Does The Master reveal Paul Thomas Anderson to be a cult leader?

Rather than review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master, I’m much more interested in taking a closer look at its critical reception; because I’m an English teacher and not a film critic, I find the discourse more fascinating than the film’s actual merits and flaws. The film has garnered lavish praise from an overwhelming consensus of film critics, and that could very well affect your reaction to (or even viewing of) the film.

At the time of writing (Fri 2 Nov), collative site Rotten Tomatoes says that The Master has an 85% approval rating from critics, but 60% from non-critics – that’s a 25% discrepancy. Metacritic, which exercises a bit more quality control, calculates an 86% critic approval contrasted with a dismal 43% approval rating among non-critics; that’s a 43% difference.

Are critics really so different from thoughtful movie-watchers who bother to actually sign up and contribute to Metacritic? You actually have to defend your rating on Metacritic; it’s not a matter of casually clicking on a number. And Metacritic users can obviously see what the critics have said. Granted, there are some films that are perfect for critics but not audiences, and I’d love to hear of some comparable examples in the comments. But even so, this is notable because it’s a massive discrepancy on a substantial scale. What on earth is going on? Let’s look at a cross-section of quotes and see if we can make sense of this.

Numerous critics from highly-esteemed publications stumble over each other to be the most ardent disciple of cinematic master PTA. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone stridently opens his review with: “I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson… [he] refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences… Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers.”

Is he seriously saying that if we don’t positively rate this film, then we’re lazy cinema-goers who don’t properly love movies? It’s telling that Travers proclaims that he is a follower of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult while burying this admission with adulatory adjectives and bludgeoning us with his self-righteousness. A.O. Scott of The New York Times at least hints at the divisive nature of the film before professing his faith in PTA: “This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief… It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.”

The majority of positive critics’ reviews sound like some form of cult worship. And granted, Paul Thomas Anderson is a darling of film buffs, who understandably gravitate towards auteurs; think of how films by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers garner support before the trailers are even cut. Perhaps film critics, whose occupational hazard is to take their opinions very seriously, are somehow compelled to continue praising the work of these auteurs, since they’ve written glowing reviews of their previous films. Oddly, Peter Bradshaw refutes this idea in the opening of his review in The Guardian: “Nothing makes critics more nervous than a director who makes two exceptional films in a row. Reviewers get a bit self-conscious about dishing out the top prize again, scared of looking like fanboys and pushovers. They feel the need to change the mood, to validate the uniqueness of their former praise.” To me, it sounds suspiciously like Bradshaw is trying to put some spin on the fact that he’s jumped on the bandwagon along with the other critics… like it’s so brave of him to be a film critic and a fan of Anderson’s work.

In the Metacritic tally, there are scant examples of critics who don’t prostrate themselves before The Master (though some more even-handed, non-listed responses have begun to emerge: check out Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound). One well-defended response comes from famed thumbs-user Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times, whose opening sentence is: “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” While this isn’t a review per se, I can’t pretend to be totally objective – I agree with Ebert. There are plenty of laudable aspects of the film: the extremely committed performances, its striking visuals, the resonance of the post-WWII time period with cult formation, Jonny Greenwood’s impressionistic score. But all to what end? For me, watching the film was challenging, but not in the intellectual sense; it challenged me in an existential sense. I wondered why I was sitting there, watching the film. Why it exists. What its purpose is. How it got there. The film, to me, is frustratingly far less than the sum of its parts.

Another independent review is from and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, who engages with the contention of many critics that Anderson is a visionary ahead of the curve, mentioning that the filmmaker is “apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature.” I’m no traditionalist, but established principles of good storytelling just aren’t redefined by this purposefully oblique film. Anderson may be a model of devotion to film and The Master does reflect this – but is it a well-told story? Cinephiles who have decided that it is cannot avoid proselytizing this cinematic master they badly want to believe in – and that is so beautifully ironic.

Look, I am an unashamed fan of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and I appreciated There Will Be Blood. Plus it’s an achievement in itself that The Master can provoke such powerful reactions from its audience. But this feels like that old fable about the Emperor and his new clothes. A purportedly masterful man creates what people choose to believe is fantastic yet invisible to nonbelievers, and in the end, a child has to point to the Emperor and yell, “but he’s not wearing any clothes!” So this is me being that child, trying to break the spell of groupthink. Though by all means, go and see The Master for yourself, and form your own opinions regardless of what everyone else says.

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One thought on “Does The Master reveal Paul Thomas Anderson to be a cult leader?

  1. Ed Wall

    Hmm. This is an interesting piece, Cath. Personally, I was blown away by the film. I wasn’t seeking plot as such. It gave me a similar pleasure watching it as I get from wandering around a museum, or reading certain poetry (though to be fair, as a primarily visual work I found it more accessible than I find a lot of poetry). I definitely wouldn’t call myself a PTA devotee. I like the films I’ve seen by him though. What I would say is that The Master seems to be following a trend in his work – I see it as a natural next step after There Will be Blood in many ways. The shape of Anderson’s film-making appears to be following a steady course – a stripping away of certain elements, a highlighting of others. He might be dissatisfied with the conventions of narrative, and aiming for something new, I don’t know. An easy comparison would be what happened in Samuel Beckett’s novel writing – Molloy through to The Unnameable (which might have been called The Unreadable) – and then in his plays. He was striving for blank writing – I feel his dream would have been a book of blank pages, which of course would have been pointless. With Anderson you can almost see him ridding his style of things that he sees as overused, or unnecessary – sentiment, certain plot devices (possibly the traditional narrative arch itself – the hero’s journey or whatever). It’s impressionistic cinema. I wouldn’t say it’s even intentionally vague, just intentionally impressionistic. I would say its reason for existing (as much as art has any reason to exist, which is another philosophical question entirely) is to give a fair (as possible) and in that sense balanced impression of a situation not many of us will have ever experienced directly. Whether you can take something from that or not is purely personal. Whether you do or don’t isn’t right or wrong – that’s just personal taste. This film really resonated with me – its voluptuous presentation, its series of vignettes showing different aspects of the protagonist’s characters, the line it treads between the duality of honesty and dishonesty (both in the characters and in the film-making – asking, for me, bigger questions about cinema itself, as well as art and faith). I like the direction he’s heading in. I’d imagine (though no doubt he’ll prove me wrong by doing something totally different) that the next film will be even more impressionistic, and trade even less on plot. Whatever it is – as widely loved as Boogie Nights, or as divisive as The Master – it’ll at least be interesting, I’m sure.

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