Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Master or The Young Man and the Sea: A Deconstruction of Paul Thomas Anderson's Exquisite Masterwork

Freddie Quell is a bird of the vast, grey, and infinite sky. He drifts through life like dust motes in a shaft of afternoon light. Women, jobs, alcohol, and people in general try to pin him down. To label him, diagnose him, explain him. Put him in the cold dank prison cell we all call a purpose. Many think they have the answers to Freddie, they know what's wrong with him. Whether it be doctors, therapists, or Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Many try, but they all fail. Quell is a character like that of some elusive and far away indecipherable message. One can try and understand him, to grasp him and fit him into a peg in society, but they will fail. When Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was released in 2012, a common criticism was that Joaquin Phoenix's character Freddie Quell did not change, evolve, or develop. He started out a confused and mumbling drunk and then stayed that way throughout the entire movie. What critics failed to realize was that Quell wasn't supposed to change. To have him develop would be completely disregarding everything the film has worked to establish. In fact, in launching this very complaint at the movie critics themselves are falling prey to the exact mistake almost every character in the film made: they tried to put Freddie under an umbrella. This is an impossible feat. He is a man so broken by the war, by life. Left with nothing to do but float drunkenly through the bottomless abyss of this here world we are all prisoner to. Freddie is the unchanging sea. Try as we might, we simply cannot chart his waters. No Captain Cook could ever penetrate through the exterior of him. Philip Seymour Hoffman's last monologue sums it all up perfectly: "Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas. You pay no rent, free to go where you please. Then go, go to that landless latitude and good luck. If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first in the history of the world." Freddie is a seaman, a directionless drifter who is bound by no chains, subjugated by no master. The film opens with a beautiful shot that repeats throughout the film. The flowing vibrant blue ocean. It is breathtaking simple. It is Freddie Quell himself. At another point in the beginning of the movie, Freddie lies down next to a woman he has crafted out of sand on the beach. In what I believe is the very last shot of the film, he once again lies down next to this mysterious sand mistress in an almost identical shot. He has not changed. Held down by no bride, he chooses to lie with the alluring beauty of the sea. I've often hear people complain about this movie in that it is too confusing and has little to say. Hogwash, says I. Anderson awes us and entrances us with his visuals and complex story about cults and religion. Yet, at heart The Master is truly about one man and his quest for ultimate freedom. A man so detached and broken off from the regularity of society he can only drift among the eternal waves of the Pacific. The film takes a look at the effects of war on a single man, but doesn't do it in the same formulaic way we have all seen before.  In many ways, Freddie's inherent wanderlust has made him a better person than most of the characters in the film. He, at least, is outright with his flaws of drunkenness and laziness. He does not hide behind any veneer, nor does he make himself slave to his intricacies and downsides. Everyone else in the film chains themselves to their persona's and auras of perfection they think they have. Amy Adams character looks down on Freddie as a boozer and possible criminal, but is too cold and uppity to see her own problems. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is so trapped in his hubris and power trip he simple cannot realize that he shouldn't try to change Freddie, but that it's really himself that needs changing. The Master in this film is not Dodd, but Quell. A man who in having no master, has become the master himself. Master of living life the way he sees fit. Like an eagle flapping its wings, Freddie glides along the winds of pure freedom and easy living. He is a man out of place in time, for there is no real time for Freddie. He lives outside the boundaries of linear time. His time is an ocean, and he is commander of the ship sailing on its waves. The Master is a beautiful, somewhat misunderstood, masterpiece from the Kubrick of today. An austere and wondrous tone poem that looks at humanity for what we are. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I believe F.Scott Fitzgerald unintentionally sums up the film best.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gone Girl review

Somewhat spoiler-ish review ahead.You have been warned.

There's a particular shot, or shots I should say, from David Fincher's newest film that has stuck with me. The first part is a flashback to when Nick and Amy Dunne (played by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) had just met. Nothing but good intentions and a bubbly school-kid love between them. Amy leans in to kiss him, and the shot is quickly juxtaposed with Nick being examined by doctor at the police station with a tongue press. He gags on it. The juxtaposition perfectly encapsulates Nick's feelings about his marriage. The kiss to the gagging. He went from a love-stricken kid to a petrified husband with his balls held firmly by his rhymes-with-witch of a wife. One could even interpret it as a metaphor for marriage itself. It's a fairly low-key technique Fincher used, but an incredibly smart and effective one. With Gone Girl, David Fincher gets as fun and pulpy he's been since The Game and still is able to elevate his material to more than just a clever genre film. Gone Girl is based on the 2012 novel of the same name. It's a book I regretfully haven't read, I honestly don't mind. The film works perfectly fine without the flashy reveals and shocking twists, but experiencing those for the first time in clear and bloody celluloid is a devilishly wonderful pleasure of its own. Gone Girl is a man's horrible claustrophobic nightmare that quickly escalates into a psycho-sexual thriller of proportions just insane enough to work. Practically every element of this movie clicks excellently. My only real issue with it was some oddly stilted dialogue in the beginning, mainly in the flashbacks to the early relationship of Nick and Amy. The rest of the movie was terrifically written, so I wasn't exactly sure why those early beginning scenes felt so wrong. On further thought, I realized it's because it IS wrong. It shows that even from the start, the relationship between Nick and Amy Dunne is shaky at best. Their interactions aren't thoughtful or genuine. Amy is hiding behind a veneer and Nick is under her sway. Of course their dialogue is stilted, it's just a reflection of their relationship. Gillian Flynn may be writing a trashy crime picture, but damn can she do it well. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the people attached that the film does. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike give magnificent and incendiary performances as the two main characters. Affleck has officially proved himself a terrific actor  (not that he needed to) and gives a fantastic controlled performance here. Throughout the film you can see his character being trapped in by the media and by everyone around him. Watching Affleck act you can really sense the tension and social claustrophobia that surround his character like a suffocating cosmic blanket. He gives such a great performance, that I was easily able to forget how famous he is. As great as Ben Affleck is here, Rosamund Pike is the real star here. She's always been an incredibly solid actress (ex. The World's End) but has never gotten a real chance to shine. I don't know if Gone Girl is David Fincher's masterpiece, but I think it's safe to say it is for Pike. She plays innocent, evil, manipulative, and sexy like no actress I've ever seen. The best comparison I can make is maybe Barbara Stanwyck or Eva Green. If she doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I will be shocked. Again, of course having Fincher behind the camera always helps things. This isn't his best work, but it's definitely up there. It's no Zodiac, but it doesn't need to be. Gone Girl is a different type of movie. One major complaints from Fincher detractors is that he often employs the style-over-substance technique of filmmaking. That's a remarkably off-base thing to say about his films, especially this one. Fincher uses his camera to create a tone so palpable you could cut it with a knife. You can really feel his talent oozing out of this movie. It's wonderful. The movie has loads to say about the intricacies and failings of modern marriage. It's certainly a cynical take, but a bitingly interesting one at that. Flynn also takes a satiric look at media. Imagine Natural Born Killers but a helluva lot more subtle about its satire. In my mind, Gone Girl is Blue Velvet, meets a killer-woman grindhouse picture, meets neo-noir. And it's all done so, so well. Subverting our views of modern society, and giving us a delicious murder story as cinematically filling as a thick steak. Is Gone Girl one of the year's best films? You bet.