Whither we cannot fly, we must go limping.
The gimp-lipped, cavernous-faced Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) represents a particularly postwar American nightmare. He’s an able body without a vocational calling; a tangle of disorderly symptoms without a clear diagnosis. Judging from his obstreperous itinerancy and disavowal of all commonsensical aid—only the furious drifter Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked outdoes him in this respect—Quell appears to match no simple antisocial behavioral pattern. An overgrown problem child, he floats through the blind spots of multiple institutions and bureaucracies in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, clinging to them begrudgingly, until he exasperates their patience and goodwill. The (presumable) first half of his life, as outlined by the film, is a constellation of disasters connected by blistering lines of escape: He was first his family’s problem (he admits at one point in his troubled journeys to having slept with his aunt, the suggested “climax” of his formative experience); then his neighborhood’s problem (he falls in love with an Irish girl several years his junior and unknowingly breaks her heart); then Uncle Sam’s problem (he’s drafted during WWII, most of which he spends disoriented, horny, drunk on his own moonshine, and distanced from his fellow navy-men); and then the problem of PTSD-wary therapists who fail to smooth his transition from the infantry to the 1940s American workforce.
Whereupon Quell becomes our problem: the responsibility of society at large. This is not a burden to which we feel “up”; since we don’t know what Quell is capable of, we tighten in our seats as we realize that he’s being let loose to live among us after the army therapists administer a few Rorschach exams. Quell is reintroduced to the American public first in a false start as a mild-mannered department store photographer, then as a migrant worker clipping womb-like cabbages. But in both instances his drinking and his temper preclude assimilation. By the time he encounters the ruddy, detachedly mystical Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on a boat full of the spiritual leader’s family members and adherents, Quell’s rehabilitative options have been worn down to a leathery thinness. The narrative strategy at work here is an effective one: At this stage we in the audience have no issue passing Quell off on Dodd. Let them roam the seas forever, we think. That the two seem to have met one another by destiny (they even bond as fellow dipsomaniacs over Quell’s mixological prowess, therein turning the character’s surname into a kind of ramshackle prophecy) is less a contrivance than an inevitability. Fugitives from all walks of life tend to meet up eventually in the movies, and we soon learn that Dodd is indeed running from a swell of critics who decry his religion, “The Cause,” as pure charlatanism.
Much has already been said of Dodd’s resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, and the extent to which his transcendental self-help philosophy aligns with Scientology. To summarize these self-evident correlations: Both belief systems urge practitioners to purge the grief of lives past and prenatal, while viewing their primary “prophets” with a reverence bordering on madness. Other interpretations focusing on the film’s milieu have rightly noted that the postwar period was ripe with gurus like Dodd, many of whom peddled exercises that would predict professional success and result in “authentic” self-awareness. (Kent Jones’ extended reading of the movie in Film Comment, for example, is a fugue of New Historical analysis that zooms out to implicate Lee Strasberg, Dale Carnegie, and others in the film’s scope.)
These discussions have for the most part marginalized, however, the prevalence of Freudian psychoanalysis in the same era, and any influence it might have had on The Master. Freud’s potential imprint on the film has not been ignored without good reason: The similarities between Dodd’s “processing” method, whereby he questions disciples about their sexual experience, and psychotherapy are too apparently textual to require exegesis; to interpret the sex and aggression-prone Quell as merely the “id” to Dodd’s “ego” would be a similarly tidy and altogether thankless task. The movie itself furthermore throws us off the Freudian scent in scenes where Quell is analyzed by clueless army shrinks who seem to fail both their vocation and their patient. Psychotherapy had also not yet achieved in the 40s the universality in American culture that it would enjoy in the late 50s, where even cartoons like “Flebus” were gently spoofing it. Freud’s relevance to the film, then, paradoxically seems both too obvious and too tangential.
Still, in so far as Dodd represents a vague, fictional response to the factual Hubbard, psychotherapy and its ongoing debate with Scientology require consideration. This inter-institutional dispute has been ongoing since virtually the inception of Dianetics; I was planning on citing a few historical particulars in this regard but have discovered that there’s even a Wikipedia article entitled “Scientology and Psychiatry,” the iceberg tip-like existence of which is surely proof enough. Weirdly, too, Scientology’s attacks on this medicinal school align it, however briefly, with the most unlikely of thinkers, such as Michel Foucault; though Foucault’s own anti-Freudian stance never stooped to the less-than-lucid claim that psychiatry “fired Hitler’s mania, turned the Nazis into mass murderers, and created the Holocaust.” The true crux of this feud is as convoluted as the criticisms the church has leveled against their designated antagonist, but Scientology can be understood as an alternate form of mind-mapping, one with the similar intention of adjusting the squeakily maladjusted. Freud and Hubbard are thus competitors of a kind.
That said, these competitors’ merits have rarely been gauged on the same grounds, and one feels uneasy even uttering them in the same breath. (Psychiatry, if a cult, is so often a “sliding scale” cult that its intentions need not be questioned too harshly.) If we allow a small second in between utterances to exhale, however, the proximity feels more comfortable. Psychiatry hardly reveres Freud as Scientology does Hubbard, nor does it dabble in bozo metaphysics comparable to Thetan levels. But the relationships that are clustered around psycho-therapeutic sessions are not dissimilar to those found in “auditing”. Both cost the analysand/auditee something: money, usually, and emotional vulnerability. And in both instances, the analysand/auditee is alternately coaxed and forced into behavioral models that are intended to illuminate and ameliorate the mind’s messiness. During all of this, the methodological framework becomes so sacred and inclusive that it encompasses everything—from the configuration of bodies in a session, to the terms used to discuss quotidian gestures, to how “one feels about” a largely mechanical conversation about fees with the therapist/auditor him- or herself.
I personally underwent psychoanalysis for five years, during which time I realized with some irritation that my therapists would gloss every challenge I issued to them as “part of the process”. My retorts were not quite understood as predestined, but as within the scope of therapeutic advance all the same. These analysts had protected themselves and their gestures behind a philosophy, and a culture, so elastic it could not be defied. My final therapist even explained my ultimate cancellation of his services as inherent to the tortuous system within which we were working (though other ex-analysands I have spoken to have not shared this experience). Apostasy from this cult of self-improvement was rather irritatingly considered impossible; to withdraw, even, was to continue participating.
It must be said that whatever peculiarities are inherent to the analysand/therapist relationship, they don’t (traditionally) amount to brainwashing along the lines that ex-Scientologists have described, particularly with respect to their experiences in “Rehabilitation Project Force”. If psychoanalysis is not guilty of interpersonal brainwashing, however, might it be guilty of cultural brainwashing? Thanks to the popularity of texts like The Interpretation of Dreams and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we now cannot help but be a post-Freudian society. So much of what we claim to grasp about human nature, the self-proclaimed subject of all “great” art, springs from Freud’s speculation about the unconscious mind—Oedipal grief and the psychic apparatus especially. To grossly simplify: “Your dream about x really signifies y, and the reason it signifies this is due to a sexually piquant trauma sustained in your childhood.” As the writings of Freud and his disciples proliferated across the western world in the early 20th century, this semiotic challenge trickled into the humanities, where it continues to attract attention as an interpretative rubric.
Freud did not invent symbolism, but he did invent a method with which to transliterate and appreciate the uncanny products of human imagination as secretly fulfilled wishes. This remains one of most purely sensational concepts that modern thought has offered us, and it demanded the development of a newly symbolic sensualism by the stewards of our collective dreams—the arts. Since most of our wishes, as it turns out, are sexual in nature, it is hardly a coincidence that the most iconic images of early cinema—which was concurrent with psychotherapy’s infancy—evoke a specific form repeatedly. A bulbous, smoke-stacked train rushes stage-right, as though ready to leap off the screen; a fat, cylindrical rocket smears viscous paste across the visage of a celestial object; a mustachioed man points a pistol at us. Phalluses both limp and rigid were simply in the air, waiting to be fondled after being recognized for what they truly were.
And in the air they remain, if The Master is any indication, although the film does not directly approach the debate between Scientology and psychology any more than it draws symmetries between the two camps. The film, however, presents us with a character best understood as a career “patient,” Freddie Quell; what makes him unique is not only the ostensive limitlessness of his mental and emotional damage, but his unawareness of it. He is so beholden to sex that he crudely solicits quickies from female co-workers at “The Cause” with laconic notes. (“Do you want to fuck?” one of them eloquently reads.) He concocts liquor out of paint thinner and torpedo fuel in pursuit of the principle of pleasure; after imbibing, his social grace deteriorates until he is capable of incest, violence, and self-destruction. (After being jailed for assaulting policemen who arrest Dodd, Quell undergoes a ferocious, limb-pumping breakdown; Dodd, in the adjacent cell, shakes his head and condescends to his companion’s animal-like behavior.) Most tellingly, Quell constantly flees the scene of his crimes, only to repeat his errors elsewhere. Many of these deleterious behaviors are furthermore revealed as either inherited or learned from his drunken, abusive father and bedlamite mother.
In short, psychoanalysis does not fail Freddie Quell. It rather helped to invent him, just as it’s inspired countless fictional anti-heroes. The Master‘s plot treats Quell as a shunned, shell-shocked halfwit steamrolling his way to annihilation without an eligible sanctuary in sight. But his actions and back-story—a thicket of nature, nurture, incest, addiction, and above all repetition-compulsion—correspond to the scientific safety of Freud’s canon. Quell and Dodd hardly need to wait until the “next life” to become sworn enemies, as the latter suggests they will at the film’s end; Quell already embodies symptoms that have been defined by the two-hundred pound gorilla in the self-help market of which Dodd wants a piece. Dodd’s attempted talking cure is wholly mismatched with Quell’s Freudian ferocity; it’s hard to believe a textbook case of his nature could not have benefited from the initial therapy to which he was subjected. Perhaps Quell is such a densely, almost flippantly, Oedipal case that he confuses doctors who are accustomed to Oedipal latency.
Moreover, much as Freud’s theorizing over human beings’ maturation process has a furtively ennobling and universalizing tone—whereby the humiliation of gaining sexual awareness allows one to become a Greek tragic hero, for instance—Quell’s most unnerving behavior, too, flirts with cosmic insinuations. While in Hawaii on naval business at the end of WWII, Quell builds a well-endowed woman out of sand that excites him to the point of needing to relieve himself sexually into the waves, hunched over in a masturbatory simian pose; we flash back to Quell caressing this beach-siren’s breasts at multiple points in the story, underscoring the character’s nearly primitive obsession with female form and continual rejection of the social obligations necessitated by ordinary sexual relationships. As the film progresses, Quell’s awkward, impish stoop and spastic ugliness are not unlike the ghoulish images conjured by Freud’s description of the “death drive”: a “daemonic character” residing in the unconscious that allegedly forces us to reenact trauma and thereby ensure the unique character of our individual deaths. If the sand goddess is Eros externalized, Quell’s unnatural kinesthesia is internalized Thanatos, punching its way out of the man’s skin.
Not only are Quell’s defining characteristics seemingly ripe for this pedigree of analysis, but Anderson also returns to Freudian motifs ad nauseam, fashioning a free-associative spiral of talk and image that mimics the rhythm of a long and revealing therapy session. Obligatory phalluses abound: Vessel hulls thrust through the motherly ocean; deep in their bowels, Quell uncorks a tank of torpedo fuel and catches the piss-like, alcoholic spray on his face. Dodd’s umpteenth and pregnant wife (Amy Adams) is eager to sprout a penis; she protects her husband’s assets and reputation, and when she senses trouble, she punishes Dodd by masturbating him viciously while scolding him.
Other passages in the film are more koan-like in their un-readability, creating mini-stimulation tests out of perspectivally confused shot-sequences. As Dodd grills Quell with unseemly questions, camera angles keep blurry bits of Dodd’s robe just barely in frame, even throughout several face-oriented close-ups; whose “personal space” is Dodd encroaching on here? Later, at a “Cause” fundraiser, Dodd sings and twirls before a room of variously aged women who, halfway through his routine, are spontaneously unclothed to reveal their saggy shapeliness. The simplest explanation for such slippery, expressionistic content is that the film employs a free-indirect omniscience to float in and out of Quell’s ever-addled mind. But Dodd crowds the screen even when Quell is on it, and the disarming otherworldliness of other scenes—wherein Quell drinks from a photochemical beaker made mildly phosphorescent by dark room lights, or answers Dodd’s unlikely phone call in a row of darkened, blood-red theatre seats—isn’t clearly derived from the protagonist’s dithering psychosis.
Anderson’s visual style is ultimately more audience-directed than consciousness-representative. If the film is a therapy session, the viewer is the analysand; we are Quell to Anderson’s Freud. Interpreting the grotesque nudes as real or imagined or otherwise is entirely a question of taste, of what thematic pattern one wishes the scene to perpetuate, and reflects our own predilections more so than any underlying allegory. The only pattern that Anderson eventually adheres to with this material is one of superficial impenetrability; his film’s reconditeness forms a smooth, ungraspable surface studded with archetypal hints. Images need not always possess immediate internal meaning, as the post-Freudian viewer is always more than willing to loan out his own Oedipally-charged biases to any deficit of coherence—and so without compromising any of the film’s themes, the withered, naked females might become (among other things) the putrefying other-ness of motherhood, the sex instinct’s bodily by-product made grotesquely frank. These are fuzzy objects built expressly for minds with an automatic focus.
The same observation, of course, could be made with regard to much of the last century of western cinema, the Freudian debt of which is both too colossal and too inadvertent to deserve any simple valuation. I have to wonder what a truly Doddian, or truly Hubbardian, narrative would resemble by comparison: Oedipus would no doubt require usurping, and in his place would perhaps stand a legion of space opera-derived symbols corresponding to wholly distinct schema of cerebral mechanics. A film rendered as such would unlikely be as successful as The Master, insofar as Anderson’s movie does work; disowning the “common” knowledge of unconscious angst requires a dangerous skepticism toward the sexual tropes that have enabled cinema to reenact and rewrite our traumas, tropes for which we as of yet have no viable replacements. Freud, in other words, always wins at the movies, perhaps most of all in movies that sport purposefully abstruse surfaces. It is no coincidence that a single, surreptitiously biting phrase of Freud’s is enough to silence all of The Master‘s critics, including myself. “Neurosis,” he writes, “is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.”