THIS IS A LINK TO A RECENT ARTICLE REGARDING PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON'S NEW FILM 'THE MASTER.'
Becuase I've been obssessively waiting for this film to come out, I wanted to write a post about the film (something I haven't done in a while). I saw the film at its wide release premeire last Thursday, and have to say it was quite an experience.
My immediate impression of the film is that it is PTA's most 'impressionistic' film to date, but I mean that in the sense that the conceptual themes that drive the film forward are so well engrained in the plot that you don't get the feeling that's what the film is about. All of PTA's films are told through the disposition of some dressed up character, or a performer. In 'Boogie Nights' it was the porn actors. In 'Magnolia' it was the police officer, the quiz show cast, and Tom Cruise's testoserone boosting male sex therapist. In 'Punch Drunk Love,' it was a man who dressed in a blue suit each day, and in 'There Will Be Blood,' it was about a traveling salesman; an oil venture capitalist and a preacher.
'The Master' is no different, but I think it is an even more significant film in the scope of PTA's career than people are talking about. Never before has PTA dealt with a character so undefined as Freddie Quell. He is 'Kilroy,' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilroy_was_here). He is the undefined soldier post World War II, and he meets a man who is about as eccentric as any of PTA's characters. This man gives Freddie Quell a purpose. This man is Freddie's surrogate father in a way, but in my opinion more of a brother. Freddie gives himself up to this man, because he is noble. The Cause is the religion this man, Lancaster Dodd has created, and this militant philosophy by which Dodd has promoted in his religious writings is precisely the type of occupation Freddie needs.
Ideas of time travel and past lives are promoted in the film, and it is my opinion that these ideas could only mean that the film is about forgetting. It is dealing with those terrible things you were told not to do as a child, but did anyways. It is about forgetting your horrible animalistic personality and compulsions; your horrible compulsions to 'fuck,' to 'kill,' to 'drink,' and to curse the heavens. This film is about God. Lancaster Dodd shouts at the top of his lungs as he's being arrested, 'By what galactic authority do you posess?!!!"
It is my opinion that these two characters are the most beautiful characters ever put on screen. They are completely insane, and tremendously flawed. But what do they want? Isn't that what we want to figure out? How can we know what the film is about if we don't know who these men are?
There's a great piece I found on Vulture asking exactly this question. It's a good starting point to figure out what exactly this film is about.
I should add that I will see this film again in the next few days. Hopefully, my thoughts will change. I should say though that my immediate impressions the first time around was that this film was not at all about HUGE things, such as man and God, man as an animal, a servant and his Master, but about good friends, unlikely friends. Isn't that what humanity is about? Is it not about those subjective dividing lines between us all? Are these lines not divised over thousands of years, through generations, through past lives? I can only say that I felt this way, and I can only say that the one theme PTA has been obsessed with throughout his career is LOVE.
A little more than a week into its wide release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has already established itself as that rare beast, a popular film with a lot on its mind — one that bears and maybe even demands repeated viewings. (Critics Stephanie Zacharek and Dana Stevens each have thoughts on whether or not a movie should need to be seen more than once.) And each of these viewings can yield new and varying interpretations. So, what is The Master about? Here are five potential avenues of thought. (Naturally, there are spoilers ahead. You are forewarned.)
The search for a family and stability. Several times, we see a shot of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) lying down next to a sand sculpture of a woman. Admittedly, it's a sand sculpture that he humps in the film's opening minutes, but the tender way that he later cuddles up to it suggests that what he’s after isn’t really sex but warmth, contact, family, comfort. When the V.A. doctor asks him about a “vision” that he had, Freddie describes it thusly: “I had a dream. My mother, my father, and me. Sitting around a table. Drinking … ” Then he mumbles something that sounds like either “laughing” or “loving.” At any rate, that’s his vision — a happy family. Anderson dissolves from this scene to Freddie’s new job as a photographer — shooting pictures of happy housewives, happy children, happy husbands. He longs to be a part of this world, but, not unlike a filmmaker, he can only photograph it: Before he fights with the man he’s photographing at the department store, Freddie asks him, “Is this for your wife?” (Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, we hear a baby screaming.) Then, he pushes the lights in on the man, trying to crowd him out, and starts to beat him.
Freddie’s search for a family leads him to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). In the remarkable shot where he discovers Dodd’s yacht, the camera constantly racks focus between a cold Freddie staggering on the dock in the foreground and the happy, warm party on the yacht, with Lancaster and Peggy dancing in the distance: It’s as if the camera (and by extension Freddie) is constantly trying to place them all in the same shot, and failing. Indeed, Anderson keeps these characters separated visually throughout the film. We almost never see them alone together in the same shot. Almost.
In the bizarre, final, cryptic scene in London, when the three are briefly reunited, Peggy first expresses a kind of maternal interest in Freddie (“You look sick. Freddie, you don’t look healthy”) before rejecting him altogether (“What did you hope would happen by coming here today?” To which he responds, tellingly, “I had a dream.”). In fact, this final scene might actually be the only time when we finally see all three of these characters — Peggy, Lancaster, and Freddie — alone together in the same shot. At the end of the scene, Lancaster sings “(I’d Like to Get You On) A Slow Boat to China” to Freddie. And yes, it’s eerie and perhaps more than a little homoerotic, but it also feels like a twisted version of a lullaby — the most domestic and familial of actions turned into something terrifying and strange — making it clear once and for all that Freddie’s dream of becoming a family with Lancaster and Peggy Dodd is an impossibility. And freeing him, ironically, to try and form a new family — perhaps with Winn, the girl he’s met in the final scenes of the film, right before we see him lying next to the female sand sculpture, suggesting that his search goes on.
I felt like this idea was a given. Freddie certainly does want a family. He wants a wife, he wants chidren. In an ending scene we see him speaking to the mother of the girl that he once loved. Her name is Doris and she was sixteen when Freddie was in love with her. Freddie discovered that while he was devoting his life to The Cause and Lancaster that this girl had married and had two chidren.
I think the answer as to why Freddie was working all those jobs in the first place was he was trying to establish himself in the world. That is what he was told to do by his commanders. Ideally, Freddie was going to come back to Doris and ask her to marry him, while he had some money, hopefully a job, and some sense of self-importance.
So why did he need Lancaster? Lancaster gave him a job, Lancaster was helping Freddie with his helplessness, his problems. Freddie was going to be reformed. Doris was going to love Freddie. As any relationship goes, Freddie saw that Lancaster was man of his own cause. He was respected, he had a wife who was pregnant, and a son. "You know Val you should listen, your father is speaking." Is this not what Freddie believes. I don't think Freddie ever wanted Dodd to be his father, because that was not the end goal. The end goal was that Freddie would be a new person. Freddie would get rid of those bad things that makes him drink, and have sex with every woman he sees. Freddie is a noble character, and although he is flawed, he is not hopeless.
The ironic thing is that because Freddie needed Dodd, Doris got away. Hence, Freddie's inescapability, his return to the beach at the end of the movie, with that pile of sand that is in the form of a girl, his girl.
The politics of cults, and the cults of politics. Although Harvey Weinstein introduced the New York premiere of The Masterwith a swipe at Mitt Romney, Paul Thomas Anderson has never been a particularly political filmmaker. Except when he has been: There Will Be Bloodmight be a timeless meditation on will, power, ambition, and duplicity, but it’s also a startling depiction of the collusion and conflict between capitalism and spirituality in early twentieth century America, with particular resonances for the time in which it was made, when the U.S. was waging two wars in distant lands — one for oil, and another against a group of religious extremists it had collaborated with decades earlier. Not unlike Stanley Kubrick before him, Anderson seems to have an amazing ability to build in contemporary echoes into his films without making them feel overtly topical.
Thus, The Master, even though it’s only tangentially about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, depicts the humiliating yet symbiotic relationship between causes and followers in the modern era, when belief systems are no longer governing frameworks but just software to be renewed and replaced. You can see it in the Master’s irritated response to Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) who, upon reading his new book, inquires about a major difference she’s noticed: “I did note that on page 13, there’s a change. You’ve changed the processing platform question from ‘Can you recall?’ to ‘Can you imagine?’” Meanwhile, Freddie, who never really understands the Master’s methods and has just had to listen to another B.S. sermon from Dodd, beats up a longtime believer who dares to question the Master's rambling text. Maybe this is the way Freddie deals with his doubts, by doubling down on his obedience to the Master.
True, this is a kind of willful mutability that’s characteristic of cults, but it’s also one of the dynamics of modern politics, where belonging to the team (and defending it) is a lot more important than what the team actually stands for. (Just read any of this year’s election headlines to see political team players defend policies and beliefs they don’t really subscribe to — be they on the Left or the Right.) Freddie is, ultimately, symbolic of the common man who joins a cause not because he believes in it, but because it will have him.
This is the weakest of the theories, but there are some ideas that are important to note. Specifically the change from 'Can you recall?' to 'Can you imagine?' Why would this be significant? Is this a bit of self doubt in Dodd? Is Dodd seeing the inherent flaws in his own ideas? Does he believe his own ideas? Has Freddie changed his Dodd's thoughts?
Doubles. It has probably not escaped the notice of many viewers that, although Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell seem like psychological and physical opposites (one is garrulous, confident, and rotund, the other terse, nervous, and alarmingly thin), the film also often presents them in symmetrical shots and situations: Witness the way Anderson films them when they’re in jail, yelling at each other as if each is inside the other’s mind. And let’s also not forget that both men are alchemists of a kind — one has the ability to turn things like torpedo fuel into a delicious beverage, the other has the ability to turn anything around him into a nonsensical spiritual aphorism. These men may somehow be conjoined — Dodd is, after all, the only one who seems to be able to regularly drink Freddie’s moonshine concoctions and survive. (It also helps, of course, that the women around them look the same — Doris, the girl Freddie loved back home before the war, bears an uncanny resemblance to Peggy Dodd.)
If the processing/auditing that the Master encourages is designed to shed oneself of the negative emotions and troubles of our past lives, consider the possibility that Freddie might actually be, at least on a metaphoric level, one of Lancaster Dodd’s past lives. (Which makes the oft-stated question in the film of where they might have met a more haunting one.) If Dodd constantly leaves his troubles behind, Freddie appears to be made up entirely of troubles — the family that abandoned him, the girl back home who didn’t wait for him, the war that broke him. (In an earlier version of the script, Freddie’s alcohol problem was matched by an obsessive need to get more and more tattoos, and his initial hospitalization at the V.A. was due to a rather symbolically loaded ailment — a burst appendix.) Like the negative energy of New Yorkers that collects in the sewers of the city inGhostbusters II, Freddie is, in many ways, the return of the repressed for Lancaster Dodd — a Frankenstein’s Monster of troubled memories, rejections, and unspoken spiritual longings.
I think what this theory is trying to explain, and what people are picking up on when they think of this is that both characters desperately need each other.
Post-war ennui. This is, of course, right there in the second shot of the film: Freddie Quell, Navy man, lifting his head above the edge of a boat, looking quizzically out at the world. We hear a lot about the Greatest Generation in the media, but it’s also a fact that many of the men who fought in WWII came home to a world that was rapidly changing and that no longer held the certainties (if they ever even existed) of the war. (“Understandably, there will be people on the outside who do not understand your condition.”) While we do see, over the course of the film, a brief glimpse of Freddie’s life before the war, it’s telling that we never see the war itself, marking it as a kind of defining absence.
What did the war do to Freddie, and what about it connects him to Dodd? Is it worth noting that the cult of personality Dodd has created is, in miniature, a reflection of the political cults of personality — those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito — that the Allies defeated in WWII? Such things are never stated outright in the film, and we certainly never see “the enemy” in the brief scenes that show Freddie’s Navy stint. But we do see an enemy around us later in the film — the skeptics, the authorities, the doubters who question and challenge Dodd’s power. This is, after all, the age of McCarthyism, of paranoia and fear. Maybe Anderson is suggesting that people like Freddie came out of the war needing both the solace of family life and an enemy to combat?
I think this is a very strong theory. One of Freddie's strongest moments in the film is when he tells another man that his ship won the war and received some highly decorative honors. He says this without hestitation or sheepishness.
When you see evil, you know it's out there. Paranoia and fear drive you afterwards, because you can see it in people. Perhaps what Dodd offered Freddie, and the way that Freddie understood Dodd's ideas was because Dodd was acknowledging this evil. But Dodd's response was, how do we get rid of it? How do we compartmentalize it? How do we put it away?
Freddie needs a purpose in life. He devotes his life to Dodd. He then protects Dodd, because Dodd has the answers. Anyone who tries to delegitamize Dodd is an enemy. Dodd's wife says in a moment, "The only way to respond is to attack." It's interesting that she would say this, but I can only think that it needed to be said.
Acting! In interviews, Anderson has suggested that The Master followed an even looser development process than his previous scripts, with him instinctually putting a variety of elements together just to see how they would work out. (Versions of the script that were leaked during the film’s shooting were quite different from the finished product.) So, consider the possibility then that, on some basic level,The Master may actually be less about its ostensible story and more about its surfaces. It’s about putting the needy, nervous angularity of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance next to the avuncular, comfy generosity of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, and seeing what develops, what ecosystems of character are formed in the back-and-forth between these figures.
In his excellent analysis of the film for The New Yorker’s website, Richard Brody correctly notes that many of the cult’s therapy sessions look like method acting exercises. Similarly, it’s perhaps notable that Phoenix’s performance seems to represent the tormented, physical acting styles of the latter half of the twentieth century (the Brandos, the Deans, the Clifts) whereas Hoffman’s acting seems to hearken back to the controlled, elusive manner of the previous half (many have described his turn as “Wellesian”). In these acting styles, we see a miniature version of the journey of American society during this period — and, specifically, American maleness. And before you suggest that this is a stretch, remember that this is a director who in Boogie Nights used different porn acting styles to tell the story of late-seventies-early-eighties American social upheaval.
This theory definitely has some weight to it. There are so many ideas floating around in this movie that I think the only way that you can truly understand them is if you understand it's simply a film. But as I said, PTA uses characters functionally.
Looking back on the film, there is a moment when Freddie chokes a man he is photographing. I'm not sure if this is a legitimate idea, but he looks a lot like Dodd. It makes me think that Dodd, without any knowledge of who he is, would be repulsory to Freddie. Dodd is somebody Freddie woud beat up, because he's certainly well put together, articulate, and respected. But Dodd impresses Freddie in the manner that only men like Dodd coud do. Of course, Dodd becomes friends with Freddie in the first place because he gives him a job. He tells Freddie to make him a drink, then Freddie eventually takes Dodd's photograph. It's something inherent in these men that begin a religion that makes them so appealling, even appealling to Freddie. And because Dodd is orchestrating a movement, a movement which is growing in size, and only intends to grow much more, Dodd, by the urging of his wife, has to leave Freddie behind.
Dodd asks Freddie something like, "What do you want, Freddie?" And then, "What did you hope to accomplish by coming here today?"
Freddie is looking for stability, but cannot for some reason accept the offer. I think Freddie was never supposed to find that stablity. If every man's story was a happy one after the war, then this film wouldn't have a subject matter. But we should understand that these men went on to build a nation post World War II. What will Freddie do? Where will he end up?
Freddie responds to Dodd's question, "What do you want?" with an, "I don't know," and some mumbling. Dodd releases him into the world, because Dodd knows he does not belong in The Cause. The song Dodd sings Freddie at the end says something like, 'I wish we could still be friends, but I can't."
The Master ends where it begins, with Freddie on a beach with that woman made of sand. I think Freddie's story ends ambiguosly, because these men were eventually forgotten. They were passed over, because that's just what happened. The men that fought for this country, were eventually forgotten by the country they served so valiantly. The Master is in essence, a tall tale. It is about the formless, hopeful sailor post world war II. It is purely mythology, but with an incredible amount of weight to it. Perhaps that is why it is PTA's most unconventional film to date. It's a marking point in his career, and in my opinion fim in general.