November 2012

Arts & Letters

Volatile Spirits

By Luke Davies
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’

“You’re aberrated,” says the marvellously named, honey-voiced Lancaster Dodd, to Freddie Quell, a drifter with alcoholic tendencies, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (in national release 8 November). When Freddie says he doesn’t know what that means, Dodd tells him, like some compassionate priest, “You’ve wandered from the proper path, haven’t you? These problems you have.” Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is busy creating the Cause, a new religion he thinks will free us from all trauma, and Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) fascinates him. Three parts ne’er-do-well to one part thuggish loose cannon, Freddie has collided with Dodd’s world quite improbably, stumbling drunk into a party on his yacht, the inner sanctum of the nascent religion and full of warm and well-meaning seekers of a new truth.

A stranger to abstract thinking, Freddie seems at first to have very little idea of what the loquacious and charismatic Dodd is even on about. Nor is it easy at first to know what it is about Freddie that so intrigues Dodd. The initial, ostensible reason is that whatever concoction was in Freddie’s hip flask the night before, Dodd wants more of it. Freddie’s attitude to alcohol is not so much bull-at-gate as demonic-pig-at-trough, and he’ll take his spirits wherever he can find them; in an early scene we’ve already watched him below decks, a sailor in World War II, surreptitiously draining rocket fuel from a bomb into a tin can. As he leans in to interrupt the stream, it’s as if he’s drinking the elixir of life itself.

Freddie can mix a drink from any number of available household products: paint-thinner, developing fluid. (In the present day, he’d surely be cooking up a batch of crystal meth in a jerry-built home lab.) He’s all animal, ceaselessly trying to find his spirit. Dodd, meanwhile, is trying to invent himself as the defining spirit of a new age. But it’s a business, and a headache, all this paradigm-shifting, and Dodd the Renaissance man seems drawn to the qualities bursting forth from the Dark Ages of Freddie’s psyche – as if for Dodd it’s not Freddie’s illness that matters but the mere fact of his coming from a less complex place.

The film will explore the push and the pull between this odd couple. “Would you care for some informal processing?” asks Dodd. “You’ll be my guinea pig and protégé.” We sense that this is going to be one evil genius who knows how to put the fun into dysfunction. The Master is a beautiful, restless work of art about delusion, manipulation, bewilderment and salvation, but perhaps it’s best viewed as a love story. For all Dodd’s cold regard of Freddie, there’s something appealing in his Achilles heel, the way he keeps welcoming errant Freddie back into the fold, whatever the latest transgression. And for all the slightly chilled formalism of the film itself, it’s as a fractured love story that it most comes alive. You could say Freddie gives Dodd time out from the labours of world domination. “Freddie, you’re mischief,” says Dodd tenderly. Elsewhere he tells him, “You are the bravest boy I’ve ever met.”

Less welcoming of Freddie’s presence is Dodd’s wife, Peggy, in a deliciously restrained, nuanced portrait by Amy Adams. Anderson doesn’t seem to do pat female characters, a refreshing fact in a Hollywood that seems so very often incapable of doing otherwise. (Laura Dern is terrific, too, in a small but noteworthy role as Dodd follower Helen Sullivan.) Peggy Dodd is at first curious, if wary, about Freddie. Later, she’ll see him as a danger to her husband’s overarching vision. Later still, she has become the ultimate apparatchik, seeing Freddie not in terms of his desperate, wounded humanity, but only in terms of his deep unsuitability for membership in the Cause. “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all,” she tells him, her eyes dark with disdain.

The Master is not, like Anderson’s Magnolia, a swirling, multi-strand narrative – though it could be said both films share a common interest in the notion of redemption. Redemption, too, is at the heart of Anderson’s exquisite Boogie Nights, the saddest and most tender of his films to date (though some would argue that honour goes to Punch-Drunk Love). Damnation more than redemption is the guiding motif of There Will Be Blood, a film that, while much loved, has always felt to me something of a mere (brilliant) exercise: as if Anderson wanted to prove to the world he could do a single-character narrative. There Will Be Blood certainly charges forward with singular intensity, but it feels like two films yoked together. The first half tracks one man’s will to power, the second its aftermath of murderous, misanthropic solipsism.

The Master has neither the mad pulsing of Magnolia nor the unswerving focus of There Will Be Blood, but oscillates in ravishing point–counterpoint between Freddie and Dodd: the deeply scarred drifter with obvious psychiatric issues and the charismatic, possibly sociopathic, huckster who has “unlocked, and discovered, [the] secret” of how to transcend all that scarring. It’s most alive, of course, when the two are together, and it’s fascinating to watch and marvel at the meshing of two very distinct acting styles. Hoffman is all effortless irony, a twinkle in his eye, and he reminds us how great acting is sometimes simply play. (His bursts of anger, too, are electric.) Phoenix seems to be going down more of a method-acting path, immersing Freddie – who is angry pretty much all of the time – in his cocoon of pure damage, with here a hint of Marlon Brando and there a hint of James Dean, those sometimes histrionic channellers of angst. At other moments, with his loping gait and dangling arms, Freddie resembles no one so much as Marty Feldman’s Igor, from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

Extrapolating from this analogy, Lancaster Dodd would be Dr Frankenstein … and who, then, the monster? The film has been viewed as a thinly veiled account of the early days of the Church of Scientology. Anderson has said it is not, and certainly the logistics of the rise of Dodd’s movement through the early ’50s are very much an incidental part of the film’s background. The Master is more a freewheeling character study, though Dodd’s story does bear some striking similarities to L Ron Hubbard’s. Thirty-eight people are said to have attended one of Hubbard’s early lectures, in Philadelphia in 1952, and Anderson crowds about that number of extras into acolyte Helen Sullivan’s Philadelphia home, where Freddie literally bounces off the walls acting out one of Dodd’s odder processing “techniques”. Soon after the Philadelphia sessions, Hubbard moved operations to Phoenix, Arizona; in The Master, the First Universal Congress of the Cause takes place there. Then Hubbard went to London for a time, as does Lancaster Dodd.

For those of us who view Scientology as a confederacy of lunacy, there’s some pleasure to be had in all this, Anderson’s understandable deflections aside. (For what it’s worth, I’m not offended by the implausible accounts of the age of the universe, nor even the notion of the evil lord Xenu shipping those billions of aliens to earth 75 million years ago and blowing them up with hydrogen bombs. No, it’s simply as a reader that I judge Scientology to be poppycock: how could any self-respecting citizen with a basic affection for clarity read Hubbard’s pseudoscientific babble and garbled simulacra of meaning and not smell a rat?) In that first processing session (“You’re aberrated”), we not only get to see how exciting this interplay between Hoffman and Phoenix will be – the actors so clearly relishing the intensity of the scene – we see the seeds of how and why a cult might work. The opaque, secret jargon hints tantalisingly to Freddie of the pleasures of inside knowledge further down the line. The rapid-fire, repetitive questioning that causes disoriented Freddie such distress and makes him cry may not be to his liking. But someone is paying attention to him, and for Freddie, just now, that may be more than enough.

“I’m the only one who likes you,” Dodd will tell Freddie later. That’s what all the gods say.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

November 2012

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