Produced and distributed by The Weinstein
Company, together with Annapurna Pictures
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Master is another travesty by the supposed wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson. In 2005 he gave us his rendition of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil in There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, he left out all that made the book a telling examination of early-20th-century capitalism. With The Master, he’s reviewed the origins of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, leaving out all that is interesting about either. Yes, Hubbard appears in the film as the marvelously named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who effortlessly casts a spell over his well-heeled followers, but we never learn where he came from or how he came to develop his lunatic self-help movement, which he eventually transformed into a tax-sheltered religion. Instead of investigating Hubbard-Dodd, Anderson has chosen to view him through the uncomprehending eyes of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a psychotic World War II veteran who has somehow been mentally damaged during his tour of duty in the Navy. All we know about Freddie is that he prefers to make his own poisonous intoxicants with whatever is at hand: torpedo fuel, photographic developing chemicals, paint thinner, medicine-chest supplies—you name it. Despite his incessant toxic indulgence, when his various pursuers come after him, Freddie can run like the wind, and, despite having a face twisted into a perpetual squint-eyed Popeye grimace, he has sex appeal enough to bewitch, not to mention satisfy, several female admirers. Is paint thinner really an aphrodisiac?
The narrative focuses on the unlikely, not to say unconvincing, relationship between these two men, the oracular huckster and the derelict reprobate. They meet by chance when Freddie drunkenly stumbles onto Dodd’s yacht (actually, it looks to be a cargo ship) and finds a cabin in which to sleep off his latest spree. Dodd no sooner meets Freddie than he invites him to attend his daughter’s shipboard wedding as a guest of honor. The following day he announces to Freddie that he’s adopting him as his “experiment and protégé.” What’s more, he wants to cure him of his maladies that originated millions, if not trillions, of years ago. Dodd, like Hubbard, believes or says he believes we are all subject to an endless series of reincarnations. Still, trillions seems a bit extravagant. To cure Freddie, Dodd-Hubbard plans to use his own homemade intoxicant, a variant of psychoanalysis called processing, in which he queries Freddie repetitively and hypnotically about his life up to the moment. He wants to know his name, his sexual fantasies, and, oh yeah, whether he’s ever murdered anyone.
Now this would be all very amusing, were it not performed with such a deadly seriousness. Needless to say, there’s no explanation as to why Hubbard-Dodd takes such a shine to Freddie, other than that he has a taste for Freddie’s poisonous concoctions. Perhaps he intends a quid pro quo, one man’s poison for another’s. Forgive my unwillingness to suspend disbelief, but I couldn’t help wondering why a man as calculating as Hubbard-Dodd—a man who clearly needs all his wits about him to keep his postulants in line while staying ahead of the authorities—would risk his mental faculties by drinking paint thinner. Anderson provides no explanation, not even regarding the likelihood of surviving Freddie’s various elixirs. Instead, he piles one absurdity upon another as Dodd goes about building his following with claims to cure psychic wounds predating the Big Bang. Of course, America being founded as the land of the eternal second chance, where, since the days of the Puritans, people have hankered to reinvent themselves by simply erasing the past, mountebanks such as Hubbard-Dodd have always had a fertile field to plow with their remunerative nonsense. (Scientologists famously pay through the nose for their membership in the “church.” I wonder how many millions Tom Cruise and John Travolta have donated to the cause.) Nevertheless, to dramatize the sect’s appeal convincingly requires some illustrations of how people, even ever-credulous Americans, could be suckered by its malarkey. None are given here. We are simply expected to accept that they are.
Why Anderson has skipped this rudimentary narrative requirement, I can only guess. Here’s my supposition. Anderson has been at pains to announce his film’s almost entire innocence of Scientology. He’s gone so far as to claim Dodd is not meant to be Hubbard. This is preposterous. The entire film, from its use of auditing (“processing”) sessions, to Dodd’s seduction of the wealthy, to his publication of self-help books that claim to rescue people from trillion-year-long mental fogs—all of this comes directly from Hubbard’s career and his publications, principally Dianetics. More than this, Anderson called in Scientologist luminaries to watch prerelease cuts of his film, ostensibly to get their approval. Tom Cruise viewed it and, while he claimed not to have been entirely appalled by the production, was severely critical of some scenes. Were these segments changed? This remains a mystery. My guess is that Anderson decided late in his production to tamp down the criticism of Hubbard and his movement for fear he’d be sued, or worse. Scientologists are known for their vindictive litigiousness and have the deep pockets to support such undertakings, however meritless they may prove.
Anderson seemed to be willfully obscure in There Will Be Blood. The Master is also steeped in obscurity, but this time it may be driven by cowardice rather than aesthetic whim. Whatever the truth, I find the near-universal acclaim lavished upon the film amusing. Mainstream critics have hailed the movie as a work of stupefying genius. Consider the judgments of two intelligent, usually reliable commentators. Here’s Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times: “‘The Master’ is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn’t clear what it thinks about it.” Despite this seeming complaint, Ebert goes on to say that “Paul Thomas Anderson is one of our great directors. ‘The Master’ shows invention and curiosity. It is often spellbinding. But what does it intend to communicate?” What, indeed.
And here’s A.O. Scott in the New York Times: “‘The Master,’ Paul Thomas Anderson’s imposing, confounding and altogether amazing new film . . . is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief.” Astonished belief? Please, A.O., come back to us!
What’s happening here seems obvious. Both critics are covering their asses. They don’t want to get caught out. We’ve long been trained to accept uncomplainingly works of supposed genius. That we don’t understand them only proves they must be products of superior intellect. No one wants to be caught deriding a book, painting, or film that others more discerning will later demonstrate to have been a masterpiece all along. Bourgeois painting fanciers learned this lesson at the end of the 19th century when they made the mistake of mocking Impressionist paintings. When enough critics were able to point out the felicities of the daubing masters, the mockers were put in their place. This, unfortunately, opened the door to all kinds of fakers—Cubists, Futurists, Abstractionists, pop artists—who were able to pass off almost any hideous experiment as high art, with nary a demurrer among critics determined to stay fashionable. Not all that long ago Yale’s British Art Museum was hanging Mary Kelly’s framed diapers, soiled by her infant son. Of course, they were accompanied by thoughtfully elucidating texts. As you may imagine her exhibition garnered nothing but polite respect from the gallery-going intelligentsia.
Directors such as Anderson enjoy a similar critical protection. Does Anderson make films devoid of vision and sense? No problem. Since they evince a mild leftist tone, their unintelligibility is automatically taken to be a sign of first-rate genius.
This is not to say there are no amusing moments in The Master. My favorite comes when Dodd sings to the befuddled Freddie in a toneless voice the Frank Loesser pop number from 1948, “I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China.” The conceit of this extraordinary exercise in romantic menace is that the crooner wants to, as the lyrics put it, have his reluctant young lady “all to [himself] alone . . . out on the briny with the moon big and shiny melting [her] heart of stone.”
That Dodd sings this to Freddie may or may not suggest he has homosexual designs on his protégé, but it certainly signals Anderson’s design on his audience. Having taken us for a thoroughly confounding cinematic cruise, he evidently hopes we will be so cowed by his wondrous obscurity that we will surrender to his half-baked serenade. Clearly, many critics have.