The Master

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Laura Clifford 
The Master

Robin Clifford 

'I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China All to myself alone'           Frank Loesser

Laura:
When we first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, "Walk the Line," "I'm Still Here"), he's steered by two urges only, sex and alcohol.  He's a WWII Pacific Navy man who slurps torpedo juice and humps women on the beach made out of sand. But after losing a job as a department store photographer, then running from a migrant farm camp where another worker's been poisoned by his libations, Freddie stows away on a party yacht whose 'commander,' Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is only too pleased to take the lad on.  Dodd is the founder of The Cause, his own distillation of psychobabble which he sells with a charlatan's charisma and an iron ego, stoked by the staunch support of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams).  Lancaster declares Freddie an animal even as he enjoys his company but can Freddie accept Dodd as "The Master?"

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") follows up the pitched battle between his false prophet and unapologetic profiteer of "There Will Be Blood" with a different kind of dance, one between another false prophet, the fictionalized L. Ron Hubbard, and an unapologetic hedonist, humanity in its basest state.  While the prior film was all rocks and oil, primordial men scrambling into the industrial age, this one's almost romantic, the bliss of post-WWII America full of pregnant promise.  If the push-pull dynamic of Sunday and Plainview was built on hatred, there is love between Quill and Dodd although its pull ultimately is not strong enough when paired with 'processing.'

The power of Anderson's vision is felt right from the onset, his meticulous production crew in confluence with his star's characterization.  Phoenix's physical performance, not unlike a feral Richard III, is introduced in a series of establishing shots.  Set against the unreal perfection of a Pacific isle, the man in a sailor suit hacks at a coconut accompanied by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's ("There Will Be Blood") discordant thrumming. He hangs in a net like an ape, above and separate from his shipmates on deck.  Suited up in a department store, again he is alone, behind a mounted camera yet recalling an organ grinder, his clenched face and hunched, pitched gait still apparent beneath the costume.  But now he's stateside in a hushed marble temple to consumerism where a salesgirl (Amy Ferguson) models a mink.  Freddie gets the pelt but his uninhibited ways cost him his job.

When we first see Lancaster, he's dancing a rumba onboard the Alethia, the borrowed yacht of a patron.  It looks like home to the drunk Navy vet and the next morning he meets his host, unable to remember the night before.  He's told he is aggressive because he consumes too much alcohol.  He's told he's aberrated.  And yet his host appeals to him for more of his alcoholic concoctions and the Kool cigarettes he smokes.  The tempter is tempted.  Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a very different performance from Phoenix, cerebral machinations and flights of fancy encased in surface cool, the occasional self doubt barking out.

The film follows Dodd through a series of locations as he works to build his following and his empire, Freddie in tow as The Cause's cause celebre, a man so broken that fixing him will be the proof of Dodd's pudding.  When Dodd's New York City patron sics the Philadelphia police on him at the home of Helen Sullivan (an excellent Laura Dern), Quell and Dodd are caged side by side, the former in a frenzy as the latter studies, quietly smoking, a pit bull and its master.  It is Freddie who accompanies Lancaster to recoup his unpublished works, dug up in a case in land just as desolate as that which Plainview mined.  Then a congress in Phoenix shows a movement grown so much, its former doctrines are debated.

There is no question that The Cause is Dianetics, but Anderson hasn't set out to chronicle the group.  Instead this seems a study in man's strongest impulses, be they base or spiritual, compounded always by his nature. The filmmaking here is exquisite, not only in its ability to engross us in the manipulations of one man administered on the volatility of another, but in its ability to completely immerse us in another time, from the look of hopeful innocence no longer recognizable in a young couple's portrait pose to a wooden bench cradled in concrete curves (Production design by Jack Fisk with "There Will Be Blood's" art director David Crank).  There are echoes of cinema past here.  In one scene, Dodd dances and sings among a group of admirers while Freddie's gaze unclothes all the women present, including a very pregnant Peggy, and one is transported to the assembled witches' coven of "Rosemary's Baby."   The film was shot on 65 mm film by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. ("Youth Without Youth") adding to its cinematic patina.

And speaking of Peggy, Amy Adams is a vital third here, the pivot between the two men.  At first maternal, Madonna like, Peggy recognizes Freddie's pull on her husband and turns the family against him, her blue eyes turning the demonic black of a focus exercise.  She confronts her husband head on about the attraction while servicing him with her hand, Lancaster the 'writer, doctor and nuclear physicist' reduced to his protege.  There are other women in smaller roles.  Ambyr Childers (TV's 'All My Children') is Lancaster's daughter Elizabeth, whose wedding is celebrated on the Alethia and who is loyal to dad's cause (unlike brother Val (Jesse Plemons, "Paul," "Battleship") who informs Freddie he's 'making it up as he goes along'). Madisen Beaty is Doris Solstad, the sixteen year-old Freddie promised to return to the Madonna to his whores who epitomizes the bright, shiny '50's by literally turning into Doris Day in his extended absence.  He ends in the arms of Winn Manchester (Jennifer Neala Page), the fleshy incarnation of that woman on the beach.  And look out for "The Bad Seed's" Rhoda, Patty McCormack, as New York City socialite Mildred Drummond, a believer in Dodd's tales of past lives.

Oddly, for its bizarre love story, "The Master" only engages emotionally with recognition of things past (that bench!), but its mind games are endlessly fascinating.

A-

The Blu-ray and DVD Combo Pack:

This release includes both a DVD of the film and a blu-ray, both featuring the film in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio.  Set-up includes the usual subtitles for the hearing impared as well as Spanish language subtitles.

The blu-ray also includes some extraordinary extras.  "Back Beyond" may be the most unique presentation of deleted scenes ever included on home video.  A twenty-minute mini-movie has been created that could almost stand by itself, adding subtext and new interpretations of the film, all set to the film's composer Jonny Greenwood's music.  The editing is dreamlike, scenes often set to dialogue from others, and we can see clearly how Freddy Quell abandoned one form of therapy for another.  Highlights include Freddy's illicit swim across San Francisco Bay, the mysteries behind The Master's book and an intriguing performance of 'A Tisket A Tasket' alternating between The Master dancing in the presence of the singer and Freddy's balletic practice drawing a gun.  The whole wraps with an outtake of Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix unable to get past a line without breaking up.  Also unique is an 8 minute featurette which begins following crew peripheral to the shoot then gradually spirals inward towards the actors and director, giving one a sense of the immense undertaking of filmmaking at this level.  Some beautiful production stills are incorporated. Like "Beyond and Back," "Unguided Message" ends with a humorous outtake.  Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired by John Huston's 1946 documentary "Let There Be Light," a black and white film about WWII veterans undergoing psychiatric treatment and it is included here.  These additions allow the viewer more ways in which to consider the film itself.  Theatrical trailers and teasers are also included.

"The Master" is the best American film of 2012 and the Blu-ray combo pack serves it well.  A

Robin:
There is not too much by way of extras in the new Blu-ray release of the under appreciated film, “The Master,” but what is there is excellent. The “outtakes and additional scenes” are seamlessly strung together and this portion flows beautifully from one scene to another. The 20-minute sequences uses the outtakes and additional scenes and edits them into a mini version of “The Master.”

The “trailer and behind the scenes” is done in cinema verite style that follows the preparations needed to make the film with music developed and actors rehearsing. The camera is always moving and is an omni-presence that shows the nuts and bolts of making a movie.

The best thing about the Blu-ray special features is “Let There Be Light”,” John Huston’s 1946 documentary about coming-home soldiers suffering from debilitating battle neuroses. The startling work follows 75 returning veterans from their admission through treatment to discharge, hopefully fully cured. Issues like hysterical paralysis, amnesia and a myriad of other mental traumas that make these men casualties of the spirit are fully explores. The various treatments of the time – therapy, hypnosis, narco-therapy – are shown in detail. We also see how the dedicated psychiatrists, doctors and nurses treat their patients with dignity.

“Let There Be Light” could have been tremendously comforting for the families of the men who were not physically injured by the war but were just as injured in the mind. Unfortunately, the US government decided to pull release of this gut-wrenching documentary because the censors thought it too disturbing. It did not see release until 1981, a quarter century later than it should have. This extra, along with the other materials, is worth the purchase price of the Blu-ray of “The Master.” It is pretty cool that we get the under appreciated P.T. Anderson film, too. I give “The Master” Blu-ray release an A-.
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