On August 3 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, moviegoers were treated to a surprise screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" in stunning 70mm. Anderson and wife Maya Rudolph were both in attendance.
The screening was both public and secret — "The Shining" screened to an almost packed house at 7:30 pm, with an announcement made as the ends credits rolled that any ticketholders were welcome to stay for an encore presentation of Anderson's Venice-selected film. Though 70mm prints have been tested at various theaters around the country for the past couple of weeks (the Aero being one of them), this was the first full screening of the film for an audience, a good month before it premieres in Italy. Reactions soon hit the blogosphere.
"The Master" stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both superb in the film. Twitchy and palpably disturbed, with one eye bulging larger than the other, Phoenix plays adrift seaman Freddie Quell, violent and drunk from practically anything he can procure from the bathroom cabinet. He's sort of a fucked-up early mixologist — combining photo processing chemicals, paint thinner, etc — and one of his potions gets a man killed. Frightened and roaming, Freddie hops aboard a glittering wedding party boat, where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), or "Master" as his waterbound acolytes call him, whose daughter is getting hitched.
Hoffman goes big with this role. His Master is intensely focused, almost cartoonishly charismatic and seductive. But as he brings Freddie into the fold of his teachings, which include pre-birth recordings, past lives and strict emotional self-control, Master proves to be a simmering powder-keg. When he snaps, it jolts you out of your seat. (This nicely matches Johnny Greenwood's percussive, anxiety-inducing score.) Freddie and Master have a symbiotic relationship, where Freddie can feel anchored by Master's stranglehold, and Master can ward off his paranoia (outside groups are increasingly criticizing his methods) by focusing his efforts on such an inscrutable weakling.
Formally, "The Master" is gorgeous. 70mm is the way to see the film, if possible. Anderson nails the punchy colors of early 1950s America (a sequence in which Freddie snaps family photos of wholesome, scrubbed youngsters is particularly spot-on), but also the piercingly bright light of the ocean and waterside towns. A recurring shot of the electric blue water in a ship's wake, like the film's score, serves as a punctuation point after Freddie's emotional breakthroughs.
Stylistically and tonally, "The Master" is of a piece with "There Will Be Blood." The score, the editing rhythms and the simmering violence of the two central characters recalls Anderson's last feature and its monstrous Daniel Plainview. Where "The Master" differs from "Blood" is its narrative drive. Daniel Plainview has a relentless focus that steers the film down a clear-cut, tragic path. Freddie, however, is hazy and aimless, and this film largely takes its structural cues from those meandering characteristics. Many sequences are focused on Master's experimentation on Freddie, vignettes comprised of forced repetition exercises seemingly without end. But does all the drawn-out head-bashing help Freddie? This is what the film is asking.
One last thing: Though much attention will be rightly paid to Phoenix and Hoffman, Amy Adams as Master's wife may have the most revelatory character. Without giving too much away, Anderson cleverly includes a few scenes that cause the viewer to re-think the power structures in Master's universe. It is the 1950s, after all, and wives must stand dutifully beside their husbands, even if something rather different is going on behind the scenes. In this regard, Adams' quiet strength as an actress works beautifully.