Sunday, September 23, 2012

Quell and Dodd: Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master opens with the close-up of a World War II soldier peering from under his helmet, an image reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in which soldiers peer from under their helmets at the horrors of war. At one time, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, may have been one of those men, but we never find out. Instead, the film cuts to discordant music and a beach where traumatized soldiers seem to be recuperating in a frenetic orgy of wrestling, sculpting lewd sand sculptures, humping lewd sand sculptures, drinking, and masturbating. We never find out what has traumatized Freddie Quell. Perhaps, Randle McMurphy style, he’s feigning his condition in order to be close to sources of alcohol and to get out of work, or perhaps Freddie Quell has always been a solitary, alcoholic, sex-addicted outcast.

This is one of the many enigmas that make Anderson's inspired creation, Freddie Quell, a compelling character, especially when allied with Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, another enigma. Lancaster, Dodd, suggested by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics, is a domineering, sometimes brilliant, sometimes childish, volatile, often weird singer of songs, creator of the Cause, a self-help cult that promotes a hypnosis-like therapy called “processing” for connecting with and healing past traumas. As Hoffman portrays Dodd’s passion, it would seem that Dodd really believes in all the hocus pocus he has conjured up and continues to change. But, as Dodd's taciturn son (Jesse Plemons) finally says to Quell in the one of the best moments in the film, “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

The greatest pleasure of this film is watching Anderson’s film craft. He makes something memorable out of the shot of a desperate man running across a field. He brings a 1950s department store to nostalgic life. Compelling too are the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman. While Hoffman sometimes slips into histrionics that reveal Hoffman through the artifice, Phoenix totally transforms himself into Quell. He morphs body, face, and speech. Speaking out of the side of his tightly clamped mouth, his speech is sometimes hard to follow, but the affectation effectively evokes the turmoil inside this troubled soul. Walking as though it is painful, suffering through Dodd’s processing sessions, ripping apart a jail cell, Phoenix always makes you see Quell.

Much like a Dickensian character bordering on caricature, a troll-like Mr. Quilp or a writhing Uriah Heep, Phoenix’s Quell constitutes the film’s compelling core. In the beginning, as a troubled loner; as a photographer in a department store until he beats up a customer; as a cabbage field harvester until one of his caustic alcoholic concoctions poisons a fellow worker, Quell is fascinating to follow, and I found myself preferring the film’s picaresque first chapter to the Dodd chapters that follow. When he hooks up with Dodd, he is again the enigma. Does he become a true convert to the Cause, willing to play the goon, a zealous “brownshirt” roughing up hecklers for the charlatan Dodd? Or is he just an opportunist going along for the ride, enjoying the action until it’s time to move on? With all the tension that seems to be building between Dodd and Quell, or between Dodd and his followers, or between Dodd and his loopy wife, superbly played by Amy Adams, lurking mysteriously in the background, it seems that a dramatic denouement is promised. Alas, it never comes.

Yes, I suppose the film takes Quell to a subtle denouement. In one of the best scenes, he has gone back to Lynn, Massachusetts, to look up the “girl next door,” perhaps the one true love of his life. In this quiet scene in which the girl’s mother tells him she has been married for five years, Quell comes to grips with his flaws and fatalistically embraces his aimless destiny. Quell is back to where he started, alienated and solitary, drinking heavily, trying out Dodd’s processing therapy on a whore. Perhaps Quell has not changed at all. He’s back on the beach. This ending is, perhaps, appropriate, but the viewer is left with a film that employs skillful filmmaking to depict two compelling characters who are never taken toward a compellingly dramatic conclusion.


FilmDr said...

Nice review. I just enjoyed The Master yesterday, and while I found it very thought-provoking, I wondered if Anderson might leave portions of this movie unclear on purpose, as if some The Tree of Lifeesque beautifully-shot obscurity helps make the movie more Oscar-worthy. In comparison to the basic vicious business sense of There Will Be Blood, Dodd continually threatens to overwhelm the artistry of The Master with his charlatan bs.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr - Thanks for the comment. I did enjoy watching, as I have said, but I hope Anderson didn't intentionally leave parts obscure for ulterior motives. Perhaps the conflicts and outcomes are clear in Anderson's mind. I suppose I can construe the ending as a meaningful, rounded ending, but it just wasn't enough for me. I wanted more conflict, more climax.

Steve's Blog said...

"Quell comes to grips with his flaws and fatalistically embraces his aimless destiny. Quell is back to where he started." Your quote encompasses much of the meaning of Quell's journey as well as Dodd's. The motif of past lives and making connections from one life to the next is indeed the dilemma of both men. While Quell is the obvious lost soul here, Dodd is similarly lost and at times more sympathetic. His stubbornness in his convictions binds him to his religion and Quell offers him a vehicle to make it organic.

The film itself is frustrating and beautiful at once. It works on many levels, from the metaphysical Tree of Life vein of lives intersecting and connecting. And it works as a metaphor for post-war America. Can it not be said that Dodd represents the promise of an American dream--potential, while offering few answers. Quell is the wanderer, acting solely on instinct and rage, but unable to find an identity or purpose. I feel that's the reason for the series of anti-climaxes that punctuate much of the second half of the film.

Hokahey said...

Steve, thanks for this thoughtful interpretation. I agree with you on your interpretation of the film's many anti-climaxes. Nevertheless, that makes for a frustrating film to view, especially when so much tension seems to be building.

In a number ways, this film is a continuation of or another version of There Will Be Blood: story of a powerful, driven man; the religious/conversion theme; two enigmatic characters in conflict; California setting that is meticulously depicted. Apparently, Anderson drew from scenes cut out of TWBB! Interesting. Anyway, I liked those echoes of his previous film. Unfortunately, The Master does not achieve the same wholeness.

I do, however, love the depiction of California in the 50s: the Salinas vegetable field; the dock that is most likely Monterey; the department store. There Will Be Blood takes us from the late 1800s up to the 20s. Now, PTA needs to fill in the gap and do a film set in the 30s or 40s. He could link with The Master with a World War II that might explain what happens to Quell or a similar character.

Despite how The Master fizzles out in the second half, I am always behind a movie written and directed by Anderson.

Jason Bellamy said...

"Walking as though it is painful, suffering through Dodd’s processing sessions, ripping apart a jail cell, Phoenix always makes you see Quell."

Yes, he does! I've been impressed by many Phoenix performances -- TWO LOVERS, THE VILLAGE, GLADIATOR ... all of them different, all of them compelling. But this is such an embodiment. In I'M STILL HERE he played a guy gone crazy, but this is what disappearing inside a crazy person looks like. Incredible.

"This ending is, perhaps, appropriate, but the viewer is left with a film that employs skillful filmmaking to depict two compelling characters who are never taken toward a compellingly dramatic conclusion."

Yeah, that's pretty much the way I feel about it. It does seem like an appropriate ending. And compelling retrospectively because of how appropriate it is. But certainly not as compelling in conclusion or duration as many of PTA's other films. He has such terrific vision and imagination, PTA does, but this one feels incomplete.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment. We both seem to agree that the best aspects of this film are the artistry of the filmmaking and Phoenix's performance. I was impressed. As you say, it is such an embodiment.

I kind of ignored his detour into madness as something not worth my attention, so I didn't see I'm Still Here - though, I'm told, there is some sort of allusion to it at the end of The Town. Anyway, I'm glad he came back to deliver such a great performance playing a character that is a great invention of the imagination.