Readers Write In #494: The ​Real Master

Posted on September 24, 2022


Shiva Prasad

What is the movie about? The age-old question! And, the conventional wisdom says, you need to reply back in 2 lines or less.  But, what is conventional wisdom anyway? Is it backed with truth, or is it just herding with faith? Is it immutable, or it just exposes the lack of curiosity in the majority of our species?

There is freedom, depth and beauty that can only be achieved by keeping things abstract. Abstraction (in cinema especially) doesn’t necessarily mean meandering uncertainty or morose ambiguity. Abstraction is not just chopping things off, so it can appear random.

When done really well, like in the case of ‘The Master’, it keeps drawing you back to it a few more times. Each time it makes you think about it even more. It means something bigger, something richer, something deeper, it means that you get to think for yourself and make your own meaning, your own associations, every time you watch it or think about it.

If you got to make a film about a traumatized lonely drifter, aching for feeling a genuine human connection, while trying to make sense of their place in the world (These two lines are not what the movie is about, it is just the device through with which the writer chooses to convey what the movie is about), how else will you effectively make that movie? Aren’t we all, at least in some small sense, at some place in the world, at some time in our life, just that – Traumatized lonely drifters? Sure, some people more than others. Sure, traumatized might be too big a word to generalize. But still?!

Film grammar can be interpreted and mined for a lot of depth in understanding the movie. We look for signals which lie in the choices of tools like color, music, acting and staging etc, to make strong connections and associations. Abstraction, unrelenting to lay understanding, requires to be designed and rooted far more deeply in the film’s grammar. Whose movie to better trust and dive into this exercise than with Paul Thomas Anderson?

The Master opens with a brief moment of silence. Ripples from the roaring ship, is causing turbulence in the cyan waters of the sea, as it passes. This shot becomes a visual motif. The music (track: “Baton Sparks”) begins with orchestral jubilation that I couldn’t get enough of. But, to my dismay, it ended quickly. When I mean quickly, it doesn’t even go beyond the first 2 bars. Just 6-8 seconds of pride, triumph, victory or whatever that music makes you feel. That is it!

The first time, I made a mental note to myself that I need to listen to this track after the film ends. Again to my dismay, that is exactly how the song appears on the soundtrack (actually what immediately follows in the soundtrack is mild anxiety leading to utter chaotic horror for the rest of the song). The movie cuts to the next track, my favorite from the soundtrack – “Able-bodied Seamen”. ( A longer version comes later in the movie, not just for the feeling but with bigger, deeper, richer meaning too). Immediately, the visuals cut to a navy soldier (Freddie Quell played by Joaquin Phoenix) in a tight close-up. Everything except his eye is either hidden by the helmet or obstructed by a wall. Looking at him we feel he is either disinterested, disillusioned or hallucinating, but definitely not triumphant or victorious.

We learn soon about Victory over Japan day (V-J day), the day Imperial Japan surrendered to the United States. It marks the end of World War II, one of the deadliest wars that Humanity has ever fought. In conventional wisdom, it is arguably the most celebratory day for these soldiers. But, we get to feel all that jubilation, just for a few bars of music. Then, we get to feel what the soldiers really feel.  

What follows for the next 10 minutes or so, is a deep dive into their trauma. We could call it Shell Shock, call it Battle Fatigue or call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (can’t help this digression – if you didn’t know already, type “George Carlin shell shock”  on YouTube. But, Please come back to this!), but the film doesn’t name it. It shows the faces of all these navy soldiers, nobody has an iota of a smile or a trace of happiness.

They were all serving a Master (in this case the USA or the Allies), they are seemingly celebrated war veterans. They should have a special place in society, they are all supposed to have this newfound respect and freedom. But, none of those matter to any of them at that moment. Perhaps, all they care is for a command, a schedule, a regimen, a template of how to spend their day and serve their Master, so they don’t have to think a minute for themselves. They don’t belong in the ‘real’ world, nobody ‘really’ understands them and they don’t fit in.

At least they were a part of a group who are going through the same thing. Now, there is this deep-rooted loneliness that they can’t seem to shake away. Now, we understand why the “Baton Sparks” is the way it is. The craft is all deliberate. It is all part of a carefully curated and calibrated Design.

No writing about the movie, however fantastic, is ever going to convey what the movie is about better than watching the movie itself. But, I believe it may offer additional viewpoints or ancillary perspectives. So, I’ll try and attempt to say my latest interpretation of how I see the movie now. I just hope it’s not futile.

The movie is about how we humans are still animals which share roughly 99% of the DNA with Chimpanzees. But, this thing called consciousness, which is not directly embedded in the genome, but a byproduct of billions of neurons and their synaptic connections, that somehow makes us, believe in and live with, an Illusion, a delusion that we are much more evolved than them. But, beneath that facade is still a primal mammalian or reptilian behavior that comes to the fore when it becomes a matter of survival. Survival in terms of evolution is basically three things – Don’t die until the body gives up, eat when hungry, and procreate when healthy (So our Selfish Gene survives).

The introductory shot of Freddie in a helmet behind a wall, is quoted as being inspired by the shot of Snow monkey in the hot springs, from the film “Baraka”. The resemblance in emotion is uncanny. The next shot is that of Freddie up in a coconut tree. The way Freddie moves, acts and behaves is almost animal-like. His response to any confrontation which questions his security is either flight or fight. Every time he fights there is this primal intensity – he slides, recoils, springs up and throws things. When he is arrested by the police and put into a prison cell, the movement is so chaotic that it doesn’t resemble any choreographed action. It rather resembles an animal captured and caged in a zoo.

The way he grabs a cupcake and bites half of it even before putting it on his plate, while still in the queue grabbing food. There is something in the manner in which he does it, unassuming with no care or courtesy. He grabs everything on the buffet and piles the food on the plate which ends up being a mini mountain (Now, after Phantom Thread, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Hungry Boy scene).

The first line of dialogue that we hear in the movie is “You know how you get rid of crabs?”. Then, the way he fingers and humps a sand sculpture of a woman. The way he masturbates into a turbulent sea. After which he comes back and sleeps next to the sculpture, arms around her, peacefully after his urge is quelled (a visual motif in the film), like the calm after the storm. He is put through some post-war military psychological tests with abstract diagrams. The only meaning that he comes up with those are Genitalia, in different shapes and forms.

The movie is about how we are still primates, but our evolutionary advantage as a species, to increase the chance of our survival and to move to the top of the food chain, comes from creating tools, being in a group and cooperating to coexist. Left alone individually in the wild we would all die. That violates the first rule of survival. Don’t Die.

When up in the coconut tree, we see Freddie with a sickle cutting coconuts. Well, maybe we are not just primates, we are primates with tools. Tools mean understanding problems and finding solutions to make things easier for us. Tools mean brains, intelligence and cognition. Tools mean education, engineering, innovation and invention.

In the next shot, he is trying to cut open the coconut with the sickle. The first couple of times he tries, he is drunk, he swings dangerously close to his hands, and we feel he might inadvertently chop his hands off. Then he is back to his senses and moves his hand behind. The tools are always a double edged sword, what is helpful, what makes life simpler, what makes life easier, could very well hurt, especially when not used with deliberation and caution.

When the announcement of the V-J Day goes over on the radio, he descends down the ship, into the basement or engine room (have no idea of ship terminology, maybe it is called something else). He opens a few nuts and bolts, alcohol pours out of the pipes. The US Navy during World War II used 180 proof alcohol (90% Alcohol/Volume. For comparison, most hard liquors that we get commercially like Whiskey or Vodka are usually 40% a/v) as fuel for the torpedo engines (Sailors figured this out and used it to create a concoction called Torpedo juice).

We see the room lit in bright red which pops out of the screen, that is the first time we see red in the color palette, which was mostly cyan, blue, green and yellows. This is what he is gravitating towards. Call it temptation, call it passion, call it desire, call it destiny or call it addiction, for whatever reason that is beyond his conscious control, this what leads his life now. Freddy opens his mouth and drinks from the open pipe. In the next shot, he is lying dangerously close to death on top of the ship, totally inebriated, with people throwing up bananas at him. A small movement from him to a few inches right or left feels like a catastrophic fall for him. Analogies anyone?

The movie is about how we humans, like primates, still feel the need to belong, to a family, a  group, a cult, a club, a community, a state, a society, a corporation, a country, a race, a tribe, a religion, so we feel way more secure than being alone. We can’t function alone, there is a deep rooted necessity to be together, to belong somewhere. It makes evolutionary sense because we aren’t the fastest, biggest or strongest of all species. Our evolutionary advantage comes from consciousness, coexistence and cooperation.

Freddie seems to have no family of his own. When he first tries to talk to another military personnel (psychologist?), they enquire about a crying episode, a severe headache and a crying spell. He retorts to them saying he is suffering from, “in their profession call nostalgia”. Even nostalgia is too big a jargon for him, he would rather call it emotional or something. They ask about his vision, he calls it a dream. He is annoyed with the bourgeoisie of these ranked medical professionals, who have no more humanity left when they hide behind the jargon filled language. He is angry and he mumbles, “You can’t help with the treatment. You don’t even kno—”. But, somewhere it feels like, deep down he knows he needs help, and he would take it in whatever form he gets it.

He stops mumbling, closes his eyes and starts visualizing. “Well, it was my mother and my father and me… back home”. His expressions while visualizing are agonizing. Like he is going through some severe pain just thinking about it. He continues, “We were sitting around a table…having drinks… Laughing”. Maybe it is the clear understanding that this is never going to happen again in the future. Maybe it was his past that never even allowed for this kind of regular mundane human experience to even manifest. Maybe it is the medications or the opioids or the withdrawal from alcohol.

He opens his eyes. He sees the professional sitting opposite. He is back to reality, he starts laughing. The kind of laugh that hides what he doesn’t want others to see. The laugh that hides his vulnerabilities. He goes on “-  And it just sort of ended there. Thanks for the help”. The film dissolves into the next shot to denote the passage of time.

In a bright Yellow (may be signifying the warmth of the family and belonging) background, He clicks photos of a woman, a man, three children and a couple. He works in a mall taking portraits, where he is always inadvertently being reminded of family.

He generates a love interest with a model wearing and selling a bright green coat in the mall. Whatever his issues with his parents, now maybe he has a real chance to make a family of his own. He wants to have a ‘normal’ life.

She goes on wearing red for the remainder of her scenes, she is what he is gravitating towards now. Maybe her or the idea of a romantic partner and family, thereby staying his object of love and desire that leads his life.

But, trauma and alcohol are inhibiting and debilitating him. He dozes off, probably passed out drunk, during his date with his love interest for dinner. She ends up eating alone, or staring at the food and him. She remains unfulfilled, maybe her evolutionary need is unmet.

In the next shot, he goes animal again to a faraway feeble sound of a crying child. That sets him off and he gets raucous and strangles an innocent man who is just posing for a photo for his wife. The filmmaking is just amazing here. We have two tracking shots in the same location, the first where he generates a love interest, and the other when he strangles and fights with the innocent man. The stark contrast is all that is needed to be told, on how wildly different he feels and behaves on a given day. There is nothing predictable. Midway through the fight, he takes her hand and flights. We understand all so well that that relationship had no chance. What some films couldn’t accomplish in two plus hours, this film does far more effectively in five minutes. The editing dissolves to the next frame.

In a blue-ish (may be signifying the work, color of their naval uniforms, authority, job) tinted frame, he goes on to work in a cabbage field. He gives an old man some liquor that he made (oh, if I missed, he is a connoisseur of concoctions of alcoholic drinks). Most people look like immigrants and speak with a foreign accent. He seems to be the only caucasian guy.

Freddie thinks an old guy Frank looks like his father, he pours him over his liquor which he created from a chemistry lab like setup. After drinking his concoction, Frank becomes seriously ill. The rest of the workers on the farm, all of whom appear immigrants, chase him for making the old guy Frank fall into his death bed. Freddie runs away (flights) out to an empty field away from these people. Running away in an empty field is also a visual motif in the film.

For all the depth in the filmmaking that I care about, it is these tiny moments that keep gnawing at me! How the Hell (okay! Sorry for the soft language, or is it really? The concept that people have an afterlife, where they would be tortured every single moment, even in their non-existence for eternity? The concept that is based on myths and stories that perpetuated the lives of people for generations. The myth that worries people during their very small time of existence in this world. This is softer? Or, Am I drifting?), How the Fuck (Really? Is this really that hard a language? It basically means having sex, which is just the prerequisite to procreation, which is basically the reason we exist in the first place, but somehow the connotation is so profane that it often has to be beeped out even in subtitles in Adult rated movies! Okay okay, maybe I am drifting, I’ll sober up, let’s move on) did they get the shot of him running in the field, that appears so smooth and still so emotionally shaky at the same time!!?? How the heck is the fight in the mall so real, so vivid, so chaotic, so intense, while the camera is still tracking so smooth??!!

Let’s get back to the deep stuff again. He won over Japs in war. But, now he feels alone, maybe it is the indoors that sucked, so he works outdoors with a group, and he joins immigrants for work. All was well until it wasn’t. After Frank is ill, the immigrants now see him as a threat, an outsider, an anomaly. He doesn’t belong to that group either, they chase him in his own country, and he runs away. His genetics is not helping him fall within a group, of either a family, or a racial tribe.

In war he had company, he was a part of the Master whom he worked for, where he belonged, along with a lot of people, who are trained and taught to believe to be his own. He belonged to a group, a clan, an army, a coalition. Maybe, in a mob, he didn’t have to use much of his thoughts. He didn’t have to look at the other side as humans, he was trained to look at them as enemies. The Enemies, who if you don’t kill, will get you killed. After all, they are trained to look at him as an enemy too. They belong to a group, a mob, a clan, an army, a coalition. So, he fought. So he killed.

Now he is truly alone. For him to not die, to chase some ideal place where he might truly belong, he runs away. The camera wobbles tracking him sideways ever so slightly to the music, where he is running for his life, for his survival.

Thinking deeper, Frank the old immigrant guy, Freddie thinks looks just like his father. Freddie’s father we later learn died from alcohol too. It is not just about the race, he has a very American name too. Even the name alliterates Freddie (If you think that’s too generic a connection, my understanding of Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography would seriously disagree with you). Frank is family too. After all, don’t we all share more than 99.9% of our genome with each other, our fellow human beings, our group, our species, our genus, our tribe, our society, our family? And the film dissolves to the next shot and the track “Time Hole” connects it through music.

The movie is about how we are in need of a hierarchy. An Alpha Male and/or an Alpha Female, a leader, a captain, a minister, a president, a king/a queen, a cult figure, a savior, a messiah, a demigod, a god that we need to look up to. The person who is mad enough to be on top of the group dynamics, a person who is well respected by their peers who become their subordinates or slaves, a figure who can be blindly trusted, a figure who can somehow treat all our problems. And sometimes when all preexisting hierarchy fails us like they always do when we are alone or in a minority, we look up to a rebel who has established a new alternative hierarchy.

No matter which ladder we climb, no matter which position we occupy in our hierarchy, no matter how many people we have following us, no matter if we become a master, we are all still bound to the basic primitive primal primate tendencies that makes us who we are – ‘Human’. It all stems from our need to belong somewhere, the need to cooperate to be alive in the wild world, the need to feel the strength of a collective in the present, so we do not feel the frailty of the lone human facing the uncertainty called future.

The camera tracks Freddie from behind, walking towards the ship. He sees a group of people drinking and dancing merrily to a latin jazz song. The focus shifts from Freddie to the ship. The ship’s name is Alethia. Alethia in Greek stands for Truth or Revelation (Behind that is another ship name Artship). The volume in the sound-mixing of the Time Hole track is drowned by the Jazz Latin song from the ship. The focus shifts from Freddie to the ship. Changes in the sound mixing and camera focus, blurs and shifts, the lines between the subjective and the objective.

Freddie jumps into the ship, clandestine and uninvited. We get a tracking shot of the ship, bright red lights keep passing, we see people enjoying and the ship sails away underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and the American flag flies high into the sunset. The jazz latin music they danced to now fades away along with the ship. We get back to a melancholic, moody, mysterious Jonny Greenwood score (track: ‘Split Saber’) as the ship sails away.

A woman wakes him up gently. Freddie probably passed out drunk with his memory cells erased from the previous night’s drinking. Her voice is gentle and reassuring, she leads him deep into the frame towards the light. As they walk, the camera lifts up gently to a bed sheet that forms the foreground. The sheet has three colors striped long and parallel, Yellow, Blue and Red. Maybe he’ll get all his psychological needs in belonging, in work and in passion will be met here. There is hope for Freddie as they walk towards the bright open door, deeper into the frame.

Then we are introduced to the other key character, The commander of the ship, Lancaster Dodd (rhymes with God, means deceiver, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), sitting in his study room, dressed in a bright red night robe and holding a red pencil – The commander, the captain, the Master of the ship.

The Master still speaks to him in jargon, but he treats Freddie like a human. He calls him a scoundrel when he behaved like one. He tells him he shouldn’t be working in his condition. But, he gives respect where it is due when he talks as an Alcohol connoisseur. He treats him like he understands him. He says, “Above all, I am a hopelessly inquisitive man. Just like you”. He equates himself with Freddie. This scene starts with Freddie standing outside the door, to him gradually walking up into the room. Not just his position and proximity to the Master in the room, but his body language and his size in the frame gradually change too. But then, he also slowly moves from the bright sunshine outside to relative darkness inside. He invites Freddie to his daughter’s wedding.

Freddie still goes on to make alcohol from any source available, even more so as he is accompanied and respected for it. He still doesn’t want to be sober any waking minute. He learns of the book that is brilliantly named “The Cause”, and he attends the wedding.

He meets the family of the Master. His daughter who gives Freddie inappropriate glances during her own wedding, he turns his head away avoiding eye contact with her, maybe he is getting a little civilized as he understands the predicament. His son who seems mostly disinterested and relegated to the sidelines. His latest pregnant wife (‘Master Peggy’) who is more than interested in keeping Freddie up to speed with the theories and practices of ‘The Cause’ (the timing of the books and their babies seem allegorical). His meek son-in-law that reveres and borderline worships the master and sees Freddie as a threat in more ways than one.

Freddie witnesses the other people going through hypnosis like treatment with pseudo-intellectual pseudo-scientific jargon written on the board, played over the gorgeous track which Jonny Greenwood calls his favorite music cue in Paul’s films, ‘Alethia’ (“I always like Alethia from The Master.  I feel like it captures the whole odd sea-borne pseudo-religious oddness of that scene”). The hypnosis tapes still haven’t worked on him, his sexual urge still seems unquenched.

But, he gradually falls into the faith though he doesn’t want to admit it. He still wants to hide his feelings. He still does his laughs and jokes, to hide his vulnerabilities. It all becomes a sensory overload, maybe he can have a job where his abilities are revered, maybe he can feel a family where he feels he totally belongs, and maybe he can forget his past and have a good life forward away from all the trauma.

Slowly but surely, he is falling for all of it, the charisma, the eloquence, the confidence of the Master. The trust, the faith, the belief, the hope, the bond, the love, the reverence of all the people in need who reach out to him. All the people who have become part of his cult, or a club, or a country, or a religion, or an organization.

And then, we get to the processing scene.