The Master (2012) “Did You Ever Go Clear?”

HPaul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of his underrated movies, which is completely unjustified. It is the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career; his portrayal of an aggressive, erratic yet extremely complex character will leave an indellible mark in the history of film. The Master is a heaven for psychoanalysts, if there are any of them left (e.g. Slavoj Žižek). It follows a war veteran with mental issues, Freddie Quell, who succumbs to the will of a charismatic and narcissistic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. We can tell that he is a narcissist not only by observing his erratic, but controlled behaviour. The subtitle of his second book, as it is shown in one frame, is “As a gift to homo sapiens”. This may inspire one to recall, (or imagine to be more correct) Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance about his own importance to the mankind; when was half-mad toward the end of his sane life he signed himself as “Christ” and “Dyonisus”. The film obviously explores the emergence of cults and their attraction to men who lack direction and purpose in life. A famous Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen writes to his friend in his beautiful song Famous Blue Raincoat:

Did you ever go clear?

“Going clear” is a direct reference to the practices of scientology, meaning that one should be free from past traumas and uncontrolled desires. Lancaster Dodd is an amateur psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing hypnosis and the so-called processing. The rituals that Lancaster imposes on his followers have a double nature: they are both an initation into the cult and the means of controlling the followers. By the promise of eliminating instincts, aggressive impulses and traumas he offers salvation, but that very “salvation” results in slavery. His methods have a counter-effect, thy produce a being that is more irrational and obsessed with power than before.

 

Later in the film, he tries to help Freddie by controlling his anger and agressiveness, but we can see that he did not (completely) succeed. What’s more interesting than the above mentioned notions, along with the exploration of the psychological state of war veterans in the post WW2 environment, is the father-son relationship between Lancaster and Freddie. This seems to be an important theme for Anderson, since it is explored in There Will Be Blood,  as well. There Will Be Blood and The Master seem to form a strange diptych; Daniel Planview is reincarnated in both Freddie and Lancaster with overtones of ravaging pleonaxic desires and Lancaster reincarnates Eli, a charismatic priest with a similar lust for power.

Although they are often in a conflict, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be stuck in an unusual  relationship, that of a mentor and a follower, but also a very intimate one. The father-son relationship as presented in the film is a constant battleground of testostorones and urges in which the dominated strives for domination. It is not a relationship based on mutual trust and respect but a power relation in which there an be no winner, but in death. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights was deeply influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; The Master seems to be as well. The life of a group which has family structure seems to be Anderson’s constant preoccupation.

 

Vigorous line:

Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas… If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.

Lancaster Dodd

Sea Waves

It is interesting that Dodd mentions the term “master” since he is one throghout the movie. This line can be interpreted in terms of the famous Hegelian master-slave dialectic. According to the professor Eric Steinhart the Hegelian master-slave dialectic occurs when two self-consciousnesses confront each other. It is doubtful if we can call Freddie “self-conciouss” at all, at least during the first half of the film. He is already a slave, to his desires and to Lancaster Dodd. Later, he gains self-consciousness and the battle may begin.

They decide not to fight, although they do fight earlier in the film and Lancaster implies that they will be mortal enemies in their next lives. For Hegel, this would be barbaric, the two sides need to learn how to cooperate, not to fight an endless struggle into eternity (logically). Lancaster “lets” Freddie live his own life as he pleases, he is “off the hook”; it is an open ending. Freddie decides to live as a free man, but, does he serve any master? Or the master should be himself, exercising power over himself. This may be the message of The Master, one should learn to control oneself, by oneself – alone.

Hrvoje Galić

 

2046 (2004) “Wong Kar-wai’s Poetry of Destructive Love”

Wong Kar-wai is not just a movie director, he is a psychologist and a poet dealing with romantic love. His style is so nuanced and brought to perfection that he can be put in the same sentence with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri; the early poems of the aforemention poet are not his authentically, he imitated other authors, mostly Guido Cavalcanti.

Cavalcanti’s poem Fresca rosa novella partially reads

Tu m’hai si piena di dolor la mente’

You have filled my mind with such agony

‘Voi che per li occhi mi passaste l’core’

You who grasp my heart through the eyes

 

We can see that in Cavalcanti’s poem visual tropes are often used. In the first part od Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express, the main female character wears sunglassees in the night; if interpreted in the spirit of Cavalcanti’s poem, it seems that she doesn’t want anyone to fall in love with her (it is true that she does drug deals and wears sunglasses for practical reasons, but it may also be seen as a defense mechanism).

A part of one of Dante’s poems  published in his book Vita nuova reads:

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing

Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Pious Lady on the Right (Study for Dante’s Dream)

Note: The painting, The Pious Lady on the Right, although seeming to be at odds with the ideas presented, portrays the spirit of the aforementioned poem and Wong Kar-wai’s work; a woman is the victim of Amor as well as man.

The connection between Dante from Vita nuova, Cavalcanti and Wong Kar-wai is obvious – both of them find romantic love destructive. In his movies love is never actualized; it is a zero-sum game, but in the end his characters don’t end up with a zero; they end up emotionally crushed, but also enriched by the joyous experience of romantic love. 2046 is the final part of a loose trilogy Days of Being Wild – In the Mood for Love – 2046. Some of the characters from the previous two movies appear again in 2046, but transformed and severely emotionally “damaged”. 2046 tells us what happened with Mr. Chow after the events in In the Mood For Love. Structurally, the film can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Mr. Chow is a libertine lover; in the second he is a nostalgic and caring gentleman.

He engages with a woman who lives next door; she doesn’t succumb easily to Mr. Chow’s newfound charm. He has to “win her over”, after she slaps him when he presents her with a gift. They form an unusal relationship in which Mr. Chow makes the rules; he does not want to get emotionally involved. In the beginning, she is similar to Charles Boudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval, at least as much as we can tell from Boudelaire’s reflections about her in his poems; he often compares her to a cat.

The subplot in the film follows the motel owner’s daughter’s relationship with a Japanese man; although this relationship succeeds, precisely that fact is a catalyst for Mr. Chow’s intensified suffering. Mr. Chow is a writer, and he imagines a place called 2046 where people can recapture their lost memories and experience them again, possibly into eternity.

 

French philosopher René Descartes used to imagine that an evil demon of “utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to decieve me.” This “demon”, for Descartes, is our senses; applying this notion of Cartesian philosophy to the world of Wong Kar-wai’s movies leads to the conclusion that romantic feelings are such a demon. We can see plainly that in the end Mr. Chow’s life has lost its meaning, romantic feelings have played so many tricks on him that in the end he starts living the life of a gambler. Gambling is a game of chance and luck, symbolically it can be compared to romantic experience; he simply cannot surpass modus operandi he is used to.

Vigorous line:

Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention: they want to recapture lost memories. Because in 2046… nothing ever changes.

Mr. Chow

During his voyages Odysseus encountered Phaecians, a highly civilized race who live the life of pleasure and enjoyment of poetry. The king offers him to marry Nausicaa, his daughter, and to live with them. After hearing the bard singing, Odysseus says:

My Lord Alcinous, what could be finer

Than listening to a singer of tales

Such as Demodocus with a voice like god’s?

Nothing we do is sweeter than this

For Odysseus, this is one of the greatest temptations he encountered during his journeys. Mr. Chow is tempted with 2046 as well; they both leave the place since they are aware that their life journey simply cannot stop there; they are destined for more. The Japanese man Mr. Chow imagines goes to 2046 and is simply lost during the encounter with a robot he falls in love with.

Both the Japanese man and Mr. Chow, who leaves 2046, are a significant part of his personality; he wants to live “among the Phaecians”, but his instinct tells him that it is utterly destructive to live an illusion and a lie. Escaping illusions and lies can be more harmful than living in them, but both Odysseus and Mr. Chow show moral strength and virtue and leave the place. They decide to live the life of pain and hardship.

The episode with Phaecians has another side to it. It represents the dangers of music and poetry to an individual’s well-being. Immersing oneself into life of aesthetic pleasure is criticized by Kierkegaard in his Enten-Eller. Although Kierkegaard presents aesthetical and ethical life as matters of existantial choice and implies that they are incommensurable, it is obvious (when his other works are considered as an argument supporting the thesis) that he is advocating religious life.

In his Politeia, Plato writes that Homer should be honored and then excluded from the polity. Plato saw the dangers poetry can bring. Wong Kar-wai and Dante are poets who are aware of the dangers romantic love and uncontrolled emotions can bring; we can only guess if Plato would include them in his polity.

End Note: I owe my gratitude regarding to the more nuanced understanding of Dante’s poetry to my former professoressa, Ludovica

Hrvoje Galić

 

 

 

 

Mean Streets (1973) “Benevolence Is Akin to A Flame”

Mean Streets is one of Martin Scorsese’s early pictures and a very personal one. As it is well-known, he wanted to become a Catholic priest and grew up in Manhattan, in Little Italy, a famous New York neighbourhood. He later reminisced that it was like a “Sicilian village”. The film follows Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a psychotic young man aspiring to become a respected mob member. De Niro plays the part with virtuosity (he was 30 at the time) that anticipates his later tour de force performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mean Streets is not just a milestone in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant career, it may very well be one of his finest pictures. The film deeply influenced Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie As Tears Go By.

De Niro’s genius is openly manifested in the portrayal of his character’s erratic behaviour and is an antipode of Harvey Keitel’s character Charlie, who is calm, rational and does not succumb to desires easily. A shot in which Johnny Boy shoots in the air trying to shoot the lights on the Empire State Building is a synechdoche that points to the type of character Johnny Boy is. His ravaging irrationality puts him at odds with men he cannot control, as he cannot control himself.

He does not care for family bonds, religion, or anything whatsoever that does not bring him pleasure. He has no fear at all, a characteristic that Aristotle defined as immoderate folliness. On the other hand, for Charlie, family and religion are important, and that, paradoxically, puts him in an impossible position of trying to save a man, whose head is deep under the water, from drowning. Shots of fire are often shown in the movie and its symbolism is twofold. On one hand, fire represents temptations that can lead to divine punishment of suffering in hell; on the other – madness. Fire, along with water is an element that is commonly associated with madness (for connections between symbolism of water regarding to madness, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is a perfect example).

Bob Dylan’s song Joey, originally from the album Desire can be beautifully juxtaposed to the world of Mean Streets.

 

The world of Mean Streets can also be compared to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, most particularly his The Idiot. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Teresa; Charlie can be compared to Prince Myshkin, a naïve man who is trying to “save” his erratic and murderous friend Rogozhin; Johnny Boy is a version of the latter. The Idiot ends with main characters either succumbing to madness or ending up in Syberia, and Mean Streets does not end on a much lighter note as well. On the other hand, music in the film (e.g. the Rolling Stones) gives the grave matters it discusses a tone of playfullness; lighthearted humour, bar fights and improvized scenes, ultimately bring the viewer enjoyment.

 

Vigorous line:

Nobody tries anymore… Just tries to help, that’s all, to help people.

Francis of Assisi had it all down.

Charlie

El Greco, St. Francis’s Vision of the Flaming Torch

Note: Martin Scorsese uses El Greco’s Christ in his latest film Silence

Francis of Assisi was born an Italian as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was a founder of the Franciscan order; in 1219 he went to Egypt to convert a sultan to put an end to a conflict. In the country chapel of San Damiano, the Icon of Crucified Christ spoke to him with words “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Keeping in mind these anecdotes, we can perceive the appeal St. Francis had to Charlie. In the opening captions we can see Charlie shaking hands with a Catholic priest and at the beginning of the film he says: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” During the film there are numerous voice-overs of Charlie’s introspections from which we can learn much about his character, religiosity and social views.

He is a ridiculed figure at times because of his devotion to Catholicism; his constant aim during the film is to save others from themselves. At the end of the film, he lies and makes up a story about himself to “save” a Jewish woman from the life of prostitution. On the other hand, during the dialogue by the sea, Teresa tells him that everyone must take care of himself (a Nietzschean worldview). Their moral stances are in a constrast, and we can see internal tensions in Charlie’s character as well. He tries to live up to the appearances that he thinks must be upheld, but at the same time follows his principles.

 In a way Mean Streets is a morality tale. It would be much different if in the end Charlie pays  the ultimate price, but it seems that Scorsese wanted to praise Charlie’s way of living not as a naïve one, but heroic and worthy. We can ponder if his devotion to family and helping Johnny Boy is of any use at all and that precisely is Scorsese’s brilliance. Mean Streets is a film open to interpretations, moral discussions and at the same time serves as entertainment. Its twofold characteristic – it brings both enjoyjment and material for reflection – makes it a brilliant piece of art.

Hrvoje Galić

 

 

Holy Motors (2012) “Inner Eye of the Beholder”

Holy Motors is a French film directed by Leos Carax; it competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. In its quaint particularity it approaches themes like sex, modern life, libertinism and aesthetics, completely justifying the aforementioned honour. It opens wih a shot of people in the theater watching a film, suggesting that film-watching experience is a dreamlike state. The film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar who is, as we can tell, a businessman who performs during the night (aiming to escape his stressful life lacking meaning). 

The roles he plays are arrranged by a woman named Céline (possibly an allusion to the great French novelist). As an actor Oscar symbolically murders his own persona, performs as a beggar, a derranged person and an old man on his deathbed – all of these roles are parables of  the place of man in contemporary society. This is Carax’s hommage to cinema, but also an exploration of the limits and nature of cinema as an art form – the director includes characters from his other movies into Holy Motors. Combining music (a very powerful scene with an accordion – “trois, deux, merde!”) with hypnotic shots of driving down distorted streets Carax presents a hypnagogic spectacle for the senses.

When Richard Wagner was composing and writing the libretto for Tristan und Isolde, he was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and his vision of the world as Will (irrational, mindless, aimless), beneath the world as we perceive it (representation). Tristan and Isolde, during the second act, are together during the night (world as Will) and must be apart during the day because Isolde is promised to King Marke (world as representation).

The same can be applied to Holy Motors. During the night, Oscar lives as he truly is, he follows his primordial instincts, and during the day he is a successful businessman. It is true that the graveyard scene and the one with a model happen during the day, but we must keep in mind that Oscar is masked. It is an another argument that can be interpreted by means of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics which implies that the world is our representation.

One may be inclined to use the term “surreal” to describe it, and one may not be wrong. Nevertheless, the film’s main point is not in its surreality, but in the distortion and chaotic misrepresentation of reality aiming to transform our perception of  it; at least during its running time. It is a powerful satire that is sometimes sentimental but does not reach the “point of no return”. The scene with Kylie Minogue in its sincerity and restrained sensitivity is one of the most captivating moments in the film. One of its many virtues is that it does not take itself seriously; its main aim is to provoke reflection.

The most interesting (and possibly shocking) scene in the film is the one with a model (Eva Mendes) which is abducted by monsieur Oscar. The shots with him putting a veil on her and him lying naked are particularly interesting to analyze; Michel Houellebecques’ novels Submission and The Elementary Particles deal with such issues.  Holy Motors presents the modern man stripped down to his instinctual desires; he is aching for liberation. It is as if Carax proclaims “the death of man” as Michel Foucault does.

Vigorous line:

Beauty? They say it is in the eye of the beholder

Michel Piccoli’s character

And if there’s no more beholder?

 Monsieur Oscar

Eye of the Beholder

This line presents the traditional notion of perspectivism, as supported by Nietzsche and lately by postmodernist authors, but expands its scope. It is no longer self-evident that we will find beauty in a piece of art or an object of possible aesthetic worth simply by enjoying it and contemplating it. According to Mr. Oscar, that is no longer simply a truism. When he questions the existence of “the beholder”, he questions the capability of man to perceive beauty according to his aesthetic inner eye (if it exists).

 Modern man has gone a long way in the advancement of technology, but as it is pointed out earlier in the conversation, technology may very well be the destruction of beauty (Martin Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology particularly adresses the question of dangers that technology brings).

Oscar says: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads.” With the advent of the internet it is possible to view artistic works of Botticelli and Raphael (to take an example) for free. It makes a great difference if one views paintings online or goes to a “pilgrimage” to Toledo to see the El Greco Museum. If something is free, its value in the eye of the beholder downgrades. This simple truism reminds of Oscar’s nostalgia that points to the fact that as soon as technology reaches a certain point of development it radically changes the very way we perceive reality.

In line with Mr. Oscar’s arguments, it can be concluded that the beholder is annihilated. Nowadays, art is consumed, eaten (as Refn’s The Neon Demon suggests); the beholder’s inner eye for beauty is distorted. The other notion that Oscar’s line adresses is the transformation and disfiguration of an eye that does not perceive the world aesthetically, but through pragmatic lenses. Remember that earlier in the film the photographer maniacally cries “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!”. When beauty becomes an obsession in a crude manner, it ceases to be beauty and is a distortion of  mind that sees only an object before him, not a piece of art with its soul, rhythm and vigour. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified.”; his interpreter Raymond Geuss asserts that the world justifies itself if it offers an aesthetically pleasing spectacle to an appropriately sophisticated observer. In other words, when these notions are juxtaposed to the words of Mr. Oscar, an appropriately sophisticated observer [the beholder] may cease to exist.

Hrvoje Galić