The following is NOT a review of The Master (I’m not interested in telling you whether it’s ‘worth seeing’ or not) but my thoughts on the film after viewing it.
The media coverage surrounding respected American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, has demonstrated that the director is even further removed from the cultish independent tag we once labelled him with. After the critical and commercial success of There will be Blood, a lot more people were eager to see what the director offered next, not just his band of followers that saw his early films Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. The response to those films being the bestowal of ‘the new Scorsese’, a wunderkind genius enamoured with film, in an age where such things were fashionable after Tarantino paved the way earlier in the decade.
So, I think the first thing to say about The Master is how the director’s precociousness and tropes remain so evident. He is fascinated by outsiders and loners, surrogate families, with people who could be mistaken as rugged saints or religious icons amidst a world engulfed in alienation, confusion and strange occurrences. All of these seem to linger in The Master, perhaps more overtly than before and yet I find myself asking why Anderson made The Master and what exactly is it about? What does it mean?
Usually these are foolish questions asked from a viewer who considers film as a maze with an exit, and I have frequently found myself berating anyone who asked the same questions after viewing Magnolia, which I still consider to be the director’s finest (and at times most unwise) film. The reason for my anger usually stemmed from the need for the person to ask such a question in the first place. Many who go to see Transformers don’t ask ‘what was the point in Transformers?’, if you asked then you did not go to see Transformers, and to me there is far more to be said of Magnolia than there is of Transformers. But with The Master, a film which is beautifully shot, has an interesting score from Johnny Greenwood, mesmerising performances from its two leads (Hoffman is unequivocally the best actor of his generation), hypnotic camera work and an absolute confidence in storytelling (and yet not much ‘happens’ in The Master and this is why the film feels so alive), the urge to uncover its significance, its raison d’être, leaves me confounded.
I admire Anderson’s refusal to play the narrative game and, along with Fincher, is perhaps the only mainstream American director to be adding to the lexicon of filmmaking. Anderson’s masterful and striking tonal shifts, present in TWBB but just as effective here (haunting, frightening, painfully awkward, hilarious and violent) and his creation of what seems to me a wholly atemporal film despite its 50s setting, further sets Anderson apart from his American peers. Each scene segues beautifully into the next and yet each is characterised by its raggedness, fragments from WWII sailor Freddie Quell and self proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher” Lancaster Dodd’s lives blend together to form what seems to be one extended montage of incongruity (I am already at the point of refusing to take any scene in the literal sense).
So, what is The Master about? I refuse to believe it is about the birth of a particular movement, namely scientology, but rather about the malleability of identity, America’s and the individual’s. It’s about the psychological battles and dangers of repression (Quell remember is a sailor who happens to be a sex addict, in a film whose final image returns to the shot of him lying with an effigy resembling a woman in the sand) and when juxtaposed with Dodd as the figure and curator of knowledge capable of remodelling repressions, and people, into a functional and nominal node channelled into what is only known as ‘the cause’, we can see that Anderson is exploring the psychological conditioning of people. It is pertinent to note Joaquin Phoenix’s Quell whose figure hangs like a puppet on strings throughout, and how so much of this film’s discernability rests on his ability to willingly succumb, and be subordinate to, the big powerful Other whose power remains quasi mysterious (and threatens to turn violent when said power is challenged, which Dodd does at a cocktail party when someone dares question his logic). Is the film a lesson in telling us that we need to become our own masters? And yet the master only exists in name and concept because of the existence of those who are mastered, and so such a desire or possibility is impossible and tragic (and there is definitely a sense of tragedy that seems to pervade the whole film).
WWII casts a huge shadow over this film, and over Quell whose psychological state seems to stem from his experiences there, and remember war is supposedly where the id bears its true and unabashed form. Is this why we see Quell masturbate publicly in the sea in front of all his navy cohorts? His alcoholism, which we can describe here as a death drive, is first depicted during his wartime days. Such images of the damaged war veteran whose vulnerability is cast and then transformed throughout the rest of his life, are commonplace images in film and public consciousness but are seldom understood by anyone except those who live it. Perhaps this is why it is useless to try and understand The Master but we should instead try to grasp its sense of tragedy that such homeless, aimless and lifeless figures exist in the first place (and that we render such images immediately identifiable, which the film amicably goes to great lengths to destroy). And I think it is telling that Anderson wholly rejects the romanticism and hope that is to be found in Boogie Nights and Magnolia (films made by a much younger man).
So despite what seems ungraspable and what appears a wholly vacuous film in The Master is actually characterised by its elusiveness, making it a far more interesting and rewatchable film than many others around. And despite several scathing critiques from critics, including David Thomson (see: ‘There will be Dud’), whose attack seems scathing because of its inability to identify what he dislikes about it (and in so doing identifies a lot of what he does like about it), the film will grow in stature, in my view, once more is spoken about it.
The defining characteristic of TWBB after first watching it in the cinema was that it lingered for weeks after viewing, it was bewildering and haunting. The same can be said, I feel, for The Master, and it would seem Anderson is intent on depicting, in his own way, a sort of condition that can be traced from the origins of modern America (namely, capitalism) to post-WWII. As always, it will interesting to see where PTA goes next.