Generally, we try to speak and analyze art in a holistic manner. In fact, as many claim, we look to art to provide a sense of completeness and connectivity we find lacking in our experienced lives. For example, take The Dark Knight Rises. We know what it is about i.e. both the end of a trilogy, a sense of completion to one of the defining myths of this decade, and a poor attempt at dealing with contemporary issues. The only question that stays with the viewer are questions of plot holes, a sort of geeky nerdiness that seeks to finds gaps in the story. Even something a little more highbrow like Drive, or pretty much any movie we attempt to comprehend we discuss in normal categories of beginning middles and ends, and bring to bear upon it our standard tools of analysis. However, for the most part, in the better Paul Thomas Anderson movies, I cannot get a handle on the movies as a whole. They provide their pleasure in resisting a classic sense of interpretation, in confounding our sense of completion.
Maybe this explains the uncertainty many feel when we leave his movies. I always walk out feeling unsure, of what, I am even uncertain as to that as well, but I know I feel confused in some manner. Not that I didn’t understand what happened. No scene befuddled me, but I tend to miss how all the disparate parts of the film fit together. How the auteur level talent of Anderson’s cinematography fit with his writing chops, a writing both mundane and yet mysterious. In a sense, though used in a liberal manner, this partakes of a Kafkaesque style. As all critic’s note, Kafka’s stories beg for endless interpretation, but any systematic interpretation we try to apply to his work, or even one specific work falls of the pages like water off a duck. This holds true of Anderson’s most recent effort, the highly anticipated movie, The Master, a movie only superficially about a cult and more importantly about a relationship.
Even if we cannot provide a cohesive and complete analysis of the movie, we can notice the levels of maturation this film signifies for the often avant-garde Anderson. The most striking aspect of The Master, in light of Anderson’s previous films, lies in the lack of intrusiveness from Anderson himself. Importantly for his development as a director, I think we see the least of Anderson’s often purposefully heavy hand.
To appreciate this we need to take a short detour through his repertoire. Hard Eight, a movie all Anderson fans should revisit, indeed feels like a workshop effort of a young ingenue crafting beauty from nothing but the barest bones of a plot. You see Anderson’s decisions and talents all throughout the film, written with crayon. Boogie Nights, in this analytic narrative, signifies a genius running wild: head down, not looking at the larger picture as he adds character upon character, shot upon shot to show what he can do with something this large. And yet, I can’t help feeling that in his ambitiousness he creates a largely untethered film, almost easily forgettable. Then in apotheosis of his highly idiosyncratic vision, one that seeks to recreate a place and era through separate short stories, in the most Andersonian of his films, we visit Magnolia. Magnolia is a movie at once so jarring and moving as to compel the director to remind the audience of the artificial nature of the endeavor both in a highly crafted though enigmatic opening and peppered throughout, almost as if in code, until that divisive ending.
We do well to reacquaint ourselves with Magnolia’s ending. Famously, Magnolia ends in both a deux ex machina and a breaking of the fourth wall. All of the actors at the same moment sing a song together, and then, Anderson, channelling the God of the Old Testament rains down a biblical plague of frogs on the unsuspecting characters. Many found this cheeky, or infantilizing, or plain immature. Though late to the game, I found the ending of Magnolia delightful though perhaps misguided. To me, with all the necessary qualifications, I see these narrative intrusions as funny, jarring, but most importantly, reminiscent of the method playwright Bertolt Brecht coined and popularized known in German as Verfremdungseffekt, or more simply, the distancing effect. Brecht purported to use this method, which essentially breaks the continuity and the illusion of the narrative, to foster a more critical stance towards his work. His actors would address the audience so viewers would not get lost in the evocative and lulling emotional experience that precludes thought. Post-Modernists, we can realize, used this tool but for a different purpose.
For Brecht, this instruction allows the audience to critically question both the actions and idea represented in the play. For Post-Modern writers these methods allowed the reader to explore the nature of the medium itself. For Brecht these intrusions largely pointed to questions of judgment, value, and politics, for Post-Modern writers this distancing effect focuses the viewers on the act of entertainment itself, a somewhat tenuous difference, though an important one. This Brechtian comparison, though it sounds highfalutin actually proves valuable to understand the importance of music in the movies of Anderson. Brecht himself, in his plays used loud and jarring music to interrupt or to play over the action. With Anderson’s movies, I first thought that I need to adjust the volume settings on my TV or my Netflix, but then as I watched the movie one after the other in order of their filming, I saw this as a characteristic trait of Anderson’s films. The music, loud, tense, often in a manner incommensurate to the plot, lives in its own world and takes on independent importance. For Anderson, the music often takes the place of the dialogue and allows us to realize that we are watching something crafted, something artistic, something that deserves further thought. In both of these tools we can understand much of the singularities of Anderson as Brechtian, which brings us though to some of the indulgences of Anderson that often misfired in his earlier films.
While all of Anderson’s films provide platforms for stellar performances, he often failed to match the acting, the setting, the cinematography and tone with equally compelling content. Hard Eight, with its tenuous characterization and murky plot felt slight, forgettable, but you could see the beginnings of brilliance. Boogie Nights, with its onslaught of people, sensory data and scenes failed to allow breathing room for any sort of attachment between characters in the movie and between the audience and these characters. Magnolia, while still somewhat sloppy, leaking at the edges, largely corrected many of these understandable excesses. Yet, the movie still feels like it lacks enough of a focus, an obfuscation engendered by Anderson’s enduring need to say something larger, to show something with such force as to undercut much of the potential power of the film. (Wait, did I tell you that this movie seeks to explore the nature of coincidence? Wait, I haven’t hinted at in since ten minutes ago...) Not that I didn’t love the film, but as many would agree with, it takes a lot to want to sit down and even watch two hours of that movie. Not because it takes something out of you, it does, but because certain parts of the movie grate on you with repeated exposure.
I tend to see these next slate of movies as the second stage of Anderson’s career. From Punch Drunk Love on Anderson shifted from a panoramic view to a more intimate lens, focusing in each subsequent film on one male character in extremis. Punch Drunk Love zooms in on an emotionally disturbed Sandler contending with his sisters and the maelstrom of love. There Will Be Blood focuses on an equally emotionally disturbed Lewis, though in an opposite manner. In Punch Drunk Love Sandler seethes beneath his anxiety, while Lewis signifies that same anger unleashed, a pure id, in love with nothing but his own abilities. Both of these are portrayals of man alone, rooted in a visceral terrifying anger that knows no bounds. Though some will surely note that Punch Drunk Love is a love story, albeit one tinged by emotional disturbance, it is truly much more of a study of one person. As enchanting as Emily Watson delivers her character, she is as much as an object of obsession as is Sandler’s pudding.
And yet, despite this shift to a smaller scope, you can still feel the at time both deft but leaden hand of Anderson in these movies. In Punch Drunk Love Anderson not only creates a sort of trippy recurring imagery that looks like what making a phone call sounds like, or what internal bubbling rage might look like, but the movie uses non-stop invasive music. The music, not only loud, but also tense creates fear and suspense where none exists even if you assume it mimics Sandler’s internal storm. Similarly, in There Will Be Blood, Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame creates one of the most haunting soundtracks that transcends even the terrifying nature of Lewis’ character. I found the score not only distracting but manipulative. Greenwood’s brilliant soundtrack comes at you with a force of a battalion but often corresponds to nothing of the sort in the movie. It creates a ceaseless tension for its own sake, a tool used by Anderson since his first film.
The Master, with these considerations in mind, does indeed feel more mature, more calm. We rarely see any sort of intrusion, any sort of Andersonian tic we would come to expect. Many scenes lack music, and even the Greenwood music this time around feels more subdued, more purposeful instead of scattered as if fired from a shotgun, it feels almost meditative more than fear-inducing. Moreover, for such a talented and nuanced writer, Anderson often shies away from ambiguity. While we might not understand all the individual pieces of the movies, we tend to understand the emotional struggles of the characters. In that vein, The Master mines new territory for Anderson.
In contrast to what comes before, then, The Master finds a stable center from which to branch out. Despite all the larger themes of the movie, the cults, the manipulation of a charismatic leader, the frightening will of a powerful women, our desire to lose ourselves in obvious idiocy, the trauma of war, ultimately what makes the Master different, mature, nuanced is not this delightful background noise, but the almost unprecedented, complex, ambiguous, ambivalent and downright beautiful love relationship between Hoffman and Phoenix. Whereas Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood focused on man alone, here we see men together, with the intimacy of soulmates. In this sense, Anderson appears to have achieved something he’s been attempting since his first movie. If Anderson picks up a theme he will not let it go until he feels finished with it. The ultimate Anderson obsession rests in the relationship between one generation and the next, and specifically between a parent and child. Anderson’s first stage repeated this trope in variable forms over and over again. In the second stage, he mostly gave up that theme for Punch Drunk Love, but revisited it in There Will Be Blood and made it the glorious center of The Master. In a sense, much of the story, its vigorous Americana, and its glossy, often blurry cinematography creates a proper setting for one of the greatest, truest, and most compelling love stories I’ve seen on film in a while. While purely non-sexual, these characters feel drawn together, by what Lancaster Dodd would refer to as, “A process that began trillions of years ago.”
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddy Quell a volatile army veteran with clear emotional issues and a penchant for making makeshift alcohol that if consumed in the wrong manner could kill. Phoenix, with the help of makeup artists, transforms his body into a scarred, almost humpback wiry person who makes up for his physical deficiencies with an indomitable will to fight. His eyes burn whatever he stares at, and though he wears his pants a good couple of inches above his belly button he oozes an insouciant sexuality and animality. Hoffman plays an attempt at the opposite. In Lancaster Dodd, or Master, as his acolytes refer him, Hoffman serves up the model of refinement. Well kempt, hair always trimmed, clothes always matching and fitting, Hoffman plays it calm, cool, charismatic, compelling, and pompous though with enough world-weariness as to invite you in. Of course, this veneer of control only makes his inevitable outbursts all the more dangerous and exciting. Essentially, in a dynamic that engenders a complex kind of love, each of these characters have what the other wants.
For Dodd, surrounded by yes men and those with their own agendas, in Quell he sees someone differently but equally unbound and unhinged. Quell, while willing to follow Dodd, will not follow blindly, and this combination allows Dodd to explore the boundaries of abnormal behavior. Dodd sees Quell both as a truly kindred spirit, and as a challenge, as the ultimate test of Dodd’s genius. But past this, he sees something he cannot tame, representative of the more animalistic side of life he preaches against and he falls in love, immediately.
For Quell, as Dodd astutely points out in their short jail scene, Dodd signifies the only person left in the world who truly and actually loves Freddie. He might love him for a host of strange reasons, but he loves him nonetheless. In their first true scene together, when Quell brings Dodd a potent batch of his concoction, Dodd sits Quell down for “processing,” a mix of investigative psychology and pseudo-spirituality. This interview turned dialogue is one of the most riveting, interesting and just evocative scenes to grace the screen in years. When Hoffman repeatedly asks Phoenix if he often thinks about his inconsequentiality, you can sense the creation of an unbreakable bond. Hoffman and Phoenix create a sort of magical interpersonal connection, one which you can attempt to understand, but you do better to just enjoy.
In this manner, through this relationship, Anderson takes the craft of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the sort of disparate scenes thrust together and uses it for a more attainable goal. Whereas in these two previous movies he attempted to create a sort of transcendent whole, he harbors no such pretenses in the Master. Certain scenes could easily belong in pretty much any movie about anything. Specifically, Master Dodd takes Quell, and his daughter and son-in-law into the desert to choose a point on the horizon and to ride a motorcycle, as fast you can, until that point. Supposedly, in the narrative of the film, and in Dodd’s altered mind this exercise will affect some internal change, but it amounts to beautiful joyriding, to a life that Quell lives that Dodd know’s he cannot. The scenes pushed together provide odd portraits of this relationship unfolding, nothing less and nothing more.
The best relationships, we tell ourselves, are ones that contain unpredictability even after considerable time. In the end of the movie, a purposeful whimper of an end, Dodd and Quell break up on ambiguous terms. Quell, in line with the teachings of the Cause, Dodd’s movement, surmises before they say goodbye to each other that perhaps they will meet in another lifetime in different forms. In the greatest manifestation of love to grace the screen in some time, Dodd, looking wistfully at his now son Quell says, “If we meet again in another lifetime I know we will be the fiercest of enemies.” With that, Quell leaves to lead his own untethered life, and Dodd realizes his possessiveness of this unique persona can only result in heightened obsession, therefore, he must let him leave.
On a more meta level, when you title your film The Master you invite questions of self reference, regardless of your intention. When Paul Thomas Anderson titles his film the Master, a director and writer well known for his auteur often self-referential style, a director who despite the content of the film loves to focus on similar themes, tensions, and relationships, he begs the question if film represents a mastery of his craft. Or better yet, does this film signify Anderson finally honing all the disparate components of his talent? I cannot give an easy answer, and that might be the point. Art works as well, Anderson claims, when it only offers pieces, not a montage or a pastiche, but tenuous pieces that mimic the more random aspects of life. We do look for a holistic way to understand a piece of art we see, but Anderson, in his maturity, in his ability to accept a less is more policy might not have mastered the craft of film today, but certainly he mastered the art of artistic self-control.