Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance got me thinking about Alan Watts.
“I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”
– Lancaster Dodd
This film holds many favorites for me. Paul Thomas Anderson, one of my favorite directors. Joaquin Phoenix, one of my favorite actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another favorite actor.
And although it’s not my favorite PTA film (that would probably be There Will Be Blood or Phantom Thread), I was surprised to learn this was PTA’s favorite PTA film:
LaTimes: “The Master” …. That’s your favorite, isn’t it?
PTA: For sure. I think that won’t change. The amount of emotion I put into it and they put into it — they being Phil [Seymour Hoffman], Joaquin [Phoenix] and Amy [Adams]. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. But that’s fine with me. It feels right. It feels unique to me.
Although it was PTA’s next film after There Will Be Blood (2007), which was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 2, The Master nonetheless had production issues and languished on the shelf due to funding issues. It was not cheap to make, as it was PTA’s first film shot on 65mm (you may enjoy this interesting tangent on different film formats and aspect ratios: The History of Aspect Ratio).
The film was finally released in 2012, years after PTA began working on it in 2009, however, and was nominated for 3 Academy Awards.
The Master, like There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, is an intimate portrait of a power struggle between the two lead characters. And, like the other films in this ‘trilogy,’ the leads are somewhat despicable in pursuit of their passions, which impede their ability to connect with each other (and with others).
Watching The Master shortly after having watched the other two films, what stood out to me were the various character arcs of each of the main characters.
Plainview’s pursuit of wealth and power leaves him a lonely, crazy old man. Eli’s ambition similarly leads him to be a false prophet who betrays the community of his church. Woodcock’s pursuit of excellence in craft is both what attracts Alma to him and what compels him to push away the distraction of her love (and ultimately leads to his near death, at the hands of Alma’s assertion of power). Freddie’s passion and self destructive tendencies also pull him toward a wandering life of loneliness. Of all of these characters, it is only the Master, Lancaster Dodd, who’s ambition and passion that engenders community and family around him, even at the close of the story. I wonder if this is somehow related to why PTA says this is his favorite film?
Upon this second viewing, the moment I found most striking was when Lancaster Dodd spoke at the celebration of the publishing of his second book. He says, “I have unlocked and discovered the secret to living in these bodies that we hold. And oh yes, it’s very, very, very, very, very serious. The secret is laughter.” He pauses, silent for a moment, as if he’s looking at a single person. And then the camera cuts to Freddie, who looks slightly confused, self conscious, pensive. It feels like a significant exchange, and marks the beginning of a rift between the two characters that does not close at any point in the remainder of the film. Does this somehow empower Freddie to leave, if he views himself as a source of laughter? Does it cause him to doubt Lancaster’s bullshit? I’m not sure, but it feels related to the sense of betrayal Lancaster expresses at the close of the film toward Freddie, when he tells him he may be the only person in the world with no master. Perhaps Lancaster is saying Freddie is the master?
The Master, From Paul Thomas Anderson - The New York Times.
The Astonishing Power of The Master - The New Yorker.
Paul Thomas Anderson interview - The Master - Time Out Film.
The Directors Series - Paul Thomas Anderson [3.4] in The Directors Series on Vimeo. I discovered this film essay channel while doing homework for this edition of film club, and it’s great. I highly recommend this analysis of There Will Be Blood and The Master. It highlights many of the stylistic and narrative differences of these two films (and Phantom Thread) with earlier PTA films.
While doing homework, I also came across this very early short film from PTA (which he later expanded into the feature film Hard Eight at the Sundance Institute):