October 2012 Update: I have written two commentaries about The Master. The first is posted below. The second (which is much shorter) was published later at Good Letters, the blog hosted by Image. Both are written as conversations between moviegoers.
Imagine three moviegoers — Mr. Judge, Fangirl, and Mr. Long-winded — emerging from a screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie, The Master.
They’re quiet at first, as they find their way to the lobby and sit down with their friend Mrs. Yuk, a friend who walked out of the movie in the first 30 minutes. She’s been waiting and grumbling for two hours.
Full disclosure: Three of these characters are amalgams of moviegoers — colleagues, readers, friends — who have sent me messages over the years; they are not meant to represent any person in particular. I actually sympathize with all three of them to some extent. But the fourth, Mr. Long-winded, bears an embarrassing resemblance to me. He’s like me in his verbosity and in his view of the movie. But I do wish I could be as mild-mannered and congenial as he is.
The following conversation is very long. And near the end, you will encounter a major spoiler warning before these characters talk about the end of the movie.
Ready? Okay. The camera zooms in. And the conversation begins with Mrs. Yuk, who cannot contain her frustration any longer.
Yuck. Just… yuck. What a perverse, disgusting movie. I should have known better. This is the guy who made Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. He makes movies about sick sexual perverts and horrible, violent men. I found it utterly offensive.
I wasn’t offended. I just thought it was a bad movie. Seemed like it would go on forever without anything actually, you know… happening. It was just a bunch of extreme acting and showy set design. The movie has no story.
Omigosh, you’re so wrong. This is Paul Thomas Anderson we’re talking about. And every movie he’s made has been a bigger masterpiece than the last.
Really? How was that a masterpiece?
It just… it just… it was just so awesome! It was the most… the most… the best…
Blecch. It was pornographic. I feel like my head was thrown in a sewer.
Whoa, whoa. So may absolute statements!
Fangirl, I know you’re crazy about Anderson’s films. You seem eager to give it some kind of award, but all of these accolades don’t tell me anything. Why does it have to be the “most” or the “best” anything? Is anybody in a position to declare such a thing? I want to know what the film made you think about, what it made you feel. I want to know if it makes you see anything differently in yourself, in others, in politics or religion. Don’t you think you should give it some time, think about it, and see it again before you declare that it’s a masterpiece?
Mrs. Yuk, I agree that there was a lot of ugly behavior in the film. Parts of it were very unpleasant. But don’t you think that the bad behavior was portrayed for a good purpose? Seemed to me that maybe we were supposed to consider why these characters behaved badly, what was missing from their lives, and what forces were influencing their behavior. If the movie’s making you miserable, by all means, leave the theater. But must you condemn the artist for exploring the subject?
And Mr. Judge, I’m sorry you were bored. I had some trouble with the movie too, but I thought there were two substantial stories being told at the same time. Are you really going to just declare that ‘nothing happens’ in this movie? Or are you interested in hearing some other points of view first?
What’s wrong with the movie? It should win all of the Oscars.
Harumph. I defy you to find a story in that movie… or at least a story worth telling.
Well, it’s a complicated movie. But this is the kind of moviegoing experience I always hope to have… something challenging and mysterious and surprising. I don’t think anybody will reach some kind of absolute, definitive description, especially after only one viewing. May I describe what I think are the two substantial stories in this film?
If we can all be a little open-minded, maybe we can share some of our—
Mrs. Yuk (interrupting, stands up):
Here’s my observation: Blecch. Horrible. Offensive. I can’t believe anybody with a conscience would sit through such garbage. I’m a teacher, and I would never teach material like this to my classes. We only read stuff that has morally redeeming value. We don’t spend time on stuff that’s full of violence and sexual perversity.
What do you teach?
History. Shakespeare. The Bible.
Everybody blinks at Mrs. Yuk. Then, together:
Goodbye, Mrs. Yuk!
Mrs. Yuk goes to catch the bus.
Okay, let me start with this: Do you know that Bob Dylan song “Gotta Serve Somebody”?
Omigosh… Bob Dylan is the best! I loved it when Cate Blanchett played him in that movie I’m Still Here. [Long-winded and Judge exchange glances.] And I love that song! “It may be the devil / Or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…“
I propose that this is a movie about how we all have to serve somebody, and the master we choose will either increase our joy and freedom or choke the life out of us.
Sometimes we serve masters who do us harm. They lie to us, betray us, neglect us, exploit us, abandon us. But we stay because we’re seduced by charisma, or because we want something they have.
Sometimes we serve ourselves. We serve our ego, or our sex drive, or other appetites. When we do, we isolate ourselves from relationships and other sources of grace. That’s called hell.
Sometimes we serve others in truth, grace, and love. When we do, we’re set free from slavery to ourselves or anyone else.
Doesn’t the cult leader say something like that near the end of the movie? “If you figure a way to live without serving a master… then let the rest of us know, will you? You’d be the first person in the history of the world.”
Careful, we don’t want to get into spoiler territory. Others may be listening. Let’s go to the beginning, when we meet the poor, troubled seafaring soldier named Freddie Quell. Who has Freddie been serving?
He’s been serving his country. In the military.
Right. He’s been sailing with other soldiers. And we see them behaving like animals. They’re prone to drunkenness, to crass behavior, to testosterone-driven tribalism. They fight, they wrestle, and their sexual obsessions and fantasies lead to obscene games on the beach with a naked woman that Freddie sculpted out of sand. Freddie is clearly messed up. He treats the sand-castle woman with sexual aggression and scorn, and then masturbates into the ocean.
That’s when Mrs. Yuk picked up her purse and headed for the door.
Well, that’s fine. It’s pretty ugly stuff.
But it’s revealing of Freddie’s character. Like all of us, he has self-serving fantasies and destructive impulses. But… unlike most people, Freddie has no self-control, and his conscience is drowning in alcohol.
But we also see him lie down beside the sand castle woman alone, as if he’s thinking of someone, something he once. Soon the tide will wash this woman away. Maybe the sea represents the way that time can take things away from us that we’ll never get back.
Like the 2 1/2 hours I spent watching this movie.
When Freddie returns, he’s given a pep talk about how he’s free to go and start life over again. He could start a business! Start a family! Put the war behind him!
But we can see that Freddie isn’t ready to just step into a normal life. He’s clearly damaged. He’s tortured by his experience in the war — we get only one brief flashback, and something has clearly shaken him up. He returns a changed man, with the physicality of someone 30 years his senior. He seems bent and burdened by memory, damage, and loss. He’s hard and hollowed out, like a twisted piece of driftwood. And he has the demeanor of a battered dog — sullen, twitchy, fearful, and explosively angry.
But he’s still good at three things: taking photographs, mixing dangerous cocktails, and then drinking his own concoctions.
So he gets a job as a photographer in a department store, and what does he photograph? Well-dressed, well-adjusted people. Families. Beautiful women. Successful and professional men. He’s focusing and honoring all of the treasures that are out of his reach: beauty, love, success, dignity.
The closest he gets to love is a few sexual thrills with a flirtatious shop girl inside his dark room. But even then he’s drunk on paint thinner, which is about as corrosive a beverage as you can imagine.
What happens to people who are denied love in childhood? What happens to the alienated, to the lonely? What happens to those who can’t catch a break? Add post traumatic stress disorder to the mix, and Freddie is a walking time bomb. As he takes pictures, we can hear an infant’s raging wail in the background, and it’s hard to tell whether that’s real or whether it’s Freddie’s state of mind, a rage of protest against a cruel world.
Soon, he’s looking for another job. And there, he gets into deeper trouble. He’s a disaster. And when people become that desperate for love and attention, they’re vulnerable to predators.
It’s a perfect setup for a story about seduction, manipulation, and abuse. This broken man who served America and was cast aside, given no help beyond a psychology test, is now lost, intoxicated, hunted, haunted, and lacking any kind of guidance.
And yeah, as Bob Dylan would say… you gotta serve somebody.
Isn’t Joaquin Phoenix amazing? He’s going to win the Grammy for Best Actor.
Sure, it’s the kind of performance that begs for Oscars. But damaged characters are not enough for a story.
I agree, but this story’s just getting started.
Sure enough, Freddie walks right into the hands of someone who can use him.
Philip Seymour Hoffman! He’s always great in Anderson films. And he was in The Big Lebowski too.
Well, okay… Hoffman isn’t the monster, but he plays one in the movie. Lancaster Dodd is the monster. He’s a pompous, self-satisfied philosopher who is becoming a cult leader. His book is called The Cause, and it has drawn a lot of eager believers. It involves reincarnation, a cycle of life, and an ongoing ascent toward perfection. Who wouldn’t want to leave their damaged past behind and become perfect? Especially after a war!
Don’t we all want to “get better” and leave our troubles behind?
I just want to leave this movie behind.
Freddie can’t “get better” without help. Dodd sees that. So what does Dodd offer Freddie that he can’t get elsewhere? Respect.
What’s more, Dodd accepts what Freddie has to offer… his alcoholic “potion.” That makes Freddie feel special, wanted, useful. From that time on, he’s putty in Dodd’s hands. This is a great depiction of how dangerous leaders in politics, business, and religion draw people in. I’ve seen it happen in churches: “Welcome! What can you do? Oh, we could use a fellow with your talents! We have a Christmas pageant coming up! And would you give your testimony on Sunday morning?” Flatter them. Make them feel like they’re part of the club. Put their gifts to use for you, so they feel useful.
Notice what unites these two: A beverage made with engine fuel. Remember how There Will Be Blood showed oil to be the power, like Sauron’s Ring, that corrupts everyone? Here, I sense that flammable substances continue to represent the allure of capitalism, the fuel that runs America. It unites both the opportunistic and wealthy charlatan and and the desperate worker on the edge of poverty. It unites and intoxicates both the salesman and the gullible consumer, making them feel powerful.
Now, Freddie feels valued. He’s been invited into a family at last. He has a respectable father figure, who shares with him, comforts him, and behaves toward him in a fatherly way. Freddie doesn’t understand Dodd’s philosophies or cult, and frankly, he never will. But so what? He given what seems to be “tough love.” He feels like he belongs. And hey, there are some pretty girls on Dodd’s boat, too.
Freddie’s initiation is called “informal processing.”
Oh, here we go. The big scene. The over-actor’s marathon.
It certainly does feel like the movie’s biggest scene. I wish there was something of this magnitude later in the film, but I don’t think anything ever matches it.
Anyway, Dodd asks a series of questions designed to make Freddie tell the truth about himself. Little by little, Dodd breaks down Freddie’s lies and feeble defenses and gets him to confess feelings, thoughts, history, and secrets. Now they have a bond of trust. Further, Dodd now has power over Freddie. But I don’t think Freddie sees what he’s done. He’s so happy to feel safe, to feel wanted, that he pours his heart into Dodd’s hands.
Dodd shows us what Freddie needs. But what does Dodd need? Why is he so drawn to Freddie?
He likes to control people. He’s a manipulator. Like you said, he’s a predator.
Sure, but maybe it’s more than that. Maybe Dodd is lonely too. Just look at his life. How can it be good for a person to live surrounded by yes-men?
His wife thinks so highly of him that she’ll tear down anybody who even questions him, including Dodd himself when he stumbles! Their marriage is kind of frightening. I don’t see much tenderness between them. By making a god of himself, Dodd creates a standard that it will prove exhausting to fulfill. Still, his wife wants him to fulfill it. Eventually, he’s going to realize that he’s deprived of authentic relationships and love, trapped in a fortress he built himself.
Isn’t Amy Adams amazing? I’ll bet she wins an Oscar. She was in The Muppets too.
Mrs. Yuk would not have liked their sex scene… if you call that a sex scene.
That glimpse of the Dodd’s sex life is a very disturbing revelation about the nature of their relationship, isn’t it?
Look, I get it. Dodd and Freddie… two masturbatory monsters who are meant to be together until they destroy each other. But does the movie have anywhere to go from there? No! They just chew up the scenery in one scene after another, each scenario set up to be shocking in some way. Nothing happens.
Well, by my lights, quite a bit is happening.
There’s another chapter that’s very important — the flashback to Freddie’s brush with true love. Remember Doris? We see that Freddie once fell in love with a girl who seemed like something special. But he moved on, like John Smith leaving Pocahontas behind in The New World, and now he realizes what he lost. She’s out there somewhere, a loose thread in his story, an unfulfilled dream.
Like Barry Egan in Punch-drunk Love, Freddie’s probably afraid that he’ll never find anybody who can love him as he is. Maybe that’s why he wants to believe Dodd’s promises. Maybe he wants to get better and find his way back to Doris.
I think you’re reaching. I think you’re finding meaning that isn’t there. Like Master and his theories, you’re making this stuff up as you go. Why does anybody want to follow this guy Dodd anyway? I don’t think it makes sense.
Dodd’s telling people what they want to hear. People like the idea of leaving the damage of their lives and starting again. A lot of them want to believe they’re on a steady march toward perfection. They like a system through which they can achieve an ideal. By seducing them with this, Lancaster becomes their priest. Just listen to his language. He tells Freddie, “Scrub yourself and make yourself clean.”
It’s kind of like what Christianity promises: Salvation. But in Christianity, salvation is a free gift. It’s grace. But people aren’t comfortable with that kind of generosity. They don’t trust it because they haven’t experienced it in the world around them. So, even within the Christian church, we keep creating these systems by which we measure someone’s “righteousness.” We come up with manmade systems so we can measure our progress… “earn points,” so to speak. In The Master, Dodd’s system is conditional: “Do what I say. Exalt me and follow my whims and instructions. Otherwise, you will be my sworn enemy.” In the meantime, do Lancaster Dodd and his wife look like models of perfection? Yikes.
The idea of The Cause is appealing to its creator, above all. He’s so painfully aware of corruption and despair that he longs for perfection; his philosophical constructs are all about reincarnation, about leaving the past behind, beginning again, and improving. He wants to punish his own weakness, to hate his own flawed state. But he wants to achieve perfection on his own terms, without serving anyone above himself.
So he focuses his controlling energies on one who is without control. He calls Freddie a “silly animal,” and all kinds of demeaning names, as if Freddie represents all of the qualities of himself he wants to suppress.
He also draws people in with the language of war, which is timely. At his daughter’s wedding, he declares, “We fought against the day and we won.” Fighting and winning. That’s language that Freddie understands. It gives him a cause to defend with his violence. He’ll fight back against anybody who dares question his Master… even though he cannot comprehend the ideas that make Dodd popular and influential.
You’re moving into the second half of the film. Aren’t you worried about spoilers?
Okay, time to shout out a spoiler-warning. We’re getting into the culminating events of the story.
[WARNING: What follows contains detailed spoilers about the conclusion of The Master.]
You might think that the story will end with Freddie falling apart. But that’s not what happens.
It’s Dodd who is falling apart. His own construct is crumbling, and he knows it.
Listen to the interesting shift in his philosophy as he finishes Book Two – The Split Sabre. He backs away from talking about certainties and systems, and starts talking about imagination. Why?
I’m not sure, but it seems to me that there’s more freedom in imagination than certainty. There’s more room for play and for mystery.
But when the word “imagination” enters into his philosophies, Dodd’s followers become uncomfortable. As with so many religions, followers want answers. They want certainties. They want to know who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. They don’t want to consider actual faith, which requires imagination and unknowns and mystery.
But Dodd is suffocating in the smoke he’s blown.
So now we’re set up for the next big turning point in the film. We’ve talked about the beginning. We’ve talked about the middle. And now, we’re going to talk about the end… which will make it a complete story.
Your argument is getting longer than the movie.
The last part of the film wraps up two ambitious stories: One is the story of a man in a prison of his own making, desperate for freedom, intimacy, and play. The other is about his willing prisoner who finally wakes up to the fact that he’s been sold a lie. The prisoner looks at these people and realizes that there is no “getting better” in this company.
Do you remember when Dodd said he’d found “the secret”? What was the secret?
And he’s right. That’s the secret of liberation.
In the film’s opening interrogation (or “processing”) Freddie tearfully shared a memory of his family, of his mother and father around a table. What were they doing in the memory? Sharing drinks at a table and laughing. Pretty much the opposite of what he’s experiencing with this family.
Near the conclusion, Dodd takes Freddie out into a wide open space, a wasteland, a void, and gets on a motorcycle with the giddiness of a boy with a new toy. He says that in this exercise he’ll “pick a point” in the distance and travel toward it as fast as he can. And he does, laughing all the way.
For a few moment, the Lancaster Dodd escapes himself, leaving “Master” behind, rocketing into freedom and laughter. Laughter.
To me, this scene suggests a great deal. The game seems to confirm that Dodd really has been “making this up as he goes.” He takes a step, picks a destination, takes another step, then picks another destination. But at this point, he’s feeling the need for speed, for sensation, for escape. He’s been living in his head, in meetings, in parties, in lectures, in his book. So what’s his next improvisation?
Like the U2 song goes: He wants to run, he wants to hide, he wants to tear down walls that hold him inside. He wants to go where the streets have no name.
This is the opposite of Dodd’s endeavors to this point: It’s non-cerebral. It’s a way of scratching an itch, the impulse that says “Flee.” And he rockets into the distance, to the confusion of his observers.
Then comes Freddie’s turn. What happens when Freddie gets on the motorcycle? He does what he’s told: He picks a point. What his guardians don’t realize is this: Freddie’s picked a meaningful point, the one that might be a way out. So Freddie speeds off toward a geographical point where he knows he lost his life’s greatest opportunity for true love.
On the motorbike, Dodd can only savor a few fleeting moments of freedom. But Freddie… he can keep on going. And he does.
What’s left beyond that? The inevitable. Freddie will realize what he probably feared: You can’t go back. You can’t turn back time. His dream girl, Doris, has moved on, taken by the surging seas of time.
Then he’ll come back, hanging his head, with nowhere left to go in the world. But is he welcomed back as a prodigal son? Is he shown grace? Not really.
The final meeting between Freddie and Dodd has strong connections with, and contrasts to, the scene in There Will Be Blood when young H.W. goes to Daniel Plainview’s office at the end of There Will Be Blood and announces that he’s going to live his own life. In Blood, Plainview rejects the boy in a volcanic eruption of rage, hatred, and jealousy. But Freddie’s parting from Dodd is different. In desperation, Dodd tries to seduce him, using appeals to friendship and a frightful threat, a power play. Dodd’s love is conditional: Obey, or become an enemy.
But Freddie knows that this is an invitation back to prison. He departs.
It’s a conclusion that’s tragic and exhilarating at the same time. We know that this will leave Dodd alone, truly alone, in hell. And Freddie will go free into the wilderness. He may not know who to serve, but he’s learned which masters to leave behind.
Is Freddie doomed? I don’t think so. We see him smiling in the midst of lovemaking with a young woman — named Winn, of all things! — who seems to be enjoying his company. She may be a friend, she may be a prostitute… who knows? The important thing is that we see real tenderness in their play. Freddie is not flustered by a moment of sexual awkwardness; he’s calm. They seem to enjoy each other’s company.
And what is more… laughter.
As they hold each other, Freddie begins to spout Dodd’s own controlling, condescending lines, but he does so playfully, in good humor. He’s free. The dark spell of charisma, persuasion, and control has been broken.
What a compassionate conclusion. Anderson’s storytelling here — and yes, the more I think about it, the more I admire this story — is the work of a man with a big heart. He does not judge his monstrous characters. He finds sympathy for them even at the heights of their delusion. There is tragedy, not celebration, in Dodd’s incarceration. There is no scorn or cynicism about Freddie as we leave him.
And so we see the light, mostly by looking at shadows. We know the value of a nation that supports its troops by seeing what happens when there is no real support. We see the value of a loving family by seeing a man who is lost without it. We see the value of tenderness, of trust, of grace, because we see what happens when they’re gone.
Judge (after a long silence):
If that movie existed, I might like to see it. But I still think you’re reaching.
Maybe I am. Maybe I’m just making it up as I go. But these are the things I thought about as I watched the movie. And I’m eager to go back to see if it adds more to these theories, or to see if it complicates them.
And I will admit, the second hour tested my patience. For the first hour, I was enthralled. I haven’t been that captivated at the movies in a long time. But there’s a stretch in the second hour when I felt a little bit lost. Then, after Dodd reveals his second book, things came to life gain for me.
It’s far too early for me to make any judgments about that. In art as in life, the truth must “dazzle gradually.”
Let’s go see it again.
Are you kidding? It’s Paul Thomas Anderson. If he made a commercial for dog food, I’d pay to see it.
Did you know he and Maya Rudolph are together, and they have kids?!