“The Master”: So Many Thoughtful Examinations and Interpretations, So Little Time!

Do you feel the tremors? Yeah, that’s the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie in theaters.

In-depth reviews are popping up everywhere. Craig Detweiler at Doc Hollywood has begun a three-part series called “The Master in Context.” It’s well worth your attention: Part OnePart Two, Part Three (coming soon).

I’ll offer several more thought-provoking links, but first, here’s what I wrote in response to Detweiler’s piece…

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.

In case you missed it earlier, here’s my first-impression review.

Two follow-up reviews are on the way soon.

Here are some more responses I found interesting and provocative as I continue to, um, “informally process” the film:

  • Dana Stevens (Thank goodness! I want to hear from more women in film criticism about this movie. Lauren Wilford? Alissa Wilkinson? Where are your reviews?) has seen the film several times now, and says:

But ultimate meaning aside, what made revisiting The Master such a joy was the nuts-and-bolts details of it, the way the film’s many moving parts shifted each time. Scenes that had seemed inscrutable on the first go-round blossomed into sense. Formerly insignificant moments migrated to the foreground, while other scenes that had felt integral suddenly seemed extraneous. This kaleidoscope effect isn’t some magical quality inherent to The Master, of course—it’s what happens when you revisit any work of art that’s formally inventive and thematically rich. But the truth is that such works don’t come along all that often, and part of the fun when they do is to keep on turning the kaleidoscope to see what new patterns emerge.

If the processing/auditing that the Master encourages is designed to shed oneself of the negative emotions and troubles of our past lives, consider the possibility that Freddie might actually be, at least on a metaphoric level, one of Lancaster Dodd’s past lives. (Which makes the oft-stated question in the film of where they might have met a more haunting one.) If Dodd constantly leaves his troubles behind, Freddie appears to be made up entirely of troubles — the family that abandoned him, the girl back home who didn’t wait for him, the war that broke him… Like the negative energy of New Yorkers that collects in the sewers of the city in ‘Ghostbusters II,’ Freddie is, in many ways, the return of the repressed for Lancaster Dodd — a Frankenstein’s Monster of troubled memories, rejections, and unspoken spiritual longings.

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  • Erik Naydiuk

    This has never happened to me before: around halfway through the movie, my desire to engage with the character and story sort of turned off. “There Will Be Blood” is one of my favorite films of the past few years, and I could see Paul Thomas Anderson’s painstakingly specific and careful direction in this film as well, and I have no doubt that he knows what he’s doing and that he including everything he including for a reason. I’m that for some, it was a valuable experience, but for me it was just overbearingly unpleasant (not just the sexual content – though even that was a little much for me, and I’m no prude) to the point where I wasn’t thinking about anything other than how uncomfortable I was. That being said, the movie has stayed in my head ever since I watched it, and all this discussion is making me pretty sure that it’ll be worth revisiting one day, even if that’s not for awhile.

    (Also, I think Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves awards attention, not that those really gauge anything accurately these days. Joaquin Phoenix was a little over the top for my liking – but that’s a first impression. If and when I see it again, my opinion could completely change, about Phoenix and about everything.)

  • Susan Mullen

    Reading this blog entry makes me feel like a Philistine. When I go to the movies, I like to just sit back and have the experience. I don’t analyze it. I might think, “Wow!” or “yipes!” or something like that, but to me it would take the fun away if I felt compelled to analyze any part of it. The one thing I do is decide if I could recommend the movie to someone I care about. For example, I loved “The First Grader” but I could not recommend it to many people because of one particularly violent scene. I also loved “The Secret of Roan Inish”, but I can think of several friends who would be bored out of their minds by it. “Enchanted April” is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned, but some people might be turned off because they could only see it as a chick flick. All that said, I guess detailed analysis of a movie is fine if everyone enjoys it. One of those “YMMV” things, and my mileage definitely varies.

  • craigdetweiler

    Big, big fun here, Jeffrey. So rare that we get such a messy and complex movie to dig into, huh?!


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