The Master

The Master

While at first glance Anderson’s The Master shares some formalistic traits with There Will Be Blood via time and space ellipsis, it does so in a manner that is distinctly different and implies a deeper thread in terms of the work’s psychological profile of Freddie Quell.

The initial sequences of either of the previously mentioned work are not only Kubrickian in their psychological profiling (thus also crafting the orbit around which each work’s cinematic rules are guided), but each applies Kubrick’s careful technique of building a character’s problem-solving and thought process. In the initial moments of 2001, Kubrick not only develops an understanding of how apes were capable of developing the logic to develop weaponry, but he does so in a variety of cuts that jump across days, years, and perhaps even decades between each critical moment of epiphany, thus compressing the actual duration so that the audience becomes god-like in their ability to observe through-out time and space. The moment that is perhaps most iconic and recognizable is the ever discussed match cut of the flying bone-to-spaceship, yet all the moments that precede this cut are also momentous jumps in a brain’s development of logic and understanding, and this is exactly what we see when we observe Daniel Plainview plan and execute his comprehension of oil-drilling, and this is also miraculously what we observe about Quell in The Master.

The initial moments of Freddie on the island, hacking at coconuts, interacting with shipmates and coming to terms with his sexual needs (via jokes, physical enactments or self-fulfilled masturbation) all imply a similar intellectual and creative development to that of Kubrick’s apes, or Anderson’s previously crafted Plainview, yet what’s most interesting about these elliptical choices that craft this development is that Quell’s conclusion and development doesn’t stop when the plot mechanics take over. In Blood, Anderson simply allows us to see that Plainview is scheming and once the first plot point arrives, we observe how Plainview’s thought process allows him to manipulate a town, but in The Master these elliptical cuts continue to push Freddie’s development and imply that he’ll ultimately come to the epiphany he does in the final three scenes of the film.

First, it is important to clarify that upon the ending of the War it seems that his military superiors are in need of resolving psychological issues of those that went through battle. The initial Rorschach tests reinforce that Freddie’s thoughts and needs are sexual, something that is later compared to animalistic tendencies and not of a progressive mind.

While these initial tests suggest a need to change Freddie, they also thematically repeat the need for solution and resolutions for possibly repressed problems. In these initial moments of problem-resolving his commanding officers imply they want to help him solve some internalized issue, but Freddie simply laughs of the possibility of their helping him as much as he denies any personal psychological problems. What results of these fleeting thoughts of “solutions” is Freddie’s concocting of mixed alcohol drinks, a temporary solution that allows one to forget their problems.

In comparison, once Freddie comes into contact with Lancaster Dodd it becomes apparent that Freddie has in fact repressed memories and unresolved tensions with a previous lover Doris. These revelations only occur when Dodd introduces a method of visualizing that actively confronts past memories (in direct opposition to Freddie’s initial alcohol solution that allows their disappearance).

When this “processing” of memories occurs Anderson’s elliptical cutting suddenly pushes the narrative into another space and time. While it is easy to take these moments at face value as ‘memories’ (especially since there is no explicit distinction compared to any other cinematic use of this device) these moments are perhaps closer to an ‘imagined memory.’

Just as we are not physically capable of traveling back in time to experience a past memory, when we do recall the past it is in our own mind and not exactly as it actually and physically was (especially since those times and spaces are now gone and forever physically altered and different). It is the notion of an ‘imagined memory’ that is ever so implicit, yet there are a few elements that suggest this is part of Anderson’s execution in this initial memory of Quell and his ex-girlfriend Doris.

First, when cutting between Doris and Quell, particularly in the two shot of them on a bench together, the production team has not altered Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance to make him appear much younger. He still looks as though he is in his late thirties due to how lighting and exposure emphasize his natural wrinkles, hair line and posturing. Actress Madisen Beaty, on the other hand, appears much younger and closer to the young Doris character’s actual age.

Secondly, when we initial see Doris, Anderson and Director of Photography, Malamaire Jr., have been able to craft a shot that is so photographically beautiful that it evokes photographs that have been taken for memories to be kept, just as much as it seems to evoke the kinds of mind-images people have of their loved ones that photographs ought to convey but rarely ever do because of the limitations of a photographer’s exposure abilities, or an appropriate background and technical tools. While these elements are subjective, they do stem from the thought process involved in the process of photography, an activity and job that Freddie fulfills once back on land as a veteran.

What is perhaps most important about this subjective linkage to Freddie’s job as a photographer is the moment in which he becomes enraged while attempting to take a photo of a family man. While Freddie’s tantrum seemingly comes out of nowhere, there is a subtext of resentment towards this family man, and by association the meaning behind the object of the intended photo. Upon the taking of this photograph, an image is captured that is meant to represent an idealistic representation of ‘man’ or ‘family,’ that simultaneously suppresses and hides any imperfections (the kind of sadness, terror or pain that might be hidden by society when attempting to re-integrate a Veteran, such as Freddie, for example). This resentment, then, is not necessarily targeted toward this specific individual, but at what this individual represents: a societal member that is willing to overlook and avoid the darker thoughts, emotions and memories that come in problematic times (such as a post-war environment).

So, in juxtaposition, this ‘memory’ of Doris is conjured in a manner that is a healthy attempt to reconfigure a painful memory so that Freddie is capable of perhaps remembering the positives. This, then, implies a ‘crafting’ of this memory as an image in the same way that Freddie has ‘crafted’ the photography of this family man, only Freddie is able to glean actual textures and syntactic elements from his own memory (excluding his own identity, which thus we see as a Joaquin of the same age only in different attire), which perhaps allows this image to remain connected to a ‘truth’ that is not associated with the family photographs of the department store.

Coming back to the formalist approach of elliptical cutting, what Anderson has done is allowed us to travel not into a memory, but into an entirely crafted time/space that simulates a memory every time we experience Doris, or any moment associated with these kinds of feelings. What this further implies, is that perhaps Freddie in fact manages to ‘craft’ all of these images (from Lancaster Dodd to the film’s concluding love interest Winn Manchester). This ‘crafting’ of imagery, then, also suggests that Dodd’s theories are really the evolution of Quell's own mind, and the concluding moment of Freddie on the beach suddenly weighs as an epiphany about Freddie mastering his own inhibitions and dark secrets without every having to really re-integrate on the main-land.

What this then suggests about the larger meaning of ‘Master’ is that Dodd comes to represent a more intellectual façade that is incapable of living with the chaos that Quell can. This also implies that these two characters are simply two mythic ends of the same psyche, which is perhaps something that The Master does also uniquely share with (the somewhat singular) Daniel Plainview.

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