22 September 2015

Cinema Needs Faces

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Don't you just hate people and their big punchable faces. It's just a skin-mask featuring their squinty little eyes, fat noses, and a mouth that essentially just acts a delivery system for their ill-informed and unwanted bullshit. Well- not so, according to director David Cronenberg, who argues that “the essence of cinema is a human face speaking”. That might be a bit rich coming from a man who's made a career from mutating peoples bodies and having Jeff Goldblum's dick drop off, but despite my ingrained sense of misanthropy I can't help but agree with him. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is a perfect example of this with there being almost no obvious plot and about as much action as you'd find in a horny Nun's bed as she lies motionless, alone, and in denial. Unlike most modern movies, there's no superheroes or aliens, no shared universe or exploding buildings. It's just a freaky looking man with a cleft lip talking to a fat man with a moustache and it's fucking amazing.

On its release, The Master was hyped as being a scathing attack on Scientology with the world desperate to stick the knife into that mad alien-loving cult. “Isn't Scientology awful?” people would say! “The way they brainwashed, blackmailed, and bullied their way into a position of being considered a religion is terrible!” Yeah it is terrible, but do you know what else is terrible? The Crusades... they were pretty bad. Hiding known pedophiles to save your reputation is a little evil, isn't it? And cutting off the end of a young baby's cock before having some old bloke kiss it better is surely beyond fucked up? Now I'm not defending Scientology, obviously.. but to a heathen like me, all religions are equally as demented and weird as each other. If you were hoping that this film would be the damaging blow to Tom Cruise and his merry band of loonies then you're going to be gutted because it's not. Instead, this is the story of two men and their bizarre obsession with each other. In the way that Hoffman and Phoenix's damaged characters spend the film alternating between doe-eyed idolisation and toilet-smashing contempt, it's basically a love story. Swap one of the genders, tone down the intensity, and throw in some sex, and structurally The Master could be the kind of film that single girls eat ice-cream to when they're feeling sad. 

Phoenix's character is a twisted fuck of a man, all hunched over and with a face that's so scrunched up that it looks like it's attempting to eat itself. You know those people that spend their days waiting for public transport by intimidating people and shitting themselves? Well, he's not far from being one of them. Hoffman on the other hand is a well dressed, composed, and dapper gent who commands respect from the gullible followers of his weird little cult. Partly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard's fat, bullshitter extraordinaire, it's obvious to see why people would wrongly predict this to predominantly be a scathing comment on Scientology. However it's actually just as much a comment on the post-war America of the 50's with Phoenix's character having had his brain fried through the trauma of fighting for his country. This was obviously back during a time in which PTSD wasn't fully understood, and the government's response to having forced you to shoot bullets into young, foreign boys heads was to suggest you busy your life by starting a chicken farm. As a result, both Hoffman and Phoenix's characters are made for each other with one in need of answers and the other making them up out of shite as he goes.

On the film's release, people seemed to understand why Phoenix's character might be attracted to Hoffman's but were curious as to why Hoffman's might need Phoenix. Having seen it twice now, I think there are two main reasons, with the first being Phoenix's blind, dog-like loyalty, and secondly, his lack of self-awareness that allows him to act like massive psychotic twat. The loyalty is obviously useful to somebody whose entire livelihood depends on convincing other people that you're not a fat, lying charlatan. Phoenix's character is Hoffman's equivalent to the previously researched and regular guest at Psychic Sally's theatre of bullshit, who helps slide everybody else into her sludgy cesspool of belief... For the sake of my legal security I should point out- that view is not mine, but actually of the dead and equally fraudulent psychic Colin Fry, who I've been channeling from the afterlife over the last few seconds.

You could also argue that Hoffman's character might be seduced by Phoenix's loyalty as a way of making up for the relationship he has with his own skeptical son, played by Jesse Plemons. For those who don't know Plemons, he's the guy who played the nutcase in the final season of Breaking Bad and who looks like the Matt Damon puppet from Team America. I think Phoenix's lack of self-awareness might be appealing to Hoffman because below his chubby exterior, it's obvious that there's a rage there that he simply wishes he could let out. On the one occasion that Hoffman's characters claims are challenged, he doesn't argue his case rationally, he simply turns bright pink and screams like a sunburnt hippo that's just sat on its own balls. Essentially Hoffman is the super-ego, with Phoenix being both a representation of his id and an inflation device for his own actual ego. Although considering I only got an E grade in AS psychology, you might want to double check my claim there.

So basically the film really just looks at those two characters, with the drama coming about as Hoffman's character is forced to find a balancing act of expanding his bullshit claims without them crumbling down on top of him. As the film goes on, you can see him straining to explain another one of his discoveries as if he knows that one day he'll go too far and both Phoenix and the world will see him as the Hubbard-esque sack of shit liar that he clearly is. With this in mind, it's therefore to the film's eternal credit that it stars both Phoenix and Hoffman, with the two being at the absolute top of their game. I mean, with his crooked posture and bag of nervous tics, Phoenix is virtually unrecognisable here as the same man that played that sister-shagging ponce from Gladiator. However I suppose it's Hoffman that most people are going to associate the movie with. Not necessarily because he gave the better performance but because the film title refers to his character, his Master is designed to draw the audience in, and of course Hoffman has since tragically kicked the bucket. On 2nd February 2014, Hoffman was found in his bathroom having died doing what he loved... a fuck load of heroin.

In many ways his loss to the acting community is arguably the most tragic since Heath Ledger's back in 2008. Hoffman was indisputably one of the world's greatest working actors and completely deserved to be hailed as being up there with Daniel Day Lewis. I suppose he might've even been more talented really, because he didn't need to live in a forest for six months to get into character and he was able to act whilst his body was screaming to get smacked off its tits. Whereas Ledger died on the cusp of becoming great, Hoffman was allowed a few more years to prove that he actually was and thank god. In his briefer-than-expected career, he spewed out amazing performances such as in both Capote and Magnolia whilst working with many of the worlds greatest directors and Brett Ratner. His career even managed to survive the scabbed over pile of shit that was Patch Adams with the Grim Reaper now understandably working its way through that cast list to ensure there's absolutely no chance of a sequel.

The Master is clearly one of Hoffman's best performances, with him having been slightly involved in the creation of the script. In fact it was actually his idea to make Phoenix's character the lead, which not only works to the benefit of the movie but shows his apparent lack of ego. Say what you will about heroin addicts but they're not known for their vanity. It's therefore worth noting that although this may be Hoffman's best performance, the two characters are so intrinsically linked that one wouldn't work without the other. That's not to say that the movie has nothing going for it beyond those two men, of course. You couldn't ramp up the tension the way this film does if those involved didn't also know how to shoot, edit, or score them. In fact, The Master looks fucking amazing, with its frame being so perfect in terms of colour and composition that you could take a still from almost anywhere and hang it in an art gallery. Although if you're going to do that then I particularly recommend you go for a still from that scene with all the naked women!

The title of The Master might refer to Hoffman's character, but in reality it could pretty much be applied to every single person who worked on this near perfect movie. Cinema is of course a voyeuristic experience and so Cronenberg is right about it fundamentally being about seeing faces spew out their verbal bullshit. Sometimes they might be characters that you can relate to and sometimes they might be the bus-stop lingering oddballs that you simply want to understand. However it's always nice when those faces are presented in a film that's had the shit directed out of it by somebody as talented as Paul Thomas Anderson. For further proof of his genius then feel free to check out Punch Drunk Love in which he actually achieves the impossible of making an Adam Sandler movie that isn't as awful as genocide. The Master offers just a peek into the world of those characters but the appeal really is in seeing them simply sit and talk at each other. To conclude, I think the point I'm trying to make is that actors really are an integral part of a film. Who'd have guessed?! Thanks for reading and see you next time motherfuckers.

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