Sometimes you just know something is wank.
That definitive gut instinct is one of the most freeing responses a moviegoer can have, and it’s one of the drivers that keeps the movies alive as a popular art form: Anyone with a ticket or the ability to stream can watch a movie and know, in the end, just how he or she feels. Or doesn’t feel. Even ambivalence can be a kind of boldness, a catalyst that forces viewers to reckon with what they’ve just seen, to unfold its rangy layers until some semblance of meaning emerges. But even after all that wrestling, what happens if you still don’t like the movie that has been deemed a masterpiece by nearly every critic you respect (and some you don’t)? Did you just not watch the movie hard enough, or think about it long enough? Are you just not smart enough to get it?
Is the problem you?
Viewers may or may not have feelings of confusion as they walk out of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s bodaciously epic act of filmmaking about an aimless, boozy navy grunt (Joaquin Phoenix) who emerges from the fog of World War II to fall under the spell of a charismatic, delusional flim-flammer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a cult we all know is supposed to sort-of be Scientology. Many critics have deemed the film daring, even groundbreaking. Plus, it tussles with important things like father-son power struggles and murky homoeroticism. The picture is rigorous in its formalism—a little cult-like itself, in that regard—because Anderson is now a great filmmaker, not just a kid turning out messy, fascinating, and often deeply moving experiments like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Hard Eight (or, as those of us who love it prefer to call it, Sydney), or even weirdo semi-misfires like Punch-Drunk Love. Some may love the direction in which Anderson is now headed, post-There Will Be Blood, and some may miss the delicate genre toughness of Sydney. Some may yearn to see The Master again, while others may feel, even if they essentially liked it, that once is more than enough.
As a film critic, I follow a lot of other critics on Twitter. Last week, as The Master geared up for its initial limited release, I noticed a number of critics and other observers noting that anyone who hoped to get the most out of the movie really ought to see it twice. In their eyes, the picture is that rich, that artistically challenging, that impossible to immediately “get.” But the subtext of those tweets—unintentional, I’m certain—was passive-aggressively dictatorial. The unspoken suggestion was, “If you didn’t get it the first time, keep going back until you do.”
But what if viewers see The Master once and not only don’t warm to it—or find it engaging in any of the ways we engage with films we don’t exactly like—but also don’t think there’s much to get? Serious moviegoers who care about reviews—and, admittedly, there may be fewer of those than there were 40 years ago—may be baffled by all the accolades, or possibly cowed by them. Everyone who goes to the movies (critics included) has those “What did they see that I didn’t see?” moments.
But there’s something distressing about the urge to anoint Paul Thomas Anderson as—finally! at long last!—a cinematic genius. For one thing, he is at precisely the point when filmmakers often become less interesting rather than more. (I would argue that it happened with Kubrick and Godard, to name just two, though you may have different examples.) The idea that certain filmmakers reach a point where respect is their due, rather than something they earn film by film, defies one of the most immediate and visceral pleasures of moviegoing: The pleasure of seeing for yourself.
Plus, isn’t it a lot more boring to march around on a filmmaker’s behalf, trumpeting the significance of intentions and reputations, than it is to wrangle with the actual movies? When Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder debuted in Venice last month, a significant portion of the audience reportedly booed. (I wasn’t there to hear it.) Several critics took to their Twitter feeds to decry the booing, asserting that Malick’s film, whatever its flaws might be, deserved serious, thoughtful consideration rather than just a kneejerk response.
But then, shouldn’t that be true of a movie made by any filmmaker? (Oddly enough, or maybe not, when Brian De Palma’s equally divisive Passion debuted at the festival a few days later and was also apparently greeted with boos, no one took to Twitter in protest.) For the record, on principle I’m against booing at festivals, where films are often making their debut: It’s hard enough for any filmmaker, mainstream or otherwise, to do good work these days. If viewers really hate a film that much on first viewing, it’s the better part of valor to keep it to themselves. Booing is rude, and as a form of criticism, it’s brutish, vague, and wholly inadequate.
But an audience’s booing does signify at least a little something: It’s the unfiltered response of a cranky id, a gremlin who was hoping to see a different movie from the one that was just put in front of him, dammit. It should be either ignored or simply noted in passing and forgotten, not taken as a signal to rush to the foot of the martyred filmmaker’s crucifix. Love him or hate him, Terrence Malick doesn’t need any special pleading, though because he has historically made only one movie every twelve-teen years or so—a record he has broken with To The Wonder—he seems to have achieved permanent underdog status.
Maybe that’s key to the critical defensiveness over filmmakers like Malick and Anderson: In a world where “serious” filmmaking has become increasingly marginalized in favor of hyper-expensive, churned-out blockbusters, filmmakers like these two strive to give us something more. But how much of a “more” is seen up there is strictly up to the individual viewer. There’s a danger in erecting false walls around different corners of the culture, of claiming some movies deserve our respect by virtue of who made them and of how they’re made, regardless of whether they arouse any passion in us.
There are times, though, when a movie beckons for a second viewing: It’s a mysterious siren’s song, or at least a little like Wimpy’s becoming airborne when he gets a whiff of the alluring aroma of a hamburger. When that happens—with any movie, including The Master—run, don’t walk, back to the theater! And as a parting shot, and an example of the strange power movies (like cult leaders) can have over us, let’s compare an apple to an orange: I’ve seen The Master once and I feel no need or desire to see it again. The filmmaking is rigorously disciplined for sure, and the score, by Jonny Greenwood, is assertively angular and “interesting,” which is perhaps just a euphemism for something you wouldn’t want to play at home with your cats around. (And I say that as someone who has subjected her own cats to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and late Coltrane, God help their small ears.) I accept and acknowledge that the movie attempts to probe some dark and mysterious corners of human nature. I don’t feel that its elusiveness eluded me.
The movie I’m yearning to see again was not made by anyone who has been deemed a great artist, but by a sometime-director who mostly writes screenplays. David Koepp’s Premium Rush is a genre picture, as The Master, by most criteria, is not. It’s a thriller in which a New York City bike messenger, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has to race all over town, daredevil-style, to deliver a very important package to a location in Chinatown; Michael Shannon plays the baddie who tries to thwart him at every turn, and at every pothole.
I can see how much care and attention Anderson put into The Master, which may be part of the problem. But the craftsmanship of Premium Rush is the offhand sort, which is not to say it’s at all accidental, but simply that it’s enlisted purely and obviously to give pleasure to the audience. (Plus, it’s increasingly difficult for filmmakers to do good work within the mainstream and, it seems, to get critics to acknowledge just how good that work is.) The picture is so deftly constructed, and the action sequences are shot so clearly, that the first time I watched it, I could sense how well-made it was, but I was having so much fun I couldn’t pick up on every detail of the filmmaking mechanics that went into it. I saw the craft in The Master—and how! It’s cod that, for me, has been hooked, cleaned, and cooked, whereas Premium Rush is still something of a mystery. I want to see it again, but if I do, am I following the siren’s song, or just the aroma of the hamburger? And is it heresy to suggest that, in the world of passionate moviegoing, perhaps they’re just different versions of the same thing?
Stephanie Zacharek is a freelance writer based in New York. She was formerly a film critic at Salon.com, and her writing on books and pop culture has also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Sight and Sound.