Having just looked at an example of Hollywood’s classic period, Casablanca, I thought I’d turn to a contemporary film, a difficult film, and one that at first blanch doesn’t appear to have too much of a story: The Master.
With There Will Be Blood (2007) director Paul Thomas Anderson began to explore “difficult” narratives with plots that vanish the closer you get to them, like desert mirages.
As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, it is “fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”
What exactly *is* this film about? Yes, it’s about a troubled sailor Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in with a charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his self-help cult. Freddie is looking for help–or is he?–and by the end of the film, he really hasn’t found it.
In a typical master-student narrative, especially one with a cult leader, we might expect a story that features a form of betrayal by the beloved teacher in the second half, and the student conquering the teacher will the skills that he or she learned in the first. That does not happen.
But perhaps applying our three quarter structure to this rambling narrative can unearth some clues. Maybe not to the entire story—Anderson’s films have a lot of things going on—but, well, let’s see.
The movie is 137 minutes long, so that means our three major scenes come at 34:15, 68:30, and 102:45 respectively. Let’s check these scenes out, but first, the opening frame:
Anderson starts with a shot of the wake of battleship on which Freddie is stationed. It does not, like usual, resolve through a tilt up to reveal a horizon. It remains an image of turmoil and unknowable depths. It looks behind instead of going forward.
By 34:14, we have watched the alcoholic Freddie fail to assimilate into society after returning from the war. He has some form of PTSD, and turns to women and drink to dull the pain. By luck, jealousy, and a desire to get back on the ocean, he winds up on board Lancaster Dodd’s boat. Freddie meets Dodd, his wife, witnesses the marriage of Dodd’s daughter, and watches Dodd work his past life regression technique. In short, all the major players have been introduced.
The first quarter scene is one in which Freddie wanders below deck and finds a group of mostly women listening to reel-to-reel tapes of Dodd’s theories. We know Dodd is charismatic and performs past-life sessions, but what does he believe? Freddie picks up a headset and listens to a bit. “Man is not an animal,” we hear Dodd say. “You are not ruled by your emotions.” Freddie catches the eye of the woman across, writes “Do you want to fuck?” on a sheet of paper, and hands it to her. She smiles, but he is rebuffed.
Is this scene important? I’d say yes, as it presents a statement that film explores through its characters: Is man an animal? Is he ruled by emotions? (And, in the end, is this a bad thing?)
By the time we get to the middle scene, Freddie has sat for Dodd’s auditing treatment and revealed that he left a girl back home when he went off to the Navy. We also see Dodd accused of being a fraud, and Freddy beating up those who dare say so. He may not have the intellectual ability to be close to Dodd, but his animal strength comes in handy.
This middle scene takes place in a house in Philadelphia, owned by an acolyte played by Laura Dern. After Dodd runs his usual past life regression demonstration, we cut to this scene, a party where drinks
flow and Dodd sings a bawdy old song while cavorting with dancers. His wife (Amy Adams), heavily pregnant, sits nearby and looks on. Freddie, tired and/or drunk, slumps in a sort of alcove and watches the proceedings with blurry eyes. The shot of Dodd in the party seems to be his POV. When it cuts back to the party, all the women in attendance are naked, including the elderly guests and the musicians.
Is this Freddie’s hallucination/dream/wish? It’s not a surprise in a film about a charismatic leader to see them taking advantage of their followers sexually, so if we aren’t really paying attention, we might think that Dodd had in fact ordered all the women to cavort in the nude. The fact that Dodd sings such a sexual song shows he has it on his mind. He’ll sing another song, “Slow Boat to China” in his final scene, a much more romantic choice.
(This scene, incidentally, is followed by a strange scene where Dodd’s wife masturbates her husband over the bathroom sink, chastising him and asserting dominance. It’s also one of the few scenes where the main character is not present, despite it following a very subjective scene.)
Neither this scene nor the first quarter drive the narrative, like these scenes do in other, more standard scripts. It does not further the plot. However, it furthers the dialectic. What is all this power to Freddie if one cannot be some sort of Bacchanalian god? Freddy couldn’t keep his one true love (and that love was way too young for him), and he can’t get laid.
After this middle scene we see the Master get arrested for fraud, and set to jail with Freddie. After a trip to the desert—which looks very much like the same landscape that opens There Will Be Blood—to dig up Dodd’s lost manuscript we get to our third and final quarter scene: The launch of Dodd’s next book and the 1st Phoenix Congress. And here Dodd says something to his followers—almost exactly at the frame we captured—that makes sense: “I have unlocked and discovered a secret to living in these bodies that we hold. And oh yes, it’s very, very, very, very serious. The secret is laughter.”
After these scenes in Phoenix, the film becomes more obscure, taking us to England and finally ending back where we started, years before, back on the South Pacific island where Freddie made a joke about crabs and testicles, and the sand woman that Freddie snuggles with, like some kind of earth mother.
Is the Phoenix scene, the secret of laughter, the key to the film? Is it also the answer to the question of whether man is an animal? We are animals capable of humor and of laughing, and of seeing the absurdity of life, and laughing from joy and love. Freddie goes looking for answers, looking to be saved, and only finds himself and the pleasures of the flesh and a warm body next to him.
The Master is hard to define, but looking at these three scenes teased out what may be Anderson’s point, a point continued, I think, in Inherent Vice with its surreal criminal moments nestled next to the sweetness of its flower power girls.
“The source of all…is you,” says Lancaster Dodd in Phoenix, and for once the man speaks some truth. Even a fraud can be right on occasion.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas AndersonEdited by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty