Monday, 5 November 2012

Master at work - The Master Review

In his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde remarked that 'Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.' There are other American filmmakers who could be said to possess this accord with themselves: the Coen brothers, Tarantino. But the latter enfant terrible turned pop culture institution appears arguably to have been increasingly in thrall to a static (some might say sterile) and patented image of his work, producing variations on a schtick that has its origins in the earliest days of his career.

PT Anderson, on the other hand, shows with his latest release, The Master, that he is committed purely to his own vision, and has little interest in paying lip service to what others might expect of him. If nothing else, and for good or ill, The Master is a movie by a filmmaker who is truly liberated, unlike the characters who form its subject.

Certainly there has been a great deal of diversity in critical opinion of the picture, with revered figures such as Roger Ebert and David Thomson proving baffled and bemused by the film's restlessness and unresolved structure. It has been called muddled and confused, but I would be more inclined to agree with those who think of it as an example of authentically exploratory filmmaking. One gets the sense when watching it that Anderson shot enormous swathes of footage and found the film he wanted to make during the shooting and in the cutting room.

In spirit, it's far closer to European cinema than anything in the USA, and certainly anything in Anderson's back catalogue. Its habit of dwelling upon the spaces between significant events, often omitting the events at all, is straight out of Antonioni - only coupled with Anderson's endless fascination with American archetypes.

If there's one major influence on PT Anderson's The Master that has so far passed largely unobserved, it is that of American literary giant Thomas Pynchon. Anderson, no stranger to using classics from the American corpus as raw material for his own singular imagination, has previously stated that he is adapting the author's 2009 novel, Inherent Vice, but it appears that elements of his aesthetic have already filtered into the filmmaker's work.

The ghost of Pynchon is tangible in its period setting in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War and America's campaign in the South Pacific - the same period explored by Pynchon's magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow.

The film begins with veteran Freddie Quell's fitful attempts to adapt to life in California after he is discharged from the Navy, before he experiences a chance encounter with the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, leader of a spiritual movement not dissimilar (ahem) to Scientology. After this, the pace of the movie slows and the picaresque narrative gives way to a nebulous character piece cum sociological survey as Freddie and Dodd embark upon a deeply enigmatic friendship.

Like in Pynchon's famous (and infamous) cornerstone of postmodernism, the post-war USA of The Master is depicted as a metaphysical, specifically ontological rabbit hole, torn open by the psychological trauma of the returning soldiers, where the future of the American individual, the American dream and the American soul are perilously up for grabs.

Time itself appears to have been fragmented in these texts: Pynchon jumps from days of war to peacetime in disorienting fashion; Freddie, despite his seemingly careless and unencumbered forward momentum, is actually preoccupied with a pre-war romance that he regrets fleeing from, and we as the audience are continually presented, via fleeting, Malick-like interludes, with incidents from his past.

Dodd, for all his hokey bluster and pseudo-psychology, hits the nail on the head when he defends his movement's practice of attempting to access followers' past lives by saying that even if one cannot see what is around the bend in the river that one has already passed, that does not mean it has ceased to exist. The world according to The Master is one where time, memory, and the ever-present past, are both the keys to our prison and the means of our redemption from it.

Dodd, with his obsessive attention to the past, hammering away at Freddie during their 'Processing' sessions with questions about his personal history, comes to represent the tyranny of memory. He re-awakens Freddie to himself, to who he has been and who he can be, and thereby bestows upon him a much-needed identity: that of the soul-searcher and the (temporarily) willing patient. But eventually Freddie outstrips Dodd again and strikes out into an unknown, ostensibly liberated future.

The scene where Freddie escapes on Dodd's motorbike, speeding away into the heat haze of a desert landscape is rife with contradictions that enrich this key theme: The landscape itself, redolent of the mythology of the Old West and the new frontier where America dreamt that a man was free to forge his own future, is undercut by the fact that - as we soon realise - Quell is actually heading back into his past, returning to the home of the wartime sweetheart he abandoned nearly a decade previously. It's also surely symbolic that the vehicle Quell uses to stage his escape actually belongs to his psychological captor, Dodd. If Quell has extricated himself from his past, which is not at all certain, it is only because Dodd has forcibly immersed him in it.

For a film so concerned with time, it is apposite that Anderson seems to have edited the picture with the screening room of memory in mind. Like The Tree of Life, it is a film of elliptical, discrete moments, rather than of a fully intelligible narrative. And its puzzle-box structure is arguably only really understood or felt hours after one has experienced it, as one combines disparate moments from its length in a quest for patterns and meaning.

One pattern that springs to my mind 48 hours after originally seeing it is that of men wrestling, an image recurring throughout. There's the boisterous rough-and-tumble of a group of seamen on a beach in the South Pacific, Quell's violent and comical shoving-match with a disgruntled customer in the department store where he finds himself briefly employed, and his playful, affectionate roll in the grass with Dodd upon their reunion after a brief spell in police custody. At least two of these instances can be construed as partly homoerotic, particularly in light of the fact that - as recognised elsewhere and confirmed by Anderson - Quell and Dodd's relationship is on one level that of a love affair. Very unusually for American cinema, where male interaction rarely strays from implicit affirmation of that which is hetero-normative, in The Master Anderson subtly explores how the violence of male expression might conceal or displace other suppressed desires. As in the auteur's similarly unclassifiable Punch-Drunk Love, he also sheds light on the liminal spaces where love and violence, happiness and madness can become difficult to distinguish.

It's intriguing that, given such a visceral depiction of male relationships, Anderson should keep women in the background as either an idealised form of innocent love or an image of sexual objectification: think of Dodd prancing about like a ridiculous satyr amongst an audience of naked acolytes, or the nymph the soldiers fashion out of sand, with her grotesquely proportioned breasts, before cheering raucously as Freddie humps it. Is Anderson saying that, in a society run by men where female sexuality is penned in by male desire, male sexuality consequently turns back upon itself? Tellingly, at least until the very end, no male character is able to consummate a sexual relationship with a woman.

As is emphasised by their explicitly physical confrontation, Quell and Dodd's encounters are often battles of personality, where each tries to gain the upper hand over the other in a manner that is successively sinister, adoring, outwardly hostile and nakedly flirtatious. If Quell is the raging Id and Dodd the Super-Ego, then one might ultimately say that The Master is about one soul, the American spirit of self-determination and self-destruction, in conversation and conflict with itself.

In an interview with the Spanish elder statesman of modern queer cinema, Pedro Almodóvar, Anderson shared his admiration for the way his interlocutor often fills his movies with many possible storylines that are left partially open and unresolved. It appears to have rubbed off: What you get, ultimately, with The Master is a movie that lays itself boldly, shamelessly, open to interpretation, and needs the participation of the viewer to illuminate its inner recesses.

It might be an easier film to admire than it is to love, but the same can probably be said for all great modern art - anything that is vital, complex, and new.