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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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ls, seems to have become part of the collective memory. "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master" are stories of control, of the application of power and its outer limits, expressed in hermetic, strange compositions. "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," sprawling, messy, nearly spinning out of orbit, are stories of losing control.

Mark Wahlberg, with Burt Reynolds, in "Boogie Nights"

Indeed, Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), blessed with sizeable manhood and equally sizeable innocence — "Look at this jackknife!" he calls out at a party — is in some ways less the protagonist of "Boogie Nights" than Anderson's San Fernando Valley, 1977. Coked up, tuned out, tastelessly decadent, the world of pornography becomes an exaggerated stand-in for Jimmy Carter's American malaise. Despite flashes of affluence, the sets are tired, even grim; the real action in the film takes place in nightclub closets, where Dirk whips it out for customers at $10 a pop, or under the wan lights of an impersonal office, fucking for the camera. Sex, as in much of "The Master," is less pleasurable than transactional — less the thing we want than a way to get it.

Childish as he may be, Dirk seems to have more of a grasp on his life than the adults around him, who debauch and divorce as though making a sad play for youth. Fast-forward twenty years and the same is true in "Magnolia," a near-apocalyptic tale of contemporary Los Angeles in which the most mature and insightful character is a 14-year-old quiz show savant named Stanley. This may be what is most surprising about "Magnolia," the weakest of the four films. Its central elements, which once seemed ham-handed, are now almost prophetic, linking the ideas of the quadrilogy as thoroughly as it links its cross-section of characters. The film's coincidences and chance encounters make clear that Daniel Plainview's desire to be alone, to achieve singular primacy, is no longer possible, if it ever was. Tom Cruise's ladykiller reminds us that behind any cult of celebrity lay someone flawed and fragile and human. The troubled whiz kids and bad parents suggest that we inherit, for good or for ill, the world we've been given.

It isn't that the four films need to be seen together in order to make sense. Each stands alone, more or less, on its own merits. But taken together they form a sort of counterhistory, an audacious attempt to portray 100 years in the life of a nation that deserves a place among the great film cycles. Isn't this what we lament in movies and praise on television, the ability to recreate the texture and depth of the novel? At the very least, Lancaster Dodd's statement about living without a master calls to mind Daniel Plainview, standing at the precipice and staring into the abyss; or Dirk Diggler, struggling to make do with his "one special thing"; or "Magnolia" and its infamous deluge of frogs. As Anderson sees it, we're all subject to the mastery of the fates.

Check out "The Master" U.S. and international release dates, including 70mm and 35mm engagements, here, Indiewire's picks of the best "Master" reviews here, Paul Thomas Anderson vs. Paul W.S. Anderson here; and Vulture's roundup of critical interpretations of the film here.


  • 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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