Sound of My Voice

Why do I like being lame?

Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice wastes no time in presenting a concept, three potentially combustible personalities, and a dozen questions, the most important of which is this: is Maggie telling the truth?  It’s the most important question because if she’s not, the lion’s share of this film’s narrative is for nothing.  This is a problem that generates a compelling motivation, or “viewing style” if you will, for an audience: we’re rooting for the character presented at the outset as a charlatan.  Why?  Partly because she radiates honesty, partly because we don’t really care about the dual protagonists’ motivations, and thirdly because we don’t want any of the characters, even the ones we don’t like, to have wasted their time.

The story places us in the presence of Lorna (Nicole Vicius) and her boyfriend, Peter (Christopher Denham), late-twenties layabouts seeking to make a living in L.A. by doing what everyone who goes to L.A. hopes to make a living doing: making films.  Their film is a documentary about cults, and they’ve somehow come across a group led by a mysterious, white-veiled basement dweller named Maggie (Brit Marling), who claims to have traveled back in time from 2054, where a civil war is tearing the world apart, and she has returned in order to “save” the people she loves.  How will she accomplish this?  We don’t know.  What does her plan have to do with this group of strangers who worship her?  She doesn’t say.  All we know is that Peter and Lorna think of the whole thing as a joke, and are willing to play along with Maggie’s rituals until they can find a way to expose her on film.  They infiltrate the group, pretending to be members, not knowing what they’re getting themselves into.

Of course, as Peter and Lorna attend several months’ worth of group rituals, the things Maggie says begin to make more sense, even to the arrogant and skeptical Peter, who is emotionally gutted by Maggie in one of the film’s most effective dramatic scenes.  “She knew things about you,” Lorna says to him over a meal the next day.  Peter stone-facedly denies this and says he was just making things up, but we know he wasn’t, which presents two solid conflicts: Lorna, after a three-year relationship with Peter, doesn’t know much about him and is jealous that the beautiful and enigmatic Maggie has this effect on him; and Peter, who may have developed a fixation on Maggie similar to that of the other followers (of whom he made a terrible mockery before), hasn’t bothered with his documentary work in weeks.

During the day, Peter teaches at an all-girls elementary school, which he considers sedentary and a waste of his twenties.  The film lends particular focus to a certain student, Abigail (Avery Pohl), an eight year-old who shows symptoms of Asperger’s (indicated by her insistence on never removing her red hat and the fact that she spends the entirety of her free time building with black Lego pieces).  We know she has some connection to Maggie before it’s even revealed, but the trouble that brews is well worth the wait: Maggie, still claiming to be from the future, believes Abigail to be her mother, and “needs” to meet with her.  The guy who can make this happen?  Peter, the one teacher Abigail tolerates.  Peter’s decision whether to do this pops the bubble that has expanded between Lorna and himself throughout the story, and the payoff delivered when Maggie and Abigail finally meet rivals most films from this year – but what do you expect?  Sound of My Voice was co-scripted by Brit Marling, who is absolutely convincing as Maggie, and who wrote the best screenplay of 2011, Another Earth.  Her next film, also in tandem with Batmanglij, is The East, starring Brit alongside Ellen Page.

For better or worse, the film deprives us of the denouement that most films would drag us through.  This works if you don’t mind not having every single question answered – what will the nature of Lorna and Peter’s relationship be in the future?  What do the feds looking for Maggie think she wants the child for?  Can they legally convict her of anything?  The film makes no absolute statements about any of it (exemplified by Peter’s final line: “I don’t know”), but I think we know in our hearts, just as we do when watching election coverage, who’s telling the truth and who is perpetually full of it.

Sound of My Voice (2012); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Christopher Denham, and Nicole Vicius.

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The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

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