A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #2: Magnolia

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 2 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast as Mege and Matt discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with a quick chat about the chilling, murderous Lady Macbeth and the biopic Jackie by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. Once again, mild spoilers are to be expected, and we may have some opinions on Tom Cruise – so respect the cup, sit down and listen.

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An evening with The Master (4)

Following from the previous three posts – on Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, the two main characters of The Master and the Master’s wife and his self-improvement cult – we’ve arrived at the fourth and final instalment of this series.

Mege   Let me ask you this: Roger Ebert said “when I reach for it, my hand closes on air” with this movie. I know what he means, but in my opinion, he goes too far. The film is puzzling, but not to the extent that we are left with a lot of hot air. How do you see this?

Matt   I’d agree with you. I find the film fascinating, confounding, perplexing, but I definitely wasn’t frustrated by all the questions it’s left me with. Like There Will Be Blood before it, I mainly felt that I’d seen something disconcertingly, intriguing different than what you usually get in American cinema. Yes, there are echoes to Kubrick, to ’70s filmmaking, and probably to lots of other things I didn’t even register, but there is still something entirely original about the film, its characters and what it evokes in me. It doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, but there’s enough of that already, I’d say.

Mege   And another question: We know that PTA likes his music. Boogie Nights knows how to use the music of the era almost to perfection, Magnolia is based on several Aimee Mann songs. In The Master, many characters start singing songs for various reasons, not all of them clear. It’s probably one of the weirdest aspects of the movie, so is there anything that struck you about the singing?

Matt   Well, for one thing, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s singing creeps me out! Seriously, though: while I find Dodd the less puzzling of the two main characters, his serenading Quell with “Slow Boat to China” is extremely odd. There’s something about it that is moving, yet it’s also weirdly threatening – and I can’t imagine anyone other than Hoffman to pull off that particular scene. Music is definitely something that PTA obviously cares about, though his approach has also changed since Magnolia and Boogie Nights. I mentioned Kubrick before, and in both of the more recent films (though more so in There Will Be Blood) I heard echoes of some of Kubrick’s choices – György Ligeti’s less-than-whistleable ditties spring to mind. The Master‘s orchestral soundtrack has moments where it feels like a talented alien with no understanding of earth musicology has listened to a bunch of early 20th century music and then done his own, alien take on it. What was your reaction to the orchestral soundtrack?

Mege   You got me. I am very difficult when it comes to musical scores. This time around, I only remember the weird guitar twang, and I would have to watch the movie again, concentrating on the score, in order to answer properly. – Maybe the music has strong ties to the mood of the movies we’ve mentioned: Boogie Nights and Magnolia have kindness and good intentions towards most of their cast, while There Will Be Blood and The Master focus on the dark side of human nature. The guys in Boogie Nights really thought they were making art – they weren’t, and the music reflects that. Stuff like “Jungle Fever” is a musical catastrophe, but it’s full of atmosphere, and there is no other song that brings that time to life more quickly. The Aimee Mann songs as well as the Jon Brion score from Magnolia sound like there is hope for most of its characters. And if I say that the music in There Will Be Blood is dreadful, I don’t mean it’s very bad, I mean it’s full of dread.

I guess Dodd tells Freddie goodbye with that song. They met on a boat, so it’s only fair that their farewell should include a boat. I agree that the singing is weird, but (this is a long shot) there is nothing quite as appealing to your subconscious as a song. Remember what happened to Freddie when the Master sang and danced through Mildred Drummond’s house? Freddie started to see all of the women as if they were naked. They have music during a break in the presentation of The Split Sabre (it’s actually Melora Walters’ voice we are hearing). Music is a great means of manipulation.

Inherent ViceMatt   Time for a final question: I just Googled for PTA’s future plans – and apparently he’s adapting Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice. IMDB summarises the plot as follows: “In Los Angeles at the turn of the 1970s, drug-fueled detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello investigates the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend.” The cast includes Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro. What do you foresee: a return to the earlier drug-addled world of Boogie Nights, something dark, strange and full of dread such as PTA’s more recent films – or is it futile to try and predict what Anderson will do next, doubly so if it’s based on a novel by Pynchon?

Mege   No idea – and I mean that in the best possible sense. I like filmmakers who take risks, and PTA has the ability to puzzle thoroughly, for instance with giving Adam Sandler the lead role. I am completely open, but for the record, adapting a Pynchon novel must be hard work by itself. What do you think?

Matt   Apparently Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s most approachable novel – which, I expect, is still pretty much bugshit crazy postmodern goodness. From the sound of it, the material is funnier than Anderson’s last two films, which aren’t devoid of humour, but it’s of a pretty grim sort. (“I drink your milkshake!” comes to mind as both hilarious and horrific.) Perhaps he will reinvent himself again, or perhaps we’ll see what the missing link between Magnolia and The Master might look like. In any case, I’m definitely looking forward to the film and to Anderson’s continued career!

And that’s it! Thank you for reading our series on The Master. We don’t have any definite plans yet for future conversations along these lines, but we’re definitely hoping to return to this format at some point. Any comments on these posts and how we can improve them are very welcome.

An evening with The Master (3)

In the first two instalments, we discussed Paul Thomas Anderson’s developing style as a director and the two main characters of his 2012 film The Master. For this post we’re focusing on Peggy Dodd (played by Amy Adams) and the film’s riff on Scientology, The Cause.

Matt   The film is mainly Phoenix’ and Hoffman’s, but there’s also Amy Adams’ fiercely protective Peggy Dodd, Lancaster Dodd’s wife. It’s an untypical part for Adams, isn’t it?

Mege   Very. It’s the 1950s, and it’s unheard of for a woman to lead a cult. If you ask me, she is the brains of the operation, some sort of Borg Queen, while Lancaster brings truckloads of charisma and a talent for improvising to the Cause. There is that telling scene where she talks and he types away furiously at his typewriter. If he is not typing verbatim what she is saying, he may at least take her words as inspiration. In a way, that would make her the author of at least the second book, wouldn’t it? Then there is the scene where we learn that she controls her husband’s sexuality. She sees right through him. And there is that scene in England where she tells Freddie Quell exactly what’s what, and then leaves the room. Lancaster would never do that. Peggy Dodd is miles away from Amy Adams’ other roles. The Muppets. Enchanted. And I am sure the new Lois Lane cannot change her eye color.

The Master

Matt   With you mentioning women leading cults and the Borg Queen, I have flashbacks to Alice Krige’s New Age speaker for The Plan in Six Feet Under… which sounds close enough to The Cause to get me back to the topic at hand. I agree, she’s a very strong, smart character, but I find her quite puzzling. On the one hand, she seems to see Freddy as a threat; even at the beginning, when she’s apparently nice to him, her eyes are cold and guarded as she talks to him. Why exactly does she see him as a threat? Is she jealous of his closeness to Dodd? At the same time, both she and Freddy are probably the most zealous about Dodd’s crackpot cult philosophy, so there is a link there – but she never wavers, whereas Freddy does have moments where he says, quite clearly, that the Master is making it up as he goes along.

Mege   It’s Val, his son, who says that first, and Freddie almost beats him up because he knows that Val is right. But about Peggy: Maybe everyone is a threat, until they become their allies. I think the Dodds see themselves as threatened, as weak, but getting stronger because of their Cause. That the second book is probably much weaker is a threat to them. Newer disciples must be tested, so she might turn on Freddie with that cold stare of hers just to see how things are with him. After all, he appeared out of nowhere and by complete coincidence, and he might disappear the same way: anytime and without good reason.

The Master

Matt   I wonder about that… While I see your point about testing new recruits to the Cause, my impression was more that Peggy, and the rest of the family to some extent, feels threatened by how quickly and completely Freddy is taken in as Dodd’s friend and confidant. One of the first things Peggy says to Quell is that since he’s arrived Dodd is writing like mad, and while on the surface this seems to be a compliment, underneath she comes across as guarded and wary. In some ways the film strikes me almost as a battle between Peggy and Quell for the Master – only Quell isn’t aware of it, but Peggy is, painfully so. In that last scene between the three, Peggy is barely visible on the sidelines and practically cancelled out by the intensity of the connection between Quell and Dodd. It may well be a combination of the two things: that Peggy is jealous of this new man in her husband’s life and how he might change Dodd for the worse, doubly so because Freddy is so volatile. She feels both jealous of and threatened by a man she sees as a human time bomb, so to speak.

In the final instalment of this four-part series of blogs, we’ll discuss miscellaneous issues.

An evening with The Master (2)

In the first part of this discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, we discussed Anderson’s career and the development of his directorial style leading up to the film. In this instalment, we focus on the movie’s two main characters, Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master (portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Matt   Even though the film is called The Master, I’d say it’s first and foremost Freddie Quell’s (as played by Joaquin Phoenix) film. The movie begins and ends with him. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s part as Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master, is large, but at least in terms of screen time it could almost be called a supporting role. What did you think of Phoenix’ performance?

Mege   Freddie Quell is not a good man, is he? He is a hardcore alcoholic – life does not go on like that for much longer. He cheats, he acts out, he lies, he almost kills a man. It’s a surprise he can hold down a job for long. He is clearly one of the more damaged soldiers, and it is only partly the war. His stance, his facial ticks, his awkward bursts of laughter – something is profoundly wrong with this guy. I have to say I liked the performance a lot, for two reasons. One reason is that we don’t really know what has happened. Lost love, the war – sure, but he was weird even when he courted Doris Solstad, wasn’t he? He keeps us guessing what injuries he might have. And second: Not a lot of actors would have agreed to a scene where they had to jerk off on the beach.

Matt   I was wondering the same thing about Quell – he isn’t quite as off, for want of a better word, in the pre-war flashbacks, but he’s most definitely already strange, and strangely offputting. Watching the film for a second time, I found it impossible not to think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle; Quell seems a bit smarter (he has moments where he’s surprisingly perceptive), but it’d definitely be inaccurate to say that the war made him what he is during most of the film. If anything, his wartime experience seems to have brought the oddness he already had into sharp contrast.

The one difference there is, though: in the film’s ‘present’ storyline, he always seems extremely tightly wound, like he’s ready to explode. (Perhaps that’s where I get the Travis Bickle vibe, together with his social awkwardness.) With Doris, but also later with her mother and at the end when he travels to England for his last meeting with the Master, he seems to be much more at peace. Still weird, still damaged, but I no longer expect him to start beating people because they threaten the things that give him stability. And yes, I no longer expect him to jerk off on the beach.

Which brings me to another point: were you as surprised as I was to see just how successful the guy is with often quite attractive women? His fling at the glossy department store, Dodd’s daughter, the English girl at the end, but also Doris: what do they see in the guy?

Mege   I don’t know, other than he can be quite dashing from afar and on a good day. I think he is quite fresh and straightforward with females, so he has a statistical chance of succeeding. Other than that, I wouldn’t know. – Elizabeth, though, is probably on a mission to make him stay in the fold. There is no real attraction in the way she sidles up to him and sits down, much less in the way she feels him up. I think that Peggy or Lancaster might have set her onto him.

The Master

Matt   Interesting take on the scene – I’ll definitely have to rewatch it with that in mind. Let’s take this point in the conversation to the other lead and titular character, Lancaster Dodd AKA The Master. I enjoy Phillip Seymour Hoffman in most things he’s in, and The Master is no exception. He also makes for a very striking contrast to Quell’s messed-up veteran, being a much more contained, almost classical character, at least at first. What’s your take on Dodd?

Mege   Dodd has two things going for him. He is good at improvising on the spot, an enchanting entertainer, even charming. This works very well – as long as his opponents are pliable rich widows. When he finds himself confronted with even mild criticism, he is out of his depth very fast. The other things is his magnetism. While his charms come from his words, his magnetism is there just by walking into a room. He shines – his hair and skin remind me of an albino, a blank screen you can project your stuff onto. His manner, sometimes even his attitude, are kind, but determined. He is pudgy, slightly overweight, so there is no way you don’t notice him even in a crowded room. The way he greets his wedding guests is the way of a game show host – hi, hi, good to see you, great to be here – it’s almost his show, not the one of the newlyweds. Dodd isn’t so far away from a young Jimmy Gator in that respect. But he tires fast. He yells at the man in the widow’s mansion and later at the Laura Dern character. His façade has rifts.

I know I am turning this post into a really long one, but I would like to segue into my main argument about the movie: Freddie and Dodd need each other. The Master manages to rustle up Freddie’s demons with his method in a way Freddie can intuitively accept. Dodd wants to end the interview, but Freddie is eager, almost desperate to continue. It’s probably years since anyone asked Freddie stuff he wanted to scream and shout about. And lo and behold, they manage to make him stop drinking – not by the Cause or by pacing the length of the room from the wall to the window and back umpteen times, no: Peggy just tells him to stop. This, more than the Cause or any of the tapes or books or seminars, binds Freddie to them. Dodd needs Freddie because if the can somehow heal this broken man, then the Cause works – or he can start pretending that the Cause works, which is not the same thing. At least, he had proof so he could stop calling his detractors “pig fuck”. It’s the movie’s great joke that they can make him stop drinking just by telling him to stop drinking. They have to really heal him in order to pretend that they have healed him.

Matt   I’m not sure he stops completely – isn’t the next scene the one where Freddy finds Dodd’s sleeping son Val on the veranda and takes a swig from his hip flask before waking him up? I do think though that Peggy’s barking up the wrong tree with respect to Dodd’s drinking – I would say that rather than being the way he is because he drinks, he drinks because he’s the way he is.

However, I totally agree with you that Freddie and Dodd need each other – to begin with, Freddie’s need may be the stronger one, and by the end he manages to free himself in some sense, but only by having integrated the Master into himself. (I’m thinking of the final scene where he uses Dodd’s interview/therapy method with the girl he’s with.) The final scene between the two men speaks volumes: it comes across as a weird, intense break-up scene, with Dodd doing what he can to convince both Freddy and himself that he’s still in control, that he’s still the Master – which he isn’t really. Freddy has reached escape velocity, and his brief return to Dodd only proves that he doesn’t need to be in the man’s orbit any more.

I very much like your reading of the Master needing Quell because if he can convert him completely – not just to the Cause, but convert him into a whole new person – he works the alchemy of turning his lies into truth. How consciously aware do you think Dodd is that he’s a charlatan?

Mege   Hard question. Sometimes Dodd talks like he has rehearsed some bits. I became aware of that when he introduces himself to Freddie: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” Hah. Don’t tell me you haven’t tried that one out in front of a mirror many times. But rehearsing doesn’t mean that he doesn’t, to some extent, believe in it. You cannot talk to people in such a risky way and not be convinced of what you tell them. Maybe Dodd sits on the fence, and healing Freddie would validate his made-up stuff, so the charlatan could start believing more strongly in his own phrases.

In the next instalment, which will follow in a couple of days, we will be discussing the Master’s wife, Peggy Dodd, his family and the Cause, the cult he has created.

An evening with The Master (1)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was one of the most intriguing films of the last year. As a big fan of Anderson’s earlier movies especially, I’ve been wanting to write about The Master – but it’s such a puzzling work, I decided it was time to bring in back-up. So, for this post and for the next three, I’ll be joined by a occasional contributor and good friend to discuss the film. I hope you enjoy this somewhat different, longer format!

Matt   Thanks a lot for joining me in discussing The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s enigmatic 2012 film. Let’s jump right into the conversation – our first one in this format, so let’s hope we won’t end up at each other’s virtual throats! What I’d be interested in, first and foremost, is how you see The Master and Anderson’s development as a director. To be more specific: I was a big fan of the director’s Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). When There Will Be Blood came out in 2007, though, I could barely reconcile the film and its director to the earlier work, and the same is still true for The Master. The earlier films have a certain signature style, as do the later, but the styles could hardly be more different. It’s like Anderson has completely reinvented himself as a director. How do you see this?

Mege   PTA stated in an interview that after Boogie Nights, he wanted to avoid being famous for a certain kind of movie, so he knew that his next movie would be intentionally different. But that doesn’t really answer your question, does it? That next movie was Magnolia, and it is not hugely different from Boogie Nights in terms of atmosphere and style. He even uses some cast members and some of the same musical score bits in both. The differences are more far-fetched: Boogie Nights takes place over a few years, Magnolia takes place in less than 24 hours, if I remember correctly. Maybe the real answer is that he is refreshingly versatile.

Matt   Versatile he definitely is – disconcertingly so. To me, without wanting to call them derivative, Magnolia and Boogie Nights both feel like descendents of Altman – they’re very much ensemble pieces of the sort that Altman has done, and Magnolia is clearly influenced by Short Cuts – and Scorsese, in terms of form. There’s an energy in the filmmaking, the cinematography and editing especially, that recalls Goodfellas, for instance. The two films both have sequences that are so relentless, they almost become overbearing – as if Anderson was a talented, personable version of Henry Hill all coked out.

Rewatching The Master, what strikes me about the filmmaking is how those two influences seem to be entirely gone. If anything, both The Master and There Will Be Blood have echoes of Kubrick, who couldn’t be much more different from Altman and Scorsese. They both have a weird buzz, underscored (no pun intended!) by the music, they both feature magisterial, strangely distancing camera work, and visual symmetries abound. You can almost feel the unearthly sort of wonder of 2001‘s monolith in some scenes in Anderson’s two most recent films.

But I don’t want to overplay the “Who’s your cinematic daddy?” game. My main point is probably that while I find recent Anderson fascinating, I have to say I miss the warmth of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Do you find any of the earlier Anderson in The Master (other than Phillip Seymour Hoffman, obviously), and what do you like best about what his work has developed into?

Mege   I’ve never seen it that way, but yes, Boogie Nights and Magnolia both have their tenderness and warmth. While PTA wanted to utterly destroy Jimmy Gator, one of his other aims was to make Claudia Wilson smile. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a heartfelt movie about the oil business. Same with the cult business. There is greed, recklessness and manipulation in both There Will Be Blood as well as in The Master. I also have to admit that, although your comparisons to Altman and Scorsese ring true to me, I didn’t think of any influences while watching, maybe because a PTA is so darned original every time.

This discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will continue soon; next time we’ll be talking about the film’s two main characters and the performances by The Master‘s stars, Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Let’s face the oil well and dance…

There’s something weird going on in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Okay, there are many weird things going on – the film is quite confounding on the whole, as it doesn’t present its story the way you’d expect it – but when you watch the beginning of the film, a long sequence without any dialogue, you feel some strange sort of double vision. At least you do if you’re a film nerd like me, that is.

On the one hand, you’re watching a solitary prospector mine for silver in a desolate landscape, breaking his leg in a bad fall, striking it rich – and then, almost by accident, finding oil. On the other hand, the music and the landscape suggest very different images, recalling one of the most famous (and most parodied) scenes of cinema:

There is some sort of weird intertextual thing going on between There Will Be Blood and Kubrick’s movies that is discussed intelligently in this forum post. Beyond that, though, there something eerily ritualistic and religious about the film’s beginning: it’s as if the black liquid gushing from the ground is the harbinger of some new, cruel religion that will require sacrifices. In his way, Daniel Plainview (a disturbing performance by Daniel Day Lewis that is more complex than its detractors admit) is more of a mad prophet than his opponent, the self-righteous yet wheedling Eli Sunday. It’s just that human beings have no place in his religion.

Is it better to rule in Hell…?

I recently re-watched Magnolia, which I still like a lot, so There Will Be Blood came as a surprise. Even Punch Drunk Love, which I didn’t particularly enjoy (or understand), felt more like the P.T. Anderson who made Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Those latter two films were quintessential ensemble movies. There Will Be Blood has barely enough space for one or two characters next to Plainview. It grows out of its central monolithic (if you forgive the Kubrickian pun) protagonist: perhaps the most frightening character in recent film history.

P.S.: Please keep in mind that I haven’t yet seen No Country for Old Men, so I can’t judge the scariness of that film’s Anton Chigurh. His hair’s plenty scary enough, though.

Prince Valiant, the Cleaner

P.P.S.: After Miami Vice used to be the top search term leading people to this website, it has now become “magenta”. So, my heartfelt thanks to one of my frequent readers. Hope you’re getting just as many hits because of me!