Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Butler of Orbs: THE MASTER

 "The only performance that truly makes it is the one that achieves madness" - Turner (Mick Jagger) -  PERFORMANCE) 
What was true in 1968 in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's countercultural mindfuck classic is still true in 2012's impression of 1950 in Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER. Blocked rocker Turner (Jagger) says the above quote to a working class brute named Chaz (James Fox), who's been sleeping in Turner's basement. Turner wants to kick him out, but isn't sure quite how or why; he's half indignant, and half is drawn to the danger he feels emanating from him. Like Turner, Chaz does performances too, not juggling like he claims but via intimidation, beatings, vandalism and destruction for his boss, Harry Flowers. Turner just makes music. On the other hand, if you can't see the element of violence in the Rolling Stones then you never saw GIMME SHELTER. Eventually the psyches of the two men merge like Alma and Elisabeth Vogler in Bergman's PERSONA (1966).

No such merging occurs between the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and deranged alcoholic sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in MASTER, but that's the point, I think. They try to. All writers and artists are warmed by the true madness-achiever, like they provide some crazy kind of fire. Ideally we don't get burned, but them's the breaks if we do. We never regret it, even if we end up permanently scarred.

safe in the cradle
Freddie is a character without conscience, whose drive to make intoxicating liquids out of household chemicals is reminiscent of that old Buddha saying: Do not seek enlightenment unless you do so as one whose hair is on fire seeks water.  When we see him first peering over the front of a landing boat, his helmet, shining in the Pacific sun, makes him seem almost Buddha bald. Next he's gamboling about the beach making cocktails by pouring paint thinner into a coconut. Next he's screwing women made from sand. In short, he's cooling his flaming hair with anything that's around. If you've ever convulsed with the DTs, or been stifled by writer's block, then you know what scorched hair tastes like and you'll do anything to avoid it, including applying some Devil's Springs 162 proof scalp ointment, hoping somehow you can just have a few thirst and burning free moments in between blessed unconsciousness and the misery of the day.

So when Freddie wakes up from a black-out on a ship heading out to sea, the master and commander of the vessel, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) invites him into the fold, recognizing a Chaz when he sees one, and Dodd's budding Scientology/EST-esque cult needs a wild man in its deck. Instead of dosing him with shrooms like Turner and Anita Pallenberg do with Chaz, Dodd tries his experimental hypnosis-ish techniques, which seem to take far longer than just giving the man a goddamned tab of acid (which wasn't yet well known as a psychiatric treatment, I'll grant you.) We're given to understand that normal ink blot-style testing didn't work on Freddie;  he just sees vaginas and dicks in everything, but that's cool with Dodd. This stowaway alcoholic sex addict is a perfect storm of flaming hair issues, and Dodd likes to drink the crazy chemical cocktails Freddie's a genius at whipping up.

Holy Robes of the Magi - Top: Performance / Bottom: The Master
Anderson's films have always dealt with wild men and shamen father figures, helped no doubt by his own childhood as a son of the original Ghoulardi! It's practically a given Anderson's films will have repeat viewing cachet, rewarding deep study instead of providing mere escapist immersion. Most people I know who've seen THE MASTER have already seen it twice. I didn't like it the first time but it was too hot in the theater and I had to pee, and it was very long. I can only wonder if it will improve on a second viewing, or if it was better in 70mm, which I presumably will never get a chance to find out. And I trust it will, like all PTA's films, continue to expand in meaning and tone as it ages. And certainly it would help if I was more of a cult person, which I'm not despite eight years as an active AA member. I certainly belong to the cult of Paul Thomas Anderson, and Orson Welles, a cult Anderson seems to be a member of as well. Imagine if Orson Welles started a mind-bending sci fi-ish religious cult? Would you join? Even knowing what a charlatan he is? Certainly Hoffman seems to have incorporated a bit of chicanery-espousing MR. ARKADIN-era Welles in his Dodd, which is interesting since Welles is a titanic auteur who's acted in his and other people's movies, just like John Huston, who Daniel Day Lewis incorporated into BLOOD's Daniel Plainview.  Coincidence? Never.

Cults work, I think, because (sometimes) in life and (always) in Paul Thomas Anderson's oeuvre, there is a 'second' father needed to complete one's journey to maturity and there's a woeful lack of second fathers around in real life. As a result few men ever become mature enough to be one. This father is what poet Robert Bly called the 'Iron John' archetype -- he may be a monster or a preacher or a boss or an AA sponsor, but we need him. The men in today's cinema are either whiny whipped pretty boys dutifully sloggging through some rom-com trip to Bed Bath and Beyond, or a hulk with a machine gun in each hand, jumping from an explosion in slow motion.

Anderson's films stick out because they all have their Iron John second fathers, to such a degree that his films feed the soul through deep Jungian IV tubes, bypassing messy subconscious resistance and going right into archetypal maturity rituals our growing boys and near-men need, even if it's only to stand up to.

First in the Anderson canon of second fathers was Phillip Baker Hall as an aging gambler taking John C. Reilly in as apprentice in HARD EIGHT (1996); Burt Reynolds found a XXX home for hung lostboy Mark Wahlberg in BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997); in MAGNOLIA (1999) said patriarch was dying, played bravely by Jason Robards, the world around him collapsing because he was a shitty father now reaping what he sowed; PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) had Philip Seymour Hoffman as an impresario of blackmail, extortion, mattress sales and phone sex ring operations, bullying Adam Sandler into standing up for himself; Daniel Day Lewis is the ultimate in dark powerful fathers of course in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) and there you are. Burt Reynolds in BOOGIE was the first time we noticed the strength of this nurturing second father character that marked PTA as a unique auteur, able to fuse dark masculine energy with warmth. That tracking shot through the first pool party set to "Spill the Wine" by the Animals, that moment when the camera follows that girl into the pool, that may be the happiest moment of 90s cinematic life. To dream there's a party of accepting, sexy people waiting somewhere, with a pool, and a jacuzzi, and a blender, wondering where you are, needing you to complete them, ready to make you a star, is that so wrong? Naturally, it all turns to shit, but without that warmth there'd be no mourning the loss thereof. That's one of the things that makes an artist, the ability to craft a group of characters to care about, and create a vivid warm place, then have the crazy guts to trash it.

What makes THE MASTER unusual in the Paul Thomas Anderson canon is that while Dodd provides the father figure connection to a pre-built social group, the masculine 'Iron John' energy lies with the scoundrel outsider "son," Freddie, hence the PERFORMANCE connection.  Dodd--a charlatan as well as a mystic-- recognizes the need to incorporate this wild hair-scorched outlaw drunk sex addict into this oeuvre. Dodd has some anger management issues of his own, though nothing compared to Freddie's. Whenever Dodd's unusual psychoanalytic/hypnotic methods and philosophies come under scrutiny by smug skeptics his repressed rage comes bellowing out in huge gust of Wellesian thunder but undone by childish cursing; I was the only one who laughed in the theater during the first of thse outbursts, I found them liberating and familiar to my own holy rants where I'm filming myself pontificating about peace and love and then the phone rings and I start yelling in outrage; but while Lewis' Plainview evinces real evil in a huge burst of madness at the end of BLOOD, that's among the most splendid pieces of acting ever, Hoffman's Dodd has his greatest acting early on, and then fades away, high and outside on his cult adulation, until the best way he can communicate all he feels about his lost connection to Freddie is through singing how he'd love to get him on a "Slow Boat to China," i.e. he'd love to tangle his neurons into Freddie's raging alcoholic madness, to lock into and siphon off some of the kinetic in-the-moment pit bull brilliance of Freddie Quell, but his mom, I mean his wife, and his flock by extension, won't let him. Wow, he's come so far.

For all his charismatic free association, pasts-life regression, and science fiction mumbo jumbo, the things is: Dodd is pretty rooted, rather dully, in consensual reality, like a Moses who can only guide others to the holy land yet himself never enter. But with Freddie, we never know for sure what is 'real' to him and what is 'an illusion' and that proves he's already got the goods Dodds is aiming for. In several scenes we can't be sure if he's dreaming or what he sees is real: a song and dance number the Master performs is seen by Freddie with the women all naked, like Quell is X - THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES but with more of a selective vision (no penises). Later he receives a phone call from the 'Master' while passed out in an all-night theater, only later we learn it was a dream. Freddie also perceives lascivious come-ons from every girl he's interested in, and later we hear those same women remark he gives them the creeps. These are common effects of long-term sexual addiction and can lead to restraining orders. It's a fascinating, barely understood or delved into aspect of such behavior: women appear to him to smile invitingly to Freddie the same crazed dysmorphic way an emaciated anorexic still looks fat to herself in the mirror. Such divides between the real and the vividly imagined are what partying and cinema should be all about. To elaborate on Jimmy Stewart's quote at the end of BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, Who's to say it what's real, so long as you're tripping?

And I personally think all of us know, deep down, that most of what Dodd says is true -- reincarnation is real; it's been proven over and over in several different scientific studies and examinations of children who can remember details from past lives they couldn't possibly know otherwise. James Leninger, for example, and all the names and places they talked about have been confirmed through their parents and physician's subsequent historical research. Skeptics can deride all they want from their safe accredited distance, but a few hours of investigations into recorded cases (investigated by academics from established universities) may change even their minds.

Photography through Time, Top: The Master / Bottom: Birth
Still, mainstream science is understandably wary about letting the eerie evidence of reincarnation into their lexicon. It could change everything, for example: property inheritance. Imagine being able to secure your past life property (or debts)! In the future maybe you can take it with you! Then again, the believers may be failing to understand the slippery slope they're sliding on. A true scientist wouldn't deride the possibility just because there are some alternate explanations. (5) Sean (Cameron Bright) in BIRTH (2004) for example, plays at being Nicole Kidman's husband back from the grave, and maybe he is, but there's also some evidence he isn't. It's surely no coincidence that Freddie from MASTER is a portrait photographer and the last time we see Sean (from BIRTH) he's getting his class photo taken, and he seems happy for the first time in the course of the film, willingly dissolving into the frozen sea of amnesia which helps foster the illusion of linear time and lets us 'start from scratch' with all our Monopoly pieces back in the box and a big stupid say cheese smile plastered on our infant kissers.

Even if it's all just science fiction, I still cheer and applaud Freddie's tightly coiled rampaging against the Master's critics. But at the same time I sympathize with the rest of Dodd's family and their disgust over this scrawny, violent, twisted creature who's invaded their sanctuary. The important thing Dodd never quite owns is that it's pointless to even talk to or try to help alcoholics if they're not at least semi-sober since they won't remember a damn thing you say. Oh the shame I'd feel when some guy or girl had to explain to me that we talked all night about all these deep things and I promised this or that or we were supposed to go the zoo or whatever, and I had no idea who they were... and was way too hungover to deal with a depressing-ass zoo, sorry.

Bill Wilson - "Master" of AA
To be drunk is to be mystic
then trashed,
with joy as but a brief rest
'tween ordeals of ideals 
smashed to teensy bits. 

O Whiskey, wife, I sacrifice 
the promise of tomorrow's light,
to the painful, dull, hangover knife
just to get God off our case
for one more glowing drunken night 

 --Abraham Drinkin' (EK)

But at the same time, Freddie earns his keep just by being unbearable. Such monsters are the test of any holy man's mettle, like a bed of nails for the swamis. How do I know? There was a kid, we'll call him Tim, in my AA group, a huge Fat Albert kind of kid with a stutter who laughed too loud and harshly, and he blurted out misogynistic 'jokes,' and his sexual frustration and neediness was like a fungus. No one liked him, but he hung around me and my clique like he knew we had to accept him, since it was AA, after all. This was in the fall of '06, when I was enlightened; my third eye was lit up and with my eyes closed it glowed like sun right above my head between my eyes, and I could predict the future and was never afraid and I was in no hurry and always nice to strangers and able to drink things I never could before without an allergic reaction, like carrot juice. Also I had auric tentacles, like Dr. Octopus if his metal arms were invisible spiritual energy. I could wrap the tentacles around, say the ends of chairs, tables, subway railings to support myself for balance, they could latch onto the flowers and trees and open up interspecies communications on a level I couldn't entirely consciously comprehend.

But then, after only a month or so of this rare bliss... Tim showed up. My inner God voice told me I had to be nice to him, to accept this crazy violent-sounding counting-days needy clingy SOB, that it was a test of my nonjudgmental brotherly love. He was my leper. Here's a sponge said God, go wash that big dude's feet. No thanks, said I. END. End of enlightenment.

The third eye shut, my window on the future closed, all because I couldn't accept this uncouth hulk of a clingy little would-be sponsee lodestone cross to bear. For me, having grown up with an annoying little brother (named Fred, coincidentally) who copied everything I did and followed me around nonstop, the reaction was out of my control. I could never be a cult leader like my dad wanted, not with that attitude!

I have no regrets. I'm happy to be back in the shadows. Enlightenment is a pain in the ass. If you ever achieve it 'early' you know what I mean. You have to follow it around like a butler in charge of a glowing orb of light. Your free will is more or less jettisoned like a booster rocket. There is only love, only the orb, so there is always only one decision and it's not necessarily 'your own.' Selfless love seeks its own level and you just ride along. The orb comes first, like those eggs you carry in high school to imagine being pregnant. Jesus couldn't suddenly decide he wanted to get drunk and go on a bender tell his apostles to take a flyin' leap, for example. Jesus did drink a respectable amount of wine I have heard - but I haven't read of him getting drunk.

He was too busy butlering that damned orb.

clockwise from left: L. Ron, W. James, G.I. Gurdjieff, Bill W., Aleistar C.
Court fools like Jim or Freddie are clearly meant to challenge this universal love practice; they test patience and humility like a personal trainer for mystics, like in the famous story of Gurdjieff's teaching as told by Pema Chodron:
There was a man in his (Gurdjieff's) community who was really bad-tempered. Nobody could stand this guy because he was so prickly. Every little thing caused him to spin off into a tantrum. Everything irritated him. he complained constantly, so everyone felt the need to tiptoe around him because anything that might be said could cause him to explode. People just wished he would go away."

   "Gurdjieff liked to make his students do things that were completely meaningless. One day there were about forty people out cutting up a lawn into little pieces and moving it to another place in the grounds. This was too much for this fellow, it was the last straw. he blew up, stormed out, got in his car, and drive off, whereupon there was a spontaneous celebration. people were thrilled, so happy he has gone. But when they told Gurdjieff what had happened, he said, "Oh no!" and went after him in his car."

   "Three days later they both came back. That night when Gurdjieff's attendant was serving him his supper, he asked, "Sir, why did you bring him back?" Gurdjieff answered in a very low voice, "You're not going to believe this, and this is just between you and me; you must tell no one. I pay him to stay here." (Pema Chodron)
 Gurus admit these sorts of wild jokers into their court only when they are strong enough to stand the test of embracing the abject aspects of themselves; they are the leper's feet tied to a wild Judas goat with the departed soul of Chaz / Turner / Borges in its horns. One look at the crazy eyes, one smell of that noxious alcohol sweat, a sense of the unending animal fury of Freddie Quell, and any sensible person will get away fast. If you don't know how to feel about him you're not 'getting' the joke, that his inscrutable, twisted mask is meant to baffle you. He's a brute, an alcoholic sex addict, in short he's the iron man competition for gurus; he's the spiritual equivalent to the Olympics.

What many who have not seen THE MASTER want to know is, is it as genius as THERE WILL BE BLOOD? The answer is no. The indoor crypto-hypno-regressive exercises of 'the Method' are not as cinematic as BLOOD's mostly outdoor oil drilling and wildcatting. But it's perhaps as a result more mature - not to say it is mature. Part of the appeal of PTA's work is that- even all alight with craftsmanship and period detail--the rough and gutsy boy genius energy still pulsates. He'd rather make a towering mess than a good safe little drama and thank god because we have far too many of the latter. In a field full of stuffy bourgeois-kowtowing academy-courting craftsmanship pictures, Anderson moves like A bad boy genius, and this is his CITIZEN KANE, with L. Ron Hubbard instead of William Randolph Hearst.

AA press photo
My original title for this rambling post was 'Perfection not Progress,' a play on the AA adage of 'Progress not Perfection' since at first I felt the film was kind of inert and rambling (much like this post, perhaps). More so than BLOOD or MAGNOLIA. THE MASTER is 'perfect' but it doesn't resemble progress. We all know how Scientology will become a billion dollar mystery cult, and we're never really convinced one way or the other to go along with the Cause's giddy momentum, nor Dodd's jovial king of fools charade. The ultimate difference is that --while Dodd may be a true mystic-- so are most drunks, as we learn in this quote from William James' Varieties of Religious Experience:
The next step into mystical states carries us into a realm that public opinion and ethical philosophy have long since branded as pathological, though private practice and certain lyric strains of poetry seem still to bear witness to its ideality. I refer to the consciousness produced by intoxicants and anaesthetics, especially by alcohol. The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. (XVI - Mysticism)
The alcohol metaphor-- so unique and beautiful in its depiction in BLOOD, the drilling into the flesh of the earth, so to speak, and drinking its 90 proof blood-- is both too literal and too figurative in THE MASTER leading to a wearyingly sober movie. Freddie makes his own near-toxic fire water. Freddie builds his own perfect woman, made of sand, as ephemeral a symbol as you're likely to find. What the Cause helps Freddie realize is that those feelings of warmth and contentedness of being with a giant mom of the sea, drunk on solvents, can be duplicated anywhere at any time. It's all just sensory impressions and if we can master enough of our emotions we can manipulate them, and keep that sandy sea broad in our pocket. We can go to, as the therapists call it, "our happy place," just from sense memory. And as actors know too well, sense memory is no joke. The thing is, do you need to join a cult to access it, or the Actor's Studio?

After all, why struggle with your chairs and coolers on the train to Long Beach for the day if you can (as I like to do) stay home and lie by a window with the sun in your face, close your eyes, dab some suntan lotion on your nose and play wave sounds. That's all the beach is anyway, whatever comes through the five senses that paints the beach picture - and if you can get three out of five you're doing all right-- especially smell and hearing. Sometimes my beach re/creation is so real it gives me that vertigo pelvis chill feeling that I'm still in the waves. For real.

That vertigo chill feeling isn't just waves of course, it's the nervous system 'remembering' being in the ocean, remembering perhaps our own happy place, as a fetus in the womb still small enough it had room to float. If you remember playing in the surf, it's only natural your body can deliver the same shiver it felt at the time via a mere handful of external cues. Without looking out of our windows we can know all things on earth, and we can method act our way into Oscarville and Paul Thomas Anderson is the closest thing America has to a modern titan of cinema, so I should go see THE MASTER again, on 70mm, even if I have to go back to my old neighborhood, the theater across the street from my old fifth floor walk-up, 12th Avenue and 2nd, home of a thousand painfully sweet memories.

Manhattan, I'm sorry I haven't written, or called, or returned. I got mad when all the record stores closed. Brooklyn doesn't understand me the way you did. Help me, take me away from all this safety..

PS (from 4/13) - I never did go.

See also my entry in the Andrew Sarris new American Cinema canon on Paul Thomas Anderson (over at Jeremy Richey's peerless Moon in the Gutter)

1. I was the only one laughing in the theater, though. Too bad, hipsters. They probably didn't laugh in joy to see Mickey Rourke rampaging through the supermarket aisles in The Wrestler either. 
3. the objet petit a, as seen in my Lacan Hour sequel. 
4. A. Huysman's A Rebours ("Against the Grain").
5. (see my Divinorum Psychonauticus piece Zealots of Doubt: Why Skeptics are the New Cranks.


  1. What a great write up! To be continued, indeed. I saw this movie on Saturday and haven't gone an hour without something from it smacking me on the back of the head. I feel like the world finally got an actor to not only fill Steve McQueen's shoes, but to walk in them from where his journey ended into the next trail and beyond. I was surprised when "I'm Still Here" was met with such "indifference" - I thought it was hilarious and Herculean - and I see it as a great lead in to The Master. I haven't been so taken with a movie since I can remember. Id, meet Ego... Ego, Id. Try and rub off on each other. Be brave.

  2. You are fucking awesome. I've been reading everything on The Master and you are the first and only writer to pair it up with Performance, which I think is genius. This is why I consider you one of the best film writers working right now.

  3. is a great place to shop. Product quality and service is really great.

  4. Finally got a chance to reread this after reading and commenting and being replied back to referencing Inherent Vice. Your Vice review/crit/write up makes me think you forgot how much you loved The Master at the time. It's a good thing these thoughts are archived and available for revisiting. This is still a great write up! The Master is still a great movie! So is Inherent Vice! So is Boogie Nights, which kind of could be a sequel to Inherent Vice, but not, but maybe, but not, but could. The Iron John write up here also brought to mind Whiplash. That is a movie to be unpacked and rolled instead of folded and checked through the mind's Customs Agent sometime soon. Such a simple little movie about getting your shit handed back to you. I sense a theme these days. Show Business is all business and all business is show business.


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