'The Master' Remastered

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by Matt Singer
January 2, 2013 4:43 PM
14 Comments
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"The Master."
Near the midpoint of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," the title character faces the first serious test of his newly coined belief system. He's in New York City for a demonstration of his "processing" method; The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), asks a subject a series of questions designed to break down their mental defenses and reveal buried memories of the past, or perhaps even of past lives. As Dodd processes one woman at the party, a man skeptically watches in the corner, then hurls a series of insults and accusations. The skeptic all but calls Dodd a fraud; scoffs at his ideas, dismisses his evidence, and compares his followers to the members of a cult. In response, Dodd produces a counter example: a river with a bend in it. When we sail beyond the bend and look back, we can't see the origin of the river -- but that doesn't mean it's not still there. 

The skeptic wants hard, evidential truth. The Master refuses to indulge him. So many people I've spoken to who've seen "The Master" want the same thing -- some grand explanation, some revelation of greater meaning -- but the film remains as cagey as Dodd. Sure, they say, the performances are great, and yes the 70mm cinematography is stunning. But what is it all about? What does it all mean? Why are the protagonists drawn to one another? Where's the truth?

In a sense, a flummoxed reaction to "The Master" is a correct one -- the film is very much about the way in which the search for answers in the universe leads to frustration rather than fulfillment. It follows a man who falls under the thrall of Lancaster Dodd, a mentally unbalanced World War II veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Lonely, drunk, and violent, Quell finds a welcoming community and a sense of purpose amongst Dodd's followers. But he never finds peace -- or any answers.

Those looking for similar enlightenment from "The Master" were barking up the wrong tree. Like the best of the film's posters, like the psychological exam Quell endures before his discharge from the Navy, "The Master" is one enormous Rorschach test: a near-abstract combination of images, ideas, and themes presented for individual interpretation. Is it a movie about the origins of Scientology? Or the shifting face of American masculinity in the 1940s and '50s? Could it be a sad character study? One enormous dream in the mind of a diseased brain? Or perhaps an unrequited homosexual love story? As the Naval psychologist says to Quell when he shows him the first inkblot, "there's no wrong answer." This is Anderson's cue to the audience: "The Master"'s meaning lies not in the film, but in each and every viewer.

The first time I saw "The Master," I was mostly consumed with Phoenix and Hoffman's remarkable performances and their attack dog/trainer relationship. Having watched it two more times in recent weeks, I've become enamored with a reading of the film that has less to do with Quell and Dodd, or even with Dodd's connection to L. Ron Hubbard and The Cause's to Scientology. Maybe because I've had so many conversations about "The Master" with slightly flustered or greatly disappointed viewers, I've begun to read it as a film about exactly that: how an artist grapples with a cynical, skeptical audience.

After all, The Master is more than a religious leader; he's also an author. In fact, when he introduces himself to Quell at their initial meeting, the first title he gives himself -- before he lists doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher -- is that of a writer. And I think it's as a writer -- and therefore as an artist -- that Anderson sees Dodd as a sympathetic (or possibly even tragic) figure.

A large portion of "The Master" is set on Dodd's borrowed yacht, as he and The Cause travel through the Panama Canal from San Francisco to New York. When Dodd isn't processing Quell or sampling some of his mysterious homemade liquor, he is writing an unnamed "Book Two" -- the long-awaited follow-up to his highly regarded first book, "The Cause." Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), tells Quell that their meeting (and his peculiar homebrew) has inspired The Master. "When we're at home, on land," she tells Quell over breakfast, "there's too much pulling him in each direction."

Dodd's comfort on the open ocean is one of his strongest connections to Quell -- and it's important to note how much water imagery dominates the "The Master." The film opens with the sound and then the sight of an azure sea churning in the wake of a massive Naval ship (fortunately, there's no bend in the ocean). Back on land after the war, Quell also finds himself pulled in each direction -- he snaps at a customer while working as the photographer at a department store and accidentally poisons a man with his bathtub booze while harvesting cabbage. Lost and miserable, he finally finds a home with Dodd -- when he returns to the water by stowing away on his boat to New York City.

There are many more references, visually and sonically, to water in "The Master," which marks it as a significant departure from Anderson's last movie, "There Will Be Blood." In fact, the two films go together like oil and water -- literally; "Blood" was all about petroleum, and the way in which it transforms an enterprising young businessman into a tycoon. "The Master" is, in so many ways, the opposite story: an aimless drifter with absolutely no ambition, driven only by his basest urges. In "There Will Be Blood," Daniel Plainview's (Daniel Day-Lewis) greatest enemy is religion, in the form of a fiery preacher and land owner who repeatedly stymies his attempts to monopolize an oil-rich area of California. In "The Master," religion is Quell's only ally.

In other words; these are two very different films, a fact that's bothered many viewers -- "It's good, but not as good as 'There Will Be Blood,'" I've heard on countless occasions. Which brings us back to Dodd, working on his hotly anticipated follow-up to "The Cause." When it arrives -- in the form of "The Split Saber" -- it is received in much the same way "The Master" was received: as a disappointment in the context of the author's body of work.

We've already mentioned the scene at the party between Dodd and the skeptic. Later, after "The Split Saber" is released at a Cause convention in Phoenix, there are more negative reactions. A member of The Cause from New York City tells Quell he thinks the new book is garbage, with insights unworthy of even a pamplet, much less a full volume. Helen (Laura Dern), Dodd's patron in Philadelphia, claims to love it, but also takes issue with a small but significant change in Dodd's description of processing. When she brings the matter to his attention, he explodes at her. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" he rages.

It's a profound question from an author to his audience, one I suspect Anderson has asked time and again as he's watched his own flock react tentatively to each new twist in his career -- following up the exuberant "Boogie Nights" with ambiguous, frog-plagued "Magnolia;" following up the ambitious "Magnolia" with the smaller "Punch-Drunk Love." With "The Master" it happened again. Imagine how that must make Anderson feel. Imagine how it makes Dodd feel.

So why, after all of his poor behavior, in spite of his closest advisors' warnings, does Dodd repeatedly accept Quell? This, I suspect, is the reason. Quell, for all his flaws, is the audience Dodd wants. He may not fully understand processing, The Cause, or "The Split Saber" -- but he accepts that Dodd understands it, and he trusts him. Except for one notable argument in a jail cell, he never questions his language, and he doesn't moan that the new book isn't as good as the old one. He likes whatever Dodd does. And when someone disagrees, he goes on the attack. Quell's loyal to The Master, not to The Cause; he values the artist over any specific work. For someone looking to start a religion -- or to continue a long and varied film career -- a fan who supports you with that kind of devotion must be a comfort and a reassurance.

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14 Comments

  • drewsifer | January 19, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    Absolutely loved your write up on this film. I've always seen PTA's films as having way more layers of meaning and symbolism than what you initially see on the surface. Which usually leaves me with A LOT of food for thought, and thinking about the meaning of the film long after I've watched it. Which I love. PTA's films always have so much depth. I love being able to watch a film over and over again, and enjoy it as if it was one of my favorite songs. Don't get that much from very many directors. You either get PTA's approach to making films, or you don't. But I loved your take on the film which opened my eyes to several more things about it. Left me wanting to revisit the film even more. Thank you for your insight.

  • Dan | January 4, 2013 3:38 AMReply

    This is a superb write-up. Don't mind the detractors. While I don't think what you're saying isn't without it's minor flaws, the valiant attempt to analyze a good deal of this film in a unique way is notable. I think you bring up a great many interesting points I had not yet considered. And with writing about something as brilliant as The Master, that is the absolute most you can hope to achieve. Well done, enjoyed the read.

  • Oscar | January 3, 2013 2:11 PMReply

    I can see where this is coming from. I don't think it's uniquely about the artist/audience relationship, though. It could be interpreted as the collaboration between one artist and another and just how frustrating (and rewarding) that process (see?) can be.

  • Jason Bellamy | January 3, 2013 8:04 AMReply

    The trouble with this reading is that, if you carry it out, PTA would be confirming one of the most popular criticisms of THE MASTER: that, like Dodd, he's just making it up as he goes along, and thus to suggest there's depth here would be to act as one of Dodd's ignorant followers. Although THE MASTER is my No. 2 movie of the year, I respect those who are disappointed because they don't sense any ultimate meaning within or beyond all the arresting spectacle. Many viewers -- and I'm one of them -- don't want a Rorschach test, because Rorschach tests in and of themselves have no meaning. It's one thing to be vague, or to be about many things; it's another thing to be about so little that "there's no wrong answer." I think certainly there are "wrong answers" here (if not, THE MASTER isn't as smart as I'm giving it credit for) -- among them, as you indicated, I think THE MASTER is only slightly about religion, and thus much more about the search for purpose. That said, I do like the idea of PTA identifying with Dodd. But based on that angle of approach, I'd take the film to suggest that PTA believes that his art has meaning but sometimes suffers a crisis of confidence when his art doesn't connect or is only fleetingly powerful (as it is for Freddy), and perhaps he worries that in the end he's only making movies to enjoy the ego trip. (To be clear: that's not a charge; I'm saying that perhaps in his private moments PTA has those kinds of insecurities, and THE MASTER represents those insecurities.) Thought provoking piece, Matt.

  • Forrest | January 3, 2013 5:38 AMReply

    This is a really interesting argument to make simply because the way people react to it says a LOT about the way you think of art. When you say "meaning lies not in the film, but in each and every viewer," you're making an aesthetic value, in which the audience is the most important part of the process (or at least, a major part of it). Personally, I tend to disavow the audience, and think that almost everything that you need is in the work itself, with a deference to the artist himself/herself for context (but never, ever for clarification/explanation). That's why, for me, the film's opaque and, in my mind, scattered, non-committal subtext is more frustrating than illuminating. Which is why I completely agree with everything you're saying and yet for you it makes The Master a brilliant movie and for me it's just a decent one. I wish I could cross to your side of the aisle on this one. It's just different assessments and understanding of aesthetic values and art in general.

  • Tense | January 2, 2013 11:05 PMReply

    Anonymous and Brian can go fuck themselves.

    The Master's detractors make it impossible to have a civil online conversation on the film in greater depth. I love Paul Thomas Anderson and consumed with anxious anticipation for what he'll do next. I know Inherent Vice will throw a curve ball to those of us who prefer The Master over Blood.

  • PFD | January 8, 2013 11:21 AM

    How embarrassing to attack Brian when he gave a perfectly "civil" opinion and it was in fact yourself and your "go fuck yourself if you don't like the movie by my hero" who was being uncivil. Thank you for confirming my suspicion that PTA coasts on the good feelings of his fans rather than provide anything of substance to film and culture.

  • Brian | January 3, 2013 11:43 AM

    I don't think my response was uncivil, or at least it wasn't meant to be. I think this is a good essay and THE MASTER is an intriguing film. I just don't think it's a great one, and I think this essay does a lot to try and transform its narrative shortcomings into strengths. It's difficult to criticize a film when someone basically says "It's SUPPOSED to not work. It's SUPPOSED to be a mess. That's the POINT!" It basically pre-empts any criticism, thus my labeling it as an apologist reading.

    The truth is probably somewhere in between... I get the sense that PTA means for some of the incongruities, and others are (in my estimation) flawed or failed experiments.

    I'm personally not a fan of art that becomes overly self-referential (at least to the point that it abandons its other functioning levels), and so I agree with some of what Jason said. It would be interesting to see how different the reception to this film would be if it was made by an unknown director.

  • Taffy McKittrick | January 2, 2013 7:52 PMReply

    I don't know that I agree w/ everything in this essay but I do agree that The Master kicks ass.
    one quibble: it's actually (mostly) 65 mm cinematography. you prob saw a print that was blown up to 70 mm

  • Joe | January 3, 2013 7:49 AM

    films don't get 'blown up' from 65mm to 70mm, the image stays the same and the extra 5mm is used for the soundtrack

  • anonymous | January 2, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    Very well written but The Master is still a stupid movie. Brian clearly hates it as well. The film has no meaning or point.

  • brian | January 2, 2013 5:05 PMReply

    This is both a thoughtful and transparent apology for the film's flaws. While I think your thesis is interesting, I don't think the weakness (or incoherence, or incongruity) of some aspects of the film are as intentional as you give them credit for. You try to apply an appreciation for the film similar to a meta reading of APOCALYPSE NOW as a chaotic embodiment of the war it strived to represent (and likewise of the filmmaker trying to create it). In this case it makes for great conversation, but I think it ultimately boils down to intellectualizing the fact that you dug the movie. For those of us who didn't find its flaws so charming, these attempts to aggrandize the film fall as short as Dodd's religion.

  • Brian | January 3, 2013 11:44 AM

    Please see my response above, Grego.

  • Grego | January 2, 2013 6:45 PM

    I'm sorry...what flaws exactly?

    I don't know that the writer considers the flaws "charming" so much as he doesn't consider them flaws in the first place.

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