Lessons from The Master
I met Paul Thomas Anderson once. It was years ago, in early 2000, when he came to Harvard to discuss Magnolia, which at that point had just entered wide release. At the time, I was a college sophomore working as a film critic for an online startup, and I managed to secure a private interview for after the presentation. Needless to say, I was excited: with the authority derived from a reviewing gig that paid fifty dollars a story, I’d already declared Anderson “the most extravagantly talented director of his generation.” At the auditorium at the Carpenter Center, I watched Magnolia for the second time—I’d go on to see it a total of three times on the big screen—and waited afterward while Anderson took questions from the audience. Standing next to me at the edge of the room was a young, very attractive girl I was positive I knew from somewhere, possibly from one of my classes. I was trying to remember where we’d met, and was on the verge of going up to say hello, when Anderson ended his talk, came over, and gave her a kiss. (It was Fiona Apple.)
Afterward, Anderson and I sat down and chatted for about twenty minutes. For various reasons, the interview was never published, but I still have the original microcassette recording of our conversation somewhere, although I’ve never listened to it since—I have a feeling that I’d be slightly mortified by my own performance. But Anderson was extremely generous with me, and looking back, I can see why: I was only nineteen years old, and Anderson, incredibly, was less than thirty. He was every much as patient and encouraging as I’d hope to be to a college kid under similar circumstances, and I left the interview feeling as if I’d been privileged to hang out with the closest thing I’d ever find to the young Orson Welles. And while I remember only bits and pieces of our conversation, one thing he said earlier that evening stood out: in response to a question from the crowd, he said that he admired Steven Spielberg, and would love to make a blockbuster movie one day that would reach a huge popular audience.
I’ve thought back to that comment more than once over the last twelve years, and after seeing his remarkable new movie The Master, it’s been on my mind a lot. Anderson, clearly, has not taken the Spielbergian route: ever since Punch-Drunk Love, his work has retreated all the more deeply into interiority, introspection, and strangeness. (The same year as Magnolia, I’d see another movie that impressed me just as much, never guessing that its director would go on to achieve Anderson’s dream of making complex, technically ambitious movies on a Spielbergian scale. It was Memento.) The Master may not be his most daunting film, but it’s a work that makes enormous demands of its viewers, although it offers equally considerable rewards: it’s saturated with craft and atmosphere, filled with wholly convincing period detail, and features one of the best performances in any recent American movie. In fact, for all his ingenuity and resourcefulness, Anderson’s smartest choice may have come right at the beginning, with the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, whose recent travails have transformed him into an eloquent, expressive, ravaged actor. It’s a very good movie that I’m going to revisit again and again.
Yet when I think back to his earlier work, and especially the popular ambitions that he once expressed, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. The Master is a deeply weird movie, and it’s likely to alienate many of its viewers, but it’s also weird in more or less the way I expected, with none of the startling surprises of There Will Be Blood. (Its portrait of the cult led by Philip Seymour Hoffman is also slightly unfocused: the rest of the movie is so startlingly specific that it leaves us wanting more information about how this movement really works.) There are moments when the film seems on the verge of breaking out into something larger, but except for a pair of short scenes with Hoffman and Amy Adams, it sticks resolutely to Phoenix’s skewed, peculiar point of view. On its own merits, this works: The Master is manifestly the movie that Anderson wanted to make. But I still miss the teeming, sometimes immature, but always exhilarating variety of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. As I’ve recently begun to understand, these were the films of a young man, and what Anderson is doing now is valuable and important. This may no longer be a world in which his movies can reach a Spielbergian audience. But that’s the world in which I’d like to live.