An evening with The Master (2)

In the first part of this discussion of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, we discussed Anderson’s career and the development of his directorial style leading up to the film. In this instalment, we focus on the movie’s two main characters, Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master (portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

Matt   Even though the film is called The Master, I’d say it’s first and foremost Freddie Quell’s (as played by Joaquin Phoenix) film. The movie begins and ends with him. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s part as Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master, is large, but at least in terms of screen time it could almost be called a supporting role. What did you think of Phoenix’ performance?

Mege   Freddie Quell is not a good man, is he? He is a hardcore alcoholic – life does not go on like that for much longer. He cheats, he acts out, he lies, he almost kills a man. It’s a surprise he can hold down a job for long. He is clearly one of the more damaged soldiers, and it is only partly the war. His stance, his facial ticks, his awkward bursts of laughter – something is profoundly wrong with this guy. I have to say I liked the performance a lot, for two reasons. One reason is that we don’t really know what has happened. Lost love, the war – sure, but he was weird even when he courted Doris Solstad, wasn’t he? He keeps us guessing what injuries he might have. And second: Not a lot of actors would have agreed to a scene where they had to jerk off on the beach.

Matt   I was wondering the same thing about Quell – he isn’t quite as off, for want of a better word, in the pre-war flashbacks, but he’s most definitely already strange, and strangely offputting. Watching the film for a second time, I found it impossible not to think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle; Quell seems a bit smarter (he has moments where he’s surprisingly perceptive), but it’d definitely be inaccurate to say that the war made him what he is during most of the film. If anything, his wartime experience seems to have brought the oddness he already had into sharp contrast.

The one difference there is, though: in the film’s ‘present’ storyline, he always seems extremely tightly wound, like he’s ready to explode. (Perhaps that’s where I get the Travis Bickle vibe, together with his social awkwardness.) With Doris, but also later with her mother and at the end when he travels to England for his last meeting with the Master, he seems to be much more at peace. Still weird, still damaged, but I no longer expect him to start beating people because they threaten the things that give him stability. And yes, I no longer expect him to jerk off on the beach.

Which brings me to another point: were you as surprised as I was to see just how successful the guy is with often quite attractive women? His fling at the glossy department store, Dodd’s daughter, the English girl at the end, but also Doris: what do they see in the guy?

Mege   I don’t know, other than he can be quite dashing from afar and on a good day. I think he is quite fresh and straightforward with females, so he has a statistical chance of succeeding. Other than that, I wouldn’t know. – Elizabeth, though, is probably on a mission to make him stay in the fold. There is no real attraction in the way she sidles up to him and sits down, much less in the way she feels him up. I think that Peggy or Lancaster might have set her onto him.

The Master

Matt   Interesting take on the scene – I’ll definitely have to rewatch it with that in mind. Let’s take this point in the conversation to the other lead and titular character, Lancaster Dodd AKA The Master. I enjoy Phillip Seymour Hoffman in most things he’s in, and The Master is no exception. He also makes for a very striking contrast to Quell’s messed-up veteran, being a much more contained, almost classical character, at least at first. What’s your take on Dodd?

Mege   Dodd has two things going for him. He is good at improvising on the spot, an enchanting entertainer, even charming. This works very well – as long as his opponents are pliable rich widows. When he finds himself confronted with even mild criticism, he is out of his depth very fast. The other things is his magnetism. While his charms come from his words, his magnetism is there just by walking into a room. He shines – his hair and skin remind me of an albino, a blank screen you can project your stuff onto. His manner, sometimes even his attitude, are kind, but determined. He is pudgy, slightly overweight, so there is no way you don’t notice him even in a crowded room. The way he greets his wedding guests is the way of a game show host – hi, hi, good to see you, great to be here – it’s almost his show, not the one of the newlyweds. Dodd isn’t so far away from a young Jimmy Gator in that respect. But he tires fast. He yells at the man in the widow’s mansion and later at the Laura Dern character. His façade has rifts.

I know I am turning this post into a really long one, but I would like to segue into my main argument about the movie: Freddie and Dodd need each other. The Master manages to rustle up Freddie’s demons with his method in a way Freddie can intuitively accept. Dodd wants to end the interview, but Freddie is eager, almost desperate to continue. It’s probably years since anyone asked Freddie stuff he wanted to scream and shout about. And lo and behold, they manage to make him stop drinking – not by the Cause or by pacing the length of the room from the wall to the window and back umpteen times, no: Peggy just tells him to stop. This, more than the Cause or any of the tapes or books or seminars, binds Freddie to them. Dodd needs Freddie because if the can somehow heal this broken man, then the Cause works – or he can start pretending that the Cause works, which is not the same thing. At least, he had proof so he could stop calling his detractors “pig fuck”. It’s the movie’s great joke that they can make him stop drinking just by telling him to stop drinking. They have to really heal him in order to pretend that they have healed him.

Matt   I’m not sure he stops completely – isn’t the next scene the one where Freddy finds Dodd’s sleeping son Val on the veranda and takes a swig from his hip flask before waking him up? I do think though that Peggy’s barking up the wrong tree with respect to Dodd’s drinking – I would say that rather than being the way he is because he drinks, he drinks because he’s the way he is.

However, I totally agree with you that Freddie and Dodd need each other – to begin with, Freddie’s need may be the stronger one, and by the end he manages to free himself in some sense, but only by having integrated the Master into himself. (I’m thinking of the final scene where he uses Dodd’s interview/therapy method with the girl he’s with.) The final scene between the two men speaks volumes: it comes across as a weird, intense break-up scene, with Dodd doing what he can to convince both Freddy and himself that he’s still in control, that he’s still the Master – which he isn’t really. Freddy has reached escape velocity, and his brief return to Dodd only proves that he doesn’t need to be in the man’s orbit any more.

I very much like your reading of the Master needing Quell because if he can convert him completely – not just to the Cause, but convert him into a whole new person – he works the alchemy of turning his lies into truth. How consciously aware do you think Dodd is that he’s a charlatan?

Mege   Hard question. Sometimes Dodd talks like he has rehearsed some bits. I became aware of that when he introduces himself to Freddie: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” Hah. Don’t tell me you haven’t tried that one out in front of a mirror many times. But rehearsing doesn’t mean that he doesn’t, to some extent, believe in it. You cannot talk to people in such a risky way and not be convinced of what you tell them. Maybe Dodd sits on the fence, and healing Freddie would validate his made-up stuff, so the charlatan could start believing more strongly in his own phrases.

In the next instalment, which will follow in a couple of days, we will be discussing the Master’s wife, Peggy Dodd, his family and the Cause, the cult he has created.