He looks around; is someone following? He looks to the sky; are there omens there? In his lackey's hand, in the bright day sun, just dug out, a treasure box covered in rock and sand -- he asks "what it is."
"A life's work."
And what can that be?
The written texts of the master. His recordings, reflections, observations, writings on the human species, his gift to us all-too-ordinary and fearful men.
Deep inside us, in our cells, in our bodies, written on and through and through our speech acts and muscle memory unconsciously triggering our instincts and appetites are entangled engrams that become the being of us, behold us and encapsulated us in animal bodies yearning to be a spirit. That language is your life working in you, and it is only through language, processing that language that holds you, that you will become a self-possessed and self-actualized person. All of this sounds very familiar, doesn't it? It is all part of a century-long search for the workings of the human mind, the unconscious mind, from the early psychoanalyst to behaviorism, to neurolinguistic programming and even today's semantic web.
This language, this language processing needs to be processed, is the key to unprocess ourselves and so Philip Seymour Hoffman, fearless adventurer into the heart of darkness, into the heart of men, finds a man, an individual, who is for his purposes an out standing individual, a man alone, to himself, in that he is so outside society, so marginal, an individual, and yet an everyman, a man whose instinct and being is so feral and ferocious, a man far beyond the ken of the ordinary, all-too-ordinary social decorum, a man so broken he does not even bother to envy, but simply wants to fuck and get sickly inebriated. This is the man the fearless adventurer, the psychic adventurer falls under the spell of, falls in love with -- if he can cure this man, he knows what he has, the cause, the cause and its method works.
This is the man, Fred Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, the master cannot and will not master.
As such Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, The Master, is the deepest of probings into what is an individual, what makes him or her tick -- her language, his class, her memory, his appetite, her dreams, her traumas. I cannot say his or her society because in America and the greatest of American films, and treasured myths, a man is self-made.
Under the guise of what many will feel as two too-too scary and dangerous characters, the watching of which what makes cinema an extraordinary event (Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler, in They Shoot Horses Don't They, M), what only cinema allows us to see with our eyes (behavior, Good Fellows), here the scientist philosopher, the awoken aware man (Kurtz, Apocalypse Now), outside any institutional system with the support and complete devotion of his family and intimates, gathers unto him an infrastructure of money and followers, is on the quest to find out exactly what makes humans tick, their involuntary ticking -- just what shapes the internal judgements of yourself -- what makes you rage, protect, fight -- what pushes your buttons and your destiny -- the man who asks these questions finds a man who just might be beyond the cure, the cause.
What could be better to watch than this encounter? And who could be better than Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in the language of Paul Thomas Anderson in a film about how language behaves and memory is the mind and to become human is to acutely hear ourselves speaking again and again in a film that about the language that is us, the language hidden in that mountain, you and me, inside that treasure box that you and I have to dig up to see, to read, yes to read and see who we are.
This trope of the repressed memory that impedes us; this trope that will play out for the next 50 years on our television screens, in our radio shows, our best-seller books, in countless talk shows, in countless films; this necessity, this obsession to uncover the past that opens up the future; this primal scene(s) is the ground-zero encounter before EST, before RD Lang, before industrial mass persuasion of the master.
And what are the stakes of this encounter? Nothing short of the future of man, the health of man, because he is a sick and blind animal who could be, and is, truly a god. The master is an encounter of limits, the limits of our minds. The limits of who we might be, who we see and say we are, but dare not be, fear to be -- the fear -- because of past events that we unknowingly continue to struggle with, we are unconscious to, we are prisoner to -- the dare -- to imagine what can be, to be what we want, to set a point into the future of who we might be, to dare ourselves to get to that point.
What limits us, to be who we want, why do we continue to unconsciously react to the world, are we playing out the karma and actions of eons, holding us animals to an unrecognized past, holding us in tormenting stalemate, at best a being lower than being, yes says the master and so apparently does Tom Twyker in his new film, we are moving from body to body, playing out a becoming that will take eons. Man doesn't like to see his death, his finality, and it is death, animal and sickness that is Freddie Quell.
These are the terms of the encounter -- can we be fully actualized and human or will we remain slave to our unspoken desires, our id, the larger neurolinguistic memes (why we've all become Richard Nixon, why fear and paranoia is what gets our attention and sells), can we break the program that has processed us, the very stuff of which underpins our dramatic formulae.
And as cinematic encounter -- the language, physicality and pure presence of energy here in the characters of Lancaster Dodd and Fred Quell is about drama itself, and at the center of this drama, the actor's instruments, the body as an instrument of memory, and the actor who uses sense memory to act, to call about himself or herself, her memory to enact a text. The film can be read as an actor's intensive weekend workshop at EST.
Drama is about the frustration of desire, of desires secreted from us, (That Obscure Object of Desire), and here drama is about the process inside that secrets away our true self, the drama that is us, the drama of our memory, the trauma that leaves us wreckage to potential being, and from there imaginings ("Imagine," what an extraordinary song of daring promise). The Master is a song of becoming, the struggle of becoming coming closer to being in each utterance (on being alone with yourself on a slow boat to china).
The Master is The Fountainhead (yes, the cult of the individual and Ayn Rand) of drama and in every sense a meta-textual film, a film about film's drama, about the actor's work and method (sense memory, the method), about the game and schematic of drama itself, about the inside coming out (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf), but not of just one character but the very character central to America, the loner, the outsider, the misanthrope, the anti-hero, the man who says no, and that other character who says yes, but on my terms (Howard Hughes, Werner Earnhardt, Steve Jobs) -- in fact two men who say no, two men who will not be mastered.
In the world of mastering oneself, no desires can go unspoken, no fears hidden (Happiness by Solondz, Blue Velvet), we must move into the direction of our fear -- this is drama itself. In The Master, all family (extended family) conflict is ignited, exposed -- "Fred wants to fuck me," says the master's daughter, though we have seen that she has grabbed his cock and wants to fuck him. The master calls his acolyte, his lackey, his slave, his devotion, now far away in a film theatre (Muholland Drive) watching a cartoon we don't see, he calls from London asking the one he wants so badly to master to come see him.
When the slave arrives to see him, he is told he came of his free will, admits to a dream, the master tells us he knows now where they meet and makes up some far-fetched story about a being a Prussian officer in a war with him when in fact we saw the two of them meet in a department store where Fred, yes Fred, aggressed the master in front of his portrait photography backdrop, putting the lights so close to him, so brutalizing him, with such force that the master was mastered. And yes, destiny, in the world conception of the master, brings them together for a reckoning, just think of the scene in A Clockwork Orange where the man who's in a wheelchair and his wife recently dead from being brutally raped years ago has now, by chance, by an inevitability, the rapist come to his home late at night, yes again, looking this time not for the old in-and-out, but for respite against the brutal world. Here on ship, at sea running for his life, Fred meets Lancaster again, but neither know this, nor state this, but we in the audience know this -- we know something about these two that they seem not to know, or that is never spoken. Yes, Frank manhandled Lancaster in the triangulation of Fred's purported lover.
Bundled inside this treasure box is the gurgling and eruption of grunts and groans, starts and fits, explosions, linguistic shards like Pig Fuck (Last Tango in Paris), Pussy Cockroaches, Paint Thinner. Fred the mob, the mass, the atomic particle. The id. The hurt, the unremorseful. The master, Wilhelm Reich, a method-actor teacher (conceptual and philosophic wrestlings churn inside Fred and Lancaster, Animal Spirit). Recall "Imagine." A point in the future. In the past. The point that is not a point and always moving, Fred, the point that can't move.
In all these churnings, the doctor needs his patience and the pathological, dangerous and all-too-human Fred, his master. Fred, unlike Frank of Blue Velvet, has an openness, a yearning -- not a spiritual yearning -- all the things spiritualized in Tree of Life are said and enacted in this volcanic film. The father is not frustrated, not resentful but burning and burrowing. This father has filial indifference, and every man is his brother. The adventurer is explosive, controlling, selfish, a fascinating truth seeking, churning, burrowing, something. An outsized man, a man who defines and defies limits. What is that limit, the limit that is the self, to manifest action in this world. The nothing inside us that is an opening to be something (Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self). Very scary for people who want to hold onto something. Don't we all. But no, there is just appetite. We are forever ferociously human.
And we are ferociously American, soldiers, consumers traumatized, shell-shocked Americans, always in the throes of anxiety, always beckoned to come back to the war (Leonard Cohen, yes, don't be a tourist) in a beautiful, brutal, merciless and ugly America either in search of religious salvation or aggrandizement, a brand of one, an outsized success, an instinct called man -- a model with potential of a superman, a country that gave us superman, a country, as all people both enamored and terrified of the superman.
Fred is America's man, every country's man, who does what's asked for, in war perhaps a good soldier; in a crowd, an inciter; and for the mob, a stick man, who can put the muscle on anyone or anything that threatens his cause (and yes we have seen so many causes and alarms here in America, an alarm is always going off, what is our media but a constant ringing of an alarm). Fred is the lover who loves blindly, madly, jealously, the man so hurt, he keeps hurting himself -- as he does his bidding for the bankers, and the lawman -- he wants to see the truth of his hurt, the hurt inside him and can recognize this truth and who speaks it, he will follow. Everywhere everyone is hurt and hurting, and the master sees hurt and the relay of hurt and says, live large you, you who are small and hurting. Throw off that hurt; I will teach you; you can be master of yourself.
First you must hear yourself speak, keep speaking and listen, listen to what you are saying to yourself, the narrative of yourself, your language is your narrative and drama. Your drama is bringing your narrative into conflict with others -- here the inside is brought outside, the inside is not a subtext but THE text. The text of this narrative to master.
We are in a war to master our narratives, we are in a war about our narrative, a war between the rich and poor, a war between a man and a women, between east and west, between individuals and collectives, between language and being, between our recollection and our future.