What Make A Man Are You: The Master, Film Culture, and a Herzog-ian Philosophy

Well this guy over here thinks that movie culture is dead, what do you think? Is it? Andrew O'Hehir argues that the intellectualism and in-depth discussion that was prevalent in film culture in the 1960s is a thing of the past as tv has become the thing we dissect, discuss, find community & look for the meaning in. O'Hehir is right that tv is a more ubiquitous topic of discussion nowadays, the medium we look to as an expression of a cultural zeitgeist, but I think that one reason for this seeming shift is the quality of work being produced in the film medium, as blockbusters reign and philosophical cinematic movements wane, a fact that was reinforced after going to see Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master last night.

P.T. Anderson is a contemporary auteur, the kind of director one would have read a theoretical essay about in the 60s (think Oil, Ego and Progress in There Will Be Blood), whose stylistic content is so signature that one would recognize his work by a mere frame. Despite the possibility for his films to become a locus of intellectual banter- the director even slightly rejecting the idea that something larger is at play-, The Master is a film that we all seem to be discussing the merit of as opposed to the many layers of, and why? Because there aren't really all that many layers to discuss...

The Master follows war veteran Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he wanders through his life and mind; angry, violent, drunk, agitated, hyper sexual- an animal among the "men." As he runs away from life he crosses paths with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure whose creation of a cult-like pseudo-science-religion looks to elevate man into the supreme beings we are meant to be, looking into ourselves and our pasts (and past lives) for the betterment of mankind (and possibly the betterment of Dodd's bank account...) These two men represent the lowest forms of modern existence: one driven by base primal desire (sex, poisons, blood) exacerbated by the horrors of WWII, the other by equally as horrific desires only taking on different, slightly elevated forms of human awfulness (religious power, money, psychological manipulation). There isn't really a story exactly, it's more of a meditation on the way these characters are, and the depths of all of the subjects hinted at (war, religion, psychoanalysis, symbolic forms, Freudian desires etc.) are never really explored or discussed in an intense way...but then again, is that the discussion? The fact that our new myths are all empty, hollow shells of images, the lassoed dragon that Dodd pointlessly expounds on? If this is the case, if the film is in fact an exterior look at the interior of man, the fact that Anderson shot with 70mm cameras, a nearly dead format harkening back to a golden age of cinema, kind of nods at this theme: the false prophets of the screen are just projections of our own imagination, our own interpretations, our own desires as opposed to anything concrete or real. Today's man is a phantom image of urges, you cannot look deeper because there is no depth to the ocean's of our souls or our fleeting digital society (heavy!)- a theme that is again stylistically mirrored in the intensely beautiful blurryness that I was so often moved by as the lush, blue hued 50s style scenes, and Anderson's signature camera flares and haloed lights, whirred in and out of focus (another thing, I think, exaggerated by the 70mm shortened depth of field!).

Hm. Wait a minute. Did I just contradict my own argument here? Maybe I did. Maybe the fact that cinematic culture is so vacuous right now is the very point of discussion that is driving The Master, and culture in general for that matter? A film that could be about the inner workings of man, the torment of war and desire, the turmoil of American existence, yet here told blankly through the actions/surfaces he projects himself upon...through characters as shells of symbols of things as opposed to a more complex exploration of what lies within the meanings of these symbols. If this is the point of the film, to expose the fleetingness of our existence, the falseness and fickleness of what we view as civilization, that doesn't really get us anywhere... I think it is the responsibility of film people- director's, critics, audiences- to instill in cinema meaning, hope, thought, and progression so that we can do the real thing that people like Dodd/Hubbard (or Spielberg and Lucas!) falsely do...We need to create film- and not just film, an entire culture- for the advancement of mankind. We need to make and discuss the types of films that motivate change, not just point out the falseness, or create portraiture (however gorgeous) of potential, but to realize the potential that could make for off screen action and inspiration...and, most of all, not just for the almighty dollar (turns off advertising laddened tv) or for our own ego maniacal desires (exits James Cameron film)...so I guess what I am getting at is that film culture is not dead, and even the films that seem to be representations of how dead it is, make someone like me write an essay like this...! The first step in a new cinematic culture is noticing and accepting what is lacking, a thing The Master does in it's beautiful skimming across the exteriors of what makes our world what it is. The next step is to begin an inquisitive discourse (as found over here!) so as to avoid a(n awful) cultural legacy of Scientology, television advertisements, and plotless films about explosions...I don't want to say that film culture is an expression of progress but thoughtful existence is progressive and sometimes seeing actors passionately become surface-y, symbolic images of eerie power can make you think about what is really going on offscreen...

Note: After writing this I came across this article that I thought was somewhat related...sort of video essays and an essay about Werner Herzog, another director who assures me that cinematic culture is alive & well! The essay is preoccupied with how Herzog develops his own understanding of existence, the Herzog-ian philosophy being one of wonder (and acceptance) of mortality & our inability to find the meaning of life, and doing so through the beauty in existence itself. Our will to live is cushioned by ancient cave paintings, the mystery of bats that live behind a waterfall, a chicken that dances on command, by the very films Herzog is creating. Herzog makes culture and culture (and nature, another Herzog-ian theme) makes our lives worth our infallible death. Again folks, revive film culture to make some lives worth living, to make a life full of thoughtful wonder at the things around us! If not for yourself, do it for Werner! Now, back to the movies!



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.