Scott: The question “What’s my motivation?” is essential to acting, and by extension, essential to drama, which has to account for why characters behave a certain way. And because that question was largely (though not entirely) absent from Alex Gibney’s recent documentary Going Clear, which was much more focused on the abuses of Scientology than its appeal to the apostates now speaking out against it, I was particularly compelled by motive when watching The Master for this conversation. It occurred to me that Paul Thomas Anderson’s protestations that he wasn’t really making a movie about Scientology—which sounded at the time like a strategy for dodging the infamously vindictive cult—were, in fact, the truth. The Master is really about the circumstances that allowed religions like Scientology to flourish in the wake of World War II.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) represents a generation of war-scarred men who came back from Europe and the Pacific Theater having witnessed unimaginable horror, but not having the resources to identify and treat their PTSD. They’ve been shaken psychologically and spiritually, and lacking answers or relief from the medical community, they naturally seek them elsewhere. Broadly speaking, I think we understand Freddie’s motivations in The Master plainly: He needs a place to stow away and work, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) provides for those immediate needs. But from that very first processing scene, it’s clear that “The Cause” offers hope for his existential needs as well—that this damaged soul can purge the demons from his body and work toward a peaceful, perfect self. But what does Lancaster get out of this relationship? We can guess his motives with regard to “The Cause” and the power and influence it brings him, and perhaps we can see how he might value a rough-and-tumble guy like Freddie as an enforcer for a new religion that’s constantly under siege from within and without. But how else would you account for their relationship, Keith? And what do you think The Master is really about?
Keith: Above all, it’s about the things you just mentioned. If it were just a thinly veiled exposé of Scientology, it would be a lesser movie, particularly now that the world has found room for plenty of not so thinly veiled exposés of Scientology. But there’s no ignoring the many particulars The Cause shares with Scientology, or that Lancaster shares with L. Ron Hubbard. Both are unlikely, powerful vessels for God-like charisma, men who seem attuned to secrets that the universe has kept from everyone else. And like Scientology, men like Lancaster were made to thrive in the cracks created by World War II, which lived up to its globe-spanning name in ways its predecessor couldn’t, and introduced the world to the twin horrors of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Who could trust the old verities of tradition and religion now?
Yet while Lancaster/Hubbard/The Cause/Scientology thrive because of their ability to bring assurance to shaken people, what I find most fascinating about The Master is its ambiguity. You posit one reason why Lancaster and Freddie would be attracted to each other, but is it enough? For Lancaster, the attraction occasionally seems sexual, but is it? I’m not sure there’s an answer there, or to some of the many scenes that withhold their meaning, or might not even be happening within the reality of the film itself. Does Lancaster call Freddie at the movie theater? Who’s hallucinating in that scene with all the naked women? But let’s talk about an element of the film that connects to the points you raise above: Doris, Freddie’s girlfriend (of sorts) before the war. What are your thoughts on that character and their relationship? The easiest read is to posit her as a symbol of all the innocence Freddie has lost with his war service, but I’m not sure the film itself supports that reading.
Scott: Maybe I’m lacking in imagination, but I feel like interpreting the film’s reality as straightforwardly as possible. It seems to me that Freddie’s relationship with Doris is pretty archetypal for the American soldier, a romance that burns hot before the war, tapers off over years of increasingly infrequent letters from home, and isn’t waiting for him when he finally gets back. That’s a common element of so many “coming home” narratives—soldiers either bring the stresses of war to existing relationships, or return to no one, which heightens their destabilization. In that respect, I don’t think Anderson posits Freddie as an unusual case among veterans, but quite the opposite. This is why, I think, he renders Freddie’s relationship in a kind of shorthand, mostly in bits of flashback save for that great scene with Freddie and Doris’ mother, who informs him she’s somewhere else with someone else. (Her reaction to him, though, makes me think Freddie was erratic before the war. She immediately recognizes him as a man on a short fuse.) But that’s my relatively boring, straightforward reading. I’m really curious to hear your take on Doris and the reality of the film more generally. Because I worry I’m accepting too much on face value.
To finish up on the Scientology front, I definitely don’t believe Anderson means us to mistake The Cause for anything else, even if I feel his chief interest has to do with understanding the needs that gave Hubbard’s ideas purchase, rather than exposing the flim-flammery of the religion itself. (It’s still stunning to me that he made this movie after giving Tom Cruise such a prominent role in Magnolia. What must that screening have been like?) But you can certainly see in the scene with John More (Christopher Evan Welch), the man who challenges Lancaster at the party, the vindictiveness and violence of the Church when it’s backed into a corner. (As well as Peggy Dodd’s insistence that they must go on the attack, rather than allow themselves to be persecuted.) Lancaster’s blow-up (“Pig fuck!”) over More’s insistent challenges to his authority are typical of any demagogue who surrounds himself with affirmative, worshipful voices. (It happens again when one of his followers, played by Laura Dern, questions him less pointedly about a change of approach in his second book.) When Freddie follows up on the exchange later by tracking More down and beating him up, Lancaster scolds him for it, but in a way that suggests he’s privately pleased to have a dog to unleash for just such an occasion. Maintaining this empire is going to take a nasty sort of vigilance.
Another thing the More scene brings up for me is Anderson’s brilliance at building tension. I’m reminded of the guy popping off firecrackers in the background during the Alfred Molina showdown in Boogie Nights, but instead of firecrackers, it’s the words, “Excuse me.” As Lancaster holds court, those “excuse me”’s from More make him flinch much like Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, and Thomas Jane flinched in Boogie Nights. There’s a point at which he can no longer ignore his inquisitor, but by the time he finally does turn his attention to him, the tension is already palpable. Lancaster has been wound up, and More is showing absolutely no fear about exposing him as a fraud at a party that’s ostensibly fêting him. The processing scenes have a similar standalone quality, where Anderson stays in the room for a while and allows the time and space necessary for the tension and stakes to really take off. Were there moments like that for you? And what do you make of the film’s overall style?
Keith: Backing up for a second, I think you’re right about the overall reality of the film, though I love the way Anderson make it obvious. As for Freddie’s pre-War romance, I think it reads as typical until it doesn’t. It’s fairly late that we learn Doris is quite young to be in a relationship with a soldier, even by the mores of the first half of the 20th century. And I’m not sure how to read Doris’ mom’s reaction to seeing Freddie again. It’s certainly not joy. It may even be a little fearful. It all suggests to me that if Freddie is typical, he’s at the far end of typical, maybe a little more sensitive to the effects of war than those around him.
One of the moments that sticks out for me is the scene of Freddie and Lancaster in jail in neighboring cells. It feels like the whole film has been building to the shot of these two dissimilar, yet weirdly complementary men confined together, yet separated by an impenetrable object. Both behave in ways that speak to the core of their characters: Lancaster looks outwardly calm at first, but fumes in a way that reveals his inner turmoil. Freddie is all demonstrative turmoil and savage violence, but when he accuses Lancaster of being a fake, it’s clear that he’s nobody’s sheep.
Anderson holds on the image for a long time, longer than is really comfortable. I like that he does that a lot throughout the film. Those endless group exercises, which operate to no clear purpose, and go on forever, try my patience. But the film wouldn’t work as well without them. Anderson makes it possible to feel Freddie’s exhaustion, and throughout the film, he never gives viewers an easy moment. He only occasionally ratchets up the tension, but he never fully relaxes it. He’s helped in large part by Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling score. There’s little here to match the shocking violence found at the end of Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood, but I left The Master feeling even more shaken.
One thing we haven’t talked about yet is Anderson’s much-talked-about decision to shoot this film on 65mm. We both last saw this movie on Blu-ray or streaming. I think both times I saw it in the theater, I saw it digitally. You did see it projected in 70mm. Can you speak to that experience? And, more to the point, does that decision have any lasting effects for the majority of viewers, who never got to see it in Anderson’s preferred format?
Scott: I was lucky enough to see the film twice in 70mm: once at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and again at the Princess Of Wales theater in Toronto during the film festival. My impression of Anderson’s use of 70mm was twofold: 1) With celluloid on the wane, I think Anderson wanted the opportunity to affirm his allegiance to film and make The Master an event of an older school, zagging while everyone else zigs. 2) Save for a handful of shots and scenes that take more traditional advantage of the format’s depth of field and high resolution—the opening at sea, with those brilliant turquoise waters churning away, and the speeding motorcycles across the flats immediately leap to mind—the 70mm mostly gives the film a kind of epic intimacy, studying the faces of two actors who stand among the very best of their generation. Consider this analogy: The difference between digital 3-D and the 3-D of the past is that the old 3-D was mostly a comin’-at-ya gimmick used periodically to draw in audiences, while new 3-D is intended to aid in more immersive world-building. Whether it’s succeeded or not is up for debate, but I would say that Anderson’s use of 70mm isn’t about reviving the old-fashioned spectacle of epics like Lawrence Of Arabia or Spartacus, but about using the format for the counterintuitive purpose of intensifying smaller moments.
That first processing scene between Lancaster and Freddie is such a raw, powerful outpouring of emotion on Freddie’s part—an unburdening, albeit temporary, of the spirits that haunt his soul. We know from the equivalent in Scientology, “auditing,” that it’s designed to draw out the auditee’s most private, personal thoughts. (Which can then allegedly be used later for blackmail purposes, but that’s another discussion.) It’s wonderful to see Anderson stage a scene like that on such a massive scale. At the same time, The Master is such a sumptuous production all around that I kept longing for Anderson to return to the era for more stories—stories about Navy men fighting in the Pacific theater, stories about migrant workers in the fields, stories about department-store culture in the 1950s. On top of the parallels to Scientology and the film’s insight into post-World War II PTSD, Anderson has researched the period enough to make it immersive, and his works suggest that’s his primary job. Perhaps that’s the main lesson he seems to have learned from his idol, Robert Altman: So long as he gets a particular world right, the rest of the film will follow from there.
What do you think sets Anderson apart as a period filmmaker? A little over half his filmography—Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice—takes place in another era, and I think that’s starting to tell us a lot about where his interests lie. You can read quite a history of California and America into his four period pieces, which broadly speaking, are about idealistic adventurers who are brought down to earth, either by their own hubris, or by forces beyond their control.
Keith: I wouldn’t want to lose Hard Eight, Punch-Drunk Love, or Magnolia, but Anderson is such an effective summoner of bygone times that I’d be perfectly happy if he kept working in the past. There’s a shot in Inherent Vice that just hints at the hippie crowds lining the streets of Gordita Beach. It gives the impression that if we could Purple Rose Of Cairo ourselves into the screen, we’d find every detail of 1970 California intact. There are easy ways to re-create the past. Anderson might have filled The Master with news reports of the 1940s and ’50s rolling by, with all their attendant cultural anxieties. Instead, he accurately presents every detail of the rooms in which those anxieties were felt.
And I think you’re right to think of his California stories as a thematic set. Each are also about people who look for personal freedom and follow avenues toward that goal into hard dead ends. Sexual liberation, drugs, the counterculture, money, religion: All introduce their respective heroes to a bigger, happier world, only to reveal themselves as bringing the problems of the old world with them. In a sense, Lancaster speaks for all of Anderson’s films in that final monologue: “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history of the world.” Anderson doesn’t let him have the last word, but I’m not sure how to read the last words he does offer, as Freddie uses the techniques of The Cause to talk to the woman he’s bedded. Is he sending up Lancaster’s rhetoric? Is he trying to apply it to his own life, to manipulate others? Does he leave the film as broken as he began it, or on his way to finding some kind of peace? Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I like the latter reading better. Freddie begins the film sculpting and rutting against a sand woman. In the end, he caresses flesh and blood with no small amount of tenderness. The rage has abated, at least for the moment. Maybe there are more such moments ahead of him.
Nathan kicked off this discussion with his Keynote on The Master’s inspirations in L. Ron Hubbard’s life and John Huston’s PTSD documentary Let There Be Light. Noel will wrap it up on Thursday with a consideration of Paul Thomas Anderson’s longstanding obsession with father figures in film.