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).
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.
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.