The Master in 70mm at the Music Box
Cinephilia is alive and well.
That was the first thought that crossed my mind when I arrived at the Music Box last night for the not-so-secret 70mm screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. It was a little after 8:30pm, with well over an hour until the event was scheduled to begin, and a healthy line had already formed outside the entrance. A half-hour later, the mass of eager ticket-holders had expanded outward, stretching around the block onto Grace. Hopeful, ticketless men walked the perimeter, some carrying signs, pleading for the opportunity to buy a spare off anyone scalping. At a glance, one might confuse the scene for the pre-show gathering outside a rock concert.
The excitement was palpable, and understandable. This was only the second public screening of The Master; the first was a surprise premiere in Santa Monica, where Anderson presented the film in 70mm—the format he shot it in and the one he prefers it to be seen in. There was doubt for a while as to whether Chicago would get the opportunity to experience the movie that way. Time Out Chicago Film editor Ben Kenigsberg's post had alerted Anderson's team to the Music Box's 70mm projection capabilities, but theater programmer Brian Andreotti was quick to report that the Weinstein Company was not offering them the film for a first run.
So it was a pleasant surprise when the Music Box announced on Wednesday night that it would be hosting a 70mm screening of The Master, with proceeds benefiting the nonprofit Film Foundation. Within two hours of going online, all tickets to the event had been snatched up.
Anderson was in attendance at the sold-out screening, though he kept a very low profile, leaving introductory remarks to Music Box general manager Dave Jennings. "We're working on bringing it back in 70mm," Jennings told the audience. "Probably sometime this winter." As to whether the untrained eye would be able to glean the merits of the wide-gauge format, Jennings was blunt: "If you can't see the difference, you're not looking at the screen."
He wasn't kidding: From the film's first shot of waves crashing in a spectacularly blue ocean, the benefits of 70mm are blindingly obvious. In terms of color and clarity, nothing compares; regardless of what one thought of The Master—a weird, transfixing study in sickness and devotion—there was no denying the retina-tickling pleasures of this enhanced viewing experience.
The film begins the same way Anderson's last movie did: with its main character chopping away to the atonal clicks and hums of a Jonny Greenwood score. In There Will Be Blood, the relentless swing of a pickax marked Daniel Plainview as a man of almost inhuman determination. No such easy conclusions can be drawn about Freddie Sutton (Joaquin Phoenix), first seen shirtless on a beach, burying his blade in a coconut. A Navy veteran, Freddie has just returned from the second World War. His mind is clearly not all together, though flashbacks suggest some of his issues may predate his time in the service. Is The Master a film about what war does to a functional mind, or is it a film about the way the military—among other strictly controlled organizations—attracts already dysfunctional minds?
Phoenix plays Freddie as a volatile enigma; it's a great, boldly physical performance, with the actor lurching about like a child caught in an adult's skin. Drifting aimlessly through his post-war years, Freddie eventually stumbles aboard the docked ship of budding spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—though that name isn't used until about halfway through the film, as many of the characters simply (and creepily) refer to him as "Master." The two bond over a homemade cocktail Freddie devises from paint thinner and other questionably consumable chemicals. "Is it poison?" the older man asks. "Not if you drink it right!" replies the younger man.
The relationship between these two figures becomes the dramatic crux of the film, with Freddie developing a vicious, doglike loyalty to his new Master, even as those in Lancaster's inner circle (including his true-believer of a wife, played by Amy Adams) begin to fear and distrust the young vet. Visually and sonically, Anderson is still operating in the disorienting, vaguely menacing mode of There Will Be Blood. Yet The Master feels closer in spirit to his misfit romance Punch-Drunk Love, thanks largely to the empathy he expresses for his disturbed protagonist. (There's also a kind of repetitive initiation ritual Phoenix performs that brings to mind the panicky, pacing-through-the-store sequence in Love.)
And we can say at last that, yes, the film is at least tangentially about Scientology. Lancaster's religion—dubbed simply "The Cause"—is built around a similar mythology of ancient past lives and spiritual rehabilitation. Prospective believers submit to "processing," instead of auditing, but the collision of therapy and faith is essentially the same. (In the film's most instantly iconic scene, Freddie sits down for his first session with Lancaster, who finds his new companion ideally suited to these cathartic head games.) Dates and other details further confirm the Scientology parallels, but it would be a mistake to think of The Master as a thinly disguised history of the movement or an L. Ron Hubbard biopic. Like Blood, this is an eccentric character study that plays out against a historical backdrop.
It's also quite easily the strangest and most esoteric picture Anderson has ever made—and frankly too much to unpack and digest in one viewing. I echo the sentiments of my Chicago critic peers, many of whom stumbled out of the screening in a daze and reported on Twitter that further reflection would be needed. (The A.V. Club's Scott Tobias may have put it best when he wrote that the movie is "comically resistant to insta-reaction.") Of course, one looks forward to seeing a visionary work like this again and again—not just to unravel its secrets, but also simply to bask in its aesthetic wonders. I feel privileged to have seen it in all its wide-gauge glory. Let's hope more Chicagoans get to do so in the near future.