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A much-hyped movie will only deliver over time

Ryan Gilbey on "The Master" and "The Shining".

The Master (15); The Shining (15)
dirs: Paul Thomas Anderson; Stanley Kubrick

Among the emerging American film-makers greeted in the mid-1990s with the cineaste equivalent of teenybopper adoration, Paul Thomas Anderson is the first to have been anointed a heavyweight. Even as a relative beginner he behaved as though he merited that status, mounting dynamic, multi-narrative tapestries, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, on vast canvases. One over-excitable nincompoop even insisted that his last picture, There Will Be Blood, was the greatest Kubrick film that Kubrick never made. (Reader, that nincompoop was me. And I stand by my claim.) While Anderson’s compadres – including non-relation Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), David O Russell (The Fighter) and Alexander Payne (Sideways) – are widely admired, they tend to be consigned to the undercard. PTA, as he is known, is the main event.

This explains the hyperbole for his sixth film, The Master. Extraordinary claims were being made for the movie before anyone had seen a frame. It would win the Best Picture Oscar for the next five years running! Pauline Kael would rise from her grave to review it in the New Yorker! No one would ever need to watch another film again! The irony, now that The Master is upon us, is that all this expectation has been heaped on to a slow-burning, forensic work with none of the giddy visual flash typical of its director. As a character study in which no one evolves or becomes any the wiser, the picture seems engineered to confuse and frustrate, which can only be good for its longevity.

Strangely for a director who has cribbed openly from his heroes (Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme), The Master is actively concerned with the perils of influence. It begins in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves the Navy and staggers into an uncertain life where his rage and his alcoholism become mutually inflammatory. With a failed job and a possible manslaughter behind him, he leaps on to a moored boat for some sleep and sanctuary. He is confronted there by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a pink and pompous fellow who adopts a beneficent attitude towards his stowaway. Freddie is accepted almost immediately into his inner circle. “You inspire something in him,” observes Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). He attends their daughter’s wedding and finds his new friends an agreeable bunch, even if their idea of small talk is to ask him: “Would you care for some informal processing?” or “Have you done any time-hole work?”

Lancaster has founded a religion, The Cause, which promises to purge its adherents of negative energy during intensive questioning sessions. Come to think of it, Lancaster bears a passing resemblance to L Ron Hubbard, who launched Scientology during the same era. Any similarities to persons or religions current or past are, I’m sure, entirely scurrilous.

It appears initially that there is a straightforward father/son dynamic between Lancaster and Freddie, although Lancaster already has an heir, who is secretly sceptical of The Cause (“He’s making it up as he goes along,” the lad notes). But Lancaster also sees in his new protégé a specimen for demonstrating the reach of his ideas. He refers to Freddie as an animal and you can see why. The magnificent Phoenix plays this lost lamb as a rude, raucous ape. His shoulders are bent so far forward that they almost clink together under his chin; blasts of corrosive laughter explode from one side of his mouth. (The other side is clamped shut, rendering his speech garbled: “I don’t understand” becomes “dunnshann.”) If Lancaster can take this “silly animal” and turn him into an articulate exponent of The Cause, wouldn’t that be all the proof of its worth that anyone needed?

The mangled comedy in The Master arises from the disparity between what Freddie thinks he is doing to honour the religion and how his behaviour exposes the flaws in the whole rinky-dink operation. He becomes a willing attack dog, physically savaging anyone who contradicts or criticises his “Master”. Instructed by Lancaster to visualise a point on the horizon and then to ride a motorcycle at high speed towards it, Freddie does exactly that. It is some time before Lancaster, squinting into the distance, realises that his disciple has vanished from sight and won’t be back for dinner.

In the less showy of the two lead roles, Hoffman is compellingly coiled; he shows Lancaster bubbling and boiling inside, lacking Freddie’s capacity for bestial fury. It’s a shame that Anderson couldn’t find any greater function for Amy Adams than to play Peggy as a bargain-basement Lady Macbeth. The ambiguity over whether she is the true creator of The Cause would be more provocative had the film not insisted on the cult’s fraudulence from the off, long before the clarinet in Jonny Greenwood’s layered score had begun imitating a pungi, the instrument prized by snake-charmers. But The Master remains a captivating and admirably patient film that gives no suggestion of having exhausted its mysteries in one viewing.

It will do well to endure as long as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a ghost story all the more effective for being counter-intuitive. (What nerve it took to shoot a brightly lit horror movie.) The US cut, featuring 24 minutes trimmed from the European edit, makes its cinema debut in the UK this week. A quick recap for the uninitiated: frustrated writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as winter caretaker at Colorado’s secluded, snowbound Overlook Hotel. Despite the establishment’s grisly past as the site of several murders, Jack brings with him his ragdoll wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and their eerily alert son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). It’s giving nothing away to say that the Overlook, with its jazz-age ghosts and its lobby awash with waves of blood, would receive only a middling score on Tripadvisor.

To be fully appreciated, The Shining must be seen in the cinema for its spatial power and the sedated sweep of its Steadicam photography. But it’s a must-hear as well as a must-see: the screeching electronic score and intricate sound design forms a sonic labyrinth every bit as terrifying as the physical one into which Danny is pursued by his axe-wielding father. Additional material extends mostly to occasional extra shots, with one exception: Wendy’s long conversation with a female doctor who examines Danny after a fall. The revelation that Jack had once injured his son while drunk was handled in the shorter cut by him alone – the abuser always got to tell his side of the story. Now we also have Wendy recounting the incident, combined with the doctor’s disapproving silence, the emphasis shifts significantly and renders the film frightening in entirely new ways. Like all great movies, and movie monsters, it’s alive!

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture