The Master and Moviemaking

Once again, we convene our film scholars, plus critic Michelle Orange, to discuss a major movie: The Master, by Paul Thomas Anderson—a masterpiece of craftsmanship, or merely an exercise of cinema and violence with no story in the center?

Courtesy the Weinstein Company

Mike Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia. His daughter is cuter than your daughter. Pasha Malla is a film school dropout who has worked as a camp counselor, elementary school teacher, and group home coordinator. His first novel, People Park, was recently published. Michelle Orange is the author of the forthcoming essay collection This Is Running for Your Life. She contributes film reviews to the Village Voice and is a staff critic at


Mike Baker: I haven’t been reading about the film, so I wasn’t aware of how strongly it has divided people. And then, on Facebook of all places, someone whose taste I highly regard absolutely dismisses it without argument; it was just a waste of time. Up is down, black is white, cats are fucking dogs. What is going on?

Michelle Orange: I had the same experience with a couple people whose opinions I respect. They shrugged the movie off and just said they were bored senseless and didn’t care enough about what was happening (or not happening). You couldn’t even disagree.

Pasha Malla: An email from someone whose taste I admire and often share: “I just got back from The Master so I’m kind of pissed off right now and will have to write more later. It was a pretty big let down...” So, yeah, there are these people, though I do want to avoid arguing against some straw man who didn’t or couldn’t appreciate this film. I am interested in this criticism I keep reading, both in positive and negative reviews, that it might not be “about anything.” Is this something either of you care about?

MB: So much of The Master and P.T.A.’s apparent intentions are rooted in the experiential. The film just washes over you, and you either enjoy it or you don’t. In this regard I see P.T.A.’s evolution from an acolyte of Altman (with a faith in happenstance) into a devotee of the craftsmanship of Malick and Kubrick. There’s a rawness to the way humanity is portrayed in The Master, in There Will Be Blood, in Punch-Drunk Love, and it offers very little comfort for anyone who fails to find a connection to these films on a gut level. I’d cite The New World, Tree of Life, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut as similar experiences to The Master.

MO: So much of what gets made now evades the question of good or bad by barely qualifying as a movie. Pasha, you wondered whether Django Unchained would be good or bad and I said (and maybe this is a sad reflection of where I’m at as a moviegoer) that I was excited either way, because I knew it would be a movie.

I don’t mean that as damning with faint praise or giving credit by default, but certainly part of what swept me away was P.T.A.’s abiding respect and passion for the medium and what it can do. This story, as it was told, could only be a movie. Everything about The Master either displays or refers to or revels in its own movieness. I found that exhilarating in a way that worked with the action (as it were) and not against or outside of it. Something about the period detail, maybe, and this sense of a return to a golden era that is inverted by everything we learn about Freddie and Dodd.

Is Phoenix’s freakout in the prison scene good acting, or is it just histrionic scenery-chewing?

PM: There’s a weird homogenization happening across narrative art forms in which the codes, styles, and expectations of audiences are conflating. There appears so rarely a movie that, as you say, could only be a movie, and so rarely a popular book that really uses the word as its basic (ontological?) unit. But The Master is a movie, in which the language of cinema is prioritized, exploited, and challenged.

MB: I can’t say enough about the sheer beauty of the film image and its power to hold our attention even when the narrative falls away. Sadly, the vast majority of us will see the movie as a digital projection and yet the clarity and the force of Anderson’s compositions using the 65mm format remain stunning.

What do we think of the story’s curious, or not-so-curious, relationship with The World Out There (how many times should we allow ourselves to say “Scientology”?), and the somewhat surprising nature in which it falls away and soon becomes a study of the complex not-quite-father-son relationship between Quell and Dodd (who at once seem to be each other’s worst enemies and only chances at growing into better versions of themselves)?

MO: I didn’t mind at all that the story’s overly anticipated relationship to the outside world faded into the background because I found what was happening between the two men so much more fascinating. I thought the macro/micro axis P.T.A. set up was slick as shit. And who could have guessed that Dodd would be portrayed as a fraud and a huckster, but very often not even wrong!



MO: What did you two think of Freddie? The idea of Freddie as animal/id and Dodd as man/ego feels too simple. I was more interested in the question of Freddie’s loneliness, which strikes me as not animal at all but uniquely human. P.T.A. seems to want to unnerve and even disgust us with it, but I couldn’t stop thinking of that scene in Amarcord when the Italian family takes their “crazy” uncle out of the nuthouse for a picnic, and he climbs a tree and wails about just wanting a woman. Is Freddie crazy or does he just want a woman? And what do you think of the complaint that he’s not “likable” or too difficult to care about?

PM: That need to “like” or “identify with” a character smacks of cowardice, laziness, and narcissism. Part of the role of art is to take us outside ourselves—to “go into yourself,” maybe, by venturing into those (often dark) places we might not explore consciously.

MB: Part of the magic of the experience is figuring out who this person is, why he’s so wounded, how he even manages to survive. I’d hazard that he’s just as relatable as repulsive, and it’s equally engaging to witness his fate and invest ourselves in Dodd’s efforts at remaking the feral, alcoholic mess. The Dodd-Quell duo fits along a trajectory with Daniel-Eli, Jack-Eddie, Earl-Frank-Phil, Sydney-John—the complexity, the ambiguity, the disappointment, and the salvation (only occasionally) of father-and-son relationships are the currency of P.T.A.



PM: I think that final scene undercuts any argument that the movie “doesn’t tell a story at all.” I’m a little baffled as to what people are finding so non-traditional about the narrative: Alienated character just wants to be loved, finds potential community, fucks everything up, then strikes out on his own and finds solace in the arms of a lady. I get the sense that people are more bewildered by the film’s style and pacing, and possibly its negative spaces, because the story-arc is almost formulaic, isn’t it? I mean, The Master is more narratively coherent than The Dark Knight Rises—or any Christopher Nolan movie, for that matter.

MO: I would disagree that Freddie’s pick-up coda is unambiguous. It seems like a baby step forward, but I think the scene is also infused with dread. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Freddie had reached up and choked that girl to death.

PM: Well, that he doesn’t choke her to death is noteworthy, though I agree it suggests such portent of terrible things when the camera turns away.

MO: Obviously that he doesn’t choke her is noteworthy. But you don’t know, right up until the credits roll, whether he will. I think that stands against the idea that some greater trajectory has been at work in terms of showing Freddie’s development, or even, I might argue just for the hell of it, that the fact that he doesn’t in that moment is particularly meaningful. I thought that was exactly right.

PM: Might you even read that last scene as a parody, then, of a certain type of ending in which the character is “transformed”? That line, “It slipped out, put it back in” (or whatever it was) suggests Quell, though he says it with a giggle, is at heart still an animal—this isn’t love, or anything like it, but a temporary satiation before he destroys everything again.

MO: Sure: there is something feral and disconcerting about that scene (not that sex shouldn’t be, um, those things), as well as strangely touching (not that sex etc.). Because in theory Dodd’s entire project with Freddie is a rehabilitative one, where a “happy ending” would involve Freddie being transformed into a reconciled individual, as in Truffaut’s Wild Child. Dodd’s persistence, for me, is what held the film together; it seems both easily justified and completely mysterious. In that way it mirrors the film’s structure—it’s their relationship that carries him forward despite Freddie’s apparent hopelessness, and it’s their relationship that carries us.



PM: If Tarkovsky was “sculpting in time,” I can’t think of a practicing filmmaker who sculpts more evocatively in cinematic space than P.T. Anderson. There’s a sense that the world of The Master—and, more broadly, P.T.A.’s world— could go on forever, as long as the camera keeps panning. It’s so unsettling, and like nothing else being achieved in movies today.

MB: P.T.A.’s interest in this dynamic (the world within the frame constantly intimating the world beyond the frame) is manifest in his decision to cut (and release) all the trailers himself, consciously utilizing scenes he had excised from the finished film, going so far as to release the “Last One“ on the day of the film’s theatrical release. These trailers arguably do more to illustrate Quell’s deviancy than anything in the finished film itself. And so the trailers are themselves an opening onto another world of The Master, yet not in the way these commercial objects are generally set loose in the market.

The ride in the desert, the naked lady recital, the bathroom sink handjob—so much critical information being delivered, but always on the downbeat.

In one particular way, it is this device—the story world is the experience is the story world—that makes Amy Adams and her character so resonant throughout the film. Once she was introduced I felt her presence in almost every single frame. (In fact, I presume Quell’s final encounter with the British girl was perhaps intended as something of a payoff for the inkling of his sexual desire for both Peggy and Elizabeth, as well as his earlier sweetheart, Doris.)

PM: The film’s use of off-screen space is so compelling. The first instance I can recall is the photo booth scene: Quell is asking his subject (unseen) if he’s married, if the photo is for the guy’s wife; only when he approaches do we get a look at this person, and by then so much tension and anticipation have accumulated that we’re bracing for an attack. And near the end of the film, Amy Adams’ character appears from beyond the edge of the frame, seated beside Dodd’s desk—suggesting, I think, that she’s “The Master”—and there’s another scene in which she seems to be dictating to Dodd, who is madly typing away, again off-screen.

MO: That was one of the things I loved most—the extent to which the narrative relies on pure cinema and spatial negotiation, but also the way P.T.A. focused on peripheral moments and let the viewer fill in the central object of a scene, and the spaces between the scenes. The ride in the desert, the naked lady recital, the bathroom sink handjob—so much critical information being delivered, but always on the downbeat.



MB: I was struck by the potency of the performances, particularly the transformation of Phoenix (into something unlike anything we’ve seen from him before—closer to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot than Phoenix’s own caricature of Johnny Cash) and the magnetism of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Interesting fact: I read about P.T. Anderson explaining that the background he provided for Joaquin Phoenix was quite elementary—Quell was an animal, and for reference he should revisit this sleepy moment from Baraka.

PM: The Master made me question what the difference is between a good and a bad performance. Is Phoenix’s freakout in the prison scene good acting, or is it just histrionic scenery-chewing? I’d be just as easily swayed by an argument either way. Maybe this movie complicates that binary of good/bad in the arts. Is this a good movie? It’s certainly being argued that it’s a great movie—maybe even a masterpiece. Yet to many people it’s also a bad movie. The film troubles all sorts of (facile) binaries— father/son, teacher/student, leader/follower, prophet/iconoclast, etc.—and that murky territory it inhabits as a result is what makes it memorable and interesting, if not “good,” to me.

MO: There are things Phoenix does in those interrogation scenes that are just astounding. But there are also moments when it becomes distracting. For me it was less that prison cell freakout than a moment late in the movie when it appears he has actually relocated his shoulders to the front of his body. It was enough already with the shoulders.



MO: Favorite moment(s) from a moment-driven movie? I’ll go with the static long shot on the front porch of the estate where Dodd and Co. are shacked up after their jailhouse blowout. We don’t see Freddie until he steps into frame, Dodd approaches, and the two men collapse into this wrestling match. It’s so simple, but it resolves tremendous tension in a very unexpected way.

PM: Right, and Dodd wrestles him as he might a lost puppy. Another shot that’s lodged itself in my brain: the ship pulling away from the dock in the night. So haunting and beautiful and somehow menacing too.

MB: I keep coming back to those moments when the screen fills with swirling pools of blue-green water as a ship ferries a character to a new location, like a kinetic, re-formulated Sugimoto horizon, all energy and motion and possibility. I can think of no better visual analogue in the film to the contradictory-no-complimentary personalities of Dodd and Quell than these interstitial moments. Instead of the stasis and the resolute positive-negative tranquility of Sugimoto’s horizons, we get the mess of nature that lends itself equally to poetic rumination and visions of chaos.

PM: I just read an interesting piece about how Cormac McCarthy purposefully obfuscates his characters’ psychology, which made me think of P.T.A.’s treatment of Quell, who is also McCarthian in how he embodies such a primal brand of violence. A character whose motivations remain hidden seems almost innately sociopathic, especially if he’s prone to violent outbursts. Such a thing becomes alienating, I guess, to viewers who prefer to “understand” characters, which often just means being able to predict what they might do next. Unpredictability is often received as chaos, but, considering how rarely an artwork is truly surprising anymore, P.T.A. deserves props for, I think, achieving just that with The Master.

Mike Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia. His daughter is cuter than your daughter. Pasha Malla is a film school dropout who has worked as a camp counselor, elementary school teacher, and group home coordinator. His first novel, People Park, has just been published. More by Mike Baker & Pasha Malla