The Master, by a Master, in Masterly 70mm

My wife and I caught The Master last night, in 70mm, in the Grand Lake‘s main, full movie-palace auditorium. If you care at all about quality films, you must see The Master. and if you care at all about how you see them, you should see it in 70mm.

And in the Bay Area, that means seeing it at the Grand Lake in Oakland. It’s the only theater showing the film in 70mm between Los Angeles and Seattle. (I’ll write another post about the theater shortly.)

As I mentioned in When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm, The Master was shot in the 70mm format, which technically speaking means it was shot on 65mm film, to be screened in 70mm (the extra five millimeters are for the soundtrack). The larger film, with a frame nearly three times the size of standard 35mm, provides a less grainy, more detailed image–photochemical high definition. 70mm projection shows more of that detail, and provides a brighter, steadier image than conventional 35mm.

(Many find 4k digital projection superior to 70mm for showing films shot in 65mm. For more on this, see More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection.)

One more techy, geeky comment before going on to the film’s contents: Writer/director imagePaul Thomas Anderson, having chosen to shoot The Master in 65mm, then decided not to use the entire frame. He had the sides of the frame masked off to what looked to me like the 1.85×1, standard widescreen aspect ratio. This seems odd to me, for two reasons. First, he’s not using all of that great image. Second, every other feature Anderson has made was shot in anamorphic scope. He’s clearly at home with a wide aspect ratio.

Okay, on to the film, itself:

As you probably know, Anderson loosely based The Master on Scientology and it’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But this is no more a critique of Hubbard’s cult than Citizen Kane is an attack on Hearst newspapers. It’s the story of two very different men and the strange, dependent relationship between them. One of them is clearly based on Hubbard.

But the other man carries the story. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in the best performance of his I’ve seen) seems about as worthless as a person can get. When we first meet him, he’s a sailor in the last days of World War II. He’s an alcoholic with a knack for creating his own drinks out of stuff no sane person would swallow. If there is such a thing as a sex addict, he is one (in one scene, he imagines all of the women at a party to be naked). After the war, he becomes a drifter whose violent temper keeps him from holding a steady job.

Then he stows away on a very large yacht, and soon finds himself on friendly terms with the yacht’s owner–writer, philosopher, and cult-leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in another of many great performances). Lancaster is everything that Freddie is not. He’s friendly, loved, charismatic, intelligent, and the head of a large family and a larger community. It’s easy to see what attracts Freddy to Lancaster, but harder to see what Lancaster sees in Freddie. Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in the young drifter, or perhaps a soul he can save.

Neither man is trustworthy. Freddy steals from his hosts, and Lancaster runs what he may or may not consciously realize is a scam. Both have short fuses. When a skeptic challenges Lancaster, he bursts out in an angry and intimidating verbal attack. Freddy, on the other hand, attacks with his fists. As he becomes a true believer, he uses violence against those who criticize Lancaster. The cult leader reprimands him for the violence, but not too much.

Amy Adams gives The Master’s third great performance, as Lancaster’s much-younger wife (he also has grown children and jokingly refers to former wives). Sweet on the outside but hard as nails, Adam’s Peggy Dodd is a true believer in her husband’s invented religion, and sees what it needs clearer than he does. (She’s also very pregnant through most of the film.) She warns him about Freddy. She dictates her husband’s book as he types what she says. In one bathroom scene, she almost angrily jacks off Lancaster when explaining what he may or may not do with other women. (I am so glad I first saw Adams in Enchanted; I never could have accepted her in that role if I’d seen her in this film, or The Fighter, first.)

If you’ve seen any of his other films, you know that Anderson is a master at creating characters, writing dialog, and coaching performances out of actors. He’s also a master at photographing them. He has a John Ford-like ability to find the exact right place to set the camera, and in doing so make his characters symbolic archetypes while still being flesh-and-blood individuals. When Freddy recalls the one true love of his life, the flashback includes one amazing close-up of the girl, with focus so tight that her face is sharp but her hair out of focus. Memory fades as it moves away from us.

The Master has received mostly lukewarm reviews, with critics complaining that it doesn’t fully explain Lancaster’s wild, pseudo-scientific theories and suspect therapeutic techniques. I disagree. We see enough of the therapy to see how it works, and hear enough of the theories to realize that Lancaster is a complete crackpot. Besides, the story is about the two men, not Scientology (or, as it’s referred to in the film, The Cause).

The Master‘s other flaw, also noted by many critics, is real. As the story moves along, it becomes obvious that it has nowhere to go. It just putters out, without a real third act. It never becomes bad or boring, but the second half lacks the urgency and discovery of the first.

To my mind, that flaw knocks The Master down to an A-. This is still a powerful and exceptional film.

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