Understanding The Cause - on Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

In the days following the release of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus, to quote another Anderson, I've read dozens of people's reactions to it. Kent Jones' free-associative history is still probably the one to beat. But what I want to address is the notion many people have been floating that it's fundamentally hollow, that's it about nothing, that it wanders too much to be as great as people say it is. Nothing kills a film faster than hype and if there was a film more hyped than The Master this year (it was The Hunger Games for cinephiles) I'm not sure what it would be. We who breathe celluloid are fans of the enigmatic and Anderson's slate cleaning trilogy (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and now The Master) has us all ravenous. He'd always been good but now he's inescapably polarizing. He is the future (and past) of the medium or a compulsive masturbator taking up three hour chunks of our lives every few years with his untamed rambling. Fox and Myself are in the former camp, and we loved The Master though not without reservation. So we decided to pick it apart and find out just what makes it tick. 

Scout Tafoya: I'll start by saying Blood is better only so you don't have to correct your statements about it being the best film ever made. The Master has improved elements and clearly lives in the same world as Blood but it doesn't have the razor sharp focus. That said it's a fuckin' masterwork. Mihai Malaimare's cinematography proves what I've known since Youth Without Youth: he's one of the best cameramen on earth and he and Anderson make a banquet out of their 65mm compositions. I might still dig The New World as the definitive 65mm filmed painting, but this thing is in a class all its own.

Fox Johnson: It's a killer film, with beautiful imagery, and some of the best performances I've ever seen, but it's not perfect. It's almost there though. I can't even quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. I think for me and Emily [DiPietro, of this parish] it was the ending. The way the film ends is fine but just fine. My endings for the film were either letting Joaquin ride away on the motorcycle, or just cut to black and let Hoffman's singing to him in London carry over into the credits. I'll need your responses to really start talking about this thing but I will say that right now as much as I loved the film, I'm treating it as the best vehicle for an actor's performance I've ever seen. I should say two actors' performances.

Scout: What it's missing is, and this obviously is coloured by our many, MANY viewings of Blood over the years since its debut in late 2007, that it doesn't feel as though it builds to a confrontation. It builds instead to divorce. Which thematically is perfect, but dramatically just doesn't suffice when we know what the alternative is: Daniel Day-Lewis beating Paul Dano to death with a bowling pin. Thus The Master is the more romantic and wistful than Blood. Blood is about family, Master's about marriage or anyway a romantic bond between lovers. It's a Tragedy of Remarriage, to at once invent a phrase and improve on the lessons of one Michael Selig [a professor we shared at Emerson College].

If Plainview's the father/brother that Sunday never had but needed and Sunday is the son that Plainview deserves, as they're mirror images of each other, Freddie and Dodd need each other because they fill the gaps in each other's wounded/inflated (and it must be said perfectly and uniquely American) psyches. Their relationship  is no different than one between abusive lovers. Though it should be said they're both after women they can't have. Women won't fuck Freddy or make love to Dodd (one angry handjob as proof), so their bond is beyond sexual and into something deeper and more important for both of them. Dodd needs Quell to prove his legend, which is why he snaps at Laura Dern at the second book publishing when she questions his revisionism to his own legend - sycophants are no longer what he needs. He needs only to make Freddie believe beyond a shadow of a doubt because he'd worked so hard on him, he needs to work to earn his respect; he's already got or doesn't have the support of people like Dern or poor Kevin J. O'Connor. Freddie is the ideal Dodd aspires to corrupt - he can't really believe in himself without a stubborn blank slate like Freddie. So, that in mind, it's easy to see the film as being about their on-again, off-again courtship. You can see its funhouse mirror in Freddie and the girl who doesn't wait for him when he goes to sea. That's in essence what Freddie is to Dodd. When one leaves, he spends the next several years experiencing their absence and mourning. The film is most electrifying when they're processing each other and it means something (that first interaction is their version of fucking, which is why he tries to process that girl at the end of the film while they're in bed together - it's just one more trick he learned from a former lover, a different position or sensation). And most heartbreaking when Dodd sings to him because it's them remembering that connection they had, which his wife can't understand because she was always along for the ride - whether she believes in The Cause is entirely beside the point. My personal favourite scene, Freddie imagining a room full of naked women as the never-more-red-faced Dodd sings to a willing congregation, is crucial because though he's far from the only person in the room, its clear that Dodd is singing just to Freddie. Every single interpretation I've read of this scene says that it's Freddie and his libido imagining the women naked because he's horny. I don't think that's true. I think he sees instead the futility of his search for fulfillment with any of the women that Dodd surrounds himself with. Dodd could sleep with any of them and Freddie sees them disrobing for him not because he wants to sleep with them, but because he sees that these people will do anything for Dodd and not for him (he's suddenly seeing the futility of passing around "Do you wanna fuck?" notes while aboard the borrowed yacht). The women, especially pregnant Amy Adams, are unimportantly positioned in the scene, they're macabre set dressing; they're less the woman in Room 237 of the Overlook and more like a handful of demons in the penultimate scene in Fantasia. Freddie's gaze is most assuredly on Dodd, because he knows that if anyone's going to figure him out, it's the Master. And Dodd sees right past all the nude tributes to Freddie, who very crucially gets a secret signal all to himself at the end of the song. If he wanted to, he could have any of these women seduce Freddie because they do anything he says, but because Dodd wants something greater for his charge (his own will imposed on Freddie's) his dour acolyte looks past them in their passive nudity, even if it's what he and Dodd both see when they look at the crowd.

What I love is that Freddie clearly doesn't understand The Cause or buy it, he just buys Dodd's conviction and sees that this man, with so many followers, believes in the poor damaged vet. That's what keeps them together as long as it can. So the film feels vacant between their meetings because it veers away from the horrifying purity of that connection. The movie isn't as fulfilling in the off hours because the two of them don't feel fulfilled or even engaged by anyone else. It's important to show the downtime because how else do we understand the importance of their connection? That said, yeah, there's no getting around the feeling that we're watching characters founder without each other. It is aimless, it feels aimless, but that's also the point, so, I almost feel bad for complaining. Ha! I will say I disagree about the ending only because I absolutely loved the demented fairy tale aspect of those final scenes; that gorgeous shot of Phoenix on his own on the road, the equally gorgeous pasty, chubby english girl who's essentially a female Dodd. I'm torn about the truly unromantic last words "Put it back in, it fell out!" On the one hand they undermine the beauty of what we're seeing and understanding, but on the other they are Phoenix making sure his character gets the last word on the tone of the film. I could have lived without those words but then again it's his film really.

Fox: My issue didn't even lie with what went on in the final scenes. I think, especially after reading what you had to say on the subject, which I agree with completely, that having the last moments of the film reflect the true power of their relationship together would've felt more conclusive for me. All that said though, its a brilliant piece and requires several more views on my part to fully make a decision on where it fits into my favorite films canon. Also if you're going to pick a motif, shots of a roiling, swirling ocean due to ship's turbines is most definitely the way to go.

It was such an interesting take on the idea of cults. On one hand, PT gives us the prime real estate for starting a cult: war damaged folks like Freddie, who we as an audience can see right away is a wayward soul who probably does need some kind of psychiatric help. But the entire time I watch him lash out at people who treat him badly, I sort of wish I was as free. Sidenote: It could've just been me, but as they give the public service announcement to all the veterans who will have to assimilate back into civilian life, I couldn't help but wonder if he was on a ship full of Freddies. In which case, who's going to make that film? You see it in Lancaster Dodd that he wishes to be free the way that Freddie is even while he's trying to change him into a "suitable" human being. But as an audience member, you're never truly upset with the cult. You're too busy watching its two most interesting members have at the rest of the world. The scene where the dissenter comes to the house in New York was incredible because while he's asking logical questions, I took it as a personal affront the way that the other characters do. I found myself furious that this character would get in the way of what I was trying to see.

Scout: Anderson's treatment of Scientology is a fascinating footnote to the story, really. It's the setting and it does right by the ideas, but the story isn't "let's pick on Elrond" because ultimately Anderson finds his brand of megalomania too fascinating to write off or make one-note. If he could make us love Daniel Plainview (and I know I fucking did; I still justify his worst actions to this day), than Dodd was no challenge, really. First of all, the movie is not anti-anything. Scientology is explained rationally as something that many people may or may not have needed - religions are all like that. People, especially damaged drifters like Freddie, need guidance. To go from the navy (where he follows orders for a living) to suddenly being forced to live on his own makes him doubly lost - a fuck-up with no one to take orders from. The phrase "The World Needs Ditch-Diggers" was coined for people like Freddie. So when he can't fit in digging ditches, what do we do with them in an age where the depth of his psychological problems haven't been mined or explained? Dodd rather touchingly sees Freddie's disabilities as just what makes him beautiful (even if rather untouchingly, he means to exploit him to a degree for self-actualization/aggrandizement). So it makes perfect sense that The Cause, Dianetics, Mormonism, whatever, would attract followers. This country has more lost souls than perhaps any on earth and no indigenous religion we listen to. So The Master isn't an indictment, if anything its objective-bordering-on-sympathetic. And I'm right there with you about the interloper and his doubts. Anderson makes us feel so deeply for Freddie (or maybe pity is the better word? I prefer to think not, but Phoenix seems to actively seek it through his violent obtuseness) that when his saviour is questioned and it feels like he'll have no breakthrough, we feel threatened. Beautiful, Norman Bates, car-in-the-swamp reversal of fortune in that scene! Freddie becomes the audience in that scene when he throws food at the poor bastard, who, let's not forget, is right. Dodd realizes in that moment that Freddie is his foil, the only person he can really hope to influence. Those with facts and rationality will see through his bullshit; Freddie feels him on a gut level.

As for the turbines and the water they stir, I'll attempt to synthesize, but probably miss the mark: the war or progress or any great societal upheaval, leaving people like Freddie in its wake. Hence those fantastic shots of him leaning over various bows on his ship. The boats dragging him into the future, back to society, but he's too spaced out and in his own head and impulses to notice his fellow sailors throwing shit at him to get his attention. To quote Martin Sheen's similarly fried Army Captain in Apocalypse Now, he's "not even in their fuckin' army anymore." The world can't hold him. It's either prison, which he treats with worse fear than death perhaps because he fears he belongs there (his outburst disproving Dodd's Orson Welles-like reading of the platitude "Man is not an animal.") or Dodd. Or so it seems.

Fox: I never realized while watching the film, but the woman made of sand that they build in the first scene of the film sums up the entire story in one shot. Dodd's movement is tailor made for Freddie. As Freddie sees it, it isn't there to judge him or tell him he's strange. So he latches onto it. Even though none of it is real at all. Dodd's cult is a woman made of sand. And Freddie's interaction with her goes right along with the structure of The Master. When he first meets the woman, he fucks it and fingers it. It's lewd, it's crude, it's Freddie. Much like his first encounter with the cult, he's just there to use these people. Get a bed to sleep in and some free booze. But the film keeps returning to the shot of Freddy curled up with the sand woman. He grows attached. He falls in love, either with the movement or Lancaster himself. Either way, as they keep returning to Freddy on the beach with Sandy it becomes more and more tender. But there's a crucial flashback moment in this. Because the first encounter with the woman on the beach, we learn that other navy men have built her, more as a joke than anything else. But after everyone's gone, Freddy constructs his own woman. She's his own creation. She's there for him alone and she'll never betray him.

Scout: That is indeed the entire story and I admit to having completely missed out on the significance of the woman in the sand until now. See this is why it's best never to write something off when you don't understand it. I think I understood a lot of The Master while walking out and quickly dissecting it with Michelle Siracusa, who'd seen it with me. We raced through the dominant images, trying to hang them up like wet photographs in a dark room, trying to make sense of every image in context while we still remembered what, when and why something happened, but sometimes it's impossible without a week to think it through. I found myself blowing up images like David Hemmings trying to make sense of them and only distorting them. The moments that I don't feel need discussion are the things that seemed immediately impressive. We were both rightly stunned by Phoenix and Hoffman's performances in the jailhouse, where they both turn into animals for a moment: Freddie a caged primate destroying everything he can put his body to and Dodd pissing after winning his argument to mark his territory. To return to your point about this housing two of the best performances of all time, look no further. Their two styles are in full view and equalized by the cage they sit inside. Philip Seymour Hoffman about warped charisma, Joaquin Phoenix a brute demented physicality. People will talk about Anderson provoking these performances for years and they'll be right to do so, but what I love is that moment is that it sits neatly outside the dominant theme. You could draw parallels or figure out what it means in their relationship - Phoenix behaving like a jilted mistress when he finds that Hoffman's master has been untrue (admittedly to a medical school, but fidelity is transitive to Freddie, whose already been cheated enough to remember the particular sting that comes with that feeling) - but ultimately Anderson stops his story to give them a fantastic moment to command the room and the movie entirely without his help. Their love affair picks up again when they meet on the lawn of the house in Philadelphia and roll around and do everything short of kiss each other in full view of Dodd's family and followers. I'll be seeing The Master again soon with all this in mind and see if I can't make sense of the parts that seemed to pass me by last time. I'll watch it forever, because I believe in the cause.