We might attribute our lack of understanding of the concept of charisma to the paucity of the language we use. We commonly say that individuals “possess” charisma. This is correct in at least one way: charisma is undoubtedly localized in certain individuals. But it is principally an interpersonal phenomenon. Imagine, for instance, a man or woman all alone on a desert island: in what way would it make sense to say that they possess charisma? That charisma always encompasses more than simply its “possessor” suggests that we might be better off trading our individualistic understanding of the concept for one grounded in the notion of dividuality. A handful of anthropologists have used this term to describe the understandings of persons in other, often indigenous cultures as being sites of intersection, products of interrelationality rather than the isolated, impermeable, and autonomous individuals existing within Western culture’s pointillist notion of the self in society, a scatter-plot of isolated, independent individuals.
But even though this conceptualization of personhood exists largely unchallenged on a rational level in the West, we maintain a common-sense, dividualistic understanding of charisma on a more intuitive level. There are a number of people who play valued roles in our society whom we describe as charismatic almost as part of their job description. Most obvious, of course, are entertainers, particularly actors and pop stars. Although we have seen that the skills of one of these roles do not always translate seamlessly to the other, they do have a lot in common. Their work is highly performative, for one, and they also tend to inspire reactions from fans that we might regard as somewhat peculiar, ranging from dedicated devotion to outright obsession. In a sense, the audience completes the construction of the actor or pop star’s aura: imagine for a moment the uncanny, desolate spectacle of a pop star performing to a completely empty arena.
Far from this world of entertainment, though not so dissimilar, is the range of charismatic leaders, from politicians to religious figures. We often lament the role personality plays in elections, but there’s no doubt that charisma is often crucial to the work of a politician. And perhaps, with a better understanding of charisma, we might understand this phenomenon a little better and see its utility. After all, there is value in so-called “emotional” knowledge (a descriptor that mistakenly relegates the interpersonal to the subjective): because we can be so easily tricked through cold rationality, we often find it more trustworthy to assess others through our intuitive feelings about them, capable of seeing what reason cannot. The false personas that easily deceive the purely rational mind can be transcended in this way, with charisma serving as a channel through which people project their being outward so that it envelops those in their presence and directly conveys some interpersonal truth about them, which cannot be concealed behind a mask. It’s clear that the awesome power of charisma can be used just as purposefully by religious leaders, who must also project their worthiness to the congregation in much the same manner.
On the more extreme end of this spectrum, we find the cults of personality, whether political, religious, or otherwise. This is the principal subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a film that is nearly impossible to understand without some working knowledge of charisma. The film’s cult, a barely concealed allusion to Scientology, is clearly under the thrall of their charismatic “master” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But there is another highly charismatic figure in The Master, one who captures our attention most immediately: Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a superlatively odd Navy veteran and drifter who finds his way inside Dodd’s group, The Cause. The film, from start to finish, is about these two individuals, their relationship, and the ways in which they differ from one another. Hoffman’s Dodd may be the most charismatic character in the film, but we, the audience, do not relate to him this way. Hoffman, seemingly purposefully, exerts little pull over us and instead makes Dodd come off as buffoonish at times, hardly the social mastermind the narrative recognizes him to be. Quell, on the other hand, is something of an oddball, the kind of person one might intuitively know to avoid, but embodied through Phoenix’s masterful performance, he is positively magnetic.
In this sense, I would argue, then, that Hoffman/Dodd is diegetically charismatic where Phoenix/Quell is extra-diegetically charismatic. In much the same way that Laura Mulvey described the way male viewers might take cues from the way male characters gaze at female characters, we know that Dodd is charismatic because of the impact he has on Quell, our primary point of entry into the world of The Master. This is like a game of light reflecting off mirrors, and in this manner, we are distanced from our would-be attraction to a character who we shouldn’t trust (Dodd) and drawn instead to a character whom we cannot truly know (Quell). This relationship parallels Dodd’s own to Quell, who, in his permanent and automatic resistance to Dodd’s influence, becomes something of the film’s true “master,” the one character who ultimately lives free while everyone else, as Dodd himself admits, must live in servitude of a master. But Anderson goes one step further: although he makes Quell impenetrable as a character—numerous critics have given their theories about him and the film in general, including that both simply cannot be understood with the knowledge we are given—Anderson makes Phoenix, the performer with whom we relate most directly, surprisingly and thrillingly transparent. The essence of Phoenix’s charisma is the way he exposes himself so nakedly before the camera, and before us.
Above, I mentioned not only that charisma is performative but that it also gives us direct access to a person above and beyond his or her identity or the knowledge we may have of him or her. Merging these two components together, I would argue that charisma is the performance of being: charisma is the manner by which an individual extends his or her being out into the world in an interpersonal manner, enveloping others in it. In this sense, the connection between charisma and the cult is clear, as it is the mechanism by which the cult leader colonizes the minds and personalities of his followers. There is even a brief moment in The Master where Quell has fallen under Dodd’s spell, during which point, as he is passing out fliers for The Cause, we can see that his behavior and speech are different, robbed of their lively individuality: he has been subsumed under the identity of The Cause. When in the presence of those with much charisma, we may even apprehend their being more strongly than we do our own, hence the tendency for the diminishment of individual identities in cult settings. That Quell retains his own individuality to the end makes him the perfect foil to Dodd’s cult and vice versa.
We are culturally predisposed to misperceive charisma because of the way it conflicts so directly with many of our deepest assumptions. There are three specific ways in which charisma occupies a particular cultural “blind spot.” The first is that charisma is performative, and we are predisposed to see performance as innately “fake,” the opposite of “just being yourself” or “acting naturally.”We tend to assume there is something false or even manipulative about performance, and given that, there would seem to be an unbridgeable chasm between “performance” and “being.” Yet charisma unites these two, and what needs to be understood is the fact that we are more inclined to accept charisma when we can “naturalize” its performance. Politicians to whom we are already sympathetic seem to be genuine, sincere, whereas those from across the aisle are just cynically playing a part to get ahead. And those leaders within our own religion could not be more different than charlatan cult leaders like Dodd, despite their shared reliance on charisma for authority
To have one’s behavior be perceived as natural rather than artificial and performed is its own specific kind of privilege in our society. In her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano examines the way in which trans women experience “ungendering” (the process of undoing a person’s gender identity through assumptions that flow out of the privilege of seeing one’s own gender expression and identity as nature, not needing to be consciously examined), but this process of denaturalization is doubled: while women’s gender identities as a whole are seen as inherently more artificial than men’s, trans women are further denaturalized through the assumption that they merely imitate the already artificial gender performance of cissexual women. Serano makes the important point that all people imitate others in the formation of their gender identities and behaviors. Performance, then, is an innate aspect of human experience, and this aspect of charisma is no more or less “natural” in and of itself than any other type of human behavior.
The performative aspect of charisma is heavily scrutinized, but charisma’s other dimension, its relation to being, also creates barriers of understanding in Western culture. Generally, we are more inclined to understand individuals in terms of identity rather than being, and the predominance of identity in the conceptualization of the self has only fortified in recent decades. Added to this, being is a subtle, little-understood concept, just like the notion of affect, with which it has a lot in common. According to Brian Massumi, affect is “prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act.” Affect precedes feeling (which is personal and biographical), which in turn precedes emotion (which is social, projections or displays of feeling). In this manner, being precedes both subjectivity and identity, and because of this, it can even undermine our own constructed identities, creating ruptures in it the same way affect can slice through our emotional understanding of an event.
Being is slippery and ephemeral, but it is also more fundamental than the identities we build on top of it. The charisma of a pop star leads us to believe that we know him or her, but what’s mistaken about this is not the sense itself of knowing charismatic individuals—this is precisely true, epistemologically speaking: charisma is a process of knowing and being known—but the kind of knowledge charisma endows us with. Being is too intimate and mutable to be the basis for social relationships, which thrive on clearly delineated identities, and this can lead to the ironic situation, for instance, of a married couple who no longer really “know” each other after years of cohabitation. And when charisma functions a tool of manipulation, as with Lancaster Dodd, this manner of knowing becomes dangerous and untrustworthy, though no less “real.” Much of the potential resistance viewers might feel toward The Master has to do with our strong resistance to Scientology and the loss of identity the group promises, a process enabled by Dodd’s power to relate to others at a prepersonal level—his methodology erases the sense of self and personal identity by convincing his followers that they existed before this lifetime, essentially pulling the rug of being out from under the feet of identity. To the degree that we insecurely cling to our socially constructed identities, fearing that they will be taken away from us, we also resist the pull of raw being, which bubbles up underneath the surface of experience and which thwarts out attempts to control it (because the “I” doing the controlling is itself a product of being).
Finally, we are skeptical of charisma because it is fundamentally a phenomenon that transcends our epistemological lens. We tend to divide all knowing into the subjective (visible to ourselves internally, invisible externally) and the objective (invisible internally, visible externally). This forecloses the possibility of intersubjective ways of knowing such as those understood in other cultures, as well as those we intuitively accept on a daily basis without consciously acknowledging them. Charisma is one of the most obvious forms of intersubjective knowing, but by eliminating the possibility of this way of knowing, charisma becomes an alien concept. It is incapable of being situated in the realm of objectivity because it is virtually impossible to observe outside of the relationship between two or more people, but relegating it to the realm of subjectivity imprecisely ties charisma primarily to its effect on others, which runs counter to our notion that it is something certain people possess and use to exert their influence over others. The intersubjective dimension of charisma also undermines our own sense of a stable, enclosed self, grounded in individuality rather than dividuality. Within a cult, of course, this self is punctured on all sides and colonized, and in fact, two of the most important sequences in The Master show this happening quite clearly, the first time as a liberation, the second as a violation.
The two scenes in which Quell is acted upon by Dodd’s charisma, the processing scene and the scene depicting Quell’s “re-education,” together form the film’s centerpiece, providing an ideal starting point for analysis. Quell’s processing is a pared-down, dialogue-heavy scene that, for the most part, eschews impressive camerawork in favor of monumentalizing an ephemeral but deeply powerful instance of charisma at work. But as previously mentioned, charisma in this scene operates in a two-fold manner, with Quell serving as the pivot between his relationship with Dodd and his relationship with us. Our attention is magnetized to Quell when Dodd commands him not to blink while he is being asked questions. The first time I saw this scene, I couldn’t look away to see whether or not he would blink, and it felt like there was, beyond the arbitrariness of this pseudo-psychological game, some grand significance to Quell’s unblinking presentness (as well as to my witnessing of it). Attentive viewers will be rewarded with the astonishing sight of a tear winding its way down Phoenix/Quell’s gnarled face. This is as fine as a metaphor as any for the emergence of being in an intersubjective setting—the scene’s incidental similarity to Marina Abramović’s performance art piece The Artist Is Present, in which she sat opposite and gazed at a series of individuals who often shed tears as a result of this simple experience, is not surprising: both it and The Master thrive on charisma and presence, charisma’s kissing cousin. Sometimes presence recedes into a person, hiding perhaps even from him or her, whereas other times it blooms and sits on the surface of the skin, swelling and ballooning outward until it fills an entire room. During this sequence, the frame quivers with Phoenix’s magnetic presence.
Dodd’s presence shapes this scene on a narrative level, but Phoenix is infinitely more present to us, his charisma functioning in a different way: there is no manipulation, not even the exertion of any influence over us, there is merely the unfolding of being by Phoenix. Both the character he is performing, Freddie Quell, and Phoenix himself seem to be emerging in this moment, as if out of some shell, and there is a strange tension between the narrative and our experience of it. Dodd’s makeshift psychoanalysis is more than a little manipulative, but it also seems to have a very real effect on Quell, cracking his hardened exterior and pulling out from within it the memories of a lost love. This is a film about responsiveness to being in more ways than one: Quell’s post-traumatic stress disorder more than likely makes it difficult for him to relate to others, but even before this, his greatest mistake was his inattentiveness to the being of another person, his former girlfriend Doris (Madisen Beaty). Quell’s peculiar fragility, his devastated awareness that he let slip through his fingers something important, emerges in this scene charismatically: we are rapt in this moment by Phoenix’s performance, desperate to learn more about the mysterious Quell. His charismatic performance doesn’t just project outward, it also draws us in: notice the way Anderson cuts from Quell saying “away” (in response to Dodd’s prompt to think of a word) into a flashback, the soundtrack totally silent as if to provoke us to inch ever closer.
The second of these sequences, in which Dodd and The Cause collectively attempt to “reprogram” Quell and turn him into a docile member of their community, serves to highlight Dodd’s own charismatic influence and the way it acts on Quell. Dodd and The Cause have Quell participate in a series of game-like activities, and in this case, the performance of being is clear: they act out ways of being for Quell to adopt as his own, castigating him when he deviates from these patterns and rewarding him when he submits to their authority. In one activity, Quell must walk to a window, describe it, and then walk to a wall, which he must also describe. He repeats this process until, seemingly for no reason, Dodd sees fit to end the game, accepting Quell in an embrace that signals his own mastery, just like that of a parent who unilaterally creates rules and decides what behavior is acceptable without offering much explanation other than “Because I’m your father.” This is a manipulative brand of charisma because it is withholding rather than giving: “Which ‘me’ do you want to see, the angry one or the happy one? Because I can show you either.” In another scene, Quell must allow Dodd’s son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) to say anything he wants to him without Quell reacting. Together, these and the other activities replace Quell’s behavior and attitudes with The Cause’s own.
What makes Quell such a fascinating and, in his own way, heroic figure is not that he resists succumbing to The Cause in this instance but that he so casually re-manifests his innate being, which they have attempted to obscure. Plenty had their interest piqued upon discovering that Anderson was making a movie about Scientology. Many were eager, no doubt, for a point-by-point dismantling of the organization, which is odd considering that most of us hardly need a reason to doubt its legitimacy. In a sense, those overeager skeptics are a little like the character of John Moore (Christopher Evan Welch), the man who shows up at one of The Cause’s events to verbally spar with Dodd. Moore’s self-satisfied superiority betrays his own involvement in another kind of servitude: he needs the obvious buffoonery of The Cause to buttress his own rationality. The tactics of The Cause are not so dissimilar from socialization in general, from child-rearing and education to job training and civic life, and none of us are free from them, nor are we resistant to individuals in possession of powerful charisma. Many of us are also, like Quell, wayward individuals with deep recesses of psychic pain, and it’s probably true that The Cause, perhaps like Scientology, has achieved positive effects for some of its members (which, however, in no way legitimizes either as a whole). The Cause’s indoctrination of Quell is a microcosm for the way society as a whole acts on the individual, sometimes beneficially and sometimes harmfully. Ultimately, Quell resists The Cause, but neither is he a smart-aleck would-be rebel like John Moore. He simply exists apart from society proper, unable to be tamed.
And the manner by which Anderson communicates this is through Phoenix’s charisma, his projection of being outward, resistant to manipulation in its striking idiosyncrasies. Phoenix’s charisma initially serves to reflect the impact of Dodd’s own, but later, it works to fill in the rather vague character that is Freddie Quell. Anderson is adept at creating characters so hermetically sealed off that any interpretations on our part are liable to be based more on assumptions than evidence. Phoenix’s Quell is a little like Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, but with a key difference: in Phoenix’s hands, Quell becomes less an ossified, fixed agent of history, as Plainview was, and is instead a continually emerging, ungraspable individual. Phoenix’s Quell is eminently unknowable in any narrative sense, yet he is a character embodied with such detail that his presence, his being, shines out at every moment, drawing us in despite our limitations of access. If The Master has a consistent theme throughout, it’s the freedom of the individual, the ability for a person to live without a master, as Dodd mentions during their last encounter. Quell (or rather, Phoenix-as-Quell) and Dodd are inverted images, so similar but ultimately opposed to one another: both are charismatic people, but whereas Dodd draws his power from his charismatic manipulation of others, in essence becoming inextricably tied to The Cause, Quell is doomed to be free, a person who acts at all times in a way that could only be called “Quell-like.” He is a tragic hero, no doubt, but a hero nonetheless.
At the end of the film, Dodd asserts that in the next life he and Quell will be “sworn enemies.” This is understandable: Quell’s eventual resistance to Dodd’s manipulation means that the latter has finally met his match. Dodd’s final gesture to Quell, singing “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China” to him, is a fond farewell, an admission of admiration and a lament that Dodd must return to his fixed role as charismatic leader overseeing a flock of servants he increasingly resents for not exercising the freedom he has robbed from them. That the film operates on two levels simultaneously reinforces this sense of their differences. Dodd’s charisma fixes him firmly into the narrative, where he operates as the most influential character. This sense of being “in the narrative” doubles as an acknowledgement that Dodd cannot transcend his own role, necessarily feeding off his followers but forever tied to them and thus hardly free at all. Phoenix’s charisma pulls Quell out of the narrative, a phenomenon that dovetails with Anderson’s theme of post-war social displacement while metaphysically transcending it and becoming emblematic of Quell’s own freedom.
Because they function so differently in the context of The Master, it occasionally seems as if Quell and Dodd exist simultaneously in two separate movies. An image from the film conjures this notion up with unexpected clarity: after Dodd and Quell are arrested, they are locked up in adjacent jail cells, and Anderson films them with the wall between bifurcating the image cleanly, reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s filming of self-contained apartments in Play Time. One cannot tell if they are talking with or at one another. Dodd’s character could easily exist within another medium, but Phoenix/Quell are necessarily cinematic beings, recalling Stanley Cavell’s description of the screen performer as someone who “lends his being to the role and accepts only what fits” and as “essentially not an actor at all: he is the subject of study, and a study not his own.” Again, this is not a sign of Hoffman’s deficiencies as an actor or Anderson’s as a writer or director but a clear strategy on the part of the latter to focus the film on Phoenix/Quell. While Hoffman’s Dodd emblematizes the actor as superior elocutionist, a link to cinema’s more theatrical origins (complete, and intentionally so, with overstuffed verbiage and a pompous carriage), Phoenix’s performance points to a cinema of the future in which an actor’s performance of being (that is, his or her charisma) functions as a channel for pure presence, eradicating the distinction between cinema’s unreality and the world outside’s supposed reality.
There are clear connections between Phoenix’s performative being and the work of filmmakers, both actors and directors, of the past. Consider, for instance, Jerry Lewis’ performance in Frank Tashlin’s Cinderfella. Near the end of the film, Lewis’ character Fella (a name whose nondescriptness alludes to the fact that we see only Lewis the performer, not his character, when we watch the film) has an opportunity to dance with his love interest, the fairy tale’s own Princess Charming (Anna Maria Alberghetti). Lewis makes a grand entrance, cool and stylish in contradistinction to his earlier social ineptitude, and asks the princess for a dance. He starts off slow, meticulously adjusting his coat and bow tie, to give the sense of complete composure. His gestures at the beginning of the dance are prim and proper, as if he is holding something tightly in. Little by little, his movements become more extravagant and bold, truly a feat of dancing in and of itself: the movement of his limbs describe the ever-increasing being swelling up inside him.
After reigning in his movements, as if putting the lid on a bubbling pot, he erupts once again, his coolness becoming ever more a part of some grand performance, each movement a mobilization of some aspect of his being desperate to get free and wiggle out. For his finale, he arranges the princess at a precise location on the dance floor before wildly breaking out into a spasmodic dance that could only be described as Jerry Lewis-like, ending in a respectful bow. Lewis’ charisma is unmistakably apparent here: he is one of the most porous performers in all of cinema, seemingly incapable of containing his own effervescent being. His combination of goofy voices and sui generis movements represents a continual explosion of Lewisian being, bursting like fireworks over all within his presence. This porous quality is one definition of charisma, whether it’s in Lewis’ unpluggable leak or the single tear streaming down Phoenix/Quell’s face during processing.
Another filmmaker who pioneered the cinematic potential of charisma is John Cassavetes. It’s a testament to his ability to craft lifelike performances that his films, which were extensively scripted, were perceived to be predominantly improvised. Even so, it would be inaccurate to reduce the films he and his collaborators created to an “acting out” of these scripts. Cassavetes’ performers may have largely accepted the words he put into their mouths, but his artistry is all about what happens when those words are uttered by his actors. His films are a prime illustration that truly cinematic acting is not the expressive performance of dialogue and action but, rather, “being” in front of a camera, emerging before it.
In the scenes from his films that seem most alive with the spark of lived being—Seymour Cassel’s Chet exhorting Lynn Carlin’s Maria to cry (“That’s it. That’s life, honey. Tears… Tears are happiness.”) so she doesn’t pass out from the pills she consumed in Faces or Peter Falk’s Nick urgently yelling at his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands), in a strange mixture of bravado and tenderness, to “Be yourself!” in A Woman Under the Influence—there is hardly any distinction at all between these performers and the characters they portray, not because we assume that their identities are the same (which is not at all the case) but because the characters are nothing more than the being of the performers in the moment. There’s no point in questioning what here is “real”: this is post-Method acting where personal connection to characters is beside the point because the “characters” flow forth from the performances themselves. There’s a terrifying intimacy etched into these moments, as if there’s no way the performers could have kept any healthy distance between themselves and the persons they were in these instances. This has more in common with spirit possession than traditional acting, and the most disturbing insight to be gleaned from such displays of charisma is that this kind of performed being is no less real than everyday life: one senses that a Cassavetes actor might occasionally feel more like him- or herself while performing than he or she does in certain moments of everyday life. Being is somewhat disinterested in the distinction between factual, “objective” reality and the reality of performance.
But perhaps the greatest example of the charismatic performance of being in all of cinema occurs in the final shot of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, a singular and transcendent moment in the history of cinema. The film establishes Denis Lavant’s Galoup as a repressed character, but in the final scene, Denis allows Lavant/Galoup to reveal himself in a truly astonishing dance sequence set to Eurodance group Corona’s track “Rhythm of the Night.” In a manner similar to Jerry Lewis’ Cinderfella dance, Lavant starts off slow, smoking a cigarette and stalking about what appears to be an empty dance club, surrounded by mirrored walls. He seems to be feeling out the space, reserved, pensive. Suddenly, he stops, takes a drag from his cigarette, and spins 720 degrees, a flourish, an opening up. From there, he crouches, lost deep in impenetrable thought, before getting back up and gradually loosening up his movements. He suddenly bursts into dance, performing balletic moves, before restraining himself, again like Lewis in Cinderfella—it seems that being’s emergence can often be stop-start, occurring in waves. Gradually, Lavant slips fully into his dance, loose limbed and filling the space with his presence. Suddenly, the closing credits begin rolling before we return once again to the club, Lavant standing rigid, an allusion to his character’s military formalities, before leaping into the air, landing back on the ground, and then bursting once more into a dance that is as silly as it is profoundly moving—and heartbreaking: this is Galoup’s one moment of forthrightness and candor.
Such a scene cannot be “written,” it must be performed and then only by an actor as charismatic and believably mercurial as Lavant. And in this sudden outpouring of being, it’s less that Lavant becomes Galoup than it is that Galoup takes over Lavant, another case of acting-as-spirit-possession. Acting of this sort doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you can easily do and then leave behind; instead, it’s as if Lavant has surrendered himself to another being, letting himself become imprinted as if with a tattoo. A performance of this sort is too real to be simply a role that Lavant has taken upon himself. In fact, it is the mutability and elasticity of being, the way its shifts can shatter us or reshape us entirely, that allows for something so seemingly artificial as a performance—becoming another person—to be just another face we show the world. There is Galoup-ness in Denis Lavant, just as it might also be in us.
By the same token, we can also say that there might be Quell-ness in ourselves after Joaquin Phoenix has unleashed it upon the world. What this means precisely is best explained by experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, whose book Devotional Cinema contains the following passage:
“Being able to experience nowness and experiencing it in a work of art allows you to participate directly with the very heart of that work and its maker. You are right there with them, sharing their vision. There is a secret underground of continual transmission that is possible within human society and relative time, sitting magically right in front of us but often not seen. It occurs through someone’s inspiration to put something into the world that is uncompromisingly present, which, in turn, invokes our innate ability to share in that presence.”
The ability to share in presence, traveling through a “secret underground of continual transmission,” is the facet of art that, among other things, makes performance so meaningful: an actor named Joaquin Phoenix can share with us the being of a man named Freddie Quell who doesn’t exist, Denis Lavant can express (or, more accurately, become) the sorrow of “Galoup-ness” in a dance club that may only exist in the mind of Galoup, and Jerry Lewis can dance himself inside out for us all to see (transforming himself, in his character’s wonky nomenclature, from a “people” into a “person”). These works thrive on charisma to communicate their true meanings, functioning along two paths simultaneously, one where, for instance, Phoenix is Quell and one where Phoenix is simply Phoenix. But at a certain point, the distinction hardly matters: we are witnessing a person being and becoming.
And if this distinction doesn’t really matter, if being and performing are not concepts in opposition to one another but perfectly aligned, then the meaning of Phoenix/Quell’s charismatic, performative presentation of being emerges more clearly. Anderson’s film is about what it might be like to live without a master while also refraining from becoming a master oneself. In essence, performed being is the most direct manner by which to show this cinematically. On one level, The Master is a study of Phoenix in the same way that a Tsai Ming-liang film is a study of Lee Kang-sheng, but Anderson uses this explicitly to drive his film. Quell is narratively unknowable, and there’s little point in attempting to psychoanalyze him. But through Phoenix’s performance he becomes startlingly present, conveying an immediacy in his every movement. Unknowable but present, he’s simultaneously an alien lifeform wandering amongst a cult that seems strange to us despite its allegorical similarities to society proper and also, in his own strange way, the sanest man in the film, an image of humanity’s base eccentricity, its organic dimensions hopelessly ill-fit for society’s strictures.
Phoenix’s charismatic performance gives us a glimpse of the part of ourselves that cannot be extinguished through socialization precisely because it transcends and precedes the social. At its best, The Master affirms this in ourselves by, to paraphrase Dorsky, invoking our innate ability to share in the presence of another person, but the film never dogmatically or didactically instructs us to become like Quell either. Much criticism has been leveled at Anderson’s seeming disinterest in tying up the loose ends of the film after he sets his narrative going, but looked at from another perspective, this is one of its greatest strengths. As with the processing scene’s magnetizing immediacy, we are pulled toward Phoenix/Quell throughout the film, but only so far: eventually, in meeting the limitations of our proximity to him, we recognize the inalienable and inviolable quality of the being he so clearly embodies. Phoenix/Quell’s irreproducible uniqueness functions as its own prompt to us, like the ones given to him by Dodd, but this one tells us nothing and gives us no command. Phoenix’s performance shows us what it’s like to live without a master, but Anderson’s tight-lipped resolution of the film, more a dispersing than a conclusion, functions as a rebuke to those of us who might look for instructions as to how.