Why The Master Is No Master-Piece
It's a reductionist vision of life that was already absurd in the 1950s and that has now been abandoned by almost everyone who is still thinking... except our own artistic and critical elite. Go figure.
I don't mean to pick on this film too much. The acting is amazing. Hoffman is clearly the greatest film actor of his generation. Phoenix and Amy Adams just blow you away. The depiction of the cult leader is wonderfully real in that his madness is obvious but his followers refuse to see. And listen, I was delighted just to see a movie that actually engages with life and the human condition at all — a film worthy of criticizing, if you see what I mean. Nor do I need to hear only stories that re-affirm my world view — I'm not a leftist, after all!
But there's a reason modernism collapsed into the ruinous and stupid-making morass of post-modernism. Ultimately, modernist reality was smaller and seedier than human life as it is lived. As the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici points out in critiquing one modernist novel, "describing the smell of sweat and semen during the act of sex no more anchors the novel to 'reality' than writing about stars in the eyes of the beloved." Likewise a man jerking off to a sand castle with tits is no more a symbol of man's estate than the sacrificial love of Casablanca. Less, if you ask me.
Myself, I attribute the unrealistic smallness of modernism to its secular nature. Without God, as Tolstoy explained, there's nothing left to write about but sex and ennui. But never mind God, I'd settle for a little compassion and respect for the human spirit from our artists. Which The Master simply doesn't supply. It just leaves us feeling sort of drab and, to use a technical phrase, icky. It's not just the unpleasantness of watching actors pretend to masturbate — it's the film's whole masturbatory sense of the universe.
It is interesting that Anderson's last well-reviewed film was the anti-capitalist There Will Be Blood, based on a novel by the socialist Upton Sinclair. Like modernism and Freudianism, socialism too posits a human person smaller than the one we know, a humanity with no dreams but material comfort, a man who lives by bread alone.
All of these ideas are so over — the facts explode them, the moral sense opposes them — but until we find a God that people of today can believe in — a savior for the age of science whom we can embrace with integrity — we will have nothing with which to replace them.
Related at PJ Lifestyle:
Another perspective from John Boot: P.T. Anderson’s Paradoxical Cult Drama The Master