– The Master looks great. The early scene set in a San Francisco department store is just a dream of what a high end department store looked like in 1950.
– I talked so much about Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles that I didn’t have time to mention Amy Adams as the L. Ron Hubbard character’s wife as a scary pregnant Lacy Macbeth who is more determined to launch her husband’s cult and crush their enemies than he is.
– An important aspect of movie acting these days is actors molding their bodies through diets, weight lifting, steroids, and so forth. About 98% of this effort is devoted to looking better for lead roles, by trying to add muscle and take off fat. But Phoenix does a great job of molding his body to his character lead role. He’s made himself into a very skinny guy without the muscles we expect now on actors now, even in period roles. But he’s very wiry, all tendons and gristle, a high testosterone but damaged and unhealthy-looking guy. With his shirt off, he looks exactly like a guy who grew up poor and slightly malnourished during the Depression, then spent years in the Navy lifting heavy objects under life or death stress, drinking poisonous torpedo juice for fun, slowly breaking down mentally, but still, after all that, having a motor inside him that gets him into endless trouble in civilian life.
– Among aspects of the L. Ron Hubbard story that are missing is that his Dianetics was an offshoot of Golden Age science fiction. It first appeared in the great sci-fi editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding magazine, and Campbell promoted it heavily. Hubbard always complained about how few pennies per word he got paid for his pulp stories and made clear how much he preferred to be rich than poor. The legend is that Heinlein told him that in modern America, founding a religion was a good way to get rich. (The recent biography of Heinlein says there is no evidence for this story, but it doesn’t strike me as implausible. Stranger in a Strange Land, which Heinlein began working on in 1949 in anticipation of publishing it when morals and censorship were looser in the future, is about a man from mars who starts a new religion in America.)
– Overall, The Master is better than Anderson’s last movie, There Will Be Blood, but I suspect it might not be quite as successful. There probably won’t be an I Drink Your Milkshake moment that goes viral on YouTube. And, it’s close enough in style to Blood that the novelty factor is probably worn off. As Paul Hogan said about Crocodile Dundee II, a sequel has to be twice as good to be perceived as not being worse than the original hit. The Master isn’t a sequel, but having two mid-career Anderson movies now makes it a lot easier to pick out what are the tics and weaknesses of this phase of Anderson’s career. A lot of people are invested in the idea that Blood is a great movie — it had serious support in decade-ending retrospectives as the best movie of the 2000s — so there may be a backlash against The Master as a way to calibrate the overrating of Anderson and Blood. If The Master had come out before Blood, I suspect Blood would be viewed as an inferior knockoff. But, initial impressions usually last longest in the culture.
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