‘The Master’

Hello Goodbye Cockatoo Island Film Festival

This film had the dubious distinction of opening what is likely to be only and last time the Cockatoo Island Film Festival was held. Was it a worthy opener? People were oversold tickets so not everybody got to see it. Probably not good to be remembered for things that had nothing to do with the film itself or the circumstances of the making of the film.

The film also had some scuttlebutt about it being about L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Scientology, so it already has an interesting edge to it, even before you sit down to watch it. There’s already a whiff of something funky about a film with this much chatter surrounding it.

In any case, it’s just appeared on the Fetch TV box, so with a bit of delight I decided to download and watch. Here’s the obligatory spoiler alert. Don’t read on if you hate surprises being ruined. I might let one out by mistake.

What’s Good About It

Here is a film by a film maker who is not afraid to take risks. I envy the film maker for the backing he gets to make such exploratory films. The only other American film maker I can think of who is working this close to the wind of cinema and ignoring the narratologists like the McKees of the world is Terence Malick. This film powers on with the economy of shots and deft story telling that has dropped off the lexicon of post-Speildberg Blockbuster film making.

In amongst the brisk misc en scen are some gorgeous shots to die for that not only look good but provide so much insight into the subtext of what is happening. Even if it weren’t for the subject matter, script or performance the cinematography alone drives the narrative like a juggernaut. It’s a rare achievement and entirely commendable.

What’s Bad About It

Sometimes with a film where ambiguity is implicit in the telling, it’s not surprising the film becomes cryptic in parts.  It is not entirely clear how Freddie ends up on the particular boat with Lancaster Dodd and his outfit. Equally, it is unclear at first that Freddie absconds from the group by simply riding off with the motorcycle. Because of this, the film requires a bit of story reconstruction as you go along.

Comparisons have been made between the Lancaster Dodd character and L. Ron Hubbard, and hence Scientology, but it’s better not to approach the film with those ideas floating around. If anything, this has nothing to do with Scientology as such, and is a better film by forgetting about that notion.

What’s Interesting About It

The film is consciously not endowed with pretty people Joaquin Phoenix of course is a rare leading actor who has a hare lip, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is nobody’s idea of a stud; Amy Adams is pregnant for the better part of the film – as if she is perpetually pregnant – and is particularly so in her nude scene. Now, Amy Adams is pretty, but the whole cast looks like they’ve decided to go “no make up”. Others, simply pass by and add to a layer of ordinariness with their less than actorly-good-looks. The net effect is actually a heightened sense of the particularity of the characters that draws you in. It’s the opposite of watching a star-driven vehicle and decoding the roles. It makes you pay attention to the actors and what they are doing.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is an extraordinary performance. He looks thin, gaunt, awkward, and yet like a coiled spring, ready to leap into violent action. He spends the whole film with a pained expression as he wrestles with metaphysics with a mind that is not capable of digesting the words to describe the metaphysical. He frowns, he laughs bitterly, he lurches, he punches and generally staggers through the scenes with a strange aplomb.

Amy Adams’ Peggy Dodd is also a revelation. The best scene might be the bit where she slaps Freddie awake to tell him he has to stop boozing, but also notable is the scene where she reads out passages of sadistic pornography with a straight face. It’s all very strange and you wonder how she kept a straight face through all of it. I was squirming with laughter in my chair.

Laura Dern makes a brief appearance as a cult member convening a scene in Philadelphia. Her performance is also notable in that you’re left with no uncertainty that some people just want crazy metaphysics to be true so much, they’ll believe anything and dedicate themselves to it with wild abandon. She’s not in it for long, but when she’s there, she’s riveting with the craziness.

The Inner Sanctum Of Crazy

Paul Thomas Anderson has mapped out enough of an oeuvre to reveal to us something of his work. he likes ensemble pieces, but the ensemble inevitably goes towards describing a court. In Boogie Nights, it was a court presided over by Burt Reynolds’ porn king, while ‘There Will Be Blood’ was about the mining patriarch played by Daniel Day Lewis, and ‘Magnolia’ gave us insight into the court of the Tom Cruise cult leader. This film lines up nicely with that trend.

The figures in each of these courts creates a miasma of neuroses and personality disorder, but it also forms a tableau of grotesquery unlike any other director’s work. His films actually remind me of Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks‘ and its wedding banquet scene where all the circus freaks sing “You’re one of us, gobble-gobble, gobble-gobble.”. It’s a jarring accusation at the world and one wonders what drives Paul Thomas Anderson to make movies about these crazy courts. His films are great because you know you’re gong to see some extraordinarily outrageous characters doing some outrageous things.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Has Come A Long Way

Yes, he’s won that Oscar for playing Truman Capote, but I can remember Philip Seymour Hoffman being the guy who plays the lackey or the miserable, or the miserable lackey. Here, he is playing the alpha male, dominating the conversation and delivering a performance that scares the bejesus out of you as this cult patriarch. This is a disturbing alpha male if you ever saw one on screen. It’s the kind of performance that leaves you having nightmares afterwards. The character of the Master Lancaster Dodd is so memorable you feel like you’ve witnessed something so wrong. An this is the actor who was so prominent in ‘Happiness‘.

The fullness of his red, ruddy cheeks and cold piggy eyes with a faint smile all forms parts of this beguiling, insanity-charged, quixotic, charismatic cult leader.

The Sexual Animal

Any film where I have to talk about it by referencing ‘Freaks’ and ‘Happiness’ shows you just how edgy the film gets. Almost unrelated to those impulses is also Anderson’s penchant for grotesque depictions of sexual behaviour. there is the scene where all the women are nude, and they are shot under an unflattering flat light. This segues into a scene where Amy Adams’ Peggy gives Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster a handjob. The sexual subtext in the film is ever present and yet none of the depictions of sex are attractive or glamourised. There is an anti-romantic impulse running right along with a Freudian disdain for convention.

Indeed, one aspect of the story is Phoenix’s Freddie Quell’s great quest to get laid. Freddie goes from a perpetually frustrated state being in the Navy to a self-defeating drug-abusing state to a cult-controlled eunuch state and eventually runs away in search of his sweetheart. The need for sex is the dirty big aching sorrow inside Freddie but the whole film involves him in a process that doesn’t get him there, but instead gives him spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

The film is unambiguous about sex, which is perhaps the most important thing to realise given the strange polyvalence of meaning in the rest of the film.

America The Grave Of Souls

One of the other subtexts from Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre is the insight that America is some kind of spiritual black hole where even the yearning for the spiritual comes with a price tag. This film is slightly different in that Lancaster and Peggy are not doing it for the money or the desire to hoodwink people out of their cash – they genuinely believe their mumbo-jumbo and their conviction drives the metaphorical train of destiny.

The America that Lancaster and Peggy see is a barren place full of lost souls or the walking dead. Their solution is to invoke the spiritual wherever they go, and yet somehow they manage to surround themselves with the material trappings of this world. They even renounce America to start their weird school in England. There, we find Lancaster in a massive office behind a tremendous oak desk with grandiose ornaments. Not only are Lancaster’s exhortations empty, they are hypocritical; but this hypocrisy comes from America being a fundamentally materialist society, and Lancaster cannot shed that cultural spine.

The America we see in this film is physically beautiful. It is hauntingly sunny and bright, yet there is a tiredness crawling in through the drawn faces of the people – I’m thinking of Laura Dern, who is playing the full crazy in this film.

Cults As DIY Spirituality

The film gives us an up close view into the circle of people who believe in Lancaster’s patter. What’s made clear is that these people want spirituality to be there because they want to invest in a meaning beyond the life they live. They dress up the process as ‘work’ because it  beats going to Church and listening to a sermon. That kind of spirituality would be too consumerist for these people – they want a custom-made, personalised spiritual experience and that is why they’re so invested in ‘the process’ as depicted in the film.

I don’t know if this is really how it goes, but it seems to be a very well put together idea with some moving parts that fit. It’s a great insight this film offers.

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