I’m grateful to David Dark, author of one of my favorite books — The Sacredness of Questioning Everything — for highlighting this article by Tyler Sage on Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master, published at The Los Angeles Review of Books.
It is so refreshing, after reading a storm of hasty reactions, wild accusations, and complaints about this “difficult” work of art, to read such a thoughtful, patient, studious consideration of this film.
Here’s how it starts…
LIKE MANY AMBITIOUS FILMS, P.T. Anderson’s The Master generated a fair amount of controversy when it was released last fall. Some people loved it, some hated it, and many did not seem to know what to make of it. A number of critics, even those who lauded the film, claimed that it included no third act, or was altogether plotless; others dismissed it as either (or both) overwrought or dull. In some quarters, the film was portrayed as a masterpiece. In others, it was portrayed as insufferably highbrow and self-impressed, the kind of movie that makes you feel like an artistic Neanderthal if you don’t “get it.”
On the final point, there’s little ground for productive argument. Many people are antagonistic towards what they see as difficult movies, and don’t go to the theater to be challenged. There’s nothing wrong with this. In terms of the film’s aims and structure, however, it was surprising how misdirected were the complaints of formlessness or incompletion. The narrative of the film is whole and resolved. It is not a straightforward work, nor an easy one; it does, however, present a vision that is coherent and readable. And the most interesting — and least commented on — aspect of the film is that it is an example of what is becoming a clear trend in Anderson’s work: a reaction to the technical capacities of modern cinema, and to our contemporary cultural milieu, that is decidedly Modernist in nature. In this regard, The Master has much to say about our contemporary moment in both film and culture.
I’m not at all surprised that The Master was not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Hollywood and its target audience much prefer something that flatters America (and more specifically, something that flatters Hollywood, like The Artist and Argo). The Academy is more inclined to choose films that don’t need much interpretation or study or discussion, films that give everybody a good time.
In the long view, though, The Master will make the bigger mark on film history. It’s is a film that will still be studied and discussed by artists, film scholars, and moviegoers who appreciate a challenge, for decades to come. That’s why it topped a lot of critics lists this year (including the Village Voice film critics poll, Rolling Stone, Time Out New York, the San Francisco film critics, Dana Stevens at Slate), especially those that exist outside of the culture of Hollywood hype (like Sight and Sound, the Toronto Film Critics Association, The Guardian, The British Film Institute).
I doubt that many of the great filmmakers will point back to 2012 and say, “Argo is the movie that really showed me what movies can do.” But they will say that about The Master.
(Note what Ben Affleck, Argo‘s director, said when he accepted his Golden Globe for Argo: “These nominees are exceptional talents. I truly to God never thought I would be in the same breath as them. I want to thank them, and I want to thank the many talented people that weren’t nominated. Paul Thomas Anderson who’s like, I think, Orson Welles.”)