Paul Thomas Anderson learned to make movies by watching movies. Each of his films bears the ghostly fingerprints of his masters and mentors: the obsession and one-point perspective of Kubrick; the tough-guy veneers and fetid societies that sated the first decade of Scorsese’s career; the intense meditative stares of Jonathan Demme, constantly reminding us that we are, of course, watching a film—we’re immersed in it, but we are spectators, non-participants, in the hands of an artist. Anderson has never created voyeuristic or naturalistic films, never approached Cinéma vérité, and he’s never tried to feign an amateur aesthetic. He crafts films indebted to the grand ambience of New Hollywood, rendered unnaturally lucid and diligently composed. To watch one of Anderson’s films is to get a condensed lesson on the artisanship and history of American cinema.
But Anderson’s most obvious early influence—one he has name-checked, with whom he has worked, and whom, critics argue, Anderson has since shed—is Robert Altman. Altman’s long, serpentine career touched nearly every genre, although most simply remember him for his signature ensembles pieces of the ’70s. Altman is like a root note around which Anderson wreaths his symphonies. He returns, again and again, to Altman, and has, by now, visited a protean spread of Altman’s films.
The embryonic years of Anderson’s career were deeply, and overtly, influenced by Altman’s loquacious third phase: those long, character-driven films of the ’70s and ’90s (and into the early aughts) that engendered the moniker Altmanesque. Anderson’s first three films, Hard 8, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia, each gradually longer and progressively more intricate, are tinged with Altman’s style, but Anderson didn’t simply craft ersatz Altman: he used those sprawling, epochal tragi-coms to find his own style. Both auteurs’ works feature huge, hodgepodge casts of characters inhabiting the same Kierkegaardian world but set on very different paths, some on a crash course and some already drifting off.
By the time Anderson unveiled The Master, an enigma paced like a lucid dream, the Altman influences were far subtler, so deeply embedded in the film’s DNA that most critics didn’t even make the Altman connection.
In one of her trademark longform review essays for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael called McCabe & Mrs. Miller a “beautiful pipe dream,” and compared the Robert Altman’s prowess to that of Bergman and Fellini. McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the first of Altman’s naturalistic films (and the first of his anti-genre films), is keen and delineated in its portrayal of a lethargic Midwestern town, and Altman’s grasp of character relations and the machinery of a functioning township is almost journalistic. McCabe, in Kael’s eyes, had a similar feel to Ingmar Bergman’s early pictures, which offered similarly cryptic portrayals of human interaction, the dark side of humanity pervading the allure of city life, of young love and small town life succumbing to bigger, more sinister urges. And, probably unbeknownst to Kael, Altman would continue to gravitate towards the eventual hallucinatory, pensive, sexually taut style of Fellini and Bergman, all qualities which would ultimately manifest in Altman’s 1977 experiment 3 Women.
When Altman unveiled 3 Women, Kael balked. Altman—her “Boy,” as she called him—lost the support of his greatest champion. He released one more lauded film,I (well, it was lauded in the UK but not so much in the states), and then his career went stagnant for a decade. Popeye underperformed, HealtH didn’t perform at all, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean , Jimmy Dean earned polarizing reviews but didn’t do well commercially, though, like most of Altman’s lesser-known films, it has only grown in stature since the dawn of Laserdiscs and DVDs.
Altman’s fascination with identity, something that permeates his entire oeuvre, suffuses 3 Women. The film is his Americanized manifestation of Bergman’s Persona; he trades in Bergman’s rocky Scandinavian shores and frigid fjords for the dusty plains of Southern California—or is it Texas?—and adds some swimming pools and guns and at least one staggering drunkard, essential Americana.
The film begins with the camera panning past an underwater montage of monstrous looking women, dangerous and sexual, and we see the artist—a woman—adding final touches. Then we realize that the paintings are on the bottom of a pool; in actuality, the water is in the lens of the camera, and as the camera sways, the liquid sloshes back and forth, an amniotic fluid we can’t quite penetrate.
We meet Millie (Shelley Duvall), who is assisting an elderly woman walk around the pool as part of aquatic rehab, and the camera keeps gliding around the pool until it rests on Pinky (Sissy Spasek), standing on the other side of a long window, watching Millie voyeuristically through her own glass screen, as we are. She stands static, her face devoid of emotion. Audiences in theaters probably thought of Carrie almost immediately as Spacek was only a year removed from her defining role, and that unmistakably cryptic stare, like she’s leaving her body and passing into yours, her eyes cold but not dead.
Pinky is new to the clinic and Millie is asked to show her the ropes. Millie is nice, informative, one of the best, a veteran and reliable. Pinky takes a liking to her immediately. We meet The Twins, whom no one likes we’re told more than once, and whom Pinky confuses for the same person prior to learning of their twindom. The theme of duality is subtly creeping into the film, though first-time viewers won’t pick up on this. But, like Vertigo, or 2001, or anything touched by Tarkovsky, the beauty of 3 Women lies in the subtleties and intricacies you notice upon repeated viewings.
Duvall and Spacek are flawlessly cast because they’re both enveloped by this air of blameless passivity; they’re not sexy or lustful. They’re best at portraying “normal” women in supernatural situations (Spacek in Carrie and Duvall in The Shining). Spacek is more unnerving here than she was in Carrie because she shows us an almost annoying innocence, a child-like naivety before her metamorphosis. De Palma, whose flair for melodrama and highly stylized climaxes, sometimes multiple climaxes in a row, has always overpowered his attempts at subtlety (that slow-mo locker-room opening in Carrie is mesmerizing but far from restrained); Altman uses subtlety caustically.
Altman Altman manages to use every mirror and reflective surface in Texas to deviously deepen his identity/personality/duality theme. A lesser director might use the tired trope of reflections = duality with the bluntness of a sledgehammer to your face, but Altman feels more like he’s slowly slipping a shiv between your ribs.
When the two characters start to meld into one another—or rather when Pinky’s fetish with Millie gives way to obsession and her longing to be Millie is realized (or maybe it isn’t?), the film starts to unravel. But it’s a purposeful unraveling, a hushed surrealism. Altman’s gliding camerawork pulls us—gently, very gently—into the dream. He forgoes the vast scope and realism of Nashville and McCabe and instead delves into the psychosis of female relationships. 3 Women feels like a dream because it was literally pulled from one of its progenitor’s dreams: it follows no discernible logic, as Altman had only a vague outline in lieu of a script, but it’s never frustrating or manipulative. It flows effortlessly, carrying you like a spectral guide to the murky depths of feminine self-awakening. Scenes drift by ethereally. The film is quietly discomforting. Identity is ephemeral, a perverse permeation.
As enigmatic as anything Altman ever created, 3 Women doesn’t pretend to peddle in finality. It doesn’t offer answers; it doesn’t even ask questions. It simply shows us: shows us the dream percolating in Altman’s head, humans drifting through an almost-alien world, our own but somehow not, always recognizable but harboring strange creatures that resemble humans, act like humans, but always seem on the verge of pulling off their flesh-costumes and revealing some eerie entity or apparition.
Like 3 Women, Anderson’s The Master opens with a shot of water, the entire screen a churning, frothy swell. For Altman, the motif of fluids and water represent amniotic fluid (he says so in the Criterion DVD commentary); Anderson similarly uses water to represents birth, change, more of a cleansing medium than Altman, but he fills the screen exclusively with writhing waves right at the beginning, just before a very strange scene of sexual frustration and insolence, and again at the end, right before the final scenes of the film, which bookend the narrative with sad, lonely longings, showing the forlorn nature of lust devoid of love.
If 3 Women is Altman dipping Bergman in the red, white, and blue, then The Master is, by proxy, Anderson injecting a shot of testosterone to Bergman’s and Altman’s films. Few directors this side of the Bush years have vivisected masculinity with the fierce, unwavering precision of Anderson. He doesn’t simply emasculate his characters: he wraps them in a manly veneer, then slowly tugs at the dangling string and slowly unravels their manhood.
The magnanimity of the sea in The Master brings to mind Melville’s verbose ponderings in Moby Dick: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure…” Like Melville’s prose, The Master moves fluidly, a peculiar ebb and flow giving every scene the oxymoronic feeling of restless tranquility. The tug and pull of tempo, of camera movement, echoes the internal and external conflicts of the film’s two leads, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, an apparently brilliant nuclear physicist (he has a slew of degrees, according to the sign outside of his house/workplace), writing, and leader, or “Master,” of a cult-like religious movement called The Cause. Everyone knows the cause is inspired by Scientology, and the similarities are clearly present, but the film is not about Scientology. The Cause is to The Master what oil is to There Will Blood, or whaling to Moby Dick: it’s is a literary device, a paroxysm and a microcosm, philosophical weapon and a Macguffin, a vessel rather than a destination.
Phoenix is Freddy Quell, a PSTD-stricken Navy veteran and alcoholic with a truculent temper. Like Altman’s women, Freddie has some deep-seated sexual frustration and identity issues. While plastered, he wanders onto Dodd’s ship, on which a party is being thrown, and wakes up the next morning as a member of Dodd’s crew. (His homebrewed booze, made of paint thinner, is so potent that Dodd, who also exhibits the inability to drink in moderation, begs him to stay and make more; this same booze killed a man on the cabbage farm where Freddy worked immediately before his meeting with Dodd.) Freddy is violent, sexist, and angry; he views women as fuckable objects, seeing his Rorschach ink blots as “cocks,” “pussies,’ and “cocks going into pussies.” When in a room of mostly women, while a tanked Dodd sings a song with piano accompaniment, Freddy suddenly sees all of the women as being naked, their jiggly thighs passing before the camera and their ungroomed nether regions in full display. This isn’t portrayed sexually, though: the women are playing instruments, dancing, talking. They’re real people, not photoshopped models (kudos to Anderson for doing what should be a fairly normal thing, showing women as they really look, something Hollywood shuns). They simply exist, casually mingling at a reception. But, you know, naked.
It’s in Dodd that Freddy finds a sort of solace. Dodd asks him questions about his past, and it’s the second time we see Freddy smile or jovial (he seems enthusiastic in the film’s first scene, in which Freddy viciously dry-humps the sand golem of a woman his Navy comrades and he made on the beach; he then cuddles up next to it, staring at it with big, heavy eyes, and we know he’s both unhappy and seriously deranged). But this is a different kind of joy; when Dodd attempts to end the brief question session, Freddy yells at him: he wants to continue. So Dodd probes deeper, getting Freddy to admit to having sexual affairs with his Aunt on multiple occasions. The slow scene is almost excruciating as Freddy divulges his most personal anecdotes and admissions, without blinking, for maybe five minutes. At the end of the film, while an older woman straddles him mid-coitus, Freddy proceeds to ask her the very same questions Dodd asked him. He tries to conflate the physical pleasure of a woman’s body with the inner harmony of Dodd.
On its surface, The Master seems to proceed in an Altmanless vein, weaving a loose, almost amorphous narrative with performances described as frenzied and flawless by the film’s champions, hyperbolic by its detractors. The camera is so carefully placed and so calculated–even the film’s most vehement haters have to admit that Anderson doesn’t do anything superfluous–but, unlike “Punch-Drunk Love,” the film’s claustrophobic framing is exfoliated by the lush images of nature, of vast spaces, the contrast of rigid form and fluid, drifting visuals. Like Kubrick’s 2001 or Jacques Tati’s Playtime, The Master and 3 Women are experiences, not just narratives. Each film is akin to a Buddhist Koan, a riddle that doesn’t propose an immediate discernible answer. It’s for the students to ponder.