What I learned from watching The Master a second time. And a third.
Courtesy The Weinstein Company.
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When The Master came out last week, quite a few of the reviews included some kind of disclaimer about needing to see the movie again before forming a solid opinion. My friend Stephanie Zacharek, writing for the A.V. Club, saw in some of these critical caveats a “passive-aggressively dictatorial” tone, one that subtly chided the reader, “If you didn’t get it the first time, keep going back until you do.” If The Master left you anything less than gobsmacked, the must-see-it-twice crowd seemed to imply, there must have been something wrong with the way you watched it.
Stephanie’s right that no one (with the possible exception of a film-studies professor assigning a syllabus) has the right to guilt other people into reconsidering movies they didn’t respond to the first time around. She’s also right to skewer the hushed solemnity of some of the generally rapturous critical response to The Master. But as one of the critics who was doing some of the disclaiming last week and who’s gone back to see the movie twice since then, I’d like to issue a full-throated defense of the act of rewatching. Or not so much issue a defense, perhaps, as pen a love ballad. There’s something deeply and irreplaceably pleasurable about revisiting a complex, ambitious film a few times in close succession, on the big screen if possible, and letting each iteration inform and expand on the last. Having gotten the chance to do so this week not only deepened and transformed my experience of this particular film, it reminded me why I started wanting to think and write about film in the first place.
After a week of press-screening mishaps led to my seeing The Master the morning of its release date and having only hours to turn around a quick response, my longing to re-encounter this movie, to have another crack at it, was palpably physical. Even though I hadn’t loved the film unreservedly, there were images and scenes that stayed with me for days afterward—the opening shot of a ship’s wake, a boat sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge at twilight, a man singing a song at a party to a roomful of naked women. But I couldn’t place exactly when they had occurred in the film or how they fit in to the construction of the larger story. (The Master has a dreamlike, time-frame-hopping narrative structure that makes it especially hard to piece together in retrospect.) And while I had found the movie an enveloping experience on a purely sensory level—the lush visual detail of the 70 mm image, the unrelenting tension of Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling modern score—I left the theater after that first viewing not entirely sure what The Master was meant to be about. Was the opaque master/disciple relationship at its center meant as a parable about human nature, a microcosm of larger social and spiritual struggles taking place in postwar America, or simply a psychologically astute portrait of two strong-willed, emotionally stunted men locked in a battle for dominance and recognition?
After three viewings (the second one in far less sensorially enveloping 35 mm), I’m still not sure I know the answer to the “what’s it all about” question, but I lean more toward the last interpretation: Though it at times aspires to the status of American myth (and at other times strains for that status and falls short—fittingly enough for a movie about a man desperately striving for mythic status himself), The Master is above all a love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged WWII vet, Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s charismatic charlatan, Lancaster Dodd. And that relationship is powerful and funny and twisted and strange enough that maybe that’s all the movie needs to be about.
But ultimate meaning aside, what made revisiting The Master such a joy was the nuts-and-bolts details of it, the way the film’s many moving parts shifted each time. Scenes that had seemed inscrutable on the first go-round blossomed into sense. Formerly insignificant moments migrated to the foreground, while other scenes that had felt integral suddenly seemed extraneous. This kaleidoscope effect isn’t some magical quality inherent to The Master, of course—it’s what happens when you revisit any work of art that’s formally inventive and thematically rich. But the truth is that such works don’t come along all that often, and part of the fun when they do is to keep on turning the kaleidoscope to see what new patterns emerge.
Here’s one moment that started to unfold for me only upon a second viewing and became one of the principal reasons I couldn’t resist a third: the party scene I mentioned above, in which Hoffman’s voluble Master performs the mildly bawdy traditional song “I’ll Go No More A-Rovin’” for an admiring group of acolytes, including his pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), while Freddie watches in a drunken stupor from a nearby chair. (The description that follows for the next few paragraphs contains no spoilers in the sense of significant plot revelations, but if you haven’t seen the movie and want to go in interpretively unspoiled, come back after you’ve seen it.) Abruptly, from one shot to the next, all the female partygoers appear stark naked, including the lady musicians. (I liked how the cellist kept on her ropes of pearls.)
The first time through, this sudden tableau of bare female flesh threw me for a moment—not only because a screen full of clapping, naked women will do that to a person, but because my relation to what I was seeing on screen had been unceremoniously destabilized. What was going on here? Was it possible that the women were truly naked—that the Master, established in earlier scenes as a skilled practitioner of mass seduction, had somehow compelled a roomful of his followers to strip mid-song? No, it had to be the sex-obsessed Freddie who was denuding them with his eyes (eyes which, for the majority of the scene, he can barely keep open as he lolls in his wing chair). Or the fantasy might be taking place in the mind of the Master himself, who’s clearly relishing the opportunity to show off his symbolic sexual power to everyone in the room, especially Freddie, who’s already emerged as Master’s pet “guinea pig and protégé.”
Only on a third viewing did it occur to me that the naked singalong might also be read as unfolding in the mind of Peggy Dodd, who’s one of the nude clappers on view, albeit modestly shielded by the arm of her chair. To the extent that there’s any dramatic action in this scene, it unfolds not between Master and the pretty young women he teases and tickles, but between the silent Peggy, seen only in the background of a wide shot that includes her husband and all the other partiers, and Freddie, whom we see only in intermittent medium close-ups, alone in the frame—a disconnected outsider whose spatial relation to the action remains unclear. As the revelry unfolds, Peggy fixes the out-of-frame spot we assume Freddie must occupy with a baleful, indeterminate glare and is herself eventually blocked from view by the bobbing, dancing bodies of the women surrounding her. Is it possible that the vision of Master surrounded by roomful of naked temptresses is a paranoid fantasy on the part of the fiercely protective Peggy (who in the very next scene will assert her sexual authority over her husband in what I can only pray will be this year’s most hostile on-screen handjob)?
Maybe cleverer viewers than I saw everything there was to see in the naked-party scene their first time through, but for me, that graduated ascent from WTF to WTM (“whoa, that’s multivalent”) yielded far more cinematic pleasure than simply getting the whole thing at a single go. Inevitably, there was some movement in the other direction as well, from initial WTM to subsequent WTF: A series of flashbacks involving Freddie’s memories of his wartime sweetheart, Doris, seemed more conventional and less illuminating with each viewing, even if the girl was played with haunting directness by the exquisite Madisen Beaty.
I’m aware that this mode of analytical rewatching isn’t for every viewer, and The Master is still plenty powerful if you just sit back and let it wash over you like that ravishing blue wake we glimpse in the opening shot. But if you find yourself mentally returning to this confounding film—even if you’re not quite sure why—it’s worth at least considering physically returning to it as well. To me, going back a second time (and then a third) felt not like homework but like luxury.