The Master (2012)

The Master farts in the face of self-importance. I say this not only as it is literally expressed by one of the film’s characters, but also as a reminder that we need to remember that for all the “seriousness” that one can spend talking about The Master, it’s at the expense of neglecting how completely irreverent and borderline exploitative the film is. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson reminds us we can’t have art without the farts, without recognizing that art should not simply elevate the human as a being of rational thought, but humble him or her as a human of shameful, base desire.

I must also warn against reading too much into a scene. Part of what makes The Master such a challenging watch is that it expresses little interest in resolving. The suggestion of a subplot is introduced and then whisked away before it amounts to anything. In one scene claims of fraud and a theft fine are placed upon the Philip Seymour Hoffman character and then are never mentioned again. Therefore, it’s best to look at The Master as a film jazz, it’s made of riffs and completely uninterested in reaching a definitive conclusions.

And throughout the film, two instruments of the universe play off each other. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) represents the absolute bottom line of humanity. He’s a WWII veteran adrift, drinking himself through waking life and catching whatever beautiful woman who is willing along the way. He spends life like a kid given free rein in a candy shop, grabbing whatever object of desire he can reach and fantasizing about the pleasure of anything beyond his grasp.

His inverse is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed amateur philosopher who has started his own religion based upon the ideas that souls are eternal and one can reach back through time to experience the past of that soul. He expresses humanity’s claim to being something more, to being a divine, eternal being trapped within a vessel, the extreme culmination and reconciliation of Eastern and Western religious thought.

Watching Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman at work is one of the film’s greatest pleasures. Joaquin Phoenix’s return is a reminder that he’s the master of bodily control, able to use his entire being to sell a scene, not simply his face. From the slight gimp, the turn of a lip and the balance of his shoulders, he’s able to outperform just about anyone else he might occupy the screen with him. Also watching the number of crass and rude things Joaquin Phoenix does in this film serves as a reminder that he’s perfectly able to channel all the lewdness of 13-year-old boy.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman is able to play what could have been a stereotypical charismatic with enough wild disregard to win people over with his infectious energy but also with enough fervent bursts of anger to shock them. His best moments are when he turns on a dime, delightful one moment and deplorable the next.

As the two become friends, interest patterns begin to emerge through their relationship. Dodd insists that human beings are distinct from animals, higher beings, but Freddie gleefully laughs in the face of such a notion. He mocks the self-important spirituality and otherworld experiences and Dodd seems to be constantly lecturing Freddie as if he’s a child who should be growing out of such things.

But there’s give and take on both ends of these characters Dodd’s attempt to reform him simply ends up leading him to be dragged down with Freddie, hooked on Freddie’s homemade brew. He quickly finds himself having the same sexual urgings as Freddie. And as much as Freddie never seems to fully embrace Dodd’s religious beliefs, something about them seem to resonate with Freddie on a level, awaken a need for some sort of reconciliation, if not spiritually at least relationally.

Freddie as a character gives Paul Thomas Anderson an ability to explore his interest in basal things. It’s no secret that Anderson has an interest in pornography and while Boogie Nights is about that industry, Freddie as a character is a sex fiend on a level that far surpasses anything in Boogie Nights. The flagrant spectacles of nudity in the film is a challenge to self-important art-house movie going types who look down at such displays appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s b-movie exploitation, pure and simple.

If art is something to elevate us, perhaps it is something to also remind us of who we really are. The reason such displays are so pervasive is that they’re appealing, not just to a sexual fiend like Freddie, but to people in general, that the base human drive in its most deplorable form is not something to be ignored out of good taste, but something to remind ourselves so as not to become so self-important to think we are rational beings inhabiting impure vessels as Dodd preaches.

Of course, both characters are caught up on the worst ends of two extremes. Dodd misconstrues Freddie’s behavior as the acts of a free man, a man with no master, but Freddie is just as much subject to desire as Dodd is a subject to the approval of others. Both ways are just as unsatisfying for both men.

Even my initial thoughts on the film leave me grasping at a fraction of the complexity of the film. Yes, it’s important, but it’s just as equally irreverent, and the way those two play against and with each other is part of the enigma of The Master. It’s likely to be misconstrued and taken to extremes at both ends of the spectrum, detested as rampant obscenely on one end and elevated as the pinnacle of cinematic expression on the other end. This is not to say that The Master doesn’t do both of those things, but to overemphasize one to ignore the most important element of The Master: the duality of human existence.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing