Grappling with The Master

The general consensus of the initial reactions to Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master could adequately be summed up as, “I need to see it again.” Indeed, this story of an unhinged WWII vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix) who falls in with a cult and has his existence challenged by its enigmatic and charismatic leader (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is fiercely cryptic in theme and narrative. Between the allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and the birth of Scientology, the references to the shifting cultural conscience of America post-WWII, and the equivocal nature of the characterization, The Master doesn’t make for lite watching—it does, however, make for easy watching, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

By easy, I mean “easy on the eyes.” Ever the stern formalist, Anderson has officially joined the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky and Hou Hsaio-hsien as a master of the long take. Many of the best sequences in the film play out in a single camera track, which were made all the more stunning thanks to the film’s screening in the epic 70-millimeter format. (I share my thoughts on that over on the Bleader; while you’re there, make sure to read J.R. Jones’ nuanced observations of the film, in which he surmises that he, too, will need a second viewing). The crispness of the image and the tangibility of its contents were nothing short of remarkable. With any luck, the film may be the final word in the whole digital vs. celluloid debate—whoever runs the North West Chicago Film Society Twitter account said it best: “The characters construct a reality; the hyperreality of 70mm & the enormity of the big screen let us see through it. DCP? Hm!”

So if the narrative is impregnable, consider the visuals transformative. But in getting back to the narrative, Anderson has said the film is simply a story of a WWII soldier who falls in with a cult after the war—and I agree. Allusions to Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard are certainly present, but The Master is less concerned with the construction of a religion (or cult or following or whatever) and more concerned with the susceptibility of the human mind when faced with mass trauma. This theme ties The Master closer to 2002′s Punch-Drunk Love more so than Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), with which it shares only superficial similarities—both films are period pieces about larger than life figures framed in a historical context that they ultimately transcend, but there’s a deeper current of human behavior present in The Master. If Punch-Drunk Love reads like an examination of the Agitated Modern Man, then The Master depicts the birth of the Agitated Modern Man.

The sexual panic that plagues Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is comparable to the sexual aberrations that plague Freddie, particularly in the way both afflictions inform virtually every aspect of their behavior. Anderson often harvests this maniacal and erratic behavior for humor: laughter filled the Music Box throughout the film, even during scenes that arguably weren’t designed to be comical. Like Punch-Drunk Love, whichis structured as a romantic comedy, this humor stems from a place of deep anguish. In spurts, both films occasionally resemble a sort of demented Jerry Lewis film, the psychological underpinnings rendering the humor uncomfortable and even a little disturbing. (There’s also the interesting parallel of Hoffman, who acts as Barry’s reckoning and Freddie’s, well, master.)

Furthermore, a desire for belonging and familial structure can be found in each of Anderson’s films, dating all the way back to his 1996 debut Sydney (aka Hard Eight), a riff on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flembeur. The surrogate family of Boogie Nights (1997) appears most analogous to Dodd’s motley crew of wayward souls. Boogie Nights is yet another humanist examination an impressionable soul (Mark Wahlberg) whose behavior is governed by sex.

Placing the film within Anderson’s oeuvre at large is simple—placing it in a larger context, not so much. He’s always shown a penchant for sprawling stories, filled with diametric characters that exhibit inscrutable behavior. An Anderson narrative has come to be defined by the confusion and conjecture they inspire. This doesn’t speak to a lack of authorial control—no filmmaker as meticulous as Anderson would let anything fall by the wayside—but it is indicative of an author intent on requiring, well, a need to “see it again.” Like a good novel, The Master is likely to only grow richer with repeat visits.

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