‘the master’- a film reading

Saw the master recently and the film was what you’d expect from P.T. Anderson- complex characters, great acting, visually pleasing, lots of psychology and ultimately thought provoking. Here are my thoughts and interpretation of the film. I recommend watching the film before reading this. I won’t bother with providing a summary, you can read one here.

There are some interesting themes explored in the film- uncertainty/flux symbolized by the ocean, human nature as animalistic that is personified by Freddie (played by Phoenix), and the objectifying dominance of science represented in the character of Dodd (played by Hoffman).

In the beginning of the film we see navy men wrestling on the beach just off the water. This foreshadows the main tension throughout the film which is of man in struggle with himself, and man’s dubious standing on firm grounds in contrast with the imagery of the ocean as that which man cannot find firm footing on. Land represents the illusory nature of ‘truth’ by which men come to a stand (men as being-in-themselves) by virtue of domination over the land. The waters/ocean represents the uncertainty and nothingness against which men evade. The men wrestle as the ocean waves crash just off to the side, just out of reach. It is not possible for man to wrestle/struggle upon the waters for upon the waters man cannot find firm footing; it is upon the waters that man is utterly thrown adrift and drowned in a sea of nothingness.

Early on in the film we learn that the war that Freddie and the wrestling navy men were fighting in has ended. But the war is not over for Freddie for the film aims to show how man is always in a state of being-at-war with himself and his surroundings. Hence, the impulse to construct truth. This state of being at war expresses how man’s search for truth is simply derivative of a paranoia in the face of uncertainty to dominate and objectify the world outside of the self, to create the illusion of order and reason, and to posit this illusion as ‘truth’. This state of being-at-war is the inability to find peace in the midst of chaos. Both Freddie and Dodd are Nietzsche’s warriors, men at war/tension/struggle/wrestling with themselves which represents the perpetual will to dogmatization and inability to strive with uncertainty and otherness. Let’s [see] how this theme is explored further…

A good portion of the film is set on a boat. Dodd’s wife played by Amy Adams has a line about how Dodd prefers to be out on the ocean because when he is on land, he “is pulled in all directions” and at sea he can be productive and has peace from the distractions that come with being on land. Dodd’s wife seems to be describing Dodd as an enlightened figure, after all he is the titular character, the master in the film. Is Dodd a character that embraces the uncertainty of the waters over and against the illusion of certainty that comes with a firm footing on land? We will discover that this is not the case at all. We see a sweet shot where the camera is mounted to the side of the boat which produces a dichotomous affect, a split screen that shows two starkly different realities- it shows a stable boat on the left side of the screen, as if the boat was on land, while the waters  to the right of the screen are turbulent, the waves rolling and crashing. However this trick of the camera is but an illusion for what it suggests is a lie, the lie that even while “at sea” man still finds his footing on solid ground- on a boat. Man constructs for himself this boat upon which he can navigate the seas of nothingness. The boat in the film is called ‘alethia‘ which is Greek for truth. This illusory grounds upon which man deems that he can stand upon the waters is TRUTH; it is truth that is illusory, truth that man constructs to ride upon the ocean, yet for all his science man can only skim the surface of the waters by means of a boat. Indeed no solid footing can mere-man make upon the waters.

In the first exchange between Freddie and Dodd, which happens on the boat/alethia/truth (this connection cannot be stressed enough, the relation between solid ground, illusory certainty and truth), Freddie asks Dodd who he is and he responds that, “above all I am a man, hopelessly inquisitive man…just like you.” This state of being hopelessly inquisitive is the same as what I identified earlier as the state of being-at-war and the inability to find peace with uncertainty. Dodd and Freddie seem to be the antithesis of each other, yet they share one thing in common. Dodd represents  the man of science, master of his environment, man of certainty, the great dogmatist, creator of illusion and constructor of truth. Freddie represents a man who knows nothing, is utterly uncertain, an animalistic and instinct-driven child. However, what they both have in common is their human nature, that at bottom they are, in the movie’s terms, ‘animalistic’; when they are threatened and unnerved by the tension that comes with uncertainty, they both evade and react in their own ways- Dodd turns to his science and religion while Freddie turns to his moonshine and alcoholism.

Paramount in Dodd’s constructed religious system, which is called ‘the Cause’, is the idea that human nature is an evil that needs to be cured. During his daughter’s wedding reception Dodd tells a story about a dragon which symbolizes the human-animal. He puts a leash on it, commands it to stay and ultimately subdues and dominates it. This is how Dodd sees Freddie, and indeed this is how Freddie is portrayed. During other parts of the movie we witness Dodd conducting experiments on Freddie, treating him as an animal. However Freddie is only an animal to Dodd because Freddie does not fit into Dodd’s dogmatic system. Meaning, for Dodd, truth is a certain way. To Dodd, Freddie represents uncertainty and chaos, so Freddie is an animal to Dodd, he is outside of Dodd’s ‘truth’. This doesn’t mean that Freddie actually is an animal, only that if an animal is what Dodd projects him to be then how could he be anything else? Ironically, we are shown how Dodd is just as much an animal as Freddie is. There’s a scene where both Dodd and Freddie wind up in jail. They get into a heated argument during which Dodd rebukes Freddie as an animal. Right after the argument ends Dodd turns to pee into the urinal in his jail cell. Dodd’s need to urinate and the manner in which he seems utterly comfortable in his cell reveals him to be just as much an animal as Freddie is. the only difference is that Freddie knows what its like to be free, to have no master which is why Freddie cannot stand being jailed while Dodd is completely conditioned to accept the bars that imprison him in life. Dodd is a resigned and defeated animal whereas Freddie is still striving for something that he strangely doesn’t allow himself to have- Doris, the object of his desire. Let’s move on and explore this theme..

The same men who wrestle on the beach in the beginning of the film also form a naked woman out of the sand/earth complete with flowing hair, exposed breasts w/pronounced tits and legs spread apart. It is an objectified woman, and it is gazed upon and defiled by Freddie. Freddie pretends to penetrate the sand-woman and fingers its privates. This imaginary act of penetration is a double representation of man’s objectification, domination, and defilement of both woman and the earth (manipulation of sand). However this act is not just particular to Freddie, the film goes on to explore how this domination and defilement of what is ‘other-than’ man’s being is an ontological condition. There’s a scene on the boat/truth where we witness one of Dodd’s scientific methods that records a woman’s pregnancy that’s just another example of the domination of the woman’s body by man’s science. The same way man constructs a boat/truth/solid grounds upon which he can navigate the seas of uncertainty. Its the recurrent theme of man’s science/truth’s domination over what is other-than man in his illusory self-certainty. The bare form of the woman is shown repeatedly in the film and each time it is objectified and penetrated in the same way- by man’s gaze to project truth/form and certainty upon the world. The gaze that strips a woman bare is the same gaze that constructs a science.

As their first interaction ends, Dodd encourages Freddie- “leave your worries for a while, they’ll still be there when you get back. And your memories aren’t invited.” A theme that was explored in another of P.T. Anderson’s films, Magnolia, was that though we may be through with our pasts, our pasts are never through with us; meaning we can never escape our past, that we are, in a way, determined by it. Here, we find this theme resurfaced. We eventually come to see how Dodd’s encouragement for Freddie to leave his past and memories behind is an impossibility. And this is what I felt like was the most interesting part of the film for me, the conflict between being and becoming– whether man’s nature is determined or can be free. If one cannot have a conception of self-identity apart from memory, then Dodd is telling Freddie to leave his identity, his being behind, encouraging him to change and become. Dodd is also obsessed with the notion of a sort of ‘psychological time travel’ and fixing the past to heal the present. However as much as he hopes to transcend being by obliterating the past and memories, the movie clearly shows how people can never be rid of their pasts.

Anderson seems to be articulating a reality that is utterly determined. There are multiple references to rorschach inkblot tests throughout the film. Freddie is such an inkblot to Dodd. Reality is a rorschach inkblot test. We get out of it what we read into it. We penetrate, we project, we construct self-illusions, we create truth. The inkblot is amorphous and is utterly interpretative and as such, uncertain and without any absolute meaning or grounds upon which reason can take a solid standing. And so man posits his own truth to evade the only reality that there is, of uncertainty. Indeed, this is why Dodd’s movement is called ‘the Cause’. For cause and effect assumes determinism, that there is no free will if all is causal. At the end of the movie Dodd issues Freddie an ultimatum- stay and dedicate your life to the Cause or leave. Or in other words, be determined or be free. Dodd then, anticipating Freddie’s decision, says of Freddie, “free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie sailor of the seas. you pay no rent. Free to go where you please. Then go. Go to that landless latitude. If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master then let the rest of us know. You may be the first person in the history of the world.” This quote from Dodd to Freddie is packed with the themes that were explored in this film. Man is perpetually rootless and always looking to be master of some land, to create a truth and stand upon it. But not for Freddie, the animal of uncertainty and impulse. However, there does exist a master of Freddie- his own body and its desires. Freddie is slave to his own body or a being-at-war with himself. And now we’ve returned to the theme of man’s self-struggle. A struggle that is founded upon solid ground, which is both illusory and dubious. However, do we catch a glimmer of hope for freedom from this struggle at the end of the film?

During one of Dodd’s psychoanalytic experiment sessions with Freddie, he asks him who is the one person he would have with him if he were to be locked in a room forever. Freddie responds, ‘Doris’. Dodd asks why doesn’t Freddie get back to her and Freddie doesn’t know. Uncertainty. And here is where we find the glimmer of freedom from truth. It is in uncertainty, and not the evasion of it. We never find out why Freddie doesn’t know why he doesn’t return to Doris. I think it’s because Freddie is not so much of an animal that he is not self-aware of his condition. He knows that he is destructive. He knows that he is rootless. He knows that he is uncertain. Dodd cannot admit to any of these things. Freddie knows of the demons within him and though he objectifies and defiles women throughout the film he withholds himself from the one, single object of his affections, Doris. why? It’s because Doris, as that which is unattainable, as that which symbolizes the only thing in the movie that has not been dominated by either Freddie or Dodd…symbolizes Truth, that which is always just out of reach, that is not possible in this world. Freddie’s affection for Doris is the only thing that is not tainted by objectification. When he returns to look for her and finds that she’s no longer there he admits being happy for her. He understands that he will never be with Doris, and it is freeing for him because there will always exist for Freddie one thing which he has not tainted- Doris. Perhaps. At the end of the film Freddie leaves the Cause and chooses to be free. Freddie picks up a girl from a bar and they have sex. While this is happening Freddie asks the girl-

“are you sure you haven’t lived before?”
“maybe this isn’t your only life”
“I don’t think it is”

Freddie wonders if he had met the woman he picked up from the bar in another life, or in his past, in his memories. The woman concedes that perhaps she’s lived before. The movie then cuts to the last shot which brings us back to the beginning with Freddie lying on the beach beside the naked sand-woman. He snuggles next to the sand-woman and seems at peace. This is the best resolution that P.T. Anderson is going to give us. In the end he leaves things open to interpretation, which makes sense- he ends the film in uncertainty. Man will only ever be able to form firm footing on solid ground, he will never be able to walk on water. He cannot fashion woman out of the water, only out of sand. so long as he is tied to the land, he is tied to struggle and his struggle is ever with his objectification and projection of woman whom he has created to penetrate. “Man has created woman- out of what? Out of a rib of his God- of his ‘ideal’.”

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