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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Limitations of Rebellion in "Django Unchained"

Jamie Foxx as Django

This article was originally published on on Saturday, February 23, 2013:
The spirited antebellum western Django Unchained is nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, and it could win for Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay and for Christoph Waltz’s supporting performance as bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz. (It has won in these categories at the Golden Globes and at the BAFTAs.) Indeed, the script is clever and compelling, with moments that induce giddy delight – like the fact that a notorious, lethal plantation is ironically named “Candieland”, and like the way Django makes known that “the ‘d’ is silent” in his name. These are interwoven with scenes of gripping, slowly-mounting tension. Also, it is true that Waltz is endlessly enjoyable as a wryly articulate, understated assassin. Though not nominated, Jamie Foxx also adds a great deal to the film’s strengths, being undeniably charismatic as the proud, sharp-shooting titular slave who turns the tables on his oppressors, while Leonardo DiCaprio steps outside his normal range of positive role models and portrays cruel, wrathful plantation owner Calvin Candie with surprising gusto. And in a classic, inspired bit of Tarantino casting, Don Johnson puts in a cameo as a genteel, paternalistic slave-owner (whose minions carry out the brutal side of slave-owning while he dresses in white).
There is much that the movie does very well. Most importantly, the fact that Django single-handedly takes on the apparatus of slavery feels thrillingly subversive. Django’s resourcefulness, strength, and sense of dignity are immensely appealing. Though there has been much controversy over Tarantino’s prolific use of the n-word (110 times during the movie, it is reported) the iconography of a heroic, brooding Django who simmers with moral outrage until the time is right to boil over is ultimately much stronger than the word is. We are all encouraged to identify with the iconic, brave Django, to want to be like him, to leave the theater thinking “I am Django” -- to paraphrase the famous “I am Spartacus” line in Dalton Trumbo’s 1960 slave revolt epic.
But as political philosophy, Django Unchained is the opposite of Spartacus. Tarantino is fully committed to the Western movie trope of the stoic lone gunfighter. His hero, like the Western archetype, faces down a horde of villains, dispenses justice, and then, ever self-sufficient, rides off into the picturesque sunset. In this case, he takes his beloved (Kerry Washington), but it is still likely that they are going to live on the edge of society. For one thing, Django’s going to have to go into hiding after all he has done.
Though Tarantino shows plenty of horrors in the system of slavery, making it clear that power over other human beings was maintained by savage violence, he celebrates the rugged individualist principles of the Western genre above all; when Django and his lady ride off together, it doesn’t seem to matter to them that, in the larger world, that system is still in place and slaves all over the South are still suffering.
Tarantino really has no interest in the collective action that forms the backbone of the slave revolt in the sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus. None of the slaves in Django are inspired by the titular character to throw off their own chains. (An astonished chain-gang at the beginning ofDjango does decide to gain freedom by killing the slave-trader transporting them, but it is white Dr. Schultz who gives them that option.) Instead, pampered house slaves continue business as usual even after their master is gone; when they do eventually flee, it is because Django forces them to – and they look just as foolish running in their layers of petticoats as the landed gentry would. The slave women of Candieland are almost all depicted as courtesans – they dislike seeing male slaves murdered in front of them, but like gangsters’ molls, they accept it with an averted glance. Even the talented Washington is in the movie just to motivate Django with her beauty and fragility; her dialogue consists almost entirely of shrieking and crying over her abuses by whites. Though she is described as willful, we never get to see her will in action. She just waits passively and admiringly while Django wages his “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” alone.
Understandably, Django cares more about his wife than he does about other slaves. His romantic quest to rescue her provides an urgent throughline to the movie, and is overtly likened to the German legend of Siegfried and Brunhild. But this mission also brings out  a kind of selfishness in Django. His first use of his new freedom is to strike back against wicked plantation overseers who are whipping a young female slave, but Schultz warns him that his wrath isn’t strategic. If he’s going to save his Brunhild, he has to play it cool and make sure he doesn’t cause trouble, no matter what he sees done to his brethren in front of him. In essence: to get what he wants for himself and his wife, Django has to betray his race. (It is worth noting that Schultz the reserved diplomat isn’t constrained by the same caution. When he explodes in moral indignation, Django and Broomhilda are on the threshold of freedom, and he recklessly destroys their chances.)
Spike Lee took issue with Django Unchained sight unseen because he didn’t think Tarantino could present slavery with sufficient gravitas. In my opinion, the fact that Tarantino tackled such a serious subject actually ought to be applauded, since it shows some personal growth, but it’s true that all that Tarantino panache and effervescence really ends up just in the service of entertainment, of mere diversion. And this is not too much of a surprise considering who made the film.
It was during Pulp Fiction that I began to suspect that Tarantino was not going to be the kind of director he seemed to be in Reservoir Dogs. When hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson were talking and a loose gesture with a pistol accidentally killed their back-seat passenger – and the audience guffawed – it occurred to me that Tarantino might not be interested in using his gifts, which are obviously prodigious, for a very serious purpose. And I realized that I couldn’t relate to the way he found movie violence so supremely amusing. Little did I know how high the body count would climb as his career went on.
The complexity and intensity of the bond between the Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth characters inReservoir Dogs had been deeply moving – at the time, it seemed like Tarantino was going to make movies about human beings. It’s true that Pulp Fiction also had some of those strong relationships between characters – its assets weren’t only its boldness, wit, sense of fun, and structural ingenuity. By Kill Bill, however, he seemed to lose interest in genuine characters and in the human condition. He seemed more intrigued by aerodynamics (of bullets, swords, etc.) than by psychodynamics.
And so he ends up with Django Unchained, a film about an enduring American shame – and a film that frequently lacks insight. The bounty-hunter subplot aligns the picture early on with the Western genre; conveniently hooks Dr. Schultz up with Django; and provides a slave, who would otherwise have no marksmanship opportunities, with the training he needs to become an avenger. It also lets Tarantino have scenes of violence in the pre-plantation half of the movie without alienating audience sympathy from Schultz. This erudite German calmly announces himself as “an officer of the court” and assures us and whoever on-screen will listen that the people he kills deserve to die because it has been so decreed. Schultz comes across as a good guy, an enlightened free-thinker – he abhors slavery, he is willing to share Django’s quest to liberate Broomhilda from bondage, and he knows that novelist Alexandre Dumas’ grandmother was an Afro-Caribbean slave. But he also seems to have absolute trust in law and order, far beyond his appreciation of the money he collects from bounties. The movie doesn’t contradict this faith, either; while being trained as a sniper, Django dispatches, from a great distance, a farmer peacefully sowing his fields -- because he is a ‘wanted man’. It looks not unlike a drone strike, but neither Django nor Schultz have any misgivings about whether the ‘intelligence’ on him is accurate.
This is odd, since Tarantino otherwise shows the society to be fundamentally corrupt and unjust. Not only did the society consider some human beings property, it was also rife with many other examples of oppression -- unmentioned in the film -- such as a centuries-long genocide against Native Americans; the disenfranchisement of women, slaves, and wage laborers; and a system that abused the workforce while it bucked up the railroad and mining companies. It is unlikely that those laws which Schultz prosecutes with such reasonableness and deadly aim were only used to target legitimate criminals like stagecoach robbers. Considering how much of the process was conducted behind closed doors – and how unequal the criminal justice system is even now, when it operates in relative sunlight – one can assume those ‘dead or alive’ warrants were issued, at least occasionally, in order to entrench the existing power structure. But credulity in the bounty-hunter’s legitimacy helps mark the film as a Western. The fact that the genre may have really been propaganda for the U.S.’ westward expansion, for the overpowering of those people who stood in the way (such as Native Americans and Mexicans) and the subjugation of the wilderness, doesn’t seem to bother Tarantino. He loves movies so much, he is tickled by them in such a pure, fan-like way, that it would actually be hard to imagine him coming from a more critical theoretical perspective.
But this issue is nothing compared to Candie’s right-hand man Stephen, a shuffling, obsequious ‘Uncle Tom’ played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a character criticized by many in the blogosphere as an offensive stereotype. I’m not sure that ‘stereotype’ is the right word, however, since Stephen is far from servile underneath his bent-over posture; he in fact turns out to be a power-hungry manipulator who relishes sitting in Candie’s armchair, calmly warming brandy in a glass for himself while he reveals to Candie what he has discovered about Django. He’s not one-dimensional, he’s actually deceptive; he’s a collaborator or colluder who loves to be on the winning side. Moreover, as the story proceeds, he becomes more and more eager to inflict pain on the powerless. His obsession seems to be to beat down anyone who dares raise their head.
Tarantino never asks why Stephen is like this. Is he so molded by his enmeshed relationship with his owner that he has developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome emotional dependency? It’s hard to believe that, no matter how emotional he seems over Candie, since we’ve already seen him swiftly and slyly change tones. Is he so circumscribed in his own life that he has become an unthinking rule-enforcer? Again, there’s a sadistic gleam in his eye which belies this; he doesn’t seem panicked by Django’s liberated attitude, but merely full of hate. Is Stephen so proud and committed to doing his job well that he’ll vigilantly protect Candie from all blows, even threats which emanate from his own people? (A precedent for a character like that exists in Alec Guinness’ British colonel, a prisoner-of-war who loses perspective in The Bridge on the River Kwai.) But if he were delusional that way, you’d think that he’d whole-heartedly embrace the decisions of his Mr. and Mrs., not be disappointed when they interfere with his agenda of black-on-black violence.
Fundamentally, Tarantino doesn’t care what makes the head house slave tick. Stephen shows up because a villain is needed in Act 3 and he needs to be worse than the villains who came before; Django needs to go from the frying pain into the fire. Maybe there’s racism behind the portrait of Stephen (it’s worrying that the character’s name has some similarities to a famous black buffoon of early 1930’s films, the persona of ‘Stepin Fetchit’) or maybe Stephen is just  a plot contrivance. It’s hard to know, because Django isn’t really about slavery or racism, it’s about Tarantino’s one abiding subject: movies.
He has certainly made no secret of his adoration of the blaxploitation genre. Since he’s such an expert on it, however, one would think he might be more concerned about the arguments that were made at the time against the blaxploitation tidal wave. 50 movies in the genre came out between 1971, when the success of the legitimately revolutionary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song inspired Hollywood to cash in with a slew of imitations, and the fad’s end in 1975 – and this glut of cheap and quickly made flicks aimed at black audiences led the NAACP, National Urban League, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join forces in protest. When Junius Griffin, the head of the Hollywood NAACP, coined the term ‘black exploitation’ in a 1973 article, he called it a “form of cultural genocide.” He lamented the black community’s children being “exposed to a steady diet of so-called black movies that glorify black males as pimps, dope pushers, gangsters and super males with vast physical powers but no cognitive skills.” Perhaps in part because these movies operated outside the mainstream, however, Tarantino the former video store clerk has long been fascinated with them, as if he has discovered a secret. He differs from some other directors – like Peter Bogdonavich and the French New Wave filmmakers who started out by writing for Cahiers du Cinéma – artists who embraced what they regarded as old cinematic treasures too, because he is really not a theorist. He doesn’t seem particularly adept at evaluating what the flicks he loves actually mean, or how they fit into a social context; he just gets excited about them. If he were not a director, perhaps he would be a film programmer. In fact, when Django Unchained screened at the repertory cinema he owns in L.A., the New Beverly, it was preceded by an assemblage of trailers for 1970s exploitation movies which he had hand-selected to show the audience some of his influences for the film.
If Tarantino actually was more of a theorist, perhaps he would pay more attention to the fact that for much of the film, Django has to squelch his impulses and allow other slaves to be horrifically murdered in front of him. Though these and similar moments do highlight the barbarism of slavery, at the end of Tarantino’s Grand Guignol opus, the code seems to be: successful revenge cancels out suffering experienced by victims. One can’t help wondering if the violent atrocities against slaves that are included in the film do really exist to condemn the brutality of the culture, or if they serve mainly as strong motivators for the climactic, massively bloody revenge sequence that may be Tarantino’s real aim.
As a paradigm of how to overcome oppression, Django happens to give the worst possible advice, and in an age where our real world is beset by a great many senseless shootings, some of it clearly influenced by on-screen mayhem, one wishes Tarantino had more awareness of what he’s doing. Django runs the danger of encouraging people like Chris Dorner – who, incidentally, saw the film -- to believe that a) murder is justified as a response to injustice; b) it is not self-destructive to try to fight on its own terms a historically violent and richly well-equipped power structure; and c) it is nobler to go out in an attention-getting blaze of glory than to actually do painstaking and largely invisible work on the grassroots level.
Django only speaks to whites; he is never seen forming relationships with other slaves (he barely even has one with Broomhilda, despite all the self-conscious romanticism). He may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary -- he doesn’t bond with others who are oppressed. Though a film about a slave rising up would seem on its face like a left-wing enterprise, Django could just as easily be seen to perpetuate the right-wing mantra that has spread so widely in America: that we are each on our own, that it’s only individual action that is a source of pride, that none of us should identify with any particular caste but should see ourselves as having gotten to where we are purely on our own merits.
Tarantino is in an unusual position because even if all he really wants to do is make movies celebrating B-movies, he is too creative a director and too captivating a writer to operate in counter-culture obscurity. He is instead very much a part of the mainstream – everyone knows his name, more so than they know the names of filmmakers of blandly formulaic fare – and what he puts out there is going to get analyzed. Whether he likes it or not, his films become part of the national conversation. Even if he is constantly signaling that it’s ‘just a movie’, he’s going to fall under fire, sometimes, precisely because he has made ‘just a movie.’

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Unacknowledged "Master": Paul Thomas Anderson, & a film that's not about Scientology

Originally published on Daily Kos on February 9, 2013.

Movie still from The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite film director who isn’t Scorsese. And even then, it’s getting very close. When I ambled out into the light after the L.A. native’s sixth feature, the psychological period epic The Master, I felt like I had just seen one of the greatest American films in a couple of decades. If you haven’t heard much about it, however, that’s because it isn’t nominated for any Oscars in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, or Best Score categories – in all of which cases it was robbed, in my humble opinion. It did still, nonetheless, receive 3 Oscar nominations for the work of each of its principal actors (Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams). The acting was so rich and full it was impossible not to notice, but the Academy has treated the success of The Master’s cast as some kind of fluke, as if they could all just give spectacular performances without the words, story, and characters P.T. Anderson supplied them with in the first place, or the nuanced direction he gave them to guide them through some challenging and unusually-paced material.
One hears a lot about Kathryn Bigelow being snubbed by the Academy this year, and the question of whether this was in reaction to how she depicted torture in Zero Dark Thirty. One also hears about Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, and Tom Hooper being left out of the Best Director category while their films were all nominated for Best Picture (though obviously when there are only 5 directors nominated yet 9 Best Picture nominees, there have to be some exclusions). What’s given little attention, however, is how severely Anderson and The Masterwere overlooked by the Academy (and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) in the top categories. In fact, Anderson was not even part of the “directors’ roundtables” assembled by various news agencies early in the awards season. The reason for this perhaps is that Anderson’s work is so stubbornly idiosyncratic. The Master is even more uncompromising thanThere Will Be Blood; both of these surprising films exist in alternate universes of filmmaking with scant interest in building a story along familiar lines, cutting where audiences expect a cut, or scoring a scene in a way that sounds like other movies.
This weekend, there’s a chance for the British Academy to take a stand for originality at the BAFTAs, as The Master is nominated (once again) for awards for all three of its principal actors, as well as for Original Screenplay. And next weekend, the Writers’ Guild could recognize Anderson’s screenplay at the WGA Awards. However, I’m not sure anyone is holding their breath at this point, since there’s a little thing called “momentum”, and The Masterseems to have lost that, while other, more commercial fare, has surged ahead.
But it is important to note that the title of this review is not strictly accurate. The Master, and Anderson’s impossibly fertile talent, is not completely ‘unacknowledged.’ For one thing, Anderson took home the second highest award at the Venice Film Festival, the Silver Lion, for Best Director. The Venice jury also awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor to both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. And apparently, the jury also wanted to award The Master the top prize at Venice, the Golden Lion, for Best Film, but new rules limited the jury to no more than two awards per film, no matter how exceptional the film. (The third awardThe Master picked up at the City of Canals was from the critics, the FIPRESCI award for the best film in competition.)
The Master has been a critical darling at home, too. Early in the awards season, it picked up a boat-load of trophies from critics’ associations across the U.S. Its wins are noted in the table below. That won’t help anyone in their Oscar pools, but it shows how far apart the critics and the Academy are. And it is worth keeping in mind when The Master is released on DVD on Feb. 26th, two days after the Oscars.
Film Critics Associations Awards:FilmDirectorScriptActorSupporting ActorSupporting ActressD.P.ScoreProd. Design
Dallas-Ft. Worth---------2nd2nd3rd---------
San Diego------WON------------WON---
San Francisco---------WON---------------
To his enormous credit, when Ben Affleck won the HFPA’s Golden Globe for Best Director, he mentioned (in one of a slew of generous speeches he has given in accepting prizes for Argo) that there were great directors who had not been nominated for Globes this year. And then he singled out “Paul Thomas Anderson, who is like Orson Welles.” It is a lovely comparison; indeed, like Welles, Anderson both writes and directs, clearly loves actors, came from an artistically-inclined family, makes excellent and expressive use of all elements of the film medium, creates almost insanely ambitious and utterly original projects on giant themes, and also seems to be a misunderstood genius. (Welles never won an Oscar for directing -- thirty years after he picked up a trophy for co-writing Citizen Kane, the Academy finally gave him an Honorary Award for his body of work.)
The boldness of the fictional biography that is the premise for The Master may be one more reason Affleck likened Anderson to Welles. Like Citizen Kane’s sly portrait of then-living media magnate William Randolph Hearst, The Master bears the incredible cheekiness of speaking truth to power. Welles had to deal with a lot of pressure against his movie from the Hearst papers. Today, the Church of Scientology opposes The Master. They are very disturbed by the thinness of its fictional veneer; and that’s not surprising, since the parallels between Scientology and the religious cult Anderson invented for this film are striking, as are the many echoes between founder L. Ron Hubbard and the movie’s Lancaster Dodd.
While the Church of Scientology seems to wield a fair amount of clout, even just in terms of its Los Angeles real estate, I’m not sure we can blame them for suppressing The Master. On the contrary, if anything, its box office returns might have lowered in part because it didn’t dish about Hubbard much – there probably would have been plenty of people ready to believe the worst about Scientology, especially as the movie’s release came tight on the heels of Katie Holmes’ split from Tom Cruise.
But a film by Paul Thomas Anderson is usually very understanding of its characters, be they porn stars, oil barons, sex-chat addicts, trophy wives, former child prodigies, or misogynistic motivational-speakers who teach men how to “seduce and destroy”. (The latter character was played by Cruise in Magnolia; he and Anderson are said to have remained friends despite how differently they feel about Scientology.) It is unfortunate that Zero Dark Thirty’s filmmakers have recently given the idea of ‘not judging’ a bad name, because Anderson shows how avoiding judgmentalism should be done – not as a cop-out, and not from a credulous distance that allows for disengagement, but close-up, with a glaring light on the characters’ blemishes, and as part of a full and brave investigation which peers inside the characters’ psyches.
At the same time, a moment’s thought reveals how political The Master really is -- American faith-based movements of many stripes have long had a bizarre, enmeshed relationship with the free enterprise system and the film shows, without stressing it too heavily, how much of a cash cow a thought system which promises cures for every ailment, psychological or physical, felt or unfelt, current or “billions of years” old (as Scientologists claim), might well be. The Master delves into the dynamics of spiritual hucksterism and charismatic leaders at a crucial time in our current culture, when these issues are still strong in numerous places besides the Church of Scientology.
Yet this is certainly not a film whose purpose is a simple exposé of Hubbard, or a criticism of cult brainwashing. Anderson has said that it’s really not about Scientology, and I don’t think he’s being coy. At its core, this elegant film is actually about the dynamic between the cult leader Dodd and his devotee Freddy Quill. What they bond over is not as important as the fact that they do bond. Like other father-son types of relationships in Anderson films, this one is complex and mysterious.
If you had not read advance press on The Master, you would have no idea what’s going on for the first few minutes: Anderson makes no mention of the cult (which he will name “The Cause”) throughout the early scenes, but instead immerses us in the desperate, pathetic life of Freddy Quill, a World War II veteran who is so weird he freaks out the other enlisted men as they pull out of the Pacific and return to shiny, materialistic, mid-century America. The tightly-coiled Quill (played with an other-worldly selflessness by Phoenix) is imprisoned by inarticulateness and a lack of control over his impulses; when he stumbles upon Dodd’s traveling cult, he starts to feel like he has been set free.
Dodd (in a magnificently layered performance by Hoffman) shows Quill another life. This suave, benign-seeming philosopher, this hypnotist and sci-fi novelist, wins over the hapless Freddy Quill with his warmth, charm, intelligence, refinement, and, above all, rapt attention. Freddy begins the film as a kind of anonymous Everyman, adrift in a prosperous urban America; he clearly feels alienated, and the psychological assessment the Navy gives him upon his discharge is too standardized and impersonal to be of use. Dodd, on the other hand, immediately treats him as somebody special and pays him the honor of staring deeply into his eyes and into his soul.
It’s mind control, of course, but we can see how it helps Freddy at the same time as it messes with him, how it fills a visceral need he has to belong to some kind of family. Most interestingly, we see that Dodd himself yearns to have someone that needy around. Anderson doesn’t focus on the vastness of the empire Dodd creates; he focuses on Dodd’s power over one person, and how he gets off on it.
Those in the film with some sanity or self-possession can take or leave Dodd’s ideas, even if they are hooked on the power he wields over others. (Particularly ambivalent is his complicated, wholesome-on-the-outside/ruthless-on-the-inside wife, chillingly played by Amy Adams.) But Freddy is so loyal he’ll lash out violently at anyone who so much as looks askance at Dodd or questions ‘The Cause’, and Dodd is thrilled by this. In a telling scene, Dodd learns of a piece of thuggery Freddy has perpetrated. He happens to be sitting in a kind of furniture storage closet, and Dodd is framed sitting on a criss-crossed stack of dark-wood chairs that resemble a spindly, Grimm-fairytale throne. It boosts Dodd’s ego to have a fiefdom, even if it’s just pretend and even if it’s in a closet. But Freddy’s devotion feeds his ego even more, and so Dodd’s rebuke is perfunctory. Underneath, he is delighted that Freddy wants to be an avenging angel for him.
The search for happiness is a recurring theme in Anderson’s films; we can see it clearly in Freddy’s sad case but it is also behind Dodd’s grandiosity and his hedonistic, addict’s personality. It is Dodd’s vanity which will eventually undermine him. The unraveling of his god-like status will be gradual, and low-key -- and the empire will go on. For Anderson, it is enough to show the point when Dodd is no longer Freddy’s “master”. The film, ultimately, is not about Dodd: it tells the story of Freddy finding a Cause, then losing a Cause – and to some degree, gaining himself.
Anderson is terrific at parables of disillusionment and redemption. The Master could have been from Dodd’s point-of-view, making his moral decline into arrogance primarily a cautionary or sensationalistic tale. Or it could have made Dodd evil or venal, perhaps also painted his followers as laughing-stocks to be satirized. But Anderson is too intrigued by concepts of success and happiness in America for that. In Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, each character’s decline is taken seriously, and each figure’s lonely struggle in the night is unique, compelling, unpredictable, and moving. This time around, the film depicts the amazing grace that saved a wretch like Freddy – and also why, in the end, it isn’t enough and can’t stick.
All of this is done in frequently intangible ways, with an experimental score and gorgeous 70 mm cinematography that feels epic without needing a cast of thousands – it is grand in its depiction of characters and behaviors rather than in sweeping panoramas. The large format creates an extraordinary intensity between the actors, which I’m sure was part of the reason this iconoclastic director insisted not just on using film in a digital age, but on using a size of film that is a dinosaur today. Anderson milks that large frame for deep emotion – he trusts his actors and knows exactly when to lock down on a moment and let their eyes fill the screen in a staring contest. Anderson’s rhythms are reminiscent of Kubrick’s unhurried pace, but whereas Kubrick could be dryly intellectual and remote, Anderson is always about human beings first, and there is an abundance of feeling in The Master.
In the end, he has not made a film that mocks or critiques religion but merely one that examines the need for it. It is both fascinating, like a William James study on the psychology of spirituality, and refreshingly honest.