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Here’s a little factoid about myself that will, no doubt, make me a bit of a pariah in this day and age: I’m a firm believer in the auteur theory of filmmaking. I know…I know: it takes a village to make a film, right? How dare that one person put their name on the project multiple times! An Alan Smithee film? What a massive jackass! Were it not for the gaffer, camera op, best boy, boom operator,  makeup artist, set designer, PA, editor and craft services folks, there would be no film! Rabble rabble rabble!!

All out of your system? Feel better now? Good to hear. Now, let’s go ahead and take a little closer look at what I believe. No film gets made without the able support of every department, crew member and actor: this is a stone-cold fact. Unless you’re a one man/woman band, you will need other people involved. However…and this is the big however, folks…a truly great, singular, one-of-a-kind film requires a very strong central vision. There are lots and lots of truly great films out there, with more being made all the time. There are also, however, certain films that exist outside of time and space, films that are almost without peer: Kubrick’s 2001; Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; Scorcese’s Taxi Driver; Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. There is a reason that these films are so seldom separated from their creators: these are the work of auteurs and are as much a creation of these singular individuals as they are of all those who worked on them.

As I mentioned, the auteur theory is particularly unpopular nowadays, mostly because we seem to have so few true auteurs left. One modern filmmaker that easily fit within this old tradition, however, is the inimitable PT Anderson. Over the course of six feature films, Anderson has explored several aspects of the American Dream, along with the inter-connectedness of all things. My first experience with Anderson was ’97’s Boogie Nights, a film that quickly became one of my all-time favorites. He’s bounced around over the years, landing on some spots that I loved (Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood), along with one that still has me confounded (Magnolia). Aside from that other Anderson (Wes, for those who just got here), PT is one of those filmmakers that can always provoke chills and awe from me. Any new PT Anderson film is a reason to celebrate. This, then, brings us to Anderson’s most recent film, The Master.

The Master bears the onus of being only the second Anderson film (along with his debut, Hard Eight) that I failed to see in theaters. To be honest, I actually neglected to see the film until this past Friday. Hoping to make up for such an egregious oversight, I decided to dedicate the whole day to the film, allowing my mind to soak up and focus on as much PT as possible. By the end, however, I must be honest: while The Master is a good film, it really doesn’t add much to Anderson’s already impressive canon.

Ostensibly, The Master is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Freddie, for lack of a better word, is a mess. We first meet this potentially insane navy-man during the tail end of World War II. Freddie’s the kind of guy who humps sand sculptures and can make booze out of anything, including torpedo juice. Cut loose from the only world that makes sense, Freddie is pushed head-first into a world that has no idea what to do with him. A terrifying outburst in a shopping mall ends his photography career, just as an unfortunate incident involving homemade moonshine ends his career as a migrant farm worker. Freddie is a mess, a roaring monster made up of only an id, a penis and a shot liver. At the bottom of a very tall barrel, Freddie stows away on a luxury boat, one night, and discovers his purpose in life: Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Dodd, the charismatic leader of a cult called The Cause (despite what many remarked upon the film’s release, I can see only the most surface/basic parallel between Dodd’s Cause and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology: basically, they’re both cults) becomes fascinated with Freddie’s untamed, animalistic nature and deigns to take him under his wing. Over the course of many years, Freddie becomes one of Dodd’s most loyal acolytes, before the whole thing eventually goes ass over tea-kettle, leading to a resolution that’s nowhere near as apocalyptic as There Will Be Blood but just as final.

Unlike Anderson’s previous films (with the possible exception of Hard Eight), The Master seemed to exist more as a series of pleasurable moments than as a unified whole. The acting, across the board, is phenomenal, particularly in the cases of Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams (as Dodd’s long-suffering wife). The film has a clean, almost vintage look which suits the material to a t. There are several inspired scenes (Freddie imagining every woman in a packed room nude; Dodd yelling “Pig fuck!” to a packed room as if suddenly struck with Tourette’s; Freddie picking cabbages with other migrant workers and then violently defending himself when one falls ill from his moonshine). Ultimately, however, The Master felt too inconsequential to me, too weightless. There was none of the sense of a large world and its interconnected consequences that one felt in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Even There Will Be Blood, which The Master’s intimate character study most closely resembles (although the resemblance isn’t especially close), had a sense of a larger world and how it affected the characters contained within. The Master, for all of its scope, is really the story of Freddie Quells, an aimless drifter looking for some sense in this world. Phoenix does wonders with the role, no doubt about it, imbuing Freddie with so much realism that you’ll swear you’ve met this guy before (hopefully you weren’t this guy). It’s always a pleasure to watch Hoffman work: he has to be one of the most under-rated actors working in film today.

At the end of the day, The Master is still a good film. When compared to much of what came out last year, it stands head and shoulders above the competition, possessed of the kind of cool, calm grandeur that PT Anderson could probably create in his sleep. When measured against the rest of his mighty output, however, The Master seems uncomfortably slight: Boogie Nights may have seemed garish and candy-coated but it was also a full meal. The Master feels, conversely, like the palate cleanser between courses.

 

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