I am a member of a group of people that make up a far greater portion of the population than you'd think: People who are frothing with anticipation for a new film from Paul Thomas Anderson. Any film by Paul Thomas Anderson. This week, we rejoiced. The early teaser for his newest, The Master was released online.
(See trailer below article.)
Hit play: We abruptly open on a picturesque beach in the South Pacific. Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell, according to the always reliable internet) walks with his head hung, the waves crashing at his feet.
"Are you mixed up... are you more jumpy then you were before?"
He builds something on the beach in the sand. Is that a sand-nipple?
He grins in the daylight, playfully rolling onto his side. His childlike mannerisms.
"You've had violent episodes."
American Navy men -of which Phoenix is just one of many- stage an impromptu boxing match on the beach. Phoenix likes to fight. And to drink. Great combo.
"Yes, sir... We all did."
What the hell is going on here?
The plot summary of The Master (Oh Wikipedia, you're such a mensch) doesn't shed as much light as you'd think: "A charismatic intellectual (Philip Seymour Hoffman) launches a religious organization following World War 2. A drifter (Phoenix) becomes his right-hand man but as the faith begins to gain a fervent following, the drifter finds himself questioning the belief system and his mentor." Kay...
Back to the teaser: Phoenix is questioned about an episode that took place "on the way home here"; an incident that he claims he does not remember. "Lets just see if we can't help you remember what happened." Is he in trouble? We do not know. All the while a quiet and unknown menace hangs in the room.
When we see Phoenix's face, it is in extreme close up, claustrophobically cutting him off from the rest of the world. We never see his interrogator in close up, who remains cold and distant on the other side of the table. The wide shot reveals nothing of this man's intentions with Phoenix, malicious or otherwise.
What is most captivating about the footage is the sense of mystery and dread it evokes. We see the knife being sharpened on that beach. He is prodded about "the episode" that he does not recall. And all the while, that hollow wood tapping sound continues on the soundtrack. Sure, they may have smuggled booze (the most delightful liquid on the planet) onto their ship inside 'em but, those are still torpedoes. All of this very unsettling.
The teaser (which was cut by Anderson himself) spoils no plot details but instead, perfectly encapsulates the tone of what I'd imagine the rest of the film will be like, all the while leaving you wanting more. It's really the perfect trailer. You know this guy but, you don't know this guy. You know the tone but, you don't really know the tone. You are in the same position as Phoenix, wondering: "What episode? What happened?" What the #$%@ is going on? It's actually a stroke of genius. We don't see any of the supporting cast, which includes Amy Adams and Laura Dern. Neither do we see the titular Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And no one has mentioned Scientology. Not one word. Almost nothing happens.
It's amusing to recall that this is the same filmmaker who masterminded those long, sweeping Steadicam shots in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, where we follow characters up and down hallways and corridors. Or the wonderful dolly shot that follows Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love) as he hoists a cardboard pudding-cup display onto his shoulder and jogs it through the supermarket.
He has apparently grown out that flashy (yet beautiful) camera work. Call me crazy but, it seems that PT Anderson doesn't move his camera around as much anymore. As he did in There Will Be Blood, nearly every shot is locked down and silent, photographically speaking. Emotionally speaking, they scream at the top of their lungs. Yet despite the lack of camera moves, not a single shot feels static or lifeless. This marks Anderson's first feature without his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit. Here he works with Mihai Malaimare Junior and so far, so good. From what we see in this scant footage, the photography is easily on par with all of PTA's previous films.
Of those who do reappear from Anderson's previous work is Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, whose score immediately reminded me of his work on There Will Be Blood. Those tense, driving chords never give the audience a moment to relax or catch their breath, always seeming to alert us of unseen trouble over the horizon. It is not difficult to see how Anderson's films have become so respected amongst his contemporaries.
Everyone used to compare PTA to guys like Robert Altman (Sure), Scorsese (I suppose) and Tarantino (Um, really?). But today, the only comparison I can see is to Stanley Kubrick (also a well known practitioner of those lovely Steadicam shots). He was another director whose work undeniably stood head and shoulders above that of his peers. He also had the unique ability to compose scenes that simultaneously confounded and disturbed us, in the best way possible. And to think... all of this for a 100 second teaser trailer.
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master hits theaters this October.
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Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.