The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Master

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article Paul Thomas Anderson is a film-maker who is intently interested in male relationships. His best films have a at their heart an examination of how men relate to each other, with an especially intense interest in (usually surrogate) father/son relationships. His debut Hard Eight (AKA Sydney [1996]) sees Philip Baker Hall’s professional gambler Sydney tutor a drifter, John C. Reilly’s John, in the ways of making a dime for what at first seems to be no other reason than simply that he likes him. When John meets a girl, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), we know it will lead to trouble but Sydney is intent only on securing John’s happiness. It is an oddly un-edgy film, following an almost dreamlike logic. John was on his way to his father’s funeral when he happened along a replacement father in Sydney. It feels almost gentle. But this is deceptive. Sydney’s motivation, it turns out, is not disinterested but an act of repentance, and their meeting is not a chance encounter but part of Sydney’s machinations.

Set in the porn industry of the seventies, Boogie Nights (1997) would seem to be all about sex, but friendship plays a larger part. Although Eddie Adams, AKA Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg) has sexual encounters with Roller Girl (Heather Graham) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), the sex is so ubiquitous as to be personally irrelevant: the two actresses represent family roles, sister and mother respectively, rather than full-blown partners. As in Hard Eight, there is once more a mentor role: this time Burt Reynolds’ porn producer Jack Horner is the guide and paternal role model of suave disinterestedness. John C. Reilly appears once more as Diggler’s buddy and second fiddle. Continuing a long-term collaboration, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Scotty is a tragic friend, who actually lusts for his buddy and desperately wants to imitate him. His character is the gay version of William H. Macy’s Little Bill, whose wife’s incessant and humiliating swinging leads first to a simmering resentment that will then burst into a sudden bout of murderous jealousy. These are the two men who step outside the magic circle of what is allowable in the porn family. Their mistake is to fill sex with too much value, take it too seriously. But those who are inside will pay a price for their delusions as that circle gets ever tighter, and not taking it seriously enough also demands a price be paid. Magnolia (1999) presents two bad fathers seeking reconciliation: the terminally ill television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) wants to reunite with his lost son T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), and Philip Baker Hall is Jimmy Gator, the sexually abusive father and host of the ‘What Do Kids Know?’ game show, who seeks reconciliation with his daughter.

There Will Be Blood has Daniel Day Lewis’ apparently misanthropic Daniel Plainview, a man constantly in danger of having affection for his ward, H.W. the infant child of a dead worker, who he raises as his own - in part to humanize his own image and so facilitate his ability to buy land and lower prices where he can then drill for oil. The irony is that Plainview is not the misanthropist he professes to be. His declared hatred of humanity is given full reign with Paul Dano’s preacher Eli Sunday, but both his disappointment at not having a brother and his relationship with H.W. threaten to give the lie to his self-image. Plainview is a weirdly perverse hypocrite, imagining himself much worse than he is and then struggling to maintain that image, and ultimately sacrificing who he really is for the myth of what he feels he needs to be to survive. When the word tragedy is banded around somewhat loosely, it’s refreshing to find a straightforward opportunity to apply the word.

After that long catalogue of father/son relationships the first thing I must say about The Master is that it isn’t really a father son relationship at all. To begin with, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seem closer in age - they could be brothers, or for that matter lovers. They are in obvious senses attracted to and fascinated by one another. Freddie is wryly amused at a man who has an answer for everything, when Freddie himself can’t even answer for his own actions the minute he undertakes them. Freddie is a genuine mystery to himself. In old Freudian terms, he is pure id, with no controlling ego. If he wants to punch someone, he does; fuck a girl, he does; if he feels cheated, he’ll want to kill that person. He takes what he wants and he runs panting across the fields from all the consequences of his actions.

In Dodd and his Cause, there is an opportunity to change, to repair himself, to impose control, to get himself an ego. But this isn’t really what Freddie sees, or seeks, or wants. There are some moments of rare restraint. Perhaps out of respect for Dodd, Freddie rejects the sexual advances of Dodd’s daughter. But this restraint is almost unique, and it is more the case that Freddie finds another route through which to channel his drives, whether it is undergoing the punitive ‘processing’ (a pseudo psychiatric and mystical mishmash therapy similar to Scientology’s ‘auditing’) or attacking Dodd’s opponents.

Dodd, for his part, seems to offer the father-like superego, or that at least is what he projects. He is the calm, multi-talented renaissance man, striving for the perfectibility of the human animal. In love with his own voice and convinced of his own brilliance, Dodd is not necessarily a fraud, but neither is he unknowing. His frustration and anger are so vicious when they arrive that they stink of long gestation and brooding doubt. He sees in Freddie a muse and acolyte, but perhaps he also senses someone who is outside of his project, whose very existence makes the Cause look silly, and comes as something of a relief from the suffocating company of his glassy-eyed converts or hypocritical hangers on. Freddie farts on the idea of perfectibility, cheats at the processing: he is both the lost cause which renders the whole project impossible, but also an embodiment of freedom that Dodd secretly admires.

Their boozing habits are instructive. Freddie drinks potentially fatal rocket fuel and paint stripper cocktails which he concocts with the wrongheaded assurance of a medieval alchemist. Whereas Freddie downs the drink like violent medicine, Dodd treats it like a connoisseur. When Dodd plays a game of motorcycle riding, attempting to imbue the activity with some larger therapeutic significance, Freddie basically steals the motorbike and never looks back. Dodd plays games as a break or a means to some (bogus) intellectually-justified end, but for Freddie all of life is play and so playing at it seems ridiculous.

This is not to say that Freddie is an unambiguous emblem of freedom to put against Dodd’s paternal hankering after control. Rather Freddie has the freedom of the hooligan, full of rage and delight with the mood swings of an infant. And yet he is also the victim of his inability to play by the rules. In the opening scene when he makes the woman out of sand, he leaps upon her and starts to fuck her, cheered on by his pals, but the joke is not a joke. He goes off to masturbate and then lies down and cuddles the woman in an image that recurs throughout the film. Freddie is a man of constant longing, whose longings reach much further than his simple desires and instincts.

In another scene we are given Freddie’s point of view at a gathering of The Cause in which all the women in the room appear to be naked. There is the sense that this is not a dream state, nor a hallucination, but rather how Freddie sees things much of the time. He is cursed with his freedom and longs for the controlling embrace of a mother, or a devoted wife. Ultimately, Dodd - as a paternalistic influence - can give him none of these things, at least not in this life. Of course, there is a possibility that there could be gay relationship here - the title of Dodd’s second book The Split Sabre seems almost too-obvious a hint at (anguished, if not painful) bi-sexuality - but what Freddie wants is the female - not the vagina so much as the womb, where he can crawl back up and at last be released from the endless pain of having to do stuff.

Freddie will end up dead in a gutter somewhere and Dodd will achieve a kind of flatulent success which will always stink of fraud. But both men are wounded by their meeting and their friendship, their love. It is strange, given the publicity surrounding the film’s release, that the Scientology connection is relatively irrelevant. Rather than a treatise on an exploitative cult, The Master is instead a love story between two different kinds of failure.

This Alternate Take was published on November 09, 2012.

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