“He took the drink himself, I didn’t poison him.”

Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell, the protagonists of Paul Thomas Anderson’s exemplary film The Master, are not quite so different.  Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), while in the Navy, has developed an uncanny ability to fashion spirits from whatever is around, be it a can of paint thinner or his ship’s fuel reserves.  He has made an art of extemporaneous self medication, improvising with whatever dreadful, poisonous ingredients are present in an effort to escape the bleak reality of his life, if only for a moment.  Already a raw nerve, when drunk Freddie becomes an unsuppressed force of base carnal impulses, prone to anger, violence, and inappropriate acts of self-gratifying sexual release.  And blackouts.  Freddie is in a perpetual state of un-enlightenment, denying any account of his outbursts and refusing to hold himself accountable for the actions he hardly remembers the next morning.

This hazy self-ignorance comes to a head when he is accused of poisoning an elderly derelict who has consumed too much of Freddie’s latest elixir.  While talking with the man, Freddie pours him another glass despite his gentle protest, telling him, “You remind me of my father.”  The senior Quell, we will later learn, died of alcoholism when Freddie was still very young; his mother would later be hospitalized in an asylum, leaving Freddie to be raised by his aunt, with whom he had an incestuous sexual relationship of indeterminate length.  With the old man and his aunt, Freddie has subconsciously established surrogates for both the paternal and maternal Oedipal drives; when he later insists to his accusers, “He took the drink himself, I didn’t poison him,” we are unsure whether Freddie is simply lying to protect himself or if he has in fact convinced himself of his own inculpability.

While attempting, as he so often does, to flee from his demons, Freddie wanders about the pier at night, seemingly always in search of another ship to take him farther from himself.  On one particular night, he discovers such a vessel, populated by well-dressed men and women dancing and cavorting well into the late hours.  The next morning, he awakens on the ship, unsure of how — or why — he arrived there.  “You’re at sea,” a young woman tells him as he curiously takes stock of his surroundings.  It is here that he will meet Lancaster Dodd.

Still in his bunk, Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) greets the vagabond Freddie and reintroduces himself.  Freddie, drunk, apparently wandered onto the ship the previous night looking for work as an able-bodied seaman; Dodd accepted his informal application.  “You seem so familiar to me,” Dodd tells Freddie, asserting that “above all I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man just like you.”  Dodd’s topic of query for the moment is the “remarkable potion” discovered in Freddie’s flask, the effects and contents of which have intoxicated Dodd.  He smiles when Freddie tells him it’s made of “secrets” and asks whether Freddie would be able to brew some more; he cannot, not like that, but he can make “something else, something better”, just tell him, “How do you want to feel?”

Dodd immediately takes Freddie under his wing, as a “guinea pig and protege” despite the doubts of most of his constituents, the most vocal of which is his wife Peggy (Amy Adams).  Dodd has had a succession of wives before Peggy, from whom he has an adult son and daughter.  Peggy, we can gather, differs from his previous wives in that she is perhaps the most fervent proponent of what she calls The Cause, Dodd’s hazily defined nascent psycho-analytic treatment which involves rigorous questioning of a patient, followed by guided self analysis in which the patient is encouraged to recall the details of his or her past lives.  By traveling through these so-called Time Holes, an individual is able to trace the history and source of his or her psychological and physical afflictions, and thus return his or her Spirit to its “inherent state of perfect”.

Dodd’s firmly held belief is that man, thanks to his capacity for reason, exists above the animal kingdom.  He tells his followers that they are “Spirits, not beasts,” — he likens love to a dragon on a leash, which we have taught to sit but now must teach to “roll over and play dead.”  There are hints throughout the film that Dodd has struggled with substance abuse, and his sudden verbal outbursts belie the patient and composed facade he has carefully cultivated.  In Freddie, Dodd recognizes the most concentrated iteration of the primal, animalistic undercurrents of humanity over which he has fought so diligently to claim dominion and subjugation; to “cure” Freddie of his enslavement to these urges would be to unequivocally prove the efficacy of his methods.

Here is where Anderson begins to develop his strongest theme of the film, that of Freddie, Dodd, and Peggy as archetypes representing the id, ego, and super-ego respectively.  To use Freud’s own words in defining the terms, Freddie clearly stands as an unambiguous representation of the id, “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality…. [A] negative character… filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.”  His insatiable thirst, his predilection for violence, his shameless sexual self-gratification, and even his own surname illustrate a drive to “Quell” his most basic desires without concession for standards of what is and is not considered socially acceptable behavior.  He epitomizes both the pleasure principle and the death drive, “contrary impulses [which can] exist side by side, without cancelling each other out.”

The ego, however, “attempts to mediate between id and reality… often obliged to cloak the [unconscious] commands of the id with its own [preconscious] rationalizations, to conceal the id’s conflicts with reality.”  Here we see the mechanism of Lancaster Dodd, who advocates a concept of metaphysical time travel as a way to rectify the discord between base impulse and its sublimation into reason.  Dodd espouses a great love and admiration for Freddie, but essentially treats him like a dog.  When he calls Freddie “The bravest man I’ve ever met,” he is pandering to his pet, encouraging Freddie to find the merit in his drive, to retain and to protect it even as Dodd attempts to displace it from its primal impulses.  He offers Freddie the promise of his respect, but never the fulfillment; he is Freddie’s only ally, he tells him, not because he sees the good in him, but rather the potential for good.  Dodd withholds his approval and his affection, treating everyone — and Freddie especially — with a clinical detachment; he is anxious and quick to defend.

Through his language, he also creates two implicit correlations.  By tracing the source of our emotions back to an event in the distant past, Dodd establishes a chronology of impulse preceding reason, connoting the rational sublimation of unconscious desire as qualitatively progressive from the satisfaction of our “instinctual cathexes.”  Furthermore, the second implication of Dodd’s semantics — that if we can travel to our past we can also travel to our future — is beautifully illustrated in a later scene wherein Peggy instructs Freddie to “place something in the future for yourself that you would like to have.”  She makes no suggestion of what this something should or could be, but she states with conviction that this is not a metaphor: “It’s there, waiting for you.”

Peggy, however, also acts as a mediating force within The Cause, acting in an advisory sense with an acute awareness of how their methods may be perceived by the outside world.  She sees Freddie as a lost cause, dispossessed of the will to change, and therefore a liability as The Cause attempts to infiltrate the higher margins of society.  Dodd, however, has a stronger affinity with the id; he projects upon Freddie his own struggle, and considers him the ultimate test of his methods’ cogency.  In this regard, Peggy functions as the super-ego, keeping the ego in check and functioning as “a successful instance of identification with the parental agency,” further illustrated by her and Dodd’s tendency to refer to one another as Mommy and Daddy.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves Dodd being called to task for a rare instance of concession to public opinion, perhaps under duress from Peggy.  When Dodd finally unveils Split Saber: A Gift to Homo Sapiens — up until this point alluded to only as “Book #2” in a series detailing his method — he hosts an event in Phoenix to celebrate its publication.  Among the attendees is Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), a long-time supporter of The Cause who had once granted room and board to Dodd and his followers at her Philadelphia home.  She approaches Dodd to congratulate him and to address a detail early in the book which has concerned her.  In describing the technique of revisiting one’s past selves, Helen observes, Dodd has altered the phrase “try to recall,” to now read “try to imagine.”  Hers is an astute and valid point: the revision removes an element of conviction to and certainty of the verity of the Time Hole theory.  Her alarm over this semantic implication makes an interesting observation about the function of belief: it is insufficient for a belief to be useful, it must also be true.

This is precisely where Dodd’s tenuous hold on Freddie finally gives out.  In the Arizona desert, Dodd instructs Freddie to join him in a game called Pick a Point, the rules of which are simple: select a landmark upon the horizon and race toward it on your motorcycle as fast as you can.  The point of Pick a Point is not quite as concrete.  Dodd demonstrates, speeding off toward the mountains and returning with an exhilarated laugh.  He hands his motorcycle off to Freddie, goading him off into the distance.  Freddie does not return.  Instead, he retreats to the home of Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl with whom he once fell in love and whom he has chronically abandoned, as if to protect her innocence from his own malevolence.  Only Doris is not there.  Freddie instead finds Doris’s mother, who informs him that Doris is now three years married with two young boys; he does not request her new address.

When we next see Freddie, it is some time later and he is taking in a cartoon at the cinema: Casper the Friendly Ghost.  He is interrupted by an usher who brings him a telephone; on the other end is none other than Lancaster Dodd, himself a benevolent specter from Freddie’s past offering an invitation to his newly opened school in England.  Fragments of the cartoon’s dialogue filter through, like an ethereal Greek chorus, as Casper reminds us, “X marks the spot… a captain never leaves his ship.”  And with that, Freddie is off to England.

His reconnection with Dodd and Peggy represents one last confrontation of the id, ego, and super-ego, the particulars of which I will not disclose here.  I will, however, bring up a plot point which I have strategically withheld up until now, namely that of Freddie’s brief employ as a photographer.  Between leaving his naval ship and hooking up with Dodd, Freddie made an attempt to reintegrate himself into society during peacetime, taking on a procession of increasingly menial jobs.  Up until now, the only skill set we have known Freddie to possess is his uncanny ability to turn almost anything into booze.  It is of course because of his alcoholism that he will lose his job as a portrait photographer in a department store; up until that point, however, he demonstrates a talent for the craft.  Drunk on a concoction he whipped up in the darkroom, and stifled by the new expectations and restrictions of straight society, Freddie finally loses control of his impulses and attacks a customer.  This inciting incident sets off the train of events that will ultimately place Freddie Quell in the lap of Lancaster Dodd.

I would like to explore this moment and the interaction of Freddie’s two areas of expertise for several reasons.  The first is the duality they represent in regard to Freddie himself.  Both booze and photography represent Freddie’s desire to break from his phenomenological reality and from time in particular.  In drinking to excess, Freddie tries to help himself by erasing the memory of entire blocks of time and in turn absolving himself of responsibility for his actions.  As a photographer, however, his dominion over the progression of time is not to destroy it but to capture and freeze it.  Rather than overcome man’s inherent mortality by being the agent of his own destruction, Freddie gives other people the illusion of immortality and permanence by producing a tangible representation of an ephemeral moment in their transient and temporal lives; he is, in a poetic sense, allowing his subjects to overcome death.

This is, at its heart, exactly what Dodd is offering to his followers.  By separating the soul from the body, Dodd not only gives man the ability to control one’s physical desires through will and reason, he also affords the individual’s essence an inalienable immortality by stripping it of its finite, corporeal limitations.  The soul, or Spirit, is now considered eternal because its essence can pass unscathed through time, much as the taking of a photograph — once considered the stealing of one’s soul — allows the visage of an individual to appear always the same to any observer from any time.  This is precisely why Helen was absolutely right to challenge Dodd for his choice to replace the word “recall” with the word “imagine” in his second book, and the point of thematic/semantic intersection where we can mostly easily equate Freddie’s peddling of “spirits” with Dodd’s peddling of “Spirits” as equally haphazard and circumstantial means of entrepreneurial escapism.

By establishing all of these nesting metaphors as economically as he does, Anderson takes another step forward in a career that has seen him increasingly focused on exploring the interiority of his characters.  Always a confident showman, his camera has become more patient with age but no less considered; he has allowed his plotting to become admirably unfussy, leaving more space for character, mood, and theme.  Working for the first time without director of photography Robert Elswit — and, also for the first time, filming in both the 70mm format and the 1.85:1 aspect ratio — Anderson and frequent Francis Ford Coppola collaborator Mihai Malaimare Jr. have developed a visual tone that lands somewhere between the lyricism of Terrence Malick and the precision of Stanley Kubrick.  Jonny Greenwood’s score (his second for Anderson, following There Will Be Blood) supports this dichotomous mood, contrasting Pendereckian washes of strings which slide slowly in and out of harmonious balance (not unlike Jeremy Blake’s impressionistic visual passages in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love) with rigid, staccato percussion often composed of two contrasting rhythms which seem to never quite align.

On all technical and aesthetic grounds, this is a fully realized and thematically cohesive work of great care, artistry, and intelligence.  With his sixth film, Paul Thomas Anderson affirms his status as America’s preeminent contemporary filmmaker and further argues for his inclusion in the pantheon of the all-time great artists of the cinema.




3 responses to ““He took the drink himself, I didn’t poison him.”

  1. You’ve filled in dots that don’t exist: “despite the doubts of most of his constituents, the most vocal of which is his wife Peggy” There are no doubts until far far later in the film, they arise out of nowhere and are immediately dropped. Face it…this is to Anderson what Prometheus was to Ridley Scott: confusing, beautiful, poorly structured, with undeveloped characters only made resonating by incredible acting. I imagine there was MUCH discussion about characters between director and actors, but they forgot the necessity of action for motivation & personality to have any meaning. In the end they are no more than emo kids, all surface and emotion, but standing around a corner doing nothing and thus, unimportant to anyone but themselves. Ultimately this film is empty and gives one no reason to watch it again. I’m glad you enjoyed it though.. I certainly tried..

  2. Chris,
    You’ve nailed it. Or atleast, you’ve come awfully close to nailing it, structurally anyway. The film’s big question is a broadly defined one that a huge group of people have asked themselves over and over, “what makes this whole religion/scientology thing so attractive?”
    The answer is in the film, an explanation that is both obvious and metaphorical. The id, the ego, the super ego are each characters defined by their roles but characters that are supremely interested in each other. The Id can only up and all it can see is the ego, the ego looks up and down seeing both the id below and the super ego above, the super ego looks down etc.
    While Dodd spends most of his time trying to convince his followers that they can transition from ego dominant to super ego-perfection, Dodd secrety wonders if he can bring Freddie two full steps from id dominant to ego dominant. At the end, has he done it?

    • Greg,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and to respond. I agree with your points, and I believe PTA has successfully transcended the barrier between good and great fimlmakers in that he is able to dramatize ideas and not simply actions. As such, I think the argument I’ve heard more than a couple times from people disappointed with The Master — that there is no “arc” and that the characters do not evolve throughout the film — is not only inaccurate, but misses the point entirely. As is the case with all religions, will to believe is a stronger fixative than reason to believe; this is ultimately where Dodd and Freddie diverge and what I think gives the film its greatest tension. Freddie’s appropriation of Dodd’s language at the end of the film isn’t ironic or condescending, but instead shows the pupil taking that which is concrete and verifiable from his master’s methods. Dodd of course has helped Freddie, but not in the selfish way that he had hoped to — is it enough for either man?

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