There is a scene in The Master when Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix respectively, go into the desert. Actually there are two scenes. In one scene they go into the desert alone. The desert is Lancaster’s setting, a nice counterpoint to the life aquatic of his introduction, and a further stage on which he can play the magus, the leader, the prophet. But he’s a prophet who doesn’t seek solitude, rather he brings his portable audience in Freddy. Instructing his disciple to dig, they unearth – buried like treasure – his new book. The bonkers make-believe bullshit that would make a grown man go off into the desert and bury a book so that he could later impress someone with the weirdness of digging it up is perfectly of a piece with his character and is almost endearing in its madness. But this is no hysterical, bug-eyed Elmer Gantry. Rather Dodd is a poised poseur, a showman who’s writing his own script as he goes along and who hasn’t quite got to the blissful comfort of being [convinced by his own flannel] is this right?. It has brought him prosperity and adulation, but not comfort. Lancaster is liable to lose his patience and delights in the possibilities of more violent and direct forms of crushing opposition. His occasional bursts of temper reveal the silly animal he claims Freddie to be; reveals something pent up that longs for a freedom beyond his success.
Lancaster’s link to Freddie is not altogether obvious and mystifies him as much as it does his entourage, who see Freddie as the loose cannon he so obviously is (quite literally given his past life as a sailor). In fact, Freddie is the lost cause that proves the antithesis of Dodd’s nascent cult, The Cause: an itinerant wanderer who longs to be elsewhere wherever he is. On their second trip to the desert, they are accompanied by Lancaster’s daughter and his son-in-law and they have a motorcycle. Lancaster directs the action: they are to pick a spot on the horizon and go as fast as they can towards it. Is this a game, or a lesson, or a healing therapeutic becoming? Lancaster goes first and then it’s Freddie’s turn. And he just takes off. He just rides and rides and leaves Lancaster shouting hopelessly after him.
Freedom for Lancaster is something to strive to touch, to visit, but his success and his followers, and his wife (quite literally) tug him back. Freddie is gifted with that freedom, and cursed by it. When he physically attacks one of his customers in the department store where he works (briefly) as a photographer, his motivation isn’t envy or pique. He does it simply because he wants to. Likewise, he follows Lancaster when he wants to, and takes off when he feels like it. Running through a field of lettuce in Salinas, he runs with a panting desperation of pure escape – there’s no strategy, no evasive manoeuvres. He runs as fast as he can.
Freedom and the lack of it are a recurrent theme throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Magnolia tells the stories of a bunch of Los Angelinos who are trapped by the various vagaries of a fate hell-bent on turning lives into sick barroom and/or mortuary jokes. In the prologue, a wheezy narrator (magician and Anderson stalwart Ricky Jay) recounts a series of stories, the overwhelming thesis of which seems to be that we live in a universe in which fate has a sick sense of humour. The suicide who is shot as he passes the window of his fighting parents by a gun held by his mother, which he loaded himself, is only an extreme example of what the whole film seems set on doing. Even jumping off a building won’t guarantee you the ending you had in mind. The suicide is caught in a net that would have saved him ‘had it not been for the hole in his stomach’.
Narrative isn’t what these people do, it is what is done to these people.
A dying film producer, Earl Partridge, played by Jason Robards, is painfully aware that even at this, what should be the most authentic moment of his life, he is becoming a cliché from one of his own productions. His nurse Phil (again Philip Seymour Hoffman) will argue with someone on a phone and finally convince them that the father-son sickbed reunion can take place by telling them ‘this is that scene in the movie’. But against the stifling traps of parental negligence, disappointed love, loneliness, childhood trauma, terminal illness and seen-it-all-before melodramatic cliché can be played the dynamism of the film itself with its musical interludes, fast editing, swift camerawork and exuberance. This is perhaps the most exhilarating film about alienation and lack of freedom ever made. When the amphibian storm arrives and frogs rain from the sky, the sense of wonder and comic awe feels like a reset button, allowing audiences and characters to achieve a resolution that otherwise would feel forced. With so many unlikely things happening, a happy ending for any these terrible situations doesn’t seem like such a reach. Improbability is a necessary condition for happiness.
The film that immediately preceded The Master and which elevated Anderson’s reputation beyond the initial Tarantinoesque wunderkind with an Altman fixation was itself an essay on a perverse striving for freedom. In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview’s idea of freedom has within it the readily discernible image of his failure. His American individualism, his boldly stated misanthropy and his wish to get away from other people are contradicted by moments of tenderness with his adopted son, camaraderie with his colleagues and bouts of otherwise inexplicable anger. Plainview, like Lancaster Dodd, can’t quite fully buy into his own worldview. He wants to cast himself as God’s lonely man, but his vicious disappointment at not having a brother and not having a son belie this self-portrayal. His self-realisation can only come around through murderous self-destruction. ‘I’m done,’ he states at the conclusion of the film.
There Will Be Blood is a title that drives the film with the same obstinate inevitability as the main character digs at the earth for his fortune. Post 9/11, there was a canny little phrase heard a lot around town: ‘Freedom is not free’. It is a paradox the characters of Anderson’s films would savour.