Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Master or The Young Man and the Sea: A Deconstruction of Paul Thomas Anderson's Exquisite Masterwork

Freddie Quell is a bird of the vast, grey, and infinite sky. He drifts through life like dust motes in a shaft of afternoon light. Women, jobs, alcohol, and people in general try to pin him down. To label him, diagnose him, explain him. Put him in the cold dank prison cell we all call a purpose. Many think they have the answers to Freddie, they know what's wrong with him. Whether it be doctors, therapists, or Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Many try, but they all fail. Quell is a character like that of some elusive and far away indecipherable message. One can try and understand him, to grasp him and fit him into a peg in society, but they will fail. When Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was released in 2012, a common criticism was that Joaquin Phoenix's character Freddie Quell did not change, evolve, or develop. He started out a confused and mumbling drunk and then stayed that way throughout the entire movie. What critics failed to realize was that Quell wasn't supposed to change. To have him develop would be completely disregarding everything the film has worked to establish. In fact, in launching this very complaint at the movie critics themselves are falling prey to the exact mistake almost every character in the film made: they tried to put Freddie under an umbrella. This is an impossible feat. He is a man so broken by the war, by life. Left with nothing to do but float drunkenly through the bottomless abyss of this here world we are all prisoner to. Freddie is the unchanging sea. Try as we might, we simply cannot chart his waters. No Captain Cook could ever penetrate through the exterior of him. Philip Seymour Hoffman's last monologue sums it all up perfectly: "Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas. You pay no rent, free to go where you please. Then go, go to that landless latitude and good luck. If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first in the history of the world." Freddie is a seaman, a directionless drifter who is bound by no chains, subjugated by no master. The film opens with a beautiful shot that repeats throughout the film. The flowing vibrant blue ocean. It is breathtaking simple. It is Freddie Quell himself. At another point in the beginning of the movie, Freddie lies down next to a woman he has crafted out of sand on the beach. In what I believe is the very last shot of the film, he once again lies down next to this mysterious sand mistress in an almost identical shot. He has not changed. Held down by no bride, he chooses to lie with the alluring beauty of the sea. I've often hear people complain about this movie in that it is too confusing and has little to say. Hogwash, says I. Anderson awes us and entrances us with his visuals and complex story about cults and religion. Yet, at heart The Master is truly about one man and his quest for ultimate freedom. A man so detached and broken off from the regularity of society he can only drift among the eternal waves of the Pacific. The film takes a look at the effects of war on a single man, but doesn't do it in the same formulaic way we have all seen before.  In many ways, Freddie's inherent wanderlust has made him a better person than most of the characters in the film. He, at least, is outright with his flaws of drunkenness and laziness. He does not hide behind any veneer, nor does he make himself slave to his intricacies and downsides. Everyone else in the film chains themselves to their persona's and auras of perfection they think they have. Amy Adams character looks down on Freddie as a boozer and possible criminal, but is too cold and uppity to see her own problems. Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is so trapped in his hubris and power trip he simple cannot realize that he shouldn't try to change Freddie, but that it's really himself that needs changing. The Master in this film is not Dodd, but Quell. A man who in having no master, has become the master himself. Master of living life the way he sees fit. Like an eagle flapping its wings, Freddie glides along the winds of pure freedom and easy living. He is a man out of place in time, for there is no real time for Freddie. He lives outside the boundaries of linear time. His time is an ocean, and he is commander of the ship sailing on its waves. The Master is a beautiful, somewhat misunderstood, masterpiece from the Kubrick of today. An austere and wondrous tone poem that looks at humanity for what we are. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I believe F.Scott Fitzgerald unintentionally sums up the film best.

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