Laughter as a Menacing Motif in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master By Sarah Stevenson, Jake Dore, Max Sacra, Michael Hoffman, Caroline Phillips, and Noah Sheir
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams deliver mesmerizing and unnerving performances in The Master, exhibiting the dynamic struggle for control. Under P.T. Anderson’s direction, we find comedic elements within the acting and subject matter while still cognizant of the verbal and behavioral eeriness, and this creates a distinctive uneasiness as we grapple with the complexity of the characters. Analogously, as tension within the film continually builds between the perfection-seeking cult leader and the hopelessly inebriated sex-addict, a similar discomfort is manifested through the motif of laughter.
In semiotics, the act of laughing has a strange sort of duality, as it provides physical signals for both mirth and anxiety. The symbol of laughter is first apparent when the sinister Lancaster Dodd reveals his ambition to control Freddie Quell. When processing him for the first time, the master asks if he is unpredictable; Freddie answers with a fart, followed by juvenile laughter. He uses the defense mechanism of humor. It is evident through Phoenix’s eccentric performance that Freddie is attempting to reduce the traumatic anxiety that Dodd is consciously provoking within him through the clumsy recurrence of an animated nervous laugh. The Master is a film of tension; it’s appropriate for laughter to be present in scenes such as this, since laughter can serve as a physical reaction to emotional stress.
Dodd admits, “It’s good to laugh during processing. Sometimes we forget. Even if it is at the sound of an animal.” In Dodd’s eyes, laughter is not only used to escape fear or pain in this scenario, but is key to separate us from mere animals. In order to take control of the situation, Dodd encourages Freddie to laugh at what inside him is beast rather than human. The power over the mind and the spiritual realm is what Dodd offers, with the help of The Cause; therefore, getting Freddie to continue laughing encourages him to shake off what forces him to act like a lower creature. Freddie’s uneasy laugh appears in numerous situations throughout the film, likely demonstrating that despite being a lecherous drunk, he is conscious of the warped essence of Dodd’s therapeutic methods.
One of the key elements in The Master, as well as all of Anderson’s films, is hypnosis. Dodd uses laughter as a form of hypnosis on his acolytes. Whenever he says something that makes no sense to his followers (for example, the dragon analogy), he makes a joke, and they forget about their reservations about the strange analogies, which fade away with laughter. Dodd is glorified by the laughter of others despite the nonsensical content of his monologues, demonstrating how he holds power despite possessing no real logic or meaning. Dodd uses processing on a woman whose neck was in pain. When she comes back to reality, she starts laughing about how she might have been a man. Her master looks down upon his patient with a calm air of dominance. The laughter serves as a mental sedative to his followers, glazing over inconsistencies and dispelling questions to the veracity of his statements. In the case of Freddie, when the alcoholic gives in to Dodd’s processing after failed attempts at humor, he becomes a part of Dodd’s flock, and Dodd can easily control him with witty jokes and senseless metaphysical flim-flam.
Driven by primal tendencies, Freddie Quell embodies the plight of a flawed man hopelessly searching for love and reassurance through unwholesome practices, perpetuating the volatile nature of humanity. Lancaster Dodd also appears to hold personal demons, which are revealed when he snaps at those who question The Cause (such as the man at the dinner party in New York or the woman at the conference in Phoenix). While most of Freddie’s immoral practices can be traced to some sort of familial tension, the reasons for Dodd’s defects are less certain. Nevertheless, given Dodd’s embrace of Freddie as a son or brother, there are indications that Dodd’s own struggles may have originated from issues related to his family. Ultimately, Freddie and Dodd both seek to replace their broken familial relationships with whatever “family” they can find. In addition, both men use laughter as an antidote for their troubles. Consider when Freddie describes a dream of his family sitting around a table and laughing; perhaps this is a vision of comfort for Freddie that illustrates his desire for a stable and unified family.
Likewise, Lancaster Dodd uses laughter as a method for remedying issues in his own life. Poignantly, after the scene in which Dodd’s inner animal is unleashed while he is caged in a prison with Freddie, there is an episode in which he too loses control of himself and succumbs to a boisterous outbreak of laughter. Shortly after the passionate conflict in the jail cells, Dodd confronts Freddie with animalistic playfulness, attacking him and rolling around in the grass with unrestrained glee. Philip Seymour Hoffman has made it clear that Dodd’s jumbled mentality and defensiveness render him an essentially powerless and pathetic dissembler. This laughter motif executed by the actors is a discomforting element within the film, supporting P.T. Anderson’s effort to resist giving his characters or the audience emotional consolation.
As Lancaster Dodd reveals his innate beastliness and need to relieve anxiety, it is emphasized that his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), is the one who holds ominous supremacy. She never laughs, but watches on with a spooky and formidable manner of stoicism. Peggy demonstrates that she is the person who holds control by not succumbing to the kind of emotion that Freddie and Dodd divulge. For example, the naked female dancing scene contains laughter, but Peggy sits in the midst of the celebration with crossed legs and a solemn countenance. Amy Adams understands that Peggy, even in post WII, has a certain amount of control over Lancaster.
Peggy does not hold back when behind closed doors, as she drills Lancaster about The Cause, saying they need to “attack” and “defend.” Peggy is a menacing character, empowering for the role of women, but she may overstep her boundaries. Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, says that women in film are portrayed as the mother, passive, and bearer of meaning. Likewise, Peggy can be seen as a pleasant woman, but she has a stern attitude and face, as we especially see in the scene where she orders Freddie to change the color of her eyes. The lack of laughter in Peggy’s personality shows that she is capable of controlling men and that her role as a woman does not dismiss her large amount of power in The Cause.
Throughout this film, Anderson uses laughter as a representation of human submission. Towards the end, this idea is encapsulated in Freddie’s eventual freedom from The Cause. Dodd and Freddie are playing a game called “pick a point,” in which they pick a spot in the distance and drive a motorcycle as fast they can towards that point. One key feature of this scene is the release of laughter and joy that Dodd has while riding, while Freddie, who interestingly rides in the opposite direction as Dodd, remains stone-faced as he drives off no longer under the controlling grasp of Dodd.
When Freddie discovers that Doris, his presumed true love, has married another man in his absence, he once again feels lost. He returns to Dodd in hopes of once again having a master without actual commitment to The Cause itself. In the final scene between Dodd and Freddie, there is an uneasiness and tension between the two characters. Their relationship is clearly no longer the playful and laughter-filled friendship that it once was, but rather, Dodd tells Freddie that in the next life that they will be sworn enemies and he will show him no mercy.
Dodd says, “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” Laughter is not used as a specific master that is served, but rather as a symbol of submission and the act of ultimately succumbing to the authority of a master. Through this motif, the audience gets closure on the character of Freddie, who essentially ends hopelessly lost, just as Dodd predicted. This is portrayed through one of the final scenes in the film, in which Freddie is having sex with a woman he just met, and attempts to go through the processing session Dodd put him through, as if he is following a script. Freddie cannot be his own master and he cannot fully separate himself from Dodd. Both he and the girl cannot take his fake processing session seriously, and this is not because he didn’t say the right things, but rather because Freddie is not a master. He remains a lost returned soldier who is incapable of finding his own path to truth and love in a changed and unfamiliar America.