Watching the Master through the Weird Vision of Manny Farber

Over his thirty years of writing about film, including the landmark essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” Manny Farber challenged the pretentions of art house cinema while celebrating the inventiveness of B-movies. Today, Farber’s criticism deserves to be read as itself a kind of art.

  1. There used to be two kinds of movies, the blockbuster and the indie-art film, and then someone in Hollywood figured out how to disguise one as the other. Case in point: The Master, the Paul Thomas Anderson hand-wringer that’s not about Scientology and features what may be the most savage, radical portrayal of the lost American anti-hero since De Niro in Taxi Driver, or De Niro in Raging Bull, or De Niro in Meet the Fockers. For me, the experience of watching The Master was like walking a suspension bridge: unsteady, thrilling, dangerous, but halfway there I wondered if I hadn’t been duped by some illusion of risk. How often do suspension bridges fall? They don’t.

    That sense of being led to safety under the guise of danger peaked halfway through the film, the jailhouse scene: Philip Seymour Hoffman, the leader of a nascent self-actualization movement, has been arrested on fraud charges. Joaquin Phoenix, his unlikely mascot and follower, gets into a scrap with the police, and ...

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Originally published in Hazlitt, November 2012

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