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The Master: Men Lost at Sea

 

Gen X Review of The MasterThe Master is an undeniably beautiful and well-acted mess of a movie. It’s one of those rare films that gets better the deeper one looks at it, but unfortunately I think most people will be overwhelmed with the movie’s sometimes bloated philosophical musings and self-indulgence.

 

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are shockingly good and the cinematography is breathtaking. But the film seems to struggle with its subject – which is homoerotic love, despite the sometimes heavy handed intellectual confetti thrown up – and in the end it’s lost at sea, saying too much about too many things while simultaneously not saying enough about the precise thing it’s about.

 

Naval vet Freddy Quill (Joaquin Phoenix) is stationed on a lazy island in the South Pacific as World War II comes to a close. A strange loner and drunk, he spends his days wasted and watching the roughhouse of his fellow servicemen.

 

One day a group of sailors builds a sandcastle in the shape of a woman and Freddy dives right in, copulating with the figure. Later we see him masturbating into the ocean. As part of his discharge, he’s given a battery of Rorschach tests and (surprise, surprise!) identifies every ink blot as a sexual organ. The only time Freddy is not misbehaving like this is when he is drunk.

 

Wandering into civilian life, he finds that he doesn’t fit in with the world around him. Sinewy, raw and edgy, he drifts from one place to another, but no job is odd enough for this strange little man. His alcoholic concoctions are lethal blends of jet fuel, gin, gasoline… Anything that can mask the psychological and erotic pain that seems to dog him.

 

Freddy jumps a docked yacht and crashes a wedding party hosted by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd, a charismatic cult leader, is intrigued by Freddy. The drifter is unencumbered and asocial, a sort of mindless animal. Dodd’s cult (“The Cause”), believes that humans are spiritual beings trapped in material flesh, and Freddy becomes a test case for their philosophy.

 

Adrift in the ocean, Dodd and Freddy circle each other; the only reference point is the vanishing horizon. The sea is a dangerous place for lost men, primarily because it is no place at all, and all sorts of kooky ideas ferment between the two while they’re untethered to land.

 

What begins in psychological tests and hypnosis sessions blossoms. Freddy becomes very protective of Dodd, although he can scarcely understand a lot of what the windbag is saying. Dodd and his family teach Freddy how to control his outbursts. For them, his drinking is the root cause of his problems, and he does appear to improve as they conduct tests on him.

 

Freddy becomes part of Dodd’s entourage, moving among the well-heeled dabblers of New York City like a whisper in the machine, so insubstantial that he could easily be a ghost. When the cult’s psycho-spiritualism is attacked, he fights on its behalf and even ends up in jail. He used to fight for nothing; now his is so committed to an idea that he would lose his freedom over defending it.

 

The Cause drifts as Dodd becomes more interested in Freddy. Originally the cult leader believed that past-life regression would allow individuals to free themselves of bondage that went back many eons. But the program changes and shifts its beliefs. Before, the teaching tied man to an ancient struggle against former selves. Now its mission is more amorphous and ambitious: How do we free ourselves completely to imagine ourselves as we could be?

 

As fascinating as this is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Freddy’s development.

 

Dodd believes his hocus pocus is working, but in reality Freddy is just erotically attached to the older man. This new homoerotic relationship eclipses Freddy’s unresolved sexual trauma. He no longer acts out because he is no longer fighting that old dragon; the committed relationship he has with Dodd permits him to see his failed erotic and romantic relationships in a new light.

 

But Dodd and his wife seem to understand the nature of his relationship with Freddy. In a very weird scene, Dodd’s pregnant wife, acting as a dominatrix, masturbates him over a sink while making him promise “to give up the boy’s hooch.” (Hooch being phonetically related to the slang term cooch, bringing us near the true threat she sees in the men’s relationship: that Freddy offers an alternative sexuality to her husband.) Near the end of the film the cult leader croons a love song to Freddy, a sort of fairy tale about the life the men could lead if they were alone at sea.

 

The film’s blustering rhetoric is hard to sit through at times, especially if you have unpleasant or persistent traumatic memories of the New Age movement of the 1970s and ’80s. (Dodd is so obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard that the Church of Scientology has sent a deadly whammy out to the producers of the film.) The philosophical misdirection is so overstated that many people will leave this film without recognizing it is about the power of a simple boy-crush.


There’s some heavy thinking here obscuring the film’s main point, and I don’t know if it’s intellectual dishonesty or real repression that leads the filmmakers away from exploring the homosexual relationship central to the plot. Whatever the reason, they certainly heap a lot of shit over the topic in an attempt to distract us.

 

This detritus becomes the film and we lose the characters in quasi-intellectual fog. Stumbling blindly we hold on to the wonderful acting and awesome design, unable to really even explain what the movie was about. Like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, it ends up signifying the limits of what can be said and falls back into gestures that satisfy us primarily because they assure us that we are deep enough to appreciate them as pure aesthetic expression.

 

(Whatever that means.)

 

What a beautiful mess, we’ll say as we leave the film, not naming the love that still cannot be named in our society today. In the end, Freud is the ghost on the ocean, whispering ‘you still are not the master of your own house’.

 
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Judge Dredd 3D

Judge Dredd Gen X Review

 

Judge Dredd is an old-fashioned story of a stern father who would rather be dead than wrong and an insane mother who skins and eats her children.

This 2012 reboot of a terrible 1995 Sylvester Stallone film has teeth. It snarls and screams and makes a lot of noise, but it never takes its helmet off.

This remake has the spirit of the original British comic. Born in the same urban decay as punk rock, the Judge Dredd comic book imagined a future from 1977 that looked like the worst of that decade expanded forever. Unemployment. Urban blight. Addiction. Denim.

Judge Dredd was about understanding the world left behind after the 1960s. Screw the hippie back-to-nature bullshit. The natural world was a wasted irradiated desert. Leaving the metropolis was a death sentence. Locked in an unbroken urban landscape, the people of this future were desperate and hungry, occasionally even cannibalistic, but they were also realists.

There was no better tomorrow, no bright city on the mountain. The light had gone out. The counterculture had revealed itself as essentially empty – it was the decade of the stoner – and yet the police state was a savage, unfeeling machine.

Forget your human potential movement, your flying cars, your internet, your first-world issues with your parents. The world was carnivorous. It would devour you and spit out your bones on the street. This was the world that was, a world that could only barely even be survived.

This zeitgeist gave birth to Dredd. Its heady mix of violence, satire and big chins was a salve against the hypocrisy of the age. It was a big FU to both the Boomer counterculture that claimed it always had the answer (just listen to Mother Nature, man) and the law enforcement establishment that persisted in the fiction that it had a human face.

(Its face was a riot helmet and the bad end of a pistol.)

To say the remake captures this essence better than the mid-nineties film is an understatement. In many ways the 2000s have been the 1970s 2.0 and maybe it took the pressure cooker of semi-permanent unemployment, a failed youth rebellion and corruption to give us back the Judge Dredd we remembered in our youths. But here it is.

It’s another Monday at the Grand Hall of Justice in Mega-City One, the Judges’ super police station. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby), a mutant with the uncanny (and mostly irrelevant) power to read minds, are sent to investigate grisly murders in one of the high sky risers call Peach Trees.

Vicious drug kingpin Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) skinned three small-time competitors before throwing them from the 200th floor of the complex. Dredd and Cassandra capture one of Ma-Ma’s men and learn that the boss isn’t just a supplier. She is creating a powerful new narcotic called Slo-Mo right out of Peach Trees.  In order to keep her secret from the authorizes, Ma-Ma seals Peach Trees, trapping the Judges in the crime-ridden high-rise. They respond by fighting their way up, into Ma-Ma’s lair.

The journey to the penthouse is a sort of return to the heart of darkness. In trying to reclaim Peach Trees for order, Judge Dredd is trying to recapture the symbolic head of the complex. He has come to destroy the beast, to wrest control away from the mad mother and establish true order.

It is a losing battle, but no one has been better suited to lose than this super cop. Dredd is not so much a man as a machine, a functioning arm of the law. He is presence without personality, and one of the reasons many movie goers only see violence on display in Dredd 3D is because we’ve come to expect we’ll know the man behind the mask.

We expect to understand the Bruce Wayne that struggles with the Batman. We are drawn to the inner battle between these psychological forces and understand the superhero narrative a containing both the mask and the man. Judge Dredd is neither mask nor man – he is machine.

He is the best person suited for the job of judge and executioner, a literalist who can throw out endless gray complexities and determine right from wrong. This is why no one questions his moral authority as he leaves a blood trail up Peach Trees. He is only body and he reads other bodies in absolute terms.

Cassandra’s mind reading is a curious problem for Dredd, since Judges shouldn’t care what happens inside of people. If a body commits a crime, it is guilty and it doesn’t matter what forces have compelled it. The entire world, in fact, acts as though motives are unimportant. You are the presentation you make to others and nothing more, so getting inside people is a strange gift.

When Cassandra starts reading the Judge’s mind, her supervisor abruptly tells her that’s enough. Nothing could be less pertinent. It’s like psychoanalyzing a toaster oven or reading the mind of a rock.

Ma-Ma controls Slo-Mo, a drug that slows time down until you can see the mystical veil hidden in ordinary reality. At first glance this is a strange sort of narcotic. Who would want to experience time in this way in a world as grim and hopeless as this one? The experience of watching blood explode out of exit wounds begins to become grating, even in 3D.

But Ma-Ma is stealing time from the society and time is one of the few things Judges can’t control. The drug changes the perspective in a way that defies the establishment’s flat, behavioral worldview. It doesn’t offer illusion in place of reality, but deepens the appreciation of reality until even this world is beautiful.

In his journey Dredd fights his mirror opposite, confronts cruelty and madness… All the usual stuff. But because he is not a man, the experiences do not change him in any way. It's simply another day at the office for the Judge.

Cassandra, however, does earn her badge. She is in some ways the child that emerges out of this crazy mother / oppressive father dichotomy, a thing incubated in poverty, crime and violence. She has succeeded in flattening herself out for justice’s sake – in using a gift that might lead others to empathies and humanize criminality as simply a better lie-detecting machine – and she has survived.  

It’s a good way to start the week.

 
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