The Master (2012) “Did You Ever Go Clear?”

HPaul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of his underrated movies, which is completely unjustified. It is the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career; his portrayal of an aggressive, erratic yet extremely complex character will leave an indellible mark in the history of film. The Master is a heaven for psychoanalysts, if there are any of them left (e.g. Slavoj Žižek). It follows a war veteran with mental issues, Freddie Quell, who succumbs to the will of a charismatic and narcissistic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. We can tell that he is a narcissist not only by observing his erratic, but controlled behaviour. The subtitle of his second book, as it is shown in one frame, is “As a gift to homo sapiens”. This may inspire one to recall, (or imagine to be more correct) Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance about his own importance to the mankind; when was half-mad toward the end of his sane life he signed himself as “Christ” and “Dyonisus”. The film obviously explores the emergence of cults and their attraction to men who lack direction and purpose in life. A famous Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen writes to his friend in his beautiful song Famous Blue Raincoat:

Did you ever go clear?

“Going clear” is a direct reference to the practices of scientology, meaning that one should be free from past traumas and uncontrolled desires. Lancaster Dodd is an amateur psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing hypnosis and the so-called processing. The rituals that Lancaster imposes on his followers have a double nature: they are both an initation into the cult and the means of controlling the followers. By the promise of eliminating instincts, aggressive impulses and traumas he offers salvation, but that very “salvation” results in slavery. His methods have a counter-effect, thy produce a being that is more irrational and obsessed with power than before.

 

Later in the film, he tries to help Freddie by controlling his anger and agressiveness, but we can see that he did not (completely) succeed. What’s more interesting than the above mentioned notions, along with the exploration of the psychological state of war veterans in the post WW2 environment, is the father-son relationship between Lancaster and Freddie. This seems to be an important theme for Anderson, since it is explored in There Will Be Blood,  as well. There Will Be Blood and The Master seem to form a strange diptych; Daniel Planview is reincarnated in both Freddie and Lancaster with overtones of ravaging pleonaxic desires and Lancaster reincarnates Eli, a charismatic priest with a similar lust for power.

Although they are often in a conflict, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be stuck in an unusual  relationship, that of a mentor and a follower, but also a very intimate one. The father-son relationship as presented in the film is a constant battleground of testostorones and urges in which the dominated strives for domination. It is not a relationship based on mutual trust and respect but a power relation in which there an be no winner, but in death. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights was deeply influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; The Master seems to be as well. The life of a group which has family structure seems to be Anderson’s constant preoccupation.

 

Vigorous line:

Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas… If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.

Lancaster Dodd

Sea Waves

It is interesting that Dodd mentions the term “master” since he is one throghout the movie. This line can be interpreted in terms of the famous Hegelian master-slave dialectic. According to the professor Eric Steinhart the Hegelian master-slave dialectic occurs when two self-consciousnesses confront each other. It is doubtful if we can call Freddie “self-conciouss” at all, at least during the first half of the film. He is already a slave, to his desires and to Lancaster Dodd. Later, he gains self-consciousness and the battle may begin.

They decide not to fight, although they do fight earlier in the film and Lancaster implies that they will be mortal enemies in their next lives. For Hegel, this would be barbaric, the two sides need to learn how to cooperate, not to fight an endless struggle into eternity (logically). Lancaster “lets” Freddie live his own life as he pleases, he is “off the hook”; it is an open ending. Freddie decides to live as a free man, but, does he serve any master? Or the master should be himself, exercising power over himself. This may be the message of The Master, one should learn to control oneself, by oneself – alone.

Hrvoje Galić

 

2046 (2004) “Wong Kar-wai’s Poetry of Destructive Love”

Wong Kar-wai is not just a movie director, he is a psychologist and a poet dealing with romantic love. His style is so nuanced and brought to perfection that he can be put in the same sentence with the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri; the early poems of the aforemention poet are not his authentically, he imitated other authors, mostly Guido Cavalcanti.

Cavalcanti’s poem Fresca rosa novella partially reads

Tu m’hai si piena di dolor la mente’

You have filled my mind with such agony

‘Voi che per li occhi mi passaste l’core’

You who grasp my heart through the eyes

 

We can see that in Cavalcanti’s poem visual tropes are often used. In the first part od Wong Kar-wai’s film Chungking Express, the main female character wears sunglassees in the night; if interpreted in the spirit of Cavalcanti’s poem, it seems that she doesn’t want anyone to fall in love with her (it is true that she does drug deals and wears sunglasses for practical reasons, but it may also be seen as a defense mechanism).

A part of one of Dante’s poems  published in his book Vita nuova reads:

Joyfully Amor seemed to me to hold

my heart in his hand, and held in his arms

my lady wrapped in cloth sleeping.

Then he woke her, and that burning heart

he fed to her reverently, she fearing

Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Pious Lady on the Right (Study for Dante’s Dream)

Note: The painting, The Pious Lady on the Right, although seeming to be at odds with the ideas presented, portrays the spirit of the aforementioned poem and Wong Kar-wai’s work; a woman is the victim of Amor as well as man.

The connection between Dante from Vita nuova, Cavalcanti and Wong Kar-wai is obvious – both of them find romantic love destructive. In his movies love is never actualized; it is a zero-sum game, but in the end his characters don’t end up with a zero; they end up emotionally crushed, but also enriched by the joyous experience of romantic love. 2046 is the final part of a loose trilogy Days of Being Wild – In the Mood for Love – 2046. Some of the characters from the previous two movies appear again in 2046, but transformed and severely emotionally “damaged”. 2046 tells us what happened with Mr. Chow after the events in In the Mood For Love. Structurally, the film can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Mr. Chow is a libertine lover; in the second he is a nostalgic and caring gentleman.

He engages with a woman who lives next door; she doesn’t succumb easily to Mr. Chow’s newfound charm. He has to “win her over”, after she slaps him when he presents her with a gift. They form an unusal relationship in which Mr. Chow makes the rules; he does not want to get emotionally involved. In the beginning, she is similar to Charles Boudelaire’s lover Jeanne Duval, at least as much as we can tell from Boudelaire’s reflections about her in his poems; he often compares her to a cat.

The subplot in the film follows the motel owner’s daughter’s relationship with a Japanese man; although this relationship succeeds, precisely that fact is a catalyst for Mr. Chow’s intensified suffering. Mr. Chow is a writer, and he imagines a place called 2046 where people can recapture their lost memories and experience them again, possibly into eternity.

 

French philosopher René Descartes used to imagine that an evil demon of “utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to decieve me.” This “demon”, for Descartes, is our senses; applying this notion of Cartesian philosophy to the world of Wong Kar-wai’s movies leads to the conclusion that romantic feelings are such a demon. We can see plainly that in the end Mr. Chow’s life has lost its meaning, romantic feelings have played so many tricks on him that in the end he starts living the life of a gambler. Gambling is a game of chance and luck, symbolically it can be compared to romantic experience; he simply cannot surpass modus operandi he is used to.

Vigorous line:

Everyone who goes to 2046 has the same intention: they want to recapture lost memories. Because in 2046… nothing ever changes.

Mr. Chow

During his voyages Odysseus encountered Phaecians, a highly civilized race who live the life of pleasure and enjoyment of poetry. The king offers him to marry Nausicaa, his daughter, and to live with them. After hearing the bard singing, Odysseus says:

My Lord Alcinous, what could be finer

Than listening to a singer of tales

Such as Demodocus with a voice like god’s?

Nothing we do is sweeter than this

For Odysseus, this is one of the greatest temptations he encountered during his journeys. Mr. Chow is tempted with 2046 as well; they both leave the place since they are aware that their life journey simply cannot stop there; they are destined for more. The Japanese man Mr. Chow imagines goes to 2046 and is simply lost during the encounter with a robot he falls in love with.

Both the Japanese man and Mr. Chow, who leaves 2046, are a significant part of his personality; he wants to live “among the Phaecians”, but his instinct tells him that it is utterly destructive to live an illusion and a lie. Escaping illusions and lies can be more harmful than living in them, but both Odysseus and Mr. Chow show moral strength and virtue and leave the place. They decide to live the life of pain and hardship.

The episode with Phaecians has another side to it. It represents the dangers of music and poetry to an individual’s well-being. Immersing oneself into life of aesthetic pleasure is criticized by Kierkegaard in his Enten-Eller. Although Kierkegaard presents aesthetical and ethical life as matters of existantial choice and implies that they are incommensurable, it is obvious (when his other works are considered as an argument supporting the thesis) that he is advocating religious life.

In his Politeia, Plato writes that Homer should be honored and then excluded from the polity. Plato saw the dangers poetry can bring. Wong Kar-wai and Dante are poets who are aware of the dangers romantic love and uncontrolled emotions can bring; we can only guess if Plato would include them in his polity.

End Note: I owe my gratitude regarding to the more nuanced understanding of Dante’s poetry to my former professoressa, Ludovica

Hrvoje Galić