The Master

The Master ★★★★★

if i quote you in this review, i promise i don’t hate you or dislike you; i love and respect your work, which is why i’m engaging with you! ❤

it’s properly gobsmacking how many people misinterpret this movie. or movies about abuse in general. i’m not trying to say that this film is difficult; it’s elliptical, sure, but not in any sense puzzlingly so. every scene has a direct connection to the next and completely understands its place in freddie’s story. even the subtext is entry-level: the freudian readings are obvious and its engagement with hegel’s master/slave dialectic is basically text. it’s a really straightforward film—rich, but straightforward—and i have a feeling people don’t see its earnestness because of what they’ve been told about power relations. i’ve talked a little bit about this in e.g. my review of his girl friday: so many people, people whose cinematic opinions i deeply respect, people who’ve taught me more than i can express about film and film crit, will believe abusive characters over the people they abuse, sometimes out of pure naïveté, but more often out of a truly bizarre fetishisation of ambiguity. including right here on letterboxd. let’s take a look!

Danny Aston: ‘…instead focusing on two men; seemingly different but actually the same, searching to master the time given to them by whatever methods available.’

abusers and the people they abuse are not the same. vulnerable people, in their ‘skulking and sneaking’ struggles to survive and subsist under abuse, are not comparable with their abusers’ manipulations from positions of power. i can’t believe i have to write this. but i do. this is linked, i think, with people’s ideas that great art must necessarily universalise, that examinations of really particular situations, with particular attention paid to specific material causes and material effects, must hold universal truths—as bultmann might say, to extract the universal kernel from the particular shell. and we all know that bultmann’s kerygmatic demythologising only seared the conscience of german theology in the face of the holocaust. marx & engels railed against this sort of thing in the communist manifesto:

‘For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, [the German literati] wrote “Alienation of Humanity”, and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois state they wrote “Dethronement of the Category of the General”, and so forth. The introduction of these philosophical phrases at the back of the French historical criticisms, they dubbed “Philosophy of Action”, “True Socialism”, “German Science of Socialism”, “Philosophical Foundation of Socialism”, and so on. The French Socialist and Communist literature was thus completely emasculated. And, since it ceased in the hands of the German to express the struggle of one class with the other, he felt conscious of having overcome “French one-sidedness” and of representing, not true requirements, but the requirements of Truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of Human Nature, of Man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophical fantasy.’

so readings like this represent not the interests of freddie quell, nor the interests of vulnerable people or people with ptsd or any of the dozen material conditions that made this narrative possible, but the interests of everyone:

Igor Valentic: ‘Alas, we: all riffraff, purposeless souls lost wandering down directionless paths, wondering upon splintered rafts floating across vast ocean vistas beneath the halo of cosmic panorama.’

see? this completely ignores any sort of material analysis and instead goes for mystical, poetic universalised truth. but the ship’s wake motif isn’t an appeal to an oceanic universality; it’s a specifically chosen symbol because freddie is an able-bodied seaman (note, by the way, the unspoken corollary of the repeated able-bodied description) and the image arises directly from his personal experience. i’ve seen reviews associate the motif with the rorschach test from the opening minutes, but freddie’s answers to the test are comically one-note—anderson’s not interested in promoting any sort of interpretative swirl. he’s not rolling around a semiotic katamari; he takes stands, and is proud of them, which is why, in his own words, magnolia is ’for better or worse, the best movie [i’ll] ever make’. and which is why i don’t understand when people say things like:

Simone: ‘Here, he is basically surrendering to the ambiguities of the world, and that it is wholly designed for failure. Freddie is basically the personification and embodiment of failure.’

arguing for ambiguity is one thing; arguing that freddie is the embodiment of failure is just recapitulating dodd’s verbal abuse. this film damn well believes in freddie. anderson goes out of his way to show the way dodd, the cause, even the incomplete and sterile postwar mental health care affect freddie’s self-image, his idea of himself as a ‘scoundrel’ or ‘naughty boy’ or ‘horrible young man’ or ‘lazy-ass piece of shit’ or hyper-sexual hyper-masculine being who’s fundamentally unlikeable, who will only ever be loved or accepted by dodd himself, not even by the rest of the cause. when freddie has the opportunity to leave, he does, ‘very fast’, and goes straight to the last person he knows who accepted him.

but she’s gone. and married. you can see him struggle, trying to hold onto his belief in his possible happiness and self-determination, and though he reacts negatively at first he then makes so much of an effort to respond correctly and kindly, carving out his personality again after being treated as a disobedient-but-loyal dog for so long. even though he holds firm, the experience triggers a flashback—he dreams that dodd calls him, with perfect adherence to an abuser’s post-breakup script. and though he’s shaken enough to obey once more, travelling all the way to england, he resists the dodds’ manipulation. he’s not going to be their dog anymore. he’ll drink if he wants to, and at the bar he’ll meet a girl. and they’ll go home and have sex, really soft and gentle and unserious and aware sex, and he’ll quote dodd’s processing questions but turn them into something genuinely kind and curious and interested in her, not controlling but connective and alive with the joy of discovery, both discovering her and discovering himself, the person he’s had to suppress for so long. and he’ll call her the bravest girl he’s ever known—not met, known—and they’ll burst out laughing together (‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’), and though she doesn’t know it he’s the bravest boy she’s ever known. this is the sweetest, loveliest sex scene i’ve ever seen and it’s a complete affirmation of freddie and his ability to function and be an actually good person after being moulded in such horrifying ways. and people actually like him for who he is, and he can let his guard down, doesn’t have to be scared they’ll suddenly turn on him, and oh yeah did i mention the first person he meets who genuinely likes him is named winn?

i want to be very clear and note that freddie would absolutely 100% not be a failure had dodd manipulated him back into being abused. that is extremely important. i just absolutely cannot believe, given how much catharsis is given to freddie’s breaking free and subsequent beginning-to-heal, that this story could be categorised as an ambiguous narrative about a world wholly designed for failure, or that freddie is meant to be some sort of decontextualised embodiment thereof. i love paul thomas anderson and i love how much he loves abuse survivors, and i love how much he recognises how people function under and after abuse. which, unfortunately, puzzles some people:

Graham Williamson: ‘This is, to put it mildly, unusual behaviour for someone who has been brainwashed by a cult, and the fact that Freddie can hop in and out of the Dodds' grasp so casually can only mean that he isn't brainwashed at all. He really does stay because he chooses to - the Dodds can tell him about himself, they value him in a way that no-one else does, and they channel his violence towards something that he feels is productive. He enjoys all of these things. Then, when he stops enjoying them, he just picks up and goes.’

i mean, it’s not casual hopping at all, and it’s definitely not the case that freddie is immune to the cause’s ideology, nor to dodd’s particular abuse. no abuse victim stays because they choose to, and freddie breaking out is by no means a case of his just picking up and going. i hope with all my heart that this person has never experienced the disorienting effects of abuse—but i also really hope he learns to recognise them. he’s not alone; people sometimes don’t even see freddie’s frustration and deep unhappiness under the dodds’ thumb. which seems very strange to me, given the subtext-made-text of freddie’s broken rationalisation ‘it’s a fucking wall! and i’m not in it! i’m not in it! it’s a window, and i can leave any time i want, but i choose not to: i choose to stay here!’, or his recapitulation of todd’s doubts in the prison, exploding in self-harm, dodd leaning on his self-loathing to quiet him once more. dodd and the cause try to pass these outbursts off as just aspects of freddie’s ptsd—‘maybe he’s past help’. but ptsd’s not going to get any better when it’s exacerbated by abuse. ‘if we are not helping him, then it is we who have failed him’, says dodd, but he’s actively destroying freddie, and then blaming him for his own mental breakdowns trying to deal with the dissonance. unfortunately, dodd’s convinced half the audience of this, too, exactly as walter burns did with hildy johnson. i just want to help people to see that. i want to do that so much for real life situations, too, but maybe if people learn to read films with greater sensitivity, they’ll learn better how to handle and fight against abusive situations in real life, because abuse relies so much on controlling narratives.

finally, to circle back around to the fetishisation of ambiguity i mentioned towards the beginning:

Peter Labuza: ‘The question that the film presents meta-textually is that if it isn't apparent what everything means are we only re-considering it in the name of the auteur instead of dismissing it as one would do for a filmmaker of lower status. However, when the filmmaking, the craft of the narrative structure, and the acting feels so precise and perceptive toward such a unique motive, one must present the film with more consideration.’

i want to take what peter says here and refocus it a bit: given how much people respect auteurs, and how much popular auteurist theory tends to praise e.g. inscrutable kubrickian polysemy, are critics reinterpreting the film towards obscurity in order to reinforce their love of paul thomas anderson, and do they really love him or rather love the director they think he is, a director in line with everything they’ve been taught against moralising and towards ambiguity? because paul thomas anderson could not have made this film by accident. it is so clearly sensitive to every little structure placed around freddie’s mind or body (and oh my gosh this film is very much about bodies and their importance in all their impermanent fragility), and it is so kind to him about his ptsd and impulsivity and self-loathing, and it traces every single way people press down on him, but also it gives him a motorbike to roar away fast from lancaster dodd’s slowly falling face, and it tells him over and over that even though in a quite literal sense he can’t go home again,

his ship may be coming in.
he’s weak but not giving in.
he’ll be better, he’ll be smarter,
and more grown up and a better daughter
or son and a real good friend,
and be awake and be alert
and be positive though it hurts,
and he’ll laugh and embrace all his friends,
and be a real good listener
and be honest and be brave
and be handsome and be beautiful
and be happy.

and so when i see comments like this from people i love:

Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel: ‘if you have nothing to say, don't make a film imo. or at least make it funny.’

i’m honestly just baffled.

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