Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Well, fuck. I remember a few years ago, just around this time, hearing about Heath Ledger’s death and believing it to be some internet-era hoax at first. Yesterday was very similar: I quickly go to check Facebook and see a handful of posts that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his apartment, and my first instinct is not to believe it. He can’t be dead. He’s too good. This is some sad internet joker’s idea of a good joke.

If it’s a joke, it’s definitely one of the worst I’ve heard in a long time – or the Great Big Casting Agency In The Sky decided to up its game considerably, because Hoffman was one of the strongest, most unique and least vain actors to come out of Hollywood. Here’s hoping he’s sitting next to Maximilian Schell right now, going through his lines with that half-amused, half-exasperated half-smile of his.

In Memoriam Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Like so many people, I first noticed Hoffman on my radar when I saw Magnolia. He’d been in earlier films and had a poignant part in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights that was indicative of the work to come, but Anderson’s Magnolia put him in one of the leading parts, and rightly so. There was something seriously weird about the performance, but not in the quirky indie style that we’ve become accustomed to; there was no trace of that cutesy self-centredness in him. Magnolia: now there’s a film that was almost impossible to act and act well, for all involved. In the wrong hands, its lines would be overblown melodrama. Its too-decent-to-be-true character Phil Parma, among many others, would fall flat. Not so in Hoffman’s hands.

By the time The Talented Mr Ripley came around, it felt like Hoffman had always been there. Even though it was only shortly after Magnolia, I remember looking forward to the film because, damn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favourite actors! The part was smaller, but it’s one of the most memorable performances in a film packed with unusually strong performances. And again, that weirdness: Hoffman could turn on the most disturbing brand of camp that shouldn’t ever work, but he made it work – more than that, he made it essential to the character and so right it hurt.

It would be difficult not to go through the man’s filmography and pick scenes from practically every single movie he’d been in; personally I’m partial to his shlubby teacher in 25th Hour, an underrated film and a beautifully judged performance, and he was fantastic in Almost Famous or providing one of the main voices in Mary & Max, but also in uneven and mediocre films like Red Dragon or Mission: Impossible 3. Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a film that works better on paper than on the screen, but when it works it’s because Hoffman made its central character inject an almost unbearing humanity into a story that constantly risks being tripped up by the meta Chinese Boxes it leaves lying all over the place.

For me it started with Paul Thomas Anderson, so it’s only right it ends with him. I’m sure Hoffman’s performances after The Master were as watchable as everything he’d done, but his Lancaster Dodd is all the proof that’s needed that American cinema has lost one of its most unique, generous and powerful voices – and while we have many indelible performances to choose from, it’s difficult not to be greedy and wish we could have had many more.

Rest in peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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 (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.