The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The Master: a Rorschach test that lasts

with 15 comments

How long can you keep a movie fresh in your memory? A few hours? A week? Years?

It never ceases to amaze when I hear film buffs dive into a discussion about a film, going through scenes, shots, actors and other details, to the extent that it sounds as if they watched it yesterday. And when you ask them how long it’s been since they watched it, it turns out that it’s been over twenty years.

My brain works the opposite way. Impressions go right past it. It’s as if my mind is perforated like a pasta strainer. The storage room appears to be smaller than in a luxury sports car. Nothing sticks and a movie can be halfway towards oblivion as early as a week after I watched it.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched The Master and following the usual pattern it should be gone from my memory by now. So I guess it says something about the quality of it that it isn’t. There’s something about it that makes it linger in my mind. It’s as if someone poured out the content of a little container of slowly drying ink. It’s still absorbed by the paper and the shape of the stain keeps changing.

Open for interpretations
The movie is like a Rorschach test, open for interpretations. So what is it all about? Well, as opposed to Joaquin Phoenix’ character, I wouldn’t insist on that every image in fact is about sex. Equally I don’t read it as a symbolic representation of the modern America, as some have suggested.

In fact I don’t read all that much into it apart from what we actually see.  It’s the story about a shell shocked former soldier, a severely damaged soul I wouldn’t like to meet in a dark alley since he’s prone to suddenly become unreasonably aggressive. By accident he comes across an emerging little sect and is drawn into its world and towards its charismatic leader. There’s something about him that keeps him from becoming a completely devoted follower. Will he or won’t he break free? And if he does, will this necessarily make him a happier person?

In normal cases I don’t talk much about what direction a movie takes towards the end in order not to spoil it. The Master is pretty spoiler safe in this aspect. The ending is a blurry spot of ink that you can read anyway. I decided for a glass that was at least half full, if not more. I was fairly optimistic about his future, that he eventually would gain a reasonable control over his own life and become a master of his own. But you could probably find support for a different conclusion, that his mental disorder is incurable and that he’ll live on a life in confusion, with an unhealthy obsession of sex and occasional outbursts of unpredictable aggression

The Master is the kind of movie that begs you for revisits. I would happily come back again to it, to enjoy the cinematography, which is stunningly beautiful, even if you haven’t had the opportunity to see it in 70 mm format, to once again be captured by the score and – above all – the outstanding acting performances. There’s nothing wrong about Daniel Day-Lewis, but I honestly wish that the Oscar had been given to Joaquin Phoenix.

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US 2012) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

March 13, 2013 at 7:40 am

Posted in The Master

15 Responses

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  1. Nice review Jessica. Hopefully checking this out soon. I’ve heard so many polarising opinions over it, I’m looking forward to making up my own mind.

    • Thanks Terry! I hope you’ll enjoy it. It’s not an action packed straight forward story, but just relax and enjoy the cinematography and acting and I think you’ll appreciate it.


      March 13, 2013 at 6:54 pm

  2. Great review Jessica and I’m so glad to see you rate it so highly. I gave it top marks and consider the best film of 2012. You’re absolutely spit on about how it lingers long in the memory. I watched it a few weeks back and I still can’t shake it off. Not that I want to, mind you. It’s a stunning piece of work. I haven’t seen Lincoln yet but I find it hard to believe that Day-Lewis (who I adore by the way) is any more deserving than Phoenix for Oscar. His performance here is probably the most powerful I’ve seen in recent years. Possibly since Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

    Mark Walker

    March 13, 2013 at 10:38 am

    • Thanks Mark! I definitely loved it and now I’m ready to check out yours! Phoenix was stunningly good. It was in no way an actor performing an act. He had transformed into this character. Must have been a gruelling experience…


      March 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm

      • Phoenix was certainly stunning. That interrogation scene was gruelling stuff and it had me squirming in my seat. Such a powerful moment from an overall very powerful film. I’m seriously considering this entering my personal top ten. I’ll wait till I’ve watched again though.

        Mark Walker

        March 13, 2013 at 10:08 pm

  3. Solid review Jessica. I am in the camp that finds this film to be somewhat of a disappointment. I didn’t find it nearly as important as it wants to be. In fact I felt it was pretty lightweight. I know PTA always deals with a variety of things under the surface of his films, but here (for me) he didn’t spark much thought at all. It is a visually stunning film and Phoenix was brilliant. It may not sound like it but I did like the film. I think I gave it 3.5 out of 5. It just didn’t impress me nearly as much as his last effort.


    March 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    • Thank you Keith! Well at least we can agree on the beauty of it and the brilliant performance! I can see why you would stay a bit cold to it. It’s not exactly inviting to everyone.


      March 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm

      • Oh absolutely! No one can ever question the visual artistry or willingness to take chances of Paul Thomas Anderson.


        March 13, 2013 at 6:59 pm

  4. Excellent review, Jessica – really interesting post. I’ve not seen this yet – it’s on my list, and good to know you think so much of it. I’m really looking forward to a viewing now!


    March 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    • Thank you Gerogina! I really think it’s worth checking out. If you can’t see it in a theatre I hope your screen at home is decent (my isn’t, so I’m glad I watched it away from home.)


      March 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm

  5. I hear what you are saying about being “open for interpretations”, but I feel like I must stop holding back and join keith as a voice of dissent. As a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson (‘Boogie Nights’ being my favorite film of all time, and ‘There Will Be Blood’ certainly being in my top 5 of the last decade), I saw ‘The Master’ on 70mm in September and revisited it again on Blu Ray (including the montage of deleted scenes) this week. Originally, I gave it a B+ (tied for the lowest grade I have ever given to a PTA film), and I would not change the grade upon re-viewing. Overall, I found the film to be a collection of individual sequences that are strong (in terms of performance and cinematography) but never really come together as a whole. The editing (between reality and dream sequences) seemed uncharacteristically clumsy. And PTA seems to put a certain distance between the characters and the viewer that I do not think serves the film.

    I also find all of the selective straining among professional reviewers to be a bit disturbing (e.g., Dana Stevens devoting TWO reviews to trying to love ‘The Master’ while summarily dismissing and even giving away the ending in her review of a film like ‘Killer Joe’). It’s almost as if a lot of these reviewers approach the film with the same attitude that they approached ‘Tree of Life’ – that is, “I don’t know what he’s doing, so it must be art.” I can embrace films that are dense and beg the viewer to peal off the various layers (e.g., ‘Synechdoche, NY’), but there is a fine line between having a film that reflects a coherent vision (even if not a coherent plot) and a film that is simply a mess, and I think that PTA has crossed the line into the latter.

    I am actually encouraged that PTA will be leaving this phase (‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘The Master’) to take on something a bit more pulpy (‘Inherent Vice’) – like the wonderful ‘Punk-Drunk-Love’ (2002) was a palette cleanser of sorts following ‘Magnolia’ (1999).

    Steven B

    March 13, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m actually a little bit of a sceptic myself towards movies that require several viewings to be palatable. Having heard about Dana Stevens initial issues with this one I feared that it would be beyond my comprehension, like some esoteric movies I’ve watched the last year, for instance Alps and Holy Moters. There’s a limit of how much vague artefulness I can take without a story to hold on to. But for some reason – against all odds – this one worked for me. Maybe I was just floored by the pure skill in the craft it shows.


      March 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

  6. I’m sure everyone will get something different out of this. Personally I appreciated the acting and cinematography, but the story just couldn’t keep me interested. Happy to hear you got a lot more out of it.


    March 14, 2013 at 9:47 am

    • I really liked it. I think it helped that I watched it on a big screen in a wonderful theatre. It looked gorgeous.


      March 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

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