Somehow while watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, I got to thinking about the composer Arnold Schoenberg. It was Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909) specifically which came to mind. It is a work that utilizes an orchestra of Mahlerian proportions with every instrument functioning as it would in a late Romantic symphony or tone poem, only that the notes seems all wrong, and there is a meandering quality to the music that leaves the listener stricken with a sense of bewilderment. But what a trip it is. However, by the end of the piece you are left with the unsettling sensation that what you just have heard has either gone over your head, or hadn’t at all and it simply is what it is. The Master left me feeling a similar sensation. For nearly two and a half hours I was deeply engrossed. Here is a film so visually rich, so well paced, and so well performed, that when about halfway through I realized would go nowhere (much like PTA’s other films) I ceased to care about its obvious shortcomings. I was in it simply for the ride. Paul Thomas Anderson, like Arnold Schoenberg, has mastered the technical aspects of his craft. Where the vagaries in Schoenberg’s work are pretty well accounted for—here was a man who felt burdened by the limits of tonal music and sought release through Expressionism—Paul Thomas Anderson’s lack of conveyance seems to be more the result of a personal defect of some kind, rooted in existential nihilism*. Or, perhaps there is some message that simply does go over everyone’s head. Either way, there’s still a lot of worth in his work.
The Master is set in the early 1950s and centers on the relationship between a maladjusted WWII naval veteran, named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the eccentric Lancaster Dodd, whom they call ‘The Master’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is the leader of a fledgling cult known as “The Cause”. Ostensibly inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the church of Scientology, “The Cause” seems to have firmer roots in Buddhism, in which reincarnation is one of its fundamental beliefs, and the direct exploration of one’s self is the key to unlocking life’s secrets. From our first glimpse of Freddie Quell it is somehow made apparent that he is a hopeless cause. Perhaps it’s that dumb grin of his, but gradually as we are introduced to both his unhealthy sexual preoccupation and his addiction to his own brand of chemically infused alcoholic cocktails, it’s clear there’s little that can be done for him.
One of the focal methods developed by Dodd is a series of intense questioning centered on past trauma called ‘processing’. It is these scenes that are the most well written and meticulously acted in the film. Through Freddie’s processing we learn of his incestuous relationship with his aunt, and of the subject of his own personal turmoil—the unrealized love with a young girl which war tore him away from. Freddie is a truly troubled sort. The ‘potions’ he’s addicted to probably kill off brain cells in troves, and he has unpredictable violent tendencies. His devotion to ‘The Master’ and ‘The Cause’ appears to be a manifestation of ennui rather being spawned from a desire to get well. In fact, Freddie provides little evidence that he believes there is anything wrong with himself in the first place. Lancaster Dodd is keen to help him, but as the leader of the cult is equally as keen to help any prospective convert. He does take a natural liking to Freddie, but by the end of the film comes to believe, just as his own family had deduced, that Freddie is truly a lost cause.
I don’t if it was intentional, but in this film Anderson’s repeated aversion to any firm kind of resolution does take some effect here. From one interpretation the film could serve as a parable to religion itself, as religion can be viewed as a grand entity offering wondrous payback, albeit with the answers never being provided to the living. Freddie Quell is never given the answer to whatever it was he invested all of his time and effort towards, and we the viewer of the film are left without any clear message, aside from the possible interpretation I’ve just postulated.
Despite its shortcomings, The Master remains to be a work of bravura filmmaking. Shot in glorious 65mm film, the images are beautiful and crystal clear, and free of the pixilation and artificial glossiness that plagues digital film. Like There Will Be Blood before it, Anderson has a talent for finding the right people to recreate period looks. The sets, props, and costumes are perfect to a tee, and the actors are made up to truly look as though they come from another era. Joaquin Phoenix is nearly unrecognizable (for a moment I thought he was Hank Azaria), but this is also a testament to his superb acting as he breathes life into the role of Freddie Quell. In terms of consistency, there are few actors that can match Philip Seymour Hoffman (John Malkovich is one). He is such a pleasure to watch, and absolutely fearless when it comes to assuming a character. Also, the music by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead is very befitting and adds a certain punch to the film.
Anderson, as he has repeatedly done in the past, fails to deliver on all of the elements necessary for a really cogent picture. Given the scope of his films, a clearly conveyed message of some kind would be the icing on the cake. But, if ‘things are what they are’ is the only kind of message we are ever to receive from him I suppose there is little we can do but accept it. Thankfully the packaging is excellent.
*See blog entry, Paul Thomas Anderson: One Shy Step From Greatness by Ethan van Winkle (October 12, 2012)