A Master and a Slave

Well here we are; the first post. I wish I could say it has some great meaning or purpose but really I had to start somewhere and it may as well be something current. So, onwards…

Of all the films I’ve seen in recent months two in particular are sticking with me and for largely the same reason, and that’s confliction. I just don’t know how much I liked them. The first, and more recent of the two, is one Django Unchained. You may have heard of it. Tarantino’s latest excuse to claim that he’s “finally” getting to make his Spaghetti Western may actually be true this time (but that’s not to say he won’t make something else in a few years’ time that’s even Spaghetti-ier which will be his “true” Western, you know how he is). The other is P. T. Anderson’s The Master; an interesting, ambitious, thoroughly cinematic yet strangely empty experience.

Both films are highly episodic and arguably too long. The Master in particular feels like little more than a series of, beautifully crafted, vignettes which in isolation are really quite good but together just amount to very little. You could almost take out any scene without affecting the whole. A problem exemplified by the film’s trailers which, as many people noted displayed numerous scenes that weren’t in the film. And even with the benefit of seeing the finished film, these missing scenes don’t appear to add anything to it. They seem well-acted, wonderfully constructed but devoid of any greater meaning and this really is an issue with the whole film. As an incredibly self-conscious film-hipster, the film got my non-committal approval upon leaving the screening. That was until I asked my fellow filmy-people acquaintances what they thought of it and was relieved to hear they felt as cold toward it as I did. So the problem wasn’t just me ‘not getting it’ and therefore can be complained about. Etiquette and all that.

See Above: very pretty cinema-ings

Django similarly feels like entire stretches of the film could be removed without affecting the film. The last fifth (or the fourth act as I’ve taken to calling it) is completely needless and seems to only exist to allow Tarantino his cameo. The real climax is an excellent gunfight which is unmistakably the end of the film and yet then things continue on for another twenty minutes. Looking back on the film as whole you could argue that any number of sequences in the first hour could be lost and not be missed. Like The Master (and indeed most of Tarantino’s work) the film can feel like a series of well-done scenes that almost work better individually than as part of a whole. There’s a key difference between both films though, Django has an overarching plot (basic as it is). The Master doesn’t and this is its greatest misstep.

In trying to be narratively innovative, Anderson just dropped narrative completely and left a lot of people with a very frustrating viewing experience. The lack of an overarching plot makes the film feel like meandering filler while the audience sits there waiting for it to come together which it simply never does. It even appears to reach an emotional climax of sorts (the bikes in the desert) which would have served as a conclusion of sorts and made the journey seem meaningful but it doesn’t, it just continues to drunkenly wander on to an ending which somehow feels unsatisfying even by the negation-of-closure game the film had been playing with the audience up until this point. Django could easily have fallen into the exact the same trap but simply by virtue of having the simplest, most archetypal of stories (the prince must rescue his princess, stated in those terms exactly) even the inconsequential scenes don’t make for frustrating viewing because the story is still moving in a direction, even if that direction is rather simplistic, that the audience can follow and rely upon the film to continue down once Tarantino’s finished indulging himself in the present scene.

That’s the best I could do for self-indulgent…

While I’m still unsure of how I feel about Django (I simultaneously agree with those who gave it five stars and those who were exhausted by it), watching it and understanding why its meandering, plodding nature didn’t frustrate my viewing allowed to me realise just why The Master didn’t work for me. And this coming from someone who loves every second of Inland Empire’s anti-narrative. Lynch gets away with that because it’s an exercise in stream-of-consciousness but Anderson’s film is set in the real world and is grounded in it without any hint of what we’re watching being an abstraction and as such requires some form of narrative framing.

No reason for this, I just love this picture.

No reason for this, I just love this picture.

The Master is in no way a poorly made film but the addition of a simplistic narrative structure (even were it never resolved/negated at the end) could have made the film as a viewing experience more meaningful and less frustrating. Say what you will about Tarantino’s self-indulgent, undisciplined filmmaking; the man understands the value of storytelling.