Second Thoughts on The Master

I had a couple of questions I wanted answered on the second viewing of The Master (2012).  I’m not sure I got them.  But there were a couple things I saw more clearly beginning-to-end and some changes in opinion.

Note well that I am going to be throwing spoilers around like crazy.  So, if you haven’t seen it, you should definitely go and do that and, if you remember, come back later.

Problems first (because that’s what I drafted already).  There were a number of particular moments that confused me on both viewings (in different ways).  I will discuss them chronologically within the story.

Moment 1: There’s a meeting of The Cause that changes into a party and The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sings “I’ll Go No More a’Roving”.  At first everyone’s wearing clothes, then look at Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), then look back and the women are no longer wearing clothes.  On the first viewing, I took it to mean Quell was imagining this (since nobody seemed to notice) and that opinion still stands, but this dreaminess doesn’t happen ever again–except possibly a later moment where Quell says he dreamed the call from The Master (when it didn’t seem like a dream). In both situations, the dream (if dreams they were) was not established by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson.  This goes double with respect to the later ‘dream’ because it did not establish an alternative way in which Quell would have found The Master in England (a leaflet or article, for example).  By creating these isolated incidents, Anderson changes the perspective of the movie from third person to first person and back again without a reason I could see.

Moment 2: Very soon after this, Peggy (Amy Adams) sidles up to The Master and…persuades him to “put the idea back in [his] pants.  It didn’t work for them and it won’t work for [him].”  The full line is paraphrased as follows: do what you want so long as I don’t and won’t ever know, but this you cannot do.  The most obvious reading of this is that The Master has inclinations towards homosexuality and she will not allow him to entertain that idea at all and specifically with Quell.  He agrees and has what appears to be the most painful persuasion of his life.

Moment 3: The biggest confusion of the entire movie for me is when The Master sings “Slow Boat to China” to Quell.  Again, the most obvious reading of this is that The Master is in love with Quell and Quell’s response suggests he has some echo of that as well.  The two have very different kinds of love with Quell’s being devotional or loyal and The Master’s being paternalistic and fascinated.  The Master is difficult to read because he’s so full of nonsense it’s unclear whether he believes himself enough for The Cause to play any role in the relationship.

In any case, the gay angle is just too obvious in a movie that functions almost exclusively in subtlety.  How could The Master just sing it out?   It’s just so absurd that the 12 year old inside says, “Laugh you fool!  This is ridiculous.”  But the high brow inside says, “This means something…this is profound…what the hell does it mean?”  And then Quell leaves.  What was going on inside of him?  Was it just a tug of loyalty against his clear understanding that The Master was a charlatan?  It’s why he left the first time.  He knew when Bill (Kevin J. O’Connor) said Book Two was terrible that he was right.

And I was entirely confirmed in my complaints about this ending sequence.  Why did Quell come back just to leave The Master?  To underline the complaint, recall that The Master asked Quell to come to England and then, once Quell arrives, The Master asks why he came to England and gives Quell a cold shoulder.  Did I miss something?  It was mixed to the point of nonsense.

Moment 4: The final confusion, appropriately, is the very end.  I take it that Quell has left The Master behind.  The confusion is in what Quell has become.  Is his use of The Master’s hypnosis technique a joke, a synthesis (and joke), or an attempt to take up the role of The Master?  None of these satisfies.  Synthesis has a pretentious appeal, but doesn’t fit the case.  There is no change in the line, Quell has not made it his own.  It just seems meaningless like the other moments listed.  Perhaps this is Quell’s final rest. He is contented to lay beside a plus-sized woman (foreshadowed with the sand woman).  So where has he come from and where is he now?  I don’t know.

Speaking of dynamics, I have to admit I was wrong about the music.  It does change and noticeably over the film and returns to the original theme at the end.  Even so, while it is quite beautiful, I don’t know what it means.  It doesn’t fit into the kind of soundtrack language I recognize.  Sweeping moments are undermined by the ludicrousness of the characters.  Again, we know The Master is a charlatan about half-way through the movie (if not immediately), so no amount of music can salvage the moment beyond anything other than irony.  And that irony is charming only a few times before it loses its interest.

Also, I misjudged Amy Adams and her role.  She was excellent and so was the role.  Peggy is a firm force behind The Master and believes in his crap even more than he does.  There was an opportunity to make his an operatic role, but subtle was the theme they chose.  It’s too bad.  If there was more space given, it would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination and made the dynamic between Peggy, Quell, and The Master something special.  But it isn’t that kind of movie.

There were also a number of connections that I didn’t make in the first viewing (perhaps understandably).  One is how Quell responds to his “potions”.  The man is drinking paint thinner, unknown crushed medications, and anything to hand, how can he do it?  The movie nicely shows the beginnings of this right from the start.  He cracks open a coconut, pours in some Corona, and takes a swig.  Nice.  Then he takes some fluid out of a torpedo (gasoline? hydraulic liquid?) and it burns.  Yeow.  As he goes into crazier ingredients, he responds less and less, until he finally swigs down some rubbing alcohol like it was water at room temperature.  It’s a nice touch with a meaning I grasp intuitively and am not inclined to strain into words.  There’s also a point where The Master is singing “Go No More a ‘Roving” where he pinches his nose which I first thought was an aspersion on the young lady, but I realized the second time around was The Master giving the pre-arranged signal for some more potion.  Add to this Peggy’s mid-persuasion admonition not to drink Quell’s poisons moments later, perhaps implies more than potion was transferred.  If so, man, that was oblique.

I thought I needed to see this movie again to make sense of it.  What I realized was that I needed a rewind button.  I need to see these moments and their lead-ins over and over again.  Some lines are completely unintelligible to me.  What did the psychologist say to Quell that led to his discussion of his kidneys?  No clue.  Can’t wait for BluRay, that’s all I have to say.

My last comment is on the film.  Last night I saw the digital screening and today I saw it in 70mm.  Whether the projector was actually a 70mm projector or not I couldn’t say, so perhaps the problem lies there.  The difference was slight and possibly absent.  Knowing beforehand that there was a difference made it impossible to see no distinction.  It was shot in 70mm (really 65mm), so the Digital screening must be a conversion.  I can say that my first viewing blew me away as to visuals and my second viewing did not.  I blame shot selection.  Some, like the churning water, Quell’s face and helmet, the flowers, all make any film quality appreciable.

However, the vast majority of this is not a series of stills like Baraka (1992), it consists mostly of tracking, zooming, and action work at close quarters.  So, it’s more A Single Man (2009) (35mm) than Baraka.  I also blame my being on the far left of the theater the second night and smack in the middle the first night.  Logically, the problem must have been the projector or my imagination.  Thus, I must recommend Digital because it tastes better.

But now it’s on Blu-Ray, so you can watch it like that.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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6 Responses to Second Thoughts on The Master

  1. Sam says:

    Just saw the film last night and agree with a lot of what you have to say here, particularly about the confusing bits and what we’re meant to understand about them — I’m inclined toward the reading we don’t have enough information to draw conclusions, which I feel is a fault of the film.

  2. Pingback: Blink and you’ll miss it | "Blood is compulsory"

  3. cynthia says:

    When Freddie “dreams” that the Master calls him to England, the Master says he remembers where they have met. and he tells him that he thinks he can cure him. When Freddie gets there he tells him they worked together sending messages across enemy lines with pigeons. Then he sings slow boat to china. I believe that is his way of alluding to the fact that in that life they were lovers. maybe homosexual or maybe not. Would women have been involve in that at that time in history? But one of the past life recalls leaves the subject asking if she was a man in another life so that could be foreshadowing. Master also tells Freddie that if he found a way not to serve a master he’d be the first. So who is Master’s master? his wife?– she is very much in control… his own demons?– he has several outbursts during the movie that imply he and freddie are a lot alike, except one has figured out how to gain control, and one has not. Think of the divided screen shot of the two of them in side by side jail cells… like a before and after picture.
    Is the cure that Freddie should use the psychological methods the master used on him on someone else? the girl at the bar? and honestly, it did not get past me that the girl he is with at the end bears a homely resemblance to the master.

  4. Philbin says:

    Freddy quell stands for Fred equal this is his mission in life to be free and the same as everyone since we all are in some way. It seems the master is focused on helping the irreversible truth that Freddy will never forget as long as he lives, drinks, applys, sex, etc . He is beyond repair. But has the desire to go on and love again. The name of the book is the split saber which probably means the unknown which explains the uncertainties of most of the film.

  5. Eclectic Art says:

    Quell is pure heterosexuality. So many of the films little moments seem to underline that. He has a nearly base and “animalistic” drive which overrides traditional self-imposed cultural restraints(His actions with the sand sculpture, the note he passes to the female at the recording machine).
    My belief is that Quell was not reflecting any homosexual feelings in the last scene with The Master but was coming to realization that the entirety of his time with him had more to do with The Master’s animalstic same sex attractions than with the processes of taming his own nature(sex, violence, drunkeness) via the rigid programming. So he sheds a tear and smiles as the truth sets in.
    Then, he leaves, has indiscriminate sex with a woman from a bar, then rebuilds the female form sand sculpture and embraces it. Quell returns to his world.
    Its not a subplot or subtext. It’s the whole film.

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