4 November, 2012Issue 20.3Film & TVThe Arts

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Tell Me Something True

Morgan Davies

The MasterPaul Thomas Anderson dir.
The Master
Weinstein Company
2nd November 2012 (UK)



What is queer cinema? In the decades that have passed since the so-called “New Queer Cinema” of the early nineties, the concept has become increasingly muddled. As the fight for gay rights has transitioned from the establishment of a culture firmly outside of the mainstream to a fight to be recognized within that mainstream, the queer experience has gradually become a part of the culture and not a culture in and of itself. This process is maddeningly slow and continues to be ongoing: although the progress that has been made over the past twenty years is significant, the fact remains that culture and criticism of it tend to sideline queer readings of art that has not been ghettoized as “gay.”

Into this morass has come Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth feature, The Master, a film which is ostensibly about Scientology but which is in fact a meditation on the act of repression—sexual repression in particular—and the myriad ways in which it inhibits one’s fundamental ability to form meaningful connections with other people. The critical reception of The Master has been rapturous, but it has largely missed this central theme. It is as though most of the critics writing about the film are wearing blinders that prevent them from even considering the viability a queer interpretation, for while they have offered up various, plausible hypotheses to explain the movie—it is either about Scientology, the animalistic nature of man, the relationship between fathers and sons, or some combination of the above—these theories simply cannot carry the movie on their own. They are, rather, illustrative or symbolic of the film’s central concern: the destructive power of repression.

Over the course of Anderson’s career, his films have become increasingly opaque. His psychological acuity has always been remarkable, but in early efforts his protagonists’ mental states could easily be traced back to their parents. Consider Dirk Diggler’s mother telling him “You’re a loser. You’ll always be a loser—you couldn’t even finish high school because you were too stupid” early in Boogie Nights. In Magnolia, the audience comes to recognize that Frank T. Mackie, professional pickup artist extraordinaire, is actually a grotesque reincarnation of the serial adulterer father who abandoned him and his mother when he was a child. Though Anderson does not patronise his audience by spelling out Mackie’s internalization of his childhood trauma explicitly, it doesn’t take much psychological acumen to follow his logic.

In his more recent films, however, the psychological record is not so precise. Though we understand how Daniel Plainview’s menace functions in There Will Be Blood, it’s difficult to say what exactly created it, and Freddie Quell’s background in The Master hints at childhood traumas—a dead father, a mother in a mental hospital—that do not directly explain his current state. Understanding these films requires active viewing. It is in some ways unsurprising that The Master has met with such befuddlement: though it is a film of rare emotional power, its power depends upon the conscious act of interpretation.

The film begins with a series of scenes that establish Freddie (the extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix) as a man on the verge of something, though it’s impossible to say just what. He doesn’t seem fully developed, and not just because he has no compunctions about mixing moonshine from whatever toxic chemical he happens to have on hand. There is something unrefined about him that is deeply uncomfortable to watch for spectators both in—and outside—the film frame. Freddie does not conform to many of the rules we implicitly understand to be part of our society. But it would be a mistake to write him off as animalistic and self-destructive, as many critics have done. The film constantly invokes psychology and psychotherapy, for what purpose other than to invite the audience to engage in a little armchair psychology?

In these opening scenes, the film fixates on sex, as it will through its duration, though less overtly: on Freddie mimicking having sex with a woman made of sand on a beach, surrounded by fellow sailors; on his insistence that every image in the Rorschach test a doctor administrates is a “woman’s pussy” or something equally explicit; perhaps most tellingly, on his bizarre almost-seduction of a beautiful woman who works in the same department store. When she takes off her bustier to allow him access to her breasts, he giggles and does not fondle them, just pokes at her nipples. This motion is curiously childlike: he is a little boy in this moment, inspecting something that is utterly alien to him. He does not appear particularly aroused (later, at dinner, he falls asleep).

Freddie’s sexuality is consistently either performative or immature over the course of the film. So when the Master (Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) appears in the story and in Freddie’s life, with his doctrine of self-discovery and civility (man, he says, is an animal who must be tamed), Anderson has already effectively told us the direction his film will be taking and what we should be looking for and paying attention to. Every small detail lends itself to a queer interpretation, if the viewer chooses to read it that way.

The film’s aesthetic also contributes to this interpretation, visually enacting the uniquely paradoxical nature of repression: we are at once very far from Freddie and very, very close to him. The frame does not seem weighted with his emotional point of view and as a result its strong erotic undertow is never particularly titillating. Yet we spend an enormous amount of time pressed close into Freddie’s face and the faces of the other characters, without ever managing to see what lies inside them. This is precisely Freddie’s tragedy: he cannot live with or without his unchangeable self. His self-destructive and so-called “animalistic” urges are a direct manifestation of this internal crisis, simultaneously a self-hating act of annihilation and a panicked cry for help.

If Freddie is pure id then Dodd is nothing but superego. He is, like Freddie, deeply repressed; but unlike Freddie he has entrenched himself in a network of people—chief among them his terrifying, domineering wife (Amy Adams)—and a religious doctrine that will never allow him to overcome his repression. His L. Ron Hubbard-esque teachings, which escalate in absurdity as the film progresses, are effectively a way for him to avoid meaningful connection with people and with Freddie in particular. Dodd wants to be around Freddie because Freddie is freer than he is; he wants to tame him because his freedom is a threat to the carefully organized, emotionally sterile world Dodd has spent so much time creating around himself.

For a while Freddie plays along. He behaves a little better, but not much, because he senses that Dodd has kept him around not because of his capacity for change but for the things about himself that are fundamentally unchangeable. And based on the mutual attraction between them, he tries, repeatedly, to connect. The Master is ultimately a punishing film. It is the story of a man hurling himself again and again against something that will never give way.

This is what makes it a queer film, even if it cannot label itself as such (because, of course, its characters are incapable of labelling themselves). Anderson’s focus is not on the act of sex itself; hence the lack of titillation and, by extension, the lack of critical understanding. In the mainstream consciousness, queerness is fundamentally about sex, but it is really about the strain of living a life without recognition. Freddie needs to be seen, because without being seen by somebody else—without somebody else’s validation—he can never see himself. As long as this is the case, he is condemned to a life spent rotting in purgatory. Though this feeling is not unique to the queer experience, it remains deeply connected to it in a way that is unique. The experience of not being seen is the psychological cornerstone of the tragedy of queer history. Our culture is slowly moving from a definition of queerness that is exclusively sexual to one that incorporates this complex emotional trauma. The Master may not show its protagonists having sex, but by probing the depths of this experience, it is an important addition to the queer cinematic canon.

Nowhere is it more apparent that The Master is really about repression than the scene, midway through the movie, when Freddie and his Master are locked up in adjacent jail cells. Utterly still, Dodd looks on as Freddie thrashes about in his cell, first destroying his surroundings before turning against his own body. Dodd tries to calm him with meaningless religious mumbo-jumbo and Freddie turns on him, his face contorted by rage and despair. “Why don’t you tell me something that’s true?” he wails, again and again. He is not asking for the secrets of the universe; the abstract nature of religion could not be farther from his mind. His anguish is personal. He is asking Dodd to show himself so that he can do the same, so that the terrible burden he has always borne can finally be lifted from his shoulders. But Dodd will not do it—he never does it. So Freddie can’t, either.

Morgan Davies studied English at Mansfield College, Oxford, and graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University with a degree in English and film studies. She writes about film and television at PolicyMic and The Artist as Critic.