With a kind of psychological depth that Freud could have only dreamt of, the opening sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master pulls us into the scarred, dangerous and licentious life of a World War II veteran. Some critics have called Anderson a true auteur of our era, citing The Master as an example. The movie as a whole is not exactly enjoyable, but it is good, possibly great—certainly better than what we’ve come to expect from our modern cineplex experience. We’re compelled to ask, is it the wrong priority to expect that films be primarily enjoyable? If the answer is yes, then P.T. Anderson has made a unique American masterpiece. The Master is frustrating in all the best ways.
Loosely inspired by scientology, The Master tells the story of a sexually warped and violent drifter named Freddie Quell (excellently played with crazed fervor by Joaquin Phoenix) struggling to cope with his return to the States after serving in World War II. Freddie stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a cult called The Cause, which has something to do with accessing past lives in order to achieve present self-actualization so that they might time-travel into the future. Or something. But Anderson’s lens is fixed less on doctrine and more on the psychology behind religious quest. Or perhaps it’s the religious quest behind psychology. Dodd—like an abusive method-acting instructor—uses interrogation to uncover his followers’ past traumas in order to help them find enlightenment.
Like members of The Cause, The Master wanders, but we follow, if only because of great acting and visually stunning action sequences. Watching Freddie being chased through a farm, ride away on a motorcycle in the desert, or drift out to sea, we experience the transient nature of the American West as not only a quest for home, but also a quest for truth, discovery and history. Tethered by this empathy, we’re guided through a beautiful, sweeping travelogue of 1950’s America and a clear narrative that slowly devolves as the characters hit dead-ends.
The story’s journey is as sexually frustrated as its characters. And perhaps this is the film’s cornerstone. In Dodd and Freddie’s never-ending and always evolving quest for fulfillment, consummation—both sexual and spiritual—goes unfulfilled and fragments into individualized sensory experiences. At worst, Anderson could be accused of self-importance, or to use a more apt term: masturbation. At best, that’s the point. The characters’ yearning for sexual and spiritual gratification becomes a dry well. And the audience’s thirst for traditional narrative goes unquenched, leaving us stumbling from the cinema’s sanctuary, a mess of confused emotions, bashfully asking, “Was it good for you?”
And here—like Dodd’s followers—we’re faced with the unfortunate gauge of personal enjoyment. So often we leave a theater saying, “I really liked that,” as if we’d eaten a candy bar. But for some films enjoyment might not be the right gauge. When it comes to Hollywood fluff built to make a buck, our entertainment is and should be the aim. Certainly there’s room for popular comedy and drama as diversion, if only to democratize film. But in this individualistic culture, have we been trained to want or expect the wrong things? If so, has this training impaired the way we experience unique or original forms of art that require a different metric?
If the first question we ask after experiencing a piece of art is “Did you like it?” we’re operating out of a skewed framework. Our transactional culture is preventing us from doing the larger calculus required to comprehend art’s intrinsic value. Fettered by Facebook clickers that tally numbers of “likes,” this framework is rather graceless.
Judging a piece of art primarily by personal enjoyment is symptomatic of the commoditization of art. But worse, it also shackles originality. Too often we’re enslaved by narrative consummation (as opposed to narrative fragmentation) as a result of our transactional framework. In The Master, Anderson reaches even deeper terrain when he applies this aesthetic tenet to truth itself. In their relentless search for self-actualization—whether through cognitive, spiritual, or relational means—the characters of The Master begrudgingly disregard the hard reality in front of them: Truth and beauty are not at the mercy of their autonomous, broken desires. This futility is fascinating and frustrating to watch (and, by the way, made all the better if viewed the way Anderson intended in the hard-to-find 70mm film format, which hasn’t been used in twenty years and was normally reserved for epics like Lawrence of Arabia).
The novel, too, is often subject to our personal gratification, and serves as a parallel form that is plagued by transactional barriers. With many forms of story, narrative consummation is often too conveniently associated with the “redemptive” narrative, a misnomer that bears examining. Recently in The Guardian the writer Howard Jacobson considered the value of literature without redemption. But before doing so he wisely examined the other side of his argument:
We are…if not exactly ‘saved’ by reading, at least partially ‘repaired’ by it: made the better morally and existentially. To those who found that idea fanciful I would put the question: when were you last mugged on the Underground by someone carrying Middlemarch in his pocket? We read to extend our sympathies, to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, to educate our imaginations, to find liberation from the prison of the self, to be made whole where we are broken, to be reconciled to the absurdity of existence, in short to be redeemed from flesh, the ego and despair… Reading literature remains a civilising activity, no matter that it’s literature in which people do and say abominable things and the author curses like the very devil. What’s at issue is how we describe the way the civilising works.
When we judge art according to personal enjoyment, we’re implying that art’s civilizing value is contingent upon our individual satisfaction. In other words, our autonomy strangles both the intrinsic and instrumental values of art, leaving the redemptive aspects of any narrative restricted to flourish only according to our needs and our needs alone. And here, Jacobson sees irony: “Whence redemption as a measure of literature’s worth, and how to justify it given how little in the way of atonement on the Christian model, i.e. deliverance from sin; and how little in the way of intelligibility on the rationalist model, i.e. deliverance from fragmentation, so many of the world’s great novels countenance?”
After some appropriately provocative gusto, Jacobson goes on to say that people “would rather hear Anne Frank aver that ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart’ than read Primo Levi’s gathering despair or the survivor Jean Améry refusing forgiveness and redemption.” To demand clarity, direction, and consummation from our narratives is to miss the point. Lostness bears importance in the path to wholeness as well:
There is no being reconciled to loss. What’s gone is gone. What’s suffered is suffered. But some novelists make it possible for us to stare at pain with bitter and derisive comedy, and because there is a part of us that values truth above illusion, we grab at that bitter comedy for dear life.
The individualized, transactional attitude is just one thing that keeps new and unique art from reaching a broader audience. But perhaps that can change if we take different criteria into the civil and communal sanctuary of the theater, criteria that measure engagement as much as enjoyment, because we can’t always trust what we like; criteria that reflect art’s intrinsic goodness and remember its civilizing advantages. If we’re sick of seeing mush on TV and the same formulaic Hollywood plots, we’ll have to abandon self-gratification in favor of community-engagement, to usher in an appreciation of the new and unique, of thoughtful expression instead of zoned-out disassociation.
With The Master, P.T. Anderson has taken a daring step in a new direction. It’s worth seeing even if you don’t like it.