6:13 pm Sep. 17, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master is another foray into themes already familiar from There Will Be Blood (2007), Boogie Nights (1997), and even dating back to his debut feature, Hard Eight (1996): dysfunctional surrogate families, egomania, caustic male friendships, and the demanding, ambiguous promise of the American West. It is not a crowd pleaser.
Nominally a film à clef about the early years of a very Scientology-like spiritual organization after World War II, The Master takes no cheap shots at the self-help/pop-metaphysics movement turned (tax-exempt) religion. Yes, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the chubby, red-faced polymath and self-reinventor, is as transparently L. Ron Hubbard as Orson Welles' Kane is William Randolph Hearst. But just as Welles seems to have merged his own megalomania, insecurities, and bluster into Kane, Hoffman's Dodd is no caricature. The troubling irony at the heart of the performance is that this man who spends years testing psychological responses, and elaborating a theory of the soul, apparently is incapable of introspection. The ultimate cynicism, this suggests, is to buy what you are selling.
Scientologists will probably not find much to applaud here, but there is no self-congratulation for the rest of us, either. Anderson is interested in how people relate to ideas, what we expect from ideas, and how we live them. Dodd's cult, The Cause (a name as unsubtle as Avatar's valuable element, "unobtainium"), is an incoherent hodgepodge of psychoanalysis, metempsychosis, and repetitive, will-defeating "applications" (brainwashing exercises). But the voices that criticize The Cause in the film are not speaking from any position that we can inhabit. Ideas are always embedded, determinate. Whenever anyone is telling us about The Cause, whether pro or con, they are only telling us about themselves. Dodd's son, privileged in the hierarchy but smugly uninterested in doctrine, tells us that Dodd is making it all up as he goes along. A New Yorker who demands that Dodd put forth scientific proof for his claims, and who throws around the word "cult," is manifestly a 1950s Person, repeating what he has read elsewhere, in some tedious popular summation of post-war humanism. The movie asks us, "You want to be this guy?" and then has Hoffman shout at him: "Pigfuck!"
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a quivering open wound of a man, whose posture and shuffling walk alone would deserve an Oscar. Here is where I should say something like "Freddie falls prey to Dodd's charisma and joins the fledgling movement as Dodd's protégé and guinea pig." But how you describe this relationship is really the entire experience of the movie. "Protégé and guinea pig" are Dodd's words. They don't have to be ours. Instead of the story that the conventional L. Ron Hubbard biopic would have been, Anderson presents us with only the vicissitudes of this personal relation. For the most part, Dodd, as he goes about gathering his flock and explaining the world to them, is crystallized and not subject to crisis. Freddie, however, embodies the adjective "wayward." The story is just whatever you think is going on between them. This means that a lot falls to the actors, and Anderson might be the greatest director of actors since Cassavetes. If Hoffman's performance indeed owes something to Welles in Citizen Kane, Phoenix's mumbling, frightened bullying recalls Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris. The two men are frighteningly good. If this movie is about how ideas are in the world and in people's lives, Freddie as played by Phoenix seems to be the last person who would be captivated by arcane metaphysical claptrap. His slurred speech, defensiveness, and pathetic sexual fixations are always stubbornly resistant to the pouring-forth of Dodd's definitions and theoretical revisions. But being outside of an idea, circumambulating its profundity, is also a way of relating to it. Freddie may not "get" The Cause enough to proselytize for it—he can barely hand out flyers persuasively—but this deficiency might be said to be the subject of the film.
Does The Cause "work" for Freddie? Is there even a pragmatic value to the extensive working-over he receives, even if we set aside larger questions of truth? And if not, then what exactly is going on in the often-torturous, baiting, competitive dependency we see between Freddie and Dodd? Nothing healthy, certainly, but perhaps something necessary for both men.
Anderson's point, as in his other films, seems to be that we limp through life hurting one another, as much by the way we build systematic scaffoldings for the soul (as here) as by the way we violently strip the earth and bludgeon people to death (as inThere Will Be Blood). Being liberated from a cult is not the opening of a door out into Freedom, but an exposure to a kind of horrible shivering-cold vacuum that drives Freddie to go back and knock on the door to be let in.
Anderson has always worked with cinematographer Robert Elswit, but this time has relative newcomer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s latest three films, including Youth Without Youth) handling those duties. (Word had it that much, if not all, of the film was shot using Stanley Kubrick’s own 65mm camera, and is screening in limited release in a 70mm format.) Malaimare’s lenswork keeps The Master from ever feeling hermetic or like an acting showcase. The film opens and closes with images of the sea, befitting Scientology's (and Hubbard's) maritime fetish (Dodd has a statuette of a captain at the ship's wheel on his desk), and (without giving anything away) the most unsettling use of song I've ever seen in film is also about the sea. But the other symbolic pole of the film is the desert. If Anderson's sea is obviously biblical (Jonah and whatnot), his desert is not, it's purely cinematic. This is the desert of Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924) and John Huston'sThe Misfits (1961). If a ship has an obvious community built-in (isn't this the point of Moby-Dick?), the desert is where movies go for brutal, existential antagonism.
Freddie and Dodd are just shackled together in their contempt and drive to self-defeat. Maybe one of them will be called upon to sacrifice the other, and will comply with an impenetrable lack of regret. And maybe that is kind of biblical, too.