LAST UPDATED 2 OCTOBER 2012
Not since No Country for Old Men have I seen a movie as filled with confident, powerful filmmaking yet as narratively frustrating as The Master. I enjoyed it, but I can’t in good conscience recommend writer/director P.T. Anderson’s latest film to any old moviegoer. The scattered story of restless, violent navy veteran Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and his spiritual guide/tormentor Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is baffling at best. And I know there will be many who will throw up their hands in frustration long before the poetically ambiguous conclusion.
Besides the beautiful 70mm cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Tetro), the reason to see this film is the incredible central performance from Joaquin Phoenix. His hunched shoulders and his knowing leers and his animal rage are in a dimension of acting above and beyond method performance. It is uncomfortable to watch in the same way a documentary about a schizophrenic would be. Philip Seymour Hoffman and other supporting players are very good, but they do not seem to exist outside of their performance the way Phoenix does.
Jonny Greenwood’s spasmodic score, featured in the trailers, is great and the soundtrack music selections are also top-notch, as they always are with Anderson’s films. (The music supervisor was Linda Cohen.)
Is The Master worth seeing in 70mm?
Very few movies these days are filmed and then projected in 70mm (a format which uses a large piece of film to capture fine detail that is not lost when projected on a massive screen). This is not IMAX, like The Dark Knight Rises, where the image is meant to fill your entire front and part of your peripheral vision. IMAX theaters also have a high sound-quality standard. So 70mm is not the definitive theatrical experience in my opinion, but it is the definitive way to see this film.
I saw The Master in one of the Arclight’s regular theaters in 70mm. (It is also playing in the Arclight Cinerama Dome in 70mm, as well as digitally in an Arclight’s regular stadium seating theater. See it three times and compare!) It looked phenomenal. I’d advise anyone who cares about such things to seek out a true 70mm theatrical experience for this film. Judging from how good the movie images looked in trailers I saw in both 35mm and digital theaters, it will still be an awesome visual experience no matter how you see it. (Even on an iPhone, movie snobs.) But it is great to see a new film in the same format as classics like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Master Explained
I have seen the movie only once, but I’ll try to interpret the plot — as I see it — then talk a bit about the relationship to the history of Scientology and what the filmmakers may have been trying to say. Needless to say… spoilers ahead.
What is The Master About?
The movie opens with a shot of blue waters, churning — an image to which it returns several times — followed by the face of Freddie Quell (Phoenix), under a helmet, peeking over the forecastle of a ship. The editors hold on this soldier’s face for a long time, reminding me of another war movie — Full Metal Jacket, which also makes long studies of the face of its protagonist.
There are several scenes aboard a Navy ship (or perhaps it is the merchant ship to Shanghai Freddie joins as an oiler after seeing Doris?), scenes of sailors on R&R and scenes of veterans in some kind of treatment center for ‘nervous conditions’ developed in the war. In these brief, intercut scenes we learn that Freddie Quell likes to mix drinks (inside a coconut, inside a torpedo), see him perform mock-sex with a sand sculpture of a naked woman (another images to which the film will return) and see him fight the other sailors on the beach.
Eventually Quell lands as a photographer in a department store. He flirts with a shopgirl (Amy Ferguson), who drinks a cocktail made with photo chemicals and fools around with him in the darkroom — but his drinking makes him pass out during their date later that night, and (the next day?) he goads a customer into assaulting him.
A stint as a migrant cabbage-picker also ends in drama when an old man (who reminds Quell of his own father), a fellow worker, goes ill from drinking Quell’s homebrew. The Filipino workers accuse Quell of poisoning the man and run him out of the camp.
Down on his luck, Freddie wanders by a waterfront and sees a party aboard a boat. (In the 70mm print I saw, you could clearly see Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams dancing on the boat in the background as Phoenix’s Quell walked by.) Quell stows away, and when he awakens the next morning, does not remember having offered his services as an “able seaman” to the boat’s captain, author and spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd. But Dodd remembers him, and says he can stay aboard so long as he continues to mix up his ‘potions’ for him.
Quell then witnesses the wedding of Dodd’s adult daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to Clark (Rami Malek) and the subsequent festivities. He is taken with Dodd’s wedding toast about taming a dragon. (Is this meant to represent anger, the animal nature, Quell himself?) Dodd’s adult son, Val (Jesse Plemmons), tries to feel him out. We will later learn there is concern about spies sent to infiltrate the organization, and that Val believes Dodd’s teachings are bunk. “You know he’s making it up as he goes along.” (This is reportedly the line that angered Tom Cruise.) Dodd’s pregnant wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), tells Quell that he inspires Dodd. “He sees something in you.”
Quell observes a group of young people on the ship listening to a tape of Dodd’s teachings. He joins in, but his main purpose seems to be to flirt with the girls of the group. He tries to distract them, and eventually passes a note to one asking “Do you want to fuck?” We do not see if this bold gambit was successful. This is in contrast to the audio coming through the headphones (heard subjectively once Quell puts them on) which is an admonishment not to give in to the animal nature.
Quell gets an “informal processing” session with Dodd in a great scene, where Dodd challenges and probes him about his sexual experiences — he had sex with his aunt Bertha three times when drunk — and his criminal past. Quell said he killed “Japs” in the war and confesses to perhaps killing the old man in the sequence we saw earlier. Quell says he was in once love with a Norwegian-American girl named Doris (Madison Beaty) and he flashes back to a date with her. Dodd challenges him about why he is not out looking for Doris instead of aboard the ship. We see in the flashback that Quell had gotten cold feet and joined up with a merchant vessel while Doris went to see family in Norway. Doris sings “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)”. (Lyrics. Note the contrast between the message of this song and “I’ll Go No More A-roving”, sung by Dodd later in the film.)
When Quell snaps out of this reverie, he seems happy and further bonded to Dodd. The group travels to New York, where they regress a wealthy socialite and Dodd and his teachings are challenged by the skeptic John More (Christopher Evan Welch). Dodd gets more and more angry defending his beliefs, eventually calling More a “pigfuck”. Quell throws food at More — just one of many behaviors he does in this rarified environment that breaks decorum.
Peggy argues they need to attack, not defend their position. Later Quell and Clark go to More’s apartment (hotel room?) and assault him in the middle of the night. Although we do not see it, presumably this causes the rift that forces The Cause contingent to leave New York and results in the lawsuit over the use of the wealthy patron’s boat.
The group moves on to Philadelphia, to a follower’s house. The follower, Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) welcomes Dodd. As Dodd gives a lecture, Elizabeth feels up Quell’s leg. He seems to reject her advances. The camera keeps cutting to her husband, Clark, who does not see the hanky panky.
Over dinner one night, Peggy, Clark and Elizabeth argue that Freddie should be kicked out for the sake of the movement. Dodd says he will take it under advisement, but instead of kicking Freddie out, he seems to re-double his efforts to “cure” him of his affliction (whatever it may be). This is one of the few scenes in the film in which Freddy does not appear, and shifts the film from being one in which the protagonist knows more than the audience to one where the audience knows some things the protagonist does not.
We get a montage of treatment sessions, always returning to an exercise where Quell walks between a wall and a window, describing what he can feel with his hand. When he says he can feel cosmic things, including stars, Dodd says the exercise has been successfully completed.
In the parlor one evening, Dodd sings a spirited rendition of the traditional song “I’ll Go No More a Roving”. As he sings, the women in the room, old and young, appear without clothing. We seem to be seeing this from Freddie’s perspective, due to the shot-reverse-shot cutting. But in the next scene, another from outside Quell’s experience, Peggy seems to be upset at Dodd for flirting with other women. She gives Lancaster a handjob over the sink while making him promise to stop boozing and not to cheat under her nose.
Peggy then wakes up Quell and also elicits a promise from him to stop boozing — one he breaks immediately in the next scene, although he does pause for a good beat before downing his hip flask. This is the same scene where Dodd’s son Val challenges Freddie’s faith in Dodd’s teachings. Freddie reacts violently to the suggestion that Dodd is making it all up. He attacks Val, but stops when he notices a Philadelphia police vehicle coming up the street. The police arrest Dodd for running an unlicensed medical school, improper withdrawal of funds from a (former?) supporter’s account and unpayed fees for use of a boat. Dodd yells at the police, but does not resist arrest. Quell on the other hand, takes on three officers at once.
In jail, Quell continues freaking out, smashing a toilet and causing self harm. (Apparently, attacking the toilet was a spontaneous actor choice and Phoenix did not know it would shatter like it did.)
Quell challenges Dodd about making things up. Whatever Dodd says, it seems to calm Quell. (Tangent: anyone else feel Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell sound like Dickensian names?) Quell and Dodd make preparations for an upcoming The Cause convention in Phoenix, where Dodd will reveal “his second book”.
They dig up a box buried in some rugged mountains, which Dodd says contain his unpublished writings. (Note: This scene breaks Chekov’s rule of drama — showing a rifle without it going off.) Quell takes several publicity photos of Dodd.
At the convention, there are parallel scenes of Dodd and Quell turning on early followers who express reservations about the new church teachings. Dodd explodes verbally at Helen Sullivan when she challenges him about his new book, The Split Sabre, changing the induction process from using “recall” involving memory to “imagine”, which is more open ended. And Quell physically attacks Dodd’s former editor when he calls the new book over-long.
Dodd takes Quell, Elizabeth and Clark out to the salt flats to play a game with a motorcycle. The object, Dodd says, it to pick a point and go towards it as fast as you can. Dodd demonstrates, then turns the motorcycle over to Quell. He presumably takes it literally, absconding with the motorcycle and finally going to see Doris.
At Doris’ house, Quell learns from Doris’ mother that she already married (a man named Jim Day whom Quell must’ve grown up with; Quell jokes that she is now named ‘Doris Day’ like the famous actress, one of the few cultural references in the film) and had two kids. Doris’ mother offers to give him Doris’ address if he wants to write, but he doesn’t want it. She confirms to Quell that Doris knew she was supposed to wait for him.
Some interpretation… One could read this a sort of breakthrough for Quell. He finally did go see Doris. So The Cause helped him with whatever was keeping him away. On the other hand, he spent years drifting without her, so The Cause may have delayed their reunion to the point where it was too late.
In a movie theater, watching “Casper the Friendly Ghost”, Quell gets a call from Dodd, who tells him to come to England and that he remembers in what former life they had previously met. We then cut to Quell waking up in the same theater.
(He later says the call was a dream. So I read the phone call as a literal dream, but not what follows — although the fact that we have now seen a dream casts doubt upon every single scene in the movie in a way the nudie ‘Go No More A-Roving’ scene did not, because it was at least subjective to Quell and readable as a reverie based on reality.)
Quell goes to England to visit Dodd and Peggy. Dodd tells him that he can rejoin The Cause, but he can never leave again. Quell says Dodd told him in a dream that he now knows where they first met. Dodd says they were fellow members of the Pigeon Post in Paris, when it was under siege by the Prussians. (Note the detail of only two messages lost describes the pigeon post on Catalina Island later in the Wikipedia article.) Dodd sings a song for Quell —
someone please help me remember what song this is “Slow Boat to China” (lyrics – thanks to commenter Russell). Dodd tells him that if he figures out how to live without any master, completely free, to return and tell them what the secret is.
Quell does seem to leave The Cause, picking up an English girl in a bar and performing ‘processing’ on her while they make love.
In the end, Quell is back on a beach with a sand woman — the same sand woman as before? He seems happy.
Parallels to Scientology
How much does The Cause resemble Scientology? P.T. Anderson has stated that the movie is inspired by the origins of Lafayette (L. Ron) Hubbard’s Scientology, but not meant to be about Scientology. I did some research into Scientology’s origins and practices, and here are some parallels that I found:
processing = auditing
Scientology’s interview process, which reportedly includes giving detailed sexual histories, is called ‘auditing’. Questions asked during auditing reportedly include: “Do you make thoughtless remarks? Do you get occasional twitches of your muscles when there is no logical reason for it? Do past failures still worry you? Is your life a constant struggle for survival? Are you often impulsive in your behavior? Are you likely to be jealous? Are you logical and scientific in your thinking?”
Lancaster Dodd = L. Ron Hubbard
Both are leaders of ‘scientific’ spiritual movements. L. Ron Hubbard was referred to as LRH within his inner circle. Dodd is referred to as MOC (Master of Cause). Hubbard recorded his lectures and auditing sessions, just as Dodd does. And both the real and fictional leader apparently stressed the importance of laughter. Hubbard had a large mansion in Sussex, England and The Master has an England headquarters.
Freddie Quell = David Miscavige
Miscavige, Hubbard’s right-hand man and the current leader of Scientology, has been accused of reacting with violence on numerous occasions. He has a penchant for motorcycles and he worked as a photographer for church brochures. Miscavige was born in 1960, so there is no chance that the Freddie Quell character could actually represent him, since the events of the film presumable take place around 1950, before Miscavige was born.
Peggy Dodd = Mary Sue Whipp Hubbard
Hubbard’s third wife. They weren’t married until 1952, and Lancaster and Peggy are already married by 1950, so the timeline is off. But Peggy speaks of “ex-wives” plural and she is a leader in The Cause movement, just as Mary Sue was in Scientology.
boat Alethia = Apollo
Alethia is a Greek name meaning ‘truth, sincerity’ and the boat upon which Quell stows away in the film. L. Ron Hubbard had a boat called the Apollo.
book The Cause = Dianetics
Both are about exploring past-life trauma to create spiritual harmony.
book The Split Sabre = The Dark Sword, Excalibur
Hubbard apparently claimed to have written The Dark Sword before Dianetics, just as The Split Sabre is presumably exhumed in a box that was buried before the writing of The Cause.
Phoenix center = Phoenix house and church
L. Ron Hubbard supposedly founded Scientology and wrote the first books during time when he was living in Phoenix around 1952. Both real and fictional Phoenix events were apparently referred to as a “Unification Congress”.
FURTHER NOTES: Scientology Church representatives have protested the film, a sure sign that some things are related. While I find the portrayal of Dodd and The Cause to be mostly sympathetic, certainly there is no question some with read The Master in an anti-Scientology way. Does Anderson himself believe Scientology is a cult? Harvey Weinstein is quoted as saying he means The Cause to be read as a cult, for whatever that’s worth.
Paul says to me the movie is about a journey for soldiers after World War II – my own dad was one of those guys – and, you know, one of the things that happens to this soldier is he goes to a cult. Look, I mean, whatever, people are going to draw their own conclusions, and right now there are heated conclusions, and the Tom and Katie situation has exacerbated that. It’s going to be a controversial movie. But it’s a tour de force. I hope what doesn’t get lost is how wonderful the filmmaking is.
This article from The Daily Beast, where a former Scientologist looks for parallels between the screenplay and his own knowledge of the church’s workings, was a source for my research, and contains further details. Forrest Wickman at Slate also has some info.
Since both Dodd and Quell are hinted to be alcoholics, I think a comparison with the rituals and history of the Alcoholics Anonymous organization might also yield some interesting parallels.
Who is The Master?
Obviously, the Philip Seymour Hoffman character Lancaster Dodd is the literal Master. He is called “Master” and “M.O.C. Master of Cause”. But the title does invite a metaphorical speculation beyond that character. (Just, be aware that the name of the film came from a blog, not P.T. Anderson.) Some have suggested that it is Amy Adams’ character who is the true master of both men (and masterbator of one). Others have suggested it is “women” in general as the masters of men, as represented by the symbol of the sand woman. I personally would be inclined to this interpretation of the film, but I doubt P.T.A. had such a simple summary in mind. I think, rather, the film presents aspects of the human condition without taking sides — part of what makes it both fascinating and infuriating.
– Film School Rejects aggregates some interpretations of the film by various critics.
– Vulture Mag does their top five pick of theories about the film.
– Jim Emerson of the Sun Times has his own theory.
– Jack Giroux at Film School Rejects says: “The Master can be broken down to one simple sentence: a beautiful, tragic friendship between someone who has no interest in answers and a man who knows he has none of them.”