Two things, before I get going: (1) Yes, I am aware that the title of this piece is wackily long-winded, and (2) If you’re worried about potential spoilers for The Master — which I certainly would be, too, if I hadn’t been given the generous opportunity to see it a month in advance by the Music Box Theater — you should feel wholly comfortable to continue reading along, because the goal of this article is exclusively to process things that are not related to the film’s plot, construction, story development, etc.
As you’ve surely heard by now, Paul Thomas Anderson lit a cinephile spark earlier this month by unveiling his There Will Be Blood follow-up to an unsuspecting Santa Monica audience, and he pulled a similar, albeit somewhat less secretive, stunt this week by bringing the film, in 70mm glory, to Chicago. I was fortunate enough to be in front of my MacBook when tickets went on sale Wednesday evening, and wasn’t surprised in the slightest upon learning that they sold out completely within a matter of two hours.
Unsurprisingly, too, was the fact that what transpired Thursday evening — to be a stickler, it did stretch into early Friday morning; the screening started roughly 20 minutes after the scheduled 10 PM kick-off — was more than a mere screening for a soon-to-be-released film. It was a rich moviegoing experience, from the time I arrived, 90 minutes early, to the time I left, when the fevered crowd — which included people like Michael Phillips and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky — was every bit as palpable as it was during the pre-screening wait, during which dozens of passers-by begged for last-minute tickets.
The word immediately out of the screening — and, as I gather, this was also the reaction in Santa Monica — was that The Master was remarkably difficult to process. Indeed, most people who tweeted an instant reaction did so mainly express their befuddlement, and a good number of attendees went so far as to not even attempt to put together a coherent reaction to the film. As Jeffrey Wells pointed out on Friday, the aforementioned Vishnevetsky, whom I consider to be one of the smartest critics out there, settled for a simple joke about the film’s attention-grabbing costuming. (It’s ironic, meanwhile, that the wardrobe was the aspect singled-out by Vishenvetsky, because he himself showed up to the event sporting a hilariously out-of-context American Airlines vest.)
To be perfectly honest about it, I made the decision beforehand that I was going to be reviewing The Master fairly soon after seeing it. And that’s how it turned out. I put together a tweet review only minutes after coming out of the film, arrived home, went to sleep, and then woke up about six or seven hours later to get to work. The review I ended up writing — which I like, if that counts for anything — went up Friday afternoon, both here and over at The Film Stage.
Much of what I read afterwards carried an intense negativity. (The Film Stage’s audience is a good deal more expansive than that of this site, so most of the direct comments I received regarding my review can be found over there.) One person criticized my use of the word “pungent.” Another seemed to imply that my (admittedly confused) admiration for the film stemmed from a “hero worship of PT Anderson.” And a third commenter expressed a distaste for the fact that my review didn’t discuss the specifics of the film’s relationship to Scientology, and was therefore “futile” in helping him or her make a decision as to whether the film was worth “[plunking] down $9 bucks to sit through.” (I’ll say this one in plain English: It’s worth $9.)
I responded to all of these remarks with varying degrees of encroachment. It’s tough, writing a review this soon, because the people you’d ideally like to engage in a conversation with on the film’s qualities haven’t seen the film, so what you instead get is a lot of people searching the web for ways to spread negativity. To quote one final customer, from Charlie Schmidlin’s The Playlist review, “The film nearly defies an immediate review. And Anderson spent nearly 5 years on it. Yet here you are, trying pathetically to beat others to the punch instead instead of giving the film even 24 hours to settle. Shame.”
It’s this last assertion — more than the critiques of my diction, or the accusations of blind auteur worship — that bothers me most, and it’s something I heard dutifully replicated in several other spaces. It bothers me because the week-of-release reviews that are published on a constant basis both online and in print are almost always created on a first-viewing platform. And, like these reviews, my review of The Master — and, I’m sure, a strong number of other early-word reactions — isn’t pretending to be an all-knowing presider over this film. Theatrical reviews are the last thing from the final word on a given film, and yet the most common slashing on people’s tongues lately is that they don’t want to so much as type one word about The Master until they’ve seen it six times, downloaded the Jonny Greenwood score, read through Paul Thomas Anderson’s original screenplay, and analyzed every inch of every frame.
Make no mistake, there is a place for writing like that — but that place is called “a few years down the line.” By representing my immediate reaction to The Master, I don’t think I’ve done a disservice to the work. I’ve simply taken a snapshot of my relationship to the film at the time I was driving home from the Music Box.
As bloggers and critics will tell you time and time again when they compile their best-of-the-year lists — or, more pertinently, lists like the Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll — opinions are fluid and ever-changing, and the realization that The Master is perhaps Anderson’s “most cryptic” film to date only enhances that notion. It needs time, merits consideration, demands scrupulous attention — but it’s not descended from the heavens, immune to the practice of first-sight reviewing. It makes it difficult, sure, but it doesn’t erase the rewards of the process.
I hope that you’ll have some thoughts to share on this topic, and encourage you to do so. Fire away.