LIKE MANY AMBITIOUS FILMS, P.T. Anderson's The Master generated a fair amount of controversy when it was released last fall. Some people loved it, some hated it, and many did not seem to know what to make of it. A number of critics, even those who lauded the film, claimed that it included no third act, or was altogether plotless; others dismissed it as either (or both) overwrought or dull. In some quarters, the film was portrayed as a masterpiece. In others, it was portrayed as insufferably highbrow and self-impressed, the kind of movie that makes you feel like an artistic Neanderthal if you don't "get it."
On the final point, there's little ground for productive argument. Many people are antagonistic towards what they see as difficult movies, and don't go to the theater to be challenged. There's nothing wrong with this. In terms of the film's aims and structure, however, it was surprising how misdirected were the complaints of formlessness or incompletion. The narrative of the film is whole and resolved. It is not a straightforward work, nor an easy one; it does, however, present a vision that is coherent and readable. And the most interesting — and least commented on — aspect of the film is that it is an example of what is becoming a clear trend in Anderson's work: a reaction to the technical capacities of modern cinema, and to our contemporary cultural milieu, that is decidedly Modernist in nature. In this regard, The Master has much to say about our contemporary moment in both film and culture.
The basic story of the movie is fairly simple, and plays out on what is now becoming a familiar stage for Anderson's work: the interactions of charisma, frailty, power, and the working of these in the American psyche. It is centered on Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix, with a nearly impossible intensity) a World War II vet who has returned home to a world into which he cannot possibly fit. A strange, hunching, mumbling wreck of a man, he suffers, it is indicated, from post-traumatic stress. He is given to fits of uncontrollable rage, and to a kind of pathetic social incapacity. At the same time, he is an intensely magnetic person. This contradiction lies at the heart of his character. He seems frightened of people and has difficulty holding a coherent conversation, yet he brews and drinks moonshine of a terrific potency, which has the power to reduce or even kill other human beings. He is capable of sudden, shocking violence, yet possesses an off-kilter but nearly perfectly skewering sense of humor. When his fellow servicemen sculpt a naked woman out of sand in the opening of the film, Quell leaps onto her and savagely humps her. He does this in a way both amusing and aggressive, throwing into their faces (and ours) what they are trying to hide with their pretend innocence: we know what you are really thinking about, and we will not let you pretend otherwise.
In another moment from the opening, we hear him explain to another sailor how to get rid of genital crabs. Shave off half of your pubic hair, he explains, smiling madly, and then light the other half on fire. When the crabs run into the open, just take your knife and stab them all to death.
This is a great, short monologue (Anderson's writing is remarkable throughout) and it is the kind of penetratingly insightful moment that pervades the movie. It establishes Quell as "crazy" in some sense, an aggressive yet deprecating jokester, and one that is aware of...read more