by Niles Schwartz
Note: This isn’t a see-it/skip-it review of The Master, so much as an invitation to discuss the film, its ambitions, and its place alongside other films of the present moment.
“Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about – however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way – either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades and be content.” –Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Regardless of how good or bad The Master is, film enthusiasts are already kneeling at its altar recognizing something that must be preserved, its author a commanding voice creating above a fledgling industry’s debris. Paul Thomas Anderson is the captain of this ship, an obsessive commandeer forcibly heading into murky waters with a wood and nails vessel while his peers zoom past in plastic speedboats. The Master abounds with references to sailing, boats, and sea captains, its forebears not merely cinematic, but literary. As Anderson follows film directors John Huston, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, George Stevens, and Stanley Kubrick, he also reaches out to the wounded, crazed, and obsessed Ahab chasing the while whale Moby-Dick into oblivion, or Don Quixote’s self-reinventing labyrinths. The whale, like the Self, remains indecipherable. As serial television, Netflix, digital reproduction, and franchise geek-boy mandates have hollowed out the movie industry, spoon-feeding us our reactions along with plot-points, Paul Thomas Anderson points out from his masthead to the deep blue, flinging his harpoon flung at the ineffable.
As with Melville, Anderson’s scenarios are drawn from a well sharing Old Testament patriarchs and Gilgamesh; some lonely figures seek atonement and forgiveness, others look for the Fountain of Youth or the orchards of Eden. Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, is centered around a California oilman, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), who has Ahab, Gatsby, and East of Eden in his DNA. The character electrically flares with primitive sparks of human longing (Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, King David, Gilgamesh). Regardless of what more established and richer businessmen tell him, Plainview is determined to go his own direction. His trajectory flows down a pipeline leading to the Pacific doubling for the dream of acquiring a large house, such as he jealously spied in his mysterious youth in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Elsewhere in Anderson’s filmography, well-endowed Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights is rechristened as porn superstar “Dirk Diggler” and journeys in circles through a subculture’s underbelly, going “there and back again” as he cuts ties with literal and symbolic parents, but at the end of his adventure, staring in the mirror, he remains mysterious unto himself. Or consider the vast ensemble of stubborn and penitent sinners and victims in Magnolia, who are actually visited upon by Yahweh’s plague of raining frogs, the message of the Exodus being clear: let my people go.
Such big gestures by a director inevitably result in tired accusations of pretentiousness, something hurled around too often these days and used to describe a swing-for-the-fences director like Anderson before. A plague of frogs is clever enough, but only if it was approached with snark irony would it have been better received by a cynical audience. To dig up unpleasant rivalries, isn’t it appropriate that one of the heroes of the now-governing Geek Culture (that which has threatened to sap Hollywood of any originality or courage with its nostalgia and video-game mannered sensate addiction), Kevin Smith, was so keen to use the internet for voicing his hatred for Magnolia and what it represented to him as a work of despicable self-indulgence? And yes, Magnolia is a long dirge, a sometimes over-burdensome purgation of suffering, a three-hour host of plagues rained on the movie-going public who were given far more digestible pictures of decadence that year with American Beauty (the HBO-friendly ascendancy of its writer, Alan Ball, also portending where movies would go in subsequent years) or Smith’s Dogma, where religion is simplified and mined for blockbuster-parody giggling, God’s appearance being one more gee-golly-ha-ha pop-culture reference (namely, Alanis Morissette). Whereas American Beauty and Dogma feel born of disillusioned yet warm carpe diem humanism, Magnolia, as voiced during Jason Robards’ dying monologue to his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman), preaches disdain for shrugging good-times apathy (the culture of “regret nothing”) and urges us to regret, and then unabashedly, out of that suffering, the simple command to “love, love, love.” From one perspective, Anderson’s Magnolia prompts us to think, “What balls!” whether we are marveled by him or embarrassed for him. But as I get older, the naked ruminations of his film, a love letter to his dead father and then-girlfriend (Fiona Apple) and made before he was 30 years old, are increasingly moving and true. The giggles and consoling pats on the back in Dogma and American Beauty are increasingly facile and condescending.
Anderson does not trivialize the religious impulses of his characters, whether they’re in the sincere prayers of John C. Reilly’s lonely cop in Magnolia or the parishioners of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood. When Plainview, with borderline cartoon vehemence, stammers forth murderously and declares, “I am the Third Revelation!” we believe him, and the moment has so much gravity that it wouldn’t be preposterous to imagine dark wings sprouting from Plainview’s back before he consumes poor Paul Dano with demonic teeth. A cosmic mystery is at play in Anderson, the gods being key players. What drives Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) to become a guardian angel for two fuck-ups (John C. Reilly, Gwenyth Paltrow) in Hard Eight? And the fortuity of struggling Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights, who can’t get a bank loan to start a business because of his porno career, but a late night donut shop stop and a botched robbery (leaving him as the only living party, along with an open safe, full of cash) alters his fate? Then the mystery of Emily Watson’s allure for Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love — or the luck of cracking a Healthy Choice free-airline-miles discrepancy and the heaven-sent reason for that harmonium’s appearance. As There Will Be Blood‘s casting-out-of-devils demonstrates, Anderson’s Steadicam device is not something to conveniently smooth out a tracking shot, but the perspective floats like a wandering spirit. The camera eye is something mysterious and supernatural in-the-world. It’s for this reason that we shouldn’t now approach The Master as a Scientology expose about charismatic fanaticism. That people have illusions is a given, but Anderson is not disparaging this so much as he’s sympathetically engaging with those puzzling and often destructive impulses, which have such an untraceable origin and remain so insoluble.
In Moby-Dick, the sailors see the whale’s scars as hieroglyphics, and each character translates the meaning of those hieroglyphs in accordance with their belief systems and experiences. God, the great whale, is a different thing to different people, but death does not discriminate. We perish equally. Our respective belief systems are pathways of cohesiveness, or a means of articulating life, without which we are prey to unimpeded instinct. In The Master, we first see the protagonist Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) with his mouth (the communicative vehicle) covered by the dark of metal as his eyes gaze out. Trauma, in war or domestic turmoil (his father died of alcoholism; his mother is in an asylum; he had sexual relations with his aunt), paralyzes him. He mumbles through life, moving from one temporary job to the next, improvising alcoholic concoctions that include paint thinner and explosive fluids.
Meeting Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on a yacht (a kind of ark called the Aleitheia – Greek for “Truth”), Quell is given a sympathetic ear and access to a system that might give some structure. It’s not a mystery that Dodd, the “Master,” is based in part on L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientology guru who’s given so many affluent Hollywood personalities (Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, etc) a sense of purpose, but Anderson rarely dwells on the specifics of Dodd’s teachings. We hear about a trillion-years war of energies as past life sins continue to afflict us presently, but whatever the “Cause” is, what matters is how the abeyance to a structure affects an individual and gives them a means for expression and being in a community (or perhaps, a prison in which their language and habits are circumscribed and controlled). Though he never dwells on the Cause’s meaning, Quell is at last able to talk within its perimeters, as a forced exercise of walking from the window to the wall, repeated endlessly, challenges him to describe the same objects differently. He’s excavating an expressive labyrinth. The plasticity of words extends to perception, as per instructions of the Master’s domineering wife Peggy (Amy Adams), Quell is able to make blue eyes turn black. It’s not clear if Quell actually believes anything Dodd is telling him, as his mind is so often elsewhere (usually erotically focused). But for the first time in his life, Quell has people listening to him.
Quell’s vulnerability as a potentially schizophrenic war veteran and alcoholic, locked in his scoptophilia while more well-adjusted people are ideally framed by him in department store photographs, could lead us to judge Dodd as a charlatan exploiting the weaknesses of others. And yet as played by Hoffman, Dodd is probably his own truest believer, a Quixote whose obsession is a whale within his own murky waters. As neither Quell nor Dodd are fully apprehended by us or by each other, neither man is apprehended by himself. Though Dodd has his followers drilled with the belief that man is not an animal ruled by instinct, we see a man whose body is his most irreducible fact. He savors Quell’s alcoholic improvisations, which double for his authored religious and philosophical ones. Brought to orgasm after being masturbated by his wife (a painting of swans behind them as Dodd looks in the mirror), he moans like a hurt animal. In a jail cell, after a spat with Quell, Dodd epilogues his articulateness with a long urination. His irritability while being questioned by a wealthy follower (Laura Dern) is exacerbated by the onset of a cough.
The desire to leave behind the body’s imprisoning drives is central to many religions, where jealousy and lust is compartmentalized–or quelled as it were. Or, perhaps, constrained sex is sublimated in acts of aggression or creativity, like Dodd’s literary output or Quell’s sand-sculpted woman on a beach. In one of The Master‘s opening images, as Quell drinks a dismantled torpedo’s fluid, it’s not reading too deeply to see similarities to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and Major Kong (Slim Pickens) beneath lofty nuclear arsenal and trying to get the bomb doors open. As he used several images and tones from 2001: A Space Odyssey to reinforce themes in There Will Be Blood, Anderson again invites intertextual reading. The nuclear assault from Strangelove is set into motion by General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a military man whose paranoid fears of communist subversion and contamination go hand-in-hand with his refusal to orgasm during sex. “I do not avoid women,” he says, “but I do deny them my essence.” Lancaster Dodd has similar fears of outside attack, from either communist organizations or extraterrestrials, “Peace On Earth” going hand-in-hand with our forgotten “Purity of Essence” (to borrow Ripper’s terminology and tie it to Dodd’s idea of “Man in His Perfected State”). Dodd and Quell are framed with the same close-up intensity that Kubrick shows Ripper as he monologues about fluoridation sapping and impurifying “all of our precious bodily fluids.” Ripper has gone insane, leading to a fake war (with apocalyptic consequences), and perhaps the same can be said for Dodd. His religious creation has led to “total commitment,” a war of ideas with the mainstream. His final dwelling space, a huge slanted room with a great window and open air dwarfing desks and chairs, eerily resembles Strangelove’s famous war room set. Kubrick’s influence is further discerned when we consider Anderson’s symmetries (how moments – like two characters singing to Quell – repeat; how Dodd physically resembles a man with whom Quell has a spat in his department store early on, and even how Dodd resembles a blonde, full-figured woman with whom Quell has sexual intercourse near the conclusion: an image of the woman on top that recalls the “I was cured all right” finale of Kubrick’s film of the id being conditioned, A Clockwork Orange) and ambiguities: like in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, we can never be sure how much of the film, if any of it, is taking place in a character’s head.
The quest for meaning, such as sought by Dodd and Quell, also points to John Huston, who shares Anderson’s religious fascinations. Huston’s 1946 military documentary Let There Be Light, suppressed until 1980 because of the disturbing pictures of PTSD-afflicted soldiers it presented, follows numerous vets who are offered psychiatric evaluations and treatments (famously attacked by Scientology). They are going to be reborn as free citizens, but how do they adjust after their traumatic experiences? “How does a man find happiness?” Walter Huston’s narration asks. “Is there a secret to discover? What is the secret ingredient that gives joy and meaning to living?” The concept of a “secret” is central to The Master, with its mysterious alcoholic drinks and religious solutions to existence. The film was written when the book The Secret became a New Age publishing phenomenon (to simplify, The Secret theorizes that you can accomplish anything by picturing a goal and its fulfillment; easy enough, and we see Dodd and Quell practice something like this in the desert), and this 1950s period film is relevant to the present, when conspiracy theories and sensitivity to a core-set of beliefs are as prickly as ever: if we believe we have the Secret, we’ll be damned if someone tries to take it from us.
Huston’s Wise Blood (1979) is about the incessant circle of doubt and faith eating off each other, as the misfit Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) makes his Church of Christ Without Christ in a fight with the ineluctable “fact” of Jesus, preached by the blind (though not actually blind) Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton). Based on Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic novel, Wise Blood shares The Master‘s interest in lost military men trying to readjust to the world, the need to stamp out wild and primitive instincts (like with ape-costumed Enoch Emery, played by Dan Shor; in The Master, Dodd often calls the untamed, farting, and violent Quell an “animal”), and a seductive young woman who, in both scenarios, happens to be the preacher’s daughter: Hawks’ daughter Lily Sabbath (Amy Wright) in Wise Blood, and Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) in The Master.
Then there is Huston’s expensive adaptation of Moby-Dick (1956). In addition to Melville’s themes of obsession and images of the great oceans, Anderson directly points to the Huston picture during a party scene, where Dodd gleefully sings a sea-shanty he identifies as “We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” Quell meanwhile imagining all the setting’s women naked. The tune is actually called “The Maid of Amsterdam,” its lyrics addressing an aging person’s need to give up drunken and sexual excesses, and we hear it in Huston’s Moby-Dick as Ishmael (Richard Basehart) gets set up for a room, sung by sailors getting ready to go whaling (the way Anderson shoots Quell wandering the English countryside near the conclusion has to be modeled on Ishmael’s introduction as a wanderer in the Huston film).
Some viewers may complain that there isn’t really a destination in The Master. But the resolve is there for the characters, and our heroes aren’t granted the kind of illumination with which most stories about psychological illness have given us – there are no Good Will Hunting breakthroughs, or traumatic memories brought to light that will set us straight. Like with The Shining, we are increasingly unsure if what we are seeing is really happening; the entire film comes into question, disrupting our faith in the moving picture. The characters are working to believe and to cope. One believes something is true, goes a step forward, a step to the side, then back, and to the other side, maneuvering as life forces them to adjust or reword their given system. We use those systems of meaning to verbally explain ourselves to a universe that is more indifferent than it is cruel – and so more horrifying. We pinpoint our made-up destination and go there, but it’s very difficult to traverse without the guiding architecture of an established paradigm to direct our vision and our voices.
“Free winds and no tyranny for you,” Dodd says to Quell. “Freddy. Sailor of the seas. You pay no rent. Free to go where you please. Then go. Go to that landless latitude. And good luck. For if you figure a way to live without serving a Master, any Master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” Those words recall Ishmael’s “universal thump” from Moby-Dick. But in the context of what Anderson gives us, the center of The Master is elusive and impossible to define. Quell and Dodd are “tied to each other,” as Starbuck and Ahab are, but they exist in different universes, having worked together in the pigeon patrol in a previous life, and set to be “sworn enemies” in a future one. Does the Master understand his disciple, and vice-versa? Or as the disciple doesn’t understand himself, may the same be true for the Master? Do we all truly serve a master, as Dodd and Melville believe we do? Or is it one more projection of their own truth, and the inability to master themselves?
There’s something addictive in The Master‘s indecipherable nature. I want to swim deeper out and accrue its secrets and have its sea-sent bottled messages opened, read, and understood, but one can never get all the pieces. That’s the sense of life Anderson has set beautifully to celluloid since his earliest efforts. Anderson demands we read creatively into a character and story, as we do for the enigmatic Daniel Plainview and the Fond du Lac “Peach Tree Dance” in There Will Be Blood, or Philip Baker Hall’s Samaritan in Hard Eight, or the hidden traumas of Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love. I don’t think that the most ingenious and acclaimed of television serials on HBO can accomplish this task of articulating the ineffable to which The Master aspires, with Anderson bent on reminding us of the importance of the two-to-three hour motion picture experience in service to our need to reflect. He has become the great novelist-as-filmmaker, but he also uses his God’s-Eye omniscience to ironically reinforce how how even the most all-seeing eye is detached from the finality, the secret, of a revelation. Maybe Freddy, trying to adjust to civilian life as a photographer, is the director’s double, so focused on achieving his ideal that he finally begins drinking his film-developing fluid.
Shot and cut on film, when most movie theaters cannot exhibit it in its preferred 70mm format (or even 35mm), Anderson ambitiously chronicles his great dreamers with a method in stark contrast to the present. Chemicals and darkrooms develop the picture – fluids – instead of a computer transmitting data. Committed to film like his characters are committed to their respective obsessions, the vintage look of The Master recalls porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) in Boogie Nights, so stubborn in adjusting from motion picture film to video’s dominance in 1980, where the artist’s dreams (to keep a porn audience captivated and in their seats after they ejaculate) are cheapened by commercial expediency. The vision and control Anderson exercises with The Master warrants its hastened christening as a movie event, a rare product washed up from those “landless latitude” dreams where artists fearlessly exert their egos, nightmares, and hallucinations, beckoning us on a ‘slow boat to China,’ the longest journey. The captain of the ship may be mad and even incomprehensible, but the reward is in steering to our own interpretive response, commandeering an inward-bound ship to a ghostly destination.