The Master (2012)

The Master

Dir:Paul Thomas Anderson

The Masters, Phillip Seymour Hoffaman is Lancaster Dodd is L.Ron Hubbard.

The Masters, Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd is L.Ron Hubbard.

Alfred Hitchcock was once asked who he made movies for. He thought carefully and answered,“The critics”. The Master was also made perhaps for the critics and most definitely for the director himself.By all accounts, it’s a difficult work, providing no instant gratification to the  moviegoer through its formidable 144 minutes. Most good films get by if the viewer is able to feel it, here we have a lot of thinking to do, the ideas embedded here do not reveal themselves upon casual scrutiny.A film about the founder of a cultish faith overwhelmingly modeled after L. Ron Hubbard, the controversial and mercuric founder of the Church of Scientology, and his relationship with a damaged war veteran is asking for pyrotechnics.But this film resolutely refuses to give us any. At 42, Paul Thomas Anderson is perhaps the most promising American auteur around  and his small but uniformly outstanding body of work has an almost Terrence Malikian poetry to it.This is his most challenging and intellectual work yet.

As the film opens we see Freddie Quell(Joaquin Phoenix) who has come home from WW2, a complete alcohol ridden wreck.He finds himself in the company of Lancaster Dodd, who is, in his own words,“a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you. “

Thus is the bond between two disparate characters established.Dodd uses his newly developed technique of “Processing” on Freddy which is a crazy rehash of Freudian psychoanalysis and a metonym for  the method of Auditing used in Scientology.The rest of the film traces the tumultuous relationship between the two men as Dodd embarks on his journey to become The Master. L.Ron Hubbard once said,”If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.“Dodd and his wife pursue that goal relentlessly.

The Dodd family

The Dodd family

While the producers have taken great pains to distance themselves from Scientology and L.Ron Hubbard, the character of Lancaster Dodd  and his “Cause” is clearly derived from Hubbard. Interestingly Anderson slices Hubbard into three parts, Dodd the charismatic thinker, his cold ambitious wife Peggy and the scarred Freddie.We see Dodd and Freddie engaged with each other at various levels, on the surface as teacher and disciple, master and slave, father and son, mad scientist and guinea pig and ultimately child and toy. In the final scene we see Freddie in bed with a woman he has picked up in a pub.He recycles Dodds compliments, calling her the bravest woman he has met.Life has come a full circle, and a shiny new religion is born. It will grow stronger with time as the self doubts of its founder are forgotten and his charisma grows.

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote this film over a 12 year period, marinating the life of L.Ron Hubbard, John Steinbeck and the 1946 John Huston documentary about the post traumatic stress disorder among soldiers, Let There Be Light, inside him. His strangely cool empathy for Lancaster Dodd suggests a kind of deliberate Stockholm syndrome.I saw a BBC Panorama expose of Scientology once, and could not help but think that apart from its completely implausible bits Scientology seems to help a lot of people in the same way that other religions do.It’s just that Scientology’s  fairy tales are new, its DNA derived from the pulp fiction that its founder wrote, and so it will take many more altar boys like Tom Cruise to make Scientology mainstream.

Peggy Dodd is always coldly watching over The Masters shoulders.

Peggy Dodd is always coldly watching over The Masters shoulders.

This film is an attempt to locate the genesis of a cult or a bona fide “religion” in a moment in American history.In doing so it adopts a dispassionate tone towards the birth of a new belief system, how its conjured up, fed to its early adopters, then to a wider set of people till it takes on a life of its own.The Master by choosing not to completely debunk religion makes a case for our inherent yearning for a spiritual belief system.While we are yet to fully come to terms with Christianity, Islam and Judaism and reconcile their differences, the personal stories of their founders have had the edge taken off them.Seen in another way its an oblique commentary on present day America, the cult of scientology is an extension of the cult of capitalism.

The acting in this film is extraordinary. Joaquin Phoenix is a force of nature, his raw and aching performance is reason enough for a viewing.Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivers a tight and disciplined performance.His self control as Dodd is enormous, even when he is acting the wise buffoon in a party, he makes his character as inscrutable as a man whose overreaching ambition and self-delusion have gotten the better of him. Amy Adams is brilliant and spooky as Peggy Dodd, fully aware of the extreme fragility of their existence, and keeping Lancaster Dodd on the path to dubious greatness.

Freddy Quell is completely broken but in touch with his conscience.

Freddy Quell is completely broken but in touch with his conscience.

The cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. uses the obscure 65mm format which delivers a kind of creepy intimacy with the lead characters, theirs faces come alive in an unreal way on the big screen.The filmmakers also used antique lenses to add an extra element of optical voodoo. Note the way the camera tracks Freddie as he is chased by farm hands after the liquor distilled by him kills a man.It follows him as he runs for his life in the dusty brown cabbage fields and slowly begins to diverge away from him, placing him alone and vulnerable, in a brown dusty field.The American landscape on-screen has a John Ford timelessness to it.

As you sit transfixed in The Master you keep asking what is the point of all this, certainly not to entertain. But this act of asking is perhaps the point.Or we can watch The Wizard of Oz over and over again, if all we want is to be innocently entertained.

The Master provides an important piece in the inter-linkages of the best films of 2012. While The Master looks at the birth of a religion that has the trappings of a dangerous cult, Zero Dark Thirty looks  at what happens when a mainstream religion which must have appeared to be a cult once begins to get marginalized again.It throws up a character like Osama Bin Laden who is a distant  cousin of L.Ron Hubbard.Then we also have Argo which is linked to these films in looking at a group of people caught up in the crossfire between the West and the madness of an Ayatollah while Silver Linings Playbook looks at the sweet relationship between two mentally ill people, a truly sick version of which we get in The Master.Django Unchained as a slavery revenge fantasy also seems to be a part of the same American history in which we have Lincoln, which traces the abolition of slavery by examining the realpolitik that Abe Lincoln had to resort to.Life of Pi is the most overtly secular of all films and perhaps its message of survival and spirituality binds all these films the tightest.Beasts of the Southern Wild delivers big on a budget as tiny as its 6 year old heroine!

This was a good year for the movies no doubt, started this year ;-) now.. I am behaving like The Master!

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