The Master 2012 Analysis Essay

"The Master" is a movie people are going to be talking about for a long time. Paul Thomas Anderson's haunting meditation on friendship, manipulation and man's desperate search for sanity is more enigmatic than his earlier films -- it neither grabs you by the throat, like "There Will Be Blood," nor twirls you around the dance floor, like "Boogie Nights." When it screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, the general response was: Whoa, I'm going to need to see that again.

The film's central relationship -- and riddle -- concerns a troubled World War II vet named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and a charismatic sect leader named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose friends and followers call him Master. Dodd, who likes to preach that humans are not animals and needn't be ruled by our emotions, is fascinated by Freddie, a rage-filled loner whose idea of courting is to scrawl "Do you want to fuck?" on a piece of paper and present it to the object of his desire. (Don't worry: he also adds a smiley face.) Freddie, in turn, is torn between his belief in the Master's power to heal him and his suspicion that the whole thing is just another con. In an early, face-to-face therapy session, Dodd proves that he can get behind Freddie's defenses, but whether he can heal his unruly pupil is less clear. Freddie, in turn, repays his would-be savior by violently punishing anyone who dares to question Dodd -- an arrangement Dodd clearly enjoys, despite his tepid protests to the contrary.

Because the film is so careful not to provide easy answers or fill every space with exposition (unlike, say, the frantically over-stuffed "Cloud Atlas"), it lends itself to speculation and analysis. Anderson himself admits that he's still trying to work out what it all means.

"The Master" is Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film, and something about its surety and magisterial beauty -- coming on the heels of the epic, Oscar-nominated "There Will Be Blood" -- has created a consensus view of him as America's best working filmmaker, if not the world's. The film won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and would have won Gold had the festival's judges not been so hell-bent on giving top acting awards to both Phoenix and Hoffman. (Gold Lion-winning films are generally disqualified from the festival's other awards.) I spoke to Anderson at the Toronto International Film Festival about his writing process, his collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix (a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and a very serious threat to win), his "natural attraction" for redheads and his relationship -- or lack thereof -- with the filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson.

Michael Hogan: I wanted to start by talking about the relationship between the two characters. I know people have said it's a father-son relationship, others have said it's homoerotic. I walked out and thought, They're the same person, at some level. They're doppelgangers. Do you think there's something to that?

Paul Thomas Anderson: That's good. I like that, you know? [He pauses and taps his fingers on the table.] I mean, it's never an occurrence in writing it or doing it, but you find yourself on the set one day and you're maybe bored and you kind of realize things that are going on that you hadn't thought about, you know? You're staring at cables on the floor and you zone out and realize things like that. And they're nice thoughts, but that's all they are. They're not the kind of thing that you can actually film, or get underneath. It's something that's after the fact. The homoerotic thing -- you know, you can consider it that way, sure, but [I think of the characters as] stand-ins for any relationship story. People have attractions to somebody that's probably not good for them, or an attraction to somebody who's a runner, you know? That attraction the Master has for Freddie -- absolute sheer excitement at the thrill of the possibility that he may leave or do something crazy at any moment.

We keep hearing The Master saying to his pupils, "You are not an animal," "You're not ruled by your emotions," and Freddie's living proof that that's not true.

Yeah, well, Phil says it best in his press conference in Venice. He says, I wish I could walk out into the streets and shit and fuck every woman that I see and all this different kind of stuff, but I can't do that, and I think I'm gonna go find a master to teach me how not to do that. It's funny. You're talking about that thing that they're two sides of the same person. I remember thinking sometimes, while we were shooting, Is he a ghost, almost? You get into researching that period and there were all these sailors surrounded by death and just so many bodies. You just think about guys being literally out at sea and surrounded by their buddies floating in water and stuff like that and you just think, Maybe he's a ghost himself. Does he even know it? Is he sort of walking around -- it gets into all these kinds of questions.

Clearly, people will continue to analyze these relationships, but what was your original impulse in writing the story? It was right after "There Will Be Blood" that you wrote it, right?

Yeah, well, I'd had a lot of the story for a while now. And it was the story of this sailor that was episodic -- stuff that came from John Steinbeck's life and stories that I've heard over the years -- collected in short story form, almost. And after "There Will Be Blood," I went back to it and dressed it, and the Master came into the story a little more strongly, and I just kept following the way that it led me, I suppose. I don't know what your experience is with writing, but mine is really chore-like, over and over again, until it gets good. When it starts, suddenly, you blink your eyes and there's 10 pages, you don't know where they came from. It's thrilling.

You're channeling something more than analyzing it.

Yeah. It sounds hocus pocus-y. But then you don't know when that's gonna happen again, and until it does you're workman-like with it. That's my method of attack, anyway.

With that in mind, I don't know if this is an answerable question or not, but I've noticed there are a lot of loners in your stories. You're obviously not a loner -- you have a family -- but is there something about loners that appeals to you in terms of creating characters?

Sure, I suppose. Not to get philosophical but we're all kind of loners though, ultimately. You can have family, can have lots of friends, but ultimately we're all here passing through this thing. How much can we hang on to other people? These are things everybody goes through. But I don't know. I'm attracted to these kinds of characters. Not quite sure why, but they make for good stories that I like to tell.

And like you said, they're unpredictable, right?

Yeah, that's good. Yeah, exactly. Right.

There are a lot of redheads in this movie. Is that a coincidence?

Kind of. I have a natural attraction to redheads, anyway: Julianne Moore, Amy Adams. I have to say, not some kind of real by-design thing but one of those things that just keeps happening accidentally-on-purpose. The very nature of creating a family for Phil is that you're going to have sons that have to look like him, that kind of thing. But yeah, it ends up looking really interesting.

Let's talk about Joaquin Phoenix. I read in The New York Times that when he smashed the toilet during his jail-cell scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman, he wasn't expecting to do that and didn't even know that it could be done. Were there ever times that you were afraid he was going to hurt himself?

Many times, yeah. There were a number of scenes where he just had physical stuff -- being restrained by police officers. There was another scene that we cut where he was in a courtroom and goes absolutely crazy and bounces around the courtroom and runs around. There were a number of opportunities for him to hurt himself, and I think he did, you know? But that's kind of what you want, hopefully within reason. He'll get over it. [Laughs.]

Are there other moments he improvised that you kept?

When he starts to strangle that guy and says, "I'm trying to get the lighting right," and the guy slaps him in the face. That was improvised. I mean, they knew they had to get into a scuffle, but we didn't know exactly how it was going to go down. They just agreed with each other that -- they agreed they didn't know what was going to happen. And we sort of set the ground rules that he can punch him in the face, slap him, whatever he had to do. We just said, "Is everybody all right with this? Is everybody all right? All right, go to your corners." And I think you get exciting stuff that way, and when Joaquin starts strangling him and says, "I'm trying to get the lighting right," I thought, "That's really good."

The scene where Freddie and the Master sit face to face for a therapy session and Freddie's not allowed to blink -- by the end of it, the vein is standing out on Phoenix's forehead and pulsating. Is that the kind of thing where you're standing there going, Oh my god, is this really happening?

Well, you get a scene like that and you have a situation where any intentions you have as an actor go completely out the window, because the sheer volume of the pages -- it's like 12 pages of one word back and forth, so just sheer memorization alone is putting you in a spot where you have to concentrate. And just slalom down a hill as fast as you can. So you kind of, in a great way, become powerless to choices you're trying to make as an actor. It's just, "Hold on tight and try to get from the beginning to the end." And it was just fun to watch them do it. We set up two cameras at the same time. It would have been impossible to do the traditional thing where you look at this person and then that person.

So it's almost like recording a band live.

That's exactly right. Yeah. And it's nice to give somebody something physical to do. It's one of those nice things: You can't blink. How can you not blink for that long? It's good.

At one point, the members of the Master's sect make a concerted effort to tame Freddie. In one of the exercises, he has to walk from the wall to the window, the wall to the window, and describe what he sees and feels. Was that based on any research you did, and what do you think the Master is trying to accomplish there?

That was based on a thing that I had read in the very early days of Dianetics. The idea was to take you through a number of different emotions: anger, apathy, withdrawal, all these things, to the point where you are actually OK with it. It's a disciplining exercise, I believe. I have no idea if it's something that still goes on, but I read about it happening in the early 50s. '51, '52, '53. So that was the inspiration for that. And setting that to the side, there's something very dramatic about that. It's a good situation to get in dramatically, but also between these two characters, too. Somebody who's desperate to tame themselves and be good for their master, and get into this, and figure out, "What the fuck is wrong with me?" and "I don't want to act like this anymore." It lent itself to a kind of flammable dramatic sequence.

I know you were raised Catholic. Do you see similarities between Scientology and Catholicism as you're researching the film?

Not really.

There were times watching the film when I thought, Boy, Dodd is just making up any old thing, but then you're in church and they're saying stuff that got made up 2,000 years ago.

Yeah, sure, I think a lot of people can make that argument. I don't know. I don't really think about it.

A lot has been made of the fact that "The Master" is being shown on 70-mm film. Is there anything people should be looking for as far as what separates it from other formats?

No, I don't think so. I think it's more of just a feeling. Hopefully you're not squinting to see what you're supposed to be seeing. You know, it's great that a lot's been made about it, but on the other hand it's important just let the theater go dark and have a movie wash over you -- have a kind of world of make believe feel alive and vaguely real, and hopefully it helps do that. And just kind of gets you to time travel, hopefully. And it just felt like a good space ship for time travel for us, the way that it looks and the way that it feels. Yeah, it would be a drag if somebody goes in like, "What am I missing? Was it supposed to talk to me? Pet my head?"

What's the secret to a great trailer?

I don't know. In the case of Leslie Jones -- the editor I work with, She's the one who's spearheaded a lot of that stuff -- we started doing stuff like that on "Punch Drunk Love," where we had a lot of material that wasn't in the film and we wanted to work with it. But we didn't have any place to put it. It didn't belong in the film. So I don't know. Hopefully they can stand alone as their own little weird little things. They've been fun to do. Really fun. Kinda great. Yeah. Kinda great. Fun.

You mention "Punch Drunk Love" -- do you wish Adam Sandler would do more movies like that? Do you still watch his comedies?

I do. I thought "Funny People" was amazing. And he was amazing in it. And that's only a few years ago now. I want Adam to do whatever he wants, but I would love to see him do more things like "Funny People." He's so talented.

Have you ever met Paul W.S. Anderson? You guys both have films coming out on the same day.

I've never met him. Have you?

No. I had this fantasy that you guys were good pals, emailing each other jokes and stuff.

I've never met him. Yeah, it's weird. Do you know anybody who has your same name.

I'm actually a member of a Facebook group of Mike Hogans, because there's a zillion of us out there. There's like 100 people in this Facebook group.

That's awesome. I've never heard of such a thing. That's hilarious.

"The Master" premieres tonight in New York City and opens in limited release this Friday, September 14.


TIFF 2012: Stars Show Off Their Style

A little more than a week into its wide release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has already established itself as that rare beast, a popular film with a lot on its mind — one that bears and maybe even demands repeated viewings. (Critics Stephanie Zacharek and Dana Stevens each have thoughts on whether or not a movie should need to be seen more than once. Our own David Edelstein shares his own thoughts here.) And each of these viewings can yield new and varying interpretations. So, what is The Master about? Here are five potential avenues of thought. (Naturally, there are spoilers ahead. You are forewarned.)

The search for a family and stability.
Several times, we see a shot of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) lying down next to a sand sculpture of a woman. Admittedly, it's a sand sculpture that he humps in the film's opening minutes, but the tender way that he later cuddles up to it suggests that what he’s after isn’t really sex but warmth, contact, family, comfort. When the V.A. doctor asks him about a “vision” that he had, Freddie describes it thusly: “I had a dream. My mother, my father, and me. Sitting around a table. Drinking … ” Then he mumbles something that sounds like either “laughing” or “loving.” At any rate, that’s his vision — a happy family. Anderson dissolves from this scene to Freddie’s new job as a photographer — shooting pictures of happy housewives, happy children, happy husbands. He longs to be a part of this world, but, not unlike a filmmaker, he can only photograph it: Before he fights with the man he’s photographing at the department store, Freddie asks him, “Is this for your wife?” (Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, we hear a baby screaming.) Then, he pushes the lights in on the man, trying to crowd him out, and starts to beat him.

Freddie’s search for a family leads him to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). In the remarkable shot where he discovers Dodd’s yacht, the camera constantly racks focus between a cold Freddie staggering on the dock in the foreground and the happy, warm party on the yacht, with Lancaster and Peggy dancing in the distance: It’s as if the camera (and by extension Freddie) is constantly trying to place them all in the same shot, and failing. Indeed, Anderson keeps these characters separated visually throughout the film. We almost never see them alone together in the same shot. Almost.

In the bizarre, final, cryptic scene in London, when the three are briefly reunited, Peggy first expresses a kind of maternal interest in Freddie (“You look sick. Freddie, you don’t look healthy”) before rejecting him altogether (“What did you hope would happen by coming here today?” To which he responds, tellingly, “I had a dream.”). In fact, this final scene might actually be the only time when we finally see all three of these characters — Peggy, Lancaster, and Freddie — alone together in the same shot. At the end of the scene, Lancaster sings “(I’d Like to Get You On) A Slow Boat to China” to Freddie. And yes, it’s eerie and perhaps more than a little homoerotic, but it also feels like a twisted version of a lullaby — the most domestic and familial of actions turned into something terrifying and strange — making it clear once and for all that Freddie’s dream of becoming a family with Lancaster and Peggy Dodd is an impossibility. And freeing him, ironically, to try and form a new family — perhaps with Winn, the girl he’s met in the final scenes of the film, right before we see him lying next to the female sand sculpture, suggesting that his search goes on.

The politics of cults, and the cults of politics.
Although Harvey Weinstein introduced the New York premiere of The Master with a swipe at Mitt Romney, Paul Thomas Anderson has never been a particularly political filmmaker. Except when he has been: There Will Be Blood might be a timeless meditation on will, power, ambition, and duplicity, but it’s also a startling depiction of the collusion and conflict between capitalism and spirituality in early twentieth century America, with particular resonances for the time in which it was made, when the U.S. was waging two wars in distant lands — one for oil, and another against a group of religious extremists it had collaborated with decades earlier. Not unlike Stanley Kubrick before him, Anderson seems to have an amazing ability to build in contemporary echoes into his films without making them feel overtly topical.

Thus, The Master, even though it’s only tangentially about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, depicts the humiliating yet symbiotic relationship between causes and followers in the modern era, when belief systems are no longer governing frameworks but just software to be renewed and replaced. You can see it in the Master’s irritated response to Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) who, upon reading his new book, inquires about a major difference she’s noticed: “I did note that on page 13, there’s a change. You’ve changed the processing platform question from ‘Can you recall?’ to ‘Can you imagine?’” Meanwhile, Freddie, who never really understands the Master’s methods and has just had to listen to another B.S. sermon from Dodd, beats up a longtime believer who dares to question the Master's rambling text. Maybe this is the way Freddie deals with his doubts, by doubling down on his obedience to the Master.  

True, this is a kind of willful mutability that’s characteristic of cults, but it’s also one of the dynamics of modern politics, where belonging to the team (and defending it) is a lot more important than what the team actually stands for. (Just read any of this year’s election headlines to see political team players defend policies and beliefs they don’t really subscribe to — be they on the Left or the Right.) Freddie is, ultimately, symbolic of the common man who joins a cause not because he believes in it, but because it will have him.

It has probably not escaped the notice of many viewers that, although Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell seem like psychological and physical opposites (one is garrulous, confident, and rotund, the other terse, nervous, and alarmingly thin), the film also often presents them in symmetrical shots and situations: Witness the way Anderson films them when they’re in jail, yelling at each other as if each is inside the other’s mind. And let’s also not forget that both men are alchemists of a kind — one has the ability to turn things like torpedo fuel into a delicious beverage, the other has the ability to turn anything around him into a nonsensical spiritual aphorism. These men may somehow be conjoined — Dodd is, after all, the only one who seems to be able to regularly drink Freddie’s moonshine concoctions and survive. (It also helps, of course, that the women around them look the same — Doris, the girl Freddie loved back home before the war, bears an uncanny resemblance to Peggy Dodd.)

If the processing/auditing that the Master encourages is designed to shed oneself of the negative emotions and troubles of our past lives, consider the possibility that Freddie might actually be, at least on a metaphoric level, one of Lancaster Dodd’s past lives. (Which makes the oft-stated question in the film of where they might have met a more haunting one.) If Dodd constantly leaves his troubles behind, Freddie appears to be made up entirely of troubles — the family that abandoned him, the girl back home who didn’t wait for him, the war that broke him. (In an earlier version of the script, Freddie’s alcohol problem was matched by an obsessive need to get more and more tattoos, and his initial hospitalization at the V.A. was due to a rather symbolically loaded ailment — a burst appendix.) Like the negative energy of New Yorkers that collects in the sewers of the city in Ghostbusters II, Freddie is, in many ways, the return of the repressed for Lancaster Dodd — a Frankenstein’s Monster of troubled memories, rejections, and unspoken spiritual longings.

Post-war ennui.
This is, of course, right there in the second shot of the film: Freddie Quell, Navy man, lifting his head above the edge of a boat, looking quizzically out at the world. We hear a lot about the Greatest Generation in the media, but it’s also a fact that many of the men who fought in WWII came home to a world that was rapidly changing and that no longer held the certainties (if they ever even existed) of the war. (“Understandably, there will be people on the outside who do not understand your condition.”) While we do see, over the course of the film, a brief glimpse of Freddie’s life before the war, it’s telling that we never see the war itself, marking it as a kind of defining absence.

What did the war do to Freddie, and what about it connects him to Dodd? Is it worth noting that the cult of personality Dodd has created is, in miniature, a reflection of the political cults of personality — those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito — that the Allies defeated in WWII? Such things are never stated outright in the film, and we certainly never see “the enemy” in the brief scenes that show Freddie’s Navy stint. But we do see an enemy around us later in the film — the skeptics, the authorities, the doubters who question and challenge Dodd’s power. This is, after all, the age of McCarthyism, of paranoia and fear. Maybe Anderson is suggesting that people like Freddie came out of the war needing both the solace of family life and an enemy to combat?

In interviews, Anderson has suggested that The Master followed an even looser development process than his previous scripts, with him instinctually putting a variety of elements together just to see how they would work out. (Versions of the script that were leaked during the film’s shooting were quite different from the finished product.) So, consider the possibility then that, on some basic level, The Master may actually be less about its ostensible story and more about its surfaces. It’s about putting the needy, nervous angularity of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance next to the avuncular, comfy generosity of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, and seeing what develops, what ecosystems of character are formed in the back-and-forth between these figures.

In his excellent analysis of the film for The New Yorker’s website, Richard Brody correctly notes that many of the cult’s therapy sessions look like method acting exercises. Similarly, it’s perhaps notable that Phoenix’s performance seems to represent the tormented, physical acting styles of the latter half of the twentieth century (the Brandos, the Deans, the Clifts) whereas Hoffman’s acting seems to hearken back to the controlled, elusive manner of the previous half (many have described his turn as “Wellesian”). In these acting styles, we see a miniature version of the journey of American society during this period — and, specifically, American maleness. And before you suggest that this is a stretch, remember that this is a director who in Boogie Nights used different porn acting styles to tell the story of late-seventies-early-eighties American social upheaval.

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