PRIZE AND WHISPERS: OSCAR DREAMS DIE YOUNG FOR THE MASTER
No film is more anticipated this year by film afficios than Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. If the movie turns out to be yet another 4 to 5 star work from the Gen X auteur it will put him in the elite ranks of only five contemporary directors who have created six consecutive great films without stumbling. (The others are Sam Peckinpah, Hal Ashby, David Cronenberg, Michael Ritchie and Pedro Almodovar).
The film may well rise to that level. I hope and believe that it will be another PTA great. But as the author of the Prize and Whispers Oscar column I have sworn a sacred oath to tell my readers the truth no matter how painful, and to be the one Oscar column that delivers 100 percent accurate predictions. So it is my terrible duty now to inform you that while The Master may turn out to be great, what it will not turn out to be is the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 2012.
It has been curious to note that while a good number of critics and reporters have seen the film (not including myself) the reaction has been muted…In the brief glimpses that they have let out, you have to read between the lines to get a handle on how they feel about the film. No one has called it a disaster, but no one has called it “THE BEST FILM OF PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON’S CAREER OR ANYBODY’S CAREER EVER IN HISTORY” either, which is the baseline instant critical response to major films these days.
So it’s been puzzling.
Last night, David Poland took in a screening of the film and attempted to sort out the muddle:
And now, I feel like I understand the near-silence.
What is The Master?
Well, there is lights out acting, beautiful images, and raw, undeniable emotions.
But what is all of this in service of… what’s the point?
I think people are a little afraid to stick their noses out and find out In a few weeks that they were “wrong” or don’t match the inevitable consensus. I know that I am looking to a second screening for greater clarity.
Here is the list of the last ten winners of the Best Picture Oscar: The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, LOTR:Return of the King, Chicago.
That is outwardly a fairly diverse list of styles and genres. But they all have one thing in common: there is not the slightest hint of ambiguity in one frame of any single one of them. No one emerged from those films wondering what they were about or what the filmmakers’ intentions were. Any sentient adult who saw those films emerged from their very first viewing grasping every philosophical subtlety there was to grasp. No County comes closest to a nuanced vision, but even that is less complex than it might appear, being the clearest on the nose statement of the Coen’s nihilistic worldview of their career.
These films each in their own way took the audiences somewhere out of their immediate lives. All were “cinematic” in creating a bigger, more consuming experience than could have been achieved in any other medium. But no debates were sparked by the meaning of any of them. No one had to see any of these films twice to “get” them.
So sight unseen, just based on this early reaction, I am prepared to remove The Master from Oscar contention. If it sparked this ambiguous response from a single person, let alone the majority of critics who have seen it, it can not, under any circumstances, be the Oscar winner. That is certainly, not to say it can’t be great. And these critical responses may indeed herald a film that is so rich its potency will only grow over time. But that’s not where Oscar’s head is.
Which is good! The Academy is not a bunch of misshapen video clerks sitting around a coffee house. It is the booster branch for The Industry that is America’s largest export. In every Oscar race we have to cross this hurdle where we remind ourselves that the Academy award winner never goes to the best film of the year. It goes to the best film in a category of Emotionally Aspirational Upper Middlebrow works. Which is fine. The list above is not my top ten of the last decade, but if you were going to show a visitor from Mars the best of what Establishment Hollywood has been up to for the past ten years (as a producer and distributor) that list is a perfectly decent place to start. There’s only one or two movies I would call bad on there. So let Caesar render unto himself what is Caesar’s already and get out of his way.
Mr. Spielberg’s got a movie coming out that if every movie he has ever made is anything to judge by, will not have one frame of intellectual ambiguity about it. That should be where the conversation starts.
“In every Oscar race we have to cross this hurdle where we remind ourselves that the Academy award winner never goes to the best film of the year. It goes to the best film in a category of Emotionally Aspirational Upper Middlebrow works. Which is fine. ”
I never feel like a philistine when I read Richard Rushfield’s film and industry criticism. And I almost always feel like a philistine. SO THANKS, RICHARD.