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Now and Then: 'The Master' and Paul Thomas Anderson's American Quadrilogy

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! September 25, 2012 at 1:14PM

"The Master" is challenging, gorgeous, and forcefully weird, a critical darling and early Oscar contender, but you already knew that. It's also the fourth film in a great, daring, ambitious project to depict the shadow side of our national life over the course of a century — what might be called Paul Thomas Anderson's "American Quadrilogy."
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ls, seems to have become part of the collective memory. "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master" are stories of control, of the application of power and its outer limits, expressed in hermetic, strange compositions. "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," sprawling, messy, nearly spinning out of orbit, are stories of losing control.

Mark Wahlberg, with Burt Reynolds, in "Boogie Nights"
Mark Wahlberg, with Burt Reynolds, in "Boogie Nights"


Indeed, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), blessed with sizeable manhood and equally sizeable innocence — "Look at this jackknife!" he calls out at a party — is in some ways less the protagonist of "Boogie Nights" than Anderson's San Fernando Valley, 1977. Coked up, tuned out, tastelessly decadent, the world of pornography becomes an exaggerated stand-in for Jimmy Carter's American malaise. Despite flashes of affluence, the sets are tired, even grim; the real action in the film takes place in nightclub closets, where Dirk whips it out for customers at $10 a pop, or under the wan lights of an impersonal office, fucking for the camera. Sex, as in much of "The Master," is less pleasurable than transactional — less the thing we want than a way to get it.

Childish as he may be, Dirk seems to have more of a grasp on his life than the adults around him, who debauch and divorce as though making a sad play for youth. Fast-forward twenty years and the same is true in "Magnolia," a near-apocalyptic tale of contemporary Los Angeles in which the most mature and insightful character is a 14-year-old quiz show savant named Stanley. This may be what is most surprising about "Magnolia," the weakest of the four films. Its central elements, which once seemed ham-handed, are now almost prophetic, linking the ideas of the quadrilogy as thoroughly as it links its cross-section of characters. The film's coincidences and chance encounters make clear that Daniel Plainview's desire to be alone, to achieve singular primacy, is no longer possible, if it ever was. Tom Cruise's ladykiller reminds us that behind any cult of celebrity lay someone flawed and fragile and human. The troubled whiz kids and bad parents suggest that we inherit, for good or for ill, the world we've been given.

It isn't that the four films need to be seen together in order to make sense. Each stands alone, more or less, on its own merits. But taken together they form a sort of counterhistory, an audacious attempt to portray 100 years in the life of a nation that deserves a place among the great film cycles. Isn't this what we lament in movies and praise on television, the ability to recreate the texture and depth of the novel? At the very least, Lancaster Dodd's statement about living without a master calls to mind Daniel Plainview, standing at the precipice and staring into the abyss; or Dirk Diggler, struggling to make do with his "one special thing"; or "Magnolia" and its infamous deluge of frogs. As Anderson sees it, we're all subject to the mastery of the fates.

Check out "The Master" U.S. and international release dates, including 70mm and 35mm engagements, here, Indiewire's picks of the best "Master" reviews here, Paul Thomas Anderson vs. Paul W.S. Anderson here; and Vulture's roundup of critical interpretations of the film here.

This article is related to: Now and Then, Reviews, DVD and VOD, Directors, Genres, Drama


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