Bellying up to the bar of "The Master"

I slipped comfortably into a full crowd of movie geeks at Cinerama on Sunday night to see "The Master" - Paul Thomas Anderson's latest extended visit to the brain salad bar. While I normally don't venture into movie reviewing here, the overall movie has been lingering in my imagination for the past few days. Especially the imagery in a particular early scene.

To begin by clearing the main rhetorical bar, "The Master" is a daunting and inspired film. This is film making for grown-ups, and there's no easy summary. Or maybe there are too many. I'll nonetheless take a swing at it by saying that it's a movie about the terrible things people do to themselves. Joaquin Phoenix underwent a stomach turning physical transformation as the alcoholic representing one half of the heart of the story. He's a barely tethered wreck - thin as a greyhound and just as high-strung. On the other side of the whole stands an imposing Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He looks like any physical training he's done over the last few years has been limited to repeat visits to the bar - no matter what's being served there. He puts on an acting masterclass as a dynamic charlatan while never dropping the imposing sense that the wheels might come off at any unwanted turn of phrase. They are both very naughty boys, sharing only a temper barely tucked into their perfectly chosen period props. The entire cast and look feels more authentically pulled from 1950s America than anything this side of a Douglas Sirk movie. The storytelling is full of countless challenges, both great and small. If you do see it, go out afterward and talk talk talk about it. I think few filmmakers are better at launching conversation(s) than this Anderson. I think I loved "The Master"...although it will surely be the biggest "love it or hate it" movie of the year. Check back with me for a rating in a week or two. For now, it feels like totally A-grade material.

For my purposes, however, the scene of greatest impact came very early on - after Phoenix's character (Freddie Quell) comes home scrambled and drunk after World War II. He takes a job as a photographer in a department store. This introduction to life State-side begins with the image of a model wearing a full-length mink coat. She approaches customers opening the coat to show the green and blue lining that matches the fabric of her dress. She repeatedly quotes the price with a forgettable  tagline showing that she's just a walking, talking, sexed-up billboard. Soon thereafter we see her drinking Freddie's dangerous homemade hooch with him in his creepy work room - no more fur coat, still wearing the dress, after which the layers get peeled back further in the first of the many of the movie's brazen nude scenes. Some might see all this as just era-specific costuming. Not me, given all the time I spend looking for this specific imagery and the way it continues to be used to evoke post-War America through the following decades. I can (and will) take it a great deal farther in what I'm writing. Still, seeing a talent like Anderson use iconic images on the leading edge of the 1950s is heady stuff. Maybe someday I'll get the chance to ask him - or his production designers or costumers or prop masters or whoever one should go to in pursuing such minutiae - just what he meant to show by having this woman be the first who Freddie gets his hands on.

That's only a small piece of what I took away from this film. Any comments on what worked or didn't work for y'all when you see it would be appreciated. It truly amounts to a trip to the movie-going salad bar - lots to choose from, much of it good for you, some tastes just don't go together for some people. I really do suggest that you load up on what's served by "The Master". But, then again, I'm a sucker for a good salad bar.