Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Seeing The Master

So, after many weeks adding up to months of anticipation, I saw The Master last night in Boston. This undoubtedly comes as welcome news for my friends and family, as now I’ll probably finally be able to shut up about it. Maybe. (Apologies also to those following my tweets; I know it’s been inordinately heavy on the #THEMASTER70MM hashtag lately.)

It was also my introduction to the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which has the only 70mm print of The Master in New England. It’s a seriously cool venue. It has the trappings of a vintage movie house, the auditorium is cozy and charmingly theatrical, and they have beer on tap. The screen was nice and big, and the sound was nice and loud. I could see myself frequenting the place every week, if only it wasn’t three hours away.

Here’s a panoramic view from where I was sitting.
The 70 mm experience was delightful. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a 70 mm projection and I think I’m in love with it. Every frame compelled my interest. Colors seemed especially lush, and details were startlingly clear (especially on some of the closeups). It was really quite gorgeous. And of course it had that analog “warmth” as well; it was quite something to see those “cigarette marks” alerting everyone that a changeover of reels was about to occur. In an age when the term is, for better or worse, an anachronym, it was really exciting to see a true “film” once again.
So what did I think of The Master? Well, I liked it. In truth, I’m a little in awe of it. The common refrain is that it all but requires multiple viewings, and I suppose I endorse this point of view since I’m planning to see it again next week, this time a mere 3 miles from my house. (And in digital, which will be good for comparison’s sake, image quality-wise.)
I think it was not as big a revelation as There Will Be Blood, but only because PTA prepped us for this new one with his previous film. In many ways, I think The Master is a more shocking and audacious movie than TWBB, which bodes well for its impact down the road, when we decide just how good it is, really. (Instant classic? Or failed experiment? Or something in between?)
I could write a review that would probably end up being embarrassing 6 months or 2 years or 5 years down the road. I remember coming out of TWBB and not exactly knowing what to make of it. If you had forced me to put down my thoughts right then, it’d probably read like a lot of asinine babbling now, especially when I’m pretty much on board with everyone else who says that it’s a modern classic, an assessment that was not at all clear to me after the initial viewing.
What I’m coming to find out about movies by true visionaries is that you don’t need to make a decision whether they are “good” or “bad” right away. Let it turn over in your mind a little, and if it’s compelling enough, you’ll revisit it. I’ve found that to be the most important question after a movie: Is it compelling? If it’s compelling, you’ll rewatch it, even if you didn’t think it was very good. And during those rewatches, you’ll open yourself up to the movie again, and you’ll be responsive to any of those little things a director puts in a movie that he or she thinks will make the movie better and a more worthwhile experience and maybe even the best thing ever put on screen. And if the movie is made by eminently talented people, there’s a good chance you’re seeing great art.
But if a movie isn’t compelling, it really just sort of lies there, neither art nor entertainment, just a vague memory of passing time. If you thought it was bad, it remains bad. If you thought it was good, it never exceeds that initial judgment—it stays just as good as you initially thought. And maybe it actually isn’t very good, or, perhaps, it’s even better than you thought, and if it is in fact great art, there’s almost no way you would be able to take in all the nuances it has to offer with just one viewing. (Maybe if you were Pauline Kael you’d be able to, but I’m talking about the rest of us mortals.)
Compelling things offer us the chance to have a conversation with them, to engage in an intellectual and emotional back-and-forth, to change as we change, to grow alongside us. These are the sorts of interactions that have the best chance of ultimately enriching our lives, to affect the way we think, feel, respond—forever. And that’s a lot more rewarding than just saying “This is good” or “This sucks” all willy-nilly. Making snap judgments is pretty unfulfilling and empty, and no one comes to art to feel emptier. That’s why, when something singularly compelling comes along, we should be excited instead of rushing to praise or condemn it. In an ephemeral world, compelling things have a defiant permanence. In a world where there is accretive pressure to get everyone to think the exact same way, compelling things give you thoughts you’ve never had before. They are opportunities for personal growth.
I’m not sure if it’s a modern classic, but if there’s one thing The Master is, it’s compelling. Very, very much so. And that is more than enough reason to celebrate it.

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