I cannot traditionally review The Master to try and describe why the film affected me on such a personal level. This post will be full of spoilers, and some pretty candid personal confessions, and as always, stream of consciousness.
I learned a lot of eye opening things about myself this week, and my viewing of The Master provided a bizarrely perfect ending to my series of self realizations. It’s tough to funnel all of these thoughts into a coherent whole, so I’m going to just write about it as it comes to me.
I have had a pretty consistent anxiety problem the entirety of my week leading up to the screening, a feeling that I took into the theater and left without. As I watched the main character Freddie deal with his anxiety (in a very different way than me) I was shocked. I don’t know that I’ve related to a character so directly before. We do not share common life experiences, but his actions and ways of handling situations felt real in a way I have never seen previously in a film. I also learned this week that my anxiety problem is directly related to my fear of patterns, or stasis. I tend to freak out a bit when I am placed in a situation that forces me to do the same thing over and over again, and it just so happens that repetition is a big part of The Master. Throughout the film we see Freddie involved in various instances where he is forced to consistently do and redo certain actions. His first job involves him photographing person after person, his next shows him picking through a field of endless cabbage. He has no distraction from his thoughts, and he is forced to confront them continuously. He has no distraction, leading to more drinking and his eventual departure from each place (highlighted several times by a boat’s wake). Dodd uses repetitive questioning consistently, directly forcing Freddie to confront these thoughts. They form a bond because of this, one Freddie feels the need to protect yet ultimately cannot work. Dodd and Freddie share an affinity for drinking and boning, but Dodd is ultimately subservient to his wife, while Freddie remains uninhibited. When they go into the desert, Dodd is content to drive to a point on his motorcycle and come back with a sense of satisfaction, free for that brief moment. Freddie has to leave once again, discontent with the lack of answers. (Side note: how good is that scene of misdirected aggression when Freddie attacks that mustache man out by the bus stop because he still feels the need to defend Dodd despite also feeling let down?)
He goes to pursue a relationship with a girl he pined for previously, but the past is the past. So when he finally reconnects with Dodd and offers to just take pictures, I found the scene heartbreaking. He tried, but could not stay with The Cause, but he values the relationship so much he’s willing to stay and help. The subsequent scene is so beautifully constructed. Dodd’s wife instructs both of them on how it is not going to work, then leaves. Dodd gives Freddie a begrudging compliment when he asks him to alert the world if he ever finds out how to live happily without a master. And then Freddie leaves and finally gets laid with a nice British girl. Is this what informed the baby boom? Did existential dread and aimlessness send post WW2 men in search of purpose and gratification, and most found that in reproducing? That seems to be where Freddie ends up. Is sex his master, or did he finally find satisfaction in getting what he wants? Does it matter?
But repetition also figures into the structure of the film. The film repeats scenes, such as Amy Adams face staring into the camera, or Freddie walking from one side of the room to the other. (Another side note: Freddie’s inability to see the wood wall as anything but a wall, his growing frustration and his refusal to give up out of some misguided sense of duty cut me to the bone because it perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Christianity, and my persistence in trying to make it work and not lose all the relationships and life foundations that came with it.) And as the film played out I had a completely unique experience: I realized that my anxiety was being amplified as a result of this cinematic mechanism, but I was also becoming aware of why I was feeling these emotions. And I was also reaching catharsis because I am not alone in the way I feel.
I had a pretty groundbreaking moment earlier this week where I realized that when I am feeling stuck in my current phase of life I always turn to my thoughts of the future and where I’ll be, and how kind of fucked up that is. What if I get to that point and I still have this hole where purpose and satisfaction should be? Working on personal fulfillment based on who I am and not what I do or where I’ll be has been swirling around in my head all week. So combine these feelings of anxiety, stuckness, search for purpose, and how we deal with these things that we try to attain and whether they ultimately control us or not, and you might be able to understand why The Master broke me. I finally found a film that completely articulates how I feel and relate to the world, something I’ve never been able to explain or talk about with someone. It’s a very specific film for a very specific person, and I can totally understand why people leave feeling cold. But I personally feel that the more I watch the more I’ll learn about myself. I can only marvel at the amazing series of events that lead me to this point, and how it helped me at the moment where I needed it most. It’s a once in a lifetime movie experience, one that will undoubtedly color my perception of the film for the rest of my life. And I now have a completely unique relationship to something that no one else does. As an aspiring film maker, I often wonder on my more cynical days how much of a difference a film can actually make. Thanks PTA for giving me something that really did change my life for the better.