What does it mean to be a man? Since the beginning of cinema, movie makers have churned out an infinitum of responses to this question, often with iconic and awesome results. Every character in the pantheon (or, shall we say, MAN-theon?) is synonymous with some idea, usually crystallized in a significant era: Conan the Barbarian’s titular character is the ancient alpha, a harkening to a time when men were men, and ate colossal shanks of meat for their sole sustenance. I occasionally pour one out for Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and the like, as they are the black-and-white “bros” that our grandpas championed – and they always got the gal. Over time, the clear cut definitions of "male" — brawny and grizzled, snarky and snide — became a rendering all too simple for audience’s more realistic expectations. These bros of yore became rudimentary in the eyes of our culture. Complex characters like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman were the successor. Bateman, a douche yuppie from the late 80’s, was a satirical comment against bros conforming to a material world; a character full of inherent contradictions, for bros to contemplate.
These bro caricatures that inquire after the nature of man himself are just as numerous as they are cheeky, but only more recently has the bro-culture provoked Hollywood to dig even deeper. The friendship between two men is now at the forefront of cinema’s attention. See I Love You Man or the television series Entourage for basics that make up this modern part of bro discourse. But, in the cannon of cineastes who have addressed this leitmotif of manhood, has there ever been a take as complex or sensitive as that of Paul Thomas Anderson in his most recent film The Master?
Most critics (save A.O. Scott, who gushed) have reviewed The Master with a few positive adjectives, and ultimately a reluctant ‘meh.’ Admittedly, this ambivalence is not unwarranted. The Master is a messy one. A vast hinterland of undeveloped thematic material, all whirling and whooshing flamboyantly around the film’s two main characters — an ex-sailor drunkard named Freddy Quell (Jaoquin Phoenix) and his quasi-guru Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
Aside from lush confusion that is imposed upon the viewer by nods to post-war malaise, charlatanism, and other incomplete themes, only one aspect of the film is actually emotionally resonant: the bromance. Anderson himself has admitted that even he – revered auteur that he is – did not know what moments to include when he started editing the film, and so he chose to focus on the relationship between Freddy and Lancaster In doing so, as he put it, he made the film “more of a romance.” In saying this, was Anderson bringing his characters out of the closet after the fact, J.K. Rowling style? Hardly. Well ... maybe.
The borderline gay reading that exists throughout The Master is an expression of comfort in the male sexuality. Jackass, perhaps the basest institution of bro culture, deserves a nod in this regard. How many supposedly gay acts did Johnny Knoxville and friends commit with and on one another, sandwiched between exercises in pain and street-prankery, all under the guise of boyish glee? Are those bros considered by anyone to be gay? No, probably not. The line between ultra-hetero and gay is permanently blurred because of subversive behavior. The next time your bros accuse you of being a sissy, just put on a tutu and get your testicles tazed. They’ll stop.
Paradoxically, The Master one-ups Jackass’s postmodern emulsion of straight male bonding and homo-erotica by making it more subtle, with an emphasis on friendship. The unlikely ties that bind Freddy, a post WWII basket case, horny and mentally disturbed, and Lancaster, a self-appointed prophet with charm modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, are more than few.
In their first scene, they call upon one another to feed their vices and such, a quibb pro quo that usually exists between friends with different means. However, the self-interest of give and take is nowhere near the front and center of this relationship. Neither mentor normentee really needs the other for their vices or their hopes and dreams — they are simply drawn to one another. Besides, neither of them have friends otherwise.
“The Cause”(the film's thinly-veiled version of Scientology, and Lancaster’s self-help schtick) is at first a tool of interrogation for Lancaster. He uses it to crack Freddy’s shell. (“Are you lying?” “No.” “Are you a liar?” “Yes.”) Then, it is a means for Freddy to garner attention from Lancaster. On more than one occasion, Freddy pummels The Cause’s detractors, perhaps to further affirm Lancaster’s stated affection for him as a lovable scoundrel. And then, a cathartic argument between the two characters when in jail brings out their desperation for one another, and their desperation in general. It is never explicitly stated, but they ultimately "break-up" for good because of their flaws. In their final scene together, their dialogue is an amicable to and fro, because there is no sense in weighing in on one another’s flaws any more. Guys just don’t hold grudges like that, right?
And then, Lancaster, the more sexually ambiguous of the two, serenades Freddy: “I’d like to get you on slow boat to China, to myself, all alone.” If this is a gay intimation, so be it. Considering the heaping fistful of evidence to the contrary, perhaps it is a 50’s style gay implication; in old Hollywood there were plenty of gay moments, but they were never physical or explicit in any way. The gayness in The Master, much like The Cause, a process of imagination rather than an overt experience.
Truly, the sort of display of affection between the Lancaster and Freddy says more about bro-love than it does about homosexuality. When the two reunite on the lawn where they were arrested and hug in silent apology, Freddy, mid-hug, tackles Lancaster. It is benign aggression. The two laugh wildly and wrestle on the ground like animals. I cannot betray my inner bro’s pleasure at seeing this truth portrayed on screen. That is how we bros apologize to other bros we love too much to ignore, but fear the emasculation of sharing concessions: we turn it into a play-fight, slapstick, a fake display of a more socially acceptable emotion then what’s really going on. What could be more bro-y than turning a sensitive moment into a "just a joke?" Furthermore, this practice of action covering emotion is commonplace in frat-house mentality. It’s a performance. We restrain ourselves from sharing vulnerabilities, until they erupt in unexpected and unfitting situations. That’s right ladies: all pop psychological platitudes you apply to our male bonding are true. Bachelor parties are avoidant partnership rituals, fart jokes are defense mechanisms, beer pong is penis envy. Freud lives, and he’s watching you while you keg stand.
Lancaster, after the wrestling of amens, with ripped pantaloons, does leave a limp-wristed slap on Freddy’s back … It looked like he may have been aiming for Freddy’s ass. Was he for sure? I do not know. It may be best not talk about that either. Let’s crack open some Modelo Especiales and play Call of Duty instead.