Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Master's whip lash: 8 notes

1) "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world."  --Lancaster Dodd

2) "And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all those big shots. I don't apologize, that's my life. But I thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings."  --Don Corleone in The Godfather

3) "The choice was put to them whether they would like to be kings or king's couriers.  Like children they all wanted to be couriers.  So now there are a great many couriers, they post through the world, and, as there are no kings left, shout to each other their meaningless and obsolete messages."  --Franz Kafka

4) "The animal snatches the whip from its master and whips itself so as to become the master, and does not know that all this is only a fantasy caused by a new knot in the master's whip lash." --Kafka

5) While in Columbia, SC, I bought a copy of Hanna Rosin's The End of Men, which proves that recent economic and social shifts have left many men powerless, adrift, and inconsequential. Soon after, I went to see The Master at the Nickelodeon theater where, almost immediately, one sees Freddie Quill humping a sand sculpture in the shape of a woman's body on the beach. "A case in point," I thought.

6) With its expressionistic, The Tree of Life gorgeous style, the beauty of the individual shot in The Master seems more important than story coherence. I got the impression that the film's scenes could be rearranged and it wouldn't especially matter, especially given the static nature of Freddie's and Lancaster's relationship. The story of The Master suffers from the same crisis of authority that the movie depicts.

7) My favorite thing about The Master is its title, and its implicit question--where does one find true mastery? The movie concerns one man's desire for an authority figure to give him guidance, but Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) implies that all authority is bogus, all variations on the American confidence man who thrives on giving people delusional reasons to feel important. In comparison to the fundamental business savvy of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Lancaster Dodd is a fraud, a charlatan peddling cancer cures, time travel, and hypnotic release. Who is the master in this film? The word "master" also suggests self-control, restraint, but Freddie has very little of that. The Master depicts a crisis in authority that attains a near-universal condition. With much of the storyline centered around Dodd, The Master struggles with its core of built-in bs. Yet, with its many indeterminacies, narrative breaks, and discontinuities, the film invites analysis and seeks converts just as Dodd does. The critic can feel release and joy in just giving in the film's rhythms, images, and evocative dialogue.

8) What is Freddie fighting against?  The threat of his own inconsequence, and, often, anyone who threatens to undermine Dodd. Funny how critics tend to be beaten up in The Master.

12 comments:

Hokahey said...

With its expressionistic, The Tree of Life gorgeous style, the beauty of the individual shot in The Master seems more important than story coherence. I got the impression that the film's scenes could be rearranged and it wouldn't especially matter, especially given the static nature of Freddie's and Lancaster's relationship. The story of The Master suffers from the same crisis of authority that the movie depicts.

The above is well said. I did find the film's lack of coherence and climax frustrating, but I did enjoy the individual scenes. Your observation about rearranging the scenes is an interesting one.

I really like your opening quotations. I know you are a Kafka fan; I am too.

Yes, the Master is central to The Master, but we only get a snippet of his career. Indeed, he seems to be breeding dissension in the ranks (disgruntled wife; disappointed Laura Dern) and doesn't seem to go anywhere at the end. He seems to be wandering as much as Quell. I'm not sure he's a successful Master.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey. No, I don't think Anderson means for Lancaster to be a true master, so the movie leaves one wondering. What to make of the scene where Freddie and Dodd head out to the desert? When Dodd lulls Freddie with a song, are we supposed to relate that to Doris' song earlier? Anderson leaves in indeterminacies even to the point of not supplying the eyeline match of what Freddie's photographing in the dept. store until long after one expects it. The film is well-wrought and evocative, but I still wonder if it's fundamentally a tease.

Lucas Kitchen said...

love the Lancaster Dodd quote.

FilmDr said...

I do too. Dodd implies that self-mastery is a challenge, or an unattainable ideal, for anyone. As soon as he said it, I thought of the equivalent quote in The Godfather.

Jason Bellamy said...

"What is Freddie fighting against? The threat of his own inconsequence, and, often, anyone who threatens to undermine Dodd. Funny how critics tend to be beaten up in The Master."

I'm not suggesting this is what you were going for with your comment, but ...

One of the things that interests me about the most favorable responses to this film is that they're essentially built on faith. Not only faith, of course. There's a lot of tangible, unmistakable awesomeness on the screen -- the compositions, the acting, the tone of each individual scene. But faith in the sense that "we" (I'll use "we" because I'm more pro than con on this movie, although I wouldn't consider myself among its most awed supporters) are trusting that all the movie's dead ends are strategic and intentional, essentially based on the strength of PTA's career and the strength of the other elements of the film (because otherwise the movie is sloppy and flawed and seems less like a masterpiece).

In effect then, the film's fans aren't totally unlike religious believers who see all the splendor and magnificence of life and come to the conclusion that all of this can't possibly be random, that it must be the product of an intelligent designer, that it's proof that God exists (just like all the other excellence within THE MASTER is proof that PTA knows exactly what he's doing).

And that leads me to that final note of yours.

Indeed, the critics, the skeptics, get the shit beat out of them in this movie. But the critics, the skeptics, are correct. They're the ones who see reality. And so if we continue with the previous comparisons, that would mean that those who think that THE MASTER is ultimately as empty as The Cause (from Ebert to Simpson) are the perceptive ones.

Now, I'm not bringing this up as if to imply that PTA is admitting within his own film that there's no deep meaning to this and that he's making it up as he's going along. And yet it's interesting that the movie's true believers suggest that the aimlessness of the film's structure/narrative is meant to evoke the themes of the story but overlook (because it isn't as flattering) portions of the film that would seem to suggest that PTA is admitting he doesn't know what he's doing here either.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jason.

On the other hand, if The Master wasn't so problematic, then it probably wouldn't be debated so much.

I like this meta-reading of the movie, wherein everything in it reflects the relationship established between it and the critic. I've been reading Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot, and she discusses how Anderson was giving away lots of aspects of himself in his earlier movies. Dirk Diggler seeks to prove himself in the porn business just as Anderson did in movies. Magnolia was all about Anderson's relationship with his dad. So, what to make of The Master. It is a movie designed to put the viewer in the same position as Freddie, wherein one is hypnotised into following along with the film's presupposed "classic" status. If you don't go along with that, then you get beaten up. However, Anderson doesn't mind hinting that, as a director/writer of The Master, he's also something of a fraud, and there's a crisis in authority all around. The viewer intuits this ambivalence, and that's what makes the movie compelling. We can't be sure (just as Anderson isn't sure) if we are being had or not. The film is artfully uncertain about its aesthetics to the point where at least we can agree that most men need a master, even if we know that the master is still a fraud.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

The movie concerns one man's desire for an authority figure to give him guidance, but Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) implies that all authority is bogus, all variations on the American confidence man who thrives on giving people delusional reasons to feel important.

I read the film as being less a critique of authority per se than a critique of authoritative ideology, of the arrogant notion that a system of thought or belief can provide answers to any person in torment, no matter how psychologically damaged. Ideologies by their nature tend to assert that they are the solution to *all* problems. If a problem is found that cannot be solved, then the fault lies with the individual or application, not the ideology. (The Cause can never fail, it can only be failed.)

Freddie begins the film subject to a very rigid and forceful authority known as the U.S. military, an authority that retrains his physical freedom under the law--they could throw him in prison for not following orders. In contrast, the Cause (unlike Scientology) doesn't seem to exert much in the way of aggressive control over Freddie's freedom. He's arguably free to leave the group at any time--and he does! Which suggests that Freddie craves answers and solutions, not just a structured way of life. Most of his freakouts, so to speak, seem to be triggered not due to his chafing under Dodd's authority, but his *disillusionment* at the Cause's failure to offer a coherent worldview, a prism through which he can understand his own miseries. (Recall that crescendo in the jail cell: "Just say something that's true!") He goes along with Dodd's exercises and methods for a long time, because he's expecting some pay-off, some epiphany.

Of course, there is no epiphany, but it's not *just* because the Cause is so much pseudo-scientific hokum. It's because *no* system of belief can provide a one-stop answer to everything that's wrong with Freddie. The Cause can't help him any more than Pentecostalism, Communism, Jungianism, or any other -ism can.

When you pluck Dodd's "processing" questions out of the emotionally charged setting of the one-way interrogation, it's remarkable how generic they are. "Do your past failures bother you? Is your behavior erratic?" Who doesn't this apply to? It's like the cold reading of a psychic or the studied non-specificity of a horoscope. The faithful convince themselves of the penetrating depth of the ideology's banal observations.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

What to make of the scene where Freddie and Dodd head out to the desert?

One: At this point, Freddie has had his violent outburst during and following his arrest, and been subsequently broken down by Dodd's "wall exercise" and other rituals. Based on Freddie's behavior, however, it's fair to say we know he hasn't really reformed, and that the wall exercise in particular hasn't provided the epiphany he expected. And, Dodd, although apparently willing to believe his own hype, isn't stupid. I think it's well-established at this point in the film that he knows Freddie often tells him what he wants to hear. Accordingly, there's a tension in the desert scene that plays off Freddie's (and our) uncertainty about Dodd's intentions. He could, after all, be taking Freddie out to the desert to subject him to another, more frightening and life-threatening exercise that will *really* cure him. Or he could be preparing to kill Freddie--the victim forced to dig their own grave is practically a thriller trope--in order to eliminate one of the Cause's (and his own) most prominent failures and liabilities.

Two: Dodd goes into the desert to retrieve his manuscript, although we don't know this for certain until he reveals as much to Freddie in the desert. I recall that one of the film's characters--it's been a couple of weeks now since I saw the film, but I believe it was Dodd's wife, Peggy--observed that Dodd's unpublished work would be very valuable to the Cause's enemies, that it could be sold for a large sum. This creates a secondary tension that perhaps Freddie, violent and impulsive as he is, might seize the opportunity to overpower Dodd and take the manuscript, perhaps killing the Master in the progress.

The fact that none of these scenarios occur, and Dodd and Freddie simply march back to civilization with the manuscript, reinforces a couple of points that the film has been establishing. First, that Dodd's belief that Freddie is a good soul to whom he is intimately connected is a powerful and likely genuine belief, one that may even override Dodd's good judgment in some situations. Second, that Freddie, as perennially disillusioned as he is with the Cause and Dodd specifically, and as violent as he is, will likely never act violently *towards* Dodd, or to betray the Cause outright. His disillusionment is more likely to provoke him to attack what he perceives as the Cause's enemies (as he does to Bill during the Arizona convention) or to attempt to outrun his disillusionment (as he eventually does during the motorcycle exercise).

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Caustic, for your excellent analysis.

I wonder, though, if one can view The Master as a critique of authoritarian ideology if Dodd is making it up as he goes along? The ideology never takes enough of a coherent shape, but you make a good point about the effects of the U.S. military on Freddie.

As for the desert scene, the locale reminded me of the early scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and didn't Anderson heavily allude to that film in subtle ways in There Will Be Blood? I remember reading somewhere that L. Ron Hubbard claimed that his early manuscript had the potential to metaphysically harm people who read it with its overwhelming truth, so that may explain why Dodd was obliged to bury it. At any rate, the scene has so little to really grapple with (I like the seemingly superfluous guns. Are they thinking they will be attacked by bandits?), so little context, so little explanation, we could come up with many theories. There comes a point where Anderson invokes reverential mystification over coherence.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I wonder, though, if one can view The Master as a critique of authoritarian ideology if Dodd is making it up as he goes along? The ideology never takes enough of a coherent shape, but you make a good point about the effects of the U.S. military on Freddie.

Not to get all glibly cynical or anything, but one can argue that *all* ideologies are made up (if not always on the spot). Harsh perhaps, but I think this view is perfectly consistent with the generally secularist, skeptical bent to THE MASTER. One of the reasons I particularly like the use of the fictional Cause as the primary ideology addressed in the film is *because* it's so self-evidently hokum at bottom. It allows Anderson to perform an interesting dodge, as it were, side-stepping accusations that he is attacking the content of a particular ideology and instead critiquing how it is applied. The Cause reveals the ways in which all ideologies resemble one another. If THE MASTER were about charismatic Christianity, or communism, or Jungian psychology, or even overtly about Scientology, I think it would would have distracted from the film's explorations of the *phenomoenon* of ideology (and particularly how futile the blanket application of any worldview ultimately proves to be).

I'm attempting to pen an post about this very matter, pivoting off a recent essay in The New Inquiry. I hope to check the film out a second time this weekend, to firm up some of my memories of it for the piece.

I'll be back with more later. Off to an ARGO preview. :-)

The Caustic Ignostic said...

FWIW, after laboring for a month to articulate my thoughts about THE MASTER, I finally finished my deep-focus essay on the film:

http://gatewaycinephiles.com/2012/11/05/the-cause-cannot-fail-it-can-only-be-failed-the-master-and-the-inadequacies-of-ideology/

FilmDr said...

Thanks! I'll look at it soon.