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The Master: What does it all mean?

Or: Once is not enough?

"They love it, they don't like it, they like it better a second time, they see it a third time and they reverse their opinion." -- Paul Thomas Anderson on "The Master," in a Toronto Star interview with Peter Howell

The critics agree! Paul Thomas Anderson's new film "The Master" is... ambiguous. What they don't agree on is whether, as we say in the software world, that's a bug or a feature. Is the movie "demanding" and artfully elusive, challenging audiences by refusing to offer a conventional dramatic catharsis or provide an artificially wrapped-up ending; or is the thing just vague, opaque, muddled? The answer depends on who you ask, what they think of Anderson as a filmmaker and, possibly, what they expected going in: a historical exposé of Scientology, a portrait of post-war/micd-century America, "character study," an acting duel... Take a look:

"I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson. Hollywood films give you zilch to believe in, tying up their narratives with a tidy bow so you won't leave confused and angry. Anderson refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences." -- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

"But Anderson doesn't commit to the inspiration for his movie; he doesn't commit to anything, really. You walk out of 'The Master' baffled and frazzled, wondering what this sumptuous, commanding movie was trying to say or why it was even made.... Some critics have championed 'The Master' as an intentionally elusive and mysterious movie, but I think that's a cop-out, a fancy way of saying Anderson couldn't fully convey the ideas in his head. " -- Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald

"But unlike Freddie, who is all elbows physically and all thumbs emotionally, and whose fight-or-flight instincts are uncontrollable, its maker absolutely knows where he's going, and how to get there." -- Adam Nayman, Reverse Shot

"Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn't clear what it thinks about it." -- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"This is one of the great character studies, and one of the great personality puzzles. And I'm betting this openness to interpretation will one day distinguish 'The Master' as a great film." -- Steven James Snyder, Time.com

Unsurprisingly, Anderson told Howell that he's delighted when people want to see his movies more than once:

"I love it; it's exciting. I've seen films that I absolutely could not stand when I saw it. Or I just thought, 'I don't know what is going on here.' Then five years later, you see it and you can't believe you missed something or what were you thinking? Or the opposite: You see a film, and you think the heavens have opened up. Then a couple of years later, you're not quite sure what the hell's going on, what were you thinking?

"Films should be like that. That's great. They're moving, living things. In different situations they're different, you know? You walk into the theatre expecting something, or you're in a bad mood, or you're in a good mood -- you're open to anything. There are just too many issues going into a film to strike everybody as a (immediate) win, you know?"

As I mentioned near the end of my previous post about "The Master," I think Stephanie Zacherek has raised some salient questions about "The Master" -- and movies in general -- in a piece she wrote at The A.V. Club called "Should some movies be taken more seriously than others?" Why do we praise or criticize movies for what -- on the surface, at least -- sound like the very same reasons?

It's not something that's necessarily easy to pinpoint. Some movies inspire a measure of trust so that, even if you don't know "what's going on" while you're watching it, or what to make of it all afterwards, you feel you are in good hands and, therefore, are willing to give the film and the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. In some instances, that might be because you have confidence that the filmmakers know what they're doing. As Robert Denerstein wrote at Movie Habit:

After Anderson's last movie -- "There Will Be Blood" -- I had an e-mail exchange with a screenwriter who found the movie lacking because it had no third act. The same can be said of "The Master." But Anderson is too skilled for us to assume that he doesn't know how to create a third act.

Zacharek, however, is not so willing to believe. Perhaps the filmmaker who reportedly took the inspiration for his professional monicker from P.T. Barnum (he also insisted that Mark Wahlberg's schlong was for real in "Boogie Nights"), is as much of a con man and bullshit artist as Dodd:

... [There's] something distressing about the urge to anoint Paul Thomas Anderson as -- finally! at long last!--a cinematic genius. For one thing, he is at precisely the point when filmmakers often become less interesting rather than more. (I would argue that it happened with Kubrick and Godard, to name just two, though you may have different examples.) The idea that certain filmmakers reach a point where respect is their due, rather than something they earn film by film, defies one of the most immediate and visceral pleasures of moviegoing: The pleasure of seeing for yourself.

I've written quite a lot about how expectations can color your experience of a movie. Familiarity with a filmmaker's work is certainly one of them. You're obviously more likely to give the movie the benefit of the doubt (and possibly to see things in it you wouldn't otherwise) if you like the filmmaker's other movies.

Unless you're a critic or somebody who tries to see everything (within reason -- maybe you only like horror movies or art films), you're not likely to go pay to see something you've told yourself in advance that you probably won't like. In my case, I find I'm much more likely to feel let down by something that isn't as good as I hoped or expected it to be. If I go into a movie with low expectations, I'm much more likely to be pleasantly surprised. It's kind of like when you meet somebody for the first time: If you've been told that they're terrific, or if that's your initial impression, and then they turn out to be nasty or insufferable, you're disappointed and you're left feeling bad that your judgement failed you; if, on the other hand, you don't particularly like somebody at first and they prove to be wonderful in ways you never imagined, you're delighted and surprised by how things turned out. As George W. Bush repeatedly demonstrated, low expectations can work in someone's (or some movies') favor: the lower your expectations, the greater the chances that you'll be impressed or satisfied with... not much. ("I'm the master of low expectations," he boasted.)

And then there's the question (as I mentioned previously) of feeling "I think I need to see it again" in order to understand or resolve your ambivalent feelings about a movie: What are the ramifications of that? Zacharek wonders:

As a film critic, I follow a lot of other critics on Twitter. Last week, as "The Master" geared up for its initial limited release, I noticed a number of critics and other observers noting that anyone who hoped to get the most out of the movie really ought to see it twice. In their eyes, the picture is that rich, that artistically challenging, that impossible to immediately "get." But the subtext of those tweets -- unintentional, I'm certain -- was passive-aggressively dictatorial. The unspoken suggestion was, "If you didn't get it the first time, keep going back until you do."

But what if viewers see "The Master" once and not only don't warm to it -- or find it engaging in any of the ways we engage with films we don't exactly like -- but also don't think there's much to get? Serious moviegoers who care about reviews -- and, admittedly, there may be fewer of those than there were 40 years ago -- may be baffled by all the accolades, or possibly cowed by them. Everyone who goes to the movies (critics included) has those "What did they see that I didn't see?" moments.

She's right about a lot of those reviews. Just look at the blurbs on RottenTomatoes for a sampling:

"I left the theater not entirely sure what 'The Master' was about. I can't wait to get back and see it again." -- Dana Stevens, Slate

"The movie may not even be fully comprehensible on first viewing, the bigger patterns in the narrative and the rhythms of the filmmaking revealing themselves more fully and clearly only with a return visit." -- Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

"Anderson's audacious films defy facile interpretation. Having seen it just once, I'm not sure I grasp it." -- Colin Calvert Minneapolis Star Tribune

"This portrait of 1950s America is like none you've ever seen, and it's unsettling -- but the minute it was over, I wanted to watch it again. 'The Master,' magnetic as its title character, draws you in, even as you're not quite sure what you're seeing." -- Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times

"The first time watching is like breezing past a piece of beautiful art, being stunned, uncertain and intrigued by it. The second time can only encourage more interpretation, reflection and understanding." -- Randy Myers, San Jose Mercury News

"The lights go down, they come up 137 minutes later, and you're left to ask yourself: What on earth did I just see?" -- Chris Vognar, Dallas Morning News

"This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief." -- A.O. Scott, New York Times

All of these excerpts are from positive reviews, some of them ecstatic. But you see what they have in common: "I liked it (or I think I do), but I don't understand it." And, in some instances: "I feel I need to see it again before I can offer a cohesive interpretation or a conclusive response." Now, this is a legitimate response to a work that is not easily categorizable, that skillfully confounds expectations and challenges the audience to do a bit more "work" than most movies ask of them. Or, it might be simply an evasive maneuver: "I'm not sure what to make of this, but I don't want to be 'wrong'!"

I'd argue (as I have, repeatedly) that the weakness of many movies is that they offer nothing but superficial pleasures. There's not much to hold your interest beyond immediate sensations, and you gain nothing from subsequent viewings except diminishing returns, like an alcoholic who keeps having to consumer more and more booze to reach the same level of intoxication she used to get with, say, a single beer.

Movies that draw you back for another look -- whether you "liked" them the first time or not -- usually tend to be the ones you treasure most, because they persist more vividly in your memory and offer more to think about long after the lights come up. They also tend to give you more to discover on repeat viewings because they're more densely layered -- they don't give up everything they have on a single exposure. Once you get to a certain age and have seen a certain number of movies, you may find (as I have) that when somebody asks you if you've seen a particular picture you'll remember going to see it, or even writing about it, but won't recall much of anything from the movie itself. (Usually there's an image that stays with me -- but not always. I'm almost certain I saw the 1986 hit "Crocodile Dundee," but I remember nothing except for what's-his-name's face and hat from the print ads.)

I was more disappointed in myself than in "The Master" -- because I didn't want to be one of those people who had to punt on writing comprehensively about it after seeing it once. But although I started writing about it immediately after seeing it, I found myself thinking about particular moments and patterns and wanting to go back and see if some of the impressions I had while watching it were developed from beginning to end. So, dammit, yes -- I do want to see it again. That's no guarantee that I'll be more favorably impressed the second time, though: I thought less of "The Tree of Life" after returning to it, because it struck me as more numbingly literal than it had seemed on the first pass, when its half-heard "poetic" voiceovers and narrative grammar felt more... mysterious.

When we say we "didn't understand" or "didn't get" a movie, we're probably talking about one or more of three things: story (what happened?), theme (what's it "about"?) or aesthetics (how does form express content?). Sometimes you just can't tell what's happening on a plot level: How did they wind up there? Who's doing what to whom? What are the relationships between the characters? How did so-and-so know about that? This can be more or less intentional on the filmmaker's part. Sometimes it's just sloppiness or incompetence. Or it might be a sign that the movie has concerns that aren't so much about storytelling. (As I've said before, when a movie seem terribly interested in telling a coherent story, it's either incompetent or it's up to something else. Might be worthwhile to look at it in another way.) And in some cases the story is quite complex, so even though all the details and explanations are there, you might overlook a few at first glance because you were paying attention to something else -- and hooray for movies that are rich enough to show you more than one thing at a time!

(spoilers)

1) Story. As Dana Stevens noted at Slate, "'The Master' has a dreamlike, time-frame-hopping narrative structure that makes it especially hard to piece together in retrospect." Those chronology questions bothered me more "in retrospect" than they did while I was watching it. But they don't concern me much because even though the movie doesn't literally take place inside of Freddy's head (that is, it's not a "dream" or told strictly and exclusively from his point of view), it reflects Freddy's fractured sensibility. Some scenes can be interpreted as his memories or dreams or fantasies (and in the shot in which we see Peggy's irises change color -- something Amy Adams says PTA just came up with spontaneously on the set -- we are seeing directly through his eyes), and there are blackouts and woozy visuals that reflect his mental state, but the overall story is pretty straightforward, even if the chronology sometimes shifts around a little:

Freddie is in the US Navy, on a ship in the Pacific during WW II. He's treated for mental disturbances and violent episodes (whether related to combat stress or previous conditions) that are probably exacerbated the special hooch he imbibes, made improvisational from ethanol and other solvents. One night he hops aboard a boat sailing from San Francisco to New York (through the Panama Canal), where he meets Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a spiritual cult known as "The Cult." Dodd takes a shine to him, but Freddie proves to be incorrigible. One day, in the desert, he rides off on a motorcycle. He goes back home to look up Doris, a young girl he once knew and says he might have loved, but finds she's gotten married. After bumming around for a while, he finds Dodd in England and goes to visit him. Dodd offers to take him back in, but says that if Freddie walks away, he never wants to see him again. Freddie leaves. He hooks up with a girl at a pub. We see him back on the beach from the beginning of the picture, with a female figure sculpted out of sand. The End.

Some of these story details are presented as "flashbacks" (the scene with allegedly 16-year-old Doris on the park bench, with Freddie in Navy blues), some as dreams (the movie balcony phone call in which Dodd invites him to "England"), and there are some strange and unexplained ellipses. But I see "The Master" as a movie more like "American Psycho" or "Eyes Wide Shut" in which it's not terribly profitable to ask empirical questions, or to try to distinguish between what's "real" and what's imagined. In worlds like this one, the movie is the "dream." It's legit to wonder how and why Freddie rode off on the motorcycle the way he did, or why the others didn't follow him in the car, but does it really matter that much? I don't think so.

2) Theme (aka "subtext"). Some who consider themselves narrative artists say they're just interested in "telling a good story." Well, frankly, that's not really enough, is it? A "good story" doesn't just happen at random. It has to be told with intent, shaped by the storyteller. So, the question inevitably arises: Why tell this particular story? It's not just a matter of asking "What's the point?" or "What's the movie trying to say?" (both good questions, though the answers may not be simple or easily summarized), and I'm not suggesting that every story must have a takeaway lesson ("Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union," said Samuel Goldwyn), but you should feel that whoever made the movie wanted to express or communicate something besides "I want to make money off you."

In the interview linked to above, above, Anderson says: "You can't tell someone that their opinion is wrong." That's true, to some extent: A writer or director or actor or DP may (or may not) have his own ideas about what a movie means, but once it's up there on the screen, the filmmakers are done with it. From then on, it's up to anyone who watches it to interpret what they see.

The always-engaging Bilge Ebiri wrote a thought-provoking round-up for Vulture.com, "What Is 'The Master' Really About?: Five Interpretations," which are: 1) "The search for a family and stability." 2) "The politics of cults, and the cults of politics." 3) "Doubles." 4) "Post-war ennui." 5) "Acting!" The latter is explored by Richard Brody at The Front Row, who sees "The Master" as "a grudge match between two styles of performance" -- with Hoffman's Dodd as a Wellesian Charles Foster Kane and Phoenix's Freddie as "Paul Muni recalling Lon Chaney, Sr.":

The cinematic archetypes at play -- the American workingman in an era of physical labor and total warfare, the tycoon who built an empire with his physical energy -- clash as mightily as the characters, and the terrifying sound of their battle resonates in our own therapeutic and abstracted age as the vital resistance of the visceral will of the wounded human animal to the prospect of excessive perfection.

Slate's Stevens, who wasn't quite sure what to make of "The Master" when she reviewed it, saw it two more times and wrote what she calls a "full-throated defense of the act of rewatching." For her it finally came down to this:

"The Master" is above all a love story between Joaquin Phoenix's damaged WWII vet, Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffmann's charismatic charlatan, Lancaster Dodd. And that relationship is powerful and funny and twisted and strange enough that maybe that's all the movie needs to be about.

And that's pretty much what Anderson himself has said to the press. As he told the Washington Post: "After collecting all this footage, when we got into the editing room it became clear that the marching orders, the party line to attack, was the love story... two guys just desperate for each other, but doomed. Sadly doomed."

Still, that's apparent on the narrative surface -- text rather than subtext, as they say. (Though Kenigsberg says the key to the movie involves "not looking at it extratextually but textually.")

The Toronto Globe and Mail details some of the influences and ideas that Anderson says led him to create his story:

His touchstones for "The Master" include " Let There Be Light" [John Huston's famous 1946 "shellshock" documentary, commissioned by the US Army and suppressed until 1981], a film about a veterans hospital; "a really weird book called American Patriot... [a biography of most-decorated vet Bud Day by Robert Coram]," who wrote about coming back from the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam; Time and Again, by Jack Finney, "a novel about time travel that is so sweet, so sentimental - I mean that in a good way;" some early pamphlets on Dianetics; and a magazine called The Aberry "that was really good in terms of getting inside that period, and people who were interested in any kind of spiritual movement, whether it was yoga or handwriting analysis, that would help them uncover why they were here.

*

"There's no shortage of good stuff from this era," he continues, "that postwar mix of optimism and an incredibly large body count behind you. How can you feel great about being victorious with so much death around you? So all the talk [in the film's cult] about past lives, the afterlife, they were great ideas, hopeful ideas, and fascinating to me to write a story around."

Karina Longworth of Village Voice Media (who noted in her lede: "There's something startlingly noncommittal about many of the initial reviews of 'The Master'...") says the movie "forces the question of whether personality change is possible -- or even advisable." Many others have focused on Dodd's speech to Freddie as a thematic statement: "If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world." Jack Giroux at Film School Rejects opines:

Dodd is not "The Master" by the end of the film. He never was, and perhaps he comes to see that. He more than likely once believed he had the answers to life's greatest mysteries, but after snapping at a questioning follower, played by Laura Dern, he's stopped drinking his own Kool-Aid. He's tired and frustrated, wishing he could live Freddie's life. He envies a man who never worries about his place in the world or what it all means. Freddie doesn't have to answer those questions, but Dodd seems doomed to.

The conclusion is simple: Freddie is "The Master." [...] In a nutshell, that's all The Master is: an unlikely friendship doomed from the start.

Kent Jones in Film Comment looks at the movie in terms of the history of Scientology, culminating in:

America is a story of forgetting and eliding, cherry-picking and remolding the past, conflating ideas and notions and isolated gestures and grand movements swirling through the informational ether and rewriting history according to desires and projected outcomes, powered by the dream of breaking through to the other side of neurosis, reality, life, inhibition, or the space-time continuum.

And the way Jones sees "The Master," the historical feeds into the psychological, and each becomes a metaphor for the other:

You could say that "The Master" picks up where "There Will Be Blood" leaves off. By the Forties, long after the great religious revivals and reforms, after the land has been tamed and settled, the railroads and cities built, the gold mined, the oceans of oil tapped and the fortunes of the Carnegies and Dohenys and Vanderbilts made and ensconced in legend, a mounting standardization, desperation, and rancidness has set in, and another war has left men shattered. The only conceivable frontier is within: the liberation of the self from routines, possessions, and habits of mind, whether they've been inculcated by trauma or affluence.

And then there's Ben Kenigsberg of Time Out Chicago, who reads the movie as a metaphor for film itself:

Cinema as thought experiment, "The Master" is about many things: the nature of communities, the fate of mentally ill veterans (an old noir theme), even the cinema itself. Phoenix's career-making performance is basically a reptilian variation on the Brando archetype, and Freddie -- who name-checks Doris Day and at one point hides out in a movie theater -- may well be a cinephile of sorts. Films, like cults, traffic in shared illusions.

(Kenigsberg later offered further observations in a piece called "The Master | An explanation," which I quote below.)

Some Scanners commenters have (as usual) sharp insights, too. Andrew Wyatt posted some perceptive interpretations: "I see 'The Master'' as a work about the failures of belief systems--religious, philosophical, political--in providing solutions to destructive patterns of behavior." DJF observes: "It's a movie about people who know they're broken or unhappy and who are trying to find a solution or 'cure' to their difficulties." And Jonathan Leithold-Patt offers this fruitful way of looking at it:

Go back and think about each scene individually. Think about which character in each scene is the one in control, the dominant force, the positive charge. Think about the character who is being subjugated, who has been pushed into a position of submission, of "servant" to the "master."... This movie is all about roles, power plays, positions of authority. The ones seemingly in charge may not actually be the ones with the most power. It's about the necessity for control of one's self and others, but also the destructiveness of it. The necessity of being close to someone, being a part of something, of having someone who can guide you, lead you. Also the destructiveness of that. It's kind of a "can't live with it, can't live without it" type of thing to me. That is life. If the characters are hard to read it's because humans are hard to read.

3) Aesthetics. What most interests me -- in "The Master" and just about every other movie -- is how form becomes content, how the film conveys its meaning in stylistic terms. In my previous piece I mentioned (half-facetiously) one way of looking at the repeated opening shot of the ocean seen from the stern of a ship as a metaphor for time and the collective unconscious -- the territory The Cause and "The Master" is primarily concerned with exploring.

Peter Howell asked Anderson about that shot and "the film's recurring water imagery":

"Ha, ha! Those water shots are just nice. Sometimes you do things that you think are a good idea. Other times, you just hope that some feeling hits you when you're putting the film together. You have to follow that. [...]

"I'm not trying to be arty or elusive or anything. Where we come from in the editing room can sometimes be intellectual, but more often it's pretty instinctual. More often, if you looked under the hood, you'd see how amazingly disorganized and confused we all were."

I wanted to quote that because it says something important about creativity -- something I've found some moviegoers find difficult to accept. Just because we notice something in a film doesn't mean it has to be intentional; the important thing is that it's there. It's the work we respond to, because that's all we have; we can never know the intentions behind it for certain -- and maybe the artist doesn't, either. That's the way humans are wired.

I noticed a pattern in "The Master" that piqued my interest: Scenes often begin in media res and end abruptly and prematurely, throwing the viewer, off-balance, into the next. Each time, it may take a little while to orient yourself to the who, what, where and when. That's consistent throughout the whole movie, and this structure, from scene to scene, is like a fractal, replicated in the larger movie. It becomes a picture about frustrated expectations, living with disappointment, lack of closure. Life is perpetually unfinished, yet we keep repeating the same patterns again and again.

I noted before that when Freddie is working as a photographer, he explodes unprovoked at an anodyne gentleman who turns out to look very much like Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd. I also thought the model at the store looked a bit like Peggy (Amy Adams) and that the girl who goes to bed with Freddie at the end resembled Doris, his halcyon girlfriend. Doris may have been the love of Freddie's life -- if we can say that he's capable of experiencing an emotion like love, and we have no indication that he or anyone else in this movie is. The closest thing is the difficult, magnetic attraction between Freddie and Dodd.

I want to bring up one more thing about interpretation. Ben Kenigsberg has pointed out a few important concrete details that some writers seem to have missed:

Part of the key to watching "The Master" is realizing that Freddie is a wildly unreliable narrator. In the second shot (the first time we see him), we're shown only his helmet and his eyes; as he turns to the side, he seems to be nodding off. Throughout the film, we're nearly always in his headspace or dreamspace; especially on repeat viewings, one is conscious of how often Freddie is asleep. Some sequences are clearly fantasies -- Freddie imagining the women dancing naked, for instance, or the phone call in the movie theater, which ends with a cut to Freddie slumbering in his chair. (He also refers to "my dream" in his final confrontation with Lancaster.)

It's also interesting to think about the few moments in the film when Freddie is not present. Perhaps the most obvious is the scene in which Peggy -- Lancaster's master -- administers a hand job to her husband. Since this bit directly follows the naked dancing, it may well be another of Freddie's hallucinations: He fantasizes that Peggy is trying to dissuade Lancaster from having contact with him. (This scene is immediately followed by a cut to Peggy awakening Freddie and telling him to quit boozing.)

Generally, this was how I saw the things Kenigsberg cites, though I wouldn't really call the Dodd/Peggy typing scene a "hallucination." (See below.) What's important is to pay attention, as he does, to basic continuity grammar-- how the movie uses it and how/when it disregards it.

Dana Stevens says that in another look at the party scene she went "from WTF to WTM ('whoa, that's multivalent')":

Only on a third viewing did it occur to me that the naked singalong might also be read as unfolding in the mind of Peggy Dodd, who's one of the nude clappers on view, albeit modestly shielded by the arm of her chair. To the extent that there's any dramatic action in this scene, it unfolds not between Master and the pretty young women he teases and tickles, but between the silent Peggy, seen only in the background of a wide shot that includes her husband and all the other partiers, and Freddie, whom we see only in intermittent medium close-ups, alone in the frame -- a disconnected outsider whose spatial relation to the action remains unclear. As the revelry unfolds, Peggy fixes the out-of-frame spot we assume Freddie must occupy with a baleful, indeterminate glare and is herself eventually blocked from view by the bobbing, dancing bodies of the women surrounding her. Is it possible that the vision of Master surrounded by roomful of naked temptresses is a paranoid fantasy on the part of the fiercely protective Peggy (who in the very next scene will assert her sexual authority over her husband in what I can only pray will be this year's most hostile on-screen handjob)?

From the placement of the camera (Freddie's POV in the corner) and the reverse angles showing Dodd dancing and singing with the naked women (including the pregnant Peggy, who remains seated and still, returning Freddie's gaze), and the way the shots alternate between a wide view of the room and a single shot of Freddie watching it, I don't think there can be any doubt about whose consciousness the scene is filtered through. There may be a question (at least at first -- more deliberate disorientation) about whether it's a fantasy (how about the moment when Dodd's daughter touches Freddie -- another sexual daydream?), but we're clearly looking at the scene through Freddie's eyes. Everything about the construction of the scene tells us so, and there's no other scene that exclusively inhabits Peggy's POV in the film. From the evidence onscreen, I'd say this is more likely a manifestation of Freddie's libido, his lustful image of women as erotic objects. (I remember looking for Laura Dern's matron/patron frolicking in the altogether here, but for some reason she is conspicuous by her absence in her own house.)

But... it is also intriguing that, in the next scene, it is not initially clear whether Peggy is dictating what Dodd is typing, or whether she's just lecturing/ranting and he's otherwise occupied with his writing. (Yet another one of these disorienting cuts from and to a scene in progress.) Something happened at the party the night before that bothers Peggy, who orders her husband to stop drinking Freddie's inebriating elixir. In light of that, it seems that during the party, Freddie is sensing Peggy's disapproval of him: This is his happening (fueled by his magic potion) and it freaks her out.

Hmmm. I think maybe I should see the movie again...

- - - - -

* This Globe and Mail article confused the subject of "American Patriot" with the author of the book and failed to adequately identify "Let There Be Light." And, for what it's worth, Google turned up no references to a magazine called The Abbery.

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