Wednesday, May 8, 2013

No Right Or Wrong Answers

The first we see of Freddie Quell isn’t Freddie Quell at all but of the top of the helmet he is wearing. Then when he looks up we see him. His eyes. Looking. Piercing. The mind of Freddie Quell will never fully be penetrated during the time we know him, any more than we could see directly through the top of that helmet. All we’ll ever be able to take from knowing him are those eyes, his laugh, the way he slaps himself in the face when he’s blinked in the middle of that first session. Freddie Quell is his own person, his own master, even if he doesn’t know that. He’s done too much that he can ever forgive himself for, yet he has to press on. There’s really no choice in the matter.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER opened at the Cinerama Dome playing in 70MM in September of last year, during one of the hottest weekends I have ever experienced in this town. On that first viewing I wasn’t even sure how I felt, only knowing as I drove off into nearly 110 degree weather that I was overwhelmed, dazed, possessing the uncontrollable feeling that something unknown had just been injected into my spine, the name Freddie Quell forever burned into my brain. So I went back to see it again the next day. And then went one more time the following week. Now the Blu-ray has been in my player pretty consistently since the day it was released as I remain transfixed by every frame over and over. While it can be impossible not to associate the film with how Anderson has grown, evolved, since the long ago days of BOOGIE NIGHTS up to the more recent THERE WILL BE BLOOD, the undeniable Kubrick-ness of the narrative (fitting that the first time it was shown in public, a secret up until the very last moment, was after a Cinematheque screening of THE SHINING at the Aero) or how in this 1.85 70MM frame it all plays as much more Cassavetes than as the larger-than-life Lean you would almost expect from the format the film was shot in or even down to how much Joaquin Phoenix resembles Montgomery Clift late in the film, almost as if some kind of reincarnation is taking place through that celluloid as Freddie Quell is beaten down yet refuses to acknowledge any sort of defeat. It’s difficult to imagine Freddie Quell facing any sort of defeat except as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

Soldier Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns home from WWII working as a department store photographer and living off his own hooch much of the time. After instigating a fight with a customer, he flees. After spending some time working on a cabbage farm his hooch possibly poisons a migrant worker he flees. He stows away on the boat of the renowned Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of “The Cause”. Dodd takes a liking to Freddie, as well as to the special hooch Freddie makes that he can’t determine the ingredients of and submits his stowaway to processing, leading to Freddie becoming essentially part of the group. Once they arrive in New York, Freddie is very much a part of Dodd’s inner circle although certain members of his family including wife Peggy (Amy Adams) express doubts over how committed he really is.

In some ways this is the shell of the plot of THE MASTER. In some ways it doesn’t matter. That post-war glow of smiles and hope in the photographs that Freddie is taking for his job, smiles he could never understand, and the department store salesgirl offering that mink to customers with a “$49.95” coming out of her as she slinks around (I find myself continually mesmerized by this particular shot which feels like its own short film) seem to burrow their way into Freddie’s brain and die right there. He only seems aware of the visions of his past, of his family, of whatever happened to him overseas, of those visions of women real or made of sand, of the young Doris who wrote to him while he was at war and fell in love with and may have been too young for him anyway, who he may have been so in love with that he knew nothing but to flee. We never actually see Freddie crying, as he the V.A. doctor tells him he apparently does after reading a letter he receives but he does laugh outright at the very thought of the world ‘nostalgia’, not wanting to remember such things as he makes his hooch. When he is reminded of something, as he tells that migrant worker in Salinas how he reminds him of his father, the old man winds up deathly ill and possibly poisoned from that hooch Freddie has given him.

His ferocity always hiding close to the surface, Freddie is in many ways the dragon Lancaster Dodd speaks of in the speech given on the night of his daughter’s wedding, maybe a dragon he’s been looking for or hoping for, to wrestle with and tame, possibly so he can figure out how to tame himself, of his own fears, out of his own desire to not totally consume himself in the world of The Cause that he has created and is continuing to make up as he goes along, with his wife goading him along maybe more than he would ever tell anyone, not wanting to reveal that she’s his own Master—she’s not quite the sole power behind the throne but she is certainly more than her kindly maternal appearance would immediately indicate. For a brief time Dodd sees Freddie as someone who will accept what he is giving without hesitation and his insipid public persona of always making everything about him contrasted with the private way he deals with Freddie, a loyal companion by his side who in public Dodd barks “Freddie! Stop!” at (not that it does any good, as the skeptical Mr. John Moore at that party later finds out) as if he were a dog or, well, a dragon. His descriptive phrasing of “You’re acting aggressive because you drank too much alcohol” when the two men first meet sounds like it’s being spoken by someone who doesn’t drink at all and yet Dodd welcomes whatever this mysterious hooch that Freddie can continue to make with open arms, giving him the chance to be that dragon which The Cause, his own invention, seems to be about taming or ignoring. “Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom…” as Dodd is heard lecturing at one point and it feels like he wants to forget what he is trying to teach his disciples. There is enough ellipsis throughout the running time, not to mention questions raised by the extra scenes in the 20 minute “Back Beyond” section on the Blu-ray and DVD, to indicate how it seems writer-director Anderson stripped things down to what the film and its story ultimately needed to be, this film shot (about 85% of it, apparently) and meant to be viewed in 70MM implying all the vast scope imaginable and instead of giant battle scenes gives us a nearly 15 minutes scene of the two leads in a dark, enclosed space talking, confronting, the camera letting us see every pore in their faces and every crack in their demeanor. Anderson loves those faces, he wants us to see those cracks. I don’t know if that’s why he wanted to shoot in this format but it makes the film all the more beautiful, the conflicted emotions that seep into me because of it all the more prevalent. Whether the camera is gliding along or holding firm on a face as it stares directly into Freddie’s eyes I’m not sure that there’s a moment in the film where I’m not totally mesmerized by what’s onscreen and Anderson’s direction is always cutting, piercing its way into the eyes of those damaged soldiers being told of “rejuvenating powers of youth” as they return home to all that post-war optimism, something we don’t see at all in their faces while maintaining a distance from it all, quietly observing as if not entirely sure of what it means himself. The film doesn’t pass judgment on what The Cause obviously is since it doesn’t need to—we’re able to do that for ourselves and it feels important that we see how good Freddie feels after his extended session with Dodd, better than he ever feels during that early session with the Rorschach test in the V.A. And why wouldn’t it feel good? Freddie’s loyalty to Dodd seems to come more from that feeling than ever actually believing in The Cause but for a while that’s all right since it gives him a sort of purpose that he didn’t have earlier, leading from how he started a fight at his photography job in the department store to the delicate way he handles his master (who undeniably resembles the businessman he fought with earlier) while taking his portrait. Freddie does find a simple peace in taking these photos of Dodd, along with his quiet pleasure at adding “it works” to a radio announcement he makes and it occurs to me that these photos will most likely be used as official portraits of the man for a very long time—you don’t get rid of Freddie Quell that easily. But it’s as if what the truth really is (“He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”) doesn’t matter to Freddie except in explosive spurts until it absolutely has to matter, when the awareness of what’s been nagging at him finally explodes during the sequence when Dodd’s publisher confides what he really thinks of his new book. The Cause may be going to a new level but once these thoughts are put into words by someone else Freddie can’t go further with it so he chooses to literally go straight forward on his own. If Dodd seems to think of himself as a mirror version of the person who has just entered his life or some part of himself to be tamed, Freddie doesn’t seem to be aware of that resemblance. Dodd is very much determined to make them two…two, a word he lets linger in the air during their final meeting as he describes where they first met in another life. Much as he may want to stay with Dodd in the end, Freddie seems to know deep down that he is just one, all by himself. When he does flash back to his past it’s to Doris, the girl he loved and yet the girl he never really knew beyond the letters she sent, letters no doubt of an innocent affection that he probably never encountered at any other time in his life. And of course he flashes back to visions of the girl he creates for himself in sand on the beach back in the Pacific—an ideal of some sort, maybe not meant to be Doris yet the figure dwarfs him in a way that seems to deliberately resemble how the much younger Doris looms over him when they’re sitting on that park bench together. So what is she—Caregiver? Mother? Lover? What is the story with Aunt Bertha, anyway? Has Freddie had any woman other than her? In another Kubrick flash for reasons I can’t quite understand when he seeks out Doris years later and learns what happened to her it reminds me of James Mason’s Humbert Humbert tracking down the now-married Lolita years later and being faced with the cold reality of her and everything. All Freddie can do when he learns the news is circle around back to Dodd. When he can’t stay there, he circles around back to himself, back to the girl he created on the beach, taking a little of what he learned from his former Master but still completely Freddie Quell. The film received three Oscar nominations, all for the main actors. Deserved in every possible way, obviously, but the fact that nothing else from the film was recognized (no Paul Thomas Anderson for either his script or directing, no cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. among others) almost means that they don’t matter, that’s how much everything in the film feels joined together. It almost seems an understatement that Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams become their characters completely and few actors have ever completely embodied what they’re playing as Phoenix absolutely becomes Freddie Quell, that there doesn’t seem to be a sliver within him that isn’t Freddie Quell especially in that long, endless close-up of him during his final confrontation with Dodd. Everything Phoenix does is mesmerizing, everything he does is surprising. Hoffman totally captures the cloudy nature of Dodd, the insipid nature of his public persona, the callous arrogance with just enough showing of what uncertainty lies underneath all that. It’s almost easy to forget how much of Amy Adams’ performance isn’t just that glare she gives but the force she gives off in certain confrontation scenes is so unexpected and yet makes perfect sense considering what’s been built up from the start. Also sticking out to me in the phenomenal cast are Amy Ferguson as the $49.95 girl, Jesse Plemons as Dodd’s son Val, Jennifer Neala Page as the girl Freddie applies his own session to at the very end and the great Kevin J. O’Connor as Bill William, here as in THERE WILL BE BLOOD providing a quiet moral presence in the middle of the film which of course results in him being duly punished for it.

In many ways I want this film to remain impenetrable to me. I don’t want to fully comprehend some of its mysteries. I’m not sure I’m even able to. But I’m not sure why knowing such things even makes a difference, no matter how often I watch Freddie acting like an animal as he moves from the wall to the window and back again, not stopping, not knowing why he won’t stop. I’m even addicted to the score by Jonny Greenwood as well which lends a lingering, haunting power to these images. It remains beguilingly outside the action while at the same time continually drawing me in closer. As far as answers go, Freddie Quell is told in his V.A. psyche test that there are no right or wrong answers anyway although the end reveals how his experiences with The Cause have given him a tool to aid in what is to him the only thing that matters. So that would have to be a good thing. He needs to remember, he needs to be there with the girl on the beach. As for THE MASTER, all I care about is that the film is there. As for life, we repeat what we know. What we know we repeat. As it should be. Sometimes new things get into that circle and become part of it all, even better if it’s in glorious 70MM although I’m well aware that isn’t going to happen very much anymore. And maybe the only thing we can do that will have any results is to keep moving forward. Whether serving a Master or not.


Unknown said...

Well said! Yes, this is a film that has haunted me long after the credits end. It's a film that sticks with you because of the ambiguities. I am fascinated by the give and take between Freddie and Dodd and how at the beginning of the film you think you've got Freddie all figured out - that who he is is just surface details and Dodd is the enigmatic mystery, but as the film progresses we realize that we know little about Freddie. Where he came from... why he is the way he is and Dodd reveals his true nature and we figure out pretty much what his deal is. Fascinating stuff.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks J.D.! Very glad that you're a fan as well. I'm sure I'll be putting the Blu-ray back into my player very soon.