Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Master: Sons and Lovers

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's first feature, Hard Eight (1996), opens with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) buying the down-and-out John (John C. Reilly) a cup of coffee, giving him a cigarette, and offering "to teach [him] something."  But as Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) points out later, "Bottom line, Sydney: no matter how hard you try, you're not his father."

In The Master, PTA elaborates on this theme, which he also explored in Boogie Nights (1997) via the characters played by Burt Reynolds (porn film producer/director) and Mark Wahlberg (waiter turned porn star).  In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, the Navy PTSD victim who, post war, is self-medicating with all manner of torpedo juice, and whom Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the self-proclaimed "commander" of a ship he's merely borrowed, takes under his wing.  (In Hard Eight, John refers to Sydney as his "captain.")  Quell goes from battleship to cruise ship (its name is Alethia, which in Greek means "truth"); Dodd is seduced by Quell's offer of minty Kool cigarettes and his potent home brew.  And of course Dodd takes a paternal interest in Quell, seeing him as perhaps the perfect trauma subject for Dodd's processing cure known as The Cause.  (Warning:  spoilers ahead.)

The interest is more than paternal and scientific on Dodd's part, and his wife, played by Amy Adams, recognizes this and warns him as she manipulatively jerks him off.  It's interesting that she's pregnant but that their relationship is sexless in the film.  There's a scene in which Dodd is encouraging a toddler on her tricycle, and he walks down the porch steps, towards her we presume, then veers to an initially offscreen Quell, grabbing him and wrestling him affectionately to the ground, inadvertantly ripping open one of Quell's pant legs.  It's a clothed version of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling in Women in Love.  In one of Hoffman's most poignant scenes, he sings to Quell, "I'd like to get you/On a slow boat to China/All to myself alone...."  Theirs is, in essence, a love story.

But the film is even more complex and elemental than its father-son and homoerotic aspects.  Quell and Dodd are, like Pacino and DeNiro in Heat, two sides of the same coin.  They are id and ego, so clearly delineated in the scene of them in side-by-side jail cells.  Quell rages out of control, kicking the porcelain toilet to shards, while Dodd stands calmly holding his head--until both men merge in a litany of fuck yous (a parallel to the fuck you telephone rant between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love).  Dodd is the one character in the film who can quell Quell, but only temporarily:  Dodd and his processing--even when Dodd shifts his method from desensitization of traumatic memories to imagination (forcing Quell back and forth between a window and a wall in an interminably painful "application")--ultimately can't cure Quell.  And it isn't sex with a woman that satisfies Quell (much as he fantasizes it will)--he's essentially impotent with every woman he encounters--young Doris, the department store model, the Engish girl he picks up in a pub--even the sand woman at the outset, whom he ends up raping with his fingers.  Quell is soothed only by attachment, to Dodd and by embracing this archetypal mother he has sculpted out of sand--the last image of the film, reprised from the beginning.

The film is not a conventionally satisfying one despite its powerful imagery and utterly remarkable performances by Phoenix and Hoffman.  PTA confounds our expectations throughout.  A perfect example is the motorcycling scene in the desert.  Dodd, dressed like Quell's twin in cuffed jeans, proposes a game that's shot as though it will end in a tragic accident for at least one of them.  But it doesn't.  Instead it echoes the scene in the first act in which Quell runs aimlessly through the fields to escape the migrant workers who've accused him of poisoning one of the workers with his alcoholic concoction.  The motorcycle scene also suggests the parallels between the two characters--they are both lost, unintegrated men on quests that they are making up as they go, as Dodd's son (Jesse Plemons)  posits about his father's method.

I refer to the first act, but it strikes me that this film doesn't really have a conventional three-act structure.  It's more like life.  There's no catharsis, no satisfaction to be had by its characters, only the wake of the deep blue sea. 

I also want to mention the gorgeous score by Jonny Greenwood, without which the film would be unimaginable.  Click here to listen to it.

And for a wonderful interview with PTA in which he acknowledges the father-son aspect and talks about the genesis and evolution of the story, click here.

To comment on this post, click the comments link below.


  1. Wonderful analysis, Sharon. Spot on!

    What you say is so thought-provoking I have to comment -- but careful, friends: Spoilers ahead! SEE THE MOVIE FIRST.

    Although the "three acts" don't announce themselves -- they are there. I believe this enigmatic discretion will contribute to the film's long stubborn life in every viewer's memory, as has happened for such unalike maverick works as "Psycho" and "2001." Act I? Quell. Act II? Dodd. Act III? Mastery.

    Which of these two men is the Master? The question asks itself afresh every time we attempt to assign an answer. Dodd ultimately attains all the outward trappings of mastery -- a growing world of disciples -- but we might surmise, from his growing volatility, that heavy lies the head that wears the crown.

    Quell, whose goal from frame one is to lay in peace beside a woman, comes to an authentic fulfillment post-Dodd -- though Sharon is right about his, uhm, slippery purchase in this moment of bliss. Yet the contact he's achieved is merry, lit with freedom and -- who knows? -- may even be the beginning of something.

    An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in THE MASTER. Take your pick as to which man is which.

    -- F.X. Feeney

  2. That was a pleasure to read. Consider me subscribed!