Feature Film: The Master

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a good-looking film with a dramatic composition and a narrative that is full of ideas, peppered with intriguing spaces for thought. It is a remarkable accomplishment for these reasons. I have been left mulling the story over in my mind for the last couple of days since I saw it, but why did it also leave me feeling rather cold? Before reading on, I recommend you go and see the film and decide how you feel about it, for fear of spoiling your experience. Having seen the film, I felt I needed to explore these engaging and niggling ideas that had been washed up behind.

Perhaps the film is brilliant because it gives you such scope to do this. Nick Pinkerton, in his review for Sight and Sound writes that it is these “indeterminate spaces” in the film that leave, “plenty of room for the viewer to fill in, making The Master easily the best movie this year to talk about,” while distinguishing it from being a good film in itself. You might say then that it is a critics’ film. However the one thing critics seem to agree on is the ability of this film to divide its commentators, in part because it is quite impossible to simply describe what the film is about without undermining some other element of its rich narrative, or in fact by giving it too much credit. It is a film about Scientology and founder L.Ron Hubbard—no it isn’t—and a film inspired by the Beat Generation in post-war America—partly—and a love story between two men—not exactly—between a father and a son—not really, although, it is a bit of all these things.

The opening of the film briefly marks the arrival into American culture of a certain crisis in consciousness, that which was shattered by World War II, the effects of which live on in the shadows of ‘peacetime’ America. The catastrophe has birthed two new models of modern American man exemplified by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the obsessive rationalist (an oxymoron in itself) and Freddie Quell (Joachin Pheonix), the wild and unpredictable drifter. As Peter Bradshaw has referred to them for his review in the Guardian, “they are a match made in sociopath heaven,” as both live in their own self-made illusions, living off the cuff—riffin’ the scotch—and neither display any ability to face up and deal with the delusions and anxieties inherent in their worldviews, which are conflicting yet inseparable—owing to their shared origins and their connections to the mainstream histories of the western enlightenment (the sleep of reason produces monsters).

In a revealing interview with the Guardian, Anderson explains how the idea for The Master began as a story about an ambitious vagabond who rattles up the coast of California, dreaming of the sea. This places the character of Quell firmly in the forefront, and Dodd as a device intended to complicate matters (which is reflected in the performances, as Pheonix’s quite remarkably dominates Hoffman’s). In response to the question of the film’s main themes, Anderson has responded, “It’s more the basic idea [of scientology] that appealed to me, because it concerns memories and other lives, particularly after the Second World War, and that’s what got me excited.” There is indeed significance in the desire for time-travel and lamenting the loss of the past in post-war America, nostalgia recognised as a distinctly modern phenomena, originally associated with soldiers. The human implications of warfare (the rise of new religious cults being one of them) are vast and complicated and this might account for why the film’s plotline can be said to have splitered off in various directions.

Anderson also explains how the film started out as a freestyle adaptation of John Steinbeck’s memoirs. Travels with Charley: in Search of America, begins with a reflection from Steinbeck on travel:

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters in and takes over… It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. … A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

Anderson describes his own film as “a salute to ingenuity, to making it up as one goes along; showing the way in which bold new ideas can spark off in a variety of directions.” In one scene Dodd’s son remarks somewhat incredulously to Quell that his dad is making everything up as he goes along. But what is really under scrutiny in the film with regards to Dodd’s behaviour is not so much this adlibbing, but his obsession with maintaining control over his journey, and particularly those that follow him. To this obsession, Quell is as alluring as gold and dangerous as krytonite.

Considering as its central themes both the alienation and devastation of warfare, and the paradoxical relationship between freedom and authority (both lead characters demand copious amounts of the two but seek it in different ways), this film’s references to modern philosophical ideas and literary motifs are plentiful. It is the spaces in the narrative structure of the film that allow these ideas to germinate in the mind of the viewer. When Pinkerton describes the film as being not a particularly satisfying film to watch but a great film to talk about, it is from the perspective of these lofty ideas.

For example, the film begins and ends on a beach in wartime Japan, right on the edge of Freddie Quell’s conscious mind (here we see him consider cutting off his own fingers. He gets drunk instead). A clearly still disturbed Freddie returns to America after the war and gets a job as a photographer (anyone with a knowledge of photographic theory could point here to the historic connections between photography, trauma and madness), but it doesn’t work out and he becomes a wanderer, eventually stowing away on a grand steamboat, where he meets Dodd—the yin to his yang. The boat, on the sea, is an autonomous space that allows Dodd the freedom to create and to think, but it is not his own to command and he must dock in New York in order for his thoughts to take hold. On land, with its attachments to societal norms, both Dodd and Quell come up against significant authoritarian challenges to their attitudes. How to get by and survive in this environment is the key occupation for both men.

Peter Bradshaw calls the end of the film “unbearably sad”, whereas I, having been left unmoved by the film, would perhaps refer to it as tragic, maybe even farcical. The film ends on the same beach it opened with. Beaches are expansive spaces between land and sea, historically symbolizing in art and literature a precarious place between domination and oblivion (consider Lord of the Flies) and a space of capitalist self-renewal (consider Robinson Crusoe). Both Quell and Dodd prove to be kings of their own compost heaps, but this image of the beach that Anderson returns to at the end of The Master ultimately serves to demonstrate how Quell in fact has the upper hand over Dodd in establishing a notion of truth about himself. While Dodd remains attached to the society he finds himself in, Quell, having finally understood the effects that his personal traumas and heartbreaks have had on him, recognises that the significance of Dodd’s influence over him derives from his use of language. It is in fact through the command of language and also of ritual that the members of ‘The Cause’ acquire the knack for control of themselves and over others. Armed with this realization, he can go back to himself, back to the beach, the war-torn beach that bore him. What remains for us to conclude as viewers from Quell and Dodd: our (social) bodies are the boundaries for our ideas. Having set off to seek the unknown, to follow your nose, even as you abandon all control you may just realise that all along you have been chasing your tail.

Maybe you will agree with me, maybe you won’t. The point is that we all make it up as we go along.

The Master is currently showing at major cinemas around the UK


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