That’s that! (Punch Drunk Love)

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Love Liza (Full Film)

The Master (Film Poster) — Laurent Durieux

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I Am The Night — Brandon Bird

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

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RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014

I suppose our capacity to feel shock and sadness and even anger over the death of an actor—someone who we don’t really know, didn’t know, couldn’t know—comes through an emotional identification. I was shocked at how shocked (and saddened, and angered) I felt when I read that Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his apartment in New York City penthouse.

I first saw Hoffman in 1997, in Boogie Nights, a film I watched so many times in college that it is imprinted in my mind. Hoffman played Scotty, a boom operator whose not-quite-repressed homosexuality erupts in strange emotional moments. Hoffman brought pathos and humor and understanding to the character, and we could look at it like a template for all the work he would do in the decade and a half after. Hoffman shaded even his smallest roles with depth and spirit. His Scotty could have been a leering freak, a grotesque caricature—but Hoffman knew Scotty was more than that—he made Scotty real, a person, a human whom the audience could feel.

Hoffman continued to work with Boogie Nights writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson. In Magnolia, where he again brought pathos and intensity to a minor role: “See, this is the scene in the movie where you help me out”:

Hoffman showed the extension of his range in PTA’s sharpest film, Punch Drunk Love:

But his best work with Paul Thomas Anderson in The Master, where he showcased his deep, penetrating intelligence as Lancaster Dodd:

The Master was one of the few leading film roles that Hoffman got, which perhaps makes sense if you consider the type of character he was often cast into: The creep, the weirdo, the failure, the fat friend, the obsessive. But he brought so much to those roles too, whether it was Phil Parma sneaking Penthouse into his bread order (Magnolia), yes-man Brandt’s repetitive nervous tic (The Big Lebowski), Scotty lunging for a sloppy kiss (Boogie Nights), or Sandy Lyle shooting hoops in the forgettable romcom Along Came Polly. Actually, Along Came Polly is an instructive example of just how great Hoffman could be—he raised the film, was easily the best thing about it, bringing depth to his character (a failed former child actor) and adding the term sharting to the lexicon.

Hoffman was also the best thing about his first major lead role in a film, Capote, where he played the titular writer.

Hoffman played another writer in Charlie Kaufman’s messy postmodernist riddle Synecdoche, New York. Hoffman played Caden Cotard, a theater director whose ambition is to produce a play  so utterly real that it transcends fiction. In his commitment to this project, Cotard essentially misses his own life.

Despite these lead roles, Hoffman will likely be remembered as a character actor, but one who surpasses the, “Hey, it’s that guy” label. He’s a cult actor, and with good reason. His death is so sad in part because  Hoffman felt like one of us: One of the freaks and the weirdos, one of the guys on the margins, awkward, maybe, but also deeply real, with a soul, with an intellect, with talents that might not announce themselves in the form of rippling muscles or perfect hair. He was often the only thing worth watching in bad or mediocre movies (Charlie Wilson’s War and Cold Mountain come to mind), and he elevated good movies to great movies—I don’t think Spike Lee’s 25th Hour could have been nearly as compelling without Hoffman’s sensitive, flawed friend there as an anchor to Norton’s overcharged performance; he also provided a cynical ballast as Lester Bangs to Cameron Crowe’s airy memoir, Almost Famous. Hoffman was electric when playing against type, as in Sidney Lumet’s too-overlooked thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which he played the alpha male with savage aplomb (he’d refine the characterization in some ways for his portrayal of  Lancaster Dodd in The Master).

But as always with these things—and by these things I mean the deaths of the famous, of actors, of musicians, of etc.—always the sadness we might feel is perhaps born of a selfishness—yes, the reminder of my own mortality, your own mortality implicit within the actor’s death, sure, but in Hoffman’s case something more I think, here too—that we know that this guy was great, was Capital G Great, was almost always the best thing in any film he was in, was smarter and deeper than the script often had a right to lay claim to, that he improved anything he was in, that he compelled the viewer’s attention, that he was so young, that he was so, so young, that he still had so many films ahead of him, so many great works ahead of him, so many years ahead of him…

Elevator Outtake from The Master

(A review of the film).

A Riff on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film The Master (Including a Take on the Ending)

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1. I finally saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master last night. I’m going to riff on the film. Fair warning:this riff will contain spoilers—I’ll talk about the film’s final scene, for instance (and if you just want to read about the ending, scroll down to point 23, after the embedded video).

2. The first hour of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done.

3. The Master begins on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. These are the final days of WWII. Navy boy Freddie Quell (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix), solitary from his fellows, pours from a can of the mystic moonshine he brews into a coconut he’s hacked open with a machete. He then drinks the potion and mimes chopping off his hand with the machete. After this, he humps a woman made of sand and jerks off into the ocean.

4. The idyll of the Pacific beach contrasts strongly with Quell’s tortured psyche—it’s clear from the film’s first few moments that he’s borderline deranged, a sex-obsessed alcoholic who was damaged long before the war.

5. Quell is also a profoundly talented chemist (or alchemist) capable of brewing strange cocktails mixed from whatever’s at hand. These potions intrigue Lancaster Dodd (henceforth Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who samples a flask and asks Quell to brew more. Quell says he’ll make Master something different from that first batch, asking him, “How do you want to feel?”

6. “How do you want to feel?”

This question governs The Master, and the film is at its best when probing and plumbing these depths.

7. Back to my second statement: The first hour or so of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done. Freddie Quell is an intriguing figure, a desperate madman who recapitulates the crimes of Oedipus where ever he goes.

He is The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” trying to match faith to the phenomenal world.

He is Jonah, fleeing angry Yaweh, stowing away on a ship.

8. The first scenes of The Master borrow liberally from the Terrence Malick playbook:

The opening scene on the beach strongly recalls the opening of The Thin Red Line, and the subsequent scenes where Quell maybe murders a man and then must run feel like the opening minutes of Days of Heaven.

Like Malick, PTA lets the gorgeous cinematography convey meaning; dialog passes through the background of the film.

9. The dialog begins when Quell meets Master, charismatic leader of “The Cause.” You know of course that Master is based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. It’s worth pointing out that the film isn’t really about Scientology, or cults, or charlatans—although these points are explored, for sure—it’s really about the search for meaning, for stability. For some kind of peace.

10. The friendship—and friendship-as-dialog—between Master and Quell is by far the most compelling part of The Master, and the film’s best scene is a long episode where Master initiates “Processing” with Quell—delving into the man’s founding traumas to purify his spirit. I usually hate to laud actors, but Hoffman and Phoenix are sublime here, fully inhabiting the characters through the scenes deep emotional shifts.

The Master never surpasses this scene.

11. Indeed, the biggest failure of the film is that there’s no moment in its back half that can respond to the Processing scene. The film’s final scene attempts to mirror it in some ways, but the attempt lacks the weight. It’s off balance.

12. I feel the need to preface what I’m about to write by saying very clearly:

Paul Thomas Anderson is an extremely gifted auteur, a filmmaker who has, moreso than perhaps any of his contemporaries, continued in the (anti-)tradition of the New Hollywood films of the seventies. I would rather watch a PTA film than a film by just about anybody.

But:

The guy has a real problem sticking the ending. His films fail to cohere, to transcend the sum of their parts. This might be an editing issue or a plotting issue or something more commercially-driven, like running time. I don’t know.

13. Exceptions to PTA not sticking the ending:

Punch Drunk Love, easily his most concise and focused film, a long short story from a filmmaker who works in sprawling novels.

Possibly Boogie Nights, which sags in the final third but is nevertheless buoyed by an energetic scene featuring Alfred Molina, a mixtape, some cocaine, and fireworks. (This scene is lifted from Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, by the way).

14. For the most part though, PTA’s films swell outside of the margins that their own narratives establish in the beginning of each film (I’m not sure if this sentence makes sense—what I mean is that the films’ endings fall apart w/r/t the films’ beginnings).

In There Will Be Blood, PTA uses a stunning, violent, unforgettable final moment as a punchline to the film. It’s probably what most of us remember, and it’s certainly a great way to close the epic. Still: When I rewatch Blood, I start to become impatient with the film’s meandering after its thrilling opening hour. I start to anticipate the horrific punchline.

15. The easiest example to point to of PTA’s undisciplined sprawl is Magnolia. I can’t think of a film with a stronger opening that so quickly devolves into Altmanesque chaos. Which is the point, yes, I get—but Magnolia, again, is a PTA film which can’t live up to its first hour. (Again, PTA covers over the back end’s sloppiness with a marvelous final scene).

16. So, to return to The Master: I went into the film with high expectations—hoping that this would be the film by PTA that coheres, that is more than just a collection of fantastic performances and amazing scenes. And for the first hour, I was enthralled: I cared deeply about Freddie Quell, found his strange passions heartbreaking, was moved by his bizarre relationship with Master.

And the film is great—it really is—but it’s not as great as I wanted it to be. (Which, yes, I know, says nothing about the film and everything about me).

17. The film’s seams start to show after the magical sea voyage from California to New York. The first few scenes in New York are fascinating (especially when Master is confronted by a skeptic at a party), but as the The Cause moves back West over land, PTA increasingly relies on montages and shorter scenes that seem like placeholders to cobble together the film’s longer sections.

18. The last truly transcendent scene is where Master sings “I’ll Go No More A-Roving,” and it comes at almost exactly the half-way point of the film’s 138 minute running time.

19. All kinds of interesting stuff happens after the “Roving” scene—and PTA seems content to raise more mysteries than he resolves, which I’m fine with—but a long montage showcasing the different Processing techniques of The Cause sucks the energy right out of the film.

20. What follows is a lot of meandering, a lot of unexplained—or worse, unexplored—moments between characters that shift focus away from the relationship between Master and Quell.

21. Maybe I want a longer edit of The Master.

22. Here’s a 20 minute reel of cut footage:

23. And what about the ending of The Master? As I tried to convey in points 13-15, PTA usually closes with a very strong scene or image. With the exception of There Will Be Blood, I’d argue that the final moments of PTA’s films generally depict moments of love, redemption, or reconciliation. The Master fits into this trend. How so?

24. Okay: So The Master is in some ways formally Oedipal.

Quell’s crimes are two-fold: He kills a man who he says reminds him of his father and he has sex with his aunt. The film leaves open the possibility that both of these crimes—crimes he confesses to Master during Processing—are simply displacements for the more direct sins of killing his real father and fucking his real mother.

The Oedipal tensions that underwrite the film are strongly on display in the relationship between Master and Quell: Master is in love with Quell; Quell needs a father figure. All sorts of weird familial displacements ensue between Master’s family members and Quell.

The Oedipal theme also evinces in the film’s motif of breasts, bellies, and other pregnancy images. While not many of The Cause’s ideas are expressed clearly in The Master, the idea that all founding traumas are recorded in/on the soul is made plain several times. Put another way, all people are subjected to traumas that exist in pre-Oedipal, pre-lingual, pre-conscious states.

Quell wants to return to the womb to correct or ameliorate or avoid these traumas. The impossibility of achieving this desire drives him to self-medicate with his homemade brews and to see sex in everything.

The film ends with Quell having sex with a stranger he picks up in a bar. They laugh heartily—another of the film’s motifs—laughter as a measurement of joy, but also dejection, also hysteria, also fear, also irrationality, also no language, just laughter—they laugh heartily, and in a shot that foregrounds his sex partner’s large breasts, Quell begins Processing her.

25. We then get the film’s last line, delivered with laughter: “Stick it back in, it fell out.”

The referent of the “it” is, on the surface level, Quell’s penis, but it also serves as a substitution for Quell himself, who would like to return to a mother, to start again in a new life. (The scene, a riff on Quell’s first Processing with Master, can also be read as the displaced sexual consummation between the two men).

The film’s final image gives us Quell lying down next to the woman made of sand, her huge breasts erect, dominating the shot; he curls into her, peaceful, serene, fetal. The shot is deceptive: It suggests reconciliation or even redemption, but the memory of peace is just one fragment of Quell’s terribly fragmented life. Significantly, the moment comes from the beginning of the film. If Quell is to be reborn and live again—as Master believes all people are—it is clear that he has not transcended his base animal urges.

When Quell awakes, he awakes to trauma.

26. Having riffed on the film’s end, I think the film is probably better than I gave it credit for earlier. It’s a cold Sunday. I think I’ll watch The Master again.

I Am The Night — Brandon Bird