Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Master

Lancaster Dodd,  the titular character of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film THE MASTER, espouses that one need not look further than himself to find enlightenment. Man has evolved sufficiently over trillions (yes) of Earth years in ways which allow him to unlock secrets and discover pathways to secure genuine purpose in life, even a way for physical healing. The "Cause", Dodd's invented philosophy, acknowledges hard science but contradicts it when alternative methodology (in part, some sort of conversational therapy) is encouraged solely to attempt to treat a patient for a disease like leukemia.

This enlightenment of the individual is so empowering, Dodd even questions the police when they come to arrest him as to what authority under which they act. The Cause does not name a deity or higher power beyond this earth.  Does this mean there is no one, other than self (flawed, riddled with sin) to whom there is accountability? 

Dodd, brilliantly portrayed by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, has written a book, a bible, if you will, which outlines systematic dogma for his growing band of followers. "Processing", an interview method involving relentless and repetitive questioning/interrogation, is a tool used to reveal the essence of human behavior, the seeds of perhaps what drives certain actions. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a perfect subject for examination: the WWII vet (diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder) seems to be at the mercy of unchecked libido and unresolved rage, perhaps not unrelated. In an early scene, Quell is given a Rorschach test in which every image to him appears sexual. It is unsurprising that he later reveals, during Dodd's processing of him, having had intercourse with his aunt. Three times, at least. But was this admission bullied out of him, a hasty answer to a leading question?

I thought of the Voight-Kampff tests in BLADE RUNNER during THE MASTER's numerous processing and "exercise" sequences. Although "processing" is purely question and answer, not intending necessarily to discern whether the subject is lying and with no equipment to measure pupil and iris aperture, Anderson creates captivating, often claustrophobic scenes in which the viewer shares the subject's discomfort.  Great manipulation is at work, needless to say. "The Master", such a grand title. How does one earn it?

Anderson's movie does not provide those answers. By the time we meet Dodd, commandeering the ship on which Freddie stows away, he has achieved a deification among his faithful. But as Freddie spends time in this group, family members will reveal their true thoughts about the Cause,and Dodd. Some, like Dodd's icy wife Peggy (Amy Adams) are rigidly dedicated, at least outwardly. Others baldly state that the Leader is just making it all up. So conflicting for a young man, searching for something in which to believe, for guidance. The military was comparatively easier with its unstinting regimen. Outside, Freddie is a vagabond who loses jobs in some places and is chased away from others. His only apparent talent: concocting homemade alcoholic beverages, much of which he imbibes himself.

It occurred to me that perhaps Freddie is meant to represent Dodd's unbridled id.  Every impulsive action that the Master has trained himself to suppress. Could that be why Dodd is so accepting of the young "silly animal"? Does he see him as a visceral extension of himself? All of his talk of trying to save Freddie, when in actuality he wants to keep him around for a vicariousness that keeps him alive? A venue for his own carnality? He certainly loves those drinks Freddie mixes. I was especially fascinated with the jailhouse scene: each man is shown in long shot, in neighboring cells, able to look at each other through bars. As if through a mirror.  Freddie violently destroys his cell in unchecked fury while Dodd just looks at him.  Then finally dismissing Freddie's actions, calling him unsavable, but later, rallying to have him rejoin the "family", against the suspicions of everyone else.

THE MASTER is a difficult movie to describe.  With each unique work, Anderson has more or less created his own audacious cinematic language.  There are patterns repeated here from the earlier ones: long, nervous pans, dissonant Johnny Greenwood score, patently bizarre and even shocking imagery presented in such a matter of fact, abrupt way (note Johnny's vision of a party). Anderson's direction is so assured, so dazzling, and so singular.  He is a true artist, and watching his films always reignites my excitement for cinema, even if the films themselves ultimately fall short (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE). I would hesitate to pinpoint a scene or style as "Andersonian", but his command of the medium is startlingly assured, especially in his decision to shoot this film in 65 millimeter. All the better to study each face.

As an indictment of religious cults and the cult of personality surrounding their leaders (L. Ron Hubbard, while not specifically evoked, looms largely), perhaps THE MASTER fails. I did not feel I understood the Cause any better at the end of the film, and I'm sure some readers will disagree with the conclusions about it I stated in the opening paragraphs.  Several times throughout the film, Dodd begins a speech which threatens to elaborate on his (shifting) tenets, but the director always cuts away. 

As a character study, it is stunning. It seems redundant to point out Hoffman's amazing, intuitive acting, but here, even in the way he moves his eyes, he's fully invested.  Phoenix nearly matches him with a wildly physical performance characterized with wayward gait and inarticulate speech.  Adams does some interesting work herself as Dodd's fiercely protective spouse, fiery and fundamental, so devoted to her husband no matter what snake oil he peddles.

THE MASTER will also prove, I believe, to prompt endless discussions among those studying comparative religions and anyone who cites faith to straighten them in their daily walk. Such a relentless, challenging movie will rattle souls, I think especially for believers.  Most eye opening will this film be for those who have, like Freddie, sped toward that dot in the distance.......

No comments: