A closer look at the human spectacle of Paul Thomas Anderson’s striking film.
The Master turns habit into performance, and performance into spectacle. It is a film propelled by the refined performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a very recent post-war America: a vulnerable America on a jubilant bender. Slated as “the film about Scientology” ever since it began development, The Master’s surprising focus is the budding relationship between the nomadic veteran, Freddie Quell (Phoenix), and charismatic cult leader in the making, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). In the film, the idea of performance is essential to the characters, their minor interactions, and the endorsement of The Cause through what Dodd coins “processing”—a series of questions designed to transport one’s mind back to time spent in the womb (where only then can the mind begin to repair itself). The technical elements are also infused with a poetic quality. Shot on 70mm film, The Master boasts visual depth and clarity that arouses emotional review. The post-production process was purely photochemical; there were no digital intrusions, of which the crisp colours, and image quality testify. The result is a visually and emotionally striking film about a relationship between two men, however the emphasis on the psychology of the characters pulls back from any narrative drive.
The Master blossoms in the beginning: an unrelenting pile of decadent images depicting Navy SEAL Quell goofing off on a beach with other sailors, mimicking sex with a woman made from sand, masturbating publicly, and watching a wrestling match. Phoenix physically transforms himself, portraying Quell as an infantile loaf: his crooked posture, scuffling gait, slurred speech, awkwardly tilted chin, and twisted upper lip. Quell is a tormented man preoccupied with sex and alcohol; he harvests fuel from a torpedo to use in a homemade liquor recipe, and his answers to a Rorschach test indicate a perturbing fixation on genitalia. Even after he has transitioned from war back into society with a job as a portrait photographer, Quell continues to make his toxic beverages, although this time with photographic processing chemicals. In a scene that becomes more meaningful the more I see the film, he rearranges the lights to illuminate the face of a new customer—a robust, pompous man who bears a striking resemblance to Dodd. Quell positions the light so close to the man’s face that he complains of being burned, however Quell refuses to relent. The men enter into a physical scuffle and the scene dissolves to Quell’s new job labouring in a field.
It was not until my second viewing of the film that this scene stood out as a crucial one, symbolising the forthcoming relationship between Quell and Dodd. Firstly, photography captures a performed action. In this case it is an unnamed man, however later in the film Quell photographs Dodd. Dodd is an arrogant man with a showy personality. While he manipulates his congregation with performance, magnetic charm, and humour (like any good cult leader), the essence of The Cause remains unclear. For example, he makes all the speeches, bawls a rowdy tune, performs his trauma-inducing questioning-methods upon individuals, and yet they are always done in front of a large gathering. Finally, at the end of the film, he sings to Quell. He is applauded even when not ‘performing’: after Dodd and Quell play fight on the lawn, or when he rides his motorcycle in the desert. Dodd is very rarely in frame alone. It’s as if he cannot exist without performing: he is over-the-top; he loses his temper (twice) when asked rational questions about his philosophies. Anderson misleads us into thinking the photographed man/Dodd are the orchestrators of action via being the subject of the photograph/performance, however the narrative lens focuses on Quell, and he is framed as a threat. His job behind the camera foreshadows his role in the relationship with Dodd.
It is implied throughout The Master that the real brain, power, and ambition behind The Cause is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). In the majority of her scenes, Peggy at her husband’s side is pregnant or otherwise surrounded by children. However, in the confinement of their hotel room, Anderson suggests Peggy is a more oppressive force than Dodd: “And this is where we’re at, at the lowest level where we have to explain ourselves… the only way to defend ourselves is to attack, we will never dominate our environment unless we attack.” Her speech is laced with the sounds of the typewriter in the background, giving the impression that she is dictating to Dodd their next course of action. During the raucous sing-along to ‘Go No More A-Roving’, the camera cuts to Quell slumped in a chair, and back to the crowd, except now all the women are naked. I read this as Quell’s fantasy, which didn’t seem too farfetched given his schoolboy-like fascination with the female body, and yet the frame slowly zooms in on a naked Peggy sitting in a chair staring at Quell, no longer participating in the revelry. This scene now reads as her premonition: Quell is the embodiment of a ‘rover’, a vagrant, and she fears Dodd’s extravagant abandon is seduced by Quell’s recklessness.
Quell is Dodd’s antithesis, and it is this dichotomy which motivates the story, however in the end it is not Lancaster Dodd who changes Freddie Quell (upon which the film is centred), but Quell who changes Dodd. The film loses momentum during Quell’s formal processing at Helen’s (Laura Dern) house: partly because the sole reliance on the psychology/friendship of the characters means the story lacks substance beyond them, and partly because Quell is impenetrable to the techniques of The Cause. In the end, Dodd’s philosophies contemplate the future in terms of “can you imagine” rather than “can you recall,” but after all that Freddie remains unchanged—back at the beach with his sand-woman.