A Masterful Acting Clinic

September 19, 2012

Multiple Pages
A Masterful Acting Clinic

The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in a period piece very loosely based on the origins of Scientology, is a sumptuous viewing experience. Yet nobody at the Hollywood ArcLight theater applauded at the end, a sign that it’s not likely to live up to the immense hopes that film buffs have invested in it.

The movie confirms that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is a wonderful artist who doesn’t have much to say about big ideas. Far worse, he doesn’t have stories to tell.

So don’t go expecting plot tension. The Master is largely a buddy comedy. (I found it frequently hilarious, although that’s a minority view.) Anderson’s framework allows Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix to deliver some of the most stupendous two-man scenes of acting-for-the-sake-of-acting since Sleuth or Midnight Cowboy. Nothing much in the way of story or character development emerges from these encounters, but they are staggeringly accomplished feats of thespianism.

Anderson’s last film, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, was frustrating despite Daniel Day-Lewis’s “I Drink Your Milkshake” hamming as oilman Daniel Plainview.

“Anderson’s framework allows Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix to deliver some of the most stupendous two-man scenes of acting-for-the-sake-of-acting since Sleuth or Midnight Cowboy.”

Anderson’s recent starting point has been to imagine himself in the shoes of a historical character to reproduce with rare aesthetic skill what the world must have looked like in his protagonist’s time. But then Anderson jettisons most of what actually happened to his putative subject. Instead, he obsesses over variations on his favorite theme of father-son relationships, drawing both from his own dad, a failed actor, and the more satisfying father figure he made out of the late director Robert Altman.

Anderson based Blood’s thin plot on the first few chapters of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 roman à clef novel Oil! about California prospector Edward L. Doheny. Unfortunately, Anderson appears to have stopped reading before getting to Doheny’s involvement in the notorious Teapot Dome scandal (not to mention the subsequent covered-up murder-suicide in Beverly Hills’ most expensive mansion, which helped inspire the epochal detective fiction of another LA oil-company executive, Raymond Chandler.) Anderson instead made up an enigmatic little story about his robber baron’s inexplicable loathing for a young, easily ignorable preacher (a wan Paul Dano).

Anderson’s first movie in five years, The Master, has been assumed to be a definitive exposé of the founding of Scientology by sci-fi hack author L. Ron Hubbard. Instead, it’s a surprisingly sympathetic but not terribly insightful work of meandering fiction vaguely drawn from Hubbard.

Anderson curiously chose to set his story in 1950, a relatively sunny and innocent period of Hubbard’s career before his darker impulses and legal persecution had fully transformed the Dianetics fad into the Scientology cult. Merging Jungianism with the General Semantics popular among science-fiction writers such as his friend Robert A. Heinlein, Hubbard offered a talking-therapy competitor for Freudian psychoanalysis. Dianetics and Freudianism were equally contrived and unscientific, but Hubbard’s initial do-it-yourself concoction was much cheaper.

Now that Freudianism has quietly become an ex-obsession that we shall never mention again, America is flooded with moderate-cost therapists. Yet after WWII, America had a shortage of professional listeners outside of the clergy. Hundreds of thousands of veterans had come back with “shell shock,” which today we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder. As always, many civilians had much they wanted to get off their chests. Millions of people like to talk about their private problems, and for some it even helps. And certain individuals such as Hubbard have a knack for drawing out confessions. People like to talk about their bad sides. If somebody accepts them knowing the worst, it forms a bond.

Unsurprisingly, the American medical and psychiatric establishment counterattacked, accusing Hubbard of teaching medicine without a license. Either to gain tax breaks or First Amendment protection or both, Hubbard announced in 1952 that his Dianetics self-help movement was now a religion: Scientology. But that bizarre evolution is mostly just hinted at in The Master.

Anderson doesn’t seem terribly interested in the history of Scientology, but he rightly recognized that Hubbard’s “auditing” would give his two stars an excuse for intense dialogues.

Instead of Daniel Day-Lewis’s lone bravura performance overwhelming Blood, The Master gives us two remarkable turns. We see, as in Blood, an older man with superb diction and a grand manner—“I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.” This time, however, he’s a more jolly, likeable promoter than Daniel Plainview was. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Oscar-winner for Capote) is Lancaster Dodd. His bored son points out that his showman father is just making up his repressed-memories therapy as he goes along, but the charlatan seems to be amusing both his followers and (especially) himself more than he’s hurting anybody.

Instead of Blood’s irrational rage, The Master’s entrepreneur develops an irrational regard for a younger man, Freddie, a mentally defective WWII sailor turned alcoholic drifter who walks like a chimpanzee and isn’t noticeably smarter or more responsible. This central role belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, making a startling comeback from his long performance-art hoax/freakout.

Why does the classy cult leader take a shine to this lout, whose brain has been fried by his Navy years drinking “torpedo juice,” denatured 180-proof ethyl alcohol torpedo fuel? (Civilian life has mostly served to expand the number of ingredients—such as paint thinner, mouthwash, and darkroom chemicals—in Freddie’s moonshine.)

Is it a gay thing? There’s not much evidence one way or another in the film. The main explanation that The Master comes up with is that Lancaster Dodd likes the taste of Freddie’s torpedo juice. A standard shtick in movies has always been characters’ reacting to the jolt of a slug of hard liquor. The Master gives Hoffman several opportunities to do the most titanic post-guzzle reaction shots in history this side of Tex Avery cartoons.

The only real reason the two characters hang out is so Anderson can film long takes of Hoffman and Phoenix putting on acting clinics. These guys are good.

As the friendship develops, the eloquent Dodd subjects the inarticulate Freddie to his various talk-therapy techniques, which in The Master are modeled upon acting-class methods. The loyal Freddie serves as a guinea pig upon whom Dodd can improvise new therapeutic ideas in front of his paying followers. For instance, Dodd has Freddie shuffle back and forth between wall and window for hours, describing everything he touches. It sounds tedious, but Dodd knows that his audience won’t be bored watching this strangely compelling thug.

Anderson may have intended the two characters as a metaphor for the mid-20th-century conflict in movie acting styles between classically trained actors (such as Lawrence Olivier, who won Best Actor for his 1948 Hamlet) and the new method actors (such as Marlon Brando, nominated as Best Actor for his 1951 Stanley Kowalski). Hoffman acts in the grand old style where elocution mattered, while the mumbling Phoenix embodies the Brandoesque future.

Instead of ending like Blood with one character bashing in the other’s skull with a bowling pin for no particular reason, The Master trails off with a nice warm feeling that the two characters are, despite their differences, still friends.

It’s a weak ending to a weak story line. Can’t Anderson just hire somebody to dream up plot twists for him?


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