Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)
IN HIS BOOK Devotional Cinema Nathaniel Dorsky notes that the film-going experience is a metaphor for vision: we perceive a world of light and movement from within the darkness of our heads in the same way that filmgoers sit in dark theaters and watch a world take shape out of light and shadow on a screen. For Dorsky, this has “mystical implications,” meaning that a filmmaker sensitive to this relationship between cinema and perception can compel us to new ways of seeing film, art, and even the world. Paul Thomas Anderson is this sensitive filmmaker, and his film The Master is inexhaustible in the ways it teaches us to see.
The film is centered on the relationship between Freddie Quell, a fractured World War II veteran groping toward wholeness through excesses of booze and sex, and Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a pseudo-religious movement named the Cause. But just as important as this narrative is the way Anderson traces Freddie’s perceptual pilgrimage. Early in the film, Freddie takes a Rorschach test upon discharge from the navy. In each image he sees genitalia or a sexual act. Anderson’s emphasis here on the Rorschach test makes explicit his interest in the relationship between visual perception and inner life. And the film is hyper focused on Freddie’s visual perception. As he reintegrates into civilian life, he takes a job as a portrait photographer at a department store where he’s tasked with using his perception and a perceptual instrument (the camera). Later, when Dodd sits Freddie down for “processing,” Dodd instructs him not to blink as he answers a series of charged questions, as if a moment of interrupted vision will dilute the procedure.
Freddie’s moment of indoctrination into the Cause hinges on vision, too. Central to Dodd’s attempts to heal Freddie is an “application” in which he directs him to pace back and forth across a room with his eyes closed—he seems to want Freddie to transcend the limits of vision. The film ends on a lovely grace note, and it, too, is tied to vision. Freddie, estranged from the Cause, has picked up a woman in a bar, and during their morning-after intimacies Freddie asks her the same processing questions Dodd once asked him. As Dodd instructed him, Freddie tells her she must answer without blinking. Even though Freddie has drifted from the Cause, he has held on to the idea that being present with eyes wide open is the only meaningful step toward wholeness and connection.
It’s an idea we leave the film with as well. At times, Anderson’s images—and their placement in the montage—alert us to our own need for sight. Consider the film’s first image, an immense churning wake that renders the sea both luminous turquoise and deep blue-black. It’s an utterly astonishing shot. Yet narratively it’s unclear. The shot that follows is a close-up of Freddie in his military helmet; next we see shots of Freddie on a beach. Yet we find ourselves asking what that first image of the ocean was to signify. Was it meant to denote Freddie’s travels aboard a naval vessel? Maybe. But without any establishing shots of a ship, and Freddie on that ship, we can’t be certain. Anderson opens with a shot that begs to be pondered, yet he has given us no context to understand the image. We are, in effect, blind to the shot’s meaning. What is more, Anderson returns to the image of a churning wake throughout film. But these returns do not make the meaning of the first shot clearer. In fact, they further confuse it. As we return to the image, it becomes as deep and unfathomable as the ocean itself.
But Anderson doesn’t leave us in a state of blindness; he has merely shown us what we lack, so that we might know we need sight. When we see Freddie back in civilian life at his job in the department store, acclimating to a world no longer primitive and traumatic, we see this world through Anderson’s fluid and mobile camera. In a sumptuous long take that follows a store model around the sales floor, Anderson gives a wholeness and order to the scene. Unlike the film’s opening image which we could not fully grasp, this image, shot in deep focus, is temporally and spatially clear. There is unity between the camera’s desire to follow the model and Freddie’s desire for her. For a moment we know what it means to see.
That vision, however, is only temporary. It erodes as Freddie’s life becomes volatile. Following an altercation at the department store and a stint as a field hand, Freddie’s despair is given form through a staggering tracking shot of him walking along a harbor at night. Now Freddie sees Dodd for the first time, but from afar at a party on a boat. Anderson’s mobile camera here dramatically shifts from shallow focus to deep focus and back to shallow again, as Freddie just glimpses Dodd. This shift in focus points to the limits of Freddie’s, and our, vision. The shot reminds us that although we may have seen clearly for a while (in the department store), we are continually in need of reopening our eyes because the circumstances of life dull our vision.
The Master is a major work because the kind of sight it gives us is literal. Maybe we walk out of the theater and observe the way light plays off a car windshield, or perhaps we notice the way a fall breeze blows our child’s hair. The Master is also significant because it knows visual perception is deeply tied up with the workings of the soul. That is, to see properly is to live properly. Or as Christ put it: “So, if your eye be healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”
Dodd proves to be an unworthy master for Freddie. But perhaps Dodd’s function was to simply point out Freddie’s infirmity—blindness. Like Freddie, we all need healing. But first we need to know what ails us. In the Gospel of Mark a blind beggar named Bartimaeus begs Jesus’s mercy. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus responds by asking for sight. What is striking is that Bartimaeus knows just what he needs. Most of us don’t. Freddie Quell had Lancaster Dodd to show him. Thankfully for us, we have Anderson’s film.
Bearden Coleman is associate professor of cinema, media arts, and writing at Houston Baptist University. His research interests are concerned with the intersection of film form and religious experience.