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“The Master” created a sig­nif­icant amount of buzz when the project was announced almost two years ago. The char­acter of Lan­caster Dodd, played by the tal­ented Phillip Seymour Hoffman, was widely known to be based on Sci­en­tology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Given how pro­tective the Sci­en­tol­ogist com­munity has been about per­ceived attacks on its church, many observers expected it to be the most con­tro­versial movie of the year.

Audi­ences expecting a rough treatment of the church, however, would not get one. The “Cause” told of in the film was largely back­ground in a story focused on the friendship between two troubled men.

Despite limited release, the film broke atten­dance records and was expected to do better than this summer’s indie hit “Moonrise Kingdom.” In the weeks since its release, however, the film has quietly died at the box office, and the reason for the slump in atten­dance is not entirely due to the false expec­ta­tions set for the film. Audi­ences came to realize that while the pho­tog­raphy and acting were a pleasure to watch, the film ulti­mately failed on a deeper level.

The  plot centers on two men played by Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix’s char­acter Freddie Quell is a foul-mouthed, alco­holic sex-addict. After pos­sibly poi­soning a man he stows away on a yacht hosting the wedding of Dodd’s daughter. Upon finding out about Quell, Dodd befriends him, and the remainder of the film chron­icles the rise and fall of their rela­tionship.

The per­for­mances by the two leads are def­i­nitely Oscar-worthy and prove that they may indeed be two of the greatest actors of our time. And thanks to director Paul Thomas Anderson nearly every shot in the film was plea­surable to behold as well.

The film, however, remained emo­tionally distant –– and not simply in style. Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” is in it’s pre­sen­tation one of the coldest films I’ve seen and yet suc­ceeded in making me care.  Even when a film’s meaning may seem incom­pre­hen­sible the viewer should be able to expe­rience some sort of emo­tional reaction.

The greatness of film­making lies in the many artistic avenues available to it. Film com­bines writing, acting, pho­tog­raphy, and music while taking advantage of the unique oppor­tu­nities pro­vided by editing and the motion picture. If the script is dif­ficult to under­stand on a first viewing, an intel­ligent audience should be able to have an emo­tional expe­rience based upon any one of these tools at the director’s dis­posal. The sur­re­alism of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” baffles most viewers the first time they see it. Yet Lynch uses the unease and con­fusion created in its scenes to force the audience into a state of despair reflecting that of his main char­acter. Under­standing the literal pro­gression of the story becomes irrel­evant pre­cisely because Lynch suc­ceeds in causing an emo­tional under­standing.

“The Master” has a fairly straight­forward plot, but it it seems Anderson, for all his tech­nical skill, forgot the most important aspect of film­making and art in general: emo­tional res­o­nance.  His char­acters are ambiguous and fail to make up for their ambi­guity. Anderson directs scenes of intense emo­tional con­flict between the two char­acters, but fails to elicit a similar reaction in his audience.

It’s dis­ap­pointing that this same director only ten years ago made the engaging “Boogie Nights” and the moving “Mag­nolia.” The most I can say of his latest effort is that it’s merely inter­esting.

 

                                                hsmith2@hillsdale.edu