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Now and Then: 'The Master' and Paul Thomas Anderson's American Quadrilogy

by Matt Brennan
September 25, 2012 1:14 PM
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'The Master'

"The Master" is challenging, gorgeous, and forcefully weird, a critical darling and early Oscar contender, but you already knew that. It's also the fourth film in a great, daring, ambitious project to depict the shadow side of our national life over the course of a century — what might be called Paul Thomas Anderson's "American Quadrilogy."

"There Will Be Blood," "The Master," "Boogie Nights," and "Magnolia" do not seem to have been conceived as a series. They were produced out of order as far as history is concerned, marshalling aesthetic and thematic content that calls to mind Kubrick as well as Altman, Huston alongside Fassbinder. But no less than Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy, which returned to a crime family's Italian and immigrant roots in its second installment, or Gore Vidal's historical novels, which took up "Lincoln" after "1876," Anderson's quadrilogy hangs together as an immense portrait of abused power, physical, economic, religious, political, and sexual. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), near the end of Anderson's most recent film, expresses it best. "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know," he says. "For you would be the first in the history of the world."

Mastery in all its forms is indeed key from the quadrilogy's first moments, as Daniel Plainview's streaked face comes alive in the sparks of his pickax. The hard labor of his quest for mining riches in "There Will Be Blood" ends up pitting him against another form of rough magic, in the person of Holy Roller Eli Sunday, but it begins as an attempt to control the ground on which he stands — even after his derrick in Little Boston has come in, his hands range over blueprints and maps, as though afraid they'll slip from his grasp.

The film's primal, lurid violence suggests an alliance of, and competition between, capitalism and Christianity that would seem too pat if not for the subtle ambivalence of its final sequence: two thwacks of a bowling pin can establish only one kind of mastery. Looking over his empire from a cold, empty California manse, a Xanadu of the Pacific, Plainview unknowingly stares disaster in the face. It is, a title card tells us, 1929. Whether or not he will succumb to the coming Depression, whether or not he is a Charles Foster Kane of the oil fields, "There Will Be Blood" makes clear — in the words of the Byron poem from which it takes it name — that "the king times" are indeed "fast finishing."

Bookended by two dates, 1898 and 1929, Anderson's tale of brutality and greed at the dawn of the "American Century" makes Plainview an implicit emblem of imperial sojourns and rampant profiteering, a gangster of the first order. Similarly, "The Master" uses a remarkably detailed portrait of two men to take up the moral content of World War II and the Cold War. Good intentions given extraordinary power lead, the film suggests, to their own unintended consequences. In a scene that powerfully echoes the end of "There Will Be Blood," Dodd addresses wayward devotee Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) from his seat at a massive desk, light streaming in through the cathedral window behind. It's a belittling, a forced exile no less damning than "I drink your milkshake!": "Free winds and no tyranny for you, huh, Freddie?" Dodd asks, practically sneering.

Framed against the traditional mid-century story of victory, prosperity, and the fight against communism, "The Master" is a deeply misanthropic work of art, in which healers and heroes come to seem victims of their own desires for sex and power. Each of the main characters is an inversion of expectations. Freddie is not a comfortable suburban beneficiary of the G.I. Bill but a damaged shell, swilling poison and chasing tail; Lancaster's dangerous charisma and unwillingness to be questioned is almost McCarthyesque; Dodd's wife, Mary Sue, is no Eisenhower-era housewife, but a sometimes lewd and vulgar authority figure, perhaps the quiet master of them all.  

By the 1970s, Anderson no longer has to offer a revisionist history of American life — the sense of decrepitude and decline that pervades both "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," two films seedy with drugs, sex, broken families, and broken sou


  • Darryl Ayo | October 14, 2012 1:59 PMReply

    It isn't a "quadrilogy."

    Have you entirely forgotten "Punch Drunk Love?"

    You are confusing the idea of authorial themes with the idea of a series or sustained metanarrative. Most authors, especially good ones, will carry over themes and echos between their works. That doesn't make things "series" by nature; it only means that the works were conceived by a singular, coherent perspective.

    And by the way, the frog shower in Magnolia isn't "infamous." It's "famous." Those words do not mean the same thing.

  • Matt Brennan | October 14, 2012 4:13 PM

    Darryl, thanks for your comment!

    Your point about the difference between thematic echoes and meta-narrative is well taken. The reason I focused on the theme of "mastery" alongside the meta-narrative of American history since 1898, however, is because I see them as being in conversation with each other. The history of the U.S. in the 20th century, from Woodrow Wilson promising to "save the world for democracy" to Reagan taking on the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, is at some level a quest for American mastery on the world stage. The four films I discuss here, to me at least, use different characters across the period to question whether said mastery was ever achieved, as has been assumed in many quarters about early imperialism ("There Will Be Blood") and the post-WWII era ("The Master"), and then to suggest the kind of cultural decay and human chaos that emerges from an unending desire for mastery ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia").

    I didn't include "Punch-Drunk Love" because it seems to me an entirely different project, so different in aesthetics, tone, historical engagement, and especially scope from the other four. One could argue, as Spassky does below, that it represents the technological ennui of contemporary America, and makes the quadrilogy a "quintrilogy." But just because it was produced in the midst of Anderson's other output doesn't necessarily mean that it should be taken together with the other much larger, more sprawling films. Size, in films as in novels, is often linked to the very idea of taking on "big questions" and long historical periods, for good or for ill.

    On the use of the word "infamous," which I can in fact distinguish from "famous": as I recall, many of the early reviews panned the frogs pretty harshly, and for Anderson's detractors I think it remains (along with "I drink your milkshake!" and the bowling alley), a potent emblem of his tendency to the overwrought. Thus, "infamous," "having an extremely bad reputation."

  • Jeremy | September 26, 2012 5:16 PMReply

    Great article, Matt. Excellent overview of Wes Anderson's filmography. I always thought that there was a disconnect between phase one of Anderson, those films being Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and phase two, There Will be Blood and The Master. But there are many thematic strings that connect the two together and I think you've tapped into them wonderfully here.

    I think that one could also chart the evolution of women in Wes Anderson's worlds through his filmography. If you approach them chronologically you can see that their prominence becomes even more integral to the story.

  • Geoff | November 19, 2012 12:13 AM

    Not Wes Anderson.

  • spassky | September 25, 2012 10:25 PMReply

    I was thinking about this the other day:

    There Will Be Blood represents the turn of the centuries through the 20's
    The Master the 40's and 50's
    Boogie Nights represents the 70's, 80's
    Magnolia the 90's
    And I feel that Punch Drunk Love is largely a metaphor for the disconnect of the aughts

    Anyway, I'm very much waiting for 'Inherent Vice' with baited breath -- as I'm hoping it will be a great representation of the 60's, and perhaps will form a thematic and (more) stylistic connection to the 70's of Boogie Nights.

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