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Understanding Screenwriting #102: The Master, Robot & Frank, Taken 2, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #102: <em>The Master</em>, <em>Robot & Frank</em>, <em>Taken 2</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: The Master, Robot & Frank, Liberal Arts, Taken 2, Trouble with the Curve, The Racket, The General Died at Dawn, The Fall Television Season 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A bit of old business first. A few days after I sent #101 off to Keith, “AStrayn” added some comments to US#100, although he described himself as a “lurker not a commenter.” I welcome all kinds, but the more “commenters” the better, since the high class readers of this column tend to have very interesting stuff to say. He, as do I, appreciates David Ehrenstein’s comments and rebuttals. AStrayn also was delighted I am going to continue the column, since he has read every one. I hope he has a life as well.

David was back with comments on #101. He thinks Struges could have made up for Grable’s lack of edge in The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend by giving more edge to the other characters. I am not sure that would have been enough. Zoe’s granddad tried that in his direction of Jeanne Crain in Pinky (1949). He let her blandness stand in for a kind of shock at her situation and the intensity of the other characters. It sort of works there, but I don’t think that would work in Sturges’s film, since in the case of Blonde Grable’s character may just seem more out of it than she already does. But it’s certainly something to think about.

And David informs me that Jacques Rivette and I actually agree on something (Winslet’s performance in Titanic). That’s another sign of hell freezing over. Congratulations also to David on his new book on Roman Polanski. Sometime I will tell you about meeting Polanski and Sharon Tate…

“outsidedog” mentions that he found the transcript of the first of the Kasdan-Spielberg-Lucas discussions on Raiders on the Internet. I haven’t seen it, but he says it is easy to find. Well, maybe for someone who is not a Luddite about computers as I am, but I may give it a try. Meanwhile the rest of you can see what you can find.

The Master (2012. Written by Paul Thomas Anderson. 137 minutes.)

Can we all stop thinking about L. Ron and Tom Cruise and just watch the damned movie?: I always seem to have mixed feelings about Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I never saw Hard Eight (1996), but I thought Boogie Nights (1997) was an interesting mess. I remember reading in an interview with Anderson at the time that the script for Boogie Nights was originally much longer than the film, which still clocked in at 155 minutes. It struck me in watching the film that there were several scenes that were obviously intended to be part of a longer film and that Anderson had not gotten around to cutting them, either at the script level or in the film editing, to fit the running time of the film. Some of the scenes with Julianne Moore’s character Amber dealing with her legal problems are the most obvious examples.

Magnolia (1999) was also a sprawling script, but it hung together better than Boogie Nights, not so much on a narrative level but on thematic levels, especially with the recurring Anderson theme of fathers and sons. Plus the deluge of frogs, structured to hit at just the right moment in the running time of the film. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was Anderson’s mostly tightly controlled film and closer to a more conventional film, as if Anderson was saying, “See, I can do that if I want to.” There Will Be Blood (2007) had a sprawling plot, like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but without the range of characters of the two earlier films. Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday were both very emotionally closed off characters, which reduced audience involvement with the story. In terms of its narrative, There Will Be Blood has a lot going on outside of what we actually see in the film, and our suspicions grow that those elements may have been more interesting to watch than those we actually see.

The Master first introduces us to Freddie Quell, a Navy enlisted man in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. You might assume you are back in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), since the photography is gorgeous, but given the sailors frolicking on the beach, you might expect them to break into “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific (1958). But Anderson is of the show, not tell, persuasion, so the sailors make a sand model of a naked woman on the beach, which Freddie proceeds to have simulated sex with. He’s the most interesting, and also most creepy, character among the sailors, and therefore the one we most want to follow. So we do, into post-war therapy. The shots in the group lecture are exactly like the close-ups John Huston uses in his banned documentary Let There Be Light (1945-1948-1980; it was shot in 1945, copyrighted in 1948, and finally released to the public in 1980). Anderson also uses dialogue from Light, slightly varied for this film. And then Freddie is off to a series of jobs he seem unable to keep. If Daniel and Eli are closed off characters, Freddie lets it all hang out; we never know what he is going to do or say. Most of what he does and says is usually the wrong thing for the occasion. As interesting as he is to watch, we sort of want him to get his shit together.

He wakes up one morning on a yacht captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs what we can only call a cult, the Cause. Dodd has been compared to L. Ron Hubbard, but Anderson only uses Hubbard as one of many models for Dodd, and the Cause could be any cult. Anderson is creating his own world here, and if you are paying attention to the film, you will quickly stop making comparisons with Hubbard. Anderson could have simply made this a satire of Scientology, but that is only a very minor element in the film. Dodd is a much more open character than most cult leaders, and the kicker is that he is funny. Not funny in the sense of being satirized, but a character with a real sense of humor. Rumor has it that Anderson and the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Dodd, based the character in part on Orson Welles, and I can believe it. Hoffman as Dodd is absolutely charismatic.

So shortly we get a great two-person scene between Freddie and Dodd as Dodd starts what he calls “processing.” See my comments on Hope Springs in US#99 for how most shrink scenes don’t work and why. The scene here works beautifully for several reasons. It is not strictly speaking a therapy sequence. Freddie does not unload his woes with Dodd nodding politely. Dodd is asking Freddie a series of quick questions, repeating a question when he thinks Freddie is not telling the truth, which is most of the time. We are also well past the half-hour mark in the film, so we are very invested in both Freddie and Dodd. And finally, with Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie and Hoffman, you have two actors at the height of their powers.

Freddie fascinates Dodd, who rightly calls him a scoundrel, and Dodd thinks if he can “cure” Freddie, then it will be a great triumph for him. That’s the film’s plot, for those of you who did not think the movie had one. Eventually Freddie goes through the complete processing experience. Now that should be as compelling as their two-man scene, since it shows a process, something that movies are usually very good at. In fact, this is one of the weakest sections of the film, since it is very repetitive. You will probably get as tired as I did of Freddie crossing the room from window to wall again and again.

Meanwhile we get hints of what is going on outside Dodd’s group. Police show up at one point to arrest Dodd for financial shenanigans. The yacht we saw when we first met him belongs to a rich woman who wants him to pay for damages. The group moves from house to house, each house owned by a member of the Cause. We learn there will be a big convention in Arizona, but it’s in a large storefront office rather than a convention hall. Anderson gives us only what we need to know about the Cause and the outside world as it affects the story, unlike the activities outside the main story in There Will Be Blood. Freddie and Dodd are more interesting as individuals than Daniel and Eli, and they hold our interest. Anderson and Hoffman keep Dodd just this side of absurdity, so we at least half believe in what he is doing. And we hope he will be successful with Freddie.

Freddie runs away from the Cause and returns to see Dodd only several years later. Dodd is now in England, which you would think would not be susceptible to the Cause but apparently is. We get another great two-man scene between Freddie and Dodd. Both are disappointed Freddie did not work out, but his demons are still in control of him. Dodd is sympathetic, but with an edge, and then he begins to talk about time travel and we realize how flaky he is. Is Freddie better off out? With all his demons? Could the Cause have eventually worked for him? We’re both happy he’s out and sorry it did not work out in the group. With Freddie and Dodd we have another of Anderson’s surrogate father-and-son, but done in more depth. The film is also a very American story, with Dodd standing in for any number of movements toward self-empowerment. Americans love the idea that we can make ourselves into better persons, and in this sense The Master is a tragedy, since Freddie has not changed by the end of the film. Except that he is having sex with a real woman rather than a sand model. And he is using some of the Cause’s terminology to seduce her. How much more American can you get?

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