Brief Thoughts on The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2012)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

Thoughts on The Master can perhaps only be ill-formed, since the film is so complex that it any writing on it will only reduce its richness into too-easy sense (?). Nonetheless, here are some brief thoughts on PTA’s latest masterwork.

The film is a great love story between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as signalled – spoilers – by the end of the film where Freddie finally finds a girl called Winn Manchester (Jennifer Neala Page): Lancaster/Manchester and Quell are finally united in acceptable form as Freddie performs the same psychiatric-type session on Winn as Dodd performed on him earlier in the film.

And what drives this love affair is the opposite nature of the two characters: Dodd seems to want to eliminate the id from humanity such that humans can return to their perfect, soulful state, while Freddie is a man driven by the id and, while still with ego, seemingly without superego to censor his actions. As such, Freddie becomes the object of Dodd’s obsession as much as vice versa – and we have a true exploration of master-servant relationships such that both are inseparable (master needs servant as servant needs master) – on the scale and in the league of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître and Molière’s Tartuffe.

The mutual obsession is signalled through otherness: one can never tell in Anderson’s unnerving film whether violence will erupt and the two will kill each other or embrace each other. They go hunting in the desert for a lost manuscript with guns – bringing back Dodd’s second book, Split Saber, from the wilderness like Moses with the Ten Commandments. Will they kill each other? Will either fall off their motorbike and die as they drive that – meaningfully again in the desert…? Will Dodd kill Freddie when they part – or will he erupt into song…? Time and again we are kept on tenterhooks as we simply cannot predict what will happen. Being unable to predict the actions of others reaffirms their otherness – and since we cannot understand them as a result of this otherness, we are compelled to analyse, scrutinise, look for me: can we make sense of them?

This tension is achieved by Anderson’s insistence upon long takes (not always, but often and relentlessly). It is also achieved by his use of long shots and masterful mise-en-scène in such a way that all too often we find ourselves seeing at the last minute characters, such as Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), staring offscreen at Freddie – her gaze having otherwise eluded our attention because of other movements and areas of focus in the frame.

The result is that our relationship with The Master is like Lancaster’s relationship with Quell. Those moments where we see something in the frame after several seconds of looking and scrutinising induce in the viewer a moment of panic: did I miss something? What else was going on that I did not see?

Not only does this make of Anderson’s film a film to be scrutinised and studied – perhaps endlessly – but it also lends to the film a sense of its own otherness: there is always something more to see, or rather the sense that there are depths that we do not and cannot see (even though they are there before our very eyes, incessantly excessive, demonstrating the limits of human perception in that we simply cannot take in all that the universe has to offer – not consciously at least, even if, like the camera, we record everything as Peggy says early on in the film, including everything that happened to the molecules from which we are constituted right back to the dawn of time).

There is also an unpredictability in Anderson’s script. Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), tells Freddie that Dodd makes it up as he goes along. He is probably correct – as Dodd contradicts himself the whole time, cannot take being questioned in public (and perhaps not in private), as he himself must deal with his id, as Freddie also struggles with his ego. Suddenly Dodd will speak of the importance of laughter, or get Freddie to touch a wall. The film is so bizarre in this way that we are kept on our toes.

Compare to the finely crafted prose of many of the great writers (Shakespeare comes to mind): in Shakespeare we have repeated motifs and themes, such that each play is a masterpiece of tight construction – while Anderson’s characters are imbued with a sense of liveness, of spontaneity in the dialogue – we can never tell what they are going to say.

Again, the effect is disconcerting, but it is also profound. As Shakespeare lived in an era in which a clockwork universe and the motions of the spheres suggested tight construction that would naturally be reflected in the drama of its time, Anderson’s film is haunted by the chaos of the nuclear age – with World War Two and the spectre of Japan haunting the film through Freddie’s wartime experiences, the tail-end of which we see in the film’s opening scenes. In short, Anderson’s universe may well have patterns, but it is also full of randomness, chaos, the unpredictability of thought and the strange associations that the improvising human mind can make up (this within a tightly constructed film that suggests not a chaos or a cosmos, but a chaosmos of sorts).

Finally, though, there is of course something to Dodd’s method, even though charlatan he be. For what is wrong with improvisation? In a chaotic universe, perhaps playful improvisation is the best we can hope for – hence Dodd’s explosions of anger and frustration when Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) suggests confusion that Dodd might have changed the emphasis in his works from memory to the imagination. Helen seeks too much order, whereas Dodd is only interested in endless experiment and the freedom that can come with simply seeing where thought can lead you. With working out what a brain can do. And Freddie working out what a body can do (and what it can consume – with his endless poison concoctions). There are pitfalls to experimentation and play – madness perhaps lies down this road. But so, too, is there madness in self-willed imprisonment.

So maybe we can only play with The Master and see where it leads us, with Anderson also seeing where filmmaking can lead him (and his actors going on a similar journey).

There is much more to say about this film – on so many levels. But for the time being, these are my brief, inept thoughts on the film. Another great piece of cinema from one of the best in the American business.

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