It used to be a truism that all movies aspired to be social experiences, but that sounds increasingly like a luxury enjoyed only by a certain type of movie. Digital technology is indeed democratizing the cinema in regard to production, but its impact on spectatorship—especially when it comes to independent films—looks more like anarchy than democracy. In the recent d-cinema documentary Side by Side, some of the talking heads evoked a utopian future where everyone can make their own movies and disseminate them online. That scenario leaves no room, unfortunately, for a social phenomenon like In the Family, which would surely find viewers on DVD and the Internet but requires a traditional mode of exhibition for its full effect. Also, I find that utopian premise demoralizing, as it basically promises, "You can make or look at any art you want, so long as you keep away from society at large when you do it."
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, which opened ten days ago in several theaters around town, feels like an act of protest against this impending future. Many have commented on Anderson's use of 70-millimeter film, a format most commonly associated with 1960s epics; more significant, I think, is the fact that Anderson has made so inscrutable a film for so much money and for so large an audience. I can't remember the last time I heard dozens of people say "Huh?" upon exiting a movie at the River East, or when an auditorium there was so charged with equal parts wonder and exasperation. (When I saw the film a second time a few nights later, I encountered the same thing.) The Master exploits familiar aspects of mainstream cinema only to thwart common expectations of how they be used. The big-name actors and lavish period sets seem alien and impossible to read; the most important parts of the story (such as Freddie Quell's decision to leave Lancaster Dodd and "the Cause" in Arizona) transpire off-screen.
In interviews, Anderson's expressed admiration for art house director Apichatpong Weerasethakul; and there are times when The Master shows affinities with something like Tropical Malady or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, films that don't tell stories so much as offer the spectator strange environments to wander through. (For this same reason, the film has much in common with the Russian period pieces My Friend Ivan Lapshin and Twenty Days Without War, which screen next weekend in the Siskel Center's must-see Aleksei Guerman retrospective.) That's a very different challenge than the one posed by In the Family, which orients the audience all too well. But in both cases, the experience gains immeasurably from taking place outside the viewer's home.