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 his own deficiencies. This awareness is the final key to his character. When he becomes a photographer in a department store on returning from the war (before he is fired for fighting with a customer), we are made aware, through his eyes, of the innocence of the people lining up to have their photos taken, as well as their preening vacuousness. This is post-war America, with its self-image of victory and purity and possibility; Quell, the destroyed and charismatic man behind the camera, is set against this charade. He knows more than the people whose photos he is taking, and sees more clearly than they, because he is so radically outside of their world (as, of course, are we as the viewers). It is his knowledge, and the crippling that has attended it, that sets him apart.
The film takes Quell and puts him into a relationship with a man who is an inverted reflection of himself. Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, with an intensity that rises to Phoenix’s) is the leader of a cult, based more or less on L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement. He is a character both entirely magnetic and not entirely in control of that magnetism. At any given moment, he is the most commanding person in the room, although this is in part because he surrounds himself with people he can dominate. And, like Quell, he is a flawed and often ridiculous character. In place of Quell’s mumbling incapacity and bursts of rage, Dodd has the obvious absurdity of his “Cause,” and the fact that he may be “making all of this up as he goes along” (in the words of his son). But, like Quell, there is a gravitational field to his personality that gives him his power and his vision; he will bend any situation to his will and always come out on top.
The film’s narrative concerns the relationship between these two men. It is a relationship that might be better designated a struggle, and there are moments when the audience may wonder if there is only one way that it can end: with the death of one at the hands of the other. This possibility arises when Dodd says to Quell, “You will be my guinea pig and protégé”; again when Quell makes a batch of his near-fatal moonshine for Dodd; and again during the brain-washing scenes, in which Dodd, along with his wife and son-in-law, under the auspices of the attempt to “heal” Quell, try to break his will. But what Anderson does instead is to play against expectations. He turns this struggle into a platonic love story. The relationship between the two men becomes one of mutual reliance and need. They find, in each other, the person capable of effectively standing up to them. Dodd, the cult leader, finds someone who recognizes and needs his magnetism but is not fooled by it in the way that everyone else is. Quell finds someone who can see through his craziness to the humanity that lies beneath, and who is (mostly) genuinely interested in that humanity.
For most of the relationship, it is Dodd, the cult leader, who maintains the upper hand, but it is Quell’s growing resistance and resiliency that provides the attraction. Quell can never quite be fully overcome; he is always in some way his own man. This struggle for ascendency is vital. Quell is perpetually the less powerful, but that vulnerability gives him something that Dodd is always chasing; Quell is broken but has the deeper humanity, and he can stand alone in a way that Dodd cannot. As in so many love stories, it is the partner who holds more power who is more needy.
This asymmetry forms the ground for the resolution (or third act) of the film. Put simply, this resolution involves Freddie Quell’s decision about whether or not to stay in the relationship. The catalyst for this decision is a scene in which Dodd convenes the faithful to introduce the follow-up to the book with which he founded the cult. They are at a meeting hall in Arizona. Dodd takes the stage and in his usual grandiose manner. Smiling, eyes twinkling, he announces that the answer to the issues that plague them, he has found, is laughter. We cut to Quell’s face, remembering, as Quell does, that when Dodd was first processing him Quell made a joke, and Dodd remarked cuttingly that laughter was the sound of an animal. Here, then, is the final piece of evidence that Dodd is indeed making everything up as he goes along. Quell is confronted by the depth of Dodd’s hypocrisy and the degree to which he is an opportunist: using Quell’s laughter against him when it is convenient, and then reversing course and using laughter as the platform from which to launch his new round of assertion of his own exalted status.
In the next scene, Quell leaves. Dodd has taken Quell, his daughter and her husband into the desert for some impromptu experiential healing on a motorcycle; when it is Quell’s turn to ride, he races towards the horizon and never returns. This leads to the film’s denouement. Some months later, Dodd, now in England, invites Quell to come over for a visit. Quell does so, and they meet again in the large, austere, wood-lined office of the school Dodd has founded. They sit across a large desk from each other, and Dodd asks him, forthrightly, to return to the relationship. Without someone to resist him, we realize, Dodd’s life is empty. This is the moment in which it becomes clear, if it has not before, that it is Dodd who has needed Quell all along, more than Quell has needed him. But Quell has become righted enough to escape Dodd’s orbit. He will not return. At this, Dodd resorts to a threat. If you do not stay here with me, he explains, we will meet again in the next life. We will be bitter enemies, and I will show you no quarter.
This is his final gambit. In it are his dominance and his ridiculousness, as well as his understanding of his own vulnerability. When it fails, he gives up and, in a strange, heartrending, and absurd moment, sings to Quell, part beseeching and part lamentation. Quell walks out, and the film’s closing shots find him in bed with a woman, the kind of plain, glowing, ordinary human he has been unable to find or connect with since the opening of the film.
It is becoming clear that as a writer and director P.T. Anderson tends to return again and again to a central set of thematic preoccupations. It also seems clear that Anderson has a certain narrative shape, a certain visceral feeling or movement, to which he has continued to return. Many writers operate in this way, as if they are bound, regardless of their wishes, to write variations on the same tale or feeling, over and over. For Anderson, this feeling seems to be something as follows: a character rising to prominence because of an oversized quality given to them or forced upon them, and doing so with an almost uncontrollable intensity; and then descending with, and because of, that same quality and intensity, sinking farther and farther, until the breaking points are all passed and something is revealed — this is Eddie in Boogie Nights, Frank in Magnolia, Daniel in There Will Be Blood. This is not an unusual plot line; it is the way that many high school students are taught to understand “the tragic flaw” in Shakespeare’s works. What is particular to Anderson, I think, is the way his characters’ intensity arises through a combination of vulnerability and aggression. This creates people who are never fully under their own control; they are always at the mercy of both the world and this thing in themselves. What is also particular is the way in which Anderson manages to tie this obsession to a meditation on America and the various dreams and imaginings embodied in our notions of charisma, success, and celebrity.
So, for example, it is difficult not to see his last film, There Will Be Blood, as a direct critique of our contemporary gilded age. In that film, Anderson’s approach to our current discrepancy between wealthy and poor, and our matching reverence for industrial titans (Jobs, Zuckerberg, Branson, Gates, Buffett, et al.) is to fashion a story that is both a creation tale and a parable: his story of a poor man who discovers oil, creates a vast empire, and moves to a mansion in California is meant to remark on our current situation by exploring its roots, and to hold a mirror up to our own fascination with the quest for wealth — a quest that in the film takes the form of a kind of unholy madness.
The Master employs a similar approach, but takes as its targets our religiosity, our relationship with authority, and our cult of the hero. It begins with images of soldiers. The first shot of the film is of a swirling, mesmerizing ocean; the second shot is of the upper half of Freddie Quell’s face, visible over what looks like the metal gunwale of a landing boat. We see steely eyes and a combat helmet. Importantly, we do not see his twisted mouth, which is perhaps the most significant outward sign of his incapacities. It is a shot that brings to mind World War II combat films, and Saving Private Ryan in particular (after a brief modern prelude, that film opens with the helmeted figures of soldiers riding landing boats towards the beaches of Normandy). With this opening, The Master sets itself into a dialogue with our imaginings of this trope of the soldier. Anderson’s soldiers are boys on a beach, involved in boys’ games — wrestling, drinking, and making naked women out of sand. It is only as we get to know Quell that we understand the horror lurking within these men: they have been sent off by their country to kill and die, and to return psychologically devastated.
Here, Anderson is plucking at a particularly ripe and resonant moment in American history: the “greatest generation” who fought in World War II. This is a longed-for and much eulogized moment in the popular imagination, when prosperity ruled and there were no moral qualms about our military participation. It is also, Anderson seems to be saying, something of a reflection of our own time, in which soldiers have again become heroes, and the cult of the charismatic has again become ascendant. As he did in There Will Be Blood, Anderson is giving us a response that is both genesis story and analogy.
The American West is the region that, for Anderson, represents the goal and fulfillment of the “American Dream.” In earlier films, he used Hollywood and its environs as a stand-in for this dream — the place where our fetishes of ambition, wealth, and celebrity are realized. His attitude towards these things has always been ambivalent, focusing on their destructive effects as much as on their fulfillment. In There Will Be Blood and The Master, however, he has broadened his approach to include more of the West, both geographically and temporally, while still maintaining a focus on the national obsession with wealth and celebrity. It is as if Anderson is asking us to consider what he said about Hollywood in Magnolia and Boogie Nights, and then insisting that these statements encompass all the thematic American West.
In significant sequences in The Master, he does this through his use of panoramic western settings, which he imbues with historical and filmic resonance. The first comes when Dodd is preparing to reveal the follow-up to the book on which his cult is founded. He takes Quell into a magnificently filmed and grandly imposing Arizona desert; there they dig into the ground and unearth a box that holds the manuscript of the book. This is, of course, an allusion to L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology books. (The book in the box is titled The Dark Shadow, Split Saber; L. Ron Hubbard’s never released second scientology book was titled The Dark Sword, Excalibur). But it is also a direct allusion to that nearly perfectly American type: Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who claimed to have discovered the materials that formed the Book of Mormon buried in a box, and thus sought to re-center the history of religion onto America. In this scene, then, Anderson is folding together a number of grand American themes — celebrity, religion, the American Dream, and Manifest Destiny — along with the western landscape, the place towards which the huge dreams of this country historically flowed, and where they were wagered on and either won or lost. These are the traditional resonances of the Western movie genre, of course, with its settlers and moral battles and parables of the fencing of open land. As if in a sly acknowledgement of this, Lancaster Dodd in this scene wears a six-shooter in a holster on his hip and continually peers around in expectation: there may be Indians over any rise.
The scene in which Freddie Quell escapes by riding the motorcycle into the desert resonates in the same way. Character and plot aside, what Anderson presents here is a scene of magnificently charismatic men riding motorcycles through a salt-flat landscape, aiming at a spot in the distance and racing towards it as fast as they can for the joy and thrill of it. This is a deeply and unavoidably American scene, one that emanates from the national psyche. This is the cowboy riding towards the sunset; this is the road movie, Easy Rider and The Wild One. It is, again, Anderson using the resonances of both geography and film to insist that what is at stake is not simply a story of a cult leader and a war veteran, but the (particularly male) American imagining of the self.
Like the Western and the road trip film, The Master is part of a narrative tradition that attests to the allure and dangers of American individualism and the attendant pressure to collectivize that individuality. This conflict lies at the heart of many of the obvious filmic predecessors of The Master, from Citizen Kane to Network to The Social Network; it is also embodied in a long literary tradition extending from Moby Dick through The Great Gatsby to mid-century novels like Invisible Man, and including certain preoccupations of writers such as Cather, Faulkner, and Hemingway. This tradition often focuses on coming to grips with the effect of our continually contemporary — and continually atomizing — national ideology of the individual. It frequently centers on the figure of the driven and isolated character and his or her relationship to the new contingencies of the age. Fully ambivalent towards the issues of isolation and modernity, both embracing and decrying them, this tradition also sees a connection between modernity and the technical and material attributes of art. These elements, in combination and loosely defined, are what make up American Modernism, and it is his relationship with this tradition that casts Anderson as a Modernist.
The classic Modernist question of the individual’s relationship with the era stands at the center of The Master. This is what lies behind the film’s interplay of historical, ideological, and film-genre ideas. The film is fascinated with, acknowledges the inevitability of, and is dismayed at the conditions of modern life. It is both reliant on charisma (the force of the radical individual) and takes charisma as its subject. And ultimately it is the feel of the film — its size and intensity, its dream-logic and obsession with narcissism and avarice, its idiosyncratic relation to narrative structure, its offering of creation myth and parable — that stand as its response to our particular modernity. As in Faulkner’s attempts to capture both the feeling and genesis of the new South, for Anderson the past is somehow inaccessible, a dream that formed us but which we cannot fully grasp because we are trapped by the conditions it created. “Why do you hate the South?” Quentin Compson is asked at the end of Absalom, Absalom. “‘I don’t hate it,” he replies. ‘I don’t hate it.’ […] I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” He hates it, because he can’t escape it, and he cannot escape it exactly because it formed the only modes through which he can see it, or any other thing.
Like the classic Modernists, Anderson is obsessed with the techniques, materials, and forms of art; The Master is thus a film in which technique, as well as our obsession and familiarity with technique, becomes both device and subject matter. One obvious aspect of this is his decision to shoot the film in 65mm, a choice that occasioned accusations of portentousness and misuse — the latter based on the idea that 65mm film stock was meant to provide panoramic depth and intensity, while he used it in a film filled with intimacy and close-ups. Far less attention was paid to the choice as a concentration on the medium itself, the physicality of it, in terms of both look and technique (Anderson reputedly did away with nearly all digital aspects of the editing process). The point is not that Anderson is choosy about his cameras and the look of his film — all good filmmakers are. It’s that this choice highlights the degree to which the film is preoccupied with the qualities of its own medium. For high literary Modernists, too, content and technique — Joyce’s stream of consciousness, for example, or Hemingway’s belief in the ability of minimalism to convey a radically larger field of experience — are inextricably bound together. The author is not simply telling a story; he or she is engaging the medium to the fullest of its capacities to communicate: the medium itself cannot be separated from what is being told. Thus, in The Master, charisma becomes both a narrative subject (a quality of its characters) and the medium of the narrative itself; the film is in part a meditation on cinema’s ability to submerge, beguile, and arrest us. Two sequences stand out in this regard. The first is a scene in which Lancaster Dodd performs a song for an entranced group of his followers at an evening party. He begins to sing, there is a cut, and suddenly every woman in the room is watching or dancing, just as they were, but without clothing. The reason for this is never explained, and critics have forwarded three entirely divergent readings of the scene. The first is that we are meant to understand that Dodd, as a measure of his power and potency, has convinced all of the women to disrobe. The second is that we are meant to understand it as a shift into Freddie Quell’s point of view, allowing us to see the world through his frustrated and obsessive gaze, in which all women of any type appear naked. The third is that this is meant to be an intimation of the point of view of Lancaster Dodd’s jealously protective (and pregnant) wife Peggy, suffering because everyone around her is under the spell of her philandering and flamboyant husband.
But what seems clear is that this scene is interested in presenting not so much a narrative moment, or a specific point of view, as a moment about the nature of the medium of film itself. The multiplicity of readings is the point: Anderson is after exactly this disorientation, this feeling that the answer is there but just out of reach. This ungraspable wanting is, after all, the feeling instilled by cult leaders, American charisma, and movies. In projecting this, and leaving it undecipherable, Anderson is corporealizing the experience of the medium; it is a moment in which the material elements of this medium (in this case the created dream of film itself, its existence as projected and controlled fantasy) become palpable. The second sequence is the one in which Quell makes his break for freedom. This begins with the scene of Quell riding the motorcycle away into the desert, and then cuts to a scene of him showing up on the East Coast, at the house of the girl that was his lover before he left for the war. It ends with him passed out in a movie theater. In terms of the plot, Quell is breaking free from Dodd, struggling to confront the dreams and failures that have haunted him for the entire film, and finding himself again alone and desolate: it is in the theater that Dodd will locate him and ask him to come to England. But in terms of its construction, what Anderson again delivers is indeterminacy. There is no overt indication that Quell is fleeing Dodd (he simply rides off; we see Dodd unhappy and walking through the desert after him; we cut to the childhood house of Quell’s lover, thousands of miles away). There is also a deep resistance to explaining the nature of the flashbacks to Quell’s pre-war love story. He arrives at the girl’s house to find that she is gone, and we cut to scenes showing the time when Quell and the girl were together. And yet in these scenes it is not a younger, innocent Quell at all, but the same scowling figure, with the same drooping visage that we have been led to believe is a result of his traumatic war experiences. Is this, then, a literal rendering of an earlier moment, or is it a projected memory? Is it meant to be a “real” scene, or a broken man looking back to an imagined beauty? We are not told. We end with him slumped in a deserted movie theater. Has this all been a dream, analogous to the one we are watching on the screen? A man approaches carrying a telephone; it is Dodd on the line from England. “How did you find me?” is Quell’s first question. Indeed.
Here again the focus is not on narrative as such, and certainly not on realist narrative, but on the attempt to investigate consciousness. The film is more concerned with the feeling of these images than their dramatic logic; in this, it is again a foregrounding of the consciousness and dream-inducing magnetism of movies (and Modernism) themselves. Finally, it represents an intentional challenging of the viewer, a kind of keep-up-if-you-can quality based not on irony (in our contemporary use of the word) or “cool,” but on an almost sacral concentration on the possibilities and complexities of narrative technique. The film asks (forces) the viewer to be so deeply immersed in its dream that it is the dream itself that leads us; we are in the land of what Tarkovsky called “poetic reasoning,” in which sequence and image and medium all tug us onward and forward towards the receding object that is the aim of this kind of art.
So why does all of this matter? Why should we care? Why should we engage with something that will challenge us in this way? By its nature, ambitious art cannot be morally reductive, nor can it ever fully subscribe to the lie that at last, because of this final algorithm or microscope or silicone wafer, or, indeed, because of the insights of any particular narrative, we have mastered the understanding of the world around us. Art is a human enterprise, and it is bound to suffer from, as well as explore, the limits inherent in this source: emotion, illogic, arrogance, idealism, incomplete knowledge. The value of films like The Master thus lies exactly in their refusal of ease and in their artistic and emotional density. This is not a matter of being “highbrow” or “art-house.” It is a matter of trying earnestly to come to grips with the conditions of the world in which we live, and the conditions by which that world and ourselves, as well as our art, were created.