“If you men only knew.” – Alice Harford, Eyes Wide Shut
The initial reaction to The Master has been a bit peculiar. I had expected it to be polarizing – the confrontational nature begs for push back – but nothing prepared me for the inspired, thought-provoked confusion experienced by many viewers. I’ve heard, “It was interesting, but I didn’t like it,” more this week than ever before in my life. It’s got me thinking of other films that have garnered such a response. The task is more difficult than one might expect, especially if considering that The Master is one of those rare cases where the qualms expressed by bored viewers actually matches some of the issues pronounced by stuffier, otherwise discerning, critics. The film certainly compels a great deal of thought, even from less-inclined-to-think audiences. But nobody seems to really LOVE it. The film in recent memory that reminds me most of The Master, in terms of tepid response, is the final film by one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest influences, Eye Wide Shut. The more you put the two together, the more the likenesses of premise and approach come together as well.
Similar to Eyes Wide Shut, The Master deals with themes of masculinity. Like Kubrick’s film, the manliness is not handled in your typical ways. The fight scenes are more awkward than they are heart-pounding. The sex is more amateur webcam porn than stylized, hyper-kinetic, and gratuitous. The past isn’t clear in either film, though both allude to the leading man of being out of control. Freddie Quell doesn’t have a definite relationship with either of his parents, while Dr. Bill Harford learns that his wife is not under his thumb, but actually capable of thinking of other men. Each movie is held together by the recurring flashbacks of frustrated sexual longing – Bill’s vision of Alice sleeping with a sailor and Freddie’s memory of comfort with the woman he’s carved from sand.
Central to both are two stars whose presences in the movies stand as the biggest draw for mass audiences. However, these are very different roles for otherwise accessible actors. At the core of the performances are relationships that create two person pull and tugs for emotional control. Eyes Wide Shut revolves around the subtle mind games of jealousy and envy in a wealthy couple’s relationship. The Master, more forceful about its portrayal of control over another’s headspace, revolves around two men – one a controller and one in need of being controlled. In this sense, the roles between the films get reversed from what is initially set up. Sometimes Bill seems like Lancast Dodd and sometimes he’s Freddie. What drives Bill mad is that he can’t control his wife just as Dodd, not Freddie, grows more desperate, doubting his “cause,” against an unwieldy animal of a man.
Structurally, the films are both elliptical and played out in long dialogue passages. If one can discern anything from the reception to these movies, it’s that audiences do not enjoy being talked at without a narrative flow they can grasp onto. While Eyes Wide Shut has a sympathetic character at its core, the character’s motivations are selfish, pigheaded, and randomly self-destructive. The struggles that Bill gets himself in are self-induced, with little relatable goal seeming to lie at the end. He just wants to feel like he is a man. In this sense, Bill becomes Freddie again, wreaking havoc on himself without a clear goal he’s determined to achieve. Just as Alice keeps controlled while her husband goes bonkers, Dodd too seems rigid throughout, even if torn apart by his inability to get his adversary to care about the mental arms race as much as he does.
Time has been good to Eyes Wide Shut. In the public consciousness, it’s gone from a perplexing art film by a senile master to a precisely-built send-off by a genius saving his best for last. The film is one of my very favorites. I’ve thought about the themes over and over and returned to it consistently since my first viewing. While I feel similarly about my initial experience of The Master as I did about Eyes Wide Shut – easier to think about than to like – I can’t predict how the film will grow on me. The fun of movies like these is seeing the places they may go.