Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Adult discussions”

‘The Master’ leaves you with all kinds of thoughts – about censorship, about the vandalism of art, and especially about acting.

Watching The Master at a Chennai theatre, I got the feeling that the director Paul Thomas Anderson would have been thrilled by the way the film was presented – its sexuality was kept largely intact. The swear words and the explicit language weren’t beeped out, the implied sexual acts were untouched, and the graphic nudity wasn’t edited out. A life-sized (perhaps a bit more than life-sized) sand sculpture of a nude woman was shown intact, and in scenes involving real nude women, the potentially offensive body parts were smudged out, as if with Vaseline. Only one scene among the ones listed in IMDb.com’s Parent’s Guide – an advisory for parents wondering whether or not to take children along – was missing: “A woman is seen naked lying on top of a man who appears to be naked.” But this wasn’t, as they say these days, a deal breaker. This fascinating and challenging film was accorded the respect it deserved. It wasn’t mutilated.

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This is the way films should be censored. Ideally, the film wouldn’t be censored at all. It would be allowed to play in its entirety, with only the rating system enforcing some form of censorship – in other words, it would be left to us whether we want to see such a film or not, and not to a censor board that snips off scenes worried about children and the easily offended. But that’s too much of a pipe dream, given the way this country functions – and this Vaseline-censorship is an acceptable compromise. Of course, this type of censorship wouldn’t work in the case of a film like Last Tango in Paris, where the nudity isn’t static (as in The Master) but dynamic, with actors romping across rooms in the pursuit of sex. You’d have to Vaseline the whole screen, then – and that’s probably why that one instance of nudity in The Master was removed.

Censored this way, the plot doesn’t lose continuity, and if there’s dialogue during the sex scene, we hear it and don’t lose track of what’s happening between characters. And The Master is all about the interplay between characters, which is why Anderson would have approved of the cut that’s playing in Indian theatres. At other times though, he wouldn’t have approved. Which sane filmmaker is going to sit calm when his carefully composed frames are vandalised with the admonition “Smoking is injurious to health”? It’s like graffiti on the walls of the Taj, and this warning appears even in frames where no one seems to be brandishing a cigarette. The labels on beer cans are also smeared out. How can anyone have the heart to muck up classy cinematography like this? (Wes Anderson’s painterly Moonrise Kingdom met with similar treatment.) And let’s not even get started about where they decide to insert the Intermission card. In a country where the interval point is an integral consideration in the narrative, is it so hard to find a suitable break in films made without intervals?

These concerns apart, The Master – about a disoriented drifter who finds refuge in the teachings of a self-styled prophet – is fuelled by a strange and haunting music score, dreamy lines (“Leave your worries for a while. They’ll be there when you get back.”), and lots and lots of acting. In this space, I’ve written about the kind of acting I like to see on screen – “actors who do not let us catch them acting, actors who let us see only the character” – and I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just say that I loved watching Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to have mastered the middle ground between completely unshowy acting (from the days before the Method came along) and Method-propelled mannerism. He can chew scenery with the best of them (witness his rip-roaring performance as the villain in Mission: Impossible III) and vanish into character as if by magic (Capote) – and in The Master his work is a breathtaking mix of both styles. Just hearing him spit out the word wrestle, it’s hard not to be swept into the cult of Hoffman.

With Joaquin Phoenix though, it’s an altogether different matter. His talent is never in question. His forehead, one moment, is a sea of calm, and then, suddenly, thick, ropy veins will begin to seethe, as if trying to break free. His commitment isn’t in question either, what with all the weight he lost for this part – he’s positively gaunt. It’s just that we’re always being reminded of “look what he can do, look what he is doing.” In a stunning early scene, he’s seated opposite a grey-haired senior – they’re both in the army; World War II has just ended – and their acting styles are eerily indicative of the schism that lies ahead in the real world of the time, especially upon the arrival of Brando. The elder actor performs the way James Stewart or Spencer Tracy would, without fuss, while Phoenix mumbles his lines, so tortured he seems to be reaching right into his soul. I was riveted. I was also exhausted.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

33 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Adult discussions”

  1. But wait…you give an Adult rating to the film in this country and THEN smudge those scenes out, cut the final scene because smudging won’t help there and those beer can thing (it is because of drinking/smoking warning? I thought the label had some nudity there :P ). Now THAT is something I don’t think Paul Thomas Anderson will approve.

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  2. Any plans to write about ‘Lincoln’. Would like to know what you think of it, and especially–given your last paragraph here–of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance.

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  3. Managed to catch the censor details displayed at the doorway before I went in; surprisingly no cuts at all!. However while the total running time (incl the tobacco disclaimers) was mentioned as 160 mins, what was shown was almost 15 minutes short. (doesn’t add up however as Wiki mentions only 143 mins). Did the projection fellows cut out some?

    Acc to Wiki, towards the very end, Freddie has a processing session with the woman he picks up from the cafe, while having sex. I don’t remember watching this, It cut straight from the cafe to the beach sculpture. do you?

    The interval insertion I felt was quite smooth. It came as the announcement for the convention is made and a second book is revealed.

    Phoenix was amazing I thought. Wouldn’t have believed it was him but for the cleft scar. Showy? Hmm… you are too exacting.

    As for the film, while it left me generally sad and brooding, I’m still not sure I’ve got its essence (if ever there was one).

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  4. What a nice article and I am so glad you got to see this on a big screen without the kinds of censor-imposed losses that I gather could have been imposed on you. Happy to hear that things are gong this way there.

    As to what the movie might be about, my own thoughts were — both men, Phoenix’ drifter/loser character, and Hoffman’s intellectual guru-charlatan, are profoundly flawed and incomplete. Both are empty at the core. They form an ultimately unsuccessful symbiotic relationship, as if their bonding in a guru-student relationship could complete them both — but it can’t because underneath they are both missing the same thing: there’s no moral anchor or compass.

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  5. Hi Baradwaj, Hoffman is a brilliant actor, love his performances. Even is average dross like along came polly, he was outstanding. I was disappointed when christoph waltz won this year ( though he was vey good in django), cause no one can better Hoffman. And on the topic of actors, what do you think of waltz? I love the way he delivers his lines.

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  6. I am with Abhirup on this , what do you make of DDL’s performance ? I have read pieces where you talk about the showy acting of Madame Streep, DDL of course goes many steps further than that , no ?

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  7. The film doesn’t completely make sense without the final scene (the one that was edited out). Glad I saw the film via the blessings of internet gods first.

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  8. *Tries to hide disappointment*

    I was hoping to find BR with his “critics” hat on and break into all the sexual subtext in The Master about whether the film is one man’s film long search to get laid; or his compulsion to make any kind of connection, even if it is with a sand woman; or how Amy Adams’ Peggy was one of the most chilling characters seen in any 2012 film. :(

    Oh well, I know that is not the point of this article, as you did actually say that you were doing English film columns and not reviews. And the point the article makes is a very good one. I saw this on Blu Ray before it came out here. I still wanted to see it on the big screen because of how beautiful the cinematography is and how haunting the score by Jonny Greenwood is, but I couldn’t find the time. I am happy I saw it at home because I cannot stand any cuts.

    Sadly, I think our government is still too primitive in that regard. I can watch porn in the blink of an eye, anytime I want, anywhere I want. But a film which is R-rated is censored to cut out nudity. What’s the point of the R-rating then? I am catching Django Unchained (which I’d love to hear your thoughts about because your Inglourious Basterds column was gold) tomorrow and I know that all the nudity is cut out from it. Thankfully the violence is still there. But these kind of things make me wish I were some place other than India as a cinephile.

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  9. would have taken a lot of vaseline to smudge the hallucinatory party scene.
    As far as the movie goes the fact that they chose it to be the story of freddie rather than the Master or the Cause , is applaudable

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  10. Gradwolf: Don’t even talk about it. Seeing “Django Unchained” soon, and I’m already depressed by Balaji’s information that there are lots of cuts.

    Abhirup: Missed “Lincoln” in the theatre. Will have to catch it sometime soon. But in general, I think (to answer Venkatesh’s question), DDL >>>> Streep. I never get the “self-conscious emoting” feel with him as I do with her, with all her nervous fidgeting. I know he’s “acting,” but it’s so immersive that it pulls me right in.

    Here’s my piece on “There Will Be Blood”.

    Kiruba: Yes, that scene was cut out. I did mention it in the piece above. As for Phoenix, you felt “Wouldn’t have believed it was him but for the cleft scar.” I felt it was all him :-)

    Raj Balakrishnan: Oh, I like Waltz. He’s good even in disappointments like “Carnage.”

    Nidhi: Yeah, I was kinda stunned by the cinematography. Amazing stuff.

    Balaji Sivaraman: Now that you reminded me, here’s my piece on “Inglourious Basterds”.

    Aditya Acharya: “would have taken a lot of vaseline to smudge the hallucinatory party scene…” LOL!

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  11. B, am glad you touched on censorship before segueing into the movie proper. Malaysia has some pretty arcane attitudes towards censorship especially with regards to sex and nudity although violence and profanity get a free pass especially if it’s rated 18. Have never understood, in this day and age, how the concept of a select group of people deciding what’s acceptable to the larger viewing public is still considered acceptable.

    But the smoking warning is just ludicrous. Why not extend it to everything else?

    Warning: Rape is a heinous crime against women
    Warning: Discharging firearms in public can lead to loss of life
    Warning: High speed car chases is in violation of traffic laws
    Warning: Explosions constitute a hazard to public safety.
    Warning (applicable to Tamil movies only): Blatant sexism and flagrant chauvinism create a new generation of young males brought up to objectify women.

    As for intervals, soooo inappropriate for English movies which simply aren’t made for it.

    Btw, Django was released here surprisingly uncut. Looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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  12. Baradwaj : Joaquin Phoenix has his Cool Hand Luke moment in this film and CBFC makes sure that we don’t get to see it on the big screen.

    It is a movie that tests you, exhausts you but there’s a fantastic repeat value to the movie. You know that you’ll start second guessing yourself when you watch it again and we are suckers to this feeling.

    I have three conclusions in my head and I am certain that whichever one I end up believing, the movie will remain a masterpiece in my eyes.

    How much do you thin has Paul Thomas Anderson evolved a film maker with The Master from his Boogie Nights days?

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  13. @baradwaj: The party scene was retained? With the frontal nudity ? Wow. To think I was telling someone that the Master probably wouldn’t make it to Indian shores or even if it did, would be censored beyond recognition.

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  14. BTW, I am happy to announce that the Django Unchained we get to see is not a malformed mutation. Yes, there are cuts, especially a lot of the nudity (mostly Foxx’s I imagine). But the violence is intact and the swear words are not bleeped out and the incredibly annoying statutory warning appears at the bottom of the screen almost invisible to the naked eye. So that’s a good news I wanted to share pertaining to the topic at hand.

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  15. I saw The Master at home and it was absolutely arresting. There is something immensely watchable about Paul Thomas Anderson’s narratives that you can’t quite fathom. I love how he holds the frame for minutes together. And, I for one was looking to watch it on the big screen, but decided against it because I didn’t want Rmkv and Saravana Stores ruining the movie for me. The smoking thing is atrocious.

    BR, I am curious how was the audience at your theater? Restless, moaning and on the verge of walking out or Transfixed?

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  16. KayKay: Yeah, aparently we can see all the blood and gore and violence in the world, in lengthy sequences, but heaven forbid we catch a flash of a breast or a penis. Weird, man, weird :-)

    LOL at your warnings! Is the interval concept prevalent in Malaysia?

    Hithesh: Oh, he’s changed a lot. He used to make these loose, shambling films — and that’s not a diss; I love those early films — and now he’s become a rigidly formal filmmaker. The scenes after Phoenix begins to suspect that Hoffman’s a snake-oil salesman — the scene where goes through more “exercises,” the scene with the motorcycle in the desert — were astoundingly put together. So chilly. So precise. Kubrick would have been proud :-)

    Mambazha Manidhan: Audience was badly behaved. I seriously cannot get how grown-ups can still burst out giggling/hooting when there’s a bit of nudity, or even a kiss. Seriously!

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  17. BR: “I seriously cannot get how grown-ups can still burst out giggling/hooting when there’s a bit of nudity, or even a kiss. Seriously!” – Shoot them. Take a knife and butcher them. I hate people like that.

    BTW, re DDL .>>>> Streep – do you ever get “taken out” of the film cause you went in knowing its DDL or Hoffman or whoever. And all the noise about their processes and how the “hardships” they went to get into character etc etc. I find myself wanting to not know anything and going in fresh – thats getting harder and harder. I think Fincher had a great idea with Seven , not revealing the name of Joe Doe till the end, that is what i want.

    I would be glad of a service where a set of curated films are played without telling the audience whats going to be played or who is in it or even what language it is in. Bring me in , place me on a plush seat and let it play and kill all the nuts who hoot in cinemas. I will pay good money for that,

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  18. @Baradwaj I was thinking about Eyes Wide Shut when the *you know which* scene came up.

    Man, has he shed those Altman-esque clothes and taken up the role of being the Kubrick of this era.

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  19. Damn me for not posting whatever I wanted to say in one long comment but the Indian audience would rather laugh/chuckle when the actor on screen mouths some profanity rather than a scene where there’s subtle humor. We still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting profanity, nudity etc. as mature adults should.

    People in the theater were more interested in the blurred out scenes than the ones that weren’t :/

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  20. I just saw this, and I have mixed feelings. I still feel Anderson’s Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood had more cohesive narratives. That said, this is a gorgeously shot movie (that scene where Freddie is chased by his enraged co-workers believing he’s poisoned one of them with his illicit liquor, and he bursts out of darkness through the doorway and runs onto the cabbage fields is sheer cinematic poetry, one of those “Ooh! Aah!” moments rivalling the shot of burning oil wells against the evening sky in There Will Be Blood where you get to revel in the sheer joy of cinema as the ultimate visual medium. Why the F!@k wasn’t the DP nominated?) and features impeccable performances. I have never ever NOT enjoyed a Hoffman performance and you could probably find traces of his Lancaster Dodd’s DNA in Tom Cruise’ equally fake self-help guru in Anderson’s earlier Magnolia.

    Phoenix is a mixed bag for me, his tics and barely incomprehensible mumblings just scream METHOD to me but his tortured Freddie, obviously a PTSD victim was effectively rendered. But I just kept wishing it would all crescendo into something a little more dramatic to what we were eventually given. I kinda get what Anderson was trying to do. The duality of 2 men who by all intents should be set on a collission course but strangely form an incomplete symbiotic relationship. But then again, so does John Woo in The Killer and Hard Boiled with half the amount of drawn out lingering shots and twice the pyrotechnics. Ok, invalid comparisons. The Master is a moody, introspective art-house piece. Fine, I can dig it but given it’s central protagonist’s obsession with sex, the movie plays like a long wank without the climax (a release Hoffman’s Master gets from his wife, but one sadly denied to the viewer).

    SPOILER

    I saw a downloaded version sans the cuts, and the penultimate sex scene adds no clarity to the movie’s ending for me. So, does Freddie break free of The Master’s grip, or is the symbiosis complete, with him assimilating Dodd’s Processing? Or are these questions the movie intends leaving me with to ponder in my own time?

    Yup, it’s an art movie alright…..

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  21. Re: final scene from the full version.. SPOIILERS ..

    My reading is that Freddie is finally ‘cured’, in that he may continue drinking but he has finally learnt to connect with another human being apart from the Master. He is free, the Master of himself. This is what Dodd says in the final scene they have together. Dodd is constrained by his societal status, expectations and his role in the cult. Freddie is truly free. This makes Dodd jealous. He is only ‘The Master’ in title, but it’s hinted (well, more than that) that it’s Peggy who runs the place. A reversal of roles.

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  22. @Mambazha Manidhan : Haven’t been to India in > 10 years , so don;’t really know how it is now but last i went in there – it was more a “to be seen” place than anything else and the crowd was just noisy bad.

    Its the Indian movie going crowd, they bring chunnu, munnu and paati to watch a film , its a day out for them . No one is there to watch the film, they are there to have a “fun” day out. Its good but please go to some other film. Singham is running next door , feel free to go there.
    And oh , it doesn’t get any better outside India, went to see Vishwaroopam in NJ , crying babies galore at the most inopportune moments. .

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  23. @Nidhi : They were babies brought to a Tamil movie by what i am assuming are Indian parents – the majority of the parents were Indian , yes.

    My point , though harshly put, i must admit, is – don’t bring your babies, children to a movie that is rated 12+. I would argue that even if it is a “G” movie , don’t bring your kids unless you know how to control them and can keep them quiet. Having a kid does not give you any extra privileges.There is a basic cinema-going etiquette and unfortunately in my experience Indian audiences world-wide do not know this or do not care enough. I have seen this sort of behaviour in Singapore, London and the States. All over, its the same.

    There are theatres in many major cities (LDN, NY being a prime example) – that specifically run shows catering to kids , go for those shows and if you want to come to a “general” show, then respect the rights of others as well. That’s all.

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  24. Phoenix was plain unlucky to have his film released the same year as Day-Lewis’. Period.

    Here’s The Master..

    At the very outset, Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) makes it overtly clear that he is going the whole nine yards in fleshing out characteristics – deviant or otherwise – of subjects from his 1950s America in ‘The Master.’ It begins with Joaquin Phoenix (JP) vulgarly simulating fornication & other form of sexual acts with a sand-sculpted naked body of a female when other navy-guards look on rather nonchalantly. He has another talent for preparing alcoholic concoctions using tender coconuts and paint thinner! He, along with other war-ravaged sailors, comes out into the civil world and tries to adjust to the ‘normality’ of civilian life. PTA then follows the character of Freddie Quell played by JP with an almost narcissistic obsession trying to suck us into his mental world.

    http://www.madaboutmoviez.com/2012/10/master-movie-review/

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