Philip Seymour Hoffman draws the film to a close on a rather challenging noteTHE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

To watch a Paul Thomas Anderson film is to embark on a disassembling of one’s cinematic consciousness; to see familiar conventions used in confusing ways; to see scenes not normally indulged in mainstream American cinema luxuriated in with almost Hanekian concern. Take, for example, Freddie Quell’s last encounter with his master/platonic lover/cult leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master. The scene is a coda of sorts, a reference to an earlier exchange where Quell evokes the memory of his sweetheart through a song she once sang to him. The moment marks the pair’s first formal engagement in a scientology-like processing: Dodd provoking Freddie into a state of ‘total honesty’ and memory recall.

Freddie starts humming the song in a state of wrought bliss, Dodd surveying him admiringly: Freddie is pure feeling, id, and his master, a reluctant but commanding ego. In the final scene, however, Lancaster is the one singing, red in the face with what might be fury but also sadness, framed in an extreme close-up. Quell looks at him in a state of weary knowing. Their roles have been reversed, whether they like it or not; the uncontainable Freddie, having already escaped Lancaster’s religious grip, is now his reluctant master, Dodd a slave to his own emotions: out of control and ruddy-faced.

"Anderson is the master of thematically pregnant mise-en-scène"

But the scene is also a codex, embodying the various thematic utterances that whisper along the film. This is epitomised by Dodd’s song choice in a classic case of Andersonian disassembling. Like Tarantino, Anderson is a student of the Scorcese School of Soundtracking: pop songs sliding into the sonic tapestry of the film regardless of their frivolous connotations. Anderson’s choice of Frank Loesser’s Slow Boat to China reconstitutes the emotional dynamic of the scene: Hoffman’s elegiac rendition suggesting both Dodd’s romantic feelings towards Quell and the death of their relationship. Was Dodd’s therapeutic interest in Freddie merely his own sublimated homosexual feelings coming to the fore?  The song, typically a duet, has now become a solo, a mark of his unreciprocated love.

Then there is the song’s lyrics: they describe a lover’s desire to get their partner on a “slow boat to China / alone”. The film flits between scenes of Quell at the end of the Second World War making sand mermaids and the present-narrative, his time with Dodd and the other members of The Cause. However, throughout the film Anderson cuts in shots of foaming ocean waters disturbed by a boat’s propeller. Although a nautical theme runs through, the shots are not attached to a corresponding shot of a boat but are simply peppered in between domestic, land-based scenes.

Trailer for The MasterYOUTUBE

Dodd’s song choice takes on retroactive meaning. Dodd is an advocate for the belief in past lives; the nautical connotations of the song correlating with the shot in such a way that we wonder if it is a stolen glimpse of the pair’s own journey, perhaps even a reference to a past-life relationship. All of the film’s flashbacks are from Freddie’s perspective but this water shot could reference Dodd and Freddie’s subliminal symbiosis; as such the very structuring of the film cedes its partiality and we realise that this journey was a shared one, a (figuratively speaking) shared boat trip to china that occurred long before the pair even met. After all, Freddie’s trip to re-visit Dodd is instigated by a conversation they have had in a dream; they share a consciousness.


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As mentioned already, Anderson’s staging references previous processing scenes as the characters sit opposite one another. However, in wide shots, Amy Adams’s character sits on the edge of the frame, the de facto master of Lancaster Dodd’s unquenchable lust, his hovering conscience. The pair sit on a carpet in a cavernous loft space, Anderson evoking a church aisle, while Dodd’s desk and the backdrop of a large window suggest an altar and pew. But this is offset by the abundant space around it: the grandeur of Dodd’s ambition matched by the space, yet the scarcity of furniture exposes its fallaciousness, or perhaps that the religion is still in its infancy.

Their conversation becomes an inarticulate confessional and ties their relationship to the larger discourse concerning the foundation of religion and cult. Suddenly, Anderson invites us to meditate on how The Cause sublimates their relationship and builds itself out of the pair’s shared neurosis: erotic compassion for others systematised by a vacuous religious construct and therapeutic double speak. Anderson is the master of thematically pregnant mise-en-scène but his genius is in his ability to allow a scene to grow in the viewer’s critical consciousness beyond the film’s running time. Let us all bow at the altar of his composition

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