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Film Review: The Master 

P.T. Anderson Drinks The Cool Aid. 

Review by Gerry Fitzpatrick

30 November 2012

This film is the latest work of the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. After early success Anderson has styled himself as a Hollywood auteur heir to Kubrick and Scorsese. In reality what he has actually achieved is a grey comic mimicry of the arts used in independent productions such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, American Graffiti, Network and Nashville. In films such as Hard Eight (1996), Magnolia (1999), Punch Drunk Love (2002), and Oil (2011), Anderson magpies camera effects, plot turns and acting styles to try to prove to a college educated audience that he not only knows this movie language but that he can use it to make the right moves to advance his career and develop respect for his work in Hollywood or, more correctly, his faltering myth. 

After Anderson’s previous triumph with the film Oil in which he attempted to wear the mantle of Martin Scorsese, he now offers this putrid onion of a movie as a sort of keepsake of what was his actual effect on movie audiences. For in the Master there are many layers – all of which are rotten. First there is his attempt to make an American version of Francois Truffaut’s L'Enfant Sauvage (1970) where a teacher or in this case cult guru - Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tries to educate an ignorant wild child “animal” played by Joaquin Phoenix. The next layer - decayed but just visible, is Anderson knowing nod to the myth of Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. Here it must be said, Hoffman is at is best when he imitates Welles as Kane - the fun loving demagogue who tries to build an empire on hokum, “this struggle has been going on for trillions of years!!” he yells at one point at a doubting member of a wealthy heiress’s family whose money Dodd is stealing. That night the man who raised that objection is beaten up by Freddie Quell (Phoenix) later Dodd scolds Quell for this, but we know that he actually approves because deep down we are supposed to believe that Dodd is a yelling megalomaniac. We see two flashes of this trait in the whole movie but it is not developed as it was in a film like Elmer Gantry (1960).

And in thinking about great cinema, acting techniques and their ethical and moral effects, it is always important to remember that the great work of art creates dramatic tension and resolution by being purposely, creatively ambiguous as Truffaut does in L’ Enfant Sauvage – we know that the teacher’s success in teaching the child is to be welcomed but we also know that the child’s ability to survive in a hostile environment has been undermined. What Anderson does instead is to add layers that he builds up and then lets dissipate. The signs of incoherence – instead of ambiguity – are everywhere in the film. Dodd flatters himself that he can dominate and mentally manipulate Quell. But just at the point where the socio-political aspect of this is about to mature, it dissipates into male game playing bravado. One example should suffice. Quell, Dodd, his daughter and son-in-law drive out to the salt flats. Dodd devises a game that they must play; he indicates a point in the distance and says they must drive to it. Dodd goes first riding the motorcycle and enjoying the good clean fun of speeding for no purpose. Quell, taking his turn, simply keeps driving. Dodd and family don’t follow in their car when they see something has gone wrong. They are seen pointlessly running after Quell. 

Anderson suggests here that Quell has had an accident off camera. When in the next scene it is revealed that Quell has driven hundreds of miles in the hope of seeing an old girlfriend we know that Anderson has simply been playing with us. After a while we loose interest, as these and other false moves lead nowhere. That nowhere becomes an even bigger nowhere by the end of the film especially when Dodd is shown calling Quell in a cinema and asks him to come to England with some cigarettes. When Quell somehow arrives at Dodd’s new and expanded “school” – a Kane gothic mansion and is told by Dodd’s wife that he is an unreconstructed ignorant barbarian and can’t stay. What will Dodd do? Here the audience was treated once again to Anderson’s most irritating habit - if in doubt end on a bad song. It was no surprise then that after hearing Hoffman sing his broken wistful dirge to Quell - which was followed by Quell in yet another awkward adult scene – the small audience left the theatre in utter bewilderment.

Tea Party Animal or Why The Master Was Made

Tea party members are the one group who this film would appeal to because it shows a Fifties world that they thought they knew. For the Horatio Alger myth (that everybody can make it) is given a good trailer in the beginning of the film when Quell is told of all the opportunities that await him in post-war-trouble-free America. Just how trouble free, is signaled by Anderson firstly by not showing the world outside of the cult. Secondly, by Dodd’s early endorsement of his future son-in-law – a young black man. The purpose of this significant detail is to show Quell’s racism and interaction to Dodds son-in-law and their subsequent confrontation during Quell’s “processing”. This indicates two further things: First it shows the inconsistency in Anderson’s script.  If Dodd is a manipulator how is it that his processing reveals Quell as a racist while also showing that Quell works well with other people of colour like the Pilipino farm workers? (Indeed the plot actually shows Quell as victim of the Pilipino farm workers after one of them dies after drinking Quell’s homemade hooch). The revelation of racism is a well-known 70’s plot device as it supposedly authenticates a leading character, in this case Quell, to be “real”. 

In other words Quell is an untamable individual who Anderson wants us to believe is acting instinctively which is naturally as a violent, racist, sociopath. The plot idea that Quell is suffering from PTSD was part of the publicity for the film and is, I can reveal, a manipulation by Anderson of an existing documentary about WWII veteran’s readjustment to society. In this military documentary a black ex-soldier is shown weeping when questioned about his mental state and, bravely holding back his tears, comments that, “in your profession I think you call it nostalgia”. That was the gentle word that was used then to describe posttraumatic stress. What then would be the word for someone who decides to rob those very same words and put them into the mouth of a racist, rutting, sociopath like Freddie Quell?   

But the Hollywood joker in addition to thumbing his nose at his audience always has his elbow in our sides. For what Anderson was I believe, attempting to tell us in his film, was how a Master – lets us call him a genius-illusionist like Orson Welles – would fail to convince or change someone who did not share his liberal arts views. 

Dodd’s cult is called The Cause, a phrase that most people in the 1950s used to refer to Left Wing political ideals. Welles fully endorsed the civil rights movement and how black-American language changed the mainstream language of America. He saw that potential in the 1930s and took a very brave stand against the Murdoch of his day Randolph Hurst. His enemies – including Hurst not only accused him of being a communist but of sexual deviance. This is also happens to be a trait that Anderson has worked in as part of Dodds character as we see him playing dubious parlor games in contrast to the clean cut professional image that he projects. Freddie Quell, Anderson tells us, is the real McCoy and not a hypocrite and his natural (racist) essence can’t be changed. Therefore Dodd could not use Freddie. But now, fifty years on, the Tea Party have refranchised Freddie and are madly in love with him and are seeking him out in every electoral ward in the United States. Even when they find that he is not there they keep looking.   


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