Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Century of the Self: Why Hollywood Just Doesn't Make 'em like They Used To

If you are like me and regularly make your movie selections based on film reviews, then you should believe the critical hype surrounding The Master. The newest offering from director Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix is easily the best film I have seen all year. And, in a year filled with unoriginal superhero movies, dumb comedies and recycled ideas in the form of prequels, sequels and remakes, The Master stands out as an original, sophisticated piece of filmmaking.

The film centers on the strange, pseudo-sexual relationship between Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd during the early 1950s. Dodd is an enigmatic writer and philosopher who leads a new age, quasi-religious group called The Cause. After his first psycho-analytic session with Dodd, Freddie falls under The Cause’s hypnotic spell.

The film mines thorny, complex issues such as the allure of cults, the power of mass persuasion, and our almost primal need to place our faith in charismatic demigods.

Like Anderson’s previous films—There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Boogie NightsThe Master is deep, complex and downright stubborn in its refusal to spell everything out for audiences. It utilizes an eerie film score (courtesy of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood), and uncomfortably prolonged close-up shots bound to frustrate viewers that are used to more conventional fare. Scott Tobias, writing for the A.V. Club, calls The Master, “a feisty, contentious, deliberately misshapen film, designed to challenge and frustrate audiences looking for a clean resolution” (09/13/2012).

Much as I love going to the movies, it has admittedly been a long time since a film has captivated and resonated with me as much as The Master. Most contemporary Hollywood films are mass-produced concoctions designed solely to please and pacify viewers. Rare is the movie that entertains and enlightens.
This is, of course, nothing new. Hollywood has long been first and foremost about profits, relegating innovative, intelligent films to independent studios and niche markets. Perhaps that is why this year’s Oscar-dominator, The Artist created such a critical stir. Its clever use of silent-film nostalgia and clear allusions to Charlie Chaplin reminded us of the cinematic joys of going to the movies in the first place.

I personally blame George Lucas—and, to a lesser extent, Steven Spielberg—for ruining the movies. Star Wars all but created the modern summer blockbuster, an effects-laden, sensational “event” film that is, in the words of New York critic David Edelstein, “infinitely merchandisable.”
Thanks to Star Wars, nearly every movie is now evaluated on how many millions of dollars it grosses in its opening weekend, rather than its cinematic qualities. Once the market became the ultimate barometer for cinematic success, all artistic considerations became after-thoughts. (I now brace myself for the flood of angry emails from Lucas worshipping nerds worldwide.)

All of popular-culture—the movies we see, the music we listen to, and the television shows we watch—is produced, distributed and marketed by corporations. These forms of entertainment exist entirely to make a profit or, in the case of TV, to expose us to commercial advertisements. Art in the form of theater, film, music and literature has become another commodity.
What many Americans do not realize, is that cultural critics, academics and those on the left did not always embrace what is now known as “pop-culture” as readily as they do today. In fact, during the post-WWII years, many on the left were highly disturbed by what they saw as the formation of a permanent consumer industry.
This fear is best captured in Frankfurt school scholars, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 essay, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. As part of a group of expatriate academics who had fled to America from Nazi Germany, the so-called “Frankfurt” professors were dismayed to find the very same forms of political and cultural repression they had just escaped already manifesting themselves in the U.S.  
The then-nascent elements of mass culture (radio, film, magazines and by 1950, television) according to Adorno and Horkheimer, serve to manipulate and distract citizens from pertinent social matters. Furthermore, the authors feared the standardized genres of movies, pop-music and the like dissuaded critical thinking, erased individuality, and ensured citizens were fully acculturated into capitalist ideology.

“Culture has always contributed to the subduing of revolutionary as well as of barbaric instincts,” the authors write.

Industrial culture does something more. It inculcates the conditions on which implacable life is allowed to be lived at all. Individuals must use their general satiety as a motive for abandoning themselves to the collective power of which they are sated.
They add, “Existence in late capitalism is a permanent rite of initiation. Everyone must show that they identify wholeheartedly with the power which beats them.”

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, a time when Americans are more likely to know the names of the most recent American Idol contestants than their state’s congressional representatives. A recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that only about 57percent of Americans can name Paul Ryan as the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Like Freddie Quell, we have become enraptured in the cult of the self. And all of our forms of entertainment further reinforce our solitary role as perpetual consumers. Like Quell, we want to believe there is more to life. We need something or someone to follow.

My advice is to see The Master and attempt to decode its mysteries yourself. And then lament that Hollywood so rarely makes more movies like it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd in The Master.

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