by Mike Phillips
The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his 2007 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, has left many viewers perplexed. Everyone from the guys in my Prospect Park touch football game to veteran critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin have expressed varying levels of exasperation at the film’s meandering plot and its lack of narrative closure.
In part, this frustration has to do with the early reports that the film would be an exposé of the early days of Scientology, which it is not. While Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) bears a striking resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard both physically and theologically, the film is really about his relationship with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two veteran who drowns his mostly unspecified sorrows in the corrosive hooch that he mixes from hard liquor, household chemicals, and prescription pills.
Like several of Anderson’s previous films, The Master revolves around a mentor and protégé whose festering antagonism is tempered by mutual fascination and emotional interdependency. Both are irreparably damaged but determined to transcend their wounds, even if their avenues for healing (here, substance abuse and mysticism) are hopelessly twisted.
This fractured humanism is especially powerful in contrast to the strategies of Anderson’s contemporaries, whose films are populated with twee caricatures (Wes Anderson) or grotesque mannequins (Harmony Korine). It is even further removed from the baroque exercises of Quentin Tarantino, for whom derivativeness is the highest virtue. While P.T. Anderson came of age in the home video era, and therefore shares his contemporaries’ catalog of influences, he avoids such an overtly allusionistic style. His aesthetic is more akin to the first generation of American film school graduates, specifically Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, with whom he shares an intentionally auteurist aesthetic as well as an intimate knowledge of the history of film genres and cinematic techniques.
As with some of the early films of Coppola and Scorsese (I am thinking specifically of The Conversation and Raging Bull), The Master is both an intensive character study and an examination of film form itself. The volatile relationship between the main characters in The Master is partially an allegorical examination of the demise of celluloid film at the hands of digital imaging technology.
Anderson dealt with a similar issue in Boogie Nights, a fictional portrait of the adult film industry’s transition from film to video, a more extreme and explicit microcosm of a wider trend in the mainstream movie business during the 1980s. The effect of that change was fragmentation and alienation among film viewers as they retreated from the movie house to their living rooms. This shift is mirrored and embodied in the dissolution of the improvised family of misfits that comprises the film’s porno troupe.
The plot of The Master admittedly does not deal with the technical questions at hand in such a straightforward manner, nor could it, given that the film is set in 1950. Yet the historical setting does have a striking parallel to the current period: they are both times of great uncertainty and upheaval in the movie industry. In 1950, the rise of television was just beginning to threaten Hollywood’s box-office receipts, and the industry responded by once again making cinema a novelty. Between 1952 and 1955, viewers were subjected to a barrage of innovations, including the giant Cinerama screen and 3-D spectacles, both of which have recently made comebacks in modified form. This period also saw the widespread adoption of widescreen, color cinematography which has remained standard practice.
One rarely seen innovation of the 1950s is the 70mm film stock that Anderson used to shoot The Master. It provides the highest definition of any film format but creates distribution problems because very few movie theaters have projectors that can accommodate the larger film. It has mostly been abandoned since the collapse of the Hollywood studio system around 1970, and even before that, it was reserved for epic productions like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The Master is not an epic production. While it is a historical drama, it has no grandiose set pieces or extravagant location shoots. The majority of the film concerns tense interpersonal encounters in enclosed spaces that seem almost to exude a musty odor. When the camera is finally set in open space, near the end of the film, it is a salt flat that denies the viewer any interesting landscape and leaves us squinting at the mountains far in the background. When Dodd and Freddie arrive in New York, there is no sweeping aerial shot of the Manhattan skyline, digitally altered to match 1950s photos.
Given these formal irregularities, it would seem that the impetus behind the decision to shoot in 70mm is a fascination with film itself. After the war, Freddie Quell becomes a photographer in a department store. The family photos he is taking are shown as if through the lens of his camera, thus becoming a part of the film itself. The extremely high definition of the 70mm film stock mimics the uncanny starkness of the primitive color processes that can still be discerned in faded pictures of our smiling parents or grandparents, still optimistic that America was entering into an interminable era of prosperity. Freddie’s family photo sittings constitute the birth of artifacts, of the transformation of a transitory relationship between light and objects into a tangible, if two-dimensional, memento. When Freddie mixes his toxic elixir with darkroom chemicals, he is ingesting the potion that enacts this weird transubstantiation.
Freddie’s association with nostalgia takes other forms, as well. After losing his photography job, he becomes a migrant farm worker. These scenes inevitably conjure up an association with John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). When Freddie unintentionally poisons a fellow laborer with his foul brew, he is forced to run and ultimately stows away on Dodd’s borrowed pleasure yacht. It later becomes clear that Dodd’s extravagant lifestyle is a carefully executed charade, aided by the largesse of high-society benefactors. In this sense, Dodd embodies the veneer of prosperity that characterized 1950s American culture, while Freddie represents its repressed past (or, like the film noir of the period, suppressed violence).
Dodd is initially attracted to Freddie precisely because of the hooch in his flask, to which Dodd gradually becomes addicted. His “Cause,” a manifestly fraudulent cult that promises to dredge up its followers’ past lives, is unable to provide the blissful, if hazardous, intoxication to be found in Freddie’s chemical spirits. Similarly, ethereal digital video lacks the gravity of celluloid film, which can be touched and held.
As Dodd becomes enamored of Freddie’s liquor, Freddie becomes more deeply involved in the Cause. As part of his indoctrination, Dodd forces him to pace back and forth, his eyes closed, between a sunlit window and the opposite wall, repeatedly demanding that Freddie touch each of the two surfaces and describe what he feels. Freddie insists that he feels only a window and a wall. This goes on for several days until Freddie finally stops at the window, spreads his hands on its surface, and declares that he can feel the grass in the yard, the neighboring house, the entire milieu. The room is reminiscent of a movie theatre, with the window taking the place of the projection booth and the wall standing for the screen, the surface onto which the image is projected. Of course, when viewing video on a digital device, the source of light becomes one with the screen. Dodd is attempting to convince Freddie that the window itself is reality. The wall, the screen, is simply forgotten about (though Freddie is initially not convinced that he has passed the test and heads back toward the wall once more). This scene contrasts the easily refuted reality of the filmic image with the putative authenticity (“pics or it didn’t happen”) of the digital image, which, ironically, is more easily manipulable.
Near the end of the film, one of Dodd’s followers (played by Laura Dern) is dumbfounded by a sudden change in Dodd’s theology. Rather than helping adherents to “remember” their past lives, the Cause will now lead them to “imagine” them. We have already seen that Freddie, as a photographer, was associated with the preservation of the past. Dodd at first foolishly attempts to take on a similar role but eventually realizes that he can never provide the sense of communion with the past or the euphoric state that the more simple and earthy Freddie can. Likewise, digital video lacks that uneasy kinship with the real that celluloid film provides.