© 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…”) (more…)