Paul Thomas Anderson is not a filmmaker who follows convention. After an impressive, yet little-seen debut feature (Hard Eight) and two sprawling masterpieces that saw the young auteur wed Scorsese’s visual flair with Altman’s love of the ensemble (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), he defied expectations with a ninety minute romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. Though Punch-Drunk Love shares more in common with its director than with its star, this undervalued gem of a film still struggles to find its proper audience and its due praise a decade later. When Anderson returned five years later with There Will Be Blood, however, the accolades were immediate and near universal. While its thematic scope was just as vast as anything Anderson had yet released, There Will Be Blood marked a turning point in his career in that it largely eschewed a panoramic ensemble approach to story in favor of a deep character study. Daniel Day-Lewis’s oil tycoon Daniel Plainview is in almost every shot of the film, and his performance combines with Anderson’s script to create one of the most indelible figures in the history of cinema. Anderson was no stranger to rich characterization and had in fact used a primary protagonist in both Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, but this was a whole new beast. Like Stanley Kubrick’s work on Barry Lyndon, we see a rested and confident filmmaker using every faculty at his disposal to bring to life a time and a place that is not simply inhabited by the film’s protagonist, but is a fully realized macrocosm of his interiority; every set, shot, costume, and performance tells you something about Daniel Plainview.
This subjective panoramic extended to the film’s marketing, which focused almost exclusively on Day-Lewis. His performance was, of course, a powerhouse, and the notoriously reclusive actor was relatively fresh off of his Gangs of New York notoriety; also, Anderson (who has a history of cutting his own trailers) had shown a preference for the subjective in his trailer(s) for Magnolia. This was, nonetheless, a decidedly independent strategy for such a large film. It may not be as obtuse as an elevator full of blood, but watching the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln earlier today got me thinking about how rare it is for a film’s marketing to favor tone over plot and spectacle. Even as cryptic viral marketing has taken off over the last decade, the major studios still seem remiss to hold anything back when it comes to getting people into the seats, even when it means giving away the entire plot of a film in its trailer.
This makes the steady promotional roll out for The Master all the more impressive. I have not seen any trailers at the cinema, nor have I seen any TV spots. All I know about The Master has trickled down to me through a series of minute and minute-and-a-half YouTube videos that capture the tonality of a fever dream, of events half remembered and half fabricated. This may in fact be the first time that a prestige picture has been able to fully integrate the Internet-fueled buzz-generating PR model that up until now has usually been wasted on genre entertainment and exclusively web based content.
First off, one must not overlook the cultural gravity of Joaquin Phoenix wandering about dazed and uncertain. In his first screen appearance since Casey Affleck’s batshit brilliant mockumentary I’m Still Here, Phoenix comes across as a revelation. His control of body and voice is staggering, even in these few truncated moments; unlike in I’m Still Here, where his face was disguised by beard and sunglasses, in The Master Phoenix renders himself unrecognizable by, paradoxically, surrendering his entire being to the camera. In every wrinkle of his face we can see the untold story of this reckless drifter, and though we know he is a construct of the filmmakers, we never doubt the character. Listen to the way his mouth shapes the word “strong” — in as many ways as the art form will allow, this character truly exists.
And just as the drifter Freddie Quell is disoriented and unsure of his surroundings and his history, so too are we the audience left uncertain of what exactly we have just experienced. We’ve received moments, flashes, all further blurred by that incessant arrhythmic pulse (much credit must be given to Jonny Greenwood, whose score would surely never settle for mere beauty when only tension will suffice). Perhaps this man can help us remember? But wait — who is this man?
When we first experience Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the second trailer, he is a disembodied voice. We are still in the mind of Freddie Quell, as he tries to remember how exactly he got here. Cities, forests, roads — all a blur, until we open our eyes to the present, the the beatific visage of our would be savior, still and focused in front of us. We see immediately in Hoffman’s performance that something simmers underneath Dodd’s implacable facade, but without any facts to cling to, we cannot know whether or not it is sinister. We see Dodd’s image and voice independent of one another, a slight dischord in his presentation, cognitive dissonance in our ability to place him. And yet even at the end of the second trailer as Freddie Quell (and, in turn, we the audience) loses his patience and his composure, Dodd remains calm, collected, cool under fire; somehow, this does not comfort us. When finally pressed to say something that’s true…
…Dodd speaks to us of love. For the first time, we hear harmonious music. For the first time, we listen intently and patiently to what Dodd is telling us. For the first time, everything seems to make sense. It is here, with the third trailer, that Anderson shows his hand: he is using the marketing of his film as a meta-narrative, quelling (!) his audience and assuring them that the disquiet they felt during the first two trailers is good, is healthy, and is simply the first step to piecing together and understanding the themes which he wishes to dissect. Here, Anderson acknowledges his affinity with Dodd; both men traffic in fantasy, in desire, in wish fulfillment. As Freddie Quell joins the fold, so too do we, even though Dodd is quick to admit that in love, pleasure and pain come in equal measure.
In the fourth trailer, we are left only with ourselves. There is no music, no editing, no cinematic trickery. We see that struggle begets clarity, which only shows us the nature of our next struggle…
…which may leave us very far indeed from where we began.
These five vignettes give us scant information regarding the chronology of events in the film, but they do give us an incredible sense of Freddie Quell’s unrest, uncertainty, and insatiable longing for an elusive sense of acceptance and order. That we have been conditioned for the same throughout the course of this suite of trailers does more than excite us for the film, it prepares us to further empathize with our damaged protagonist and to invest ourselves emotionally into his journey.
Anderson has stated explicitly and on multiple occasions that his film is not about Scientology; rather it is about a man reaching for something that always eludes his grasp. Unless you are to accuse Anderson of skirting the issue, these trailers confirm his statements. By the time the full trailer was released, it almost felt like a reward in and of itself. It was so full of vitality, so full of shots, characters, music, and dialogue as yet unseen that the satisfaction of seeing two and a half whole minutes of The Master playing out before us was satisfying, if not transcendent. And yet, the trailer still remains firmly planted within the subjective worldview of Freddie Quell. We are still left with little sense of who Lancaster Dodd is, of what his methods are, and of what his union with Freddie Quell has wrought. In merging the viral with the traditional, Anderson has built more suspense in ten minutes from a dual character portrait than most filmmakers can over the course of an entire film.