I’m looking forward to revisiting The Master this coming week in the Music Box Theatre’s latest 70-millimeter film series. I haven’t seen the movie since it was released to DVD—as I argued last year, The Master‘s thematic content is tied so closely to its extralarge format that I feel it wouldn’t be the same film outside of a theater. At the same time, it’s a movie I’ve wanted to watch alongside quite a few others, as The Master is such a towering work that it seems to draw other movies into its orbit. I thought of it again just last week while watching Roy Del Ruth’s The Mind Reader (though I doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson had that minor pre-Code programmer on the brain when he was creating his magnum opus), as it also addresses the all-American convergence of show business, spiritual longing, and plain old scam artistry.
This is also one of the themes of Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, which I do consider a direct influence on Anderson’s film. Both center on a frighteningly committed performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a self-destructive man of below-average intelligence on a misguided spiritual quest. Much like Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love identified the latent psychodrama in Adam Sandler’s early comic vehicles, The Master repurposes Phoenix’s work in Here in a larger context. Anderson casts Phoenix as the every-fuckup—someone too stupid, vulgar, and undisciplined to be assimilated into any historical narrative, let alone civil society. By placing someone like this at the heart of a historical epic, Anderson defamiliarizes the genre, creating the impression that a more respectable film has gone careening off its tracks.
In hindsight, Phoenix’s character in Here—a caricature of a spoiled celebrity who believes the world will fawn over him no matter how big an ass he makes of himself—seems to split the difference between his role in The Master and the bogus spiritual leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in that same film. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is incapable of thinking about life beyond the next source of instant pleasure (booze, sex, beating people up), while Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd communicates a pathological hunger for admiration. Each one represents qualities the other desires but cannot fully indulge (remember how much trouble Dodd gets into with his wife after staging that orgy), which explains why The Master often suggests a sick parody of a romantic melodrama.
“I loved that film, but there’s some inherent problem with it that I can’t put my finger on,” Anderson said of I’m Still Here. Perhaps that problem, resolved by The Master, was that Phoenix’s spiritual crisis should have been split between two characters—one dealing with issues related to celebrity, the other with unchecked hedonistic impulses. I have such high esteem for Phoenix’s work in I’m Still Here that I don’t consider this a problem, though it speaks to Anderson’s talent that he constructed a more accessible achievement on the foundation of that earlier one.