“And not being simple, he is not simply good.”
— Lionel Trilling, Freud and Literature
A child of California, Paul Thomas Anderson has chosen to let the elements of the Western state fuse with his artistic DNA, as so happened with Orson Welles and John Huston before him. Son of a charming and minor entertainer, Anderson has taken the ostensibly superficial and silly world of entertainment very seriously. In “Boogie Nights” a porn director with a funny haircut becomes the father figure to a family of spiritual orphans. In “Magnolia” the ridiculous, sexed-up misogynist motivational speaker Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise) is slapped in the face with a death in the family. “There Will Be Blood” was Anderson’s entry into the canon proper and had unforgettable lines like “I drink your milkshake.” Simple, silly, and yet it sounds serious. There within the seething drive of competition, Daniel Plainview has to lighten up a bit to learn a few snake oil salesman tricks so he can better hock his oil drilling services up the impoverished coasts of California. His one true goal being to clear some space between himself and all of those people in whom he sees “nothing worth liking.”
Perhaps it is Anderson’s tendency to examine the primordial energies within men that causes most people to feel nervous or confused. Or maybe the tension comes from the bold steps he takes toward themes like the conflict and pain between fathers and sons. Knowing that he’s using such potent materials, Anderson is reluctant to talk about his creations too much. He seems to know that we “the audience” don’t like to get serious unless we have to. When Anderson does talk he knows we think him weird (crudely putting it) or “interesting” (to put it how a well-mannered film curator would). He thus appears polite, nervy, intense and on-guard, possibly sensitive to the judgments of the crude and the cultured. It is this nervous energy of his that distinguishes his new period of work (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) from anything else he has done, and gives this range of work its recent strangeness.
My favorite comment from a friend is pretty par for the course and goes like this: “It is beyond me to understand what the hell that film means. Joaquin is just absolutely insane — deserves Best Actor hands down.” The two ladies next to me in the theater were less receptive to Joaquin’s “insane” genius. About the fourth time he poured paint thinner down his esophagus the ladies hit the road. It’s pretty hard to accept our “hero” when he is a man like Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled pacific war veteran, who is such a drunk, incoherent, and stubbornly primitive man. It seems as if he is incapable of real change.
He doesn’t appear to have a redeeming quality, other than a kind of sincerity that comes through in Freddie’s rare relaxed moments. He gets along in this world by sharing his liquor concoctions. He pursues sex all the time with a kind of desperate laziness. Phoenix gives Freddie Quell a primal quality, reportedly inspired to do so after watching apes on YouTube. In one scene he hurriedly piles his plate full of food at a lunch buffet for The Cause, a minor religious group lead by The Master a.k.a. Lancaster Dodd. Yet, he’s the kind of barbarian which the The Master and The Cause seem to welcome naturally. This, to me, is a part of Anderson’s understated humor.
Now, are we entertained by the way it seems to hurt this mentally ill creature to even talk? Should we laugh at his oblivious way? This is what Joaquin’s silent physical comedy compels us to consider. Would we feel bad for laughing? In “Django, Unchained,” for example, we can easily, and in good liberal conscience, laugh at the idiot Southern slave owners who can’t make their own Klan masks. In historical hindsight we know slavery to be a clear evil, and our colleges tell us that racism is bad and is everywhere. It is our country’s original sin. But what to make of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd is a more confusing affair entirely, these men are not whipping anyone or engaging in any of the other gruesome activities found in a film like “Django.” But there certainly is another kind of harm being inflicted.
So Freddie, without much thought, joins Lancaster Dodd’s small religious group. There are a few parties where he feels welcomed into the social club. As the story progresses he is subjected to Lancaster’s experiments in mind control. We assume these experiments will end up in a book that will in turn help the other seekers in The Cause.
In interviews Anderson has alluded to a central fact that he was interested in wayfaring strangers who were looking for some good in Post-War America, order in the seeming disorder. Whatever “The Good” is, these people in The Cause are ardently looking for it. We hear it in the humble piano hymnal before one of Dodd’s ridiculous speeches. On the extravagant boat trip we again face the humility of self-betterment when four women sit at a listening station on the boat with headphones on. The narrator on the recording is The Master, and he tells them they are higher than the animals and they can become better people. He massages their egos further by telling them that the lives they have been given do not explain the reality of their experience. Rather, the lives we are living now are full of lies, distractions, and misdirection.
With the help of The Cause we are awakened to our past lives. The goal of the lectures, the experiments, and the training programs of The Cause is to “easily go back to our inherent state of perfect,” a condition which apparently existed before we were unfairly handed these difficult lives. Amid this earnestness, and in Freddie Quell’s inebriated willingness to try it out, we see that we have a predator in the midst of the group, and what one skeptical onlooker calls “a cult.”
And that was where I started to get the uneasy feeling, the nervous sensation we get when we are in the presence of what used to be called human evil. There is another moment where Freddie, now a true believer, is trying to listen to a presentation. A newly married woman slides up beside him and starts inching her fingers up his inner thigh. This is the world Freddie has dropped into, and it is not safe territory. The scenes in the house when Freddie is manipulated are accompanied by dirge-like strings, and the emotional effect is a weird blend of tension and sorrow. One unforgettable shot features a dubious reunion of Freddie and Master after they were arrested and had a bitter argument. They greet each other by wrestling. But before they do Anderson has placed into the frame a child on a tricycle, cycling up to the steps. At the top of the steps Lancaster Dodd watches on, pleased, he repeats “good” in sweet tones. When the men start to wrestle, the child disappears into the house.
Freddie, a possible victim of sexual abuse as we are told he’s had sex with his aunt, is even read pornography Clockwork Orange-style, which is to say it is a form of aversion hypnosis, by Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams). But the real trick is in the flattery. The Master made Freddie feel appreciated and wanted before they started in on the harsher forms of processing. “You are the bravest boy I’ve ever met,” Dodd tells Freddie as they slam down Freddie’s “potions.” In Anderson’s world the darkness is palpable. First there were the dark oil-smeared tones in “There Will Be Blood.” By virtue of the characters being less cunning than they might like, “The Master’s” shades of darkness are rendered more benign than the tones of the eminent oil saga.
A word should be said about the vulgarity of Freddie and just the perversity of this whole enterprise in general. Those of us with a mischievous sense of humor will find much to admire in Joaquin Phoenix’s first lines, “You know how to get rid of crabs?” Our other introduction to Freddie is seeing what he can do to a woman sand sculpture. If the viewer lets the vulgarity or perversity of these characters disqualify “The Master” from serious consideration, then they risk missing something crucial to this journey the director spent so much time on. Anderson, who once shortened his name to reference PT Barnum and Bailey, may have more tricks up his sleeve, and surely has more in mind than merely grossing us out. In fact, if the women next to me in the theater who were so disgusted with Freddie’s behavior and drinking had stayed with the film a little longer, they might have found the peculiar ways in which the director eventually confers dignity upon surely one of the most wretched personalities ever put to film.
After his first fight with Dodd in the prison, the wheels start turning in Freddie’s head. He comes back to The Cause’s house where Lancaster, one of his goons, and Peggy begin a series of experiments in hypnosis and manipulation with Freddie in the midst of a dozen onlookers. They continually bring up the subject of Freddie’s true love that he abandoned, a young woman named Doris. As they dredge the memories up the group literally at times puts him up against a wall, and his only possible reaction is to bang on the wall savagely. If he makes it to a window Freddie claws at it, yearning to get out. I have mentioned the tension and sorrow because it was most palpable in this sequence of events.
I have mentioned naturalism in respect to Anderson’s style because it is so far a cry from his early exuberance and indulgence in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” where Anderson lets a scene run on just to finish a good pop song. There is still the vivid music of personality, but nothing ever sticks out that would get in the way of the film. It is Anderson’s discipline here that strikes us, those who’ve avidly followed his films, as being restrained. Here, when Freddie gets in a fight at his job the camera stands very still, and then slides along with Freddie as he makes his getaway and the natural sound of things dropping echoes coldly. In the silence of the real, the event feels heavier. When writing of John Huston, James Agee called this kind of film making “honoring your audience.”
Elsewhere, after the raw acting powers of the first interrogation fade, the movie goes silent again as we delve into the memory of Freddie and Doris. This silence ends with Doris singing acapella. Anderson then moves to a scene where Freddie reveals a shade of unutterable sweetness by letting the young girl only kiss him on the cheek, even though it was a real kiss she wanted.
By the time we reach the final hypnosis scenes we have entered into a kind of hypnotic state that seems surreal, yet nothing that has happened on screen has been unnatural, and certainly the shades and different sides of the characters is not lost on the attentive viewer. This blend, of the dreamy drift of memory and the natural, of largely interesting and round human characters would be impressive enough. But then throw in the patches of symbolism laced throughout that cause us to speculate further on what it is we are seeing. The images of The Sea and The Mother, for one, play in and out within the gorgeous blues of the ocean, and again in an intricately constructed sand sculpture. There’s the two sequences that could be taken for a dream. One scene depicts a fairly normal party with singing and dancing, but with a notable exception: all the men are dressed while all the women, young and old, are naked. Yet no one appears bothered by this. The other scene is where Freddie receives a phone call out of the blue while he sits in a theater where Casper the Friendly Ghost is showing. All this works a kind of spell under the discipline of old-fashioned film making. Anderson also chose to shoot “The Master” on 70mm film. When was the last time you saw 70mm, “Lawrence of Arabia”? “2001: A Space Odyssey?” And this may puzzle some in the audience the most. Why treat Freddie Quell as if his story is as grand as that of “Lawrence of Arabia” or “2001: A Space Odyssey”? Maybe it’s because we are all sick nowadays. The “Silver Linings Playbook’s” popularity seems to signal this by blending conventional romantic comedy tropes into a chaotic mix of people with personality disorders. In both movies the mental fight is the one where the most is at stake.
How to keep one’s head when it is hard to be liked, and here among those in The Cause even Freddie wants it as bad as anyone else. One of Lancaster’s minions is trying to mess with Freddie during a processing session. He insults Freddie as Lancaster watches studiously. In this moment, we see Freddie starts acquiring a measure of personal strength. With a smile Freddie tells the interrogator that he fought in the war, saved lives, has the medals, “what did you do?” Later we see that whatever it was Dodd was looking for didn’t make it to the book, because he had to change the thesis. Dodd’s failure is somehow in balance with Freddie gaining some personal freedom. Freddie’s new found confidence is later played off against Lancaster Dodd’s saccharine dream that he and Freddie were in the military sending off messenger balloons together. Freddie has watched Dodd at work; he knows that the level of detail Dodd uses to fabricate and entice people is a part of the trick, a tool of flattery. And in this refusal to believe in Dodd’s false memories, Freddie, a real war vet after all, attains a piece of his own mind.
Like “There Will Be Blood” the film ends when a son figure must accept or reject the father figure. By this moment Freddie Quell has under our noses experienced what all heroes in novels are supposed to, he has experienced change. He knows himself. He will go drink, but he will not be controlled, at least by men like Dodd. And that’s a lot of freedom. Consider how many focus groups, clubs, ad men, politicians, religions, friends and enemies are vying for our minds and dollars. When Quell goes back to look for Doris, when he is finally ready, we see by the look of disappointment on his face as he learns Doris moved on without him that he is what Freud has said of man, someone with a kind of hell inside him, yes, but also a creature of love. And hasn’t this been what Anderson has been working with all this time, in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love” and briefly in the couple who gets away in “There Will Be Blood”? In these strange, percussive, vibrant movies where violence is never shown without the accompanying feeling of emptiness and where affections are complicated in people like Quiz Kid Donnie Smith of “Magnolia,” who confess in bars that they have a lot of love to give, they just don’t know where to put it. “It is Freud’s sharpest criticism of the Adlerian psychology that to aggression it gives everything and to love nothing at all,” Lionel Trilling wrote. And it is Anderson’s sharpest criticism of Hollywood that to violence we give everything, and to love we give a few good reviews.
Some of the rich comedy of “The Master” is that these people always seem to be running from the law. Watching “The Master” made me recall images on CNN of Mormon women running in and out of grocery stores, trying to keep their faces away from the news cameras. Anderson Cooper is asking experts how these people can still marry multiple wives in THIS country. And Amy Adams’s dress in “The Master” has some chaste element in common with what the fundamentalist Mormon women wear. After watching for a while we forget it was rumored to be The Scientology movie. “The Master” overall has a more universal appeal as a story about upstart fringe religions, and it has more power than a film about ever Scientology could. Anderson’s choice of using elements of Scientology is to employ a lightweight version of what Harold Bloom calls “The American Religion,” a deep inward conviction most Americans have that is not classically Christian in the “Love Thy Neighbor” sense, but more private, like a quiet “knowing” relationship with God. This feeling, he says, plays into America’s dominant religious groups–one of which, Mormonism, was started by an authentic religious genius. In the American Religion the believer knows God, or at least the spirit which is as old as him. This widespread knowing, consequently, leaves us open to the imaginations of so many enterprising new religious “leaders.” To use a minor religion ends up humanizing Lancaster Dodd and works more towards the goal of comedy. So far here I may have painted him as a villain, and he is not that. When he plays dress up for his book jacket photos we laugh, and in his straining in a search for something to write we may feel pity. But nevertheless the pressure is on to “know” something that he can communicate to the spiritually hungry, and as the events play out we find that he knows far less than he lets on.
There is something about the America that Anderson is looking at that causes men to see themselves as Gods. “I am the Third Revalation!” Plainview the capitalist booms to the corrupt evangelist in “There Will Be Blood.” And here Dodd walks among his flock with the grace and ease of a successful by-the-bootstraps ego, convincing his congregation that he is the real seer who can lead them to a better life. But again, Anderson’s moral naturalism lets us see that Plainview inhabits a dark place that is not appealing to most of us and in “The Master” we see in one blunt scene that Dodd’s wife Peggy is in fact controlling him–later when Dodd earnestly tells Freddie that above all he is a man, he is very right.
Anderson read Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith” when prepping the script, so he knows what real human charisma is, the singular aura that marks a true prophet or seer. Dodd is continually changing his mind and the stress gets to him. He doesn’t have the audacious confidence of the religious charismatic. But there is something of the upstart religion-making tendency that gives “The Master” its sweep and relevance to some wider narrative. We see a man whose grand scheme is not unlike many of our own, to reach that state of perfect (or somewhere kind of close). Dodd’s mumbo jumbo dreams include dragon slayings, trips to the pyramids and other colorful metaphors. But his goal does have something in common with those who have had a more permanent impress on our landscape. Again, in The American Religion Bloom says there is a spirit in man that is older than the creation of Earth. American religionists seek “freedom from mere conscience; reliance upon experiential perception.” So Dodd is on to something by telling people that the lives they are living are not all there is. His “past lives” is in the American cultural/religious tradition’s “the presence of God within” or an innocence of a self redeemed. All this has not much to do with the temporal world around us. “What the American self has found, since about 1800,” Bloom says, “is its own freedom–from the world, from time, from other selves. But this freedom is a very expensive torso, because of what it is obliged to leave out: society, temporality, the other. What remains, for it, is solitude and the abyss.”
This Freedom, in Anderson’s world manifests itself in a group that has to find secret houses in which to practice medicine and party boats on which to marry off the mainland; The Cause is constantly fleeing society, and the ex-wives and the critics, the damned “city” that Peggy Dodd is so weary of.
Is this your ship?
Where is it going?
So asks Quell when he meets Dodd, in one of the many suggestive moments in this film that gives itself enough space to play out like a journey.
To understand that people do need this pursuit and are on a personal journey is in some way to skirt irony and cynicism. And it can be agreed that Anderson has stood apart from his peers time and again for doing that. From this well of belief, past and present, cultish and widespread, cultural and private, he has drawn deeply whether he meant to or not. What is left for us is the rich pathos of all these lives adrift in what we now see is a body of work with recurring themes and struggles; and he tells, here, a story of the part of man that wants to get back.
Anderson is pretty audacious for playing with such potent materials. But interpretations to come on “The Master” will attest to the worthiness of his idiosyncratic ambition, or Cause even. As an artist, he is to be singled out as one like no other right now. I would put forward here that Anderson is so keenly affected by forces of joy, seen in the performances, the music of The London Contemporary Orchestra, the images, the rich color, and also the forces of evil, seen in the quicksilver changes of Dodd’s methods and moods. To know joy and to fear evil, these are the twin poles of heightened perception we can identify with human genius. As such, there is only a certain kind of film this person can make. It’s out of his hands. In an hour long interview in Australia where Anderson himself has to drink in order to go on, he is subjected to questions like this.
Film Student: Your films are about very flawed characters. What is your biggest flaw?
Anderson: (taken aback) Ummm. That I’m too polite.
Later he is asked what recent movies he has enjoyed. He says the Seth McFarlane flick “Ted.” Also he laments that no one asks him to do projects like Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. I believe him when he says he enjoys those things, as we should too. But a certain sensibility is simply unable to produce the long sought after escapism.
Epilogue: He’s Still Here
In the opening chapter of Joaquin Phoenix’s celebrity he had little control. His talented brother River Phoenix fell victim to a drug overdose and died in his arms outside the Los Angeles club The Viper Room. The image played in the Phoenix mythology is that of the young Joaquin holding his brother. So in some imaginations his talent arises from the first sorrow. In his early role in “To Die For” he is a troubled kid who falls for a TV news anchor. Growing up, he develops a dynamism, playing the insolent villain Commodus in “Gladiator,” his first Oscar nomination. His second nomination came with his embodiment of the gritty American folk hero Johnny Cash. He personified Cash’s aura, a finely restrained passion which comes across in a deep and simple style. Polite to interviewers, but scrupulously short with them also, Phoenix doesn’t sell himself. He sees clearly enough the pitfalls of fame. In the acting world, he has what the real Johnny Cash called “the strength to stand alone.”
When asked the question of what he would pair “The Master” with in a double feature Paul Thomas Anderson suggests “I’m Still Here,” a faux documentary on the real life Phoenix if he had quit his acting career and took up rapping instead. The unique film was directed by friend Casey Affleck, the camera work is messy so it looks like something we are eavesdropping on. It certainly fooled Roger Ebert who at the end of his review issued a public plea for somebody to help Joaquin. His raps weren’t very good (though they do have a sweet spirit: “You can do this Joaquin with the help of your fam!”). He had gained weight. He was spending too much time with call girls, and, like Freddie Quell, acting like an animal at the mere prospect of another sexual encounter, such as panting at the computer screen while ordering evening companions for he and his buddies. Elsewhere it’s tough to watch “the public breakdown”–most visible in his famous Andy Kaufman-esque David Letterman appearance. Tough to watch unless we return to the old German concept Maskenfreiheit — the freedom conferred by masks. Then, the performance becomes quite an extraordinary one. The comedy is razor sharp when he shows up to a benefit for the late Paul Newman and his children’s charities. Phoenix selfishly appropriates the moment to announce his retirement from acting. The first person he confesses to is an extra, who looks a little stunned, “Are you sure you want to go out on this?”
Phoenix’s attendance at the 2012 Oscars shows that he doesn’t have to go out on the Paul Newman benefit. Now that we have “The Master” to look at, the two are of a piece. Often I have wondered if we haven’t made celebrity culture so much a part of our lives and news cycle that we forget it is their first job to act. The actor in Phoenix doesn’t look on the brink of destruction, but at the height of his powers. In both films the characters are fools: Joaquin Phoenix, Actor, and Freddie Quell, drifter. Convinced that his talents lie not in acting but in rapping Phoenix ignores the proof of previous acclaim and pursues the rap game with an intense sincerity. At one point after bombing a small club performance he keeps his friend out in the cold and hits him with more of the rhymes he has in his arsenal. The dutiful friend is the image of loyalty here. Going further, Phoenix and friends fly across the country and drive cross town chasing Puff Daddy, who Phoenix assumes will surely be his producer. Puffy hears him out before listening to the material and asks him how much money he plans on bringing to the table. Phoenix doesn’t know, he looks at his shoes. He is scolded accordingly, like a bearded man-child.
In “The Master”and “I’m Still Here” the foolishness tends to bring out the meanness of others. The onslaught of “commentary” from web videos and celeb gossip programs is a bit unsettling the way Affleck presents it. In “The Master” Freddie’s hard drinking soul remains impenetrable to his captors in The Cause. This makes him a subject of aggressive manipulation and experimentation. They need to get an emotional response from this fool. But why? How provoking Freddie will improve their lives the film does not say. Just as Affleck’s film, more of an editorial piece than “The Master,” seems as puzzled. Affleck tells Roger Ebert:
“All cultures are different. Some commit genocide. Some are uniquely peaceful. Some frequent bathhouses in groups. Some don’t show each other the soles of their shoes or like pictures taken of them. Some have enormous hunting festivals or annual stretches when nobody speaks. Some don’t use electricity. We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them. I don’t know where its taking us or what it means but I know we do it. I have seen a lot of it myself.”
People were angry when Joaquin decided to do something different. Affleck uses real footage of the mean spirited joking that goes on over the airwaves and blogosphere. As more commentary is presented the more we see how the dehumanization of celebrities takes place. When Joaquin invents this stunt with the watchful eye of a documentarian at his back, then he seems to reclaim his vital individuality. By pitting the public against a performance, not a person, he has taken acting to a level that is maybe up there with Brando. It certainly seems to involve even more than the kind of emotional character acting pioneered by Brando, Pacino, DeNiro. Which is probably made possible by the widening range of social media exposure and aggression.
Considering this stressful situation for the American entertainer, it’s commendable that Phoenix is still funny. There is a well-timed and sly comedy going on with Phoenix in both films. In a small stroke of inspiration Phoenix has Freddie nestle his fist in his side and jut out his elbow, a confidently silly gesture. As if to say: “Yes, I am misery incarnate. I can’t take life sober. At any moment I may explode in public. But I’m still here, wandering around and trying to enjoy it anyway.” There were many great performances last year, one of the best for actors, but none of the performances were able to say so much with so little.
With his physical comedy gifts, both films still allow for the grand meltdown. Being driven around New York an almost incoherent Phoenix lambasts himself, fame, and his helpers before exiting the car and disappearing over a stone barricade, into a public park maybe. In “The Master” he now famously breaks the prison toilet after the game changing argument with his would-be Master. Outside the frame of these events, we can see them as disturbing, or sad, but we can also see them as signs of free will.
“I’m Still Here” is a fierce reaction against some of the forces that drive our cultural involvement, and have driven many an artist out of their minds. That same energy seems somehow manifest in Phoenix’s follow-up act with Freddie. So again, the reclamation of individuality and the mastery of mind seem to be the subtle themes that would bind “I’m Still Here” and “The Master.” “I’m Still Here” is book-ended by scenes of a spirituality. The first is a home movie clip of the Phoenix brothers , River and Joaquin, performing and happy. The film doesn’t comment on this, just lets it stand against the insanity that is about to happen. At the end, Joaquin escapes the U.S. to South America. The Phoenix family had once settled there as wandering people in the Children of God cult. By a waterfall, Joaquin and his dad have a drink together. Afterward he washes himself in the river. He keeps walking for some time and then lowers his head beneath the water.
Note: Anderson has attracted a cult following of obsessive fans. This writer is not immune to the magnetism of his films. With “The Master,” I felt a stronger pull than ever, one I still haven’t figured out. This is as it should be when a film achieves such a universal quality that each review becomes an inkblot test of the reviewer, not of the film itself. This review is written primarily for the cult fan, assuming they’ve seen and thought about “The Master” at some length. But if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend giving it at least one viewing to see these themes in action and experience a film rich in detail and performances.
Speaking of directors with a “cult-like” status, this New York Times article examines David Lynch’s fixation with transcendentalism, which is to say if the themes discussed in Anderson’s “The Master” capture your interest, then this article is one more subject of study when it comes to the ways in which we manipulate our minds and/or seek that better state of perfect.
If you’re not familiar with “I’m Still Here,” here is Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman playing with public perception: