Vladimir Estragon on “The Master”

I saw the movie “The Master” the other night.   Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the part of a cult leader whose ideas have a family resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard of the Church of Scientology.  I admired his performance and the performance of the other actors.  I was persuaded that someone like him could persuade people to accept a version of reality in which it made sense to say, “You’re either in this for a billion years, or not at all.” But, even so, I didn’t know quite what to make of the movie.   My friend who uses the name “Vladimir Estragon” on the Internet has an interpretation.

A Skeleton Key to the Film: The Master

by Vladimir Estragon
September 26, 2012
Rochester, New York
Copyright 2012 
Sequential Machines, LLC.

I saw “The Master” opening night at the Little Theater in Rochester, New York, the other night, and as the screen credits started to roll, I turned to my date and asked “what the fuck is this movie about?”.  After a couple of days of examining the shards of evidence presented in the film, I’ve reached a personal perspective – a view – of the film that I would like to share with you as one of many possible skeleton keys with which to decode and make sense of the choices of scenes and images presented to the audience in the film.

The three main characters of the film are Lancaster Dodd – aka “the Master” (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Peggy Dodd, the Master’s wife (Amy Adams).

First off, let me say that what makes Joaquin Phoenix’s performance not only a shoo-in for the Academy Award Best Actor award but also a major work of “self-processing” is the facts of the actor’s life as played out by the character on the screen.

Joaquin Philips has been burdened with the guilt of the death of his own brother River, who died after an overdose of drugs – i.e. “poison” as referenced in the film.

Joaquin grew up in a family that was part of the “Children of God” cult which, amongst other things practiced sexual evangelism – or holy prostitution.

The scene in which the Master makes Freddie walk back and forth between the wood-paneled wall and the window pane is very similar to the training done in “the Method”-  employed in training actors into the Lee Strasburg acting method. As such – “the Cause” of the film and “the Method” that the actors employ in acting out the film are parallels to watch within the film.

Secondly, the nature of the relationship between Freddie, the Master and Peggy: simply put, this film can be viewed as a psychoanalytic analysis of the personal character of “the Master”. The character of Freddy Quell performs the role of the Id of the Master, the wife Peggy plays the role of the Super-Ego of the Master whereas the character of the Master portrays the Ego personality of the Master within the film. As such, all three characters of the film portray and lay bare for the audience the nature of the character of “the Master”.

This psychoanalytic interpretation of the film provides the motivation behind the parallels and some of the more perplexing scenes in the movie. Some striking parallels in the film are:

– The scenes in which the character of Freddy Quell and Lancaster Dodd are introduced: they are both introduced as being on boats in the water – Freddy on a Navy ship in the Pacific towards the end of WWII and Lancaster Dodd as on a borrowed luxury yacht sailing under the Golden Gate bridge.

– Both Freddy and Lancaster share the same interest in drinking nasty homemade hooch made from paint thinner

– The parallels between Freddy masturbating on the beach during the war and Lancaster being masturbated in the bathroom.

– Both Freddy and Lancaster share adjoining  jail cells after Lancaster is arrested for fraud.

Freddy represents the Id of the Master – Freddy represents what Lancaster calls “the silly animal” characteristic of the Id. Freddy can barely speak coherently, whether he is drunk or not, much like the Id. Freddy is primarily motivated by his drives of sex, drinking and aggression.

Lancaster represents the Ego of the character of the Master—trying to keep his wife Peggy as well as his followers and donors happy while at the same time trying to keep the Id character, Freddy, under control. It is Lancaster Dodd that speaks coherently and elegantly, that assumes the role of the Master of the Cause as well as the public personality that is identified with “the Cause”.  Lancaster thinks of himself as “writer, theoretical philosopher, nuclear physicist, but mostly – a Man”.

Peggy Dodd, the wife of Lancaster Dodd, represents the Superego of the Master: it is she that is the driving force behind the success and greater exertion of effort by Dodd, it is she that worries that Freddy might be the undoing of the Cause, and it is she that meets Freddy in public during the wedding party on board ship. According to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory it is the Superego the commands the Ego to “Enjoy!” or causes guilt or suspicion. This superego function of Peggy is most evident is the masturbation scene in the bathroom where Peggy jerks off Lancaster in front of a mirror – commanding him to “come for me, come for me!” while Lancaster does not even look at her – as if she is not even really in the room. In fact she isn’t – she serves as the superego fantasy-cause of Lancaster’s sexual desire.

An interesting scene happens in the beginning when Lancaster first “processes” Freddy in the bowels of the yacht – when Lancaster makes Freddy reveal himself without blinking. Psychoanalytically, this reveals the origin of the Master’s system through the self-analysis of the Master upon himself – as his ego trying to understand and control his own unconscious drives, suppressed memories and feelings.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is towards the end, when Freddy travels to London to Join Lancaster and Peggy and all three of them meet in Lancaster’s new, vaulted ceiling with “wolf’s-lair” style windows: the three are together, and alone – the complete psychoanalytic structure comprising the Master’s personality – Ego, Id and Superego. Peggy, as superego, accuses Freddy of not being able to get through life staight, while Lancaster, as Ego, tries blackmail to get Freddy to accept the Master’s rule. This is a most exquisite revealing of the psychoanalytic structure of a film character – the Master’s – ever presented on film.


2 Responses to “Vladimir Estragon on “The Master””

  1. informationforager Says:

    I’m going to see it. I like all things having to do with psychology and I like things that explore cult religions. It should be real interesting. Now that I have read this review I’ll really be able to focus on the psychology part. Especially since the trailer seemed to just focus on the cult religion part. Thanks.


  2. philebersole Says:

    “Vladimir Estragon” sent me his essay as a guest post some weeks ago. My initial reaction was that he should get his own web log, and not piggy-back on mine.

    But after having seen the movie, I have to say his essay helps me to understand it in a way I wouldn’t have done on my own.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: