Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Polarizing "The Master" Doesn't Quite Connect

Following the most intense, emotionally cathartic scene in
the film,the two stars of this "love story" share a cigarette.
Insert comparison to sex here.

Half-way through Paul Thomas Anderson’s polarizing The Master, someone tells Freddie Quell (a transformative Joaquin Phoenix), our gnarled, disturbed and sex-obsessed protagonist, "He's making all this up as he goes along. You don't see that?"

This accusation is directed at Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of The Cause, a fanatical cult that is fighting a trillion-year-old battle to purify and free the soul by submitting members to a process that addresses trauma from past lives. It suggests that this man has no answers, no specific insight. But, having seen the film and read just a few of the vast array of interpretations, it's hard for me not to infer an unintended meta commentary.

Here we have a film focused on a man looking for answers in post WWII America, willing to suffer extremes to find salvation. And so this man stumbles upon a charmingly playful and seemingly wise "Master" whose Cause many damaged souls have fully adopted, assumedly because they are captivated by his salesmanship and because they so desperately want to believe. All this, despite the fact that the Master himself is increasingly losing conviction in his own rhetoric, as evidenced by his being drawn to a primal silly animal and a late-in-the-game modification that suggests members "imagine" not "remember" prenatal past during processing sessions.

I would make the case those words of critique can be levied at the film itself. Like Dodd, the film is undeniably compelling as it suggests great truths can be found via submission to its all encompassing greatness. And it too seems to lose conviction as it embraces malleability in a catch-all attempt to maintain some sort of mythic status, while proving to be as hopelessly inquisitive as its titular character.

Extending the comparison, the film also has a number of ardent followers who claim to see deeper meanings beyond the showy surface. They’ll claim those who don’t see the genius aren’t paying close enough attention and argue for multiple viewings that would, I can only assume, beat enlightenment into someone the same way repeatedly walking from a window to a wall might.

Amy Adams gives a frightening and thought-
provoking performance as Peggy Dodd, wife 
and master of Master.
If the film is Dodd, viewers like me are like Freddy Quell. I too attempted to give myself over to uncover a deeper meaning. As a die-hard Anderson fan I wanted to see it, and I can’t deny I was enthralled by the style and the craft. But, in the end, I just couldn't buy into it.

Nevertheless, I can’t quite shake the film, and though I won’t submit, like Freddy, I am still drawn to it. I am in awe of the acting prowess on display and was left amazed at some of the shot compositions and long takes Anderson nestled into the film. I loved how Johnny Greenwood managed to build on his work in There Will Be Blood, offering up an alarming, percussive score that intrudes and unnerves in even the most mundane scenes.

And this thing has a number of indelible sequences, most obviously the don’t-blink examination between Dodd and Freddy, but also a plethora of ambiguous ones that have inspired so much thoughtful analysis from fans (both of Hoffman’s singing scenes, anything with Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife, and the sex scene at the end, to name a few). I like that and see value in it, but ultimately the film is entirely impressionistic, with no more definitive meaning than the Rorsarch inkblots Freddie keeps sexualizing.

If you squint and grit your teeth, you can see all sorts of deeper meanings in The Master. You can project thoughts of repressed homosexuality on the part of Dodd and suggest it’s all really a wonderfully complex super ego/id love story. And that’s all well and good, and I’m certainly intrigued to consider such interpretations, but to me those things aren’t so much remembered as they are imagined. A key difference, I think. B