The Master: When Cinema Challenged Us

In Film & Television
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As with most Paul Thomas Anderson films, The Master is proving divisive with audiences and critics alike. Most critics laud it—given Anderson’s reputation, they probably feel compelled to do so even if they are disinclined—but even amongst their ranks, it’s not uncommon to read a so-called “positive” review that starts, “majestic… but bewildering and hard to embrace.”

This speaks to a larger issue. We’re at a point in the development of cinema where film-as-entertainment is the norm while film-that-makes-you-think is some kind of aberration that needs to be explained and apologized for.

How dare PTA allow so much ambiguity in this film. How dare he not hold our hands and explain all our questions away. How dare he craft such a meandering, pointless plot that lacks closure. These are the thoughts of the moviegoing audience here in 2012—the undeserving masses who would rather watch Transformers 3 on demand for the umpteenth time than a work of art like The Master in 70mm.

How did it come to this? When did we stop going to the movies to be engaged and challenged? When did we decide to leave our brains in the parking lot before entering the multiplex? Was it the moviegoing public who changed as a result of the avalanche of reboots and sequels we’re subjected to, or did the movies change to reflect a changing audience? Did it result from the development of modern visual effects and the subsequent reliance on spectacle over character and plot? Did it start in the 90’s when the Hollywood studios, one-by-one, became absorbed by multi-billion-dollar corporations with no stomach for risk? Must we go back even further to Spielberg’s 1975 Jaws which ushered in the “blockbuster era”? I suspect it’s all of these things and more. We didn’t arrive where we are overnight.

I saw The Master five days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I didn’t understand it all—it was periodically frustrating—and no, I’m not sure I know what PTA’s overall point was, but I think I might know, and I’ll get a better handle on it after a few more viewings. What I do know is that PTA had a lot to say—that he crafted a film layered with meaning, even if I couldn’t absorb it all in one sitting. The two lead performances were monumental accomplishments for Hoffman and Phoenix. No, they weren’t always likeable, but they were always engaging—and since when is likeability a requirement to appreciate a character piece such as this? Must we have a proxy for Joe-Average-moviegoer in every film? Must we have the barely legal blonde we all want to fuck?

PTA doesn’t want to spell everything out for us. It’s not some oversight or mistake when something is left partially (or fully) unexplained—ambiguity is a purposeful, creative choice on his part. Consider There Will Be Blood: were Paul and Eli Sunday actually two people, or one in the same? There is ample evidence to support both opinions, and that’s the point—PTA has left it up to the audience to form their own opinion. As opposed to simply entertaining us with all the magical moving pictures, he’s engaging us. He’s forcing us to think and arrive at a conclusion—any conclusion—for there is no right or wrong answer.

I know that I’ll be thinking about The Master for weeks to come. It’ll likely creep into my conscious periodically for months beyond that. I’m going to form lots of opinions. Then I’ll see it again, and revise and hone those opinions further. This is not film-as-entertainment—thinking is demanded of you, and I refuse to live in a world where that has to be apologized for. I abhor all the half-praises that can be summed up with the old adage take the good with the bad—”hard to crack, but go for the performances.” Fuck that, and fuck all of you hacks who diminish this art by analyzing it through the lens of mediocrity. Elevate your standards. Expect more. Demand more. If you raise the bar to the level of The Master, we may very well get more films like it.

There’s a place for entertainment—it’s called your living room. The cinema used to be a place where art was exhibited. The only thing The Master has to apologize for is being made several decades too late.

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