At a party, a couple of friends were discussing Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. I hadn’t seen it and asked them to avoid spoilers. They communicated in very vague terms. One friend thought the second half of the film was nowhere near as good as the first, had a disappointing ending, and that PTA presented the audience with a huge amount of material that never seemed to pay off. I hypothesized that maybe the use of 65mm was reflexive of that “gigantic-but-never-paying-off” attitude, since most of the stock was dedicated to interiors and landscapes of the human face. Perhaps, the point was to make a grand film about a quiet occurrence. However, having not seen the film, I had no idea what I was talking about.
As a fan of his other films, I was eager to see this. I’d even go so far as to declare him as my favorite contemporary narrative director. After hearing my friend’s comments though, I approached with caution.
My girlfriend and I were two of five people in the theater when we saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. We unfortunately missed the 70mm screenings at The Castro and in Oakland so we ended up seeing a 4k digital projection. As the first images appeared on screen, I told myself, “remember, this is supposed to be 70mm,” and I was sure to keep this in mind for the duration of the film. I’m happy to report that the digital projection was great; it was evenly lit and had a crisp resolution. (In fact, the picture was so crisp that you could notice when the camera assistant was struggling to pull focus as characters moved forward and backward in frame.)
When the film begins, we are treated to shots of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) on the beach, climbing trees, and chopping coconuts in what I believe is the only fish eye shot in the film. As he masturbates into the ocean, I realize he’s a stranger character than I was prepared for (he won me over later, when he started drinking film developing chemicals). Freddie is a veteran; he leaves the Navy with PTSD, gets fired from a photography job for picking a fight with a client, and accidentally poisons a man with toxic moonshine before boarding a boat captained by cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Quell observes the practices of Dodd’s cult, The Cause, and soon Dodd is putting Quell through trials, “applications”, in an effort to help him with his mental instability.
Freddie enjoys his first application. He sits opposite Dodd and is asked a series of questions which he must respond to quickly, without hesitation. The stakes are raised when he is told he must not blink, or else the questions will start all over again. As Freddie answers questions that grow increasingly personal, we stare into his eyes, forcing ourselves not to blink, challenging ourselves to last with him. It is arguably the best scene in the film.
In a later application, Freddie walks back and forth across a room with his eyes closed, touching a wooden wall and a glass window, describing what he feels, and convincing himself that he feels textures and objects that he is not actually touching. This application goes on for days, frustrating Freddie, leading us to wonder what the point of all this is. After a few days of this, Dodd and his followers observe Freddie performing the application. Freddie does not seem to do anything out of the ordinary, it’s just another day of walking back and forth, getting frustrated, describing what he is feeling. However, Dodd stops him mid stride and congratulates him on his successful completion of the test. The two men hug in relief. It’s as if it wasn’t about the content of the application but about the feeling of relief when it ends.
As the movie progressed, I never really got the feeling that Freddie truly believed in The Cause, but was only sticking around because he found Dodd interesting. Freddie assaults Dodd’s critics (a man who says The Cause is based on flat-out lies, a follower of Dodd who says his latest book is rubbish, and could be edited down to a much shorter format, and Dodd’s own son, who says his father makes it up as he goes) but never seems to show a real understanding of his master’s texts.
A lot of people have referred to this as PTA’s “Scientology movie.” While it is true that Dodd’s cult bares resemblance to Scientology (and Dodd himself to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard) this is not a film about Scientology. The film is about two men, both unstable in their own ways, who are being pushed together by the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson like two magnets of the same charge. The tensions between the two should force them apart but Dodd, and PTA, insist upon continuing the interaction.
There are plenty of great moments in the film and as I watched, I was unable to notice the loss of quality that my friend insisted occurred halfway through. I kept wondering to myself, “has the second half started yet?” and when the film finally concluded I felt reasonably satisfied.
Then I started thinking about it.
This is the first movie that has made me say, “I didn’t get it.” I went online, searching for some sort of substantial criticism or analysis but the professionals gave me little to work with. I searched on IMDB, hoping to find arguments on the forums about the deeper themes of the film; still, nothing really inspired me. I asked my friends what they thought and usually encountered the same answers, “I’m not sure how I feel about it” “I think I need to see it again.” The more I thought about it, the less satisfying of an experience it became.
It felt as if Lancaster was a surrogate for PTA himself and that the audience was meant to fill the shoes of Freddie Quell, with the cult of Dodd being the cult of Anderson. I expect that many of PTA’s and the film’s criticisms will echo the criticism of Dodd’s and his book with PTA’s Freddies rushing to fight on his behalf, even if they don’t quite understand his teachings.
I started to feel as though PTA had put me through one of Dodd’s applications. I saw through the eyes of Freddie Quell, as Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) changed her eyes from green to black, as naked women danced around Lancaster Dodd, and through Quell’s memories I saw the last girl he loved. I bounced from wall to wall between two unhinged characters, watching the tension repeatedly tighten and release, while constantly wondering what the greater goal was, and when it would be revealed. In the end, I did not transcend, I merely reached completion.
If you are intrigued by Paul Thomas Anderson, then the film is well worth watching. However, don’t expect There Will Be Blood. This film is quite the opposite. It is similar in that it is a study of the conflict between two masterfully composed characters. Although, here, the two are attempting to work together rather than compete. Also, in the end of The Master, there is no blood but instead, a song.