Near the midpoint of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” the title character faces the first serious test of his newly coined belief system. He’s in New York City for a demonstration of his “processing” method; The Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), asks a subject a series of questions designed to break down their mental defenses and reveal buried memories of the past, or perhaps even of past lives. As Dodd processes one woman at the party, a man skeptically watches in the corner, then hurls a series of insults and accusations. The skeptic all but calls Dodd a fraud; scoffs at his ideas, dismisses his evidence, and compares his followers to the members of a cult. In response, Dodd produces a counter example: a river with a bend in it. When we sail beyond the bend and look back, we can’t see the origin of the river — but that doesn’t mean it’s not still there.
The skeptic wants hard, evidential truth. The Master refuses to indulge him. So many people I’ve spoken to who’ve seen “The Master” want the same thing — some grand explanation, some revelation of greater meaning — but the film remains as cagey as Dodd. Sure, they say, the performances are great, and yes the 70mm cinematography is stunning. But what is it all about? What does it all mean? Why are the protagonists drawn to one another? Where’s the truth?
In a sense, a flummoxed reaction to “The Master” is a correct one — the film is very much about the way in which the search for answers in the universe leads to frustration rather than fulfillment. It follows a man who falls under the thrall of Lancaster Dodd, a mentally unbalanced World War II veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Lonely, drunk, and violent, Quell finds a welcoming community and a sense of purpose amongst Dodd’s followers. But he never finds peace — or any answers.
Those looking for similar enlightenment from “The Master” were barking up the wrong tree. Like the best of the film’s posters, like the psychological exam Quell endures before his discharge from the Navy, “The Master” is one enormous Rorschach test: a near-abstract combination of images, ideas, and themes presented for individual interpretation. Is it a movie about the origins of Scientology? Or the shifting face of American masculinity in the 1940s and ’50s? Could it be a sad character study? One enormous dream in the mind of a diseased brain? Or perhaps an unrequited homosexual love story? As the Naval psychologist says to Quell when he shows him the first inkblot, “there’s no wrong answer.” This is Anderson’s cue to the audience: “The Master”‘s meaning lies not in the film, but in each and every viewer.
The first time I saw “The Master,” I was mostly consumed with Phoenix and Hoffman’s remarkable performances and their attack dog/trainer relationship. Having watched it two more times in recent weeks, I’ve become enamored with a reading of the film that has less to do with Quell and Dodd, or even with Dodd’s connection to L. Ron Hubbard and The Cause’s to Scientology. Maybe because I’ve had so many conversations about “The Master” with slightly flustered or greatly disappointed viewers, I’ve begun to read it as a film about exactly that: how an artist grapples with a cynical, skeptical audience.
After all, The Master is more than a religious leader; he’s also an author. In fact, when he introduces himself to Quell at their initial meeting, the first title he gives himself — before he lists doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher — is that of a writer. And I think it’s as a writer — and therefore as an artist — that Anderson sees Dodd as a sympathetic (or possibly even tragic) figure.
A large portion of “The Master” is set on Dodd’s borrowed yacht, as he and The Cause travel through the Panama Canal from San Francisco to New York. When Dodd isn’t processing Quell or sampling some of his mysterious homemade liquor, he is writing an unnamed “Book Two” — the long-awaited follow-up to his highly regarded first book, “The Cause.” Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), tells Quell that their meeting (and his peculiar homebrew) has inspired The Master. “When we’re at home, on land,” she tells Quell over breakfast, “there’s too much pulling him in each direction.”
Dodd’s comfort on the open ocean is one of his strongest connections to Quell — and it’s important to note how much water imagery dominates the “The Master.” The film opens with the sound and then the sight of an azure sea churning in the wake of a massive Naval ship (fortunately, there’s no bend in the ocean). Back on land after the war, Quell also finds himself pulled in each direction — he snaps at a customer while working as the photographer at a department store and accidentally poisons a man with his bathtub booze while harvesting cabbage. Lost and miserable, he finally finds a home with Dodd — when he returns to the water by stowing away on his boat to New York City.
There are many more references, visually and sonically, to water in “The Master,” which marks it as a significant departure from Anderson’s last movie, “There Will Be Blood.” In fact, the two films go together like oil and water — literally; “Blood” was all about petroleum, and the way in which it transforms an enterprising young businessman into a tycoon. “The Master” is, in so many ways, the opposite story: an aimless drifter with absolutely no ambition, driven only by his basest urges. In “There Will Be Blood,” Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) greatest enemy is religion, in the form of a fiery preacher and land owner who repeatedly stymies his attempts to monopolize an oil-rich area of California. In “The Master,” religion is Quell’s only ally.
In other words; these are two very different films, a fact that’s bothered many viewers — “It’s good, but not as good as ‘There Will Be Blood,'” I’ve heard on countless occasions. Which brings us back to Dodd, working on his hotly anticipated follow-up to “The Cause.” When it arrives — in the form of “The Split Saber” — it is received in much the same way “The Master” was received: as a disappointment in the context of the author’s body of work.
We’ve already mentioned the scene at the party between Dodd and the skeptic. Later, after “The Split Saber” is released at a Cause convention in Phoenix, there are more negative reactions. A member of The Cause from New York City tells Quell he thinks the new book is garbage, with insights unworthy of even a pamplet, much less a full volume. Helen (Laura Dern), Dodd’s patron in Philadelphia, claims to love it, but also takes issue with a small but significant change in Dodd’s description of processing. When she brings the matter to his attention, he explodes at her. “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” he rages.
It’s a profound question from an author to his audience, one I suspect Anderson has asked time and again as he’s watched his own flock react tentatively to each new twist in his career — following up the exuberant “Boogie Nights” with ambiguous, frog-plagued “Magnolia;” following up the ambitious “Magnolia” with the smaller “Punch-Drunk Love.” With “The Master” it happened again. Imagine how that must make Anderson feel. Imagine how it makes Dodd feel.
So why, after all of his poor behavior, in spite of his closest advisors’ warnings, does Dodd repeatedly accept Quell? This, I suspect, is the reason. Quell, for all his flaws, is the audience Dodd wants. He may not fully understand processing, The Cause, or “The Split Saber” — but he accepts that Dodd understands it, and he trusts him. Except for one notable argument in a jail cell, he never questions his language, and he doesn’t moan that the new book isn’t as good as the old one. He likes whatever Dodd does. And when someone disagrees, he goes on the attack. Quell’s loyal to The Master, not to The Cause; he values the artist over any specific work. For someone looking to start a religion — or to continue a long and varied film career — a fan who supports you with that kind of devotion must be a comfort and a reassurance.