It’s somewhat fortuitous that I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s much talked about The Master only hours before I familiarized myself with the work of philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. One of the world’s most renowned Freudian scholars, Zizek comes to Toronto tonight, Monday, October 1st at 7:00pm, to present and talk about the third part in his series The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a look at how cinema informs human desire and a critical psychoanalysis of some of cinema’s most notable works. Unfamiliar with him aside from name recognition prior to sitting down to watch the entire three part series, it was heartening to see that my reading of deep Freudian themes in The Master wasn’t all that far off base.
Much like how in part one of his series Zizek compares the several levels of the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho to the three levels of the Freudian psyche (the upper floor with “mother” as the superego, the ground floor as the ego, and the basement as a cesspool of unchecked id), it was pretty apparent to me from even a first viewing of The Master that the push and pull between Joaquin Phoenix’s almost constantly on edge war veteran Freddie and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s high-minded spiritualist Lancaster Dodd resembles no less than a battle between the human superego and the id played out with the filmmaker and the audience substituting themselves as the human ego in a film that never pays that part of the psyche any mind.
The human id very rarely has a voice, but it’s the part of the psyche that gets pleasure and satisfaction from life’s most basic of desires. While it’s hard to firmly say if Freddie suffers from any sort of long term post traumatic stress, it’s obvious that he quite often acts without thinking things through at first. His sexual desires are constantly overt and overbearing, often driving his daily activity. He can become enraged and combative at the drop of a hat. He picks fights simply to feel something other than numb. He self medicates with whatever he can get his hands on that can give him a chemical induced buzz. He can fall asleep at random when not getting what he wants. His voice – much like Zizek’s examples of the possessed young girl in The Exorcist or the villain in Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse – seems to be coming from some sort of guttural or ethereal place. Even as a man of few words, when Freddie does speak, it comes in short bursts out of a half closed mouth, like a child always afraid of scorn.
It seems natural, then, that Freddie would find himself so enthralled with a character like Lancaster Dodd. As Zizek points out in his series, the id and the superego are not the most subjective branches of the psyche, and are often the most closely interacting of the three. Dodd believes he has analyzed everything there is to know about the human mind, making himself into what he only thinks is a keenly self-aware practitioner of a new science based religion known as The Cause. He becomes angered only when questioned or prodded about his methods and his science. He represses his sexual desires unless they are directly acted upon by an outside force. He believes he can tame Freddie through his methods and constant needling of him through his own form of analysis.
Dodd and Freddie can easily be seen as two parts of the same whole, leading to the reasons why they are unable to separate. Dodd believes he can tame the beast within himself, but it’s always coming out when confronted. When put in opposition with Freddie, they get along so famously that it seems almost impossible for Dodd to remain fully objective. It all leads to Freddie’s lusting after Dodd’s daughter and Freddie’s shaping of Dodd’s latest theories to seem exceedingly like overt Freudian analysis on the part of Anderson.
The very intersection between popular culture and human psychology seems to fascinate Anderson and Zizek in equal parts, and it’s a bit of a shame that only part three of the candid and outspoken of Zizek’s series screens tonight, since it’s the one that deals with psychoanalysis the least, and focuses instead a bit more on how fascinating the very artifice of film can be. Luckily, Anderson’s formatting of The Master, also falls quite nicely in line with Zizek’s theories on the subject.
In part three, Zizek mainly looks at the subtleties that make filmmakers seem almost Godlike in their pursuit of forwarding their own ideologies. Using a wide range of high art and pop art with very little distinction as to critical quality – everything from Frankenstein and The Ten Commandments to Alien: Ressurrection and Walt Disney shorts tie into his points – he tries to show how an audience’s viewing habits inform their feelings about the film’s they are watching.
In The Master, Anderson deliberately films everything slightly off kilter with 70mm close-ups designed to skew perception and to make his characters seem equally off putting at times. Ideologically, Anderson refuses to play favourites between Freddie and Dodd, with both seeming equally slimy at times, and yet oddly relatable. In a sequence that finds both of them in jail following Freddie’s attempts to beat up some police officers that have come to arrest Dodd on fraud charges, Freddie rages about how he’s lost the battle, lashing out at his surroundings, and Dodd’s angry that Freddie got involved in the first place. The very emotion Dodd seeks to repress equally entrances and disgusts him when he’s forced to deal with it head on. Yet, neither can get rid of one another since they’re so deeply similar.
What’s missing from The Master, however, is any sort of rational thought between the characters. What makes this film so perplexing is how much Anderson relies on his audience thinking about the material and making their own questions and judgments about what they see. He’s unafraid of people thinking his movie is complete bullshit, and he’s constantly giving them ways of picking away at it endlessly. For those willing to place themselves in the role of psychoanalyst, The Master becomes one of the most psychologically intriguing films of the past decade.
Which brings us back finally to Zizek’s provocatively titled and utterly audience baiting series. Along with his director Sophie Fiennes, Zizek constantly calls attention to the fact that the staging of his own documentary comes from an artificial place. Gaffes and outtakes are left in as Zizek reports from film sets or recreations of them to make the audience confront head on that they too are analyzing a film about analyzing films. And much like Anderson, Zizek never shies away from expressing somewhat controversial theories or stretching critical readings past what one normally expects. He knows people will call “bullshit” on his theories, and he might even see where they are coming from. Both Anderson and Zizek function as emotional realists, and both are two of the most intriguing thinkers in popular culture today.
Slavoj Zizkek appears at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday, October 1st at 7:00pm in an onstage conversation following a screening of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Part 3. The Master is in theatres across Canada now.