The following is an essay written by Susan Bisson who spoke at a sciSCREEN following a screen of The Master.
As part of a panel asked to consider Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master my role was to appraise the film from a filmic perspective or as a film text.
Reaction to a film often centres upon mimesis or how closely a film mirrors the ‘real’ world. A different sort of approach is to take the stance that the purpose of art (in this instance film making) is to see the world with ‘fresh’ eyes or even to ‘make strange’ the world. The success of a film is often contingent upon the balance achieved between a presentation of innovative material and a revisiting of well-trodden ground. Too much innovation and a film alienates; too little and all a film achieves is replication of what has gone before. From audience feedback and from reading reviews my impression is that for some Paul Thomas Anderson achieves this balance in The Master but for others the film is too ‘odd’ to be truly satisfying. Anderson’s other films, which are characterized by their often melodramatic nature and complex narratives have invited a similar range of response. Perhaps the most famous example of the bizarre in Anderson’s work is the scene in Magnolia where frogs rain from the sky!
Audiences derive pleasure from many different aspects of a film. Guessing ahead, taking sides with characters, being intrigued or puzzled and responding aesthetically, sensually and intellectually to the film text are all important factors. Intertextual references to the work of the same director or to other films can also bring pleasure. At times these pleasures can be contradictory; (it may be the characters that are puzzling and consequently hard to fathom, for example). There are many pleasures to enjoy in The Master. Single shots such as the wake as the yacht cleaves its way through the water and the atmospheric evocation of America at the end of the Second World War immediately come to mind in terms of aesthetic pleasure. Being intrigued is manifestly easy – perhaps too easy for some members of the audience. Guessing ahead and taking sides with the characters are more problematic as categories of audience pleasure. The nuanced nature of the characters makes it difficult to assign roles such as hero and villain. I was particularly intrigued by the portrayal of Lancaster Dodd’s wife, Peggy, whom I read as an atypical blend of submission and assertion. Discussion after the screening of The Master revealed inconsistency in the interpretation of the characters; this was felt to be a strength by some audience members and a weakness by others. Similarly it is difficult to assign the film a genre; a series of individual frames could be used to illustrate the huge variety in landscape alone from the desert to the city to the ocean. There are also narrative challenges; I did not feel confident, at any point, of how the film would end! The enigmatic nature of The Master meant that it stayed with me for a long time after the actual screening. In an interview with BBC’s Front Row Paul Thomas Anderson said that the thing he most enjoyed about reading the reviews of The Master was that everyone was different! This goes some way to confirming that it is a film which invites discussion.