, years of people’s lives to make/create and which seem worthy of an *objective* consideration. If there is joy and pleasure in the response, so much the better. I saw Elysium yesterday and enjoyed it quite – um – intemperately, but the barrage of contempt with which my wee facebook appreciation was met has found me actually deleting some friends’ posts, so vitriolic were they about Blomkamp’s efforts. As it were guffawing and hootin’ and hollerin’ in the Filmhouse (or Hollywood Arclight in this case) without bothering actually to take into account that my enthusiasm is real, and valid, and I want to share my enjoyment and persuade others that they might enjoy it too (I felt the same about The Purge). God knows what people I don’t know well would have to say, unmediated by ties of affection or blood.

  10. I was approached repeatedly by Scientologists back in the late ’70s -early ’80s, and always with the same schtick: Young woman either coming on to me or asking me to sign a petition and then coming onto me. As soon as the word “Dianetics” was spoken, I knew what was coming. It got to where I was openly rude and answered their questions with nonsequitirs.

  11. My brother took a Dianetics course just out of curiosity, and they sent him “literature” for at least ten years thereafter — long after he’d moved out. So I’m pleased we wasted their resources.

    Godfrey, a) I know Mr Wingrove and he isn’t a cinema boor — but sometimes something strikes you as so funny that trying to stifle a laugh makes more noise than yielding. But I’m absolutely convinced that the film’s grand guignol conclusion is intentionally, grotesquely funny, with DDL’s last line delivered exactly like a small boy on the potty announcing a successful movement. And that’s the point.

    c) I like understanding things, and thinking about movies, and PTA seems to invite this with purposely strange elements in his movies — even the ending of Boogie Nights intrigues and tantalizes.

    d) I’m not a huge fan of ragging on films, and I certainly dislike the bullying reaction when one person’s in a minority — often they’ve seen merits the others have missed. But you must have seen some movies that annoyed you, despite their technical or aesthetic merits. I sometimes get this reaction from Tarantino’s films. I do think being critical is a more advanced approach than being uncritical, and I’m not suggesting shutting off innocent pleasure. I approach every movie hoping to get as much pleasure as possible, and even the pleasure of unpicking a flawed movie can be rewarding.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    Trust me, I was trying NOT to laugh. So hard, in fact, that I almost fell out of my seat!

  13. Well, that doesn’t sound disruptive at all… oh, wait.

  14. I still would put it on a par with laughing at a Marx Bros film. Surely it’s meant to be funny? Am I alone in thinking this.

    Bogdanovich reports watching The Trial with Cybill Shepherd and Welles himself, who guffawed throughout, setting them off laughing also. Cinephiles were turning round in their seats to see what philistines were mocking this great work of art.

  15. @David Ehrenstein

    “The grand finale of There Will Be Blood is especially marvelous in its recreation of the Mulholland murder (as big an L.A. criminal event as anything depicted in Chinatown) climaxed by D-D Lewis’ weirdly triumphal cry of “I’m finished!” ”

    What murder are you referring to? I haven’t found a thing with Google.

    On topic: I’ve seen three times ‘There will be blood’ on the big screen (opening night in Spain, a college screening one year later, the Spanish Filmoteca two-three years later), and every time the majority of the public laughed uproariously though a bit uneasy, me included. The killing and the “I’m finished!” are merely the punchlines to the grotesque humiliation that comes before – a reprehensible asshole delighting in serving the comeuppance to an even more reprehensible asshole.

  16. Hmm, I can’t find it either.

  17. HERE

    See under “History”

  18. A nice thoughtful exegesis of your essays and your reasoning, Mr Cairns (indeed I do, too, dislike much of QT’s output, if not all, but I tend to keep schtum in that instance.)

  19. Thanks, David E, Godfrey H.

  20. I’m OK with the early ones, but even if I disliked them I probably wouldn’t feel the need to rant. The latest two, kind of fascinating though they are, blunder into such important historical areas that I felt the need to explore just why they upset me so much.

  21. @David Ehrenstein: Thanks!

  22. I find the climax of There Will Be Blood hilarious too. “I’m finished” is like the punchline of an elaborate shaggy dog story that’s just taken up 2 hours of your time. I’m all for “serious art” also being funny.

  23. I think movies need a pretty damn good reason NOT to be funny.

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