Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Master -- confusion and cults

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012. (R)

Like his previous film, There Will be Blood, Anderson’s latest movie is deep and dense and somewhat perplexing.  With slow pacing and some mystifying scenes, I emerged from the theater once again wondering at Anderson’s product.

The movie centers on two men. We meet one right at the start. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers). The protagonist is a sailor serving at the end of WW2. Clearly suffering some post-traumatic stress disorder, he finds work as a department store photographer. But he is a troubled man, who cares mostly about easy sex and strong drinks. Indeed, his chief talent seems to be able to create alcoholic concoctions from anything to hand, including airline fuel, paint thinner and medicine. But somehow his hooch tastes great. But when his drink seems to put one old man on his deathbed, Freddie up and runs, finding himself jumping aboard a small cruise ship, that is hosting a wedding, as a stowaway.

This ship is being chartered by the second man, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). When he meets Freddie, he tells him, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” And when he samples Freddie’s drink, they form an unlikely bond. Dodd is on board with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams, The Fighter), and throwing a wedding for his daughter. But he is really the Master of a cult known as “The Cause.”  More than anything, it seems Dodd sees Freddy as a project: if he can bring him into the cult and help him process his baggage, he can do it for anyone. And so Freddy becomes one of Dodd’s groupies, almost a family member and something of a protégé.

En route to New York from San Francisco, Dodd begins the processing of Freddie, a series of focused one-on-one interviews that seeks to get to the hidden memories deep within.

Although Anderson does not spend too much time outlining the tenets of the Cause, some of them come across. They believe that human spirits are trillions of years old and continue to be reborn or recycled in new vessel bodies. By processing, Dodd seeks to purge the earlier traumas and animal behavior that keeps them from progressing to a perfect state, which is their end goal. It ultimately seeks self-mastery, where there are no psychological or health problems.

The movie has caused controversy for its parallel with Scientology. Dodd is viewed as a version of L. Ron Hubbard, the man who started the Scientology movement in the post-war era. The beliefs mirror those of Scientology in many ways. But the film is more than an attack on Scientology. It is a treatise on human nature and a character study of two men who seem so opposite but have more in common than just the love of alcohol.

While the film is complex and difficult both in tone and content, the acting is sublime. Phoenix, who has not acted since his “retirement” to focus on music, gives an outstanding performance wearing his emotions on his sleeve, or at least on his face. Hoffman matches him scene for scene, and both, along with Adams, were worth their Oscar nominations.

At one point Dodd tells Freddie, “Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as spirits, not beasts.” And he is correct, biblically. God created man last of all, after all the animals. He made him in the very image of God, something no animal can claim. And he placed him in a position of ruler ship over the animal kingdom (Gen.1:26).  There is truth in Dodd’s claim, as in every cult. They typically bear some truth.

Yet, Dodd goes on in this very same scene, “I have unlocked and discovered a secret to living in these bodies that we hold.” Herein lies the lie. Cult leaders always carry the secret, they have discovered the special truth. Sometimes they, like Joseph Smith the founder of the Mormon Church, have been the ones to speak directly to God. They have the message that alone unlocks the secret to life. Dodd is no cult leader exception.

Two scenes stand out. The first is in New York, where Dodd and his group are guests at a society party. As Dodd pontificates on his beliefs, one man stands alone, and begins to interrupt, to dispute with Dodd. When he says, “I belong to no club, if you’re unwilling to allow any discussion,” Dodd gets very upset. He loses his cool and control, cursing out the man. In the second scene, both Dodd and Freddie are in adjacent police cells. While Freddie is physically throwing himself around, swearing like a sailor, Dodd stands unshackled in his cell. Once more he seems to be the master of self-control. But slowly his mask falls off, and he loses his control until both are banging on the walls and cursing at the top of their lungs. Neither have control, they are mirror images of one another. Self-mastery is missing even from the Master.

The crux of the film is captured in another scene when Dodd claims, “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” Can we live without a master? The Cause would have us seek to get there, relying for the moment on the direction of the Master, Dodd himself (even though one of his sons admits, “He’s making this stuff up as he goes along,” and w realize the truth in this when he reads from his second book). But does the Cause offer hope and growth to Freddie? Not really, he seems no better off from Dodd’s processing. He may be better clothed, but his animalistic urges remain, just better veiled.

The Bible shows Jesus’ disciples calling him Master (Lk. 5:5). And in the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ““No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt.6:24). The point here, though, is that we will serve a master and that master cannot be shared. The choices are God or someone or something else. But that something else is not self, since we are by nature slaves to sin (Rom. 6:6). When we were yoked to sin, we were knowingly or unknowingly serving Satan as master. We can choose to be freed from this slavery by following Jesus as our new Master (Rom. 6;17). But that is to transfer allegiance from one master to another, to let God rescue us “from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:13). Like Freddie, we cannot attain true self-mastery and have no need of a Master. We will have a master. Will it be Jesus?

 Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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