Archive for October, 2012

A Note on ‘The Master’

October 24th, 2012 No comments

When the lights faded up in Cinerama Dome at the Arclight there was the sound of one person clapping slowly in the back of the theater. I looked to the steel expression of my friend, Shebaugh. “Don’t even ask me what I thought, Patton, I gotta let this one sink in,” he told me and that sums up the feeling I got from the crowd as we all filtered out. Paul Thomas Anderson has become a master of writing and directing complex and interesting characters but with each film he continues to dissect the idea of a narrative down to what now amounts to a beautiful portrait of a troubled character and a false prophet.

Freddie Quills is an alcoholic navy man recently discharged from service and, therefore, is forced to some how re-assimilate himself to civilian life.  When we open on him he is mixing some alcoholic concoction in a coconut on a beach. His navy buddies sculpt a woman out of sand,  which Freddie playfully “humps” causing the navy buddies to leave. Freddie masturbates into the ocean like an animal and then lays down next to the sand woman. He looks at this mound of beach with longing, like he has projected the face of someone he misses onto the sculpture. He is alone, seeming lost and full of regret.

Once discharged Freddie faces the normal societal challenges of fitting in and holding down a job.  He bounces around, no direction. He is constantly mixing up any liquid with any alcohol content and pursues women with a insatiable lust, but never seems to sleep with any of them.  At one point he is running for his life from vengeful migrant workers only to end up a stow away on a small yacht. This is where he meets The Master, Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here Freddie has found someone that might, for at least a short while, offer guidance.

It is remarkable how vehemently some people can attach themselves to a leader.  Our current political discourse leading up to a national election is our most accessible example. People react with either vitriolic comments made on Twitter, Facebook or other public forums or with the occasional violent outburst at townhall meetings all in defense of the leader they support.  We see that violence and loyal defense in Freddie who assaults people who question Dodd or challenge his views. He attacks a man who essentially calls Dodd a cult leader, he attacks police officers who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license and he attacks the publisher of Dodd’s book who criticizes the teachings of “The Cause.”  These outbursts, this violent defense of Dodd’s unconventional practices, comes with nothing more than a promise that “The Cause” will help. But Freddie sees no improvement. He continues to lust after women, he continues to drink heavily and he cannot get a handle on his temper.

The exercises Dodd implements when treating Freddie are repetitive and maddening.  At one point Dodd has Freddie pacing for hours between a wall and a closed window, asking him to keep his eyes shut and each time describe what he feels.  Back and forth, Freddie starts to go almost mad but continues to follow this man’s direction.  It’s played so well by Phoenix you will start to go mad with him.  It would appear Dodd keeps Freddy around despite protests from other part of the movement because this case truly challenges the teachings of “The Cause,” and if successful the ‘religion’ will have a new poster-child. Yet their relationship goes deeper than that.  In the belly of the ship, on the second night after they met, Dodd ‘processes’ Freddie by asking a series of questions during which Freddie cannot blink.  If he blinks, they start over.  The progression of the questions, the anger, the melancholy, the way the truth bubbles to the surface in a heart-breaking performance you can feel a bond between them. There is a silent understanding at that moment that they need each other to embark on a voyage of complete self-discovery.

The character arc is so subtle it might be unperceivable to some audience members but it is there.  For Dodd, he’s realized his methods cannot cure all, he might not be the leader he campaigned to be.  And there is a sense of self-awareness and acceptance in Freddie that wasn’t there before. Yes, he’s a drunk womanizer and he accepts that in the end. More importantly he accepts the mistakes of his past and lone journey he must take through life.

Thinking over the movie again, with hyper-awareness of political campaigns we just cannot escape, it exemplifies the desperation many of us feel for a strong leader; not a showman, but an effective activist who knows how to implement the promises he shouts from the stump. Until we learn to recognize true leadership and abandon our habit of glomming onto the hucksters, the profiteers and megalomaniacs we will forever be Freddie Quills, pacing futilely between a wooden wall and closed window, a democrat and a republican, banging our heads in madness crying for progress.




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