Woman on the Beach
By Adam Nayman
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., The Weinstein Company
[The following in-depth review may contain spoilers.]
Joaquin Phoenix is all elbows in The Master. His signature pose as ex-Navy seaman Freddie Quell is to stand stock still with his skinny arms in a kind of splayed triangulation. If the posture recalls the wracked physique of Daniel Plainview in the final passage of There Will Be Blood, it’s probably not coincidental, because Paul Thomas Anderson—a director who is nothing if not conscious of the relationships between his films, and also the idea of his steady ascendancy as an artist—seems to have conceived The Master in relation to its predecessor.
In some ways, it’s a change-up: the processional quality of There Will Be Blood has been replaced by a subtler and more sophisticated structure that gives the few money shots (and this being an Anderson film, you know there will be money shots) a higher currency. But leaving aside the big question of style—and all the fascinating subplots therein, like the choice of the 70 mm format, and the hiring of relatively unheralded Romanian DP Mihai Malaimare Jr., last seen pulling 3-D tricks in Coppola's Twixt—the key progression is one of time and place: historically speaking, the film is a sequel.
There Will Be Blood’s celebrated moment of Kubrick-meets-Malick ellipsis—the beautiful cut from two children dropping off a platform to a ring being placed on a finger—delineated the speed with which childhood falls away and adult responsibilities rise into view. But it also served as a sort of lyrical conduit—a miniature stargate sequence, if you like—propelling the film, its characters, and the audience past any sight or mention of World War I. What that elision means within the framework of There Will Be Blood, a film preoccupied with primal scenes in American history, is surely significant, as there’s a difference between simply ignoring something and using it as a structuring absence. And, as if to point this distinction out for anyone who’s watching carefully, The Master begins in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
More specifically, it begins on an unnamed Pacific island where American servicemen are cavorting shirtless on the beach; we might be in the opening scenes of The Thin Red Line, or maybe Beau travail. (Don’t put it past the cinephile PTA, whose favorite director is reportedly Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to have seen Claire Denis’s high masterpiece). This is one of several striking, essentially depopulated—and possibly non-realistic—outdoor spaces that will keep popping up in The Master, and it serves as an overture to the tricky and adroit two-step Anderson will do throughout the film with those old wary dance partners of the literal and the figurative, so often kept at arms’ length in cinema but occasionally coaxed into a passionate embrace by matchmaker directors: Denis and Malick, yes, but also Lynch and Kubrick, and why, not, Apichatpong and Anderson. So at the beginning of The Master, it’s entirely reasonable to think that we’re looking at a realistic depiction of Freddie Quell in the company of his fellow veterans, and that his odd behavior, like aggressively humping a sandcastle representation of a naked woman, marks him as outsider. And it’s also possible to think that we’re in an entirely psychic space: a blank landscape where the sudden figuration of a woman serves as an incitation to an act of fear and desire.
I cite Kubrick here because at this point, it’s de rigueur with Anderson, who has promiscuously moved through Scorsese and Altman en route to discovering his true master, pulling a few leagues ahead of David Fincher in the race to be the new Stanley Strangelove (as a friend remarked, with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Fincher seemed content to merely be the new Alan J. Pakula). But I really do think there’s something of Kubrick in The Master with regard to how Anderson uses women, which is also another way that the film seems organized in relation to—and in this case, in slight opposition to—There Will Be Blood. Some critics carped that There Will Be Blood’s oil-stained vision of American grift and greed excluded the fairer sex and that this was somehow evidence of Anderson’s failures as, variably, a dramatist and a sensitive human being, both of which could conceivably be discussions worth having. But I would venture that it made him a pretty successful psychic historian, and that his surpassingly male (though hardly conventionally macho) tale of fathers, brothers, and sons quibbling violently over land and inheritance got something—maybe something at once inflated and reductive, but something—right about the Life of the American Mind in the first half of the twentieth century.
By introducing women in The Master, first in the form of the sandy doppelganger (entirely anatomically correct right down to the last gaping detail), and then in a series of deceptively interchangeable female characters who orbit the main storyline of Freddie’s attempted conversion to a cult of personality headed by the charlatan Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Anderson seems to be making a point about the evolution of the social imaginary. This is not to say that women are equal participants in this film, which still depicts a prefeminist era and features two major male characters going at each other in alpha-male actor duels. But they are palpably present and increasingly important to everything that’s going on, especially as a suggestion of national portraiture begins to creep into the proceedings. There Will Be Blood was an attempt to capture the look and feel of a time when cameras, still and moving, were, if not rare, still at least supplemented by pictorial illustration and oration in the accounting of daily life. That The Master takes place in a successive and very different era is emphasized in the job that Freddie gets and briefly holds before getting caught up in Dodd’s “Cause”—a department-store photographer—and the first actual woman we see is through his camera lens: half of a happy couple, smiling brightly under bright lights under Freddie’s watchful gaze.
What Freddie sees, through his lens but also through those downcast yet envious eyes, is telling, especially if one believes that Anderson is blurring the real-imaginary divide at irregular intervals. A bravura interlude where a sexy mall employee whirls around customers hawking the expensive coat clinging to her body feels like someone’s languorous fantasy—Freddie’s? Anderson’s? ours?—and she quickly flashes Freddie more than her coat in the cloakroom. But the fantasy doesn’t last and their date is depicted in the space of a single sitcom-ish sight gag: the girl sitting impatiently in a restaurant booth while Freddie (who is a serious alcoholic) slumps semi-comatose beside her. From energetically fucking a fake woman to nodding off beside a real one—this is not progress for Freddie, but it is evidence of a sharpening dual vision for Anderson, who, without much in the way of showing off, establishes that we are inside and outside Freddie at the same time.
Once Freddie comes into contact with Dodd—a meeting occasioned by his habit, which becomes a recurring motif, of running, Gump-like, from a bad situation towards some other vague and hopeful horizon—his sex drive is sublimated (or rerouted) towards the promised succor of “The Cause,” a vaguely Scientologist set of precepts that scarcely need to be debunked to reveal their essential ridiculousness; more even than the real Hubbard, by some accounts a dour figure, Dodd sells his tales of reincarnation and recurrence with a Wellesian flourish (he’s also a quasi-hypnotist, and his target demographic seems to be rich older woman who can help his cause—and his Cause—with cash flow). But sex is never far from Freddie’s, or the movie’s, mind: one of the Cause’s soirees transforms (literally or imaginatively, it’s genuinely hard to tell) into a sort of orgy where the great man sings a song of jovial fidelity while whirling around and through a diversely proportioned and stark-naked gaggle of female acolytes, while scattered—and clothed—male followers look on admiringly. The reference point for director, critic, and audience all is surely Eyes Wide Shut, but the Kubrickian DNA runs deeper than a single filmic citation: this is the older master’s tactic of using women figurally or even architecturally, as an embodiment of male want—put bluntly, props. In Kubrick, this became for many detractors a cliché, even when (as in Eyes Wide Shut) he found ways to subtly alter this tendency; for Anderson, it’s something new, and deserves to be pondered over.
The one woman in The Master who is not a prop—although she is present for Dodd’s song-and-dance—is Peggy (Amy Adams), the de facto First Lady of the “Cause” and, as it turns out, its other true tyro. Dodd’s affably mesmeric control over his followers, his benefactors and of course Freddie, who eagerly becomes his right-hand man (a suggestive term in this film of frustrated sex drives), does not extend to his wife, who seems to be not only the one who wears the pants but, to paraphrase Frank T.J. Mackey, has also tamed the cock: a scene where she rather violently jerks her husband off over a bathroom sink while talking strategy is not some lame Lady Macbeth flourish but evidence of where all kinds of power in this film’s universe resides. Dodd’s sexual relief comes at the momentary expense of his dignity—Hoffman’s amazing performance is actually a study in all the ways that calm can come unruffled and then reassert itself—but at least he’s getting some. Freddie, whose dependence on his self-brewed booze mutates into a need for Dodd’s attention and clinical fascination (without ever stopping him from drinking), remains existentially cock-blocked.
In James Gray’s Two Lovers, Phoenix was a fragile romantic, a nice guy used to finishing last, while here he’s scarier and more aggressive: a typical Andersonian character, perhaps (think of Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love) but also a unique creation. One of the knocks on Anderson—justified, I think—is that his characters never develop; that just as his filmmaking uses big moments and big leaps to elide the grunt work of successful dramaturgy, his actors (think of Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood) simply keep hitting high notes to distract from the fact that they’re essentially static figures. Freddie’s stasis isn’t a failure of screenwriting, however: it’s the point of the character. Dodd’s bizarre exercise of having Freddie move back and forth (for what is edited to seem like days) from a window to a wall in his Pennsylvania is about breaking down his resistance, perhaps, but also it makes him look like a rogue particle inside a smasher, careening wildly in a confined space. When the space gets bigger—like on that first beach, or out in the California desert—Freddie just keeps going with no walls to bounce off of, always rushing towards a goal that is unattainable to him but increasingly nonmysterious to us: the abstract concept and the physical fact (preferably in the same package) of a woman.
Running to women, and also from them (what little we know and see of his back story involves his abandoning of a puppy-love beloved back home), Freddie becomes a very suggestive figure of unmoored postwar masculinity: damaged, crazy, horny, looking for something to grab on to. The readings of The Master that privilege its status as the first American movie explicitly “about” Scientology will surely make something of this, and probably should, since Anderson does spend plenty of time on the topic of ideological indoctrination, as practiced by Dodd on others and on himself (remember, as they always say, that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis). And yet Freddie is never caught espousing the Cause’s philosophy; his loyalty is to Dodd. Even then, it’s a tortured relationship, spilling over sometimes into competitiveness—hardly the appropriate comportment in the presence of one’s master—as in the amazing and obviously Kubrick-inflected bit where the two men are thrown into adjoining jail cells by overzealous cops and enact some (again, literally and figuratively) left-vs.-right brain antagonism inside a perfectly framed master shot. Freddie does come crawling back, but even so keeps eluding Dodd’s grasp, until it’s clear enough that the Cause—for Freddie, for Anderson, and for us—stands in a kind of awed counterpoint to this strange protagonist’s consuming drives. Dodd’s science-fiction mumbo-jumbo can account for everything under the sun, except for Freddie, who isn’t so much an unbreakable spirit as a Gordian bundle of nerves white-hot to the touch. He’s ironically unsusceptible to Dodd’s M.O., which is to fool some of the people most of the time by making broad guesses as to what they want—a sense of superiority and a promise of eternal return—because his obsession is so inchoate. He is the opposite of Daniel Plainview, who knew exactly what he wanted (money, power, the death of God) and got it in as methodical a way as possible.
Daniel also got an ironically happy ending—“I’m finished” and those Barry Lyndon strings—whereas Freddie, even after his experiences with Dodd, is left in a kind of tender trap. The final woman in the film, a Ms. Winn Manchester (Jennifer Neala Page), offers a replay of the department-store tryst with a difference; she and Freddie actually end up in bed, where the Cause’s tenets are redeployed as a kind of pillow talk, maybe the last giggly word on how much the pseudo-philosophy is really supposed to matter—to Freddie, to Anderson, and to us—and where the character seems finally at rest beneath the (very slightly zaftig) girl whose apartment he’s arrived at. There is, however, a rather significant cut after that, which returns us to that either-or/both-at-once space where we began, and where Freddie seems destined to reside regardless of where he may be. And, rather significantly, he is at once alone there and not alone, clinging to another figure in a to signify two things at once.
The byproduct of that quality is of course unresolved tension of the kind that frustrates audiences and moves critics alike, and which was absent in the rigorously planned out “masterpiece” structure of There Will Be Blood, a film that Michael Sicinski once wrote operated on a sort of “one-to-one ratio,” and did so spectacularly. True enough. The Master does not feel similarly immediate, nor so immediately of a piece. But unlike Freddie, who is all elbows physically and all thumbs emotionally, and whose fight-or-flight instincts are uncontrollable, its maker absolutely knows where he’s going, and how to get there. The no-man’s-land he arrives at is not the destination of an artist adrift but sign that PTA has pushed past a whole host of boundaries—his reverential cinephilia, his self-loving technique, even the need for precise narrative and thematic closure—en route to making the first truly sticky, maddening, and unshakeable movie of a career that is looking pretty major indeed.