Mastering ‘The Master’

master (noun): (1) a man who has people working for him, esp. servants or slaves; (2) the original print of a film from which theatrical copies are made; (3) a shot that covers an entire scene in a single take.

Stephen Farber is not alone among thoughtful reviewers (LA Times, Sept. 29) in castigating Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master for an underwritten narrative that leaves characters in the lurch and fails to live up to its European art cinema pretentions.

Granting the film’s purposely non-traditional technique, Farber nevertheless objects to the dearth of motivation offered for Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) lost soul and for cult leader Lancaster Dodd’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) instant taking to the rotgut-concocting, violence-prone Quell.

A closer look at the film overrules both objections. Several factors for Freddie’s “animalistic” behavior are proposed. A prematurely deceased (likely abusive) father and mentally institutionalized mother are clearly not the greatest confidence-builders, much less for a boy-man with a hunchback and a hair-lip—nor could a stint on a battleship in World War II have proved therapeutic. Continue reading “Mastering ‘The Master’” »

The Crank: ‘Caught’ Program Notes (11/1/12 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.

In 1946 Max Ophuls was brought on to direct Vendetta (1950) after the film’s director, Preston Sturges, left to focus on another project. The film would have been the German-born director’s first American feature, but he was replaced after one week. Accounts of the event vary: Sturges claims that producer Howard Hughes did not want to employ a “foreigner,” while others claim Hughes was frustrated by Ophuls’s slow shooting schedule. The experience left Ophuls with a rather poor opinion of Hughes, and three years later Ophuls directed Caught (1949), a film inspired, at least in part, by the brief time he spent working for Hughes.

Caught was the last film made by the independent company Enterprise Productions. Enterprise had the rights to the book Wild Calendar, which Ophuls was slated to direct. Originally meant as a Ginger Rogers vehicle, the story was changed quite dramatically under Ophuls’s supervision. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents recalls meeting with the director about the script: “When I met with Ophuls, he said, ‘I don’t want to do that story, I want to do the Howard Hughes story.’ I asked why. He said, ‘Because I hate Hughes.’” The feeling was likely mutual, as Hughes frequently referred to the director simply as “the oaf.” Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Caught’ Program Notes (11/1/12 Screening)” »