Paul Thomas Anderson and the Perplexing Genius of ‘The Master’

Christopher Karr


Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “The Master,” is his most consciously esoteric movie to date. As the scenes add up, you have a growing suspicion that you’re missing something. Or that something is missing. I’m still not completely sure which is the case. All I can say is that the movie invokes the same experience as a queasy-strange nightmare that gradually churns to a haunting, perplexing conclusion.


“The Master” is a perfectly photographed collection of spooky musical numbers, scenes, monologues, flashbacks, dreams and concentration exercises. The setting is 1950 and the main character is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). We watch as he attempts to tame his inner animal throughout the course of the film. We’re given excerpts from his life — he was in the Navy in World War II, he left his love behind, and he has a passion for milking any substance of its alcoholic content.


The first nonperipheral turning point in the movie occurs when Freddie, now a slouchy photographer in a department store, puts the lights so close to his plump subject that a scrappy brawl ensues. Freddie chokes the man with his tie. “I wanna get the lighting right,” he says, calmly. It’s one of several scenes that bubble with delightful menace. Freddie’s an unbridled prankster and he’s crudely funny, like the middle-school class clown.


The department store photography gig behind him, Freddie is adrift. While roaming the pier one evening, he spots a large boat. Upon the deck, a handsome couple twirls together under the golden yellow lights.  Freddie ultimately finds himself on the boat with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose referred to as “Master” by his devotees. The rest of the film explores the enigmatic interactions between Freddie and Lancaster (“the Master” — get it?).



At some level, “The Master” is mystifying in its simplicity. The flash that Anderson was accused of using too much of in “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999) is absent here. “The Master” is like a curious thematic sequel to his last film. The two seem inextricably linked because at the end of “There Will Be Blood” (2007), cold-blooded, murderous capitalism (personified by Daniel Plainview) wins the battle against shamelessly invented religious rhetoric (personified by Eli Sunday). The implication is that the resulting gibberish of three Great Awakenings would ultimately have its brains bashed in by the blunt force of the almighty dollar. Money wins in the end because it alone has the power to cripple and crush.


“The Master” reverses this thematic idea. Religious superstition didn’t die — it repackaged itself as applied science. This is how Dodd presents the beliefs of the Cause, and his ability to persuade grants him a considerable amount of power. It’s as if Anderson is continuing the dialogue about the American institutional power struggle between capitalism and religious fanaticism that he began with his last film. It’s a two-part story about the idealogical making of America.


Freddie and Lancaster — much like Daniel Plainview and Eli — are two sides of the same coin. Lancaster claims to have mastered his animal instincts, or implants, or whatever it is he calls them, but his actions tell us otherwise. (Notice how he handles confrontations with those who question his assertions.) Freddie might be a bit of an animal, but he also possesses a naive sweetness that’s completely alien to a charlatan like Lancaster.



Both men finally wind up barking at each other in prison, like two caged animals. Lancaster’s promise to heal Freddie is a tragic one, and that single note of tragedy is repeated again and again until the movie is over. Rather than plot points, the movie progresses through a steady line of pulses of Freddie’s failure.


The power of the pseudo-religious lies in manipulation. Lancaster makes the kind of untestable assertions that persuade those who are easily persuaded and lost. The film hints at several profound questions. How can Lancaster cure Freddie if he can’t even cure himself? And how can he cure himself — or anyone — if, as several characters suggest, he’s making it up as he goes along and changing his own rules on a whim? Is man capable of change? Master has answers, but we’re not convinced.



The turning point for Paul Thomas Anderson was “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002), that splendidly bizarre blend of Adam Sandler, Godard-like surrealism, Utah, Hawaii, phone sex, sister issues and a Harry Nilsson song that was sung, eerily, by Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s “Popeye” (1980). I don’t just mention the song, “He Needs Me,” to call attention to Anderson’s eclectic taste. I mention it because it was the embodiment of that movie’s theme and tone. One of his unparalleled strengths as a filmmaker is his ability to harmonize a wide variety of aesthetic elements into a cohesive story. While his choices might baffle, they are far from arbitrary.


Since “Punch-Drunk Love,” there has been a shift in Anderson’s structural approach. Rather than large, complex mosaics of interlocking stories, character took precedence over story. In “Punch-Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood,” engrossing stories grew out of character. Barry Egan, strengthened by the sugary rush of love (and his own burning rage), is forced to face his nemesis. Daniel Plainview, empowered by money and booze (and his own burning rage), is forced to face his nemesis.


Now “The Master,” on the other hand, begins with a character, Freddie, and by the end absolutely nothing has changed. Freddie goes nowhere. This is problematic because it’s the change that we witness in Barry and Daniel that shocks us and sucks us in. Whenever we’re moved at the cinema (or the theatre, or by reading any kind of prose) it’s because of the change, the evolution that occurs. That evolution is, in fact, the only reason we bought a ticket in the first place. Without development, we’re left wanting, unsettled, and feeling slightly cheated, even wronged.



The reason “The Master” leaves one feeling this way is because the most compelling character in the film — indeed, the only real character period — doesn’t change. This is Joaquin Phoenix’s film, maybe even more so than Paul Thomas Anderson’s. Phoenix, lumbering around apishly, spends the movie searching. For what? He doesn’t know — and by the end, neither do we. Freddie is an aimlessly destructive nomad, seeking out answers for questions he can’t even formulate, doomed to remain a slave to his animalistic itches for sex and violence.



It’s easy to see how the setup for such a character appealed to Phoenix. An actor fearless enough to disappear into the kind of role that he took on in Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here” (2010) is fearless enough to try anything.


Apparently, I’m one of very few people on earth who thought Phoenix was superb in “I’m Still Here.” People still speak of him as if he’s a drugged-out mess because of his two-year immersion into the character of a talented actor who suddenly snapped because he could no longer take the media circus and the traditional movie-making process, seriously. Rather than go through the standard facade of scripting a fictional satire, Phoenix played his role in real time and space. The entertainment media did the rest.


I suspect that what Phoenix discovered during the making of “I’m Still Here” was that improvisation offers the actor freedom to explore new possibilities. A screenplay, worthwhile when recognized as the blueprint that it is, specifies and even confines. It traps the actor into a fixed action. It’s the fixed aspect of this action that wearies the actor, especially when he’s working with a Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher or any other director known for doing 100 or more takes.


The tediousness of a such a task forces the contemplative player to imagine other possibilities. Brando was known for hiding index cards around the set so that, rather than learning his lines, he would literally have to search for them. “Acting involves the joy of self-discovery,” Pauline Kael wrote in her review of “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), a largely improvised film that featured a breakthrough performance by Brando. “To the most instinctive, creative part of acting — to bring out and give form to what you didn’t know you had in you; it’s the surprise, the ‘magic’ in acting. A director has to be supportive for an actor to feel both secure enough and free enough to reach into himself.”


I thought of Brando often as I watched Phoenix in “The Master.” And not just the Brando who played Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) when he was in his late 20s, but the older, rumpled, withered, wrecked Brando of “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). Phoenix channels the reckless rebelliousness of Brando, shuffling and mumbling and buzzing with impulsiveness.


His interpretation of Freddie is broadly comic, absurd and startling. Phoenix plays Freddie as a tight-lipped depiction of id. In an interview with Time, he said “Te key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id....I just watched videos of wild animals...If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. It’s complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all.”



A recent article in the Los Angeles Times details how Phoenix replaced a scripted scream with an improvised fart. It occurs during an intense, cramped scene in which Freddie is told to not blink while responding to a string of questions from the Master. As written, Freddie responds to the question “Are you unpredictable?” with a scream.


Phoenix told the Times, “I was worried about it for months. This is horrible. I’m stuck on this little piece. I’m just going to have to do something that feels unexpected for me.” At which point he obtained a flatulence machine, which he said he needed in order to “kill the expectation of the scream, because I felt this pressure to do this thing that I couldn’t do.”


Ultimately, the wind-breaking replaced shrieking. “At a certain point, Joaquin is just incapable of faking it,” Anderson told David Ansen in a recent interview. “He’s like Daniel [Day-Lewis], his level of concentration. He just got in character and stayed there — for three months he didn’t stop. Joaquin is very unpredictable. A lot of the time I didn’t know what he was going to do.”


Actors come to life when they collaborate with a director who allows them to live in the moment. “The Master” is one of the few films that is completely character-driven. But the term character-driven is a bit unfair because it implies that there’s a narrative vehicle that’s operated by the guiding hands of a protagonist. So “The Master” is more character-based than character-driven. It’s so character-based that nothing happens. This is, of course, a kind of hyperbole. Events take place, but there’s no conclusion. The film simply stops when the running time is over, but the ending is so enigmatic it’s irrelevant. The end result is that of a committed actor adrift within a character adrift within a movie.



The fact of the matter is that the first 20 minutes of “The Master” are flawless, the final 20 minutes should have been deleted without hesitation, and the 100 minutes in between contain about one dozen scenes that are so perfectly orchestrated they sting and intoxicate. Unfortunately, those dazzling snippets and sequences — Dodd quizzing Freddie in the dark, sharing side-by-side jail cells, taking turns riding a motorcycle into the distance, digging up the Master’s buried unpublished work — are slathered in a time-shifting molasses of extraneous shots. There’s so much fat that you feel too full and queasy to enjoy the meat.



The making of Anderson’s first three films receives a detailed account in Sharon Waxman’s fascinating Rebels on the Backlot. The first cut of his debut picture, “Hard Eight” (1996), was nearly two-and-and-half hours long. Producer Robert Jones called it “interminable.” Anderson response: “This is my cut. I’m not touching a frame.” In 2004, he told Waxman that Jones was right, referring to the whole debacle as “a mess of egos.”


But the same scenario happened again when Anderson screened “Boogie Nights” for New Line executives. They were reportedly thrilled with the film, but with a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes it was just too long. After a tedious back and forth with the MPAA, it was ultimately trimmed down to 155-minutes. On the commentary track for “Boogie Nights,” Anderson acquits himself of the criticism of length: “There are people who say this movie is too long, and it might be, but the bottom line is that nobody has to watch [it] more than me....And the second you realize that you just go, I've got to entertain myself first, and maybe accidentally some other people will be entertained. I think that's the way to approach it.”


And that was exactly how he approached “Magnolia” when he presented the project to New Line’s Michael De Luca. “The script is 190 pages. The movie is three hours.” Anderson also held the trump card: final cut. In the behind the scenes documentary “That Moment: ‘Magnolia’ Diary,” actor William H. Macy recalls his first reaction to the massive screenplay. “I thought it was astounding. I went to Paul and I said, ‘It’s great, it’s great, it’s a little long.’ He goes, ‘You f**king c******ker! I’m not gonna cut one goddamn word of this thing!’ So then I talked to Julianne Moore. I said, ‘What’d you think of the script?’ She said, ‘Amazing. It’s a little long.’ I said did you tell Paul that?” She did. Anderson’s reply: ‘You f**king c******ker! I’m not gonna cut one goddamn word!’”


Running time is a significant aspect of Anderson’s style. Like Scorsese or Kubrick or Coppola or David Lynch, he paints upon large palates. And he possesses an extraordinary gift for manipulating cinematic time. “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood” don’t feel like three-hour films because there’s so much depth crammed into every corner. His two 90-minute movies feels longer than they actually are.


Anderson’s movies entrance and hypnotize, they induce a dream in the imagination of the viewer. Like “Mulholland Drive,” “Eraserhead,” “Inland Empire,” “The Shining” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Master” maintains a steady, music-heavy tone of ominousness. By the end the scenes spill over into the surreal, and those are the moments that leave most audience members in the dust.



In “Magnolia,” frogs fell from the sky. “Punch-Drunk Love” climaxes with Barry transcending time and space to find his extortioner. “There Will Be Blood,” grounded and realistic, presents narrative curiosities that go answered. (Are Paul Sunday and Eli Sunday the same person? Anderson maintains a poker face.) These phantasmagorical elements are the manifestations of subtle themes. I’m not sure what motivates the abrupt jolts of surrealism that appear toward the end of “The Master.”


Maybe it’s because Anderson, like Kubrick and Lynch, is a cunning prankster. His movies are so funny and surprising that you forget to laugh. Or rather, there is such a symphony of sight and sound that a good number of harmless jokes slide by unnoticed. Unlike directors of broad comedy, Anderson doesn’t underline and italicize his sense of humor. Neither did Kubrick or Lynch, which is why every single one of their films were instantly misunderstood upon release.


Be forewarned: the following paragraphs will focus on the ending. I’m reluctant to type “spoiler alert” because any knowledge of this film’s conclusion beforehand will not, I promise you, diminish your film-going experience. Because, finally, “The Master” is a series of scenes in search of a movie. I do consider Anderson to be not only my personal favorite filmmaker, but one of the most gifted writer-directors in the world. He’s not a hasty industry-appeasing lapdog, cranking out movies at a rapid pace. (“The Master” was five years in the making.) His movies are carefully thought-out and executed with a masterful attention to detail.


So we can rule out careless filmmaking when we arrive at a scene in which Lancaster conducts an impromptu singalong during which, suddenly, all the women appear nude. The filming of the scene subtly implies that we’re watching the jamboree through Freddie’s perspective. If so, for what purpose? To further illustrate his obsession with the female body? We got the point.


During the last 20 minutes, Anderson hurls the audience without warning into what I’m pretty sure is a dream sequence. Given its innate oddness, I can see no other plausible explanation. The dream leads to Freddie taking a trip to England to visit Lancaster, where they have one final encounter. I won’t reveal the result of the encounter, but let’s just say that the emphatic themes of personal disappointment and hopelessness is reaffirmed yet again. In the final frame of the movie, the character is seen — literally — back where he started at the very beginning, clutching a giant sand-made structure of a woman. 


How is one to respond to these scenes? Lancaster says the key to life is laughter, and that might also be the key to the film. When in doubt, laugh. Anderson wants to stimulate laughter with strangeness, as did Phoenix when he first saw the film. “I thought it was a comedy,” he told Time. “I laughed the entire time I was watching it....I said to [Anderson], ‘This is hilarious’....I think discomfort is funny — partly because I experience discomfort a lot, and it’s a way of laughing at it and getting a release.” One imagines that Anderson was laughing along with his muse, partly because he knew that he was pulling a fast one on the audience. Referring to Freddie’s alcoholic mixtures, Anderson told the San Francisco Chronicle, “So much of it is borderline ridiculous.”


“Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood” are two of the greatest films ever made — American masterpieces that should be as studied and revered as the poetry of prophets. “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Boogie Nights” are exceptional entertainments, and, in retrospect, they seem like transitional pictures. “Boogie Nights” is a precursor to the superior tragicomic opera “Magnolia.” The eccentricity of “Punch-Drunk Love” paved the way for the bold departure “There Will Be Blood.” It may be too soon to tell, but I suspect “The Master” is another transition.


To what? It’s been well publicized that his next project is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, certainly the most screen-friendly work in the author’s canon. This occurred to me several times while watching “The Master.”


Anderson, like Pynchon, exists within a mysterious cloud of intrigue, and over the years he’s grown less fond of granting commentaries and interviews. He also has a small but definitive body of work that is perhaps slightly overpraised by his most devout fans. Add to this elements of juvenile sexuality, silly character names, meditations on World War II, the navy, strangeness for strangeness’ sake, playfully dry gags, thematic duality, a secret society, contrary to the fact occurrences, sudden escapes into hallucinatory surrealism and you have “The Master” — an experiment that feels every bit like a preparation for translating Pynchon to the screen.


Count on Anderson’s next film to be a masterpiece. The mixture of his innumerable gifts as a filmmaker with Pynchon’s phantasmagorically potheaded 1970s L.A. noir might be the most perfect cinematic director-novelist marriage since Howard Hawks met William Faulkner. In the meantime, “The Master” will remain a prolix curiosity. At least the maker and his muse are laughing.

Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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