“The Master” review – Paul Thomas Anderson and the Death-Drive

One of the best ways to avert a certain kind of controversy is by allowing another kind to take its place. In other words, when you are going to write a controversial book, film or piece of music, if you want to avoid the controversy, overlap it with another controversy that will divert critics and split audiences so that your subtle message can  get, initially funding, and ultimately recognition over time.

Paul Thomas Anderson has done this with The Master. In writing a film about one of the most controversial subjects of the twentieth century (and continues to be so – if not quite so fashionable into the 21st), that is the spectre over our heads Freud labelled “The Death-Drive”, he is able to avoid all the pop-psychobabble surrounding the subject by shrouding his intentions in a film loosely based on the beginning of Scientology. Actually, the choice of “New Age” style projects (such as Scientology or EST) is the perfect place to perform “the battle of the drives” on film. (Plus it is completely Freudian to be dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)  But Anderson gets away with a lot of this because of the Scientology buzz word and the cultural kitsch surrounding it as subject matter.

Can I just say, this is a brilliant film? Holy Motors is the film I claim to be the greatest I saw this year (and in fact for a long time before this year), but that film I (sort of) expected to be good. Holy Motors is the kind of film that gets your hopes up after you see the trailer and you subsequently harbour a desire for your hopes to be upheld.  Mine were, so I was deeply gratified.  However, I had no idea The Master would be as good as it is. The trailer held none of the promise of what I eventually saw. Much has been made of the performances, and they are great.  Joaquin Phoenix is astonishingly good. He personifies Freud’s death-drive to absolute perfection in an insightful and brave performance. But in the end, this is Anderson’s brilliance, and it brings him to fore as one of the best film makers of our generation, in my opinion.

Before I launch into the Death-Drive and what I see of that in this brilliant film, I want to address the deep cleverness of the Scientology diversion. It’s a diversion, and not a diversion.  Anderson had to immerse his “battle of the drives” in cult or a semi-scientific claim on mysticism because of the “unsubstantiated” nature of the controversy surrounding the notion of the Death-Drive – as well as the historical context of the rise of a post Camus-existentialism. I’ll highlight the Death-Drive later on, but to make a film about a deeply important subject that is ahead of its time,  one needs a to hang the premise on a contemporary anchor. If I came to you and said “I want to make a film about the battle between the death- drive and the Eros-drive within a human creature”, I’m likely to get a wary sort of interest at best. If I came to you and said “I want to make a film about the birth of Scientology as a cult” one can only imagine studios banging on your door to get a chance to read your script. I’m sure Anderson’s reply to that comment would be “I wish”, but the commercial appeal of choosing Scientology (over, say EST) is a very smooth move and an act of commercial cleverness.

Of course, it has done what was intended. All the reviews are about Scientology and the acting, with fleeting references to an “odd” homo eroticism  the “complex” relationship between a guru and his follower, Post traumatic stress disorder and the start of cults.  For the most part, everyone can tell that it’s a clever film, but no one is 100% sure why.  Anderson (completely deliberately) has deferred the true criticism and commentary for later on. Personally I can’t WAIT for Slavoj Zizek to get his hands on this film. If I could write a full book about it, I’m sure he could write a series of ten.   The best criticism/analysis of this film will come over time.

Mark my words.

So.  Why do I think this film is so clever?

The Master (Title) does not refer to the leader of a cult or the charisma of one man over another, but to the two opposing drives within us that are in constant battle for ownership of our bodies/selves/entities – or as Anderson’s metaphor eloquently states, our “vessels”, and which will gain mastery over the direction of the vessel. These two drives are the Life Force and the Death Drive. The central question of The Master is hidden in the title itself. Which of these two opposing forces governs us?  In other words, which is our master?

Freud’s Death-Drive is the “thing” in us that drives us toward behaviours that are contrary to our own wellbeing. (This is a poor explanation filled with problems – but for the sake of this review, it will have to do) It is deemed controversial because it (supposedly) stands in opposition to the evolutionist theory that everything we “instinctively” do drives us toward our own perpetuation as a species.  And yet there are anomalies that are difficult to explain away with pop-science. Why do we go to war when we know for sure it will result in the annihilation of ourselves (think of Saddam Hussain attacking Kuwait, or the Argentinians taking The Falkland Islands.  Both of these were wars the perpetrators absolutely could not win) The Death-Drive is connected to the Ego, in that its behaviour will not always be to the long term (or even short term) benefit of the entity perpetuating the action.

Freddy Quell is the absolute personification, the best I have ever seen or could imagine of The Death-Drive. He is a man bent on self destruction. Freud first becomes attracted to dealing with Psychoanalysis when he examined victims of Post Traumatic Stress disorder.  It is no accident that Freddy suffers from this disorder and it is one of the many subtle pointers to Freud that Anderson places in this film.

Freddy is as reprehensible a creature that you will ever find, and indeed Lancaster Dodd refers to him repeatedly as an animal – another pointer to Freud. This is a base animalistic drive that still, defies the behaviour of any animal. Lacan (after Freud) calls this “animal” the “Lamella” and his descriptions have it more like a creature from Alien.  If you are wondering why all of a sudden we see a room full of people behaving happily in a society and Freddy mentally has every woman (young and old) naked within the group – you are witnessing the Death-Drive in its abhorrent unrelenting action. While still in the Navy, Freddy throws himself on a sand woman the men have built, simulating sex with it, aggressive and grotesque. As if completely taken over by his own foolishness he then openly masturbates into the ocean and later is seen laying on the ground next to the enormous Amazonian female (with a giant gaping vagina that threatens to consume the world) with his arm around it seeking refuge and safety in her arms. It is an almost perfect image of the Death-Drive at conflict within the mind of a human who allows it to be the master.

Contrast this with Lancaster Dodd, a man desperate to find the answers to what separates the human creature from the animals. Lancaster Dodd is seeking what he calls “The Perfect”.  That is a state that is the opposite of the Death Drive. This is the life force, or the Eros drive. Dodd is charismatic. He has impregnated several wives (not at the same time – he’s not an animal). He is driven by ego also but works constantly to dominate his death-drive with his eros-drive and his society he fashions after his own image.

Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), Lancaster’s wife is pregnant. She is also the gatekeeper, one of “god’s police” holding the death-drive at bay (a role assigned to women for many centuries). She is young, fertile and puritanical. She wants to use a sanctioned version of the death-drive (“the only way to defend ourselves is to attack”) to protect the society she is head of, set up to, ironically, protect them from the death-drive. Human creatures have used organised society in the form of religion, law and cult for centuries trying to keep the death- drive at bay. In this way, Lancaster Dodd is accurate when he claims we have been fighting these battles for trillions of years. These battles are older than time itself. Freud would argue that while Lancaster’s wife may not be a pleasant character, she is trying to employ an appropriate use of the death-drive, in theory. Despite her aggressive tendencies, she wants Freddy out. Again, she represents the practical, against Lancaster’s theoretical. While Lancaster is fascinated by all that Freddy tells him about himself, his wife recognises Freddy as a threat to the social order they are building to protect themselves against all that Freddy represents. Lancaster wants to control with knowledge, his wife with action. Both still use their ego as a force for control.

Lancaster Dodd in a brilliant performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is desperately trying to control his own death-drive. This is at the heart of his fascination for Freddy. This is why he cries at the end that Freddy is trying to live without a Master – and yet is the complete victim of one. This is why he both partakes of Freddy’s lethal drug concoctions and refuses Freddy on many levels. This is why the relationship between the two men is so drawn out. This is why Lancaster Dodd can ride a motorbike at dangerous speeds, but come home, and Freddy keeps going into the horizon.  Freddy is subjected to many different psychological experiments in order – ultimately – for Dodd to be able to prove we (he) can overcome the death-drive. It is not out of a sense of loyalty, consideration, or even self care that Freddy beats up the enemies of “The Cause”. It is because all Freddy can do is beat them up.  Engage in wars he will never win.

This review is already too long, and I need to see the film many more times before I can gain access to the full impact of Anderson’s wonderful essay.  For my money he has personified the death-drive in a very important way that gives voice to the controversial theory, and Phoenix continues this brilliance with his horribly bent and distorted human creature.  Even without the benefit of psychoanalysis there is so much to be gained from this wonderful film.  I do intend to see it many more times, however.  I suspect it will become an important reference point for the theory of The death- drive.  And I meant what I said. Slavoj Zekek – if you happen accidentally upon this blog post, I’m DYING to know what you think of this film!

In his letter to Einstein, Freud wrote:

“… we have not yet familiarised ourselves with the idea that cultural evolution is such an organic process.  The psychical changes that go hand in hand with the cultural process are striking and unambiguous.  They consist in a progressive displacement of the drive-goals and a restriction of the drive-impulses.  Sensations that were pleasurable to our forefathers have become indifferent to us, or even insufferable; if our ethical and aesthetic ideals have changed, there are organic reasons for that. Among the psychological features of civilization, two seem to be the most important: the strengthening of the intellect, which is beginning to dominate the instinctive life, the life of the drives, and the internalization of the tendency toward aggression, with all its consequences, whether they be favourable or dangerous.”

Taken from On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia – Sigmund Freud.