[I’m not sure a film like The Master actually has spoilers, but if so: spoiler alert.]
Near the beginning of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-acclaimed new film about an L. Ron Hubbard style cult leader, alcoholic WWII vet Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, takes an ink blot test and sees penises and vaginas in every image. By the end of the film, director Anderson is doing pretty much the same thing.
The brilliantly acted and well-made film, though watchable through its more than two hour running time, has left even its admirers baffled. Reviewer after reviewer heaped the film with praise while admitting they did not really know what it was all about.
Personally, I thought it was about less than meets the eye. In following Quell’s fascination with cult leader Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson has presented us with a dated, not to mention worn out, vision of humankind. The film struck me as a final helping of late modernism, with a dollop of reductionist Freud on top. Thanks, but we’ve had enough.
As I read it, the film seems to say that reality is so harsh that people will drink anything from rocket fuel to paint thinner — and will likewise follow even the most completely implausible savior — in order to avoid “taking life straight.” Only by freeing oneself from such drugs and illusions can one set sail masterless on the trackless sea of meaningless existence and thus achieve the ultimate goal of human spiritual development: getting laid. Quell’s journey takes him through several sexual stages: from a masturbatory encounter with a sand-castle dream girl; to a sexless, subservient relationship with a “Dad” who seems to him to hold the key to sexual power; to a final acceptance of the loss of his real dream girl (now hilariously named Doris Day); and a courageous break with Dad that frees him at last to put his penis in the vaginas of real, live women he meets in bars. Um, huzzah.
It’s a reductionist vision of life that was already absurd in the 1950’s and that has now been abandoned by almost everyone who is still thinking… except our own artistic and critical elite. Go figure.
I don’t mean to pick on this film too much. The acting is amazing. Hoffman is clearly the greatest film actor of his generation. Phoenix and Amy Adams just blow you away. The depiction of the cult leader is wonderfully real in that his madness is obvious but his followers refuse to see. And listen, I was delighted just to see a movie that actually engages with life and the human condition at all — a film worthy of criticizing, if you see what I mean. Nor do I need to hear only stories that re-affirm my world view — I’m not a leftist, after all!
But there’s a reason modernism collapsed into the ruinous and stupid-making morass of post-modernism. Ultimately, modernist reality was smaller and seedier than human life as it is lived. As the novelist and critic Gabriel Josipovici points out in critiquing one modernist novel, “describing the smell of sweat and semen during the act of sex no more anchors the novel to ‘reality’ than writing about stars in the eyes of the beloved.” Likewise a man jerking off to a sand castle with tits is no more a symbol of man’s estate than the sacrificial love of Casablanca. Less, if you ask me.
Myself, I attribute the unrealistic smallness of modernism to its secular nature. Without God, as Tolstoy explained, there’s nothing left to write about but sex and ennui. But never mind God, I’d settle for a little compassion and respect for the human spirit from our artists. Which The Master simply doesn’t supply. It just leaves us feeling sort of drab and, to use a technical phrase, icky. It’s not just the unpleasantness of watching actors pretend to masturbate — it’s the film’s whole masturbatory sense of the universe.
It is interesting that Anderson’s last well-reviewed film was the anti-capitalist There Will Be Blood, based on a novel by the socialist Upton Sinclair. Like modernism and Freudianism, socialism too posits a human person smaller than the one we know, a humanity with no dreams but material comfort, a man who lives by bread alone.
All of these ideas are so over — the facts explode them, the moral sense opposes them — but until we find a God that people of today can believe in — a savior for the age of science whom we can embrace with integrity — we will have nothing with which to replace them.