Paul Thomas Anderson has repeatedly stated that The Master is his favourite film in his career – the film where he really felt everything came together just as he had intended and envisaged and it’s certainly the most fully-formed of his later films, weaving their enigmatic, elliptical signature into an extraordinarily evocative portrait of mid-century America. Set in 1950, the plot revolves around two men – Freddie Quell, a returned World War II veteran, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a new religious movement called The Cause, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. While there are a few other prominent characters in the film, most notably Lancaster’s wife Peggy Dodd, played by Amy Adams, and Lancaster’s main Philadelphia disciple Helen Sullivan, played by Laura Dern, most of the film revolves around the intense, moody relationship between these two men, as they find a part of themselves in each other, and collaborate on a new form of mid-century masculinity.
We first meet Freddie in a sustained prologue that details the toll of World War II on the masculine body. Freddie isn’t introduced as a character so much as a series of bodily drives that have been disintegrated and dissociated by military conflict, forcing him to subsist on one barely-articulated impulse after another, most of which relate to women and alcohol. So disintegrated has Freddie become that he is alienated from his own body, and spends the first part of the film in a masturbatory stupor, playing with himself as if trying to recover some distinction between his body and the outside world. In the first sustained scene, he builds a woman out of sand on a Pacific beach, and then tries to have sex with her as the tide comes in and covers them both, indicating from the very outset that his effort to reiterate his bodily limits through sexual conquest and erotic abandon are destined to subsume him back into the WWII flux that he is desperately yet inchoately trying to escape.
During these opening scenes, which are shot obliquely and occur largely in marginal Pacific spaces that we aren’t permitted to fully process, Freddie never quite feels as if he is “in” the war or “at” the Pacific theatre. Instead, the war is deflected into his undifferentiated body language, which prevents him holding down a career in any stable way once he returns to the United States. His time in the navy has given him a taste for paint thinner that only compounds his alcoholism, as he literally ingests wartime conditions to produce a partially mechanized body that can’t conform to the naturalistic demands of the home front once the Cold War kicks in. This produces the most unusual delivery style of Phoenix’s career, as he plays Freddie with a facial tic that makes it seem as if he is always talking partly to himself, and always slightly outside the frame of whatever scene he occupies. No surprise, then, that he has to subsist on framing others, getting a job as a photographer in a department store, where he only lasts a short time before aggressively over-framing a client by pushing a burning camera light into his face, at which point he is promptly fired.
If Freddie represents the toll of WWII on the masculine body, then Lancaster typifies pre-war masculinity, since he is a little too old to have seen combat. Whereas Freddie is dissociated in his actions, Lancaster exudes the baroque, fruity flourishes of a character in a 1930s film, with all the slightly stilted theatricality of an actor who has just made the transition to sound cinema. At times, he still seems to have the comic body language of a silent star, especially during his presentations of the Cause to his followers, who he has gathered on a private vessel that he intends to sail around the American continent when Freddie first meets him. From the outset, these two men have an oblique but irresistible attraction to one another that almost precedes their physical experience of each other, since Freddie is drawn to the boat, and then to Lancaster, before he ever glimpses him clearly. As the ship sets sail, and Freddie becomes Lancaster’s protégé and preferred subject for the Cause, we learn that the movement attempts to restore the paternal assurance voided by WWII, while restoring and reinventing every key social institution in the process.
This is a similar logic to the comedy of remarriage, a screwball genre that arose in the 1930s, which typically features couples who were divorced and then rediscovered marriage as a personal, rather than societal, experience. No surprise, then, that Lancaster’s first major presentation involves facilitating a marriage, nor that his rapport with Freddie proceeds in a similar spirit to the comedy of remarriage, as an experiment in a new way of living and being. Respectively embodying the men who were ravaged by WWII, and the men who were too old to be ravaged by WWII, Lancaster and Freddie set about collaborating on a new kind of mid-century masculinity. Instead of restoring marriage, they’re trying to restore the masculinity that makes marriage work, at least at this point in time, perhaps explaining why their rapport so often seems to triangulate with Lancaster’s wife, Peggy. This elastic, provisional space between the two men makes most sense at sea, and when immersed in Anderson’s deep blue-green palette, both of which are enhanced by his decision to shoot on 70mm film, making this the first 70mm release since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996. As the boat sets sail, the ocean becomes a space of deterretorialised masculinity, while their shared navigation becomes a way of commanding a new fluidity and possibility for social relations that has arisen in the wake of WWII, and the dramatic gender changes it produced.
During this part of the film, Anderson favours elliptical compositions, empty rooms, awry gazes and large fields of absent and unclaimed space that appear to be there for the taking if Lancaster and Freddie can just figure out how. Yet these spaces are never fully colonized, since Anderson never stops shooting the ocean as a liminal zone, refraining from wide shots or any vestige of a horizon, much as the opening scenes sacrifice any stable or sustained sense of military conflict to instead focus on Freddie’s vestigial and oblique memories of the Pacific, which he returns to now from the West Coast. This awry approach is reflected in Hoffman’s delivery style, ensuring that Lancaster rarely speaks in complete sentences, but instead opts for evocative fragments, halfway between the immanence of his immediate impressions and the aphoristic style of his complete writings. As he converses with Freddie, it becomes clear that this ocean voyage, which circumnavigates the North American landmass by way of the Panama Canal, is meant to bring both men back to their pasts, and to a more complete version of themselves, since they grew up on the East Coast. However, the lack of any clear sense of the past makes this feel like an impossible task, which in turn makes it feel as if we never really set foot on land again, or leave this oblique oceanic space.
While the ship does eventually arrive in Philadelphia, the followers of the Cause still feel adrift, as they proceed through a number of houses where they are hosted by acolytes, all of which feel as free-floating as ships, so confident is Lancaster in their exemption from government intervention and regulation. Watching these strangely buoyant scenes impressed upon me how much post-WWII cinema felt poised at sea, just off the American coastline, never quite able to land. At times, Lancaster plays a bit like Jay Gatsby transplanted from post-WWI ennui to post-WWII ennui, circling the American continent in an attempt to wrest a new kind of masculine identity from a more undifferentiated and fantasmatic American mythology. Yet whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald’s style felt proto-cinematic, Anderson is very clear that Freddie’s body is lacking the integration and orientation that cinema once provided, turning him into a post-WWII body before cinema has had a chance to properly process it, or work on it. This transforms Lancaster into a directorial figure, as he helps Freddie to situate himself in post-WWII mise-en-scenes, but to also consolidate the backstory and sense of the past that he needs to appear more situated.
This directorial control involves an element of the Cause known as the Process, which basically involves Lancaster helping his acolytes to stabilise their reactions, perceptions and proprioceptions. The first step of the Process regulates Freddie’s gaze, and his capacity to command the gazes of others, as Lancaster embarks upon a series of questions that force them to lock into eye contact, and requires Freddie to answer without blinking. The next stage involves questioning Freddie about whether he is a Communist or a member of “invader forces,” as the integrity of the masculine body is linked to the integrity of the nation state, eventually demanding that Freddie cohere his fragmented bodily memories of the war into a proud patriotic memory of WWII. However, the third aspect of the Process is the most unusual, and the most redolent of movements like Scientology, as Lancaster encourages his acolytes to recover their body’s precognitive connection to the deep past, assuring them that “we record everything, through all lifetimes,” and enjoining them to reiterate America’s borders, as they circumnavigate it, in the most expansive way, by communing with all of the reincarnated experiences existing within their own physiologies.
This part of the Process speaks to the widespread fear that WWII marked a decisive break with history, and with the lived experience of history – the fear that would eventually culminate with high postmodernism, and its anxiety that history had come to an end, or been subsumed into a dead end of pastiches and simulations. Against this terrifying possibility, the Process affirms a transpersonal philosophy in which history is too physiological to ever be alienated from our bodies, embedded deep in our physical selves so that “our spirits exist in many versions through time.” Rather than the mid-twentieth century being jettisoned from any clear historical referent, Freddie’s experience, Lancaster assures him, is simply “the vessel you exist in now, in 1950.” Indeed, so dramatic is this imminent crisis of historicity that Lancaster has to compensate by affirming that this history that is buried in the human body preceded the actual existence of human bodies, and even the existence of the Earth: “we are in the middle of a battle that’s a trillion years in the making.” Lancaster describes accessing this transpersonal past as a process of dehypnosis, since “man” is asleep, which is perhaps why the whole film seems mildly narcotized, in need of an immanence and immediacy that only transpires when people experience the Process.
As a result, the flashbacks to Freddie’s earlier life in Massachusetts don’t feel any more real, or autobiographical, than the fragments of deep time he recovers during the Process. Both of these recalled experiences play more like a tableau that Lancaster has helped him to create, not unlike the oddly free-floating flashbacks in There Will Be Blood, making it especially difficult to situate his more recent experiences in terms of his two trips to the Pacific, as the notional masculine space of the Cause’s journey floods any clear linear timeline. In the process, the Process disrupts any clear sense of pastness within the film, complicating the film itself as a straightforward depiction of the past, and turning the distinction between present and past into a matter of Lancaster and Anderson’s proclivity for mise-en-scene rather than any conventional sense of historicity. Like a good director, Lancaster highlights granular details that normally escape memory, much as Anderson builds his own film from these details and then lets the screenplay hang around them, generating resonant mise-en-scenes rather than building a regular or realistic story per se.
As the film proceeds, Anderson’s agency thus fuses with Lancaster, who is not only an archetype of pre-war masculinity, but of a pre-war director, constantly congratulating his followers as if they’ve just cut a difficult scene: “What a day – we fought against the day and won!” While the Process draws on a mélange of nascent post-war movements, from neurolinguistic programming to new age to Scientology, they all feel drawn from the charismatic assurance – or Anderson’s fantasy of the charismatic assurance – of the pre-war, studio-centred film director on set, as if Anderson were considering how post-war masculinity, in all its ideological contortions, were indebted to the language of classical cinema. In other words, the Cause and the Process are an attempt to create an ecumenical American religion, and a new frontier for American masculinity, that draws on classical American cinema much as Mormonism drew on the visions of Joseph Smith 150 years prior. We first see the newly “Processed” Freddie handing out flyers for the Cause outside a movie theatre, suggesting that he is promising a cinematic as much as a psychological profile, while his Processing is complete when he can complete a mise-en-scene of his own, and return to his previous career as a photographer – this time by taking taking the image of Lancaster that becomes his official portrait in his promotion of the Cause as it grows more acclaimed.
These final stages of the Process are particularly indebted to the western, as the two men head into the desert to recover Lancaster’s unpublished works, which are buried in Arizona, before heading to the Great Salt Lake, where Lancaster asks Freddie to pick a point on the horizon, and drive a motorcycle towards it as fast as he can. This elusive request forms the last stage of the Process, as the film presents it, and seems designed to test the resilience of the mid-century masculinity that the two men have collaboratively formed by testing how far they can elasticize the space between them. As it turns out, Freddie goes too far, vanishing into the horizon, and returning us to the same spatial indeterminacy of the ocean, as Lancaster trudges towards him, but never arrives at the point on the horizon he has chosen. The next time we see Freddie, he is sitting in a cinema, suggesting that the capacity of cinema to regulate the masculine body has been restored, especially since he receives a direct call from Lancaster to the cinema phone, which is carried into the theatre for him, as Lancaster’s voice seems to guarantee the stability of the cinema viewer as a stable subject position, as well as a space within which the masculine body can determine its boundaries.
However, this phone conversation, in which Lancaster asks Freddie to come to England to join a new school set up by the Cause, turns out to be a dream – or is possibly a dream. When Freddie arrives in England, the blue-green palette has been completely leached from Anderson’s mise-en-scenes, while the Cause’s school has largely displaced his relation with Lancaster. At the very moment at which mid-century masculinity has been institutionalized, something essential has been lost from its masculine experiment, which is loosened further here by the uncertainty about whether what we’re seeing is Freddie’s dream or Lancaster’s dream, Freddie’s projection or Lancaster’s projection. In either case, the space between them has elasticized too far in the Great Salt Lake and has now slackened, as if the massive vistas of There Will Be Blood had stretched Anderson’s panoramic gaze too far, and forced it to loosen and grow flaccid. And it is a testament to the power of this conclusion, and the power of The Master, that Anderson hasn’t yet found a way to fully address its slackening in his subsequent body of work, whether in the downtempo vibe of Inherent Vice, which accepts this slackened sensibility as an inevitability, or in Phantom Thread, which tries to revitalize it through the mid-century English milieu where The Master concludes – or doesn’t conclude, leaving one of Anderson’s finest films to resound until the very last shot.