Friday, September 21, 2012
On thinning paint - Deeper into 'The Master'
Note: This is not a review of The Master, which can be found below. Rather, it explores several motifs and ideas I find worth talking about after a first viewing. These comments are surely not 100% accurate -- I am working solely off memory -- and I invite continued discussion in the comments section. If you have not seen the film and would like to map out your own interpretation, I would caution against reading this piece.
We've all heard of drinking the Kool-Aid. Fruity, sugary, a product of a culture driven by artificiality, where a colored powder transforms before our eyes into something palatable, consumable--if not necessarily nutritious.
But we probably haven't heard of drinking the Paint Thinner. To do so would be ludicrous. It is poisonous -- on a literal level -- but it's also something that, in its very nature, strips. It removes facades and constructions, whereas Kool-Aid is itself a facade, a drink of fake fruit flavors.
In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy Quells drinks Paint Thinner. And Lysol. And torpedo fuel. And a whole lotta booze. He makes these poisonous cocktails that can be enjoyed if consumed "correctly," lulling the drinker into a doped-up stupor. The entire inciting action of The Master revolves around the kinds of pleasures, damages, and affective states of these beverages: Freddy loses his job as a photographer when he assaults a customer (to be fair, his drunkenness in this scene is kind of ambiguous), his tonic accidentally kills a man in the cabbage fields, and Lancaster Dodd takes him under his wing explicitly for his ability to procure these drinks for his daughter's wedding.
Throughout The Master, Freddy's alcoholism is a problem. It unites him with Dodd, even as it incites Peggy's furor. She demands the only way he can stay in The Cause is if he becomes sober, much as she demands Dodd sober up if he wants her to act the role of the pleasant wife (in that single-shot bathroom scene that may be my favorite thing all year). And yet the film ends with him in a British pub, picking up a girl and sleeping with her. Alcohol unites and repels, it puts us under a curious sway even as it makes us vomit.
Of course, Freddy's only sort of drinking alcohol. He's drinking alcohol mixed with paint thinner. It may be a kind of obvious metaphor, but Anderson's suggestion is that alcohol strips the layers off of Freddy, off of the facade of the post-WWII masculine figure, and exposes it as a hunched-over, inarticulate zombie. Phoenix's performance and Anderson's camera strip all the layers out of Freddy until he turns into primal male. The careful alternation of close-ups and long shots portray every nuance of his physical quirks, ticks, and shifts -- ultimately, I would suggest, making him animalistic.
On another layer of the of course factor, the alcohol isn't really alcohol. If we can say anything of The Master, it's that the film exists far more on a figurative than literal level. Its formalisms and near-lack of narrative call us not to think of the action, but of what the action represents. Here, the alcohol is representative of The Cause, a poisonous but seductive world view that drains all the ability to feel pleasure out of one's life. The Cause devalues life by seeing it as one of many -- kind of like reincarnation, only you can interact with and remember your past lives. Or something. This is why Freddy is so attractive to Dodd, why the two drink alcohol as the latter interrogates the former, why Freddy's "sobriety" and ability to sort out the world around him is of such importance. When Dodd's son tells him, "can't you see he's making all this up?" Freddy's response is to pull a flask and take a long drink.
This willful denial is the most identifiable moment of Freddy's addiction. It signifies him as one who would readily "drink the Kool Aid" instead of confront the logic of his situation. Which I guess begs the question, is The Cause Kool Aid or Paint Thinner? If part of Anderson's argument is that the Freddy's trauma (or just outright insanity) leads him to strip himself via the paint thinner, does The Cause help him replenish his sense of self (in a sweet, syrupy kind of way), or does it continue to strip him into nothing? Anderson would seem to suggest the latter, if you simply consider the long, long scene where Dodd makes him touch a wall and a window over and over again. The camera, panning back and forth in a canted high angle shot, shows Freddy as both a prisoner and an object of The Cause's interrogative gaze.
Freddy is weak, and more than anything seeks something to feed him -- literally and metaphorically. Just look at the pervasiveness of breasts in The Master. Be it in those he carves on the sand in the Pacific, or that weirdly surreal scene where he imagines all the women naked, Freddy is drawn to breasts less as a sexual symbol than as a symbol for maternal care-giving nourishment. Which makes Dodd's status as a masculine figure somewhat complicated, as well as how Peggy fits into this whole triangle -- something I can't really speak to after one viewing. Maybe you can.
I don't think The Master is about Scientology. It's about that in the same way Citizen Kane is about Hearst (Okay, maybe not in the same way, but you get my point). I would even suggest the film isn't about cults. It is on the literal level of the plot, but it seems much more about the crushing uncertainty of the post-war American mindset.
Towards the end of the film, Freddy sits alone in a giant movie palace, watching what sounds like a children's cartoon. We can say this represents his infantilism, but that the space is so empty responds equally to the urban flight of the early 1950s, the abandonment to the suburbs and the huge decline in movie theater attendance. Okay, but what does this have to do with anything? For me, it's a moment that sticks out in The Master as being wholly personal and national -- glimpsing into Freddy's own psychology while mapping that psychology visually and aurally into specific conditions of the Nation.
And yet, for a film full of faces -- the cinematic height of intimacy -- can The Master succeed at this intermingling? If Phoenix's face might give us some clue into how Anderson conceives of the post-war consciousness, what of Dodd? Does he merely stand for authority, for a pseudo-benevolence, an empty suit representative not merely of "cults" or "religions," but of American discourse in a broader sense? That would be a hard argument to make, since the film is far more Phoenix's than Hoffman's, and we see few political aspirations for Dodd -- it's solely a capitalist enterprise, as far as we can discern. Maybe that's the point. Discourse as a veneer for greed.
This says nothing of Anderson's reliance on the triptych as a recurring visual motif. If you scroll back up to the image I chose for this piece, you'll notice two vertical lines split the image into three compartments, with Freddy occupying (mostly) the second compartment, passed out. In the left and right compartments, water -- a common representation of "life" -- encases the ship. Freddy's alcoholism, then, has locked him in part of the frame that prevents him accessing a "flow." He is "trapped" here. I noticed the triptych specifically at one other location -- when Freddy and Dodd walk into the cave in the desert; the cave forms the left and right panels, with their bodies occupying the center.
I would encourage others who see the film to attempt to map out this visual and its potential meaning in regards to the other narrative motifs I've been able to pick up on. "Three" certainly has religious relevance, and Dodd, Freddy, and Peggy form the film's central trinity.
I wish I could summarily connect these disparate threads into a coherent reading of the film, but a single viewing has only left so much in the mind. Certainly, it is a film about consumption, and about the kinds of things we choose -- wisely or not -- to ingest in our body and our mind. How we might be able to trace that across the visual form of the film, or use it explore the interplay between the personal and the allegorical that seems so crucial to Anderson's two most recent films, will have to wait until we can spend more time at The Master's altar.