Last week I had the good fortune to visit my maternal grandmother in Boston, where she’s lived for the past few years in an assisted living community. At 91, her short-term memory is just about shot, but she still speaks with authority about a range of subjects—including painting, which she studied formally in the 1930s. One story she’s fond of telling (I heard it twice in two days) is of a life drawing teacher who made her spend months copying diagrams of skeletons and muscle groups before returning to conventional portraiture. The point was that she recognize how much is conveyed about a person through his basic architecture, which lesser artists overlook by focusing on more immediate qualities.
How nice it was to see my grandmother’s lesson given form in The Master, which I revisited this past weekend. Some of the film’s most striking images are close-ups of its actors’ faces. Where most directors have employed 70-millimeter film to create epic landscapes, Paul Thomas Anderson uses it to grant almost supernatural importance to jawlines, bridges of noses, and the heights of foreheads. (I assume this effect will be lost on a small screen.) Before their relationship is fully developed, one senses a fundamental opposition between the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman through the stark difference in the shapes of their cheeks.