Monday, September 24, 2012
(CAVEAT: loaded with SPOILERS, so read on at your own risk).
Purling white waves lapping over an impossibly bright blue sea. So begins THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s hypnotizing and physically imposing masterpiece about yearning love and the struggle between carnality and spirituality that thwarts it. No other film this year or the next will feel as singular and strange; few other films in recent memory have felt so commanding and confounding, beautiful and ferocious. This is easily the film of the year, and to echo Glenn Kenny, quite possibly the film of the still nascent decade. Not since Anderson’s last film THERE WILL BE BLOOD have I felt such an equal mixture of astonishment and befuddlement; befuddlement not at the obscurity of the vision, but befuddlement at the mastery and richness of its telling. Paul Thomas Anderson is the most arresting and fascinating filmmaker working today. He has come in command so thoroughly of his own uniquely strange and symbolic voice that the only artistic landscapes I can compare his to extend outside of cinema to the theater of Edward Albee or the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Certainly, Anderson still wears his Altman badge proudly, but his cinema has become so chiefly his that there is nothing that looks or feels like it. He is incontrovertibly in a class of his own. This is a complete master-class in directing, cinematography, acting, and brilliant writing. Let the nay-sayers be damned.
THE MASTER’s gorgeous opening shot of lulling waves immediately draws us under its spell and introduces a motif of freedom and expanse that will reoccur throughout the film. From the waves, we immediately cut to an extreme close-up of the burgeoning head of Freddie Quell, his helmet bobbing up and down nervously, presumably from a foxhole, like an animal tentatively emerging from hibernation. Freddie, we discover shortly, has a penchant for consuming unfathomable concoctions and absurd quantities of alcohol. We also find, almost immediately, that he thinks about fucking, a lot. As envisioned by Anderson and played by Joaquin Phoenix (in easily one of the best and most immersive performances these eyes have ever seen), Freddie is the quintessence of uncouth, feral animalia–a creature that man might be if he were not interpellated by history or culture. He lurks, mumbles, and sneers, moving indiscriminately between environments, often lashing out like a beast of raw id. We see him aggressively fingering a woman made of sand, hilariously attacking a man he is trying to photograph, and finally killing an old man with his toxic potion before drunkenly stumbling upon the Aletheia and its skipper, the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.
Dana Stevens, in a lovely piece about re-watching the film, mentions how Freddie is like a stray dog, finding a master and companion in Dodd. The parallels in their relationship to pet/master or father/son are numerous and have been made elsewhere by a host of people so I won’t go into that idea further. What interests me most about the Freddie/Dodd relationship is, intellectually the philosophical debate it symbolizes and, emotionally, the strangely loving bond it creates.
If Freddie is the embodiment of man as unfettered animal, then Dodd is surely the essence of animal rendered human by history and culture. Dodd (played masterfully by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in a performance as equally astounding as Phoenix’s) is interested in many intellectual things, mainly his own science of psychology. He thinks he has discovered the key to what separates man from other creatures and his environment. Man, he says, is an everlasting spirit that transcends time and space, a once perfect being that has fallen from its own ideal but can still reclaim itself (yes, this is essentially dianetics). Dodd is the most elevated of animals, a creature trying very hard to assert its superiority. But he’s not unique in this way; man is very much a thinking animal that desires a sense of greatness and transcendence, often manifested through belief in an eternal spirit. One could argue that man believes he is an everlasting spirit because the idea has been handed down to him by a higher power or is innate within him; or one could argue that man has merely invented this idea of the spirit as a defense against the knowledge of his own physical mortality (I remain a devoted atheist, but whether man truly is an eternal spirit that lives on after corporeal death or not, no one in this world will ever know). Dodd certainly posits a belief in the former while Freddie suggests the existence of the latter. The way these two figures clash creates a sort of ideological battle in the film over man’s essence as either a spirit trapped in an animal body or as a mostly hairless ape that has learned to think too much. I can’t really say which way Anderson comes down, though the ending perhaps may suggest that man is ultimately the animal he is, as we return to that images that started the film. Honestly though, it may not matter which way the film comes down on this debate because Anderson isn’t interested in making these two expressions of man’s nature clash the way you would expect (á la THERE WILL BE BLOOD).
(Through all of this, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that THE MASTER is a pure intellectual exercise. It’s also savagely funny and oddly endearing. As much as it is a battling of ideas, it is still at its core a love story with uncomfortable moments of bizarre behavior and hilarious crassness. Anderson is no overly-serious snob; his entire career has shown an unusual predilection for offbeat humor and operatic riskiness. Here he proudly retains both, making the film an unpredictable and mesmerizing experience. I honestly never knew how a scene would unfold, what would happen next, or how it would all end–but I was completely absorbed).
I’ve seen some negative reviewers state that they felt like the film was bubbling towards a breaking point but it never began to really boil. I don’t think I ever got that sensation. Dodd and Freddie clash, but they are not two qualified forces battering each other, waiting to explode in hatred and violence. This is not Plainview versus Sunday. There is a genuine love between Dodd and Freddie that keeps this battle in check, even as the battle itself hinders their love. Dodd certainly manipulates Freddie. There’s a sense of brutal training he puts him under in order to tame him, but it’s never purely exploitative or wholly nefarious in its pursuit. There’s a real admission of love and camaraderie to their relationship, right from the moment they meet. They both share a love for the most devastating alcohol, but they also feel strangely removed from everyone else around them, as two singular beings. Dodd is surrounded by fawning admirers (and, back on land, even more skeptics), but he sees himself as shepherd, not one of the flock. And Freddie, as we’ve seen, is so unpredictable and consumed by his own whims that he can’t fit in anywhere or with anyone. So, they meet as two drifters, sequestered from the “normal” crowd and bond over booze. Dodd convinces Freddie to sail out with them with the promise of losing himself for a while. Dodd truly doesn’t how how lost Freddie already is, but he surely recognizes something of himself in him. He thinks he is the proper subject to test his theories on, but there is also an animal recognition between them. In perhaps the most intense and astonishing scene in the film (shot in extreme close-up, like most of the film– Anderson understands, like Ford, that there’s no greater terrain to map than that of the human face), we see Dodd process Freddie for the first time. To Dodd, it is conditioning; to Freddie, it is a game he’s trying to win. The scene gets increasingly fierce and emotional, but it is bookended by the two downing Freddie’s ridiculous potion. This is work, but also revelry. It cements the bond between them.
I love how often Anderson, establishing this bond, mirrors Dodd and Freddie’s actions together. At heart, they seem to be both animals who enjoy frolicking with each other, but they are meeting at opposite ends of their evolution. Dodd has asserted himself as “master” over mankind while Freddie has reverted back to a state of near neanderthal level instinctual drive (quite possibly due to trauma from the war, which is faintly implied but never explicitly stated). But they still lash out together or act freely together like unfettered animals. As I mentioned, they love to drink–a lot. And in one sequence with naked women dancing all around him and his wife aggressively, er, handling him afterwards, we are basically told that Dodd is as much a pussy hound as Freddie (we don’t know whether the vision of the women is Freddie’s or Dodd’s or even Peggy’s). In one scene we see Dodd lash out and call a man attacking him “pig-fuck,” then see Freddie throw food at the man and later attack him in his home. In another scene we see Dodd scream in anger at an overly inquisitive follower, right after we’ve seen Freddie attack a man for criticizing Dodd’s newest book. Dodd is more composed than Freddie (he’s tamed himself better), but we still see how alike they are as irascible and ferociously defensive creatures. And in two of my favorite mirror scenes, we see Dodd and Freddie berate each other in prison (quickly regressing into a sparring match of “fuck yous” like two angry brothers), and later when they reunite after prison, we see them playfully wrestle like a dog and owner greeting each other after a separation. Dodd is the more controlled animal of the two, but there is still an animal in him that enjoys Freddie’s waywardness and instinctual freedom. At the end of the film, there is a sense that maybe their bond is more than physical (through the dream phone call and the talk of meeting in other lives). But the truth of the situation becomes that they just aren’t right for each other anymore. Freddie will destroy all Dodd has tried to build for himself, so they must depart. If they are to meet again, Freddie will be Dodd’s enemy because his wildness undermines all Dodd has tried to struggle against in himself and in his beliefs about mankind. Their final scene together is a painful goodbye, punctured by song and tears, as they both go their opposite ways. I love how here we see that the film, instead of being an expose on scientology or an attack on the idea of religion, becomes this doomed tale of a non-sexual final fling between two men who are wild at heart.
In the film’s last few moments, as Dodd continues his path towards dominance of the self, we are left with Freddie, the man/animal who cannot be tamed. We see that he merely takes Dodd’s processing as a game or a trick he has learned and can show to charm the woman he’s fucking. Right at the very end of the film, we see the opening shot of sloshing waves and then we see Freddie fall down beside his woman made of sand. Here we have a thinking creature left to his own pleasure in instinctual pursuit (I don’t know whether it matters to Freddy if the woman is made of flesh or sand), as he falls down, masterless, into a bed of uncultured, ahistorical oblivion. Whether Freddie represents the true essence of mankind at the end, or if he is merely just a very damaged and uniquely feral soul, it’s hard to say. All I can say is that, as the credits began to roll and I spotted the name Paul Thomas Anderson, I bowed my arms in reverence. The gesture was done in jest, but the sentiment behind it was earnest. I know who my master is.