September 21, 2012 [The Master]

After his pseudo-doc I'm Still Here—which itself came after that night on Letterman when it all started, when Joaquin Phoenix paid tribute to Andy Kaufman and debuted an act of biographical scope in the same space where Andy wrestled, literally, with his own talent and its outer limits—there at that moment of seeing-is-believing, I wasn't sure what to believe. It was so strange it could've been true: Joaquin is one of the granddaddies of all liars because, time and again, he isn't here at all—he's scared to death in the Malaysian prison in Return to Paradise and a prissy-cruel Roman in Gladiator and the kid who hits it out of the park in Signs and of course Johnny Cash—always eager to wear a new nose or hat—if I may paraphrase comments I attribute to Laurence Olivier and Dan Aykroyd, respectively, as they discuss what it means to act—but with Joaquin it's plastic surgery, not mere haberdashery—his face, his self, cut and reshaped.

He takes this as far as I want to see anyone go in The Master—as though the De Niros of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull had merged and imploded like a black hole into which everything he might have been falls into the well of the character, and out comes not merely a "character" but some living entity, a flesh-and-bone ghost of the man who isn't there—because a new one has taken his place, craggy and bent, but as strong as mad conviction.

This fits The Master well. The movie roams around the American Century and sees P.T. Barnums everywhere—so so many, one born every minute, a country full of hucksters huckstering everyone, including themselves, from vibrating swamis to Dianetic spacemen floating in optimistic mysticism to middle-class Mysterious Reike Thoughts barely touching the surface of healing, hands-on and always looking.

—And they look so long, so deeply, that they pass through hucksterism into faith—and all of it American-New, shining in certainty. Oh, it all may have started in antique dimness, incense floating, vague glyphs on stone walls; but as World War II propelled us into consumption and re-invention, we looked everywhere we could for new minds, new bodies, and a New World we could carry around in our heads.

The Master details that portage, our little boats beating against the current—as Joaquin walks back and forth, back and forth, exercising his muscles filled with booze and loss—and violence, a violent "performance"—if that weak word can stand up to what Phoenix does here, making me afraid for him; how far can he go until he's so far gone he can't come back?—and so here I am, another sucker on the vine, conned by spiritual healing, Joaquin's restless hands placed just so on my eyes until I see only what he shows me.  In my mind the movie itself already sinks into confusion and obscurity—but his face remains, his eyes especially, looking past me toward whatever Master compelled him to go so far.


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