The Master Movie Classification Essays

Hollywood's prestige season is upon us and, despite a parade of heavy hitters, including Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the Wachowski-Tykwer adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, no potential Oscar winner is more ambitious – or more likely to provoke discussion regarding its meaning and intent – than Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature, The Master.

Anderson's subtly disorienting, deeply engrossing study of the symbiotic relationship between charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd, magnificently played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his disturbed follower Freddie Quell, indelibly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, is a panoramic chamber drama. Punctuated by persistent close-ups, it's an extended two-shot epic in its sweep.

The first production to avail itself of the great clarity afforded by 65mm in the 16 years since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, The Master is a mock Promethean advertisement for itself, a blatantly big movie that is also provocatively eccentric. Anderson's compositions are often slightly off-kilter; he has a taste for slow, defamiliarising dolly shots. The score – composed like that of his previous film There Will Be Blood (2007) by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood – is modernistic and mildly discordant. The characters' dreams, if they are dreams, come and go unannounced.

The Master provoked considerable buzz before its North American release, mainly because it was assumed Anderson had made a film à clef about the late L Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology. Hubbard may be the inspiration for Dodd, a writer who advances a quasi-religious philosophy known as "the Cause" that finds psychic trauma in prenatal experience or past lives, framing individual existences as part of a "battle that's a trillion years in the making". In addition to certain putative therapeutic practices, some Hubbardian details doubtless struck the artist as irresistible. The writer's reported credo (never defend, always attack) is, for example, attributed in the movie to Dodd's controlling wife (a steely Amy Adams). But mainly Anderson is interested in the master as a personality and a type.

The Master is Anderson's second consecutive movie to feature a charismatic spiritual leader. Like the precocious faith healer Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, Lancaster Dodd belongs to a tradition that has flourished in America for more than 300 years. In addition to Hubbard, Dodd conjures up America's colourful history of cults, quacks, self-invented saviours and self-appointed prophets: Cotton Mather, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Dale Carnegie, Ayn Rand, Wilhelm Reich, Timothy Leary and Pat Robertson are among the most successful. It's a subject that's only been rarely touched on by Hollywood, perhaps because the movies were once themselves a form of secular religion.

Frank Capra's The Miracle Woman (1931), featuring the young Barbara Stanwyck as a version of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Richard Brooks's 1960 adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry, with Burt Lancaster as a salesman turned revivalist, and John Huston's 1979 adaptation of the Flannery O'Conner novella Wise Blood, with Brad Dourif as a backwoods preacher, were prophets crying in the wilderness. The Master is something else. Anderson's movie sometimes verges on comedy but it is hardly a satire, or even a critique, of the Cause. Rather, it treats Dodd's existence as a fact of life.

Released in the US to largely appreciative, if sometimes baffled, reviews, The Master is a singular piece of work that, if nothing else, confirms its 42-year-old writer-director's unique status. Todd Haynes's 2011 made-for-TV adaptation of the James M Cain novel Mildred Pierce notwithstanding, Anderson is the lone American film-maker of his generation who could be mistaken for a junior member of Hollywood's last golden age.

Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) were sprawling ensemble pieces – one dealing with the rise of the porn film industry, the other a manic, pre-millennial new age meditation on karmic craziness – that challenged Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman on their own turf. Taken from the first two chapters of Upton Sinclair's polemical novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood was a big, bold consideration of a larger-than-life American character that had the effrontery to engage Orson Welles. The Master's cool detachment and consummate craft have invited comparisons to Stanley Kubrick.

Anderson's willingness to go up against the big guys is reinforced by the father-son relationships that, sometimes cryptic, can be found in all but one of his features since his 1996 debut Hard Eight. The exception, the perversely uncommercial 2002 Adam Sandler vehicle Punch-Drunk Love, may be the one Anderson movie that most directly addresses his own father, Ernie Anderson, a comedian and TV personality who, among other things, hosted the Cleveland horror movie show Shock Theatre under the name Ghoulardi.

Set in the aftermath of the second world war, The Master doesn't take on a classic film-maker so much as, in its elliptical way, the whole, handed-down notion of an American century. The movie suggests a hyperreal, streamlined analogue to Hollywood's similarly titled atomic age epics: Magnificent Obsession, East of Eden, Giant, Bigger Than Life. (The period production design, credited to Jack Fisk and David Crank, is remarkable.) Throughout there is a sense of a new world of possibility being forged. The movie's most mysterious sequence, set to Ella Fitzgerald's dreamy rendition of the ballad "Get Thee Behind Me Satan", unfolds in a California department store that has the radiance of a newly consecrated temple.

The Master opens on the eve of V-J Day in the summer of 1945, with vignettes of victorious American sailors on a Pacific island beach goofing around and acting horny, most graphically upon the ample sand-sculpted torso of a prone naked woman. Alone in the crowd of revelling seamen, Freddie Quell emerges as an impulse-driven lost soul with a taste for (and talent for mixing) home-made alcohol concoctions. Newly demobilised, Quell has his difficulties in adjusting to civilian life, if not life in general; identified, off-handedly, as the son of a psychotic mother and alcoholic father, he is also the sum total of the traumatised veterans who populate postwar film noir or social problem movies such as The Best Years of Our Lives.

Quell's failure to fit in delivers him up to the charismatic Dodd. After supplying a bad batch of his booze to some fellow migrant workers, Quell sneaks aboard Dodd's yacht – or rather a yacht that the irrepressible Dodd, half literary swami, half vaudeville ham, is currently using as a training centre for the Cause. Before long, Freddie is playing Caliban to Dodd's Prospero in the brave new world of mid-century America. "You'll be my protégé and my guinea pig," Dodd tells him; in addition to serving as Dodd's subject and surrogate son, he will also be Dodd's sometime enforcer and personal bar-tender. The writer develops a taste for Quell's paint-thinner, squeezed lemon, crushed-pill moonshine – perhaps because it's a concoction not unlike his own spiritual home-brew.

The Master is, in large measure, the story of a showman and, as a movie, it's predicated on two sensational performances. Mumbling from the side of his mouth, pushing himself forward even while flinching away from anyone he addresses, Phoenix's hunched, simian lurch is as strange as his provocative, swallowed up line-readings. (It's as though Andersen created him as a foil for the film's master.) Dodd more than once calls Quell an "animal", which in some ways he is – a barely articulate brute with a capacity for sudden violence, springing into action in the aftermath of a Park Avenue soiree at which Dodd hypnotises the hostess into reliving her past life until a resolutely sceptical questioner wrecks the evening. Dodd, by contrast, is knowingly civilised – he's a jolly, freely mugging self-promoter who, more than once, bursts into song, at least in Freddie's mind.

Because Hoffman's manipulative mountebank is as great a character as Phoenix's useful, if not always controllable, idiot, The Master has a balance lacking from the Daniel Day-Lewis show that There Will Be Blood ultimately became. To emphasise their relationship, Anderson likes to split the screen – most spectacularly during the scene when crazed Quell and hyper-controlled Dodd are locked in adjacent jail cells. As Quell trashes his, Dodd calmly tells him: "Nobody likes you but me, Freddie."

Recognising that the "auditing" process Dodd puts Quell through could be construed as a form of auditioning, critics have been quick to note that The Master is a quest for self-realisation set in the era of method acting; one online commentator went so far as to call the movie "Brando v Brando".

With his vulnerable bravado, Phoenix does suggest a troglodyte Montgomery Clift, but the grandiloquent, self-amused Hoffman (who, playing a role Anderson wrote for him, could be justifiably called the best actor in American movies) is more like a nimble Orson Welles. It's an acting battle to be sure, albeit one that pits the spell of Dodd's fraudulent culture against the immediacy of Quell's authentic nature.

The themes are not only big but perennial. Although in no way literary, The Master is the first movie I've seen since Lars von Trier's faux American Dogvillethat feels as if it could be a part of American literature. Dogville managed to referenceHawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Hammett's Red Harvest. The Master, more conventional, has intimations of Theodore Dreiser's naturalistic national epics and Sinclair Lewis's American scene taxonomies, with a hint of the mysterious postwar undercurrents and psychic swells registered by William Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions.

Essentially, The Master is a fable and while Anderson's movie would seem to raise the question of whether Freddie Quell can live his American Dream as a masterless slave, it does ultimately suggest that Quell has internalised Dodd's teachings and even put them to use. For once in Anderson's world, the son has triumphed over the father.

The introductory chapter of DH Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature addresses the function that freedom and authority occupy in the American imagination: It's the Calibans, "the most unfree souls", per Lawrence, who "go west, and shout of freedom". Lawrence concludes by proposing to strip away the trappings of democratic rhetoric that exalts the will of the people, to reveal America's "deepest self". For him, the official line – which he puts in quotation marks – is contradicted by the underlying meaning:

"Henceforth be masterless."

Henceforth be mastered.

Anderson, though, is an American. He's optimistic, and so, when we last see Freddie Quell in The Master's final scene, Lawrence's formula has been reversed – at least for the moment.

• The Master is on general release.

Having already created one of the screen's most sinister master criminals in Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Fritz Lang turned again to crime for his debut with sound. Originally, he planned to explore the impact of a series of poison pen letters on tightly-knit community. But Lang and his screenwriter wife, Thea Von Harbou, were persuaded to change tack after reading about the exploits of Peter Kiirten, the serial killer known as the "Monster of Diisseldorf". Further inspired by the vigilante actions of the beggars' union in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1931 musical, The Threepenny Opera, the couple began studying the lurid press accounts of Kiirten's killings in order to gauge the public response to such heinous butchery. They also gained access to files at Scotland Yard and the Alexanderplatz police headquarters to discover how the law would pursue such a case, both from an investigative and forensic standpoint. Lang even visited asylums to interview and observe sex offenders to understand more clearly their motives, methods and madness.

Unable to make the picture for Germany's biggest studio, UFA, Lang signed to the less opulent Nero-Film, thus limiting the famously extravagant director to a six-week shoot between January and March of 1931. Fritz Arno Wagner, who had worked on such earlier Lang ventures as Destiny (1921) and Spies (1928), returned behind the camera to make ingenious use of brooding shadows and eerie low-key lighting, while Karl Vollbrecht who had helped create Metropolis (1927), teamed with EmilHasler to design the sets. Unfazed by their limited resources, they transformed a disused zeppelin hangar into the office block where the murderer is finally cornered and a ramshackle schnapps factory into the location for the kangaroo court.

Ever the fabulist, Lang fashioned the myth that the manager of the hangar was a Nazi, who had threatened to prevent filming unless the original title, Murderers Among Us, was ditched — just in case anyone mistook it for a reference to Fuehrer-in-waiting Adolf Hitler and his hordes. Lang also claimed he packed the underworld jury with real-life criminals and fooled police readying to raid the set by tinkering with the schedule in order to spirit them to safety.

What's more reliable is his insistence that the film carried an anti-death penalty message. "We force the one who throws the switch or pours the poison into the room to commit the same crime for which we kill another," he declared. "I don't think anybody has the right to kill anybody."

This goes some way to explaining his decision to make Hans Beckert such a surprisingly sympathetic character. Beckert may have murdered eight children, but by casting Peter Lorre in the role, Lang ensured that he could never be portrayed simply as a depraved monster. Twice, Lang allows us to witness Hans' torment, as he ducks into a street cafe to conquer the goading voices in his head and then again at his "trial" as he protests that other criminals act out of choice, whereas he has no control over his actions.

Despite the acclaim for his performance, Lorre never forgave Lang for his treatment on the set, particularly the need to throw him down some steps 12 times before he was satisfied with the take. Yet, Lang's sadism undoubtedly contributed to the haunted look of terror on Lorre's pudgy face as he confronts both his demons and his accusers. The performances of Gustaf Griindgens, as the sharply-dressed underworld boss Schraenker, and Otto Wernicke, as the corpulent Chief Inspector Lohmann, were also superb. But, as ever, Lang was less interested in acting than visual effect.

Considering it was his first talkie, he was sparing with sound effects, although he did make chilling use of the killer's whistled motif, The House Of The Mountain King from Grieg's Peer Gynt (which Lang performed himself, as no one else could get it so disturbingly off-key).

Instead, he concentrated on what amounted to silent set-pieces, most notably the opening montage segment in which little Elsie Beckmann is bought a balloon before being lured to her off-screen demise and the chase sequence that follows the chalked letter M being stamped upon Beckert's back by a member of the unholy alliance between the beggars and the underworld. Moreover, he also littered the action with close-ups of inert objects like documents, fingerprints, press cuttings, medical reports and scribbled notes to foreground the action's police procedural aspect.

With the public, press, police and politicians all blaming each other for the curse of Beckert's crimes, M presents a compelling portrait of a society on the verge of Nazi tyranny. But, viewed in the light of last summer's anti-paedophile hysteria, it's clear that it retains a contemporary resonance that's as controversial as it's powerful.

Visually brilliant, tautly executed, a masterpiece in the truest sense.

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