The Master and Points of Access

I’ve seen P.T. Anderson’s The Master twice in as many weeks, and I think I’m just starting to wrap my head around it. Many have mentioned the films elusive nature, usually as a neutral or negative quality. I’ll try and parse out some of its ambiguity after the jump. Spoilers, etc.

The most highlighted aspect of the film is the relationship between Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix) characters, although the nature of their relationship is unclear. At times it mimics a father/son relationship (Lancaster’s scolding, “naughty, naughty boy”) but at other times they are close friends, and others enemies. So then what is it that links them?

Let’s focus on what each person gets from the relationship. Lancaster sees Freddie in two ways: first as a soul to save, proving that his new religion works, then secondly as a manifestation of his animal side. Freddie is the part of Lancaster that he tries desperately to repress, but still erupts at various moments (“pig fuck”). If Lancaster can remove the animal from Freddie, then he can surely remove the animal from himself.

Freddie’s motivations are more difficult to understand. On the surface they are the motives of an animal — he seeks food and shelter for as long as he can get it. But we soon see that Freddie is fiercely loyal to Lancaster and The Cause, and that strikes at something deeper in his personality, something closer to madness. Freddie senses a familiarity in Lancaster’s non-logical view of the universe. They both have dual citizenship in the worlds of the sane and the crazy.

While that helps define their relationship, the film isn’t just a character study — there must be more of an overarching theme. This is where the film gets murky. Freddie’s story takes place in a world that is rebuilding itself after World War 2, but Freddie isn’t interested in taking part in that reconstruction. He doesn’t see further than his next drink, meal, woman. So we have a dichotomy even before Lancaster enters the film, the contrasting figures of the animal Freddie and the civilized nation. But there’s a problem with that — Freddie is part of the nation. It isn’t a binary if it’s one entity. He has seen war and is expected to forget it, but he can’t.

When Lancaster enters the film it becomes even more complicated. He’s a planner, has the mannerisms of the civilized, but at the same time he exists outside because of his cult. You have two men who are outside but still included. So the film can be seen as a historical picture — it displays America in a conflicted, transitional state. But this is again selling it short — this isn’t just what the film is about.

I could go on. Anderson touches on a wide variety of other topics — gender roles, metaphysics, the role of marriage, substance abuse, etc. — Although none of them jump out as a dominant theme/concept that the movie revolves around.

One possible explanation — the movie was initially discussed as Anderson’s “Scientology Movie.” And in a certain sense that’s accurate. But when the public hears that they expect a message, an endorsement or condemnation. His portrayal of Scientology is nuanced and human, much more concerned about the characters than the dogma. I feel that my expectations of the film hurt at least my first viewing of it, and perhaps blinded me to some further meaning.

A last note: I was surprised by how emotionally moving the film was. There are moments of such tenderness — Lancaster’s last song, him wrestling with Freddie on the lawn, the final scene with the woman in England — that in no way resemble typical tearjerker scenes. Anderson deserves credit for these. He has, at the very least, made a singular, incredibly ambitious film, and I greatly admire his ambition, even if it comes across as muddled at times.

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