Bottling Fog: The Master’s Flirtation and Rejection of Expectation

Seven films into his feature film career, Paul Thomas Anderson has compiled one of the richest and most vibrant filmographies in recent memory. It would be hard to find a film fan who does not love one (if not several) of his movies, a true testament to a director whose work proves to at points be so specific that it risks alienating general audiences, as well as some cineastes. Anticipation for any piece of news on his latest projects sends shockwaves throughout the niche but active subculture of online cinephilia.[1] Such devotion to an offbeat talent feels welcome in an age where the latest comic book movie news is blasted ad nauseam across the Internet. But even outright fans and curious observers traffic in their own expectation of what the latest Paul Thomas Anderson film will undoubtedly bring them.

Returning to what audiences[2] expected from his 2012 film The Master is a thought experiment that ultimately unravels the trivial predictability that fans place on their subjects. Before the film enraptured and confounded audiences alike, the expectation that PTA’s latest would take concentrated aim at the beliefs and structure of Scientology had reached a fever pitch. His previous film (There Will Be Blood) made the turn of the century intersection between religion, oil, and commerce into an unexpectedly modern tale of power and betrayal. I can vividly remember predictions that The Master would be a full blown expose on the devotion and power a cult like Scientology inspires. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s resemblance to Lancaster Dodd (founder of Scientology) no doubt fueled these prognostications. The film’s very title indicates a film where Hoffman’s Dodd would take center stage in a performance that would inevitably throw the Academy Award winner once again into the thick of the Best Actor Oscar race.

But in so many ways, The Master was a far less literal takedown of Scientology than many wanted. Much of this can be traced to the fact that the protagonist is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic, sexually damaged veteran of World War II. To this day, I have seen far too many people mistake Dodd as the main character, which is an almost fundamental misinterpretation of the film. Phoenix’s performance takes center stage, as the actor takes Quell’s emotional remoteness out on his body to give a performance seemingly more inspired from apes than humans.[3] Quell’s history and motivations are only revealed when the former sailor is grilled by Dodd in a session known as processing, which resembles the Scientology practice of “auditing.” For all of Quell’s sexual misadventures, his one true love is revealed to be Doris (Madisen Beaty), a teenage girl Quell left behind when he went off to fight in the Pacific. While Quell yearns to return to her to rekindle their love, he seems more than content to become a disciple of Dodd and his new belief system that promises healing and peace in the dangers of the newly minted Atomic Age.

When comparing Quell to There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the differences between the two men are endlessly intriguing.[4] Plainview represents a breed of entrepreneur very prevalent in the early twentieth century: a poor, rural upstart who clawed his way up against an establishment that wanted little to do with him. For Plainview, literary works from the likes of Horatio Alger that inspired the impoverished to pick themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve previously impossible wealth represented a new brand of Gospel. This is why Plainview has such a mistrustful view of Christianity, as it preaches its converts to live humbly and count the blessing provided rather than abuse or manipulate others to achieve personal satisfaction. All of these qualities that desire power and control much more closely resemble Dodd, a rising intellectual and socialite who talks a lot of family but does little to build a solid and open one.

i'm on a boat

Quell, on the other hand, represents an untamed class of humanity unbound by quests of earthly attachments or possessions, simply taking value in base impulses of stimulation. Quell is not nearly as good an actor as Dodd at hiding his desires, nor does he pretend to be. While Dodd pushes to establish a new religion and lifestyle that puts himself at its head, Quell merely wants the capacity to fit within his own skin that is unobtrusive to himself and others. Close inspection on his own interior life (typically a luxury afforded to the affluent or upper middle class) either confuse or depress Quell. In the Cause, Quell sees the tools to reform obvious trauma as well as more psychological trauma that’s hinted at but never fully explored. In Quell, Dodd sees a guinea pig to test his wide ranging lifestyle of “harmony”.

Ultimately, Dodd’s failure to tame Quell allows for both of them to once and for all cleanse themselves of the other’s power and authority. Dodd tells Quell in their final scene to continually pursue his individually oriented journey, as he possesses the capacity to be his own master rather than relying on Dodd or anyone else. The only indication we have of Quell learning from Dodd is the former’s use of questioning that resembles processing towards a female companion during sex in the film’s closing scenes. Whether he gleamed any sense of spiritual truth from the therapy is hardly the point. By the end, Quell has, as Dodd predicted, became his own master who has accepted himself for the animal he is and is content to continue fulfilling his animal-like desires. This thorough dissection of a man far less power hungry or manipulative as Plainview or Dodd make Quell’s unexpected character arc a unique feature of The Master that Phoenix’s primarily physical performance barely suggests in the opening moments of the film.

In addition to the prevalence of Quell to Dodd in The Master’s narration, the place of importance of Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) prove the movie to be even more than a just a story about a leader and his disciple. Prior to this point, Adams was recognizable to viewers as a lovable, spunky redhead in such films as Catch Me If You Can and Enchanted. Her incredible skills as a dramatic actress netted her three Academy Award nominations with Junebug, Doubt, and The Fighter. But with The Master, her darkest role yet, Adams proved to be just as much a presence as a performer. The queen behind the throne, Peggy exhibits considerable control over her husband and his expanding movement. Peggy begins placing doubt in Dodd’s mind to Quell and his intentions, as her own shady motivations grant her the inability to take Quell and his eccentricities at face value. Nearly all of Peggy’s scenes find her smiling or glaring in a corner, as only a handful of scenes find her taking center stage. However, her grip over Dodd and the Movement prove her to perhaps be at the top of the film’s social, political, and sexual hierarchy.

dum dum

Peggy’s unlikely hold over The Master is one of the many mysterious forces that make the film one that continually rewards repeat viewings. Like any great piece of art, every frame, piece of dialogue, facial expression, or song choice seem precisely primed to elicit multiple meanings. Composer Jonny Greenwood, best known as the guitarist and keyboardist from the band Radiohead, returns for his second collaboration with Anderson, giving the music of the film the same eerie spontaneity and chaotic nature he imbued in There Will Be Blood. Moments of the score threaten to tap into the very mystical, interplanetary realm that Dodd espouses about. Furthermore, the film’s elliptical use of time and character, particularly in the first act, has always stuck with me as very novelistic. Quell’s post war philandering and dodgy employment could have been a worthwhile film in its own right. Also, personalities like Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons), daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), and follower Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) could have easily painted another story of the dissolution or confusion of a social circle when the egomania of the central figure brings them to a breaking point. In a movie that already has plenty of dramatic asides and detours, the suggestion of even more give the film’s diegesis a gravity all its own.

Three years removed from The Master, its messages to audiences and the industry that produced it seem as numerous as they do varied. Sadly, the film was not a box office success, making the prospects of such daring and button pushing cinema all the riskier.[5] The recent, unfortunate passing of Hoffman gives his performance an air of tragedy that will follow it forever. But maybe the timeliest lesson from The Master (with the onslaught of the fall movie season around the corner) is the need to appreciate films more on their own terms rather than our expectations or desires. This can at times be a near impossible task, as a creative’s history no doubt informs the possibilities of what we can anticipate from a forthcoming work. However, such assumptions can rob the work or the creator of what made them special in the first place: the promise of the new or the different. The Master is another brilliant work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s growing filmography precisely because it rejects easy classifications. Thankfully, The Master showed that PTA’s beef was with conventional, cookie cutter cinema, not Scientology.[6]

the master boat

 

[1] Among these sites is the online blog “Cigarettes and Red Vines”, who declare themselves “The Definitive Paul Thomas Anderson Resource.” Highly recommended: http://cigsandredvines.blogspot.com/.

[2] Which of course includes myself.

[3] And before you get all mad about me making a distinction between apes and humans, you know what I mean: gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, etc.

[4] For further elaboration, check out the fantastic video essay by Darren – MUST SEE FILMS about these two films in addition to Punch Drunk Love that argues these films are part of a loose trilogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4axdxfDTcE.

[5] Luckily, the bill was primarily fit by Megan Ellison, founder of Annapurna Pictures, a studio committed to producing edgier material deemed too risqué for typical Hollywood studios. Here’s to hoping the billionaire heiress continues to throw her efforts behind films and filmmakers worthy of greater attention.

[6] However, if you are looking for a well-rounded, thorough takedown of the religion, I highly recommend this year’s Going Clear, a documentary from HBO. It’s the best John Travolta film since Pulp Fiction.

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