Considering “The Master,” Part 2: What Was That?

My very-soon-to-be-wife turned toward me after “The Master” ended. The theater was still dark and I was smiling huge. She’d hated it. HATED! She said she tried to fall asleep at one point. She had thought about walking out. “It wasn’t about anything,” she said. “It was one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a long time.”

Uh, wrong. But it did confuse some critics, even when they liked the film. A quick perusal of the RottenTomatoes.com page for “The Master” produces the following pull-out quotes: “Confounding as it is magnificent.” “The lights go down, they come up 137 minutes later, and you’re left to ask yourself: What on earth did I just see?” “I’m not sure I grasp it.” “I left the theater not entirely sure what The Master was about.” “…defies understand.”

Lord Roger Ebert even panned this great flick, writing “‘The Master’ is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”

My most favorite of several favorite scenes in “The Master” takes place in jail. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) gets thrown into a cell beside Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and flips the hell out. Quell smashes everything around him – his toilet is turned into shards. Dodd, the leader of his own religious movement, stays cool as Quell screams at him, then says the reason Quell fears imprisonment is that his spirit was captured by an evil force centuries ago and implanted with fear.

His response to animal aggression is to spew total nonsense. There’s meaning there.

And what does Dodd do to end this incredible scene? Turns toward his unbroken toilet and takes a big piss. A core tenant of Dodd’s movement (The Cause) is that “Man is not an animal. We are not part of the animal kingdom.” His followers listen to recordings of him saying that over and over. These two crazy men, though, in this one glorious scene, are contradicting that notion in completely difference ways.

Or how about another favorite scene, in which Dodd is wowing everyone at a party with what he calls “dehypnotization.” He manipulates an old woman with her eyes closed into picturing a man wearing armor, then tells the woman she remembering a past life.

A very calm, but stern, man starts saying “Excuse me,” repeatedly, until he has Dodd’s attention. He wants to know how Dodd can claim that accessing past lives can cure leukemia. That would seem a fair question. Or how about this: How can you say our spirits are trillions of years old when science tells us the universe’s age is measured in billions of years? “Good science, by definition, requires more than one opinion,” the calm but stern man says, then implies Dodd is leading a cult.

Dodd claims to care about science. When we first meet him, he says he’s “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher.” Yet when he is told good science requires other opinions, he becomes ferocious, badgering the man loudly about how afraid he must be. Dodd yells, in front of a rapt audience, “If you already know the answers to your questions then why are you asking PIG FUCK!?”

Dodd’s wife tells him in bed that night that “The only way to defend ourselves is to attack.” Quell goes to the calm-but-stern man’s room at 3 a..m and beats him up.

So in the face of legitimate questions, this religious leader’s response is fury. He’s a victim under attack. His followers actually strike out for him. There’s meaning in that, too.

This stuff doesn’t get explicitly spelled out, because if everything were on-the-nose the characters wouldn’t have room to grow and surprise us. Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s last movie, “There Will Be Blood,” was similarly loaded with deep meaning beneath the actions of complicated characters. Daniel Plainview was an oil man who worshiped hard work and money, but whose life lacked joy. He seethed with hatred for Eli Sunday, a preacher espousing the righteousness of his church while hounding Plainview for a handout. The meaning behind that relationship was profound, but it wasn’t obvious.

There’s is power in the ambiguity of “The Master.” Anderson’s characters are complicated people with big lives, and they are crazy. Humanity mixes with darkness in these films. The actors (Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for playing Plainview, and even Tom Cruise has been Oscar nominated for an Anderson flick) give the performances of their careers in his films because the people they play aren’t types, and because they have such rich, interesting things to do.

When Freddie Quell gets back from World War II, he starts taking department-store photographs of generic people whose hair and faces are so shiny they look fake. A beautiful woman’s voice sings over these scenes “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Then Quell, unprovoked, tries to assault one of the men he’s photographing. The point there may not be obvious, but it is really fascinating.

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2 thoughts on “Considering “The Master,” Part 2: What Was That?

  1. Has your fiance liked other Paul Thomas Anderson films? I’ve find PTA to be more of a man’s director. While I appreciate elements of his work, I don’t connect with his work. My husband has a very different take on PTA’s work and therefore can much more invested in breaking down his films.

  2. She liked “Boogie Nights” and claims to have liked “There Will Be Blood,” though she doesn’t want to watch it again with me. Everyone likes “Boogie Nights,” right?

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