Following the Thread — V
Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
“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.”
Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is the first P.T. Anderson character whose body is a core expression of their identity. Anderson and his casts use bodies and physicality throughout the films to evoke character. Hair in particular is important; Tom Cruise’s ponytail, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s blonde quaff, John C. Reilly’s curls, and all of the red-headed woman. Daniel Day-Lewis’s limp in There will Be Blood comes to mind as the progenitor for Freddie’s embodiment.
Freddie Quell is a mollusk, curled and nobby, clothes hanging off him often in tatters flapping about like tentacles. His body, his existence, is a barnacle on the great ship Dodd. Freddie is explicitly damaged. At the start we are introduced to him as a member of a group of soldiers who are reminded of what civilian life has to offer, but also of the challenges they will face as they reenter. His body is a physical manifestation of his damage.
Freddie is also the first Anderson character who is truly out of control. Often Anderson characters lose it, freak out when pressed too far by circumstance or accumulated pressure, but it is a break from who they are. This feels real. This is how most of us live. We are controlled until we are not, “out of control” is a temporary state from which we retreat back into our status quo. For Freddie being in control is the temporary, transcendent state. This chaotic character highlights the ways Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd (aka Master) is so much in control and also the ways that he is not.
Master is fueled by the perception of complete control. In order to be who he says he is he needs to maintain this perception. He doesn’t need to control all people, in fact his power is defined by combatting the people he does not control, which is a form of control on its own. This is in contrast to Freddie’s power, which seems to have been stripped by combat, though in some ways that removal has freed him. Master and Freddie both battle for self-control. Master’s divinity is a result of his ability to control his story. Freddie’s tenuous grasp on human connection relies on his ability to balance the authenticity of his chaos with the contrite humility, the expected response of a recipient of The Cause’s benevolence. Freddie is valuable to Master because of his uncontrollability but can only be a part of Master’s life if he can find harmony with the others in Master’s orbit.
In an evocative party scene in Helen Sullivan’s (Laura Dern) Philadelphia house Master sings a bawdy song to a room full of followers. In these scene Master proclaims that he will sing “Sotto voce.” I had to look this up and it refers to when something is said softly for emphasis. This is how Master aspires to live his life, and makes it all the more jarring when he lets his control slip.
In that so many of Anderson’s early films are about connections between people The Master explores power and control as a meaningful part of the process of creating connection. For damaged people, for those of us looking for meaning beyond what we can see ourselves, reading and responding to power is a really important part of placing ourselves in the world. Freddie is so compelling because we watch him see this, reject it, see it again, loose track of himself, and finally find some peace within his own chaos. We see Master oscillate though a similar maelstrom but with subtlety and control, the moment when you see his white knuckles gives tremendous gravity to the gaiety in his tranquil moments of power.
There is something beyond power and control that defines Lancaster Dodd, and that is laziness. Dodd wants to be Master without doing to work necessary to master anything. When he finally gets around to writing Book Two, he can’t even be bothered to maintain continuity. When Laura Dern (god bless her) gestures at his intellectual laziness all he can do it get loud, a transparent tactic of many lazy men. Freddie, on the other hand, is seen as a lazy drunk. He has anarchy in him and does not contribute in any conventional way, but this is far from lazy. He is proactive in his protection of Master. He is proactive in his inebriant chemistry. He is wild in his motion but he is always moving. The narrative of his laziness comes from his inability to live within cultural norms. He can’t achieve the goals expected of him and it is seen as a failure of character, the fault of a lazy man. While Dodd also lives outside those same norms he responds to them and uses their language. By writing books and collecting acolytes his story is that of a diligent and elevated contributor. Even those that see him as a charlatan engage with him as a rational peer because that is how he presents. This is while Freddie is either ignored or gawked at as an animal in Master’s control.
Capturing moments like the one with Laura Dern, or moments at all, is a powerful theme of the Master. Freddie’s first job out of the army is as a photographer. Here we are able to see him interact with a series of normal people as he captures moments of their lives at this particular moment in history. His jobs are snapshots of how he exists in the world that he comes back to, that others can come back to to explain him. The fluidity of time is both a tool within the reality of this story and a tool of telling it. Magnolia’s tightly controlled narrative momentum and There Will Be Blood’s breakneck linearity both talk about time in an immutable way. The Master strays from this interpretation of time to incorporate the cyclical tricks of memory and the challenges personal narrative place on freedom. It does this while also playing a game of “pick-a-point” with the viewer, as we understand that no matter what we will keep going and never come back.
Next: Part VI: Inherent Vice