Saturday, September 29, 2012

Depressive Laughter: Performative Recognition and Disbelief in "The Master"

308) The Master (2012) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Date Released: September 14, 2012 Date Seen: September 23, 2012 Rating: 4.25/5

RV!: The Master (2012) Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Date Released: September 14, 2012 Date Seen: September 28, 2012 Rating: 4.5/5

You can't take the world straight, can you?" -Peggy Dodd-

The first time I saw The Master, I was totally awed by P.T. Anderson's characteristically virtuosic storytelling. I didn't have much to write about the film, let alone much to say. But then I re-watched it at the Ziegfeld with a particular line, or more accurately a specific motif, in mind. Something about Lancaster Dodd's (Philip Seymour Hoffman) emphasis on laughter got to me. "Laughter is good," he tells a drawing room full of curious listeners. He even says, "The secret is laughter," just before Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) irrevocably loses his faith in The Cause at its 1st Congress. The color drains from his face when he realizes that Dodd, as his son asserts, is "just making this shit up as he goes along." 

I fixated on laughter in The Master for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while watching the film first time around, I heard best bud Steve Carlson helplessly laughing in fits and spurts, like when Quell drinks rocket fuel or paint thinner. Secondly, laughter has come to mean something entirely different for me personally in the last couple of months as I've dealt with bouts of lingering depression. Laughter isn't in other words just a symptom of happiness.When depressed, I sometimes find myself thinking of something shameful I've done or something absurd that happened to/because of me, and I'll let out a mirthless little guffaw. And I won't be able to control my laughter, but it just sort of wells up in spite of me. In fact, the mute, self-mocking braying of Jerry Lewis came to mind as I watched Phoenix's Quell the first time around, though I'd hardly go as far as to say that Quell is a Lewis-like character. Still, both Quell and a typical Lewis character have one thing in common: they both often laugh out loud as a means of simultaneously laughing at themselves and others. And that's because I think there are two kinds of laughter: laughter that connotes recognition and laughter that signifies disbelief. 

Allow me to further over-extend my train of tangental thought for a moment longer, will ya? I've been thinking of this in the back of my mind ever since I saw Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget. In that film, Nolot's character, an aging gay lothario, breaks the fourth wall and tells us that laughing at him is our way of shielding ourselves from sympathetically recognizing ourselves in him. Nolot then stands naked before us, his shriveled dink and wrinkly ass on full display, as he embraces a giant, engulfing black void. A powerful image, but one I can't help but balk at, and not just because it's a little too literal. What I didn't like about this mentality, as I've since realized, is the idea that if you laugh aloud, you are laughing at something. I don't think it's that simple. Watching Phoenix's performance as Quell confirmed that for me: when depressed and confronted with your own self-loathing, you don't disconnect yourself from the object of ridicule you're immediately laughing at. The joke cuts both ways: it's sometimes both a way of seeing yourself in something stupid, and of distancing yourself from it.

I'll be a little more concrete, because I think the performative qualities of belief in the film are key, and laughing is a big part of that. When Quell laughs, it's often a reactive response that puts him above whatever he's laughing at. But at the same time, it's sometimes unclear whether his smirking is a sign that he knows he's behaving abominably or if it's just his way of putting himself above other people. For example, I'm not sure that there's a simple either/or explanation for the way Quell laughs after he throws food at the skeptical John More (Christopher Evan Welch), or when Quell's describing to Dodd what he did to More after he leaves Dodd's side. Like the meaning of Quell's default, nigh-arthritic hands-on-hips pose, the meaning of Quell's laugh has become so ingrained in the gesture itself that its meaning is lost to instinct. Putting his hands on his hips only means something specific when he's taking Dodd's photo and Dodd asks him if he's in focus. Quell responds incredulously, putting his hands on his hips. He doesn't need to reproach his subject verbally now: it's understood what he means. But what does that mean for the goon-ish leer Quell gives off when, after being processed by Dodd for the first time, Dodd downs a shot of bootleg liquor and instinctively cries out as if he were in pain? It's hard to say, especially because Anderson's camera only shows that smile as it's seen from over Phoenix's shoulder (the camera is directly facing Hoffman at the time).

Still, Dodd does tell his congregation that, "laughter is important," and he means it. But he only wants to hear laughter of recognition. When an elderly New York socialite laughs after he presses her to tell him about her experience in a past life, Dodd is satisfied because she laughs. It's an instinctive sign that she's seen what his method expects her to. That's because, like the Scientologist method of successfully auditing people that fit a certain psychological profile, Dodd's processing only works completely for people that have been targeted based on their personalities. Dodd's believers are thus only confirming for him what he wants them to think he knows. There's that crucial scene where, before he addresses the crowd at the 1st Congress to unveil The Split Saber's teachings, he's seated at his desk, running his fingers through his hair as if to say, "What am I going to do now?" When Dodd's onstage however, he's beaming, and smiling, and making jokes. It's the highlight of his performance as a master (the lowlight is him reacting like a savage and bellowing, "Pigfuck," when More interrupts his increasingly exasperated tirade with a half-titter, half-scoffing laugh).

And somehow, perhaps because Dodd is right when he later says that he's mysteriously tethered to Quell, Quell knows that something's amiss. To me, a line like "The secret is laughter," is bound to sound phony to someone that contorts his face into a mask as effortlessly as Quell does. Phoenix briefly smirks enigmatically when he's called "the bravest boy in the world," and it means everything and nothing. Just before that, during his processing, Quell's look of mock concentration transforms into a look of genuine focus when Dodd asks him about his mother. That question touches a nerve, just like later when Dodd's son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) brings up hometown sweety Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty) during another auditing-like exercise. Quell jeers at Clark's naked attempts to provoke him. He genuinely appears to let her name slide off of his back. But then Clark says it one time to many, and Phoenix is almost up on his feet strangling Clark in an instant: "Say her name one more time!" You can't bullshit a bullshitter, as the painfully true cliche goes.

And that's pretty much why I love Dodd and Quell's relationship. It's based on the fact that both men are actively trying to see in each other traits that they have to first convince themselves do not define them. Dodd, as in the scene where he's beseechingly looking at Quell while singing "Slow Boat to China" or the one where he's looking at him from his dinner table as Quell paces from the window to the wall in an adjacent living room, wants to believe that he's put Quell's more thuggish behavior behind him. "We are not animals," he aspiringly maintains. But Quell rejects that notion because he can't see life any other way. So Quell spitefully looks at Dodd during that one scene where he seduces a crowd full of New Yorkers while singing "A-Roving," and he imagines all the women naked as a way of discrediting Dodd. "This is what you want," Quell's squint seems to say. "This is what you're lusting after, because your'e just like me, and that means I'm nothing like what you imagine you are." Why else is it so important for both Quell and Dodd to recognize where they previously met? The second time that question is raised, Quell reactively puts his left hand on his hip while the first and the third time, he laughs to and at himself. It's the same message as when he smugly laughs at Clark that he served on a highly-commended naval ship during WW2. He smiles proudly until his mask of contentment slips into a grimace.

The "A-Roving" scene lingers on the view of the world as seen through Quell's eyes because that's the conclusion that I think Anderson ultimately comes down on. I recognize and sympathize with that mentality, even if I immediately struggled with that recognition. But the film's ending is, in its way, a happy one. When Quell drunkenly processes a woman he picks up at a bar, he doesn't take his role as her master very seriously. He even collapses into laughter with the woman when he blurts out that she "must be the bravest girl in the world." So when he falls asleep again at film's end, that's as good as it gets for Quell. He's accepted that the absence of sensation is as close to a feeling of peace and/or escape as he's going to get. Sleep is only a momentary respite from performing, but it will have to do. And as the film's end credits role, Patti Page sings that she'll, "keep changing partners 'til I hold you once more." Which, in the context of the film's ending, is kind of funny, even if it's not, really.

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