The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

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In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson got earth’s most intense actor into the role of a megalomaniac and essentially just let the camera watch Daniel Day Lewis volcano all over everything. Here he does the same with another great slow-burner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though the results here are even more diffuse in terms of plotting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Master’s acolyte and foil, and does terrific but often overcooked work; you get the sense that Hoffman is not the only three-named intensity-monger that Phoenix is bending over backwards to impress. It’s an engaging movie to look at, but as with There Will Be Blood, I wind up feeling there’s a certain emptiness to the endeavor. So many of the scenes feel like exercises in a Strasberg seminar; there’s a great deal of emoting, but not a lot of emotion. Part of the trouble is that the movie is so fearful of being about anything specific that it winds up not being about anything in particular. The wish to belong, the lure of alcohol, rationalism vs spirituality, male friendship, PTSD, American vacuity . . . they’re all toyed with as themes, but Anderson puts down no significant bets on any of them. So you’ll remember people laughing, crying, shouting, fighting, and kissing, but not why.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (2012)

beastin' on crab - _DSC8525.NEFI was pretty sure I was going to hate this and sure enough I did. It’s a straight-up noble savage number which reassures us that poor southerners are stupid, drunk, stubborn, dirty, fearful of modernity, and anti-social, but also of course magical, poetic, natural, and authentic. The fact that the movie was shot handheld on 16mm is a nice formal corollary to the film’s thematic depravities; just as Zeitlin would have us believe that these utterly inauthentic stereotypes somehow represent something essential and fundamental about the people of southern Louisiana, so too does he hope that his use of antique technology will lend an air of authenticity to the shamelessly shallow and ridiculous characterizations he parades before us. The whole thing pains me all the more because I’ve grown to so love the culture of Louisiana myself over the last ten years, a love made pointed and profound by my constant recognition that I will never fully understand the place. The nerve of this carpetbagger is impressive, I’ll say that much. His film company is named “Court 13,” after an empty squash court at Wesleyan he used as a film set for his undergraduate projects. That’s a true story!

Listen, bell hooks taught me to read at Oberlin College in the spring of 1989 and she can speak to all this far more wisely and deeply than I can, so if you want the straight dope check her out right here.

Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist (1810)

Michael-Kohlhaas-320x373Von Kleist is an author I’ve often heard referenced — in particular I remember that Rilke’s Duino elegy about the harlequins owes Von Kleist some kind of debt I forget — but had never read. Thanks to the good people at Melville House Publishing and their lovely editions of novellas like this one, I’ve at last been inspired.

This is a relentless little story which quite nicely maps onto a lot of contemporary issues and quandaries. Here’s the question in a nutshell: To what extent is it acceptable to commit injustices in the course of seeking redress for injustices? You could ask this of the prisoners of Guantanamo, and you could ask it too of Michael Kohlhaas.

Kohlhaas, a prosperous citizen, is done wrong by a nobleman, who seizes two of Kohlhaas’s horses under the guise of some bogus regulations. When Kohlhaas tries to pursue redress through legal channels, the nobleman’s friends in high places see to it that the petitions are squashed. Then Kohlhaas, enraged — one must imagine him played by Klaus Kinski at this point — takes matters into his own hands, terrorizing the countryside in an effort to force the ruling classes to make him whole.  From here events swirl into ever-tightening circles of moral hazard and illogic, where it is increasingly difficult to say who is in the right, or what “right” might even be. The funhouse claustrophobia and panic reminded me strongly of Kafka’s The Trial, and I was not surprised to find out with a little research on Wikipedia that this novella was a favorite of Franz’s.