"I wrestle, wrestle, wrestle him to the ground. I say sit, dragon sits. I say stay, dragon stays."
This speech is the cornerstone to understanding the thematics and dynamics of Anderson's The Master.
(The Greatest) Director (Currently Working): Paul Thomas Anderson
Should win Oscar: Joaquin Phoenix
Should win Oscar: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Steel: Amy Adams
Jurassic Park: Laura Dern
Oh hey: Ambyr Childers
His face scared me: Rami Malek
Oh Doris: Madisen Beaty
What It's Good For:
-watching in a theater
-literature made into a movie
-becoming a classic
-you'll probably leave the theater thinking "what just happened?"
-no real climax
-lack of action could bore people
-not for everyone
As Glenn Kenny said in his review, the title, The Master, can refer to more than its obvious reference, Lancaster Dodd.
I'm here to say the title 100% refers to more than Lancaster Dodd.
Which brings us to the mantra of Dodd: "Man is not an animal."
The Master is about self-mastery, as demonstrated by what could possibly be one of the basest, barest, most animal-like characters to have graced a movie screen: Freddie Quell. This is the guy who sits down with a group of people in nice clothing, the group of people wearing headphones, listening to something, writing on pads, with pens, and uses the pen and paper to write a note "Do you want to fuck?" and hands it to a woman. It's obviously not the time to ask. This is the guy who drinks paint thinner for fun. This is the guy who masturbates on the beach with a ton of other dudes around, who sees vagina or penis in every Rorschach test. This is the guy who isn't afraid to beat people, who drinks too much, who destroys the toilet in his jail cell, who sees a room full of women as being naked.
On the other end of the spectrum is a high-society roller, a nuclear physicist, a demi-god, a dragon-tamer, Lancaster Dodd. Lancaster is the guy who full-on body convulses from a hand job (which says, to me, a hand job is a big deal to him (which shows a prudishness, reveals a recent history of little sexual activity)). Who has written a novel. Who has started a cult and sails on boats. Who is regarded by many in the movie as a genius (albeit, by others as a quack).
Each character embodies a thematic concern: one: instinctual nature; the other: civilized behavior.
What is "instinctual nature"? What is "civilized behavior"?
Instinctual nature is emotional. If you want to drink alcohol, you drink alcohol. If you are horny, you gratify yourself. If you want to have sex with a woman, you ask her if she wants to fuck. If you want to drink alcohol and no normal alcohol is available, you siphon grain-alcohol fuel from a torpedo. If someone has made you mad, you physically assault them. If you're angry at the police who arrested you, you destroy their property. If someone broke your heart, you avoid them, actually, you don't just avoid them, you avoid even the thought of them, so much so that if you hear this person's name you scream and shout and threaten violence on the person who spoke the name that causes you such pain you can't deal with.
Civilized behavior depends on a set of rules, on expectations, and obeying the rules, meeting expectations--it takes self-control. If you want to drink alcohol, there's a time and place, and, most importantly, there's an acceptable limit. If you are horny, you find a time and a place to gratify yourself, and in private (not in front of a bunch of sailors), or you hook up with your significant other, or a willing stranger, or a friend. If you want to drink alcohol and no normal alcohol is available, you fucking wait. If someone has made you mad, you talk with them, or you walk away. If you're angry at the police who have arrested you, you wait for legal assistance. If someone broke your heart, you move on, and if someone is discussing the person who broke your heart you ask them to stop or you walk away.
Civilization is a system that is created, put in place, and followed, it's order. Instinctual behavior, due to its emotional foundation, is chaos.
Our two avatars, Freddie and Lancaster, demonstrate these dichotomies best in the scene with the motorcycle. Lancaster rides the bike, fast, across a wasteland. He goes and goes. He screams with joy. There's a sense of palpable danger because we know, at that speed, if something should cause the bike to flail, Lancaster could die. This is the man letting loose, feeling free. The film cuts, and suddenly Lancaster, who had distanced himself from the group during his ride, is coasting back to the group, thrilled by the rush of his experience. Lancaster instructs Freddie to ride the bike. Freddie goes faster than Lancaster did. And further. To the horizon. Then he is gone. The dragon has flown away.
What's gone on here? Lancaster, the embodiment of civilized behavior, stays within some abstract boundary. He does not abandon the group. Freddie denies the implied rules of the venture: go so far, come back, be a part of the group. Freddie leaves the group, breaks the rules.
This isn't like Freddie's previous departures. Leaving the Navy wasn't his choice, the war ended. He had to escape from the department store photography job after causing a fight. He had to escape from his cabbage farm job after accidentally poisoning a guy with alcohol Freddie made from random ingredients. Freddie, at the point where he rides away on the bike, has made a sober choice, a conscious decision. Possibly his first (in the film).
He can make this decision because "The Master", Lancaster, has helped Freddie. Lancaster is, after all, the dragon tamer.
And, yeah, Lancaster Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard. The Cause is very much like Scientology. The important thing isn't exploring the rules and tenets of The Cause, or its perception. The important thing isn't mocking Scientology or making L. Ron Hubbard out to be a quack. The controversial line, spoken by Dodd's son to Freddie, is: "He's making it all up as he goes along." While this may seem like stab at Hubbard/Scientology, the line is crucial to the thematic purpose of the film's narrative.
Do you remember what happens moments after Dodd's son says this to Freddie? The police arrive. They've come to arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license. What's Dodd do? (Mind you, this is all from memory; I can't find the actual conversation, but this is the gist of the conversation). He questions their authority. The police cite the city of Philadelphia. Dodd asks what is Philadelphia? The implication is: why does Philadelphia get to make the rules? Dodd is questioning the law. Which is to say he's questioning the system. Which is to say he's questioning the civilization he exists in. Why does the city of Philadelphia have power? The rules being enforced by the city are as made up as those belonging to The Cause. Are as arbitrary as any human-made system. In Canton, Ohio, it is illegal to have an electric fence. You can't have chewing gum in Singapore (unless for medicinal purposes). In Juneau, Alaska, you can't bring a pet into a barber shop or salon. All of these laws were made up by someone, at some point, in reaction to something. There are people who believe in enforcing them. And there are people who think they're stupid. American law is no different. Australian law is no different. Democracy is no different. Communism is no different. Catholicism is no different. Judaism is no different. Scientology is no different.
This is why Dodd has created his own civilization with its own mythology: The Cause. Something he "believes" to be true, something with an entire mythology that astoundingly ignores science. There are people who will believe in this. And there are people who think this is stupid.
The important thing about Dodd's son's comment is that it presents us with this idea of arbitrariness, at first focused on The Cause but extended to the city of Philadelphia, an idea the viewer should continue to extend to every human-created system/civilization.
The Navy failed to push Freddie beyond his basic instincts. In fact, it was a place he could indulge in his basic instincts (that opening scene!). American society, a job within that society, failed to raise Freddie beyond his basic instincts. Rural life fails to grow Freddie. Maybe The Cause is stupid, maybe it denies common scientific logic, but, at the very least, it has given certain people a civilization they believe in, that helps them quell their inner-dragons. Freddie, the film's physicalization of the dragon, is tamed and trained only by the teachings of the Master. Maybe some of it Freddie takes with a grain of salt, but what can't be denied are the evolution activities.
The Cause, like any other civilization, is based upon accepted behaviors and practices. Which means to exist within the civilization takes self-control. What's one of the first commands Dodd issues to Freddie? "Don't blink." Dodd then makes Freddie confront his memories, stew in them, assess his past behaviors, all without blinking. Even if Freddie doesn't believe in The Cause, he believes in Dodd. And Dodd elevates Freddie from animal to a more civilized human being. But not immediately. For the first portion of Freddie's and Lancaster's relationship, Freddie is curbed but not trained. He abides, but he still drinks, he still is sexually oriented, he is still violent. Though he has learned some restraint, enough so that when Dodd's daughter rubs his penis Freddie doesn't react. Good boy! But when asked to stop drinking, Freddie continues drinking. When arrested, Freddie freaks out on his jail cell toilet, on his jail cell bed, and on Lancaster. We see the contrast between beings: Dodd in his cell, calm, standing casually; Freddie being insane (notice Freddie destroys his toilet, Dodd uses his).
Once Freddie and Dodd are out of jail real change occurs, the evolution activities take place. Freddie learns emotional restraint by listening to Lancaster's son-in-law berate him and say Doris's name (that name that had caused Freddie such hurt) again and again. Then we have the window-to-wall exercise. "What do you feel," Dodd asks. Freddie, standing at the wall, responds with "A wall." That's the least creative answer someone could give. After some urging, Freddie says "Wood." He then walks to the window, and, when asked what he feels, says, "Glass." Dodd has Freddie go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, for days, or maybe even weeks. Freddie doesn't pass the test until he demonstrates IMAGINATION. He touches the glass and says some answer I can't remember but the answer has nothing to do with glass, is very grand, like he's touching a glacier in the Arctic. Freddie then gets to the wall and says another grand statement, that he's touching something he is obviously not. Freddie is being creative.
Emotional control and imagination are two things we haven't seen from Freddie.
After the evolution activities, we have the motorcycle scene. Freddie doesn't have to run away. He isn't running away. He's fully capable, at this point, of deciding to leave on his own, to pursue his own purposes.
What we get then is Freddie at Doris's house, speaking with Doris's mom. The conversation isn't spectacular. Doris is married and gone. Freddie isn't by any means charming or suave. But this is the most sociable we've seen him. Has he had a legitimate, sober conversation before this point? This may not even count as a legitimate conversation, but it's close enough.
The film's final two scenes really hammer home the thematic purpose of the movie.
The penultimate encounter, where Freddie denies Lancaster, asserts two opposing points of view.
On the one hand, we're shown the assertion of the individual over the group. Freddie cuts ties with Dodd. He is capable of guiding himself from this point on, for better or for worse. There is, in this decision, a bit of anti-cult, anti-society, anti-civilization commentary.
On the other hand, this denial of Dodd and The Cause takes place in a giant school house in England owned by The Cause, filled with followers of The Cause. This is, so far as we've seen, the height of The Cause's power. The group has, for the first time in the film, a home base (prior to this, it had relied on other people providing space). Not only is there a home base, it seems The Cause is thriving. Students walk the hallways. Dodd has a huge office. There are secretaries. Obviously, this group has obtained a measure of success. So even while we're seeing Freddie deny the group, others are accepting. The message of "the individual needs to be his or her own master rather than relying on someone else" is at odds with the fact there are more and more people succumbing to Dodd, to his system of order and behavior rather than their own.
In the final scene, Freddie meets a girl. They have sex. While they're having sex, Freddie tries to "process" the girl, trying to run the same self-control tests Dodd ran on Freddie the first time: "What's your name?" "Don't blink." The girl doesn't really understand, sort of plays along, giggles a lot. And Freddie is happy. He has what he has wanted for the entire movie: sex with a woman. But not just sex. There's the final image, an image repeated throughout the film, an image from the film's beginning scene: Freddie lying on the beach, with intimacy, next to the sand girl. What Freddie has craved this entire time is something beyond the base needs of sex. He's wanted a companion, a relationship. This was beyond him though. He lacked the skills for a relationship, the know-how. Now he has these things.
Which brings us to the ultimate points of the film, which are the same as those conflicting points from the second-to-last scene.
1. All humans need a civilization to teach them self-control. In other words, we all need a Master. But what civilization, which Master, depends on the individual. Some will work better for others. Some won't work at all. And none are without flaw, even the ones that work for you.
2. All individuals need to become, at some point, their own master. The goals of The Cause were not the goals of Freddie. And that's fine. They overlapped enough, for a while. Unless you're a thoughtless, emotionless drone, no static set of rules will suit you. All systems, whether individuals or nations, evolve. America today is different than America 200 years ago. All religions today are different than what they were 200 years ago, even 20 years ago. Language changes. Art changes. Remember when Laura Dern questions Lancaster about his second book, about the change of the word "recall" to "imagine"? Some people may think this is another jab at Scientology. "Look, people believe this is real, but the guy is just changing it arbitrarily! He really is making it up!" Again, as I see it, this has nothing to do with Scientology and everything to do with showing self-mastery. Dern is dependent on Lancaster's system. Lancaster, being the Master of the system, feels allowed to change what he wants when he wants to, because he is, as a person, changing. Dern can accept Lancaster's updated system, or she can deny it and pursue another system either of her own creating or a creation of someone else. Look at all the denominations within each religion; look at America with its 50 States; look at a map and see there are 196 countries in the world, not one.
This is the progression, then. The individual needs a civilization within which to grow. Once grown, the individual leaves the civilization to pursue their own goals, creating their own civilization of whatever scale--for Freddie the scale is small, for Lancaster the scale is gigantic. A simple example is family. Parents raise a child, the child grows, the child moves out, has a family of his or her own. How does the child raise his or her own child? How do he or she manage a household? How does he or she treat his or her significant other? Similar to his or her parents? Differently? Possibly the most important question is: did the civilization the child exist in help the child find self-mastery? Rather: is the grown child at the mercy of his or her emotional dragon, or is the grown child at the mercy of a master, or is the grown child his or her own master? The answer to this question will affect how the grown child raises his or her own child, how this person is as a spouse, an employee, etc. etc. It affects every facet of their life.
The Master shows us is that being an adult doesn't necessarily mean you're your own master. Freddie runs the gamut from dragon to subject (in the sense of "He is one of the King's subjects", someone under someone else's authority) to in control. Lancaster's son-in-law is a total peon, willing to do anything for Lancaster, 100% buying into the system. Laura Dern still needs help.
Self-mastery isn't a matter of when. It's a matter of doing. "Will you become your own master?"
But how do you become your own master? As I mentioned earlier, the system/civilization that works for one person may not work for someone else. Sure, maybe The Cause is ridiculous, maybe Scientology is dumb, but it's helping people who hadn't been able to find help elsewhere. If anything, The Master is a film that justifies the existence of Scientology. But it tempers this by saying life-long devotion to any cause not your own is a mistake, because the thing that will make you happiest may not be what that civilization allows you to do. If ALL YOU WANT is wealth, Communism isn't for you. If YOU HAVE TO HAVE universal health care, America may not be for you. If you need to have sex, don't become a priest. If you, like Freddie, want to be able to drink some alcohol and fornicate, don't stay with The Cause. But that doesn't mean time within these systems may not help you.
Freddie needed his experience with The Cause to help him evolve from a dragon/animal to a human with a modicum of social skills (he asked if he could buy the girl a drink rather than straight asking her to fuck. Although asking to buy a random girl a drink is pretty much code for "I find you attractive and want to sleep with you." Still. He had the tact to play the game). He just didn't need a lifetime membership. The same way someone who is obsessed with wealth could benefit from living in a Communist society for two weeks. This doesn't make the Cause right, or Communism good, this simply demonstrates how one can use civilizations as a tool for growth. If you weren't very social in high school and you want to become more social in college you can join a fraternity or sorority. After two years, you're way better at socializing than you ever were before. But after three years, there's a bunch of drama with the fraternity or sorority, you're tired of it, bored of it, you want something else. You don't have to stay within the system. You can find a group that suits the new you better than this one did. If you're out of shape, you can join a yoga civilization until you feel better.
This gets at personal goals and the civilizations these goals exist in. If all you want is a relationship with someone, anyone, that takes a very basic set of skills (see Freddie). If you want to be elected to Congress, you have to have cultivate certain abilities and meet the specific behaviors of that civilization.
Self-mastery, then, is the ability to exist within a civilization (to follow the behaviors of that civilization). Freddie struggled to exist in various civilizations (of both small and large scale) for a majority of the movie. By the end, Freddie has found joy in the bed of some randy English girl he met in a pub. Sure, this isn't dining with royalty, it isn't as high-brow as the events of The Cause, but it's all Freddie wants and better than what he had had. And self-mastery isn't something that, once obtain, is steadfast and perfect. One could read Lancaster's few emotional outbursts as signs of craziness, and, again, attach these to L. Ron and draw connections to Scientology, but, thematically, we're seeing that there's no such thing as complete self-mastery. Human nature is human nature. Emotions cannot be burned away. Even "The Master" has beastly moments.
I'd also like to say: we may need to be part of a multitude of groups before we are in control of ourselves. Say I'm someone who overeats and gets violently jealous. If I join The Biggest Loser, I may learn the self-control needed to master my gluttony. But that doesn't necessarily mean I've become less jealous or less violently jealous. There's probably some other person or cause that would help me with that. If you look back through your life, you can probably, hopefully, pinpoint the groups and individuals who have helped you overcome fears and flaws. We often describe these people as our heroes or role-models. These can be family members or teachers or popular figures (like athletes or musicians or philanthropists). These can be activities like sports, or art (if you watch So You Think You Can Dance you hear all these people say "Dance saved my life"), or fraternities or sororities, or a career. People you date can have a tremendous impact on you. A simple example: you have never tried sushi, you don't like the idea of it, but a guy you like likes sushi, so after a few dates and a lot of him making fun of you, you cave in and say yes to getting sushi. It's not awful! A few weeks later, you two go again. Sushi is actually pretty good! Finally, you're eating sushi all the time. Even after you and the guy break up you still go get sushi on your own. You're now part of a civilization you previously were not: one that eats and enjoys sushi. You try various sushi restaurants. When a potential client comes into town and you ask the client what she wants to eat and she says "I love sushi," you know the best place to take her. She signs the contract. You get a promotion. You now have the money to buy a BMW and you've always wanted a fucking BMW!
Granted, a mistrust of sushi isn't as limiting/doesn't compare to, say, Freddie's alcoholism. Or to someone being lazy. Or someone who has social anxiety. The point is that once we conquer these fears and flaws, we're empowered. A mistrust of sushi is not a serious problem, but it sort of is. Because it's limiting. It's one thing if you're allergic to sushi or just fucking hate the taste of it. But if you just refuse to try it, you're narrowing the scope of your life, the potential of the world around you. Freddie's lack of social skills cost him opportunities, his emotional volatility cost him opportunities, his fear of Doris cost him, drinking cost him. Once he addresses, to varying extents, these problems, Freddie is, in his own way, victorious.
If you still have flaws and fears that are keeping you from your goals, from civilizations you want to exist in or create, where can you go for help? Who will be your master? And if you have a master that isn't you, should you? Using yoga as an example. You can go to yoga classes for years, always listening to what someone else tells you. And that can be great. But you may have specific physical issues you want to address. Like...the teacher you have spends a lot of time on legs and doesn't really address upper back. You have a ton of tightness in your upper back. You either go to a new teacher, or you create your own yoga workout that addresses the specific problems you have. Maybe you begin teaching yoga classes. Maybe you're sick of other film critics and you start your own site analyzing movies the way you don't see other people analyzing them.
The most important question then is: who do you want to be? And that can be several things: a parent, a movie critic, someone who is in shape, someone in a relationship. The question derived from these answers: what behaviors do you need to cultivate/have? Then: how do I get them? Then it's a matter of self-mastery. After that, it's a matter of making sure you're happy.
Did I Like It:
Yeah. As good as Boogie Nights and Magnolia are, they are amateurish compared to There Will Be Blood and The Master.
The Master is probably the best movie of 2012. I don't see how anything can top it. Visually, thematically, acting-ly. I feel as though I just watched a Virginia Woolf novel. And that's a good thing.
Joaquin needs to win best actor.
The movie felt like a counter-point to There Will Be Blood. TWBB ended up being about a man becoming more and more horrible, and TM is about a pretty awful person becoming more and more bearable.
Is there any way PTA doesn't win Best Director?
Maybe Boogie and Magnolia aren't amateurish in comparison. It's just the difference in scope allows PTA to hit harder? There are so many characters in Boogie and Magnolia, where as TWBB and TM are boiled down to two opposing forces.
I still like Cosmopolis better, for personal reasons. But The Master is a better movie.
% Character / % Actor's personality / Uniqueness grade
-Movies where a character drinks a lot: The Big Lebowski; Crazy Heart; Barfly; Under the Volcano; Animal House
-Movies with major orgasms: Van Wilder; When Harry Met Sally (sort of); Scary Movie; Cosmopolis
-Movies with characters with PTSD: Brothers; The Deer Hunter; Jarhead; Batman Begins; Reign Over Me
-Movies with scores by Jonny Greenwood: There Will Be Blood; We Need to Talk About Kevin; Norwegian Wood
-Movie with naked women in a room: Eyes Wide Shut