My summer with Paul: Reassessing "The Master" (2012)

Thursday night I had the privilege of attending a 70mm screening of The Master at the Somerville Theatre.  It’s actually the third time I’ve seen the film in 70; I was lucky enough to see it projected in that format twice during its original theatrical run at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater.  Those screenings ended up being the high points of the 2012 film season for me.  Until last night, I hadn’t seen The Master again, in spite of the fact that I own a copy of the Blu-ray.  

The film’s spell is just as potent as I remember—maybe even stronger.  Seeing it back-to-back with There Will Be Blood, I’m inclined to say that The Master is the better film, if only by a small margin.  Its twinned performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman remain staggeringly powerful; like Daniel Day-Lewis’ turn in There Will Be Blood, they’re oversized, verging on operatic, but they’re grounded in weird tics and comic touches that feel tossed-off, improvisatory.  (Does Lancaster Dodd call himself a “nuclear physicist” or a “nucular physicist”?)  Compositionally, the film is almost inexpressibly beautiful, and not only because of the high-definition format.  The colors of the costumes and the sets have a creamy texture that feels heightened and saturated, almost hyperreal.  For the first time it occurred to me that Laura Dern’s speech about the aesthetic thrill of recovering one’s past lives (“there’s a different feel to another period in time…even human bodies seem to radiate a different kind of warmth when covered with the fabrics of another age”) could be taken as a metaphor for cinema itself.  Watching The Master is, among many other things, an exercise in time travel in which the postwar era is uncannily evoked.  The world of the film feels somehow more familiar and more distant than your average period picture. 

But the greatness of this film for me still has less to do with its impressive pedigree—A-list actors, gorgeous cinematography, a first-rate soundtrack—than with the emotional intensity it provokes.  It careens from nervous comedy to quiet tenderness, and from there to a kind of haunted disquiet, sometimes within the space of a single scene.  The final confrontation between Phoenix and Hoffman feels as enigmatic, chilling, and sad as ever.  Watching it again Thursday night I found myself moved to tears, just as I was three years ago.  I sensed that I wasn’t alone in crying during that scene—that it had a hold on the whole theater.  Were we crying for Freddie Quell—crying because he is crying as Lancaster Dodd sings goodbye to him?  For the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who now only exists as a ghost projected on a screen?  Was it out of sadness, fear, or simply in response to the sublime power of Anderson’s vision, which somehow, film after film, has managed to find its way into the can without being diluted by any bullshit studio interference?  In any case, the spell still worked.  If this decade gives us a better movie, I’ll be surprised. 

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