Mastering ‘The Master’

master (noun): (1) a man who has people working for him, esp. servants or slaves; (2) the original print of a film from which theatrical copies are made; (3) a shot that covers an entire scene in a single take.

Stephen Farber is not alone among thoughtful reviewers (LA Times, Sept. 29) in castigating Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master for an underwritten narrative that leaves characters in the lurch and fails to live up to its European art cinema pretentions.

Granting the film’s purposely non-traditional technique, Farber nevertheless objects to the dearth of motivation offered for Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) lost soul and for cult leader Lancaster Dodd’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) instant taking to the rotgut-concocting, violence-prone Quell.

A closer look at the film overrules both objections. Several factors for Freddie’s “animalistic” behavior are proposed. A prematurely deceased (likely abusive) father and mentally institutionalized mother are clearly not the greatest confidence-builders, much less for a boy-man with a hunchback and a hair-lip—nor could a stint on a battleship in World War II have proved therapeutic.

As for what drives the less damaged into Dodd’s orbit, a plethora of possibilities are proffered. Dodd’s (latest) wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), sees herself as the woman behind the “great man,” of whose (sexual and spiritual) shortcomings she’s well aware. Son Val (Jesse Plemons) also knows his dad’s quasi-religious sect, called the Cause, is a crock, but that he has much to gain, now and in the future, by playing along.

The wealthy old biddies who comprise the bulk of Dodd’s followers (and funders) are drawn by Dodd’s charisma and the gulf in their vacuous lives his ministering manages to fill. Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), another wealthy patron, is paradoxically the most intelligent and truest believer of the bunch—until her “rude awakening.”

The trigger for Dodd’s uncommon attraction to Freddie, meanwhile, is spelled out in the Cause’s manifesto: “Human beings are not animals”; their bodies are vessels for spiritual entities from another dimension. Id-iosyncratic Freddie is thus both an affront and a foil: contradicting the Cause’s ur-principle while offering a supreme test of its transformative potential.

On a deeper psychological level, of course, Dodd (a polymath surely familiar with Freud and Jung) recognizes in Freddie his own id and shadow side. Meta-textually, the master-slave relation evokes not only Hegel and his philosopher acolytes but the inner and outer workings of cinema itself (see definitions above).

Freddie’s work as a professional photographer clearly aligns him with filmmaking. Director/actor relations are conveyed in the “exercises” Freddie is subjected to: the “processing” technique administered by Dodd, which, besides kinship with Scientology’s “auditing,” references Method acting’s emotional recall; the change-of-eye-color game Peggy plays with Freddie, to free up his imagination; and the wall-window pacing ordeal he is forced to undergo in front of the whole group, which develops sensory concentration and encourages “acting out,” “on stage,” before a “live audience.”

Anderson’s own cinematic “enslavement” expands the metaphor, both to the “master” filmmakers he invokes and to his own guru/disciple-obsessed body of work. Farber mentions the desert scene in The Master as conjuring Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (to which I would add von Stroheim’s Greed). The extreme close-ups emphasizing the deep creases in Freddie/Phoenix’s tortured face mirror Dreyer’s Joan of Arc.

Dodd’s megalomania and Freddie’s anger management issues up the ante by resonating as much with Welles’s Citizen Kane and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as with Anderson’s own Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. And while not directly naming the primal elements as Deepa Mehta does in her magisterial trilogy Fire, Earth, and Water, water is to The Master what oil is to There Will Be Blood—and ever the twain shall mix.

Not everything comes together in The Master. The London-based ending leaves us hanging, but not in a way that plumb’s the narrative’s deeper themes. Here, indeed, insufficient grounds are given for the Cause’s British exile. But the failure to fully consummate does not prevent the film from qualifying, in this Anderson devotee’s estimation, more than eponymously as a flawed masterpiece.

Author Bio:

Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal State LA, and Pierce College. He is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (Rutgers Press, 2006). His newest book, on Los Angeles, is due out in early 2013.

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