Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ego and Id—The Master

An exceedingly strange, thrilling and disturbing film, The Master is a like a dark pool, mysterious and rippling with refracted light, now revealing, now concealing what it is really saying.

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DEMAND ON VIEWER  High (length, non-linear, and difficulty of comprehension)
OVERALL  Selectively Recommended (this is not a film for those who want a straightforward story or a feel good.)

Playing the dark, base, animalistic persona of Freddie Quell, Joachin Phoenix upstages even the inestimable Philip Seymour Hoffman as he turns out a singular performance with a character as real and as unforgettable as his other two major roles in Gladiator and Walk the Line. There is constant tension in the film based on the unpredictability of his character against the formal, high-society cult that has been built by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).

Quell has something like post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in the war. He goes from job to job, getting in trouble by reckless behavior such as mixing alcoholic drinks using paint thinner and poisoning people. He happens by a boat with a group of high-class New Yorkers, and is welcomed by their leader, Dodd.

Immediately there is chemistry between Quell and Dodd; one of the fascinations of this film is to ask why this is so throughout the course of the story. Is Quell the Id to Dodd's ego? The animal to Dodd's spiritual nature?

Dodd loves Quell's alcoholic drinks even while maintaining that Quell is "naughty" and should stop boozing. Quell in turn loves Dodd's repetitive questioning process. Based loosely on scientology, it is evidently aimed at the recovery of memories and past lives. It seems to help Quell calm down. Close ups of Quell show a haggard and lined face becoming smooth again. But ultimately Quell cannot be quelled (choice of his name is very ironic.)

At one point Dodd has Quell pace relentlessly back and forth between wall and window as part of the "process." This is frustrating to Quell but ultimately helps free his trapped and repressed guilt over abandoning a woman earlier in his life. These strange encounters permeate the film with a kind of unreal trance-like quality, believable and yet at the same time alien.

In his saner moments Quell is a photographer. His role is (albeit unconsciously) to both document and expose the cult to a harsh glaring light. We see, through Quell's eyes, Dodd's inconsistencies, Dodd's own animal nature, and the ridiculous elements of Dodd's practice. The irony is that Quell is perhaps the least self-aware person in the story, or so it seems at first, and yet he practices great kindness in the end by passing on some of Dodd's more positive and helpful questions.

The megalomania of Dodd is both mesmerizing and creepy, and yet at times he seems genuine and effective in reaching an unreachable person like Quell. The two are clearly dependent on each other. It reminds me of Hegel's discussion of the master-slave relationship. One is dependent on the other, and one's very existence arises out of the other's. "I'm the only one that likes you!" Dodd yells as they are both in jail.

The jail scene is the most riveting of the film. I do not know how it was physically possible for Phoenix to ram his body around that cell, slamming into the top bunk over and over, without becoming injured. All the while the "rational" Dodd looks on passively, suavely. It is hard to miss the statement here that these are twin sides of the same character.

Amy Adams deserves special mention. Her performance is a subtle blend of submissive and controlling body language, and her barely contained emotional fervor is pitch perfect for her role as Dodd's wife. She sits in judgment over both Quell and Dodd, introducing another element of mastery—sexual. Clearly Dodd's sexuality is kept in check by her; and her own sexuality is fraught with repression. She seems to be eternally pregnant as well, bringing up the constant presence of that more primal element of society and particularly religion, the guarded use of sex within the family for procreation and protection of the fold.

After an ambiguous scene depicting what seemed to be a fantasy of Quell's, where members of the cult were unashamedly nude during a song and dance session, it is Dodd who gets punished by his wife Peggy (Adams). It is as though Quell and Dodd were collapsed into a single mind, perhaps together with all males, high and low class alike. Dodd is punished in a very challenging scene in the bathroom where Peggy masturbates him and acts the part of an aggressor.

This film certainly helps to explain the prevalence of cults and fanatical movements, but it also helps illuminate the darker (and sexual) parts of our own natures. We all pretend to be rational, but we all have ways of covering over our flaws. We all feel that our own logical positions are airtight, and yet they may be just flights of our own imagination. We think we are in control, and yet Quell is there within, at the edge of our consciousness, waiting to jump out. What issues do each of us face require a master to help us modulate, fix, or move through?

Near the end of the film Dodd says "If you can figure out a way to live your life without a Master, you will be the only human being ever to do so." This kind of line at the end of a film causes one to go back and re-evaluate just what was the subject of the film in the first place. For a society at the edge of evolution, perhaps we are also at the brink of falling overboard, because we do not know ourselves as well as we think. Perhaps we ought to reckon with our sexuality rather than pretending to be "rational" in order to control it. Perhaps it is not so bad after all to be looked after by a Master.

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