The Master’s Meaning

If you follow film with any degree of doggedness, chances are you have heard of The Master. Hell, it is nigh impossible – Paul Thomas Anderson directing a film about a cult? It set the film world on fire; after the triumph that was There Will Be Blood, we all waited with bated breath for five years for his next work. The run-up to its release now seems to very much echo the film itself: lurching, staggering and vague, but crafted, clever and ultimately beautiful. It’s a powerful film that only seems to loom larger in the rearview mirror as you speed away from it across a dry expanse on a motorcycle.

An intoxicating character study, as you view it it unfolds with an almost confounding lack of structure or narrative thrust. But The Master unfolds like the intricate work of a master wood carver. As he works, he appears only to be whittling away at an unsightly piece of wood. To the eye it is different from every angle, and just when it seems as though progress is made, it is gone as soon as it appeared. Yet it is only when he steps back from the finished work, breathes and brushes away the shavings, chips and splinters of labour do you realise that you are suddenly considering an achievement and a vision that is wholly his.

The finished work in this case, however, is no delicate chaise longue. It seems to be more along the lines of arborsculpture, something distinctly crafted but natural in its unnaturalness; something haunting and recognisable but also distinctly wrong. After all the proclamation and all the hype we are left with a film that courts the eye but tantalisingly pushes away the mind. It now feels almost typical of Anderson to essentially be the Oscar-frontrunner practically since the film’s announcement, only to produce something that even the Venezia jury seemingly could not quite wrap their head around.

That is not to say The Master is, for example, on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of ambiguous brilliance. This is a film with defined faults – unavoidable ones, to be truthful – though relatively minor in hindsight. Throughout the second half it will be common for audiences to be asking themselves, “Well, where exactly is this going?” and the film will, by the end, have made very few steps toward answering that question of its own accord.

Thankfully, that is what we have critics for, yes? You would think. Not only is it nearly impossible to not have heard of The Master, it is also nearly impossible to not have heard of its ties to Scientology. Yes, most interviewers and many reviewers seem to tacitly say, this film is about Scientology. See, there is a burgeoning cult movement borne of the 1950s! There is a method similar to the practice of Dianetics! And they all rush to the supercilious conclusion: cult. 1950s. Processing. SCIENTOLOGY.

It is rare that, as an avid consumer of film criticism, I feel rather disappointed with the approach to a film of so many. But this recurring inability to separate actual Scientology from the very obvious metaphor that The Cause – the cult in question – represents in the universe of The Master is baffling and infuriating in equal measure. As critics, is it not our job to avoid the most obvious, superficial analysis of a film and dig deeper? And what could possibly be more superficial than an entirely fabricated religion steeped in science fiction? And then, many months after Anderson himself essentially said, “Nope, it’s not really about Scientology, guys.”, to press the question in interviews? It came as a complete surprise.

“How much of the film is based on Scientology?”
“Is the Lancaster Dodd character essentially just L. Ron Hubbard?”

Considering that the film actually opens with a scene in which a group of World War II veterans are told about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you would think the pervasive themes of psychology – and to some degree, psychosis – would be slightly more plain. Roger Ebert said, “…when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” but how can a film universally agreed-upon as being dense and difficult be non-corporeal to so many? If nothing else, we all seem to agree on one thing: the film is stunningly shot – almost impeccable purely on a level of craft – and has an Oscar-worthy score of lush beauty and frenetic anxiety courtesy of previous Anderson collaborator, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

My immediate reaction (and that of many others, it has turned out) to the film was, “I need to stew on this.” and I think this is a clear representation of how hype and immediacy are affecting film criticism. Immediately after The Master‘s surprise premiere we already had advance reviews flowing in and tweets battering down our doors. This is the kind of films that stews and is stewed on. You can react instantly to Dredd 3D because of its sheer simplicity and straightforwardness, whereas The Master shrouds itself in opaque folds of its own theses that simply cannot be brushed aside within 48 hours of viewing. Somewhere, in between the sprint to praise and the rush to condemn is the appropriate middle ground, one which we will likely never reach. With the desire for immediacy so characteristic of how film criticism operates nowadays – and we are all guilty of that – a film like The Master is given but a fraction of the scrutiny it requires before opinions are jettisoned off to be clawed at in the Rotten Tomatoes comments section.

I have found myself waiting nearly two and a half weeks to properly put finger to key and write my thoughts on this film, and I am extremely glad I did. That said, when asked almost immediately after the screening what the film was about, my first answer was, “Well, if I had to say anything at all, I think it was about mental illness. But I don’t know.” Now, however, I feel quite confident that I was and am correct. The Master oscillates between delicacy and brutality in its exploration of two broken men, each shattered in incredibly different ways. The clever symbolism of the churning seawater left in each man’s wake is a wonderful leitmotif of their seething illnesses and addled natures.

While Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a confident, controlling superego, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a primal, raging id. They are, seemingly, complementary parts of a whole, with enough cracks in the façade of each to reveal flashes of the other. Freddie’s animalism is repeatedly pointed out, his erratic behaviour often likened to that of a dog. He suffers from PTSD and, put simply, has lost his humanity. He handles this by drinking toxic concoctions that allow him to separate his mind from his actions and his thoughts from reality. Phoenix’s mind-blowing performance is, again, the unnaturally natural – he has all the appearance of a human, but he is grizzled and gnarled and twisted from years – perhaps a lifetime – of harsh winds and extreme conditions.

While Freddie’s violence often shocks, Dodd’s charismatic reservedness is arguably all the more terrifying, and dangerous. At any sign of a loss of sway, an absence of control, Dodd snaps. Dodd refuses to bend or twist, but strains upward toward a light above the canopy of reality he can never reach. Here is where Scientology does legitimately factor into the film: religion as metaphor for mental illness, military service as a cult of masculinity, processing (based roughly on L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics) as education. Essentially, the ways in which a brainwashing cult mirrors so many aspects of what we assume to be normality. The fact that, if heightened only slightly, things that should be commonplace become wild and dangerous.

Dodd’s perilous desire to ‘repair’ Freddie, and how his inability to do so slowly destroys him and his precarious dominion, constitutes the central conceit of the film, the one around which almost all scenes revolve. It is also the parallel that gives The Master its theme and its title a sly double meaning. Any attempt to restrain our essential humanity with superficial vagaries, grandiose proclamations and hysterical superstition sap us of freedom, of openness. We may claim to be, say, writers, doctors, nuclear physicists, theoretical philosophers, but above all, we are simply human, so to speak. Hopelessly inquisitive, nonetheless, but never can we be ‘The Master’.


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