Art

Who Is the Master, and Who Is the Slave?

"The Master," film still (image via film-grab.com)
“The Master,” film still (image via film-grab.com)

I’ve seen it twice, and it still makes my brain feel like it’s been violated in some sublime way. Visually, The Master is an incredibly beautiful piece of work: the effect of filming a reported 80 percent in glorious 65mm. The movie is saturated with color and tone courtesy of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., with editing by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, who paced the visuals against Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) odd, whacked-out, jazzed-up staccato soundtrack.

Then there are the actors, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson to give pitch-perfect performances. Two powerhouses — Joaquin Phoenix, as Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lancaster Dodd — meet as two men on a boat called Alitheia, Greek for “truth,” and a relationship grows over the waves. They embody opposing and complementary forces — the master and the slave — adrift at sea and trying to know one another.

Polar opposites, Quell and Dodd are joined in a battle of wills. Their relationship, like the ocean, is changeable, unpredictable, and wholly answerable to nature, and it ends with each recognizing the other and saying farewell, with Dodd somehow gazing upon Quell as the one who is “free.” It’s a moment in the master-slave dialectic when both realize they are nothing without the other — a moment late 18th- and early 19th-century philosopher Hegel described in his epic tome The Phenomenology of Mind as the battle between two conscious beings to become self-conscious.

Too much has been said about The Master being a critique of Scientology. In the film, there is the veteran Freddie, the hopeless and reckless drunk and animal and slave to Dodd, messianic Master of “The Cause,” which is definitely evocative of Scientology. But it goes deeper than that. In Dodd, you have man’s obsession with returning to an original, perfect state. He possesses a Citizen Kane kind of liberal socialist ideology with good intentions clouded by the effects of power, desire, need, and control.

"The Master" Rorschach-inspired poster (image via empireonline.com)
“The Master” Rorschach-inspired poster (image via empireonline.com)

But the question arises as to whether such a perfect state is ever possible, given the flow of life. The dialectic, as Hegel suggested, involves oppositional forces that will constantly oppose, overcome, and negate each other so as to become whole, only to go through the process again. In many ways, he should know: Hegel witnessed the advance of Napoleon’s army at Jena and attempted to produce an alternate system of belief to match the scale and impact of the Holy Book. In the end, The Master refuses to answer the question of whether “The Cause,” or any cause, is good or bad. And who, ultimately, is the master? The use of the Rorschach aesthetic to present both faces as one in a French poster for the film, with the title reflected on itself, indicates that the answer must be both.

Then there is woman — something Hegel doesn’t really go into in any satisfactory way in his work, but whom Anderson, as the writer of this story, positions as a compelling third force, or “thing.” In Amy Adams’s compelling portrayal as Dodd’s wily wife, woman’s role becomes one of the largest question marks hovering over the movie. The Master is essentially an unflinching study of man’s inherent drives and how they manifest in very real relationships; woman appears as a witness and facilitator of events between the two male forces. Adams’s character explores the power with which woman navigates and often mediates the master-slave dialectic.

In this precise piece of abstract storytelling, Paul Thomas Anderson manages to direct a social critique explored through the historical context of postwar America while also interrogating power relationships — from a wife and her husband to a man and his “dog” (or slave) — at a micro level. The film asks whether man can truly be master of his own world, whether woman can truly be equal to man, and if society might ever better itself, or if we are destined to continue in the same violent cycle of being.

It is this layered intricacy that makes The Master feel so inconclusive, as if your brain has been attacked and you aren’t quite sure by what. The film presents an image of society and the ideologies constructed therein clearly and unflinchingly. It has no conclusive end precisely because it is an ongoing question.

The Masteris available on DVD.

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