Monday, 19 November 2012

On using "The Master" to draw dividing lines in audiences.

Rachel Cook's review of Paul Thomas Anserson's "The Master" has this as its header:
Riiiight. Because there are two species on the planet, right? So called "critics" and the rest of the audience. Because audiences aren't critical, I guess, and critics aren't the audience... Oh, wait: perhaps that is meant to be that critics aren't "real/genuine" audiences. And Rachel isn't a critic, having her work printed on a national platform, presumably being paid for it; no, she's with "most of us". Geez, I mean, haven't we got entire new generations coming out with Humanities qualifications who have been trained in the delights of criticism and analysis? Hell, I'm a pretender just like anyone else - and I have this blog to prove it - but critics siding with the great unwashed popular audience to sniff at unpopular critical opinion... condescends to everyone and benefits and respects no audience at all. Oh, I'm not really bashing Rachel Cook, not particularly even if her post has instigated this blogpost, but why buy into that rubbish Grand Canyon dichotomy between popular and critical audiences, as if the two never share a overprized box of pick-and-mix at the local multiplex, or a coffee at the repertory cinema somewhere in the city?
I liked "The Master". Do I get my "Elitist" pass now?
Do critics sit in the front rows and the rest of "us" at the back?
Cook asks, "Will the public want to see The Master twice? I doubt it."
Well, I'm the public and I do want to see "The Master" twice, because I believe repeat viewings will offer repeat rewards, perhaps further insights from the details. I see no benefit in such a generalisation and, again, it feels like condescention and class-baiting of some kind. And from the critic of 'The Guardian'. Some films, you know, need watching more than once ('The Shining' seems to improve with every watch, for example). Isn't that one of the first insights of critical thinking?
She says that neither of the  lead characters in "The Master" change. That is not my perception at all. "But no film, surely, should end exactly where it began," she adds. Really? No? Why not? Because of the all-powerful if tired and trite concepts of character "journeys" and "arcs"? And what if lack of movement - narratively; geographically; for characters  - is the very point of the film? Stagnation is a theme in itself, for example. And that is not what happens in "The Master". Perhaps character obliqueness is the very point. Perhaps the changes are slight or barely percievable... not everything has to be underlined. And the two main characters of the film do change, and they don't change: that's part of the thematic content too and their mystery. 
But, yeah, my reading of the film and my opinion of it and the performances differ from Rachel Cook's, and that's okay. That's why I feel compelled to blog, sporadically, because opinions are what we have. But sniffiness isn't enlightening. "The Master" is heavy-going because, well, that's part of its aesthetic. You can't chide a cat for being cute: that's what the thing is, and you start by giving in to what the thing is and go from there by paying attention to the cuteness, to accepting the cuteness, to blogging about it and, in later stages, amusingly captioning photos of it.  
And hell, not all films are for everyone, right? I saw "Skyfall" - great mainstream entertainment - and "The Master" - great arthouse entertainment - on the same weekend, and they served different pleasure centres because they have different agendas. Both are grand flawed gestures worthy of debate - why not!? -  but I see no great reward in setting up mainstream and arthouse as completely antithetical to one another. Indeed, I see the latest Bond revival with Daniel Craig as a highly successfuly mainstream/arthouse hybrid/crossover. Oh, I can be as pigheadedly opinionated as any other film fan (recent examples: email discussions with a friend over the stupidity of Argento's "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage" [me:it is]) and that probably makes me/us as tedious as many film fanatics - but damn it, we're all in it together. I may raise an eyebrow when Mark Kermode is a vocal fan of the "Twilight" and "High School Musical" franchises, but he's a great popularist critic and even if I don't agree, he knows how to verbalise why and how and comes from the starting point that the audience is a united thing, not a fragmented, class-ridden thing. Well yes, film is a joy, but it also reveals so much about us and how we think, feel and conceive the world around us as undividuals and collectively. But, first of all, it is a joy. When you start drawing lines in the sand, if you are a critic, it strikes me as disingenuous; strikes me as buying into the vision of critics as know-alls-and-know-nothings in order to circumnavigate the fact that you don't know how to explicate why you feel the film did not work. And that is why for me Rachel Cook's utilisation of ye olde "Us and Them" seems more, shall we say, "Well THEY didn't like it either, so there!"
If you are looking for a more rounded and respectful appraisal of "The Master", where critical reservations are backed up with acute observations, then try Calum Marsh's review at Slant Magazine. I think he reads it right although I believe the film is great despite its apparent flaws. And then there's Slant's Tom Stempel notes, but I also read some of 'The Master' differently to him.

No comments: