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The Master

Marking Territory


The Master is a film that perhaps never makes more sense than if we see Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) less as a human figure than a canine one, or perhaps better still as a dog in a human’s body. Gilles Deleuze might have talked about the notion of becoming animal, where “it is not a question of being this or that sort of human, but of becoming inhuman, of a universal animal becoming – not seeing yourself as some dumb animal, but unravelling the body’s human organization, exploring this or that zone of bodily intensity…” But are there not humans who move in the other direction? It is as if their natures are not characteristically human but characteristically canine, feline, bovine. It is a point Eisenstein of course mused over in Strike, where he dissolved from human faces into the animal he believed the characters resembled, and Equus, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about a teenage boy who sees horses as god-like figures, and thus as his superego, explores the problem of animals assuming a status superior to our own. Indeed hasn’t cinema frequently invoked the characteristics of the animal in the human, whether in numerous Disney animated features, or in blockbuster cinema like the Batman films with Catwoman as the personification of the feline?

Partly what is so fascinating about Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is that the animal is not invoked at all anthropomorphically, but is constantly alluded to as a failed state of the human. As the leader of the cult organization that Freddie joins insists the animal has held sway for too long; that it is about time man returned to his origins as a sentient being, so Freddie proves especially a problem. Instead of man giving himself over to animal instincts, The Cause leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), thinks they should be altogether eradicated. He believes these elements should be removed rather than suppressed: insisting that this isn’t an instinctive dimension that needs to be sublimated, but a useless addition that needs to be psychically extracted. If Freddie is his most challenging case study, is it not because more than most he indicates the animal as core being?

One proposes the canine for at least two reasons. The first concerns the sexual and the second, the violent. Throughout, Freddie can be seen as like a dog on heat. He is someone that, for most of the film, appears to have no reciprocal sex life at all, but who seems to be a constantly sexualized presence. In the first section of the film he is in the navy at the end of the war, masturbating into the sea, and then shortly afterwards curls up next to the woman made in sand his colleagues have created, and that earlier Freddie dry-humped. Later, when he is psychologically interrogated by Lancaster, we find out he fell in love with a sixteen year old girl in an unconsummated passion: they both loved each other but it wasn’t a sexual relationship. Further into the film, Dodd’s married daughter makes a sexual pass at him during a meeting, but we have no idea whether a sexual relationship develops out of it. With his distorted bodily demeanour and his mouth contorted as Phoenix plays up the presence of his hair-lip, Freddie is a mutant presence, half-man, half-beast, as if Phoenix based his performance on the works of Francis Bacon, seeking out a body moving in several directions at once. How do you cure, as Lancaster tries to do, a man who might be less man than dog, and who contains within him a sexual frustration that is more, or less, than human? If the one flashback in the film shows us Freddie’s infatuation with his teen love, nevertheless the moment can’t pass for much of a revelation psychologically but only physiologically: it will eventually hint at his drives more than his feelings, at a certain sexual constraint indicating the dog on heat.

In the scenes of violence this notion of drives over feelings is pertinent too. Freddie acts not with the psychological motivation of the human, but closer to the loyalty of a dog who understands hardly at all the social subtleties of the given situation. When Lancaster gets arrested for practising without a medical license Freddie wrestles with the police officers as Lancaster tries to placate him, insisting that Freddie’s actions aren’t helpful. Lancaster tries to calm him down like a master whose dog has misinterpreted a cue. Later on, when one of the other members insists that Dodds is a great mind but his new book is hopelessly over-written, Freddie wrestles him to the ground as they grapple on the pavement in another act of misplaced loyalty.

Phoenix’s performance seems to bring something new to American violence, and it resides in the psychosexual aggression that doesn’t conform to the social, but, as we will see, exists in a state unshaped by the conventions of the ego, or even by the demands of obvious sexual desire. If much American film violence is socially calibrated, then there is its deviation in egoistic or fetishistic calibration also. If most American films demand that the violence it presents be consistent with the social norms that insist upon it (protecting one’s family, one’s town, one’s dignity), equally there is the perverse strain that manifests itself in fetishistic projection (Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, Willem Dafoe in Wild at Heart, and, in a slightly different register, De Niro in Casino, Pacino in Scarface, Cagney in White Heat), or as hypertrophied egoistic credence (Joe Pesci in Good Fellas, James Woods in The Specialist). In the fetishistic, the purpose rests usually not at all on sexual prowess, but a certain sexual anxiety. Whether it is Hopper shouting mummy as he enters the fearfully passive Isabella Rossellini, Pacino warily worrying over his waspishly beautiful wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), or De Niro projecting his feelings onto a woman (Sharon Stone) who so obviously still loves her ex, this is castration anxiety as limited access: here are men who can’t quite possess a woman without some level of resistance on the woman’s part, and so consequently project desire onto another rather than achieve union with her. In the egoistic, though, the problems rest much more on trying to get credence rather than love, with Pesci someone who doesn’t take disdain lying down in Good Fellas when he can get the other man on the floor first and beat him senseless, or who will blow the foot off a waiter he doesn’t think is taking him as seriously as he should. In the fetishistic and the egoistic, though, one senses the aggression of the characters is still in the social sphere, however oblique.

In Freddie it is as though the social sphere is obliterated by the bestial, but one uses the term animal here not as the pejorative it often passes for when someone refers to a violent character as a beast, but as a means of comprehension. It is a way of understanding a character whose goals and purpose are not socially-oriented but instinctive and unmotivated, sense-oriented more than socially attuned. When Jacob Mikanowski in an article called “American Caliban” wonders why at a point quite early in the film “we are following this creep around”, one could answer because he is an original in American film: he indicates an ‘animal’ never quite seen before.

Critics have invoked anyone from Brando to Dean, Montgomery Clift to the Beats to get a handle on Phoenix’s performance, but if these allusions are useful maybe we need to be more specific. The Method actors of the late forties and early fifties brought something new into cinema, and it wasn’t only the Stanislavski approach that insisted drawing on inner reserves over external props; it was often how these props would be approached as animals regard objects rather than how humans do so. A dog or a cat often sniffs around a space, rubs against it and tries to feel out its spatial and olfactory properties, where the human assumes the properties as a given. When a person orders some food or is told in a restaurant their table is ready; they do not feel around the space or sniff the food to find out if it is a table or the food happens to be the dish they’ve ordered. They usually rely on the food’s look and the waiter’s claims. To do otherwise would be seen as unusual, and yet there is something in the Method actor that possesses an element of this unusualness, and makes us think of animal gestures as much as human ones. Though Brando’s tactile affection towards pigeons in On the Waterfront, to cats in The Godfather and horses in The Missouri Breaks contains a dimension of empathising with the animal, it still seems well within the range of behavioural convention, but when James Dean sees his weak father picking up a tray of food that he’s dropped after taking it upstairs to his wife in Rebel Without a Cause, or when Brando offers guttural animal sounds in Last Tango in Paris, there is the human limit met, and an animal sensitivity taking over. When Dean says to his father that he shouldn’t be at his wife’s beck and call, he keeps starting a sentence that he can’t finish not because he has a stammer, but because as he tries the sentence several different ways he can’t find a verbal means by which to acknowledge how he feels about what his father is doing. At one moment he touches his father’s shoulder, but this is a gesture of exasperation more than affection, and shortly afterwards, unable to express himself, he walks away. In Last Tango in Paris, Brando says he has been called by a million names during his life, and again there is exasperation, this time leading to the animal noises. In each instance, language can’t quite do justice to the feeling, and the characters retreat, or advance, into what animals are forced to confront: the absence of the linguistic. It might be Movement Technique as practised by the bodily schools of acting like Jacques Lecoq’s that invokes the animal, but it is also there in the Method school as taught by Lee Strasberg – whose students included both Dean and Brando. Lecoq may have insisted that “the analysis of animal movement brings us closer to the study of the human body and helps with character creation” (The Moving Body), but animals were central to the Method too. “The “Private Moment” and “Animal” (physically re-creating an animal’s behavior on a human being) exercises were seamlessly woven into this “training and drill” sequence. The numerous exercises Lee Strasberg developed to consciously train and apply the emotional memory aspect of affective memory were also now part of this exercise sequence.” (

Phoenix’s performance seems a further extension into this animalistic possibility, and whether it is Freddie being house-trained by Lancaster, or the violence that seems not at all based on human coordinates of behaviour, but dog-like loyalty, Phoenix’s might be the most dog-like performance put on film. Phoenix may have turned down the role of the porn star in Anderson’s Boogie Nights where he was expected to be no more than hung like a donkey with a dangling prosthetic penis, but here he is expected to be constrained like a dog in a more challenging example of thespian simile. In the scene where he is asked by Lancaster and the Cult to walk back and forth across the room, the film might bring to mind anything from The Wild Child to The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser: films where the leading characters are asked to enter into language and civilization after being brought up in the wild. Freddie hasn’t been brought up in the wild, though, but has, we might assume, been nothing if not well-trained in violence and dog-like devotion.

He’s come out of the navy after WWII psychologically damaged, one of many who’ve helped the US win the war but in the process created an inner conflict in themselves. Perhaps a still more useful point of comparison than Truffaut or Herzog’s films would be Sam Fuller’s White Dog, a film where a canine has been trained to attack black people, and when taken in by a liberal white the woman determines to remove the learned traits of racism. The dog isn’t naturally racist, but programmed to hate, and needs to be deprogrammed so that it will no longer be a threat to people of colour. While most reviewers have pointed out Lancaster’s charlatanism, it is more useful to think not of Dodds’ phoniness, but his sincerity. We can feel that what he says is nonsense (amply evident in a scene where someone at an upmarket party calls him on a few details), but what makes the film interesting is that it creates, within the “mumbo jumbo”, important insights no matter what they are wrapped up in. Lancaster talks to Freddie of being “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all a man…like you”. Later, when Dodd’s wife, played by Amy Adams, says that Lancaster’s been writing all night, and that Freddie seems to inspire something in him”, what inspires him is this question of whether Freddie is a man, as Lancaster insists he himself happens to be. To call most people human is hardly a grand claim, but when it happens to be someone like Freddie, a figure who calls into question the theoretical apparatus of a system based on a kind of reverse Darwinism – on the assumption that we don’t come from animals but that the beast is a virus in our system, who better to exemplify this infection than someone who sometimes seems all animal? If Freddie is Lancaster’s favourite child then it resides in him being The Cult’s most problematic example of the species.

If we’ve invoked White Dog for the element of deprogramming, it also brings to mind any number of exorcism films, from The Exorcist to Audrey Rose, and we might be reminded of Anderson’s other films too: There Will be Blood, with its own scene of Daniel Plainview ‘exorcised’ by his nemesis, the preacher Eli Sunday, Magnolia, with Tom Cruise’s character who wants to exorcise people of their emotional weaknesses, and Adam Sandler’s in Punch Drunk Love who needs released from his anger.

One hopes these aren’t casual allusions on our part: the point is to say something about Anderson’s distinctiveness here, a distinctiveness often missed by critics who insist on seeing instead certain failures of narrative craft. “Anderson seems not to care that his script is oblique to the point of folly” Rachel Cooke says in The Observer. Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman sees “a bit of a sprawling, repetitive mess, a film that hints at greatness to be sure, but fails to come together in any coherent way – or at least in any way that inspires confidence in Anderson’s actual abilities as a storyteller as opposed to his undeniable filmmaking prowess”. When a filmmaker departs from cliché that isn’t quite the same as saying they depart from convention, from the generic codes that allow a film to be readily comprehensible. It is a cliché when at the end, a film cuts from the romantic comedy couple finally getting together and the film cutting from them kissing to the fireplace, but the cliché isn’t in the couple getting together (that is the convention), it is in the cut to a predictable symbol of their desire. While reviewing romantic comedy Frankie and Johnny, critic Terence Rafferty reckoned: “the classic Hollywood romantic comedies of the thirties usually delayed the gratification of the happy ending by external means: they used the plot mechanics of farce to generate the mishaps and misunderstandings that would keep his lovers apart for ninety minutes or so”. In Frankie and Johnny though, the film produces “the exquisitely attenuated pleasure of romantic comedy by a different method; the obstacles in the path of the love are all internal.” (The Thing Happens) Here Rafferty accepts the mechanical but demands the personal, and feels the film delivers. It has utilised the conventions but escaped ready cliché by tweaking the romantic comedy devices with the aid of internal neurosis.

But what happens when one escapes the clichés but also escapes conventions; where the filmmaker won’t allow the film to fall into a careful character arc, however distinctly deployed? The result is a film like The Master, with the work couched more in a question than in a form. To say the film shares similarities with anything from The Wild Child to The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, to White Dog, The Exorcist and Audrey Rose, isn’t the same as comparing Frankie and Johnnie with Shop Around the Corner, A Summer Madness, One Fine Day or Last Chance Harvey. In the latter, however brilliant or indifferent the specific films may be, they are generically contained; The Master, in relation to the other films, generically dispersed. We use them not to understand its generic heritage, but to see how The Master alludes to other possibilities without accepting the ready form in which films like The Exoricist and Audrey Rose find themselves. The Exorcist and Audrey Rose are horrors contained within a sub genre: the exorcism film. The Master might make people think specifically of Safe, Leap of Faith and The Rapture – other films touching upon cults – but we could hardly call it a genre or sub-genre.

Now one reason why films fall into the generic is to allow for the comprehensive evaluation of event. Most generic films play on knowing expectation: will the central character slip on the banana skin in a comedy, will the supporting character going into the shower get killed off in a horror, will the detective get played by the dangerous woman in a film noir, will the scientist realize in time that the experiment in the lab will be unleashing on humanity a monster? The film might not always be predictable in its outcome, but it will demand a degree of predictability through assumption. If The Master doesn’t feel like a generic work, it resides in these questions being forestalled and subsequently deemed irrelevant. There might be some irony to be found in the idea that Freddie is the antithesis of Lancaster’s human ideal, but because this is explored thematically rather than narratively we’re unlikely to make certain assumptions about how things will turn out. If genre cinema often feels like a game, it resides in the significance of the story over the theme, and the sense that within the story a game is being played with the viewer based on certain assumptions met or countered. The better the genre film, the more wrong-footed one happens to be, as long as the film still plays by the rules. But what rule is The Master playing by, and this is maybe where the question takes precedence over the game? By refusing generic convention it seems to want a question bigger than the capacity to answer it, and the film might bring to mind philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s differentiation between a mystery and a problem. A problem can be solved, but a mystery cannot: one can merely ask certain questions around it. To work out a complicated mathematical equation is a problem, no matter how complex, but to comprehend a complicated human is much more of a mystery. If Anderson wanted to simplify Freddie’s motives as carnal, as Lancaster’s as greed, then the film could have narrowed its mysteries down to problems, and used generic convention to leave one sure about the character arcs and no less sure about the narrative conclusions.

But instead the retreat from certain assumptions leads to the expansion of certain mysteries. It appears for example that one reason why Freddie is so accepted within the group is because Freddie makes the most amazing moonshine, but the film doesn’t follow through on this gift of Freddie’s and his consequent usefulness to Lancaster. We might assume he is still making wonderful concoctions for the Master, but we aren’t given scenes that confirm it. In the middle of the film there is a moment where Lancaster sings a bawdy song to the cult members, and as the film puts Lancaster at the centre of the sequence, it nevertheless cuts away to Freddie looking on. Then one notices all the women in the scene (as Lancaster sings ) are now nude, and we might wonder whether there has been an elliptical cut where all the women have taken off their clothes, whether this is Lancaster’s imaginings, or more especially Freddie’s. Let us assume a filmmaker wants to work with assumption over mystery – wouldn’t it be best to make clear that Freddie is sexually frustrated and the scene viewed from his subjective angle? It is a reading the film makes available, but refuses to make categorical, and so subsequently makes it difficult for us to say what the film is saying about the characters.

There is in the film’s very visual form also an element of the mysterious: the sense that Anderson has chosen a photographic style that could easily lead to caricature, but where the epistemological dimension of the caricatural is removed no matter its visual presence. Anderson and his cinematographer have shot the film in wide-screen, but the characters are framed not as epic figures utilising the wide, expansive frame, but people caught in the middle-field shot in harsh light. Both the foreground and the background are blurred while the medium visual plane is usually in focus, thus creating a feeling that the characters are both trapped and visually naked. The harsh lighting of the characters’ faces in the lift scene when the cult members exit an upmarket house after insulting one of the guests, who happened to question the Cause, looks almost as if it could have come out of The Addams Family. Yet where director Barry Sonnenfeld (the Coens’ former cinematographer) looks for the knowing in such a grotesque tableau, Anderson creates the disquieting. These are people for whom personality needs to be whittled down to the core intellectual properties, and so the visual doesn’t reflect the viewer’s need not to take them seriously (as we often find in caricature), but instead the characters’ need to take themselves very seriously indeed. Where Sonnenfeld in his own work and his films for the Coen brothers (films like Raising Arizona and Barton Fink) utilised wide-angles to play up the grotesque, Anderson finds what looks like a fresh visual approach to the grotesquery, and needs to do so because he has no interest in creating a knowing relationship between viewer and character. As many of the shots in the film capture the characters in the medium plane, it exposes them as much as a film that would caricature them in wide-angle, but where the exposure of the latter creates often the knowingly comedic, Anderson’s approach generates the estranged response of wondering what exactly the characters are and who they happen to be.

One notices this in Jonny Greenwood’s music also. Best known for his work with the band Radiohead, Greenwood scored Anderson’s previous film There Will be Blood (as well as Tran anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood) and his work so far seems in the tradition of insistent musical narration. Psycho, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Trouble Every Day, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Piano, Suspiria, Halloween and Amelie are films that for all their aesthetic differences, possess musical scores that become memorable through repetitious use. In some instances there are examples here of cue music (Psycho and Jaws especially), music that creates clear emotional reactions in the viewer through its utilisation, but if Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho and John Williams’ for Jaws are memorable it rests less on their capacity for cuing an audience, than their insistent ability to impose their scores on the film. The score doesn’t merely serve dramatic content, it creates an atmosphere around the film and in which the film is contained.

For some this would make the music obtrusive, but film as an audio-visual medium is surely entitled to demand that the score be as present an element as acting, photography and mise-en-scene. Greenwood’s score here is a ferocious blend of drums and strings, an orchestral storm constantly brewing which alludes to feelings that can never quite be articulated by the musically cued. When early in the film Freddie dry humps the woman made of sand, and lies half asleep on the boat high above the deck with the sun beating down as Anderson shoots it from a higher angle still, the music doesn’t tell us how to feel about an event, but it does indicate how we ought to intuit the character. The storm brewing on the soundtrack does help us understand there is a storm brewing in the character’s head. As with Greenwood’s score in There Will Be Blood, one senses that the music reflects a problem of character more than situation, so the purpose isn’t to offer a soundtrack that cues the various events, but that reflects the very bloodstream of the character. It is true that sometimes filmmakers talk of cue music in relation to character, and we notice it in Orson Welles’s figure in The Third Man, the variations of The Long Goodbye in Altman’s film of that name, and each leading character possessing their own theme tune in Once Upon a Time in the West, but this appears to be about the blood boiling more than definitive character traits. It is the music of a character restlessly caged by civilization, and possesses an unremitting force that doesn’t allow us to understand the character (unlike the character scoring in Once upon a Time in The West), but with huge ambition asks us to wonder about civilization and its discontents.

But of course the form is serving if not content then at least a question. The camerawork and the soundtrack are even contrapuntal, with the framing indicative of the visual restrictions placed upon American culture in the fifties, and exemplified in the exploration of the Cult, with the Cult being not the antithesis of American values but their apotheosis. The straitjacketing proposed by the army personnel isn’t too far removed from that of Lancaster. The purpose is to create people who are well-adjusted not maladjusted – people who prove functionally useful. The film’s visual form traps them in a medium ground of overlit conformity, a cinematographic stifling very different from deep-focus freedom. Yet the music counterpoints this, with a score constantly indicating the return of the repressed.

If, as we have explored, Phoenix offers an invigorating new take on violence in American film as he explores man as dog, Anderson’s film augments the performance with a visual cramping and audio expansion. For some Boogie Nights and Magnolia are the great P. T. Anderson films while There Will Be Blood and The Master are the indulgent works lacking the moral, character and narrative arcs of the earlier ones. But the problem with arcs in various forms is that they can sometimes intrude on the investigatory through the safety of their technique. Anderson’s earlier films remind one a little of a Norman Mailer comment: “I think of craft as being like a St Bernard dog with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into real trouble the thing that can save you as a novelist is to have enough craft to be able to keep warm long enough to be rescued.” But, as Mailer proposes, shouldn’t the artist get into a little trouble first? In the earlier Boogie Nights Anderson created a young man in the porn industry, which was a relatively fresh subject, but contained him within the confines of rise and fall narrative expectations: Wahlberg’s character was merely someone too big for his pants instead of his boots, but the point was pretty much the same as Wahlberg plays a pornographic Icarus. In Magnolia, Anderson creates a complex piece of hyperlink filmmaking as the stories criss-cross each other, but the film concludes with Aimee Mann telling us love is all you need. That it was Aimee Mann telling us might have made it more palatable, but the assumptions held. In each instance Anderson showed taste and judgement, and had become at a very young age (barely thirty) a proverbial master of his craft.

The newer films, though, indicate someone willing to test that conventional mastery to explore the vista of American experience. Boogie Nights seemed to owe much in form to Scorsese and De Palma, and Magnolia to Altman, but if one responds more to the recent works it is because they are made by Anderson without the influences hanging so heavily upon them. He may have borrowed Malick’s production designer Jack Fisk, here, but he hasn’t borrowed wholesale shot-choices, and at the same time simplified the thematic as one felt in utilizing Scorsese and De Palma in Boogie Nights, Altman with Magnolia. Instead he has found in himself a new voice for American cinema. At the end of the film, with Lancaster and Freddie having one last conversation after the organization has moved to England, Lancaster says to Freddie that it is almost impossible to live without a master. A man who has done that has done an amazing thing. It is a comment of course about Freddie’s attempt to be his own man (or his own dog), but it also works as an auto-critique of Anderson’s earlier films, where the masters were great seventies directors. There Will be Blood and The Master possess an element of these masters in their capacity to ask questions rather than in imitating aspects of their form. It is too hyperbolically easy to claim that the final master here is Anderson himself, but alongside Gus Van Sant, Kelly Reichardt and a couple of others, he is a filmmaker in whom the seventies project of enquiring cinema is in good hands. One feels he is pushing further away from the shore of both generic convention and stylistic influences. He is trying to find a voice, an aesthetic voice, just as Freddie seems to be searching out an animal voice too. There is something strangely empathic at work here, and we might usefully conclude with a reference to Deleuze (and Guattari) to round off the passing mention at the beginning. In A Thousand Plateaus they’re talking about animals, art and territorialisation. “The expressive is primary in relation to the possessive; expressive qualities or matters of expression, are necessarily appropriative and constitute a having more profound than being…not in the sense that these qualities belong to a subject, are signatures, but in the sense that they delineate a territory that will belong to the subject that carries or produces them.” When Deleuze and Guattari say “the signature is not the indication of a person; it is the chance formation of a domain”, what interests them is the similarity between animals marking territory, and an artist making their mark. In Anderson’s earlier films the muzzle of convention was in place as he seemed a domesticated Hollywood animal, always sure of a good meal. It is as if here, though, Freddie and Anderson wonder what self-mastery might look like, a mastery with neither a cult nor a convention behind it. The result perhaps looks a bit like The Master in film form; and Freddie’s final attempt at freedom in the film’s conclusion.


©Tony McKibbin