THE MASTER in CONTEXT: PTA’S CITY OF THE ANGELS

For dedicated cinephiles, wrestling with a movie and its meaning is a profound pleasure.  To casual moviegoers, The Master may feel too arduous, a long slog, not worth the effort.  Hollywood makes so many effects-driven, popcorn movies that it is tough to adjust to a film rooted in characters and their struggles.  Especially when it doesn’t offer an easy resolution.    The Master requires considerable reflection to unearth what it is saying, doing, and communicating.   Such complexity will garner plenty of Oscar nominations.   I agree with my colleagues at Patheos that The Master is quite naked and profane.   While some were bored or offended, I was enthralled.

Why is The Master worth the investment of time and (emotional) energy?   I’ve been processing this question for almost a week.  Few films burrow so deeply into the psyche with scenes still bouncing around my brain.    So I will dedicate a couple of columns to reflecting upon the film.   I’ll begin by placing The Master in context, as the latest installment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s exploration of the American male.  His recurring question:  “Why do men continually look for love in all the wrong places and things?”

Paul Thomas Anderson loves guys, especially flawed and obsessive guys.    They may be gamblers (Hard Eight), porn stars (Boogie Nights), cops (Magnolia), salesmen (Punch Drunk Love) or oil speculators (There Will Be Blood), but they are all haunted by personal demons and searching for relief.   These vivid characters go to extremes, getting themselves in desperate straits where only divine intervention can break their cycle of self-destruction.    Anderson’s potent films and characters are not for everyone.    Their blind spots are so pronounced that their intransigence can be frustrating.   Yet, plenty of men recognize their aspirations and their worst tendencies within PTA’s loners.

The Master focuses upon the plight of Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran whose boundless need for alcohol extends to missile fuel.   Joaquin Phoenix returns to feature films looking more gaunt and emaciated than ever.   His speech is slurred, his shoulders slouched, and his kidneys barely there.   Sex drives his unchecked id.  Who can cure Freddie of what ails him?   Author Lancaster Dodd has started The Cause, teaching his followers that the mind is more powerful than the body.   Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Dodd with swagger and magnetism.  Yet, whenever he’s confronted by his critics, Dodd’s hair trigger temper surfaces in startling similar ways to Freddie.    Will the Master lift Freddie out of his downward spiral?  Or will Freddie’s violent tendencies unravel the Cause?   Anderson extends so much grace towards his broken characters that he tests the audiences’ patience.

Paul Thomas Anderson also loves Los Angeles.  As a native Angeleno, PTA finds inspiration in underexplored pockets of the City of Angels.   His early films focused on the overlooked side of Los Angeles—the San Fernando Valley.   His most recent films look at the extremists who forged L.A.    There Will Be Blood could be read as a study of Mulholland or Doheny or even Getty—the oil men whose names still mark the landscape.    The Master is rooted in the colorful history of L. Ron Hubbard, author of Dianetics.  After a peripatetic life, Hubbard’s teaching took root in Los Angeles as Scientology.   While The Master covers far more geography than Anderson’s previous films, it still arises from his own Los Angeles upbringing, rooted in our particularly porous, spiritual soil.

Los Angeles is often lampooned as a city of fruits and nuts.   The transient nature of the population makes it particularly fertile soil for New Religious Movements like Scientology.   Few realize that the City of the Angels, founded by Roman Catholic missionaries, is also the home to two of the most influential Protestant movements of the past one hundred years:  fundamentalism and modern Pentecostalism.   In 1906, spiritual gifts like healing and speaking in tongues broke out on Azusa Street in downtown L.A.   The Pentecostal movement quickly spread to every corner of the globe, spawning dynamic denominations like the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God and the Four Square Gospel.

In Echo Park, flamboyant evangelist Sister Aimee Temple McPherson founded the Angelus Temple, which grew into the Foursquare Gospel movement.   A Los Angeles oilman, Lyman Stewart, funded the pamphlets that defined “the fundamentals” of the Christian faith in 1910.   Stewart’s charity extended to underwriting the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, now known as Biola University.   We tend to think of Los Angeles exporting entertainment.  But it has also served as the starting point for religious revolutions.   As a filmmaker dedicated to the quirks of Los Angeles, Paul Thomas Anderson has wisely chosen to focus on faith.  Or perhaps more accurately, he considers, “Why Los Angeles attracts so many rootless people who seek to fill their souls in such self-defeating ways?”  I wish Anderson had concentrated more upon Dodd and the Cause, than Freddie and his addictions.   Yet, the litigious nature of Scientology may have precluded a more direct reflection upon L. Ron Hubbard and his followers.

Anderson has always waded into the earthly in search of the transcendent.   There Will Be Blood looked at Southern California before the oil boom.   Opportunity and black smoke fill the sky.   It pitted a pastor against a speculator.    But the battle for power and money never felt even.   In one weak moment, Daniel Plainview kneels to be baptized.   But he comes roaring back against his foe.   As the wildcat oilman, Daniel Day-Lewis overwhelmed Paul Dano’s young preacher right through the bloody finale promised in the title.  Greed prevailed.

The Master corrects the power imbalance.   The physical gap between the dueling leads is considerable.  Lancaster Dodd teaches his followers to heal their painful memories, appealing to their spiritual rather than animal instincts.   Dodd takes on Freddie as a project.   Dodd seemingly holds the keys to tame this savage beast.  Yet, whenever his authority is challenged, Dodd struggles to keep his own rage in check.   Despite their physical differences, Freddie and Dodd are remarkably well matched.  The flesh and the spirit prove inseparable.

With The Master, Anderson has once again delved into the past as a way of commenting upon the present.   In There Will Be Blood, the struggle between religion and oil echoed America’s war in Iraq.   The Master evokes the battle we have yet to recognize: how to reintegrate our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.   Will the best army psychologists transport them beyond the pain of combat?  Will they be delivered from desert nightmares?  The Master shows how long the road to reentry can be.   We will all pay the price for their post-traumatic stress.

NEXT:   PROCESSING THE MASTER

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • Lauren

    Thanks, Craig. I too have been wrestling about what this film was exploring and felt it would have been more compelling as an exploration of Lancaster Dodd’s rise as a religious leader. I did think that there was a lot of exploration of different forms of power: addiction, sex, religion. your connection to LA and PTA’s other work is really good food for thought as is his fascination with men. I look forward to reading your other insights.

    • craigdetweiler

      Yes, Lauren, the Dodd story would have been remarkably messy, rambling, and enlightening. Thanks for your response. I wonder why PTA chose to go with the wounded vet as the way in. Perhaps because he is more interested in how we deal with our frailties and blindspots than in those who aspire to fix them (thus the choice to follow Daniel Plainview rather than the preacher). In what ways have Anderson’s films worked for (or frustrated!) you?

      • Lauren

        To be quite honest, I haven’t seen all of them, but of the 3 I have seen (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master), the endings have always frustrated me. None of these films seem to have an end and it grates against the writer’s Beginning, Middle, End mantra. But your thoughts about PTA examining the American Male have pretty much revolutionized how I view all of these films and now I will have to go see the rest — inlcuding Punch, Drunk, Love which I began to watch in 2005 and turned off because I was so totally confused by it.

        This was a painful film to watch; all of his are, precisely because, as you say, “We’re used to the opposite in our film stars–triumph over circumstances they didn’t create. Here we get the consequences of lousy decision making and it IS disturbing. ” His films take us to the brink.

        It reminds me of something my pastor said in church a few weeks ago in that, so often our pop culture depicts people triumphing over circumstances OUTSIDE of themselves–not of their own making, by reaching deep within themselves and overcoming; but Christianity recognizes the exact opposite reality: that we are all dark inside and that we need someone outside of us (Christ) to come IN and conquer that darkness for us.

        And I’m liking your theory about Freddie and Dodd being the same person! You are blowing my mind, Craig! :)

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I’m so glad you’re taking this on, Craig. I look forward to the rest of your series.

    “Anderson extends so much grace towards his broken characters that he tests the audiences’ patience.” Very true. I’m impatient with an artist’s thoughtful consideration of human frailty, failings, and corruption, how likely am I to be patient and thoughtful and compassionate about human beings themselves when I encounter them? The more attention I give to the Scriptures, the more I feel my own patience tested at the appalling behavior of those we sometimes call “the heroes of the faith.” I’m reminded of the theme of The Lord of the Rings: the patience, pity, and compassion of Bilbo and Frodo to a profane and wretched character is what brought about the possibility of redemption. The Master gives us some appalling characters behaving in ugly ways, but it doesn’t do that for cheap thrills; it invites us to view them through a startlingly compassionate lens for purposes of understanding them. I found myself wanting both Freddie and Lancaster to, in the language of The Cause, “get better.”

    Where some directors seem interested in little more than shocking their audiences with gratuitous depictions of abuse, sexism, recklessness, and perversity, Paul Thomas Anderson is one who seems genuinely interested in studying American masculinity and its often troubling compulsions and preoccupations. Rather than celebrating bad behavior, he seems more inclined to expose it the way a scientist exposes cancer and invites us to consider its symptoms, its substance, its causes, and its potential solutions.

    I’m so impressed with how his scenes are always more than simple metaphors; he insists on the particularity of the character and the context. Nevertheless, each scene is suggestive of so much more, open to a variety of interpretations. Great art cannot be reduced to paraphrase — and while I’m not sure I’m ready to declare The Master “great art” (I’m still frustrated with several aspects of it), I’m really enjoying the variety of discussions it has already inspired. Discomforting, hard to watch, occasionally frustrating, and certainly not for everyone… but the imagery and the characters of The Master have already inspired more rewarding conversations, and more substantial reviews and essays, than any other film I’ve seen so far this year. And as more and more moviegoers take the time to consider it in the context of Anderson’s previous films, I think this is one of those that will open up new ways to interpret other films, even those beyond Anderson’s oeuvre.

    Bring on Part Two!

    • craigdetweiler

      Extravagant grace seems like such a waste, doesn’t it, Jeffrey?! I really appreciated your internal dialogue on The Master (I’ll link to it in my next post). It is illustrative of the kinds of conversations that invariably follow such a thorny film.

      The other thing that makes Anderson’s movie tough to take is how relentless he can be with a scene. I’m thinking of Alfred Molina and the firecrackers in Boogie Nights. I wanted to get out of that place (along with the characters) so badly. And yet, that is the situation their swagger and stupidity got them into. He refuses to let people off the hook for their bad behavior (while not judging it). And that is a tough combination. We’re used to the opposite in our film stars–triumph over circumstances they didn’t create. Here we get the consequences of lousy decision making and it IS disturbing.

      Great comment on the metaphors. The milkshake was so strange and specific in There Will Be Blood and yet it stays with you like almost nothing else in American cinema. The motorcycle was an equally unexpected, nearly unmotivated choice in The Master. And yet, the iconic power of the resulting scene is so palpable. That openness, that freedom, that exhilaration is what Freddie and Dodd were both searching for….

      In fact, I’ve probably underestimated Freddie role in the film as an image maker. Think about the mythology he builds around Lancaster Dodd by photographing him–writer/philosopher at his desk, cowboy on the range. And of course, the motorcycle is all about Marlon Brando and the 1950s, right down to the cuffed blue jeans. Those guys are trying on images of the American male, figuring out which fits.

      • Jeffrey Overstreet

        This is really good, Craig. Now I can’t wait to see it again.

        How does a department store photographer’s gaze shape for him, and for us, an impossible ideal… one we want to attain even if we know that it is a false representation of the photograph’s subject in the first place? Poor Freddie laughs at his subject even as he flies into a jealous tantrum. He is contributing to the making of images of what he feels he can never become or attain. Serving Dodd, he’s a “guinea pig and protege” whose primary role in The Cause is to help glorify the Master, a role that does nothing to help him “get better” or find his way toward firmer ground.

        By the way, I’m increasingly tempted to start throwing around new religious terms like “the pursuit of Dodd-liness” and “oh, to be Dodd-ly” and “the Dodd-head.”

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  • horse badorties

    Okay. Reality check. Enlglish major’s take. Anderson has made an American post war epic about two Americas. Dodd is one America- the pre-war America of Sinclair Lewis’ evangilical hustler salesman gurus, where Freddie is the America to come after personal and geopolitical upheavals that the old America can’t begin to comprehend. The lean, disjointed, unreconstructed non-verbal Freddie is the future, The portly voluble Dodd is the American past, with his 19th century grab bag of unctious charm, earnest and mezmerizing malarkey and ultimate redemption through magical pseudoscience. He’s like a conjurist Captain Nemo. Freddie is the Ned Land of the new post-war world, at sea with nothing but unchecked psychic and sexual turmoil. Dodd knows that Freddie is the unreadable future, his pshchic battles will be eternal, he will never be mastered. Dodd knows that his speil doesn’t take in all the marks. This is a very mid-century film made by a very knowledgeable artist. Thoughts?

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