Walking in the Light: Illuminating religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER
At one point in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix’s drugged-up detective Doc Sportello enters a plush Malibu house, to be asked by his hostess, “Do you like the lighting?” (He responds with a semi-stoned, semi-horny, but quietly emphatic ‘Uh-huh.’). Anderson’s previous film, 2012’s The Master, is all about the lighting. In particular, it’s all about people looking for the light, being bathed in glows and beams, only to wind up darkened and despairing before another light source rejuvenates them anew. One might compare the characters to lizards, but it’s simply too cool a comparison. On a first watch, The Master can feel so intensely cerebral as to seem cold, but rewatches help break the ice. A 70mm rewatch, meanwhile, warms this heady brew until it’s as richly satisfying as any of Anderson’s other masterpieces.
As if you need reminding, The Master is Anderson’s Scientology film, try as it might to sidestep any accusations or resemblance. Still, the similarities between Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose preening and oddly-charming gasbag turn here may well be his best) and L. Ron Hubbard are inescapable, while the shadow of Scientology’s auditing sessions looms over the processing used by Dodd’s cultish ‘Cause’. Into the lives of Dodd, his family and closest followers arrives Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran barely maintaining sanity due to PTSD and damage inflicted by his own brand of home-brewed hooch. Phoenix builds on the mania of portraying (a version of) himself in I’m Still Here by playing a man who may never have felt like himself to start. Quell is a neanderthalic hunching Igor to Dodd’s self-important Frankenstein, but they never get to bring a monster to life. The true horror lies in themselves. Their relationship is a cruel symbiosis, at once self-perpetuating and self-destructive. Quell needs Dodd’s guidance, but his basic problems, which are explored to an extent by Dodd’s methods, are never cured, making him feel like a greater failure. This encourages Dodd’s own doubts, whilst strengthening the resolve of his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). A Lady Macbeth in ‘50s garb, Adams brings a superciliousness and menace to Mrs. Dodd that often gets overlooked in analyses of the film. Her fervour, religious and otherwise, is positively terrifying. It’s been suggested that she may be the real driving force behind the Cause, and there’s nothing in a rewatch to dispel that notion.
As if to rope you in right from the start, the film opens with a shot of the sea. The breaking waters indicate it’s being shot from the back of the ship, with the white foam shimmering in the sunlight, marbling the cerulean ocean. There’s nary a foot put wrong in The Master’s production, but its unsung hero has to be Mihai Malaimare Jr. The rays, beams and myriad other manifestations of light the Romanian cinematographer captures in the glory of 70 millimetre film are key to The Master’s success. In turn, The Master is a key argument for 70mm as a filmmaking tool. As explained by Christopher Bonanos over at Vulture, the wider frame of 70mm film (65mm image, plus an additional 5mm for the soundtrack) captures more detail and more depth. The colours are deeper and more memorable (That opening shot of the water being a prime example), but it’s the little details that you truly savour in a 70mm revisit. Those details can be grim (Flecks of vomit in the beard of a man poisoned by Quell’s brew) or beautiful; it was not until seeing it on 70mm that this writer actively noticed the solitary cathartic tear that runs down Phoenix’s cheek after his one-on-one processing session.
Moments like Freddie’s outburst in the processing session are given extra power by Malaimare’s lighting choices. The ironic thing about these choices is they boil down to a most religious dichotomy: light and dark. When we first encounter Quell, he’s in the sun, but hidden beneath an army helmet, squinting in the shade. Whether natural or manmade, light in The Master is a symbol of hopefulness, abandon and joy. Hardly original, but it’s only when you think about how and when it’s used in the film that the symbolism gains potency. After Freddie is forced to flee his odd job as a farm labourer by running off across a misty, newly-harvested plain, we dissolve to a dock at night. Freddie enters the frame from the left, obscuring the bright lights hanging on a ship in the background. As Freddie walks down the dock, the ship comes into focus. It’s Dodd’s ship, named Alethia. It’s the only source of light in the shot, and Freddie is drawn to it like a moth. Music is playing on board, and people are dancing. He stows away on board, and the ship sails off into the Pacific under the Golden Gate Bridge, a brilliant orange sunrise lurking behind the Marin Headlands. The light is coming.
Conversely, shadows and darkness surround the characters at their lowest ebbs. Freddie’s processing scene takes place in the depths of Alethia, in a dingy room. There’s just enough light to see his features and that single tear. Throughout the film, scenes of light and darkness lead in and out of each other, with the use of either lighting scheme underlining each scene’s narrative rhythm. In the final third of the film, Freddie and Dodd dig up the work that forms Dodd’s new Cause handbook in a desert hideaway. The moment is enveloped in sun-scorched yellow sands, a moment of uncovered joy. The next time we see Dodd, however, he is about to launch the book, but hides away from his audience in an ante room. We see Dodd sitting in a narrow beam from a window, but otherwise covered in darkness. It’s reminiscent of the processing scene, but Dodd is alone, and squints into the light as if blinded by it. This launch should be a happy occasion, but the prospect inhibits him, and may prove his undoing. Anderson plays with our expectations, but always in service of his narrative. A scene in which Freddie and Dodd are put in jail could be seen as a dark moment, but it’s shot in a way to indicate sunshine coming in from a source above the men’s cells. It’s the first moment at which Freddie confronts Dodd about the Cause’s methods, with the lighting suggesting Freddie has uncovered a truth. It’s not blinding, though; this is merely the beginning of Freddie’s emergence from the Cause. Using light as a multifaceted symbol means it is not monopolized by the Cause or any one character. It can be manipulated briefly (Most notably, Quell antagonizes a customer of his photography concession with a lamp in an early scene), but the light is not anyone’s to own.
The subtleties of lighting aid Anderson in telling this story, and these subtleties shine brightest in the colours of the 70mm presentation. The inquisitive moment in the jail was spurred on in a previous scene when Freddie talks to Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons, whose resemblance to Hoffman is uncanny, verging on eerie). Val bluntly informs Freddie that Dodd Sr. is making the Cause’s catechism up as he goes. Their chat takes place outside on a sunny day, but under the shady protection of a porch. Between bright light and darkened rooms lie moments of doubt, junctions at which Freddie must question what he’s doing with the Cause. This leads into a bigger question: is The Master critical of Scientology? Val’s upfront confession to Freddie mirrors similar declarations from members of L. Ron Hubbard’s family about Scientology, and it would certainly be in keeping with similar themes of corrupted religion in There Will Be Blood, in which the petty greed of preacher Eli Sunday is completely overwhelmed by the capitalist dogma of Daniel Plainview. Yet, there’s no definitive end point in The Master to suggest Anderson has pointed his crosshairs at Scientology. After all, the Cause gave Freddie an epiphany and a refocused purpose, even if it’s only temporary. Rather, Anderson seems to say that a religion/cult/whatever is only as strong as its most fervent adherents. Kierkegaard posited doubt was necessary to maintain one’s faith; Freddie has doubts, but they never allow him to leave the Cause completely. Throughout the film, he has moments of enlightenment and profound darkness, from sunny deserts to cavernous movie theatres. The film ends with Freddie lying under a sexual conquest, in a ray of daylight and quoting Dodd from their first processing session. By this point, he’s left the Cause, leaving Dodd tearily singing behind a big desk. The Cause will go on (most likely driven on by the insistence of Mrs. Dodd), and Freddie will continue his search for answers, like Thom Yorke going through an endless parade of doors in Anderson’s video for Radiohead’s ‘Daydreaming’. Yet, there he lies, recalling the words of the Master in the warmth of a post-coital sunbeam. Once again, the richness of Malaimire’s 70mm artistry speaks volumes. This light isn’t the dazzling warmth of a desert sun, but it’s enough to illuminate the dark blue surrounds of Freddie’s partner’s bedroom. The narrator in Anderson’s Magnolia says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Like the past, and the Cause, the light shines on Freddie when he least expects it.