Mad Men

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The first image you see in “The Master” is not the quasi-scientific religious mountebank played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, you have a long wait, if that’s who you’re eager to see. No, the movie begins with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the movie’s true protagonist, on a South Pacific beach in the waning moments of WWII. Freddie is a batttle-damaged Navy man. His mates have molded a woman from the wet sand on the beach, and Freddie attempts, through joyless but determined masturbation and thrusting, to have his way with it. There is nothing like a dame! (I’m not sure what it means but neither of the leads in this Paul Thomas Anderson film appear to be, um, masters of their domains. There’s a lot of spilled milkshake.)

I’m not sure how good a movie this is.  I think I’m about where AGLFC is. (I had a great Popeye joke lined up for this post, and I was pissed to see he got there first.) And I really want to see the 65 mm print. (Hello, Cinestudio.) The word “painterly’  gets tossed around, but it wouldn’t be wrong here. There’s a shot of Amy Adams (as Hoffman’s wife) visiting Phoenix at night that is straight out of Rembrandt. This is a fabulous-looking movie, but we all wanted another “There Will Be Blood,” and this isn’t it.

The movie does poke, in a very interesting way, at the roots of religious movements — the ones often branded as cults — that rose up in the post-World War II era, when everything given and received, everything traditional, everything established, seemed inadequate. The three great knowledge revolutions — Copernicus, Darwin, Freud — had effectively overthrown Viola Davis.  You is not smart, you is not kind, you is not important. And then World War II. The holocaust and Hiroshima.

Standard issue religion seemed, to some, a little worn and flimsy. L. Ron Hubbard was one of the first to see this. His spiritual system relied on efficacy, machines and an up-ended cosmology. To the person no longer nourished or persuaded by Christianity, he offered something that felt more up to date. Ten years before Sterling  Coopers Draper Pryce he marketed to a new attitude that would worship “the modern” as it had never been worshiped before.

And Freddie is the perfect customer (at first). Before he meets The Master we see him drinking something that trickled out of the Navy ordnance he’s decommissioning. Mmmm.  So much better than coconut milk. The machines have won. They nurse us now. He makes rotgut with paint thinner and chemical sponge squeezings when he doesn’t have to. He’s looking for that metallic taste in his mouth.

I won’t give away the ending, but it struck me as Forsterian and hopeful and human.  Only connect. And not to e-meters.

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6 thoughts on “Mad Men

  1. Richard

    Hubbard’s most famous quote: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion”.

    At worst the critics seems to think it’s a very good film. Except for Rex Reed who is simply tuning up in his review of “The Master” until he gets his hands on “Cloud Atlas” and can deliver another over-the-top diatribe on form and function and high concept subverting genuine human relationships on film and the sterile failure of today’s wannabe auteurs to connect with emotion and sentiment. Wait. Isn’t that all Rex Reed reviews?

    I doubt any real messaging gets lost. The film offers the same religious message as a mashup of Flannery O-Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and The Who’s “Tommy” and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s bio. I doubt anyone attending America’s “Open and Affirming” mega-churches with rock star entrepreneurs as feel-good Pastor sees the charlatan of the day as Dodd. What makes the flim flam work is that 25 years out it can be seen as the crock of crapola it really is but in the moment these hucksters catch enough pop cultural trends to attract fanatics and receive blind adulation.

  2. peter brush

    wet sand on the beach, and Freddie attempts, through joyless but determined masturbation and thrusting, to have his way with it.
    Sincere thanks for the reference. Don’t get around much, and never heard of Anderson’s movies.
    “There Will be Blood” borrowed from the government library for weekend viewing.
    I’d always thought that the expression “to pound sand” came from the activity you describe.
    The phrase originated in the US and although common there, especially the midwest states, it isn’t frequently heard in other countries.

    The version ‘go pound salt up your ass’ is also sometimes used, presumably to heighten the image of discomfort.

  3. Irene

    I don’t think Freddie is necessarily the movie’s true protagonist. For me the psychological drama between the two men is the most interesting part. That scene where they first meet is fantastic. Which one is the master? I don’t think Freddie is a “cauldron of.. lust,” as AGLFC does, but more he’s longing for something he can’t necessarily define beyond what the Master and his world think they are about. Maybe. And/or maybe he strives to get it from them in spite of his awareness of what they’re ostensibly about. I want to see it again and pay more attention to certain scenes. I agree with you about the ending.

    1. Richard

      I’m reminded of ‘Doubt’ in which the tension between Hoffman’s Father Flynn and Streep’s Sister Aloysius comes to a denouement but not necessarily to neat, tidy closure.

      Pundits and Grad Film Journals will play with the Dodd/God and adopted son theme for years. The possibility that the tragedy of evolution runs so deep that mankind can never forget and begin again. That Dodd/God still doesn’t understand the material he is working with and trying to purge and empty and ‘clear’ of its animal past and passions.

      1. Richard

        Pundits and Grad Film Journals will play with The adopted son’s name, Freddie Quell, for years. To Quell–by definition to calm, to silence, to suppress, from OE to Kill/Torture. Then there’s Quelle — the biblical Q source and sayings of Christ. Like the Dodd/God alliteration I don’t think the naming was coincidence but it is abstracted enough to avoid mass media controversy.

  4. ConstantReader

    Worst. Film. Ever. Colin, I sense you walked out sooner than I did, right after the poison concoction scene on the farm. I gave it 55 minutes then had to leave to save my sanity. “There’s 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back” was heard in the lobby at the film’s conclusion. WOM will insure this suck-fest will be out of theatres and on DVD before Thanksgiving. It ain’t no “Fargo”, but it could this century’s Ishtar.

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