‘The Master’ Open Thread

Just back from The Master and trying to process what I’ve just seen. I intentionally have not read any reviews, so all of this is based just on what was on the screen, but I’ll say it was not quite the movie I expected. I thought it would be much more of a straight-ahead assault on mysticism and charlatans, but that did not seem to be its ultimate target. Certainly it got at that hunger that comes so deeply embedded in us to understand ourselves and our place in the world, as well as the skill and rapaciousness of certain individuals at exploiting that hunger, but in the end the film was not as hard on the Phillip Seymour Hoffman character of Lancaster Dodd as I expected it to be. On first viewing, I thought the first two-thirds were flawless but that the last third saw the energy flag and the tension diminish somewhat. The ending — where Lancaster Dodd summons Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix – what a great name for a character, by the way) to England only to seemingly disavow him — perplexed me. Not in a bad way, necessarily, but I can’t quite get my mind around why Dodd felt the need reach out to Quell only to dismiss him. The ending sex scene was great, however, and resolved much of the tension that preceded it.

Question: in the party scene with all the naked women, were they actually naked or was that entire scene only as seen through Freddie Quell’s eyes? twinkly thought the former but I was sure it was the latter. If imaginary, it was the only time that is done in the film, that I recall. If real, the continuity of the scene seemed odd. One argument for this scene being ‘real’ is the subsequent scene where Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams in a phenomenal role) reads him the riot act about other women while giving him cinema’s most unforgiving handjob. What I loved about that bathroom scene and from Amy Adams’s character overall is that it’s clear she’s a true believe who ultimately cares primarily about preserving the work. I thought the film was unresolved on the issue of whether Dodd himself knew he was a charlatan and whether Dodd “cured” Quell.

We saw a friend just as we arrived at the theater and she shouted out, “Don’t bother! It’s awful.” I wonder what she saw in it that we didn’t, because I can’t imagine telling someone not to bother seeing the film. The tension level over the course of that first hour makes The Wages of Sin look like a screwball comedy. The script, the cinematography, the period details, the killer soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood, all of the supporting performances, just a terrific act of filmatism all around. I think I have to see it again, but I’ve got to wait a few weeks.

So what did you think?

Update: Just read a review that treated the phone call from Dodd in the theater as Quell’s dream, which he takes literally. This did not occur to me at all, though in retrospect that phone did seem to have an awfully long cord.

Update 2: Here’s an interesting take from Andy Howell at Aint It Cool News.

Update 3: Robert Dean Lurie looks into the similarities between The Master and Scientology.

“The Master” is indeed much more than a “Scientology movie.” Yet Anderson clearly has studied the “beginnings of the movement” closely; virtually all aspects of the Dodd/Cause story track with Scientology’s history, among these the founder’s volatile temperament and refusal to debate his critics openly; the unstinting devotion of his true-believer wife; his conflicted, lookalike son who sees the charade for what it is yet longs for his father’s approval; the ragtag group’s hopscotching from one locale to another (Philadelphia, Phoenix, England); and the metastasizing of self-help movement into sci-fi-accented religion.

Very little of that material is disguised or altered to any significant degree. But Anderson does rearrange the chronology somewhat: he condenses Scientology’s sea-based era (hounded by various governments, Hubbard spent an eight year period in the late 1960s-early 1970s leading the religion from the captain’s cabin of a former Irish Sea cattle ferry he christened “The Apollo”) into a single nautical voyage in 1950. And, in a canny move, he has the character of Peggy Dodd (Lancaster’s wife) give voice to some of Hubbard’s more controversial ideas; at one point she says to her husband, “And this is where we are at: at the lowest level—to have to explain ourselves, for what? For what we do, we have to grovel. The only way to defend ourselves is to attack. If we don’t do that we will lose every battle that we are engaged in. We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.”

In thinking about the movie, I’ve realized that one of the reasons that Anderson was fairly kind to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology may have been the fact that the true unadulterated story actually beggars belief. If he’d presented the actual tenets of Scientology — the mass of gibbering nonsense one must swallow to truly ascend in that movement — then no one would have bought the story because no one would believe that such a program could attract a single follower, let alone become a major movement.

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2 Responses to ‘The Master’ Open Thread

  1. –I’m sure it was a dream.

    –I’m sure they weren’t really naked, and that it was through Quell’s eyes. I think that was to show us how he generally sees the world, which draws pity and repulsion from me like a lightning rod. But I also think Anderson was saying that they might as well have been naked in that place and time and in that company. That it might as well have been a full-on Bacchanalian debauch.

    Those things said, I didn’t really love the film. I enormously enjoyed the technical aspects of it – anything Anderson is more cinematically accomplished than the work of 90% of the other filmmakers working in America today – but I found the whole experience flat. There was no beating humanist heart to this film as there has been for most of his others, and I failed to see a conflict that really drove the narrative. Obviously the two leads have conflicts and entanglements, but their mutual obsession didn’t progress into anything except torment, and I saw nothing else central that breathed life into the proceedings. They also blew their conflict wad kind of early on and a good bit of the rest of the visible conflict felt like lame masculine steam being blown off.

    I saw Quell as a severely damaged man and not someone I could sympathize with for more than brief moments of the running time. (This is a big problem. Phoenix went too far, if you ask me.) I enjoyed how Hoffman and Adams made their characters completely full and wholly realized people, but I didn’t gain any insight from either of them.

    I don’t think that all films need to have a recognizably American arc or resolution, but I expect that when I walk out of a film that felt this unsatisfying, I have at least been moved or altered somehow. There were a shockingly tiny number of scenes that really mesmerized me, and a few more that tickled my intelligence, and that was it.

    Ultimately I think I knew a bit too much about Scientology walking into this one. I read the nature of Dodd’s behavior very differently than a lot of critics, who saw him as having set into motion a movement by which he now feels trapped by too-zealous followers. I didn’t see that at all; I saw the slippery flimflamism, screaming egoism, and comfortable cushion of suckers which so distinguished Hubbard. Obviously Mrs. Dodd is also insatiably ambitious, but she’s an enabler, not a leader.

    When describing Anderson’s work to my husband, I used the phrase “sparkling malevolence”. I felt that early on, for sure, but it quickly diminished when faced with my disgust with Quell and my general – dare I say it? – boredom.

    • kamper says:

      I can’t argue with anything you’ve said, but I don’t think the movie was nearly as hard on Dodd as you say. He was genuinely trying to help Quell, at least early on (i.e., before the ‘wall and window’ scene). And there’s no direct evidence from the film that he does not genuinely believe that he is bestowing upon humankind a unique and valuable vision. But you’re right that their relationship didn’t progress, and everything after that phenomenal jail scene was somewhat of a repetition of things that had come before.

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