Tuesday, February 04, 2014

I saw The Master

twice in the theater. The first time was with great excitement and determination to get to the 70 millimeter, Cinerama Dome experience. I walked out of the movie baffled, frustrated, and a little underwhelmed. There were certainly stunning moments -- the sweep of the camera in the department store scene, the brittle intensity of Amy Adams' performance, the jarring, brilliant exaggeration of Joaquin Phoenix's -- but I didn't walk out of the movie satisfied, and I couldn't figure out why.

After some time I decided to give it another try. I went to see it later in one of the few theaters in town still showing it in 70 millimeter. It was a much smaller space and I sat on about the second row. And this was the movie-going experience I had been looking for. It's a gorgeous movie, and one that, grandiose as its title character is supposed to be, benefits from an intimate space and closer inspection. The movie is, for all its grandeur, an intimate love affair between these two clashing opposites: the damaged drifter needing a leader, and the desperate leader needing a follower.

The second viewing didn't exactly make me fall in love with it. Walking out of that screening, I found it ultimately unsatisfying. Still, I understood it better. I respected it more. It's an ambitious, beautiful, serious and mature work of art. It's aged remarkably well in my memory. And, although it's animated by Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy Quell, thrashing about like the waves that open and close the film, it's also anchored by the late, great master himself, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his powerful gravitas as Lancaster Dodd. He is the master, the father, the protector. All us Freddie Quells of the world need him -- to ground us, to challenge us, and to ultimately leave us wanting, until rebellion and the lure of unknown failures unmoor us once again.

The last movie I saw him in might've been A Late Quartet, which is hardly The Master, but one of those movies made so much better by the talent involved. He's far from the towering Dodd as Robert Gelbart, cheating on his wife, tired of being second fiddle. He's definitely more Freddie Quell, and I remember him in certain scenes from A Late Quartet, looking defeated, truly making my heart ache. He is astonishing in that little movie, and of course I would've expected no less from him.

I've thought of those images of him in the past couple of days. His Robert, so shaggy, wasted, and angry -- a wounded, troubled, serious artist. But also his Lancaster, all calm, stoic, and resigned, full of love and sadness as he tells Freddie Quell, "if you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world."

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