Cinema as Rorschach Test: ‘The Master’

Warning: Spoilers galore

“What do you see?

Oh, that’s a pussy. A woman’s pussy.”

Such is the humorous (or not so humorous — depending on your point of view) response to an innocuous inkblot by WWII Navy veteran – and post-traumatic stress victim — Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).

The first words Freddie utters in the film regard the best way to remove crabs from one’s testicles. The next thing he does is dry hump and fingerbang a busty woman made of sand. Then he jerks off into the ocean. Charming.

The aforementioned Rorschach test comes soon after – but not before he ingests petroleum over a radio broadcast declaring victory in Japan, and the end of the war. That’s more-or-less three scenes in a row that establish Freddie as a sex-obsessed social deviant and/or a complete lunatic. For a movie that’s being marketed as a thinly veiled expose of the origins of Scientology, one can understand how an audience member might be a bit perturbed – if not just walk out of the movie altogether (even if they just need to scope out the marquee to make sure they’re seeing the right picture).

Expectations play a major role in how one processes their cinematic experience. I recall when Greg Mottola’s Adventureland was released in 2009. I thought the movie was wonderful; most of my peers hated it. But their hatred didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the movie. Instead, it had to do with what the movie promised. Or, more specifically, what it’s ad campaign promised.

And what was that promise, do you ask? The promise was: A Superbad style romp, from the Director of Superbad, co-starring many people who were in Superbad. Superbad in an amusement park, essentially. The 20-something crowd I confronted in film school hated Adventureland because it was not Superbad, but I suspect it also had something to do with their own egos. They felt duped, and therefore stupid for being “tricked” into seeing a movie they might not have been compelled to see otherwise.

They wanted frenetic, crude humor, and instead got a sensitive coming-of-age story. Which isn’t to say the film wasn’t funny, just a different kind of funny; a kind of funny not reflected in its advertising.

And why was Adventureland marketed this way? It all had to do with demographics, and seeing as Adventureland was about a group of young people, Hollywood marketed the film in a way they thought would appeal to “most” young people, and they exploited the Superbad connection for all it was worth ($5 million opening weekend dollars on 1,800 screens apparently). Over the past 30 years or so, all forms of popular art have been increasingly filtered through the hype machine of the corporate media (not a coincidence, for those politically inclined). One can cite the publication of Entertainment Weekly in 1990 as a benchmark to how Hollywood delivers their product to the masses – presenting pop culture as “must see” events; events that, if missed out, would leave one stranded in a cultural Siberia of ignorance.

But what does this have to do with The Master? Well, for one thing, The Master is an event – just not a mainstream event. The hype surrounding the film reflects this, with most promotional materials and pre-release articles announcing the “return” of ”Master Auteur” Paul Thomas Anderson, he of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood fame. It has been five long years since he graced his fans and critical admirers with There Will Be Blood, and the indicators that another “masterpiece” loomed on the horizon were aplenty: The reunion of Anderson and frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman (who appeared in Boogie, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love before a ten-year PTA hiatus); the return of Joaquin Phoenix after his ill-conceived mockumentary rap exile; and – perhaps most significant to the most hardcore of film advocates – the announcement that The Master would be the first feature film shot entirely on 65mm film stock (used primarily on epics through the ’50s and ’60s, including Lawrence of Arabia) since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996. If the last excuse for using the format was Shakespeare, one could only imagine what Anderson had come up with now.

The irony of all of this is, seeing as a movie was being released, that very little time has been spent (in cinematic circles at least) discussing the content of the film itself. Part of it has to do with the secrecy surrounding the project (which itself is another form of hype), but I’m not too sure most people would care, anyway. Cinephiles are dying to see this movie because Paul Thomas Anderson directed it; if it were anybody else, nobody would bat an eye.

Not dissimilar to the cult centered around Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) — the charismatic leader of the Cause — an equally fervent, albeit minor (relatively speaking), cult has arisen around Paul Thomas Anderson. There’s no doubt in my mind that he is aware of this, for Anderson himself is a cinephile; evidence can be found throughout his movies. Take for example the record-setting “unbroken” tracking shot at the beginning of Boogie Nights (self-consciously besting the “famous” opening shot of Touch of Evil by a few seconds); the Raging Bull-aping money shot at the end of Boogie; and yes, in The Master, when Freddie runs frantically out of a doorway and into a field. The framing is a reference to the “famous” last shot of The Searchers — a shot that has been paid homage to numerous times in American cinema (Inglourious Basterds comes to mind).

Now, one thing I need to establish before continuing is that there is a difference between a cinephile and a film snob. A true cinephile is one who tends to enjoy movies of every variety; a film snob is a person who tends to only enjoy pretentious, self-consciously “arty” movies, and Anderson’s filmmaking can be applied (albeit uncomfortably) into this sub-genre. But Anderson is no film snob. His love of Adam Sandler movies (proof enough) inspired him to make Punch-Drunk Love, which is basically just a typical Sandler vehicle in art-house drag.

This, in my mind, indicates that Anderson may just be the cinema’s foremost practical joker. The “infamous” frog-filled finalé of Magnolia is essentially a “fuck you” to people who demand logical catharsis. The final scene of There Will Be Blood shifts so dramatically in tone from portentous dread to absurdist farce that one can’t be left anything but dumbstruck. And did I mention Dirk Diggler’s giant cock at the end of Boogie Nights?

This is relevant because I believe the intellectual subtext running beneath the surface of The Master primarily concerns the uneasy relationship Anderson has between him and his admirers, particularly film snobs and film critics. It’s no mystery that, from a thematic standpoint, this is Anderson’s film about Religion. The opening beach sequence can be read as a metaphor for the entire film – the sand woman is an illusion (like the Cause). Once Freddie stops getting pleasure out of “her” (akin to his eventual disillusionment with Dodd and Co.), he goes to relieve himself (essentially find pleasure through his own devices) before finally returning to lay by the sand woman’s side, post-coitus (his return to the Cause). It’s comfort and security that Freddie truly seeks, and even if the sand woman isn’t a real woman, she might as well be.

To Anderson, religion is a disease, burrowing itself into the brains of those unable to cope with their own insignificance in the universe, as well as those convinced that man can reach a higher state of being, and who use the construction of God as an excuse to convince others that this is attainable. But a disease of this variety doesn’t just apply to ritualistic clubs where you kneel down in a church. In Anderson’s eyes, religious fanaticism can be applied to a variety of institutions, including that of the movies.

In the world of the cinephile, the movie theater itself is the Grand Cathedral of Cinema, and the Auteurs are the priests. Having viewed the film multiple times, and considering what I know about Anderson’s tastes as filmgoer — as well as his wicked (and underrated) sense of humor — I can confidently make the assertion that Anderson himself personally disavows the Auteur Theory, and the Cult of Personality that surrounds it.

Much like the kaleidoscopic design of The Master’s theatrical poster, the way one perceives this film — and in reality all films — is ultimately reflective of the prism through which one views the artform itself. The skeleton key to this conclusion lies within the film’s character structure. In my estimation, the three primary characters in the film – Freddie, Dodd, and Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) — are representations of Sigmund Freud’s psyche apparatus: the ID (Freddie), the EGO (Peggy), and the SUPER-EGO (Dodd).

Freddie is essentially an animal, driven by sex and other pleasures (mainly chemical hootch); Dodd seeks to “bring man back to his inherent state of perfect”; Peggy lies somewhere between the two, aspiring to her husband’s ideals, while at the same time conceding that they will never get their point across unless they themselves submit to animalistic tactics. (“We must attack” she says, not long after Freddie does ambiguous damage to one of Dodd’s high-society doubters.)

Likewise, how does an audience view a movie? Most would agree that there are different ways to approach film, intellectually and otherwise. You can look at movies from a purely aesthetic standpoint (mis-en-scène, themes, etc.), you can look at them in terms of their stories, or you can view them as a purely visceral experiences. Since the dawn of modern blockbuster filmmaking in the ’70s, Hollywood has produced a steady slate of movies that take the stance that most people get the most enjoyment out of movies as whiz-bang roller coaster rides. Movies like Transformers, while critically reviled, are seen by droves and droves of people because they pummel their pleasure cortex in ways that aren’t necessarily logical nor sophisticated. These audiences can be viewed as the ID.

In that middle ground, there are those who, in order to be satisfied, need a good story, quality acting, nice visuals, etc. — these people want substance, but they also want the goods. These audiences can be viewed as the EGO. Then there is that minority amongst minorities, mostly composed of film critics, film snobs, and true cinephiles, who see movies as something more — high art, meant to be processed the way a painting is processed, not necessarily in terms of how it unfolds, but in terms of the piece as a whole. These audiences can be viewed as the SUPER-EGO. Like Dodd, many in the super-ego camp view those in the id camp as cretinous swine, animals who need to be enlightened and rescued from their own ignorance. Despite his standing as a true cinephile (as opposed to film snob), I believe there is a side of Anderson that would like to save the moviegoing masses from their Michael Bay-infused hell, but I don’t think he’s naïve.

Filmmakers like Anderson are the sometimes-reluctant leaders of their own kind of cult. And in the Church of the Auteur, film critics, film snobs, and cinephiles are the zealots. These people can appreciate (some might say misguidedly appreciate) obscure references to film history in addition to the film itself. Regarding the aforementioned Searchers-homage, this fanatical super-ego audience might interpret the shot in a way that’s totally extraneous to its context within the film’s narrative.

Perhaps this audience would infer that this reference reflects that Freddie is “searching” for something in his life (meaning and direction spring to mind). Now, the only way you could reach this interpretation is if you have prior knowledge to the film The Searchers, which would most likely make you a film critic, a cinephile, or a massive John Wayne fan. 99.9 percent of the population is probably not going to catch the reference, and therefore not draw that intellectual conclusion.

But here’s the disturbing part: I know for a fact that some of these “zealots” use references to film history as a sort of litmus test to prove to themselves that the filmmaker knows what he/she is doing. Not only is this ludicrous, but it often distorts the way a critic or cinephile might view the rest of the film. Since they’ve seen a movie like The Searchers, they must have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing, right?

The story of Dodd and Freddie can additionally apply to Anderson’s own livelihood as a filmmaker. If Anderson is Dodd, then his super-ego cult is Freddie. “I’m the only one who likes you!” screams Dodd at a deranged Freddie in a jail cell. Without filmmakers like Anderson, and films like The Master, film snobs would be left out in the cold, not a friend in sight. The only movies they can enjoy are films that aspire to a higher intellectual level — everything else is drivel. And if that is the case, who really is guilty of ignorance?

Likewise, however, I’m sure Anderson is all too aware that people of this ilk are his only chance at survival. The mainstream has essentially rejected him entirely. There Will Be Blood stands at the top of his domestic box office haul with a paltry (by industry standards) $40 million — and a lot of that can be attributed to its “Oscar buzz” (once again, the hype machine at work). Now that isn’t to say that most of his movies haven’t been financially successful; against their budget and accounting for worldwide box office, video sales, etc. — he’s never been in the red. But to the average moviegoer — and Hollywood at large — $40 million sounds like small potatoes.

And how does The Master stack up against the ID, EGO, and SUPER-EGO audience-criteria? As an ID film, it invariably fails. As an EGO film, it does a little better (the acting and technical aspects of the film are fantastic), but, while there is a narrative, it is character-based and subtle. There is very little in the way of plot, and therefore the average EGO audience would most likely be disappointed. But on a SUPER-EGO level, as an intellectual critique of organized religion, it works.

And yet most of the intellectual chatter I’ve heard regarding the film revolves around who the real Master really is. Is it Dodd? Freddie? Peggy? What most people fail to realize is that, like an audience, it’s possible to be all three at the same time. All films have different objectives — some aspire to tell a good story, some aspire to stimulate your mind, and some aspire to beat you senseless. Sometimes they accomplish all three, sometimes none at all. Individually, they can all have merit, if executed correctly. But not everybody believes this is so.

In the minds of some clever souls out there, there is another option to consider – that none of these options is sufficient; that in “fact”, it is the Auteur (in this case Anderson) who is the real “Master”. I suspect Anderson knew this was coming, and cynically realized that the majority who would champion The Master would be the minority already converted to his cult.

This film, above all, is his profound reply to his own congregation: You may think I’m a genius, but how much you buy into movies as an intellectual artform is what determines what you will get out of this film; like religion, there is no objectivity. The Church of Paul Thomas Anderson cannot exist without you, and while you may think there is an objective way to quantify my genius — just like some think there are objective ways to prove the existence of God — the truth of the matter is that if you all ceased to exist, so would I as a filmmaker. Whether or not you view any filmmaker as a “Master” is completely subjective, and has entirely to do with who you are, and what you expect to get out of the cinematic experience. More often than not, what you bring to the altar determines what you will take from it.

The auteur theory, in the eyes of Anderson, is a sham — and the genius of this film is that the only audience this message will reach is that which needs to hear it the most.