Posted by Ian Mantgani on 21st March, 2013
Sometimes when watching a new movie, I’ll try to distance myself from the expectations of the moment, and imagine what it’s like to be a kid from the future, coming across the same film on TV. It was odd to think that last November at Odeon West End as I was watching a 70mm print of The Master, which you’d think would be an overwhelmingly cinematic experience. But this is a film that works by getting under your skin rather than wowing you, and one that has been shot on large-format film but uses the richness and detail of 65mm capture for intimate drama rather than spectacle. I wondered if maybe it couldn’t possibly lend itself well to the pressures of the moment. How much can you absorb a film that creeps up on the viewer, when you’re part of a braying crowd desperate to be bowled over by the first release in five years from showman director Paul Thomas Anderson?
Now I’ve seen the film at home on Blu-ray, and I’m not convinced the legacy of The Master or the experience of watching it down the line will be all that different from its first run. This is a film of riches and mysteries, providing an experience, provoking questions, but not containing answers. Roger Ebert, in the most frankly bemused of major critics’ reviews, wrote that the film is “fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” That’s exactly right, and how much value one should place on such an experience is one of the many questions The Master makes you ask.
Even the title is an act of misdirection. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (though we don’t hear the name until halfway through the 144-minute running time), the poised, deliberate, L. Ron Hubbard-esque cult leader referred to by his followers as “master.” And yet one of the major themes of the film is how he can’t subordinate Freddie Quell, the wildman protagonist portrayed vigorously and instinctively by Joaquin Phoenix. Is Freddie the master, a tail who wags its dog? Is Freddie, as Dodd suggests in the final scene, an embodiment of how rare a phenomenon it is for someone to live without a master? Or, more likely, since Freddie seems to be mastered by his appetite for pussy and alcohol, is this movie mainly a dynamic study rather than a character study – the dynamic of the unfettered id, and how it can never be truly contained by society, or by a system such as Dodd’s ‘The Cause’? (The Master could be on a tonally unlikely double-bill with The Dark Knight – like the Joker and Batman, the odd friendship of Freddie and Dodd shows what happens when “an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”)
The events in the film are clear, while the underlying motivations are mysteries. Freddie is a Navy veteran, wandering in the years following WWII, and he is alcoholic, impetuous, sex-obsessed – he makes moonshine from any dangerous chemical available, meets Dodd by stowing away on his yacht, and once there, sits down next to a typist and writes a sign that reads “Do you want to fuck?” He seems impervious to outside trauma. Yet he speaks of a lost love, a younger girl called Doris, and we know that to prepare for the role, Anderson showed Phoenix the 1946 John Huston documentary Let There Be Light, about veterans suffering nervous conditions. Is Freddie damaged by war, or was he always thus? We don’t see anything of his life before his service and cannot say.
Anderson has also said he was drawn to creating this story because religious movements tend to spring up in the years following conflicts. And yet it’s not the story of Freddie coming under the spell of a cult. Dodd tries to ingratiate himself, play the role of healer: “You’re the bravest boy I’ve ever met,” he tells Freddie. “Somewhere, we’ve met before.” He invites Freddie to his daughter’s wedding, hand on his shoulder, telling him, “Your memory’s not invited.” But does Freddie care if his memory’s not invited? When Dodd engages him in a ‘processing’ session, he asks, “Do your past failures bother you?” The answer: “No.” He repeats, “Do your past failures bother you?” He repeats: “No.” Later, “Are you a liar?” “Yes.”
And yet, Freddie is loyal to Dodd. He follows him around like a puppy. He takes on the role of henchman – unasked. “Man is not an animal,” contends the ‘master’ of ‘The Cause,’ who nevertheless remains fascinated by Freddie, who he explicitly refers to as a “silly animal” who has “strayed from the proper path.” Dodd sticks with Freddie, determined against all evidence that he can break through the wall of instinctive behaviour and civilise this beast. Why are they so fascinated by each other? Why do they make such efforts for one another?
The obvious answer is that these opposing forces need each other. And that we hunger for what need but cannot have: Freddie is detritus in the wider world, while Dodd has the power to create his own universe; Freddie’s outer childishness embodies the animal instinct that Dodd says should be elevated, but is actually suppressed within his own civilised surface. Dodd speechifies, sings, lectures, but on the rare occasions he’s challenged about his teachings and belief systems, he explodes incoherently: “PIG FUCK!”
And yet this explanation isn’t satisfactory. While these characters are obviously symbolic, the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman are specific, and human.
The photography, by Mihai Mălaimare, frames them in haunting, Kubrickian rhythms through long, slow, complex takes. It tracks along with Freddie, who is almost always moving, jerking, mysteriously either running away from something or impulsively burrowing his way through the world. It slowly zooms into Dodd, who puffs up his chest and stands on ceremony. Its brightness and colour contrasts with its lurking eye – we get a picture-postcard 50s Americana, but with a sense of existential unease. This while Jonny Greenwood’s score thrums insistently like a prisoner banging on bars. And while Anderson keeps returning to a peculiar image: The foaming blue-green sea beneath Freddie’s naval vessel, which like the movie is beautiful, vast, deep and unknowable.
On Blu-ray the film looks stunning – it retains the same colours I saw in the 70mm print, with superb detail, and only in one late scene set in a darkened cinema did I notice any strobing in the contours. The disc’s special features slyly provide us with detail around the edges of the story but no more explanations. We don’t get a director’s commentary, though Anderson has done them before, nor do we even get interviews from the cast and crew. There’s a hypnotic montage of deleted scenes and outtakes, which provides some information on why Dodd’s son-in-law Clark thinks “Freddie is not as committed to The Cause as The Cause is committed to him,” but which mainly plays like a haunting 20-minute digest of what we’ve already seen. There is some making-of footage, from which my main takeaway was marvelling at the 396-foot track the crew laid down to capture the shot in which Phoenix first approaches Hoffman’s yacht. There is also a new hi-def scan of the Academy Film Archive’s print of the aforementioned Let There Be Light. Watching it, I noticed that the veterans in the film were shaken yet crisply articulate, philosophical and aware – completely unlike Phoenix’s performance. The more you learn about The Master, the more your hand closes on air, and the vast ocean rages on.
In the mad rush to hyperbolise the film, the most notoriously ludicrous soundbite came from The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, who said it could “cause the lame to walk and the blind to see.” There’s an eerie parallel with the Dodd character, who is criticised for claiming that The Cause can help cure forms of leukaemia. And so I wonder if at some level The Master is actually Paul Thomas Anderson being a cult leader and playing a joke on the audience – maybe, like Dodd, he’s “making this shit up as he goes along,” and happily watching mainstream viewers ignore or reject his work, while the learned theorise hungrily on what wilfully isn’t there.
I’m not even sure if The Master lives up to one of Anderson’s own tests. In 1998 he talked about seeing a terrible presentation of Boogie Nights, and asked, “If I can’t enjoy this bad Fuji print… have I done my job? The story should be able to come off.” I’m grateful to The Master for being spellbinding, intelligent and mysterious, as well as using traditional film stock so skilfully within an entertainment landscape that gives cheaper, more obvious thrills with each passing year and moves inexorably towards digitisation. But would The Master cast the same hypnotic spell if I hadn’t seen it looking so technically beautiful? The vast, secretive ocean rages on.