Walking In The Light: Illuminating religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER

This article was originally published on Scannain.com

At one point in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix’s drugged-up detective Doc Sportello enters a plush Malibu house, to be asked by his hostess, “Do you like the lighting?” (He responds with a semi-stoned, semi-horny, but quietly emphatic ‘Uh-huh.’). Anderson’s previous film, 2012’s The Master, is all about the lighting. In particular, it’s all about people looking for the light, being bathed in glows and beams, only to wind up darkened and despairing before another light source rejuvenates them anew. One might compare the characters to lizards, but it’s simply too cool a comparison. On a first watch, The Master can feel so intensely cerebral as to seem cold, but rewatches help break the ice. A 70mm rewatch, meanwhile, warms this heady brew until it’s as richly satisfying as any of Anderson’s other masterpieces.

As if you need reminding, The Master is Anderson’s Scientology film, try as it might to sidestep any accusations or similarities. Still, the similarities between Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose preening and oddly-charming gasbag turn here may well be his best) and L. Ron Hubbard are inescapable, while the shadow of Scientology’s auditing sessions looms over the processing used by Dodd’s cultish ‘Cause’. Into the lives of Dodd, his family and closest followers arrives Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran barely maintaining sanity due to PTSD and damage inflicted by his own brand of home-brewed hooch. Phoenix builds on the mania of portraying (a version of) himself in I’m Still Here by playing a man who may never have felt like himself to start. Quell is a neanderthalic hunching Igor to Dodd’s self-important Frankenstein, but they never get to bring a monster to life. The true horror lies in themselves. Their relationship is a cruel symbiosis, at once self-perpetuating and self-destructive. Quell needs Dodd’s guidance, but his basic problems, which are explored to an extent by Dodd’s methods, are never cured, making him feel like a greater failure. This encourages Dodd’s own doubts, whilst strengthening the resolve of his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). A Lady Macbeth in ‘50s garb, Adams brings  a superciliousness and menace to Mrs. Dodd that often gets overlooked in analyses of the film. Her fervour, religious and otherwise, is positively terrifying. It’s been suggested that she may be the real driving force behind the Cause, and there’s nothing in a rewatch to dispel that notion.

The Master
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THE MASTER

As if to rope you in right from the start, the film opens with a shot of the sea. The breaking waters indicate it’s being shot from the back of the ship, with the white foam shimmering in the sunlight, marbling the cerulean ocean. There’s nary a foot put wrong in The Master’s production, but its unsung hero has to be Mihai Malaimare Jr. The rays, beams and myriad other manifestations of light the Romanian cinematographer captures in the glory of 70 millimetre film are key to The Master’s success. In turn, The Master is a key argument for 70mm as a filmmaking tool. As explained by Christopher Bonanos over at Vulture, the wider frame of 70mm film (65mm image, plus an additional 5mm for the soundtrack) captures more detail and more depth. The colours are deeper and more memorable (That opening shot of the water being a prime example), but it’s the little details that you truly savour in a 70mm revisit. Those details can be grim (Flecks of vomit in the beard of a man poisoned by Quell’s brew) or beautiful; it was not until seeing it on 70mm that this writer actively noticed the solitary cathartic tear that runs down Phoenix’s cheek after his one-on-one processing session.

Moments like Freddie’s outburst in the processing session are given extra power by Malaimare’s lighting choices. The ironic thing about these choices is they boil down to a most religious dichotomy: light and dark. When we first encounter Quell, he’s in the sun, but hidden beneath an army helmet, squinting in the shade. Whether natural or manmade, light in The Master is a symbol of hopefulness, abandon and joy. Hardly original, but it’s only when you think about how and when it’s used in the film that the symbolism gains potency. After Freddie is forced to flee his odd job as a farm labourer by running off across a misty, newly-harvested plain, we dissolve to a dock at night. Freddie enters the frame from the left, obscuring the bright lights hanging on a ship in the background. As Freddie walks down the dock, the ship comes into focus. It’s Dodd’s ship, named Alethia. It’s the only source of light in the shot, and Freddie is drawn to it like a moth. Music is playing on board, and people are dancing. He stows away on board, and the ship sails off into the Pacific under the Golden Gate Bridge, a brilliant orange sunrise lurking behind the Marin Headlands. The light is coming.

Conversely, shadows and darkness surround the characters at their lowest ebbs. Freddie’s processing scene takes place in the depths of Alethia, in a dingy room. There’s just enough light to see his features and that single tear. Throughout the film, scenes of light and darkness lead in and out of each other, with the use of either lighting scheme underlining each scene’s narrative rhythm. In the final third of the film, Freddie and Dodd dig up the work that forms Dodd’s new Cause handbook in a desert hideaway. The moment is enveloped in sun-scorched yellow sands, a moment of uncovered joy. The next time we see Dodd, however, he is about to launch the book, but hides away from his audience in an ante room. We see Dodd sitting in a narrow beam from a window, but otherwise covered in darkness. It’s reminiscent of the processing scene, but Dodd is alone, and squints into the light as if blinded by it. This launch should be a happy occasion, but the prospect inhibits him, and may prove his undoing. Anderson plays with our expectations, but always in service of his narrative. A scene in which Freddie and Dodd are put in jail could be seen as a dark moment, but it’s shot in a way to indicate sunshine coming in from a source above the men’s cells. It’s the first moment at which Freddie confronts Dodd about the Cause’s methods, with the lighting suggesting Freddie has uncovered a truth. It’s not blinding, though; this is merely the beginning of Freddie’s emergence from the Cause. Using light as a multifaceted symbol means it is not monopolized by the Cause or any one character. It can be manipulated briefly (Most notably, Quell antagonizes a customer of his photography concession with a lamp in an early scene), but the light is not anyone’s to own.

the-master-amy-adams-eyes
Amy Adams in THE MASTER

The subtleties of lighting aid Anderson in telling this story, and these subtleties shine brightest in the colours of the 70mm presentation. The inquisitive moment in the jail was spurred on in a previous scene when Freddie talks to Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons, whose resemblance to Hoffman is uncanny, verging on eerie). Val bluntly informs Freddie that Dodd Sr. is making the Cause’s catechism up as he goes. Their chat takes place outside on a sunny day, but under the shady protection of a porch. Between bright light and darkened rooms lie moments of doubt, junctions at which Freddie must question what he’s doing with the Cause. This leads into a bigger question: is The Master critical of Scientology? Val’s upfront confession to Freddie mirrors similar declarations from members of L. Ron Hubbard’s family about Scientology, and it would certainly be in keeping with similar themes of corrupted religion in There Will Be Blood, in which the petty greed of preacher Eli Sunday is completely overwhelmed by the capitalist dogma of Daniel Plainview. Yet, there’s no definitive end point in The Master to suggest Anderson has pointed his crosshairs at Scientology. After all, the Cause gave Freddie an epiphany and a refocused purpose, even if it’s only temporary. Rather, Anderson seems to say that a religion/cult/whatever is only as strong as its most fervent adherents. Kierkegaard posited doubt was necessary to maintain one’s faith; Freddie has doubts, but they never allow him to leave the Cause completely. Throughout the film, he has moments of enlightenment and profound darkness, from sunny deserts to cavernous movie theatres. The film ends with Freddie lying under a sexual conquest, in a ray of daylight and quoting Dodd from their first processing session. By this point, he’s left the Cause, leaving Dodd tearily singing behind a big desk. The Cause will go on (most likely driven on by the insistence of Mrs. Dodd), and Freddie will continue his search for answers, like Thom Yorke going through an endless parade of doors in Anderson’s video for Radiohead’s ‘Daydreaming’. Yet, there he lies, recalling the words of the Master in the warmth of a post-coital sunbeam. Once again, the richness of Malaimire’s 70mm artistry speaks volumes. This light isn’t the dazzling warmth of a desert sun, but it’s enough to illuminate the dark blue surrounds of Freddie’s partner’s bedroom. The narrator in Anderson’s Magnolia says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Like the past, and the Cause, the light shines on Freddie when he least expects it.

Review: Wild (2015)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) ascending a craggy hill before stopping to remove one of her boots to see why her foot is pained. She removes the loosened big toenail therein, but not before accidentally knocking said boot back down the hill. She pauses, removes her other boot, angrily sends it down the hill after its comrade and screams in pure vexation. This scene neatly sums up Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club; it serves up pain and anger in an effort to draw attention to itself and the worthiness of the true story on which its based. When is a true story not a true story? When it’s used as awards bait. Wild takes a potentially-interesting story of self-enlightenment and robs it of practically all interest. It means well, in the same way that Eat Pray Love meant well. Whilst not as offensively bland as that film, Wild peddles a similar message to very little effect. If someone does find this adaptation of Strayed’s memoir inspiring, that’s all good and well, but it’ll be in spite of the film rather than because of it.

In 1995, the aptly-named Strayed took it upon herself to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100 mile-journey stretching from the US-Mexico border to British Columbia, hugging the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The film certainly sells the rugged beauty of the trail, brought to vivid life by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. Into the clearing, bag on back, comes our Cheryl. Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, Strayed’s memoir details the personal traumas that led her to undertaking the trail. We get these reasons in flashback, usually when Cheryl is at the apex of suffering. She’ll fall down or lose some vital equipment just in time for us to cut to a woozily-shot scene of Cheryl’s late mother (Laura Dern) being positiviley beatific, or a grungy scene of Cheryl’s wayward exploits with drugs and extra-marital affairs. The latter scenes are particularly jarring, as Vallée exploits Witherspoon’s on-screen nudity with a leery, judgemental eye.

It’s this award-sniffing self-awareness that renders much of Witherspoon’s valiant efforts moot. Wild is the primary weapon in an apparent peroxide-draining career reinvention for the Oscar-winner, dabbling in darker material like Inherent Vice (in which she stars) and Gone Girl (which she produced). Witherspoon opts to go withoutherspoon to play Strayed, and she suffers admirably, but the characterisation of Cheryl is best described as petulant. She whines and moans in the early stages, crawling along under the baking sun. Her whines wouldn’t be out of place in a culture-clash comedy about valley girls falling into puddles of mud. Meanwhile, Hornby is forced to resort to flashbacks to drive the narrative, but it only adds to Wild‘s episodic feel. Dern single-handedly saves these sections with her smile and laugh, even though her character is only missing wings and a halo to complete her angelic image.

In between the punctuating flashbacks, Cheryl encounters all manner of locals and fellow travellers to egg her on. Whether it’s a kindly farmer (W. Earl Brown) offering refuge, or her ex (Thomas Sadoski) sending a care package, Cheryl’s journey isn’t as solitary as it should be. An encounter with a terribly-CG’d fox on a snowy peak will leave punters either confused or amusedly muttering “Chaos reigns” into their popcorn. Wild is full of moments that aim for inspiration, but most ring false. The flashbacks are too corny and/or self-important, and Cheryl is written and played a little too annoying for comfort, hence it’s hard for an audience to truly get involved. The overly-worthy tone and message about self-discovery will only bounce off an audience in a comfortable multiplex. It’s drippily accessible, but anyone who thinks a more measured and lonely journey wouldn’t work onscreen needs to rewatch All Is Lost urgently. Wild is anything but.