Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix
Showing at the Garden Theater
$10 general, $7.50 for students
One could be forgiven for inferring from The Master’s opening scene – a static, gliding shot of pelagic sapphire bubbling up fine foam in the wake of some unseen vessel – that the title of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film was a reference to Henley’s famous “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul”. For if there are any true masters of anything, the captains of the water must surely take first honour: they must master the elements, and navigation; they must master their crews; and they must master themselves.
Indeed, some of the first shots are of a ship. But our first acquaintance is with no captain Ahab. Instead, it is with a lost Ishmael played by Joaquin Phoenix. This is Freddie Quell, a Navy man just finishing his tour of duty in the Second World War. Our first encounters with Freddie are, to say the least, disquieting: dialogue is scant, sound is eerie, the camera is too close. We see him having some off-time on a beach, together with his fellows in the Navy. He plucks some coconuts. Makes sand-figures with his friends. Then tries to copulate with a sand-woman (admittedly, a rather voluptuous one) while being watched with inert fascination by those friends. Then openly masturbates into the waves (in a way that isn’t disconcerting at all). Part Lord of the Flies, part Rum Diaries; probably another part Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes.
This turns out to be representative of only one of Freddie’s two essential manias, the other being alcoholism (the man drinks rocket fuel and bread-filtered paint thinner, among other things). After preliminary attempts to, for lack of a better term, process Freddie’s maladies –which the film intimates would today be diagnosed as PTSD (though naturally at the time this was only vaguely understood as battle fatigue) – the authorities turn him out onto society and advise soberly that “upon [his] shoulders”, and upon the shoulders of men like him, “rests the responsibility of a post-war world.”
Unwittingly highlighting the absurdity of the age, this advice then continues: “you can start a business: filling station, grocery, or hardware store. Get a few acres of land and raise some chickens. “ This is utterly impossible for Freddie or for men like him. After an unfortunate but understandable incident with alcohol poisoning on a Californian cabbage farm, Freddie finds himself in a San Franciscan dock, looking for a place to be.
And it is here that Freddie finds the Captain Ahab to his drunkard Ishmael: Lancaster Dodd, a self-professed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher.” Though perhaps more than these things or than a hunter of whales, Dodd is more accurately described as a Fisher of Men.
To wit, he is most often referred to as Master. He leads a group (or cult, if you will) known as The Cause, promising his followers deeper knowledge of themselves and their pasts, and of course, transcendence of the faults they’ll thus come to know. His oracular pronouncements, mystical but somehow grounded, are received with awe, and recorded like gospel. Freddie stows away on Dodd’s yacht as it sets sail to New York, and wakes up the next day, with a place in Dodd’s extended family.
Anderson makes an intriguing move here emblematic of the film’s broader goal of studying the internal dynamics of a cult – to analyze not only Fishers of Men or the men they fish, but also the act of fishing. For we only see Freddie slip onto the ship in the evening, and wake up on it in the morning; already acquainted to Lancaster Dodd, already, for all intents and purposes, with a place in the Cause. Overnight, quite literally, and without much resistance to the current, Freddie is swept into a new life. There is an unexpected but ineluctable power to the Cause. It is a movement as suddenly significant in The Master as Mormonism was in antebellum America or Scientology in the postwar West.
Indeed, The Master has been much hyped as an exposé of the beginnings of the Church of Scientology and the character who founded it, L. Ron Hubbard. No explicit reference is made to Scientology, although several features of its theology (if one deigns to call it such) are recognizable in Dodd’s espousals. Notably, the ideas that humans are constantly re-incarnated spiritual life-forms who were brought to the earth by extraterrestrials trillions (not billions, as would be in line with current estimates of the earth’s age) of years ago, and that existence ought be managed through therapy of some kind toward “its innate state of perfect” (known to Tom Cruise as Operating Thetan, level VIII: The Truth Revealed).
But it seems to me that The Master, much like There Will Be Blood, is less exciting as an exercise in history than as an exercise in anthropology – that is, it speaks more to the internal dynamics of social groups than to particular institutions or individuals. In this vein, Freddie and Dodd serve complex illustrative roles in the film, embodying at different times different conceptions of group identity and function; forming part of a complex web of both internally- and externally-oriented conceptions of sociality. In the beginning, as we see Freddie cavorting on the beach with his Navy friends, they could rather be mistaken for the troupe of australopithecines remembered from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Group members observe, but do not judge; they pursue the Pleasure Principle, but principally as hedonists and peripherally as peers or playmates. But this is the intellectual foil to Dodd. “Man is not an animal,” he declares. “We are not a part of the Animal Kingdom. We sit far above that crown. Perched, as spirits. Not beasts.” Indeed, Dodd might come across as an existential hero. One of the main sources of tension in the film is his determination to admit Freddie fully into the Cause, to make him a healthy and productive member of the cult, despite the envious protestations put forth by his wife and family, and despite the signs his attempts will, in the end, fail. “I don’t think Freddie is as committed to the Cause as the Cause is to him,” Dodd’s faithful son-in-low advises. But Lancaster Dodd, M.O.C, PhD, MD, is a Nietzschean. His will is a Will to Power, a will as creative of an image for all men as for one. This isn’t to deny that Lancaster Dodd is, at bottom, an arrogant bastard; but he is at least an exemplary one. Like most leaders (which, I’ll submit, we Princetonians generally know, but seem too proper to acknowledge). As such, the Cause comes together over him. Processing sessions come to resemble group dissections, like replicas of Eakins’s Agnew Clinic; they are ritualistic affirmations of the group’s power over individual subjects, of their scientific endeavour toward apodeictic knowledge of both nature and the spirit, as well as of their need for a teacher, or perhaps a shaman.
Yet at moments, both characters break their moulds and temporarily flow into each other. At some point, after a period of separation, Freddie and Dodd greet like a pair of chimps by wrestling on a front lawn (to the bewilderment of several onlookers – and understandably so. Just imagine seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquim Phoenix frolicking in the grass as you walked past some suburban McMansion).
In the end, though, it still seems instinctual to go against that flow. Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd remain separate, distinct people, as well as distinct ideas of life. The Master is, I suppose, more of a flirtatious dip into the water than a full submersion. Dodd begins his relationship with Freddie with the disarmingly forthright prediction that he’ll be his “guinea-pig and his protégé.” And ends it dismissing him: “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know. You’d be the first person in the history of the world.” This doesn’t seem like a resolution. But that would be too solid. And that’s utterly impossible for either Freddie Quell or Lancaster Dodd – or for men like them.