A Lost Cause?: The Master and the Search for Desire’s Anchor

P.T. Anderson’s recent film sheds light on two souls who find themselves both adrift and trapped by their own desires.

Editor’s Note:***SPOILER ALERT*** We’ve had Nick write a commentary which is intended for those who have seen the film. Fair warning!

If there is one image that feels representative of Paul Thomas Anderson’s much anticipated film, The Master, it’s of cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and newly acquired follower Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) imprisoned side-by-side in jail cells. In both form and content, it’s one of the more revelatory scenes in a film which is persistently unconventional, impressionistic, and, on the whole, ambiguous. The jail scene is just one among several which provide visual cues of Freddie and Lancaster as a pair—or, more specifically, two of a kind.

In their cells, Master and follower reveal, with an explosion of insecurity that erupts from beneath the surface, the sense in which they’re both mastered in unique ways. Freddie tells religious hack Lancaster that his teachings are nonsense, and Lancaster tells animalistic loner Freddie that he is the only one left who cares about him. Freddie threatens Lancaster’s legitimacy, and Lancaster threatens to abandon Freddie. Their mutual eruption clarifies that they are both mastered by desperation—Freddie wears it for all to see, while Lancaster’s must be provoked.

The film seems to imagine that Freddie and Lancaster are both adrift, and this recurring theme   is rife with sexual connotation. Freddie is a World War II veteran dealing with the trauma of war as he tries to adjust to life in society. Let’s just say the adjustment isn’t going well. Freddie is an alcoholic overcome with perverse sexual desire; he will drink just about anything and have sex with just about anyone—if only he can have relief, however momentary. Freddie is the quintessential wanderer, unable to commit his desire to something or someone in a way that overcomes—satiates—neurotic immediacy. We’re told just enough to get the point: Freddie is a seaman (in his excellent review, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky also points out the recurrence and connotation of “seaman,” connecting what he calls “the nautical” and Freddie’s “sexual compulsion”).

The sense in which Lancaster is adrift is not as obvious, but we’re given a substantial clue upon first meeting him. After losing multiple jobs, Freddie eventually stumbles aboard a yacht getting ready to set sail. The boat carries Lancaster—the leader of a cult movement called “The Cause”—and his group of followers. We’re told that the reason for their setting sail is to curtail people who only want to interfere with their progress. But in a humorous scene on the boat, we learn that they effectively want to avoid skepticism of The Cause’s (ultimately Lancaster’s) legitimacy. “Master” must protect his self from the truth that The Cause is a ruse if he is to maintain the false sense of security he gets from having control over his followers.

In their own ways, Freddie and Lancaster are what I would call onanistic. Derived from the Old Testament story of Onan, “onanism” has become a term for masturbation. Using the phrase metaphorically, I would describe Freddie and Lancaster this way in the sense that their relationships are characterized by the manipulation of others for the purpose of personal pleasure. If we were to take the metaphor a step further, we’d say that their essential selfishness only produces waste. For Freddie, the metaphor is obvious as it relates to his lascivious individualism; for Lancaster, it’s lurking beneath the pretense of a satisfactory community life. Lancaster’s cause is a monological intercourse, you might say.

If this sounds dour, well, somehow it often isn’t.  Anderson delivers much of this couched within the comedy of eccentric exaggeration and irony. These characters are more often a bizarre, humorous shock than an off-putting attempt at realism. It’s hard not to laugh when Freddie is swallowing drops of oil beneath the seaboard deck while an announcement declares that the war is over and the navy men will need to exercise responsibility in society; or when Freddie launches a tomato at the man who dares to question Lancaster’s teaching; or when Freddie and Lancaster hug each other furiously to the ground and roll around together (another memorable shot of them as a pair). Throughout the film, there are lighthearted moments that tone down the exaggerated psychological traumas from being merely frightful, and allow us the relief of laughing at these drifting souls in a way that does not necessarily belittle them.

You might describe this intermittent light-hearted tone—which becomes especially manifest in the end of the film—as a peculiarly Andersonian intimacy. And this is important if we are to consider some of the more graphic nature of the film’s portrayals of sexual perversion. On the whole, Anderson’s depictions work in a way that treats the traumatized characters with care and concern, while also not alleviating the sense in which their ills should be a source of discomfort for the viewers. And this is how genuine intimacy often works: it creates a space where people are laid bare truthfully, and the consequences are not ignored even while the fear of self-righteous judgment is absent. Yes, there are a couple of scenes which are difficult to watch, but one in particular is the perspective of an imaginatively-stunted sex addict. And there’s nothing particularly attractive about it.

And this formally intimate quality about The Master feels like the primary way the film recalls more affirmative depictions of intimacy in Anderson’s previous films as a possible answer to what these onanistic characters lack. The desire for loving intimacy is hinted in ways both direct and, more often, indirect over the course of the film. These characters need anchored to a relationship that has the qualities of intimacy which are antithetical to a culture that has come to whittle its very definition down to the mere act of sexual intercourse. If we were to frame Freddie’s and Lancaster’s follies as expressions of insecurity, then the place of genuine intimacy as a truthful alternative to Freddie’s impulsive loneliness and Lancaster’s manipulative community becomes a moral center we can imagine within Anderson’s filmic universe.

Indeed, Anderson’s other films are helpful for me in orienting the fractured sense of narrative in The Master, and in imagining a moral context for Freddie’s and Lancaster’s mutual plight. In a way, Freddie’s insecurity reminds me of Barry Egan from Anderon’s Punch-drunk Love (I even described Barry’s sexual expression of that insecurity as onanistic). While Barry’s insecurity stems, in part, from the belittling treatment of his sisters, Freddie’s insecurity is defined by the homeless nature of his desire. Both express this insecurity sexually. But in the same way that these two are somewhat comparable, I would also suggest that Doris reminds me of Lena Leonard. Doris is the love of Freddie’s life, a kind and gracious girl who he has regretfully abandoned. Whereas Lena provides a gracious intimacy that transforms—anchors—Barry’s aggression into a concern for someone besides himself, Doris colors The Master as a lost opportunity for Freddie. She routinely comes up during his time with The Cause as a traumatic loss that he’d like to get back. When he returns to his hometown to find her, he discovers that she’s now married.

Lancaster, we’re told, is on his third marriage–the nature of which is grotesquely depicted in a scene when his wife, while, um, servicing him with her hand, promises to continue to support his game by allowing him to “do whatever he wants” (the nature of The Cause) so long as he’s not romping around with the women in the cult. The scene shows us that not only does his marriage lack a kind of intimacy, but so, too, does his cultish community. Even when Lancaster is challenged from within his cult, he responds with defensive anger. In this sense, there’s nothing authentic, truthful, confessional, or gracious about this community. It’s merely Lancaster “making stuff up as he goes,” as his son puts it, for the purpose of having control and personal satisfaction at the expense of others. Both Freddie and Lancaster are in need of the kind of intimacy that facilitates desire–the kind of intimacy displayed, for instance, in the scene from Anderson’s Magnolia when Officer Jim and Claudia go out to dinner and share a painstaking moment of emotional nakedness which heals even as it hurts.

But if Freddie leaves The Cause, and Doris is a lost cause, what do we make of the film’s ending in which Freddie leaves Lancaster only to have a hookup with a girl he meets at a bar? In a sense, Freddie’s sex with Winn Manchester feels like a momentary release that doesn’t ultimately fulfill. At the same time, there’s a tonal suggestion that it’s good that he’s dissociated himself from The Cause.  Ultimately, though, it seems as if Anderson is content to allow these characters to continue drifting without much in the way of resolution or consolation. One of Lancaster’s last bits of pseudo-wisdom for Freddie feels genuinely wise and even essential: if you figure out a way to live without being mastered, let us know—you’ll be the first to have done it.

Nothing could be truer: it’s human—even baseline to our desire—to serve something or someone. Yet, if C.S. Lewis’s warning is to be heeded, then the nature of this reality goes unnoticed in our overly democratized milieu, perhaps even for Anderson: “The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian.”

In the beginning of the film, Freddie treats a sand sculpture of a woman with impetuous degradation. The final shot is of Freddie lying beside the sand sculpture, looking as if he still has a longing—perhaps for Doris. Or, more generally, perhaps the change is that Freddie now desires something more than his impulses or Lancaster or even sex with Winn can satisfy. Living under the command of the immediacy of his desire is bound to land him shipwrecked. What Freddie needs is a love qualified more by patience, long-suffering, and commitment—one that has a slow boat to china quality, you might say. Perhaps beneath his manipulation, Lancaster, too, has earnest desire for what The Cause represents on the surface: to find understanding and help for the traumas which are all too human.

But perhaps part of the essential downfall of these characters—indeed, of the late-modern onanist—is the sense in which the religious has become entangled with the “psychological.” The great sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff is a prophet on this: “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man was born to be pleased. . . . I imagine psychological man will be a hedger against his own bets, a user of any faith that lends itself to therapeutic use. . . . The rejection of sexual individualism was the consensual matrix of Christian culture.”

In the spirit of speculation that Anderson’s ambiguity provokes, then, maybe we should let more direct questions anchor the discussion: Is there a Master whose purpose is intimate love in all of its restorative glory—a Master who has made himself known? Is there a Master who not only fulfills our deepest desires, but transforms them to be qualified by something more than mere selfishness? Is there a Master who has come first to serve?

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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