Paul Anderson’s The Master is certainly one of the year’s most discussed films, but those discussions are often heavy with bewilderment. Roger Ebert said the film “is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn't clear what it thinks about it. It has two performances of Oscar caliber, but do they connect? Its title character is transparently inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, but it sidesteps any firm vision of the cult religion itself — or what it grew into.” Other writers, such as Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail (who gave it four stars) praise the film with few reservations, but in a way that leaves you puzzled regarding what they actually admire so much, beyond the acting and craft that Ebert mentioned. Peter Howell in The Star concluded that the film “directs our eyes, ears and minds to the slow drip and dissolve of personality, showing how the path from silly animal to deluded human is shorter and straighter than we think,” which (if true) would only be a major achievement if countless previous films hadn’t demonstrated the shortness of this path.
One of my favourite approaches to the movie came from Kent Jones in Film Comment, who spent about a third of his article summarizing America’s history of homegrown religions and cults, sexual gurus and motivational speakers. “In one sense,” he sums up, “America is a story of forgetting and eliding, cherry-picking and remolding the past, conflating ideas and notions and isolated gestures and grand movements swirling through the informational ether and rewriting history according to desires and projected outcomes, powered by the dream of breaking through to the other side of neurosis, reality, life, inhibition, or the space-time continuum.” Placing The Master against this kind of canvas instantly counters Ebert’s objection about the absence of a “firm vision” and indeed almost turns that into the very point, that the country’s prevailing discourse has always verged on (or fallen helplessly into) incoherence; sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse, it’s always been made up as it goes along.
Actually, that’s almost a direct quote from The Master, by the son of the Hubbard-ish character, casually disavowing his father’s integrity and intellectual rigour (which doesn’t however prevent the son from finding a place in the organization). The “master” is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – as the film first finds him, in 1950, at the centre of a small but passionate group of aficionados, relying heavily on borrowed money and facilities. He encounters Freddie Quell, a damaged ex-Navy man all but incapable of slotting into the post-war landscape, and keeps him around as a somewhat undefined protégé/disciple/henchman and (possibly, to some undefined extent) love object. Joaquin Phoenix makes Freddie severely troubled and troubling – certainly possessing some raw sexual energy, but often hard to understand just on a basic level, and scarily unpredictable and threatening (without however coming close to the cartoon hotheadedness of, say, a Joe Pesci character).
Dodd and Romney
Ignaty Vishnevetsky (I’m quoting from others here much more than I usually would, but the range of responses is unusually stimulating) praises the film’s first half, but finds the second half “frustrating,” because “it refuses to resolve any of the problems Anderson introduces so potently—through careful cuts, visual shorthand, and immersive juxtapositions of sound and image—in the first half. The film creates Freddie, and then languishes in him.” Indeed, it might increasingly seem to be crafting a kind of metaphysical quicksand, in which it’s hard to distinguish truth from lies, dreams from reality, black from white.
But again, maybe that’s the story America deserves and needs, much more than any more conventionally shaped and resolved narratives. Not to overstate the film’s viability as a direct metaphor for our times, because I don’t think Anderson’s intentions are that literal, but there are a scary number of Freddies out there, either forgotten or chewed up by the system, certainly within the 47% of people Mitt Romney memorably critiqued for their failure to take responsibility. Taken by the numbers, that’s more the story of America than the innovators and entrepreneurs, and Anderson/Phoenix’s conception of the character, as a car crash we can’t look away from, begs us to contemplate his misuse by his country, by cinema, by history. But the film avoids creating an easy opposition between Freddie and Dodd (who, in part, would make one think of Romney for entirely different reasons). Hoffman certainly conveys the man’s intermittent charisma, the eloquence and mysterious sense of the beyond that would cause some to fall under his spell, but he also has moments of complete weirdness, where the mystique falls away to reveal, frankly, a buffoon, and others where he shows himself a vulgar boor, as violent as Freddie in his own way. Plainly, this isn’t a great man, but then, how often has attaining eminence depended on greatness? In part, The Master is about the firming up of the modern concept of ego, in all its deluded, decaying hypocrisy.
Recall or imagine
Toward the end of the film, one of Dodd’s followers asks him about a passage in his latest book, which removes a previous reference to “recall” (his methods to that point have been based on reclaiming a lost innate perfection, based on implicit concepts of reincarnation and abiding purity) and replaces it with “imagine,” implying a much broader banquet of personal (and, from Dodd’s perspective, strategic and tactical) possibilities. He blows up at her, because of course she’s right – the inconsistency can’t be reconciled, but then when have people ever been supposed to actually read that stuff? As The Master ends, the corporatization of Dodd’s efforts, the imposition of formality and grandeur, is well under way, and the impossibility of Freddie ever finding a place within it is more and more overwhelming. “Is this normal life?” he asks his latest sex partner, lifting a line from Dodd’s techniques and deploying it for titillation. “I hope it isn’t,” she says. She’s laughing though, because how could she realize anyone would be building an empire based on such questions?
You can see from all this that the film seems to me fascinating and rewarding (needless to say, what I’ve written here doesn’t even touch on large parts of what it contains), and it’s certainly a remarkable move by Anderson. His last picture There will be Blood – itself a knockout – seems almost nakedly calculating by comparison, too self-obsessed with the goal of crafting the Great American Movie. The Master realizes the inherent limitations of wowing the audience with grand vistas and characters, the danger of tipping into cinematic charlatanism. Surely the film had to divide audiences, to evoke as wide a range of reactions, from antipathy to despair to unthinking allegiance to deeply nourishing engagement, as America itself.