'The Master' leaves you with all kinds of thoughts — about censorship, about the vandalism of art, and especially about acting

Watching The Master at a Chennai theatre, I got the feeling that the director Paul Thomas Anderson would have been thrilled by the way the film was presented — its sexuality was kept largely intact. The swear words and the explicit language weren’t beeped out, the implied sexual acts were untouched, and the graphic nudity wasn’t edited out.

A life-sized (perhaps a bit more than life-sized) sand sculpture of a nude woman was shown intact, and in scenes involving real nude women, the potentially offensive body parts were smudged out. Only one scene among the ones listed in IMDb’s Parent’s Guide — an advisory for parents wondering whether or not to take children along — was missing: “A woman is seen naked lying on top of a man who appears to be naked.” But this wasn’t, as they say these days, a deal breaker. This fascinating and challenging film was accorded the respect it deserved. It wasn’t mutilated.

This is the way films should be censored. Ideally, the film wouldn’t be censored at all. It would be allowed to play in its entirety, with only the rating system enforcing some form of censorship — in other words, it would be left to us whether we want to see such a film or not, and not to a censor board that snips off scenes worried about children and the easily offended.

But that’s too much of a pipe dream, given the way this country functions – and this smudge out-censorship is an acceptable compromise. Of course, this type of censorship wouldn’t work in the case of a film such as Last Tango In Paris, where the nudity isn’t static (as in The Master) but dynamic, with actors romping across rooms in the pursuit of sex. You’d have to smudge out the whole screen, then — and that’s probably why that one instance of nudity in The Master was removed.

Censored this way, the plot doesn’t lose continuity, and if there’s dialogue during the sex scene, we hear it and don’t lose track of what’s happening between characters.

And The Master is all about the interplay between characters, which is why Anderson would have approved of the cut that’s playing in Indian theatres. At other times though, he wouldn’t have approved. Which sane filmmaker is going to sit calm when his carefully composed frames are vandalised with the admonition ‘Smoking is injurious to health’?

The labels on beer cans are also smeared out. How can anyone have the heart to muck up classy cinematography like this? (Wes Anderson’s painterly Moonrise Kingdom met with similar treatment.) And let’s not even get started about where they decide to insert the Intermission card. In a country where the interval point is an integral consideration in the narrative, is it so hard to find a suitable break in films made without intervals?

These concerns apart, The Master — about a disoriented drifter who finds refuge in the teachings of a self-styled prophet — is fuelled by a strange and haunting music score, dreamy lines (“Leave your worries for a while. They’ll be there when you get back.”), and lots and lots of acting. In this space, I’ve written about the kind of acting I like to see on screen — “actors who do not let us catch them acting, actors who let us see only the character” — and I won’t repeat myself.

I’ll just say that I loved watching Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to have mastered the middle ground between completely unshowy acting (from the days before the Method came along) and Method-propelled mannerism. He can chew scenery with the best of them (witness his rip-roaring performance as the villain in Mission: Impossible III) and vanish into character as if by magic (Capote) — and in The Master his work is a breathtaking mix of both styles. Just hearing him spit out the word wrestle, it’s hard not to be swept into the cult of Hoffman.

With Joaquin Phoenix though, it’s an altogether different matter. His talent is never in question. His forehead, one moment, is a sea of calm, and then, suddenly, thick, ropy veins will begin to seethe, as if trying to break free. His commitment isn’t in question either, what with all the weight he lost for this part — he’s positively gaunt. It’s just that we’re always being reminded of “look what he can do, look what he is doing.”

In a stunning early scene, he’s seated opposite a grey-haired senior — they’re both in the army; World War II has just ended — and their acting styles are eerily indicative of the schism that lies ahead in the real world of the time, especially upon the arrival of Brando. The elder actor performs the way James Stewart or Spencer Tracy would, without fuss, while Phoenix mumbles his lines, so tortured he seems to be reaching right into his soul. I was riveted. I was also exhausted.

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