Few movies from last year generated discussion as extensively as “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson‘s enigmatic epic about a man named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), who returns from World War II as a hooch-making jangle of nerves and falls under the spell of a charismatic cult leader called The Master (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The film was so enigmatic, in fact, that many wanted more – and in a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to get more, thanks to a features-loaded new DVD/Blu-ray release. We got an advance copy and decided to run down all the extra features; it certainly illuminates some of the movie’s dark corners while still maintaining its aura of saturated mystery. Read on for details.
A collection of deleted and extended scenes, entitled “Back Beyond” is the centerpiece of the bonus features collection. It’s a hodgepodge of extra material, put together in a similar manner to “Blossoms and Blood,” which appeared on the “Punch-Drunk Love” DVD. Less a rigid selection of deleted scenes than a kind of sprawl (scored by Johnny Greenwood), it expands the world of “The Master” to include material from the script that didn’t make it into the final film, and other assorted doodles. While ostensibly stuff for-superfans-only, for those that are curious, it gives you a deeper understanding of the world of “The Master” and hints at a version of the movie more interested in narrative and propulsive plot than what ended up in the theaters – an exercise in mood and atmosphere and the way ill feelings hang in the air between people like a cloud of toxic gas.
“Back Beyond” starts off with a title card of dialogue attributed to USS Samuel B. Roberts on September 30th, 1944. The exchange? “How often does a little ship like this sink?” “Usually just once.” We get mostly snippets – Joaquin’s Freddie attempting to light a cigarette on an army ship; The Master telling Freddie that he thinks that he knew him from a previous life (the shot is amazing – holding steady on the two actors while the sea beyond them crests uneasily); lots of stuff with Freddie’s sand wench (including him creating a lifelike vagina); Freddie making hooch using a clump of bread as a filter; more stuff from the New York party, including The Master getting ready for auditng (“We’ll show everyone this isn’t mysticism…it’s science”); Freddie asking Amy Adams‘ Peggy about time holes; that iconic shot from the trailer of Freddie jumping off the ship; Freddie talking to his young crush; Peggy inviting Freddie for a “special presentation” (“He likes to hide, he’s a bit of a rascal”) in which he receives a jacket that makes him a “First Lieutenant of the Cause,” something that mimics the Naval uniforms of Scientology.
The longer sequences add context and scope. After Freddie jumps off the ship, he goes to a local party and falls in with a floozy, who he falls asleep with in the backseat of a car, his face pressed up against her bare breast. “I love you,” he slurs. “I love, I love you.” This is the reason that he misses getting back to his ship on time (bits of which are seen in the final movie), the camera tracking endlessly as he runs along the dock. There’s another wonderful scene where Laura Dern‘s character audits Freddie, telling him about radioactivity and particles of dust, about how clothes and items from a different time period cast a spell. After attempting to ask him serious questions (“Can you recall something hurting you now?”), Freddie just stares at her and says, “I can smell your pussy from underneath your underwear and it’s driving me fucking crazy.”
One of the more delightfully oddball sequences in “The Master” concerned a scene where Freddie and The Master travel into the desert. They retrieve a mysterious box from deep within the earth, which we assume are the materials The Master uses to create his next book. But it’s so out of place that it almost feel like it was beamed in from another, altogether stranger movie. Here that scene is fully illuminated. Rami Malek, as The Master’s son-in-law Clark, explains that in the forties, while recuperating from a war injury (after being dead for seven minutes), The Master had a revelation. He wrote it down. It was the second book. Twelve people read it, “four died, six disappeared.” Worried about the power of the book, The Master hid it. The book contains, “all the secret history, all the facts, all too dangerous…they kill or cure any man who reads it.” After Clark finishes with his story, Freddie asks, “How much something like that worth?” We then see Clark at the dinner table with The Master and his family. “Dad,” Clark interrupts. “Is it possible for books to kill people?” Clark then questions whether or not “Freddie is as committed to The Cause as The Cause is committed to him.” The Master then charges Freddie with the task of guarding the box from the desert, locking him in an office with the box overnight. It’s during this overnight that Freddie plays with The Master’s revolver, something that was memorably used in the trailer. At one point, he opens the box and a plume of fire escapes, adding to the dreamlike quality of this entire section.
Sometimes the footage is overlaid with dialogue – The Master chiding “Man is not an animal;” more of the army psychologist asking Freddie to identify what he sees in the Rorschach ink blots (“A pussy, a lady’s pussy”); the flirty musical number that featured Anderson regular Melora Waters (“A tisket, a tasket, our past lives in a basket”); a cartoon that Freddie watches in the movie theater prior to being summoned to England.
The collection of scenes ends with a rare break – a scene where Freddie and the Master are discussing cigarettes (and constantly giggling) is interrupted with Anderson saying, “Do it again.” They can’t, and keep giggling. Then a title card cuts in: “The End.”
“Unguided Message” might be the most enticing supplemental nugget, an elliptical and odd collection of behind-the-scenes footage. It mostly consists of material either captured by a cell phone camera or a super crappy, lightweight digital camera, that is either being carried or attached to someone on the production. (They are never identified but all the grips and assistants seem to know this person.) The footage is always obscured, never capturing anything truly substantial and we see the actors only fleetingly. It’s still pretty fun though. We watch as cameras track along a dock and a boat filled with personnel tries to keep up. At one point the camera follows Paul Thomas Anderson up a stairwell, with Anderson dangling a smoldering cigarette in between his fingers. Another time an anonymous crewmember jokes that they have laid “396 feet” of crack for a complicated tracking shot. Our unseen cameraman quips, “Why not make it an even 400?” You can never really hear what’s going on in any of the scenes, though because the soundtrack consists of squiggly jazz music and overlapping transmissions from what sounds like the walkie talkies of various crewmembers. A couple of times the behind-the-scenes material stops being video and is presented as a series of stills (which are actually more telling than some of the footage – the best is a black-and-white photograph of PTA, Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all smoking cigarettes). It ends with that shot where most of the cast is in a crowded elevator and… someone farts. Hoffman looks heavenward and groans, “Oh my fucking god.”
While certainly non-traditional, “Unguided Message” still manages to convey what most behind-the-scenes material does – the enormity of the production (for a movie mostly consisting of dudes in rooms, this thing looked huge), the camaraderie on the set (everyone looks really happy) and the technical exactitude that was required. Sure it’s nutty and weird and presented in a way that’s almost alienating, but it does the job. In the most Paul Thomas Anderson-y way possible.
Also included are 12 teasers and trailers – the theatrical trailer that most people saw along with the various teasers that Paul Thomas Anderson cut himself and released online. These are absolutely wonderful and just as hypnotic as anything in the movie. They also include additional material that never made it into the final film, different from the deleted scenes collected elsewhere in “Back Beyond.” It’s fascinating to think about Anderson compiling this material and hypothesizing that it’d get people into the theater, considering how utterly strange it and context-free much of it is.
On the Blu-ray (but not the DVD), too, is “Let There Be Light,” John Huston‘s landmark hour-long documentary on veterans of World War II. Huston is one of Anderson’s heroes and it’s easy to see what he cribbed from this fascinating document. It starts off with a text crawl that says: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” The text goes on to describe how the techniques in the documentary have been “particularly successful in acute cases.” It goes on: “No scenes were staged. The cameras just captured what took place at an army hospital.” There is hokey narration, typical of education films from the time, talking about “human salvage,” and those that “show no outward signs, but they are too wounded… the casualties of the spirit.”
Huston being Huston, some of the sequences are composed gorgeously, and the images are terribly sad. In Janet Reitman‘s terrific nonfiction book “Inside Scientology,” she details how the tenants of Scientology, including Dianetics, seemed particularly helpful and alluring to soldiers who came back from the war and were unable to see psychologists or psychiatrists outside of their initial treatment or mental institutions, because private psychiatric care hadn’t been implemented yet. It’s fascinating to think about and clearly Anderson borrowed from the documentary – the sequences of soldiers being interviewed mimics similar sequences in “The Master” when Freddie is being assessed. This documentary, while occasionally dry and overlong, is essential viewing, fascinating from a historical standpoint and how it relates to “The Master.”
“The Master” hits DVD and Blu-ray on February 26th. We should also add that the movie itself looks and sounds unbelievable – outside of a 70 mm screening, this is the best presentation of the film we’ve seen.