Some thoughts on The Master
(Warning: There are spoilers, so I suggest reading this only if you've seen the film)
I saw The Master last night, and would like to share a few thoughts. It's certainly a dense, complicated, confusing, and gorgeous looking film. My first though upon leaving the theater is that Paul Thomas Anderson has hoodwinked us all. In essence, he is The Master and we are Freddie. And as Freddie looks to The Master and The Cause for belongingness and meaning, we go into the movie looking for the same thing. We want to be part of a community who has found great meaning and purpose in a film by a master director. The problem of course, is that The Master is a charlatan and a fraud, and The Cause is nothing more than made-up mumbo-jumbo. Which in this metaphor, makes the film itself a similar house of cards, constantly hinting at deeper meaning where none can be found. Now, of course, I think Lancaster Dodd knows exactly what he's doing, which means Paul Thomas Anderson does too. In hoodwinking us, he perhaps is forcing us (serious movie goers) to re-examine our own fascination with directors like him. After all, the auteur theory encourages a cult of personality, built up around directors for us to worship and follow, just as The Cause builds up The Master as some type of demagogue. Has Paul Thomas Anderson purposefully created a movie that constantly tries to convince us it has deeper meaning, when in reality it does not? I don't know, but can't help observing the role Joaquin Phoenix plays in this game. The character of Freddie Quell is not dissimilar from the "role" Phoenix played as himself in the fake documentary "I'm Still Here." That movie famously hoodwinked the public into believing that the crazy, drug addled, aspiring rapper that Phoenix portrayed was real. Is he participating in another hoax? Perhaps...
These were my thoughts as I left the theater. Upon reflection, I still think this line of thought has validity. It's hard not to equate the cult of personality that Lancaster Dodd cultivates with cult of personality that develops around well known "auteur" directors. Having said that, the movie does have more complexity and meaning than my above argument allows. Certainly this is a movie about a number of themes. It's a movie about a man trying to belong, to find love and acceptance from the one person who seems to give him any thought or regard. In this sense, it's a painful movie as Freddie undertakes actions which make no sense to him in order to find acceptance and belonging. This is most evident when The Master has him walk from wall to window for what seems like days (this scene, in my above metaphor, could stand in for our experience of the movie itself). We further see this as Freddie defends The Master and his teachings in the only was his limited intellect will allow: beating people up. Yet each time he does this, he is castigated by the very man whose approval he desires. And, of course, Freddie is not the only one who seeks approval. The Master is surrounded by a whole group of hangers-on who want to be part of something (Freddie's tortuous wall to window exercise is watched by the entire inner circle). These followers seem best represented by The Master's son-in-law, Clark, who seeks approval at every turn, from speaking against Freddie at a family dinner to stepping hopefully forward to ride Dodd's motorcycle in the desert (only to have Dodd offer the bike to Freddie instead).
The film is also about control. Controlling one's self and being controlled by others. For Freddie, unfortunately, controlling himself means being controlled by The Master. He seems unable to have one without the other. Controlling himself, his violent, alcoholic, and sexual desires, is a good thing. Otherwise, it seems, he will be dead before too long (sooner or later he's going to drink too much of his toxic concoctions). But what is the price to pay for self-control? For Freddie, it is allowing The Master (and his wife) to control him. As Adam Ant asks, "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do you do?" Freddy tries to play the good follower by passing out pamphlets for free "processing", but he is so uncomfortable that he ends up parroting Clark's exact wording to each passerby. Perhaps the worst thing for Freddie is that his relationship to The Master is paradoxical and destined to fail. The Master is drawn to Freddie's animal personality both because of his raw energy and freedom and because he is the perfect person to "fix" and demonstrate his mastery over the mind. So every time Freddie beats up a critic, he is castigated by The Master, and every time he drinks, he is castigated by The Master's wife. Yet, when he is able to exercise willpower and control he is a miserable shadow, and provides nothing of interest to The Master. After all, The Master first befriended Freddie because he liked Freddie's hootch. The Master wants to change the man Freddie is, but he has no love or interest for the man he wants Freddie to become. So in the end, when this relationship cannot continue, and Freddie finds himself in an English hotel, drunk and having sex with a girl he just met, has Freddie won? He has escaped the man who would control him, but has also lost control. It's either or both for Freddie. The one exception to this is Freddie's visit with Doris's mother. Upon discovering that Doris is long married and has not waited for him, Freddie displays considerable restraint and self-control. Does this mean that Freddie has learned something from the Master? Or does it mean that Freddie's romanticized memories of Doris were never real, implanted by Dodd or made up by Freddie to gain approval during his first processing (one of the best scenes in the movie by the way). So at the end of the movie, as Freddie begins to "process" the naked woman on top of him, is he simply yearning for the fellowship of earlier days, or does he believe he can be a master himself?
Of course, there's much more to say about the movie. I'll briefly mention one stylistic attribute: the color. The use of 65 mm film and the color processing and correction have created a movie with a beautiful color palette that calls to mind color photos from the 40's and 50's. The rich, almost over saturated colors (especially at the beginning), create a vivid canvas on which this rich interplay of emotions plays out.
In the end, the movie has grown on me, mostly because it allows for such a rich set of interpretations of the characters and the story. Yet at the same time, for all this complexity, I'm not sure the film ever really grabs a hold of anything real. There's plenty to interpret and talk about, but what does it add up to in the end? What is it saying? It feels like a 1000 piece puzzle that hasn't been put fully together, and may not ever create a bigger picture. In fact, maybe these are the pieces from two or three different puzzles. What you can see hints at something wonderful, but if the pieces never come together to create the full picture, the puzzle will ultimately feel incomplete. Having said that, I'm thankful for Paul Thomas Anderson's desire to create a 1000 piece puzzle, even if it is incomplete, especially in a world filled with 10 piece puzzles that may fit together but create a boring and cliched picture.