Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Meaning in The Master (2012)

The Master I've seen maybe six times since release in attempt to understand it. My confused conclusion after the first few times was that it's just not the masterpiece I wanted, instead a story of dogmatism not told well enough. In an attempt to explain it now, I will almost certainly fail. It's made by a world-class director, and while there are more complicated films to dissect, that's mostly the result of them being bad or purposely abstract. I'll try.

Freddy is fresh from the war. He's been killing the Japanese. He seems to have PTSD. He's a man who belongs in motion. Still, his life lacks structure which may have ultimately led him to the Armed Forces, and explains his attraction to the Master. In a way the two central characters want what the other has. Freddy is a feral animal. At the start we see him masturbating at the beach, fighting, unable to hold down jobs, and injuring people with his alcoholic concoctions. The alchemy of his alcoholic creations does though show his potential, as does his eye for photography.

He forces himself to sea. It's essentially where be belongs. There he finds the religious group of Lancaster Todd. Todd's attraction to Freddy is that they are polar opposites. Todd is controlled, serious, well-mannered and weighs a lot, all unlike Freddy. But as the Master asks Freddy personal questions, he takes a liking to him right away, aided by a hint of recognition. I would say Freddy represents his younger self, and that free, emotional, reactionary spirit. He still yearns to be. Freddy wants guidance and not to be in a bad place emotionally or in terms of addiction.

Freddy impresses Todd with his alcohol experiments that he says contain "secrets." It makes sense they would drink these secrets before the personality test where Freddy reveals finally to someone the deepest recesses of his soul, that he denied the psychiatrists of the Armed Forces earlier in the film. He talks about murder, incest, his one true love. By the end of the scene, they go from characters familiar to each other to best friends. That's one way to bond.

From here you have the framework of the religious belief of Lancaster Todd and his school of believers. They provide the comfort of family but at a cost. You must remain generally on the same page as Todd. Doesn't matter how far they go, how extreme, with tales of time travel and past lives. You can never defect, your service in the church is to grow it and exhibit it in lifelong commitment. Freddie is a loyal defender of the cause, as referenced by his behavior toward the socialites in New York.

Then comes the curious party scene where Todd dances with women. The scene cuts and returns with all the women unclothed. This is the second major break from the rest which can be considered literal, the first being the reminiscing scenes with Doris. It's purposely ambiguous, but this seems more an act of Freddy's imagination. There's no clothing scattered about. It's way out of line for values of the time. It seems built for the subtext of the next scene, where Todd's wife is masturbating him in front their bathroom mirror. She seems to suggest she's okay with secretive infidelity but not polygamy. In the next screen a drunken Freddy is confronted, controlled, made to repeat pledges and slapped with probably the same psychosexual intent as used on her husband.

In jail, Freddy, is told by Todd, "I'm the only one who likes you." And it's true, Todd is the only person Freddy, a complex character, has opened up to. The backbone of friendship is trust, and it's easier to like someone when you know who they are. It's the same reason we like dogs, they're not mysterious, their motivations and behaviors are readily transparent. So far, Todd's psychoanalysis, however faulty, is the only time Freddy has allowed himself to be him. Why wouldn't he trust Todd who allowed him this release and who also holds many of the attributes that he seeks. The prison scene may be the point in the movie where their personalities are matched and equalized, as they're both reduced to shouting animals.

Freddy may have started questioning but remains protege at this point in the film. It's clear for reasons of ego and affection for Freddie, Lancaster makes him the focus of his bizarre psychoanalytical experiments. Also because Freddy is the most willing subject, maybe not the biggest believer but the one with the biggest desire to believe. Freddy is made to behave like a monkey, jumping between a wooden wall and a window to the outside world he can feel but not physically see.

By the time "Book Two" is released, you sense Freddy's influence on Todd's work. Todd describes the secret now in less rigid terms, as "laughter." He scolds a woman for questioning his choice to change his words from "can you recall" to "can you imagine." Freddy seems to notice this change in Dodd and it's not surprising during an exercise with the group, his makeshift family, he drives off almost as if leaving the nest. He's off to see Doris.

Of course, his former love Doris is gone, moved, and married with children. She was left heartbroken and upon marriage is left as 'Doris Day,' an actress and singer of the time known for her beauty. In a way this points to the undoing of Freddy's picturesque fantasy of the perfect woman. He gets over her. He has a vision, or dream, or a real life phone call in an empty theater and is encouraged to visit Dodd at his school in England.

Dodd and his wife attempt to gaslight Freddy in his need for help and usefulness to the cause. He's not biting. Todd finally submits and serenades Freddy in song in a final attempt to win his favor and Freddy understands he's more powerful, even with less structure, and no longer needs Master.

The movie ends with Freddy attempting Todd's psychoanalytical tricks during sex but he laughs and mentions his dick fell out.


This movie is difficult because it's experimental and its design instinctual. It flourishes for the same reason it fails, its in uncharted territories and swinging for the fences. It's a joy to watch it work and not work. The main focus is belief and not only religious belief, also desire, and what is there before us in reality. If there's a central message it may not even be entirely against religious institutions as it might suggest, but instead to say, you have final say, and if its outlived its usefulness you can ride off into the distance.

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