The Master

Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson
Because I’ve waited until September 21, the day of The Master‘s theatrical release, to write this capsule, and because hundreds of thousands of words have already been spilled on this film (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review at MUBI nails my response almost exactly), I’ll just add two quick thoughts.

First, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is truly a strange thing, and not just by Hollywood standards. The way he collapses his chest and distorts his face reminded me of Emmanuel Schotte in L’Humanite (Dumont, 1999) and also of Antonin Artaud’s disintegration from the striking beauty of The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928) to the toothless madman of his final years. Phoenix’s histrionic showdowns with Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t impress me nearly as much as his moment-to-moment embodiment of inarticulate panic. I’d like to see a Douglas Gordon-like version of this film built from nothing but long-distance shots of Phoenix walking.

Second, like nearly everyone else I think the final hour or so of The Master is muddled and frustrating, but I love the final scene, when Freddie: a. finally gets laid, and b. uses the language of “The Cause” as a means of seduction. My main complaint with PT Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), is that the meticulous period detail is window dressing rather than anything like a real historical context, which is why I’ve never been convinced by readings of it as an analysis of a particular development in capitalism (or religion, for that matter).

The Master, I’d argue, is about post-WWII America in a way that Blood is not about the early-20th century oil boom. Because it defeated a black-and-white evil in Hitler, we like to pretend the “greatest generation” wasn’t devastated — emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, sexually — by the trauma of war. While hardly a perfect film, The Master is, I think, a curious study of the anxiety and desperation that characterized the lives of so many returning veterans and the loved ones they’d left behind. (I never would have guessed a PT Anderson movie would remind me of The Best Years of Our Lives [Wyler, 1946].) That final sex scene makes explicit what has been implied throughout the film. Cults, modern marketing and advertising, talk therapy, family, religion, sex, love — especially love — are all a kind of maddening seduction.

Prediction: Someone is already writing an academic conference paper on The Master and jouissance.

Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica

Dir. by Marcelo Gomes
First, a quick game of Six Degrees of Brazilian Cinema. Hermila Guedes, who plays Veronica here, also starred in Gomes’s first feature, Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures (2005), which was co-written by Karim Ainouz. Guedes also starred in Ainouz’s breakthrough film, Love for Sale (2006). Ainouz was at TIFF last year with The Silver Cliff, a character study of an attractive, 30-something dentist who suffers an identity crisis after her husband, without warning, leaves her. Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica is a character study of an attractive, 30-something doctor who suffers an identity crisis after her father is diagnosed with a vague critical condition. I mention all of that because Veronica is familiar in the worst ways. The Silver Cliff was one of my favorite undistributed films of 2011; Veronica, inevitably, suffers by comparison.

Once Upon a Time Was I, Veronica is book-ended by what we eventually learn is Veronica’s vision of ecstasy (or something like that), a strangely prudish orgy on a sun-drenched beach. The opening image is interesting simply because it lacks any context: What’s not to like about beautiful, co-mingled naked bodies rolling in the sand and floating in shallow waters? When the vision returns at the end of the film, immediately after an unnecessarily long, faux-dramatic shot of Veronica being baptized by sea spray and a standard-issue “making a new start” montage, it’s reduced to a banality. Perhaps this is Gomes’s stab at transcendence? There’s just no magic in his mise-en-scene, and certainly nothing approaching the rapturous image of Alessandra Negrini dancing her ass off in The Silver Cliff. Even Gomes’s documentary-like footage of carnival is boring. Seeing this film 24 hours after Far from Vietnam made me wonder what Chris Marker could have made of those crowd scenes. Talk about paling in comparison.

Birds

Dir. by Gabriel Abrantes
I saw the double bill of Birds and Viola because so many friends — really, everyone I spoke to who had seen any of Piñeiro’s work — told me to. So I went into the screening without having even read the program description, which in hindsight I regret. Birds is a lo-fi, 16mm mash-up of ideas, most of which flew by me (no pun intended) on a first viewing. Told in Greek and Creole, it adapts Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, turning it into an ironic commentary on the legacies of colonialism in Haiti. I hope to see Birds again before writing more about it. I suspect it will reward the effort.

Viola

Dir. by Matías Piñeiro
The great discovery of TIFF 2012, Viola is a fantasia on love that dances between dreams, theatrical performances, and a kind of hyper-sensual reality. “When he was singing, I thought I truly loved him,” the title character says in the film’s closing line. It’s typical of Piñeiro’s fluid perspective — a wistful, past-tense comment on a joyful present. Had I not known Piñeiro is barely 30 years old, I might have guessed this was an “old man” movie. His acute attention to potential love (or infatuation) is almost nostalgic, as if that surplus of feeling is so profound because it was always so fleeting. There are three kisses in the entire film, each significant in its own way, but like the particular scenes from Shakespeare that he cuts and pastes into his dialog, all of Viola is charged with barely-suppressed desire. I don’t know how else to put it: this is a really horny movie.

Except for a brief interlude in which we see Viola riding her bicycle through town, delivering packages for her and her boyfriend’s music and film bootlegging business, Piñeiro and cinematographer Fernando Lockett adhere to a unique visual strategy throughout the film. Each scene is built from only a handful of shots. Characters are typically framed in close-ups, usually from slightly above and with a very shallow, always-shifting depth of field. The camera moves often but in small and smooth gestures. And, most importantly, nearly all character movement happens along the z-axis.

That’s all worth mentioning, I think, because the form of the film — or, more precisely, the video; Viola is the new standard by which I’ll judge other indie DV projects — is so integrated with its content. Piñeiro often builds scenes around three characters. In some cases all three participate in the conversation (my two favorites take place in a theater dressing room and in the back of a mini-van); at other times, two characters talk while a third remains just outside of the frame, either literally or metaphorically. Viola is a talky movie, and its eroticism (for lack of a better word) is in its language and in its shifting compositions of faces. Piñeiro seems to have found a new form to express the the classic love triangle. The best comparison I can think of is the cafe and tram scenes in Jose Luis Guerin‘s In the City of Sylvia (2007).

According to Andrea Picard’s excellent program note, Viola is the second film (after 2010′s Rosalinda) in a proposed series “inspired by Gérard de Nerval’s Girls of Fire, an 1854 collection of short stories and sonnets each named for its eponymous heroine.” I can’t wait to see the rest.

Wavelengths 4

More to come in my full write-up for Senses of Cinema.