The Master: From the Window to the Wall

You aren't expecting what Paul Thomas Anderson is giving

There's something startlingly noncommittal about many of the initial reviews of The Master that leaked out following the impromptu screenings writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson organized in 70mm-equipped houses across the country, and later in response to the film's official bow at the Venice Film Festival. This is perhaps the natural, if not most productive, response to a film that, like the central character played by Joaquin Phoenix, resists conforming to any preconceived template of what it could or should be.

In admitting that "Master" Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, offering a new twist on the roiling vulnerability Anderson has always highlighted)—the figurehead of a growing faith movement in 1950s America—was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson set up expectations of an exposé of the origins of Scientology that would satisfy everyone who clucked approvingly when Katie swept Suri from the snatches of the Sea Org. Instead, Anderson has delivered a free-form work of expressionism, more room-size painting than biopic, star vehicle, or character study, mirroring Hubbard's story when convenient while strenuously avoiding direct representation. As with Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Anderson takes what he needs from history to recast his own story, yet he has never made a film so elusive.

Structurally similar to the Oscar-winning Blood, The Master begins with the origin story of how an iconoclast joins a community that he'll then struggle to live within, leading to a final confrontation with a man with whom he shares an adversarial and primal connection. Here, that iconoclast is Freddie (Phoenix), a Navy man we meet in the South Pacific in the waning days of World War II. He's a pervert and a drunk who's equally likely to kick a party into high gear by whipping up homemade booze or bring it to a dead halt by acting like a fucking weirdo. Did the war do it to him, or did collective catastrophe give him a space in which to almost blend in? Forced to assimilate back into the real world, he takes a gig as a department store photographer. He's probably in it for access to chemicals he can treat as liquor, but the job also gives this longtime itinerant a measure of control—in a circus replica of postwar domestic-consumer fantasy. He can be in the system and at the same time gnaw away at it. That's a mode of being that he'll repeat. Always on the run from some scrape, Freddie eventually ends up passing out drunk on a yacht carrying Dodd and his family.

"Above all, I am a man," Dodd tells Freddie. "Just like you." Dodd teaches Freddie not to apologize for who he is—namely, "a scoundrel"—but also makes it plain that to accept the literal free ride the Dodds can offer, Freddie will have to submit to the Master's conversion therapy. His teachings are mostly designed to help followers control their emotions by accessing their past experiences, either in their current lives or previous ones. In Freddie, he has himself a stowaway who has chewed through every leash ever clipped to his collar, who attempts to seduce adult women by passing notes ("Do you want to fuck?"), who has never encountered a household or industrial chemical that he hasn't tried to drink. In their first "processing" session, Dodd repeatedly asks Freddie a question: "Do your past failures bother you?" If anything, from what we've seen, they don't bother him enough, or, at least, he seems incapable of learning from them: His safe word is "away"; his default mode is "at sea." Can he change? Does he want to?

The Master's "processing" is surely modeled to some extent on Scientology's "auditing," but the exercises Dodd leads are not unlike what might have gone on in the era's acting classes. Processing puts Freddie inside scenes and feelings from his past—essentially the state method acting tries to get to through affective memory. If what The Master is "about" can even be boiled down, then it might be about acting: To ask if a person's nature is inherently fixed or if it can be engineered from the outside is to essentially ask if one person can teach another how to act.

It follows that Phoenix's performance is the most easily embraceable element of the movie, not least because, in its all-in commitment and sometimes baffling physicality, it seems to reflect Phoenix's own past-life experience of all-in performance as self-destruction. (Remember, this guy hasn't made a movie since I'm Still Here.) In the film's thrilling first half, devoted to Freddie's wanderings and first immersion in "the cause," Phoenix tips toward comedy. Shoulders hunched, arms swinging, his face snarled to one side in the picture definition of a mug, his body language is live-action Popeye, without muscles. In the second half, as Dodd draws out Freddie's tendency toward violence as defense, anything cartoonish hardens. The relationship and performances driving it hit their peak in an incredible single shot of the two in side-by-side jail cells: One man is a frenzy of rage; the other remains fixed and contained, yet both master and servant are ultimately reduced to screaming children.

The film rises and falls on the magnetic pull between these two. We're never fully allowed inside of their bond, in part because Anderson refuses to give viewers a fixed point of emotional identification. A scene in which Dodd sings and dances with a roomful of naked women seems to be a fantasy, but whose? Are these the idle imaginings of antisocial pervert Freddie? Is Dodd practicing the old stage trick of picturing his audience without armor? Or is the following scene, wherein Dodd's wife (Amy Adams) busts his balls while simultaneously offering them mechanical relief, a signal that the apparent male fantasy was in fact a woman-behind-the-man's paranoid delusion?

Is this all vague enough for you? The film's ambiguity could hardly be unintentional, but more interesting is Anderson's use of sumptuous technique to tell a story defined by withholding. The viewing experience, akin to grasping for something just out of reach in a dream or trying to read subtitles through an old pair of glasses, is neatly mirrored by one of Dodd's exercises, in which Freddie is forced to pace a room and describe the same wall and the same window with new language each time. It's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort food pleasure, but that's not Anderson's problem. You've just seen too many movies about incommunicative fuck-ups who manage to break down their defenses at some convenient third-act moment, assuring that order will be restored. By not opening up that valve, The Master forces the question of whether personality change is possible—or even advisable.

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19 comments
Shout12
Shout12

OVER-HYPED.   I saw this movie yesterday & it was a disappointment.  Too much was unexplained.  The followers of Dodd (rhymes with GOD) seemed very gullible and we don't get to know them very much except for Freddy Quell (rhymes with HELL) who can barely keep up a coherent conversation.  Dodd describes himself as an inquisitive man but has NO curiousity about what Freddy uses in his concoctions.  

    The last half-hour especially lacked coherent story telling in my view:  what was the point of the motorcyling & how does a main character wind up in a movie theatre where an usher brings him a tray with a phone on it, saying someone is requesting to speak to him & how did that caller know where to reach him? 

     Also, the photography did not seem extraordinary, or impressive, as seemed to have been indicated in some reviews.

             



 

desertroaz
desertroaz

 @Shout12  I didn't get the praise of the photography either. I thought it was alternatively ordinary and annoying...the facial closeups were too much. I never thought I'd get sick of Phoenix's face and boy did I by the end of this film.

leaflemming
leaflemming

@EmilyJPerkins Not yet. But @insequential & I figure it's odds-on for late Jan. (After Oscar noms, before awards). So impatient to see it.

insequential
insequential

@leaflemming @EmilyJPerkins —then, as opposed to seeming a bit bewildered: https://t.co/pRUr8tjj

MusePABlog
MusePABlog

@insequential Perhaps I'm getting soft, but I can understand why The Master might not be an easy sell here. @leaflemming @EmilyJPerkins

insequential
insequential

@MusePABlog @leaflemming @EmilyJPerkins (Marketing-wise I mean.)

insequential
insequential

@MusePABlog @leaflemming @EmilyJPerkins Well if it's anything like CABIN IN THE WOODS, they probably don't know what they're dealing with.

insequential
insequential

@MusePABlog @leaflemming @EmilyJPerkins Don't worry, if it's anything like CABIN IN THE WOODS, no one at RS will watch it before—

insequential
insequential

@leaflemming @EmilyJPerkins I'm going to ask Roadshow again on Nov. 8 (its Aus release date); hopefully they'll have a better idea by—

nzdodo
nzdodo

@EmilyJPerkins @insequential @leaflemming Ooh, South Pacific shellshock vibe *and* Errol Flynn subtext? I'm there, with footnotes on.

colliric
colliric like.author.displayName 1 Like

Flynn met Hubbard at roughly the same time the film is set(and was friends for roughly the same period before dying in the late 50s), and like Phoenix's character in the film, is known to have become so close to hubbard that he was frequently invited over to dinner(Hubbard's son described him as an adoptive father),  according to Hubbard's son shared common sexual fantasies with his father, took drugs(and smuggled them) with his father, had a shared desire to make money anyway how, never converted fully to Scientology... And he moved to England when Hubbard did, and according to Hubard's son, frequently stood over people for Hubbard. How come no one has picked that connection up between Phoenix's character and Hubbard's confidant Flynn? Just because they removed the film career(because it would have been too obvious) doesn't mean that's it's anyless clear that the characters are both based on the real people.

colliric
colliric

Am I the only one who knows enough about Hubbard to realize that this film IS directly based on his story very closely? It's very clearly based on his relationship with Actor Errol Flynn, who's general character during that period of his life is brilliantly reflected by Phoenix? as soon as they meet, the film proceeds to follow the story of their real friendship, as related by Hubbard's son, quite closely, but Paul choose to exorcise the film career of Flynn because he didn't want to wreck that actor's reputation.

beebo
beebo like.author.displayName 1 Like

Towards the end of the film, there's a scene where Freddie visits the family home of the best gal he left behind to go to war. The mother, conjuring all her powers of freak negotiation, informs him amiably that Doris has been married off, offers some small talk and attempts to bid adieu. Then there's this moment where Freddie asks, "Am I leaving?"

 

It's a subtle act of menace. Freddie is taking back control from her on her own doorstep. This is Anderson reminding us that for all we've become endeared to Freddie, he's still a semi-dangerous thug. It's a moment of anti-catharsis that basically casts Anderson as the Freddie to our Mother-on-the-doorstep. He's not only withholding any neat resolution, he's menacing our cinema needs. Bad boy, Mr. Anderson. 

desertroaz
desertroaz

 @beebo  I thought he was hitting on her.  And he didn't menace my cinema needs in any way except that that wasn't the last scene. There were a bunch of scenes where I thought "excellent point to end the film, roll credits.  Oh....there's....MORE. Oy."

teresagreene
teresagreene

It will be in Seattle on Friday I am going to see it, I can't wait.

Turtlez
Turtlez

When viewed from the outside,  things will  appear different, not necessarily better or worse just different  and I suspect that is a view of Scientology PT Anderson,  his actors and film crew will present in "The Master". I have not seen it but a good friend has and they confirmed what I expected The Master would be re: the Scientology connection to the story.

 

I expect it will be an artistic commentary  from an intellectual person (PT) who is  invested in inventing and translating life  as he sees it into compelling and original film language ( which he is very skilled at IMO)  but  who has  zero  personal investment in  Scientology  or whatever L Ron Hubbard was up to.

 

PT is making a film ABOUT  people with profound personal investment in what they were involved in. An UNinvested person making a film about people who are deeply invested can be breathtakingly   dramatic, but  unreliable IMO. But perhaps that is all films, it is about being an observer on the  outside and watching others  take risks and fail and overcome adversity and all the things we flock to the theatre to watch. 

 

note: I have never taken a Scientology course nor stepped foot on Scientology premises, and NEVER would. I do what I like and trust and i do not like nor trust the little I have heard/saw of Scientology. 

 

 

 

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