© 2015 by James Clark
True to form, Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay and production of The Master (2012) powers away in a foreground that seems all about personal gain and prestige while investing heavily in shadings which put to shame all semblances of Yankee sweat and know-how. But still we must touch upon this almost Wellesian melodrama from a unique perspective. This peculiarity derives from the narrative’s being suffused with the actions of a purveyor of what is purported to be unprecedented enlightenment. A filmmaker of such fare (and those further conveying the fare in the spirit of radical discovery) cannot but find that very daunting communicative singularities swirl up when such a cast of characters comes on board. It’s one thing to run circles around oil tycoons, cops and robbers, folk singers, show girls and the like. But a figure like this film’s Lancaster Dodd, a go-getter about reconfigurating sensibility and the cosmos for one and all, treads painfully close to dilemmas, if not imperilling, making monstrously complicated the very substance of a film like that and a commentary like this.
It’s never, to reiterate, such a problem when protagonists flounder in roles having no direct relation to the very fabric of the film project. Painter, William Turner’s foibles, in Mr. Turner, could never apply real heat to Mike Leigh’s procedures as a contemporary filmmaker. Robber Neil and cop Vince in Heat would, despite being closet metaphysicians, say nothing about Michael Mann’s métier (a subject for the near future). But when Dodd, with his prep-school good bones and patrician patina holding forth in an Upper East Side salon in the form of inducing a once-upon-a-time deb to pursue a reverie (“I think I was a man…”/ “Laughing is good…”), comes to be interrupted (in his homily about “spirit”) by another prep-school grad who declares, “Some of this sounds like hypnotism… I still find it difficult to see the proof with regard to past lives… You claim to be able to cure leukemia… This seems to be about the will of one man… a cult,” the skepticism also beams out to the argument-averse disclosures of the heart of Anderson’s project. The Ivy League voice of venerable rationality goes on, in his debating-team-rhetorical-points-leader form, “I’m sorry you’re not able to defend your ideas.” That’s trouble for Dodd (Dud?); but it’s also trouble for Anderson (and me; and anyone else who comprehends that, as all of alert reflection in art, science and design over the past hundred or so years has discovered, there are areas of disclosure that go far beyond classical intellection). And The Master is first and foremost about the exposure of far more sophisticated rebellion never being a hot ticket where big ticket classical training and capitalization (advantage) comprise a rock-solid cult. (For all his inchoate sense of a time ripe for change, the tenets of Lancaster’s vision [heard in one of his indoctrination labs] are as obsolete as the airplane the name of which he’s tagged with: “Every man back to his inherent state of perfect. Man is not an animal. We are far above that crowd. We are spirits. It is not only possible, it is easily achieved…”)
The other protagonist, Freddie Quell, seeks to quell the interloper who embarrassed Dodd, by stalking him to his flat and beating him up. He proudly tells Dodd, I don’t think you have to worry about Mr. John Moore giving you any more trouble.” You can infer from the scummy violence and the pathetic underestimation of the trouble posed by the John Moores of the world that Freddie, like Lancaster, is not a significant player in the truly epochal issues being pawed over during the running time of the narrative pertaining to Dodd’s presumptuous, illiterate entrepreneurship. On our first beholding them together, after Freddie has been discovered stowing away on Dodd’s river boat undertaking a wedding celebration for his daughter that will move from San Francisco to New York City by way of the Panama Canal, Dodd—for once, talking sense—avers to the drifter (who has hastily ended his job as a migrant vegetable picker in California due to poisoning a colleague when he used industrial fluids to cover the alcohol content of the moonshine he was addicted to), “You seem so familiar to me…You’re a scoundrel!” Soon the guest is in the boat’s engine room using paint thinner to treat his host to a special lift. Dodd expresses his fondness for the inspiring creation by gasping and shouting over and over, “Oh, God!” (On hearing of the transient’s assault upon the mainstream supporter, the would-be god blithely says, “Naughty boy! You’re a horrible young man! You’re acting like an animal, a terrible animal that eats his own feces!”)
But Freddie does have a serious side—or, rather, a serious highlight. The meeting of these two hugely sputtering sparkplugs takes place in the wake of a war (World War II). We see Freddie as an about-to-be honourably discharged sailor in the Pacific Theatre and we hear the masterful Commander-in-Chief, General Douglas MacArthur, declare, authoritatively, of course, “Let’s be grateful that peace is now restored to the world… The most terrible conflict in history is now ending for good.” The more nitty-gritty state of affairs, however, in which the whole narrative moves, is that war never ends. And that our two irregulars are far from first class soldiers. Freddie, in fact, as seen at the outset on a palm-blessed beach haven on the last days of those hostilities, gives evidence of having gone into shock in face of imminent death. Troopers have formed a circle to watch a brawl—a brawl between not one but three sets of contenders. However, such rancor and potential bloodshed fails to speak to our protagonist/recruit who shows a brash interest in sexuality divorced from nuance. He simulates sex with a buxom sand sculpture, and then we see him lying close to the tits of another fabrication shot from above to show its spray of palm-like, rather contrived art deco hair, undergoing some kind of tempest. With this scene, we’re shock-waved back to Raymond Barry—pugilist (in pointed contrast to the quasi-sumo wrestling on the beach); ladies man; deserter; someone prone to alcohol abuse; and bodyguard for the principal of a dubious concern. Freddie’s first civilian gig, giving him the opportunity to dress like a dance-band dandy, is to flatter those with newly-won carriage-trade tastes, particularly along lines of their being captured by his portrait photography (a mode of still-camera work significantly remote from that of the camera work of Stanley Kubrick at that time). (Barry having been, to round things out here, an avatar of distorting, delusory blarney.) Amidst the high-ceilings and sheen of the chateau-like emporium where he’s employed, his restless eye discovers an attractive saleslady (modelling a coat and informing shoppers that it’s theirs for $49.95)—as daring as she is majestic. The scene is sharply etched by a rendition of “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” by Ella Fitzgerald. The choreography has the woman (very aware of Freddie’s being attracted to her) venturing into the establishment’s dark room and becoming very quickly a party to an amorous encounter. In Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Lady Lyndon led Barry onto a darkened patio in hopes of expanding her already considerable assets as to good-will. She was far from successful, and yet she soldiered on. (Barry, on the other hand, shows himself to be a wimp. Just before Freddie’s discharge, a navy medic asks him, “What’s this about a crying episode?” The sailor explains, “I cried from nostalgia brought on by a letter from a girl…”) In contrast to Kubrick’s scene of seduction, measured and nearly sublime in being implicated in a similar rendezvous in the iconic film, Last Year at Marienbad, here we have a woman who partakes of a shot of Freddie’s latest (based on photo developing powder) and promptly strips (Ella warbling on the sound-track, “We think the same things at the same time…”) and a suitor who pokes her nipples as a moron might do. “Will I put my top down [to her bra]?” the horrific facsimile of nobility asks. “Wanna see?” the model entices. Then she reaches into interpretation with, “You’re really a very good girl… What else to you wanna see? These?” (We’re struck that the signature tune derives from a Fred and Ginger musical comedy [Follow the Fleet] one player of which, a sailor named Bilge, pursues a woman who isn’t entirely comfortable in his presence.) Unable to resist, later that afternoon, abusing a middle-aged man sitting for a portrait, he finds himself being routed the way Barry routed the rude Bullingdon. Then he’s headed for Dodd’s Love Boat, being told by the latter, “You’ve wandered from the proper path,” and then asked, “Would you care for some informal processing?” The guru finding Freddie a tough nut to crack, eventually ramps up the taming (but not before pointedly insisting in the first round that the scoundrel refrain from blinking) along lines of racing from the wall to the window (like a lab rat) and also being tested for patience in the face of insulting remarks. Impetuous Alex, from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, was put through similar paces. Thereby our regime of finding this film’s tuning becomes even more absorbed with the caution represented by careless supposition that true innovation is “easily achievable.”
Here we might as well make one more observation concerning past endeavors bearing upon th narrative of The Master. Under fire from the Ivy League rationalist—“I’m sorry you’re unwilling to defend your beliefs in a rational way… I’m afraid that some poor soul with leukaemia…”—Dodd, struggling to stay in the district’s register, pouts, “No, this isn’t a discussion. It’s a grilling… If you already know the answer, then why do you ask, Pig Fuck?” That not inconsiderable slip leaves several genteel ladies taken aback. And where have we seen another contretemps in that vein? A violent outburst against a perverse figure, functioning as a form of Inquisition (to be more specific a child spoiling a concert in an Upper East Side mansion) pretending to maintain a past life happens in Jonathan Glazer’s Kubrick-like film from 2004, Birth (starring Kubrick’s last leading lady, Nicole Kidman). But why here? The reprise of that endeavor traces to The Master’s central and timeless care for courage, without which comprehensive mastery does not happen.
Dodd’s dodge about hypnotically plunging back in time to precursor spirits communing with “state of perfect,” meaning, first and foremost, immortal, gives us a far more absorbing sense of mastery than any cosmological schemata could provide, namely, that mastery, so varied and widespread, of beating a retreat while seeming to be charging ahead. Quick to let others know, “You’ve wandered from the proper path,” a go-getter like Dodd would have acquired advanced skills in framing his whistling in the dark with polished rhetoric and loads of pseudo-scientific technique. But that is not to say that the retreat could not be couched in genuine excitement about an era of breathtaking change. The Master, far more than a skewering of warriors who are in far over their head, is a most fascinating slice of those cross-purposes making a peculiar nightmare of interpersonal life in the 21st century. This film, for all its farcical twists and turns, is not without a strain of quite touching poignancy with respect to aiming for heights of incisiveness. The collapse of Lancaster’s foray into blue-chip Manhattan is so embarrassing that it strikes with more force than most bloody massacres. The man who calls himself “commander” of a ship named “Alethia” (aka, Aletheia, a term not simply implicated in a sense of truth as wresting transparency from out of a plunge to oblivion or sleep, but especially implicated in the brilliant and self-defeating Denken of contemporary philosopher, Martin Heidegger) comes ashore (like General MacArthur) at the treacherous, booby-trapped exotic island only to be routed by not only pesky natives but one of his own troops, the undisciplined Freddie. Dodd’s choice of cocktail, an “Old Fashioned,” could be a case of walking right into enemy sights; or a case of a patrician starting off on the right foot. The theatre of war commences with his theatre about the woman willing to be entranced reporting her dream of being a man (leadership along lines of blue-chip aletheia). Then there is the ambush upon the training centre. “’Scuse me…’Scuse me… Some of this sounds like hypnosis. Is it?” [Mr. Moore in the register of Chief of Police raiding a speakeasy]. The Commander doesn’t help himself very much by insisting (as if ditching his drink in a potted plant) that he’s carrying out “de-hypnotization.” After politely and modestly referring to his missing the proof about past lives, Moore can’t refrain from scoffing about Dodd’s claim to be dealing with sensibility “trillions of years ago.” “Trillions? Earth is not understood to be more than a few billion years old…” Still not fully aware that his ammo is ill-chosen, the Commander declares (the nuances and agility of the patter with the lady he hypnotized now absent), “Even the smartest of scientists can be fooled.” Just like that, he’s winged by the priorities of the Old Fashioneds he claims to cherish. “Good science, by definition, allows more than one opinion” [a conclave of brains and an abstract illumination]. Lancaster counters [again naively] that his researches are on the way to eliminating poverty, war and therefore the atomic threat. This elicits from the well-entrenched enemy smug laughter. The Master then asks if the Mr. Moore would like to sample the hypnosis being decried. This allows his adversary, so adept at fudging his virulent hostility, to demonstrate by body language along his sense of the simplism being promoted. That does not deter the exposed fanatic from asking, “What scares you so much about travelling into the past? Are you afraid we might discover that our past has been reshapen, perverted and perhaps what we think we know is false information?” The very intensity of such shrill claims gives the consummate organization man (looking and acting a bit like Cary Grant to the rather fluttery hypnosis subject’s being his mother in North by Northwest) the chance to be taken at his word in saying, “I belong to no club.” In the wake of the subsequent Pig Fuck epithet, Dodd tries to gain converts by declaring, “We are not helpless and we are not afraid of the dark…” Then Freddie, having followed all this with adolescent chagrin (He had attempted to steal a bibelot but it wouldn’t fit into his jacket) throws an ordoeuvre at the smartass, which drags the Commander into further disfavour and further self-hate. “Freddie, stop!” This is not the time…Stop!” [The clique including Cary Grant would love that!] Cut to the routed Marines at a hotel room—Lancaster, at a desk removed from the others, miserably plunged into an essay in hopes of turning things around; and his wife Peggy addressing the troops, “We only defend ourselves through attack. If we don’t do that, we will lose every battle…” Dodd off to a humiliating opening night on the Great White Way.
When next we see him, his forces are bivouacked at a mansion on Philadelphia’s Main Line. The new angel is played by Laura Dern, a radioactive emission allowing Freddie to more closely resemble Blue Velvet’s Frank and to plunge Dodd even farther out of the running. The latter does lead with a less than cool rendition of “I’ll Go No More a Roving,” which, just barely rising to the nude scene of Laura’s white picket fence yard in the earlier film, has all the faithful females dancing around in the nude to that seemingly deranged excuse for cogent sensual verve. Then Dodd is arrested on charges of embezzlement by a disgruntled former loyalist and Freddie goes nuts (his basic state being infantile, self-sparing, self-evading hysteria). Lancaster pleads, “Freddy, calm down!” as his associate attempts in complete futility to overpower the Philly cops. (During this turmoil the neo-classically inspired, white appointments of Laura’s mansion sink in.) They end up in adjacent cells, Freddie smashing his head on the bunk bed and shattering the toilet while his would-be master calmly maintains that the henchman is unable to relax in jail because he has a distant, wild animal’s distaste for enclosure. “This is not you…”/ “Shut the fuck up!” Soon the spokesman for serenity and carefree joy is addressing his friend, “You’re a fucking loser… Who likes you except me? You’re a fucking drunk and I’m done with you!” Whereas the actions of Lady Lyndon demonstrate that a truly effective coterie can assist taking to heart that some people need to be written off, Dodd (on being bailed out and freed from fines by Laura’s otherwise hands-off presence) hears from his wife and others the easily refuted rumblings that Freddie is a spy looking to steal and sell the manuscript of the Master’s imminent second book. Whereas the Lady of note was loathe to give up on crude monstrosities due to a gambling spirit aware that some fucking losers can be useful within a wide pyrotechnic (polyphonic), Dodd takes his chances from out of a hide-bound classical humanitarianism that would have pleased the precious New York skeptic: “… if we are not helping him, then it is we who have failed.”
In tandem with putting Freddie through treatments going nowhere, there is the added folly and pathos of his book launch (the second), in conjunction with “The First Universal Congress of the Cause,” Laura’s fortune being funnelled as well to that rebel hotbed-locale, Phoenix (chosen, no doubt, for its irresistibly inspiring name; but also for its nostalgic connection). After a precious excavation of the mystically buried unpublished early work in the Arizona desert by the odd couple (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre chipping in its two-cents-worth of losers with less touching energies than those of Lancaster), it’s on to the sterile, under populated hall where Dodd glumly peers out at the high-school-recital-like desert and then sits backstage in darkness, showing every sign of having fallen short. He’s given his sophomore moment the same kind of disastrously un-cool name as his “A Rovin” schtick, namely, Split Salver, mooting a dividedness in the power-structure he has been spending long nights fussing over. On stage he’s as boffo as a used-car salesman. “Book Two is about Man. And here we have some answers… No more secrets! The source of all creation is you! The secret is laughter!” (Cut to Freddie, dazed and confused. He’s backstage with a reporter. “What do you think?” the selective hit man asks. “I think it stinks,” the critic opines. “He could have covered it in three pages…” Freddy of course beats him up, Barry’s answer. But also, since we’re confronted with pulling the trigger on rabid dogs, Charles Manson’s answer on a benign day. (Actor, Joaquin Phoenix, bearing some disconcerting resemblance; and pressed into another, more upbeat take on the matter in the subsequent Inherent Vice.) The post-launch dance—much less spirited than the wedding festivity near the outset—includes Laura coming up to her charity and, though prefacing her remarks with, “I think it’s wonderful,” admitting to not being able to follow why the “time hole” has been eclipsed. (In fact the creative spotlight on human sensibility spells curtains for that nostalgia trip [where Freddie was a bit like him]). Under pressure from his generous sponsor, he angrily cuts her off—“We are accommodating a wider range… What do you want?!” (The supplement to Lynch’s Inland Empire  presents the fledgling quantum theorist’s barking at her, not that unlike the malaise of Lancaster.) The pain on both aspirants’ faces is the high, hard shot of gratification (more playable than Freddie’s plonk) which this otherwise almost sickening passage of feebleness dishes out.
Freddie runs off with the motorcycle which Dodd had added to his probe of dynamics. He resurfaces back in Lynn, Massachusetts (Lady Lyndon not giving him any breaks) and finds that the nostalgic wartime letter writer, Doris, has married and now carries the moniker, Doris Day (a magnet of sorts to a maggot like Manson; but also just a girl who got away due to his lacking any taste for concentration). Asleep one weekday afternoon in a movie theatre showing a children’s cartoon, he gets a phone call from Dodd, having smooth-talked someone in Britain to pick up where Laura left off. The still-commanding commander tells the little rascal, “I miss you… Bring some Kools… no Kools in England…” And we soon get to corroborate that, despite their being far from strapped for funds, the principals of the Cause (a notion with a very flabby dimension and a very muscular dimension) are now confined to an institution far from city and 21st century life; and very far from cool. From the reception area where he waits for Dodd, Freddie watches going by a stream of adolescents in close to religious or military garb. (You have to suppose that militant Peggy is effectively calling the shots now.) Ushered to a huge and dazzling Arts and Crafts/McIntosh-inspired office, Freddie is immediately under the gun to submit to “the proper path.” But the one doing the commanding now is Peggy. “You look sick, Freddie… You don’t look healthy… You can’t take this life straight, can you? (That remark seems redolent of retrenchment from the polyphonic musings which led to the rupture with Laura and probably quite a rupture with pit bull Peggy who’d much rather rule than make sense. “This is pointless,” she spits, all the while her semi-renowned husband not daring to cross her. “He isn’t interested in getting better!” Freddie quips, “She’s softened up.” Realizing that the Kools currier would never be useful to the dogmatism now in vogue, Dodd, in the course of becoming increasingly bored with his mission, is moved to trace for both of them a very different course of action. “Could you figure a way to live without serving a master, let us know. Maybe you’d be the first person in the history of the world…” He then gives his little friend a quirky homage to the course of true freedom, while evincing that he has been sadly emasculated in the course of tackling a battle he lacks the guts and energy to stage effectively. “I went back… We were working together. We were members of the pigeon post during the 4 ½ month siege of Paris [in 1870; Peggy the Prussian peeking through]. We delivered mail and secret messages… If you leave here, I don’t ever want to see you again… Or you can stay” [the whole point of his getting in touch after that hiatus]. In the course of restoring the time hole that passes for status quo out there in the ancient woods, Lancaster launches into one of those musical numbers that never fail to be a creepy embarrassment, but nevertheless a credit of sorts to his reach that falls so miserably short of his grasp. He solemnly serenades the unemployable photographer (Freddie moots serving them as a photo-documentarian. “We don’t take pictures,” the reluctant Puritan tells him.) with the less than compelling fantasy, “Slow Boat to China”: “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China, all to myself alone…” On top of that tone-deaf march he pulls himself together to issue this delusory stagger into self-importance. “If we meet again in the next life you will be my sworn enemy and I’ll show you no mercy.”
A coda commences with tears coming to Freddie’s eyes in realizing—as once mentioned by Dodd—that the singer is indeed the only one he’s ever met who cares for him. Freddie, then, not what you could call homeward bound, picks up a woman in a pub just beyond the cult’s precincts; and in the course of their amours—Freddie seldom having roused himself to do anything else—he adopts phraseology of Dodd’s “processing”—originally meant to usher in something big—and woozily crunches it down to something flamingly trite, collateral wisps notwithstanding. “You blinked! Is this a normal life?” [“I’m hoping,” she says with a big smile.]…”You are the bravest woman in the world…” The last we see of him is within a reverie about cozying up to the sand queen during a war he wouldn’t countenance.
During his medical processing at the end of a military war, a counsellor gives Freddy and his similarly disturbed mates a pep talk: “You men are blessed with the rejuvenating power of youth. The responsibilities of peacetime must now be considered… You can start a business… a filling station… a grocery store… go back to school… raise chickens…” Freddie does not even seem to be among the listeners. That, too, adds to the already daunting weight that will perhaps crush, certainly diminish, one in the absence of being a master.