19 October 2012

First Impressions: The Master

I watched Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012) like two weeks ago, it's about time I wrote up my Impressions here. For those of you uninitiated, The Master follows an aimless World War II Navy Veteran (Joaquin) as he drifts through life searching for meaning but not really caring about it. He encounters an enigmatic blowhard (Phillip Seymour) and they become friends as they try to help each other. SPOILERS to come for sure.

From this innocuous synopsis we have one of the best films of the year, in no small part thanks to Anderson's once again brilliant direction and some incredible acting from Joaquin, Phil, Amy Adams, and just about everyone else on screen. Like Anderson's last film, There Will Be Blood (2007), its brilliance doesn't lie in the complexity of the plot or even necessarily the big themes introduced (there are a few - we'll get there in a sec), but through the complex characters that inhabit the screen. Whereas There Will Be Blood exhibited a massive character study of Daniel Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview, in this case Anderson explores the dynamic of the relationship between Joaquin's Drifter, Freddie Quell and Phil's L. Ron Hubbard figure, Lancaster Dodd.

So, let's just say now that Joaquin Phoenix is the greatest actor in the world, ever. This is true. The Master is his first film since he pretended to go nuts with the mockumentary I'm Still Here (2010), which no one really knew was a mockumentary while he was going nuts. He's shown that he has the kind of commitment to an art and a role that goes far beyond many of his contemporaries. The Master does a great job of introducing Joaquin back into the acting world because Freddie Quell is not that much unlike the horny drug-fueled nutty version of himself he played in I'm Still Here. Despite all this, he seems unlikely to be nominated, and he doesn't care - which is part of the issue.

Commodus is back, baby
Freddie is fairly mentally disturbed. His character is brilliantly established in the first beach scenes when his sex joke with the sand babe goes on far too long as everyone else slowly backs off from how awkward he is. Right after that he jacks off on the beach while barely hiding his shame. He's a hardcore alcoholic - like, not a vodka in the morning but a paint thinner in the morning alcoholic. Again, it's not totally different from the version of himself he played in I'm Still Here. This dude has some guts to publicly spiral out of control like that - clearly Joaquin himself isn't afraid of much of any public humiliation. He, like Freddie, isn't bound by social norms that would strike fear into the hearts of more mortal men. Indeed that's the whole point of I'm Still Here, though - to blur the line of who was really Joaquin, who was a character, and who was just an indictment of the idea celebrity itself. In many ways, Joaquin appearing here, skinny, and doing a fantastic job does much to justify I'm Still Here as a hoax and to some extent ease the experience of watching that film knowing that he's going to be alright and is in fact, a smarter and more talented actor than we all could have imagined.

The other big player her is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. Though it's not lifted directly from his life story or anything, Dodd is clearly analogous to the Founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Much of Lancaster's philosophy and movement, "The Cause," mirrors the early days of Scientology and Dianetics - that is, the cause of human suffering is a trillion-year struggle between our souls and aliens. Yipes. If there's a second greatest actor in the world, it may be PHS in this flick. Yes, the fat kid from Boogie Nights (1997) returns, better than ever. He's a total blowhard, the kind of great intense Hoff we saw in flicks like Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Doubt (2008). His Sandy Lyle from Along Came Polly (2004) is still the greatest character ever, obvi, but he knocks this out of the park as well.

It's clear that Dodd is as insane as Freddie, but he hides it in a better shell. While Freddie is open and floating through life without control, Dodd only seeks to control it. Dodd wants to be The Master, but in his own freer way of thinking, the true Master may well be Freddie, which Dodd envies. Freddie doesn't really have a direction in his life, with some heartache but no shame in anything he does. There's this battle between both of their inner desires - Dodd desperately wants to control the uncontrollable - the pain and psychosis of life, and he's willing to use a combination of pseudoscience, manipulation, and bullshit to do so. Freddie is apathetic. He doesn't learn a single thing throughout the course of the film - and the thing is, he couldn't care less. He doesn't have the insatiable drive to better himself that Dodd does - Freddie is fine with the way he is.

"Bitches love him!"

Freddie's also ridiculously dumb. When he gets violent towards Dodd's critics, it's not because he's defending The Cause or his ideas. He strongly dislikes people who are critical of the only character in the film (and in Freddie's life) that is trying to help him, or hell, even cares about him. He's totally animalistic, just futile rage and manly ruggedness boiling over waiting for the slightest provocation to fight.

What the film does a nice job then is demonstrating that there's no real reason for Freddie's condition. He's seen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his service in World War II, but he didn't actually do any fighting. He spent the war masturbating on a beach and sleeping at his post on his ship. He was also on the vessel that delivered the bomb to end the war. Since he surely doesn't feel any guilt over anything, he really has no reason to be as insane as he is. He just acts so out of tune with society that everyone he contacts tries to pin down some reason for it or diagnose some mental illness that isn't really there. He's just a huge douchebag.

At one point he does say he had sex with his aunt. That's pretty fucked up, but the reason he gives was that he was drunk and she looked good. It's hardly abuse, in fact, it's possible he raped his aunt, which isn't a reason for his insanity, it's proof of it. He has a disturbing view of women for sure, and they are often literally objects in front of him.

On that note - this is surely one of the more titty-filled flicks I've seen in a while. There are titties everywhere, with no discrimination: Prego titties, old busted titties, young bouncy titties, OK-looking fattie titties, it goes on and on. It's not like it's a very erotic movie, the titties are often not on beautiful women and it's not sensual at all. This is the point of getting into Freddie's head - there's a meaningless to it - it's not even crass or juvenile. The titties are just kind of there well, because Freddie likes titties.

"I love you, man."
In addition to the titties, there are a few other undercurrents of sexuality in this film. The close relationship between Lancaster and Freddie at times gets weirdly close and homosexual (their wrestling, the pain of their "break-up") - although this is decidedly one-sided on the part of Dodd. He clearly has someone other than his wife (Amy Adams) in mind, as when she gives him a surprise handjob after an evening of being close to both Freddie and many women ("Cum for ME" she says over and over again - as if to "right" him). His son-in-law is also fairly effeminate when contrasted with Freddie the Hyper-hetero - no small reason why his wife (and hell, just about everyone else who isn't Amy Adams) finds herself attracted to him. It's not totally overt, but there are some weird sexual desires, but it homosexuality, incest, or marital transgressions, underneath a lot of what's going on here (see also as I mentioned earlier, Freddie's fling with his aunt). We wouldn't lump homosexuality and incest into the same deviancy today, of course, but it's certainly analogous in the time and amongst the characters we see in this film.

So, there's some big questions at work here. Who is the master? Who is really the one suffering from psychosis? What the hell else was in Freddie's moonshine? This ultimately has less to say about Scientology than it does about the personal relationship and conflicts between the two male leads. It does indicate how charming and helpful Dodd is (think L. Ron) while simultaneously being a huge huge douche. There is a degree of instability lurking behind his calm facade, and as he works with Freddie, his jealousy and frustration over not reaching him causes him to become more Freddie-like than the other way around. Since neither bro really actually wants to change, though, their friendship / man-crush is over.

So go see The Master - it's the Bromance of the Season! ;)

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