Thursday 20 April 2017

Cult Cinema #6: The Master (2012)

I could do a whole series on its own where I look at documentaries about Scientology.

But the truth is, I feel that unless it's a pretty interesting work of art in its own right, a documentary film speaks largely for itself, and most reviews of documentaries end up tackling style and underlying agendas. Since the vast majority of documentaries about Scientology start with the base assumption that Scientology is awful and then try to give you evidence to back that up, my critical MO has little to add. Louis Theroux bringing his schtick to a film about Scientology, for example, isn't without value, but I don't have a whole lot to add to that.

The wedding.
Most films about Scientology are documentaries. I can think of a number of very good reasons why this is, but I think one reason is because Scientology's survival and indeed success as an NRM is down to the group having a powerful hold over prominent people in Hollywood. I mean, if you know only the first thing about the private lives of Tom Cruise and John Travolta, it's more or less certain that first thing is that they're Scientologists, and it's not hard to find out how many prominent Scientologists there are in Hollywood, nor why people who leave the movement end up ostracised. And this is where I mention Paul Haggis, I suppose.

Fictions then that tackle Scientology tend to do so covertly. So in The Path, as we've seen, although the exact points of similarity are manifold, the script nonetheless makes an explicit statement more than once that the cult isn't Scientology, and by the second season, as we'll see soon, some of the direct references are gone altogether (so those weird little electrode boxes vanish, never to be seen or mentioned again). I wonder if the Church of Scientology had a word with them.
I am an inquisitive man, like yourself.
I also can't help wondering what David Miscavige and company thought of The Master.

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 film was, of course, well received; he's one of those directors critical consensus gives a pass to, almost on principle. His films are long, and serious, and have long scenes, rich in dialogue, and even though they might deal with sex and death, they deal with them in a serious, literary sort of way. They're Important, Serious Works of Art that sit firmly within an establishment idea of what art is. Which makes it sound like they're bad, and they're not, they're usually pretty good (my favourite of his films is Magnolia, which breaks the mould in some ways but not in others).

Critics loved The Master. Is The Master that good? I'm not sure. Like much of Anderson's work, it wanders around, and is always somehow weirdly tasteful, even when it deals with things like offbeat sex, and mental illness and alcoholism. I often think he makes the film equivalent of the Great American Novel.

The Master is a film about a cult leader called Lancaster Dodd, played by the much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's 1950. Shellshocked navy veteran Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix, weathered and tired), a high-functioning alcoholic with a talent for making moonshine, drifts from job to job, messing it up every time. Hitting the absolute skids, he stows away on a steamboat hosting a fancy party and drinks himself into oblivion. It's Lancaster Dodd's boat, and everyone on the boat is a member of his movement (here called the Cause). Of course Freddie is found – he's so drunk he doesn't remember the circumstances of it. But to Freddie's surprise, Dodd welcomes him on board. He claims to be a "doctor, a writer, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher" and offers Freddie a job, provided he supply Dodd with some more of the moonshine that Freddie had in his hip flask (and which Dodd tried, and drank up).
You inspire something in him.
Dodd: You shouldn't work in your condition.
Freddie: No, I can work.
Dodd: You're aberrated.
Freddie: No, I'm not.
Dodd: Know what that means?
Freddie: No.
Dodd: You've wandered from the proper path, haven't you, with these problems you have?
Dodd sees Freddie as a project, someone he can perhaps save from his headlong path towards destruction. In his own words, Freddie "seems so familiar" to him. Freddie accepts this, to begin with. But Freddie isn't really the sort of person who Dodd's movement works for. The relationship between the two men is hard to fathom. Why does Freddie stick around? Why does Dodd put up with Freddie's erratic behaviour?
Are you ready?
Lancaster Dodd is transparently an analogue for L Ron Hubbard. He's just written a book about spiritual science. He really likes boats (Hubbard would eventually found a youth organisation with a naval theme called the Sea Org). He perfects a system of deep questioning that is some extent effective – and the thing about Scientology is that you don't get to the really stupid stuff about aliens and Xenu and that until you get to about OT III, and up to that point, the psychological stuff does actually work. He courts rich people, perhaps seeing in them a solid chance of survival for his movement. And while he's persuasive to a degree, when someone begins to question him, and address his more extravagant claims – that past life regression can cure leukaemia, that human evolution goes back trillions of years – Dodd explodes; he can't argue it on any terms but his own and splutters and loses the point.

After the confrontation, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) lambasts him for not going on the attack. Freddie meanwhile grabs Dodd's son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek, him off Mr Robot) and they find the guy who argued with Dodd, and then Freddie beats the living daylights out of him while Clark watches aghast. And neither Peggy or Freddie have solutions to that conflict that are useful, but Peggy's going to win, because her solution fits with who the Dodds are.
It's still quite difficult to see the proof.
Dodd puts Freddie through what he calls "processing", a probing interrogation into his inner life that is almost exactly like the Scientologist practice of "auditing", right down to the part where it's always recorded, except the first time they do it, they're a bit drunk on moonshine brewed from paint thinner. Even so, it works. Dodd gets through to Freddie. But Freddie is a terrible cult member, and he tries and tries, tries so hard, does all the courses and exercises and just keeps trying and he is hopeless. And that at least is pretty true. Most people don't fall for religious pitches. Some people do. But there are some people who really, really want to and just can't, no matter how hard they try to.

Peggy sees Freddie's dogged but problematic loyalty as a threat to her own control of Dodd, because she's got clear ideas about where the movement should be going and what Dodd should be doing. There's one bizarre scene where Peggy stands behind Dodd while he's at the bathroom basin looking in the mirror and she's telling him to lay off the moonshine and all the time she's eliciting these promises she's jerking him off. And it's really as mannered and awkward as it sounds, and not in a good way, and it reflects my two real problems with this film. There's the way everything is subsumed under Anderson's trademark style, how a young woman is masturbating an older man to make him do things, and yet it's still luminous and tasteful.
Stop with this idea. Put it back in its pants.
And the other thing is how Dodd's beautiful young wife is set on controlling him – and that's all her character gets. There is hardly anything else to the one and only significant woman in the film, the third billed actor on the poster. She wants power, Freddie is in her way, and that conflict doesn't even really go anywhere, since it's all about Freddie Quill and Lancaster Dodd.

And I think that while the best thing about the film is the relationship between the two men and the way it's never straightforward what Dodd sees in Freddie and it's fascinating to see how Freddie's loyalty is expressed in ways that Dodd's circle can't cope with, no one else gets anything more than a cursory sketch.
What colour are my eyes? Turn them blue.
Perhaps inevitably, The Master wants you to like Lancaster Dodd, for all his bluster and trillion year nonsense. You forgive Dodd, and when Freddie finally moves on, you never get the feeling he's escaped, just that he left and he's better for his experience. It's all very balanced, except it isn't because only two characters in a two and a half hour movie get a fair shake. Characters in films don't have to have large parts to be well drawn; you can sketch someone with delicacy and depth in maybe three lines of dialogue. But you never really get that sense in The Master. You just get the Master, his problematic pupil, and a gallery of cyphers, and in a film that supposedly rests on how a man starts his own religion and finds followers, that means the story is sort of hollow, and it never really sells the cult to you, so you get one man's experience of a thing that doesn't ring wholly true. As Peggy says: "this is a thing you do for a million years or not at all," and sadly, the film doesn't go the full million years.