How Else Do You Get Someplace? Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Over the course of the past 15 years Paul Thomas Anderson has slowly carved out a reputation as one of America’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Merging the cinematically informed approach to filmmaking employed by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino albeit with a more international leaning, Anderson has crafted a body of work that is contextually the equal of very few, with his There Will Be Blood named the Hope Lies Film Of The Decade in 2010. The Master revolves around a pair of men that find themselves drawn together in a United States Of America damaged by the throes of the Second World War. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a drifter, a former soldier turned lost soul, who, after chancing upon the boat of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the head of a religious/spiritual belief organisation called The Cause, becomes caught up with the group and attempts to turn his life around. As with most of Anderson’s work, a descriptive synopsis doesn’t really work with The Master, with plot light in relation to the mood of the picture.  

Much has been made in the speculative media as to the relationship between The Master and the Church of Scientology. Anderson’s film is not so much a scathing attack on Scientology, as it is an examination of the great American trend for groups that flicker in to existence to cater for the hopes and dreams of a wanting people (I). While many deemed that by approaching subject as potentially controversial as Scientology to be a provocative move, ultimately the film makes for an exploration that isn’t befitting of a snappy headline, and is far more complex a commentary. While the acts taking place on screen (the tests and exercises) are clearly heavily informed by Scientology from a literal perspective, Anderson proves surprisingly fleeting when passing judgment. He’s not interested in telling the world what he thinks, and instead leaves it in a position for the audience to come to their own conclusions.

Somewhat paradoxically, Anderson’s work has always carried an edge that verges on the ecclesiastical, be it in the rise and fall of the protagonists of There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights or Sydney, or the unusual act and tales of destiny in Magnolia, and The Master follows in a similar vein. A cosmic opera of sorts, with the inevitability of tragedy always on the horizon, the film’s central theological thesis revolves the volatile relationship between the films dual protagonists. There’s an inevitability of the infinite between the pair, the two destined to be “sworn enemies” if not best friends. There’s a tragic nature to this insistence (words which stem from the mouth of one of the pair) that stretches far beyond the picture in itself, with the relationship ground in the kind of mythology that one would find in any and all manner of culture, from the biblical through to myths and legends, and even the comic-book (one couldn’t help but recall the relationship between Batman and The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as Hoffman’s Dodd makes his ultimate declaration of observation to Quinn). That the penultimate image we see on-screen involves Quinn involved in an intimate embrace with a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Dodd makes for a striking and definitive detail.

The breadth of the performance lexicon is on full display here. In Philip Seymour Hoffman we have the showy, overt performances that one would ordinarily associate with the prestige picture, while in Phoenix we have an unsettling, raw turn. Without aiming to dwell too much on the celebrity nature of the business, one cannot help but feel as though Joaquin Phoenix’s heavily publicised hiatus from the film industry acts as a necessary element of his performance here in The Master. His return is all the more effective as a result of his self-administered break from the screen. Phoenix slinks around the screen in an ill-fitting suit, informing his environment completely. The narrative flows from Quell’s perspective, with Anderson presenting his state of mind in as affecting a manner as it is simplistic. The director is concerned with presenting Quell, as opposed to placing the audience within him, and hinting at rather than stating. In a similar use of technique over exposition, it’s telling that we never once see Hoffman’s Dodd alone.

Jonny Greenwood’s score is an abrasive masterpiece of accompaniment, with Greenwood, Anderson’s collaborator on the score for There Will Be Blood, combining lush Hollywood strings with his penchant for plucky, abstract breakdown. The diegetic sound is as equally off-kilter, with the destructive nature of the on-screen figures personified by a habitual shouting. A slow rising aggressiveness plays as an undercurrent to the whole film, with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is one built around bursts and snaps of violence, with his numerous breakdowns punctuating the piece. The poeticism of this particular premise comes to a head with an incarceration sequence, which sees Quell joined in his destructiveness by Dodd. The two merge, with Quell adopting Dodd’s own wiliness and Dodd taking hold of the physical, ala Quell. A sense of parallelism is recurrent too, with the same image bookending the film, and similarities within the act of interrogation drawn from multiple scenarios of such investigation. In his adoption of 70mm to hold his work Anderson not only widens the canvas considerably, but also makes a statement in a cinematic age defined by a dwindling reliance on celluloid.

To complement this traditional approach to filmmaking Anderson has recreated the 1950’s setting of The Master to a T. His department store, with it’s lavish set design brings to mind King Vidor, and The Crowd, and while the events of the film take place in the 1950’s temporally it could be anywhere of a post-war setting (there are obvious analogies to the time of now, although one must suspect that a defence of the affected is not Anderson’s primary aim here). As Quell takes photographs (his post-war profession) Anderson pauses the film in keeping with the nature of the captured still, while an ambitious long-take charting the complete scope of the department store recalls the greatest shots of Anderson’s career. It’s significant that The Master is not the work of Anderson’s usual lens-man though, with the aesthetic engineer here Mihai Malaimare Jr. (and not Robert Elswit), a Director Of Photography best known for his work with Francis Ford Coppola. This reassigning of the post of cinematographer is endemic of a shift across the board for Anderson with this picture. Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty cut the film, and while Jones worked on the edit of Punch-Drunk Love, the pair replace PTA’s regular editor Dylan Tichenor, while the film is financially backed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, an independent financier as opposed to a major, as per Anderson’s previous films.

The Film Noir, with it’s approach seen as a reaction to the Second World War makes for one of the great influences on The Master. It’s most in keeping with the kind of films that riff on the Noir without focusing on the subject matter that a Noir might usually focus upon, with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend and its tale of an alcoholic driven to the edge being maintaining the visual identity of the movement without necessarily following the same kind of narrative the kind of film that The Master follows in the shadow of, while the work of Elia Kazan, and especially A Face In The Crowd with it’s sprawling examination of Americana from the perspective of a lone individual also comes to mind. Whilst from an earlier period than the Film Noir, similarities to Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang are abound, and while the Anderson film is lacking in the Twilight Zone-esque finale of LeRoy’s film, the basic message remains the same: the past will catch up with you, whether or not you are deserving of the consequences. Tonally Anderson blends Nicholas Ray with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with the aforementioned underside of Americana being presented through an array of experimental techniques (the long shot, the abstract, the fisheye lens). Repitition and the perceived feeling of time folding in on itself guides the middle section of the film, ensuring a tone that is somewhat different from the rest of Anderson’s body of work.

Which ultimately ties in to our own ultimate reading of the film.

The Master is a neat subversion of the prestige picture: it features not one, but two grandstanding, demanding performances seemingly designed to split votes. Hidden underneath the lavishness that one might expect of a War Horse or a Ron Howard film there is an aggressive and difficult work. Freddie Quell is to Forrest Gump what Barry Egan was to Happy Gilmore, a strict deconstruction of the prestige performance, with The Master ultimately playing as a profound form of anti-oscar bait.

The dual-leads also fall in to line with the earlier theory centering on the protagonists as cultural beacons in keeping with the ages. In the mainstream cinema of 2012 there is no greater cultural signifier than the superhero movie, and Anderson’s film actually riffs on those films too.

Bear with us on this one.

In Phoenix’s Quell we have a figure defined by a great physical strength (he is animalistic and violent, and pushes his body to its limits, answering urges without questioning himself or the world that contains him), while Hoffman’s Dodd is one “blessed” with the ability of a great mental strength (or, at the very least, the ability to create the illusion thereof). The film’s great MacGuffin is one centered around an expected redemption for Quell, which, while never actually forthcoming, is anticipated of any picture that presents a tale told in this mold.

As with all of his pictures Anderson seeks answers in the cinema. While not exactly the moving image, Quell’s immediate salvation is sought in the captured image as a photographer, while he and a fellow member of The Cause hawk their wares outside of the cinema. The titular character (who is almost always referred to as ‘Master’) has grand ambitions that are seemingly inspired by, and in turn reflect the scale and scope of the Silver Screen (is it not impossible to see his quest to the desert for his unpublished work and not think of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed?). His clever Oz-esque evasiveness is a mask not unlike the one that might elsewhere be referred to as that all-important “movie magic”, with his confident exterior a neat and concise analogy for the American picture itself.

(I) Kent Jones explores this idea more fully in Film Comment Vol. 48, Num. 5. That piece is available online here.


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