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The Unacknowledged “Master”: director Paul Thomas Anderson
& a film that’s not about Scientology

Jennifer A Epps

Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite film director who isn’t Scorsese. And even then, it’s getting very close. When I ambled out into the light after the L.A. native’s sixth feature, the psychological period epic The Master, I felt like I had just seen one of the greatest American films in a couple of decades. If you haven’t heard much about it, however, that’s because it isn’t nominated for any Oscars in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, or Best Score categories – in all of which cases it was robbed, in my humble opinion. It did still, nonetheless, receive 3 Oscar nominations for the work of each of its principal actors (Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams). The acting was so rich and full it was impossible not to notice, but the Academy has treated the success of The Master’s cast as some kind of fluke, as if they could all just give spectacular performances without the words, story, and characters P.T. Anderson supplied them with in the first place, or the nuanced direction he gave them to guide them through some challenging and unusually-paced material.

One hears a lot about Kathryn Bigelow being snubbed by the Academy this year, and the question of whether this was in reaction to how she depicted torture in Zero Dark Thirty. One also hears about Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, and Tom Hooper being left out of the Best Director category while their films were all nominated for Best Picture (though obviously when there are only 5 directors nominated yet 9 Best Picture nominees, there have to be some exclusions). What’s given little attention, however, is how severely Anderson and The Master were overlooked by the Academy (and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) in the top categories. In fact, Anderson was not even part of the “directors’ roundtables” assembled by various news agencies early in the awards season. The reason for this perhaps is that Anderson’s work is so stubbornly idiosyncratic. The Master is even more uncompromising than There Will Be Blood; both of these surprising films exist in alternate universes of filmmaking with scant interest in building a story along familiar lines, cutting where audiences expect a cut, or scoring a scene in a way that sounds like other movies.

This weekend, there’s a chance for the British Academy to take a stand for originality at the BAFTAs, as The Master is nominated (once again) for awards for all three of its principal actors, as well as for Original Screenplay. And next weekend, the Writers’ Guild could recognize Anderson’s screenplay at the WGA Awards. However, I’m not sure anyone is holding their breath at this point, since there’s a little thing called “momentum”, and The Master seems to have lost that, while other, more commercial fare, has surged ahead.

But it is important to note that the title of this review is not strictly accurate. The Master, and Anderson’s impossibly fertile talent, is not completely ‘unacknowledged.’ For one thing, Anderson took home the second highest award at the Venice Film Festival, the Silver Lion, for Best Director. The Venice jury also awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actor to both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. And apparently, the jury also wanted to award The Master the top prize at Venice, the Golden Lion, for Best Film, but new rules limited the jury to no more than two awards per film, no matter how exceptional the film. (The third award The Master picked up at the City of Canals was from the critics, the FIPRESCI award for the best film in competition.)

The Master has been a critical darling at home, too. Early in the awards season, it picked up a boat-load of trophies from critics’ associations across the U.S. Its wins are noted in the table below. That won’t help anyone in their Oscar pools, but it shows how far apart the critics and the Academy are. And it is worth keeping in mind when The Master is released on DVD on Feb. 26th, two days after the Oscars.

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To his enormous credit, when Ben Affleck won the HFPA’s Golden Globe for Best Director, he mentioned (in one of a slew of generous speeches he has given in accepting prizes for Argo) that there were great directors who had not been nominated for Globes this year. And then he singled out “Paul Thomas Anderson, who is like Orson Welles.” It is a lovely comparison; indeed, like Welles, Anderson both writes and directs, clearly loves actors, came from an artistically-inclined family, makes excellent and expressive use of all elements of the film medium, creates almost insanely ambitious and utterly original projects on giant themes, and also seems to be a misunderstood genius. (Welles never won an Oscar for directing — thirty years after he picked up a trophy for co-writing Citizen Kane, the Academy finally gave him an Honorary Award for his body of work.)

The boldness of the fictional biography that is the premise for The Master may be one more reason Affleck likened Anderson to Welles. Like Citizen Kane’s sly portrait of then-living media magnate William Randolph Hearst, The Master bears the incredible cheekiness of speaking truth to power. Welles had to deal with a lot of pressure against his movie from the Hearst papers. Today, the Church of Scientology opposes The Master. They are very disturbed by the thinness of its fictional veneer; and that’s not surprising, since the parallels between Scientology and the religious cult Anderson invented for this film are striking, as are the many echoes between founder L. Ron Hubbard and the movie’s Lancaster Dodd.

While the Church of Scientology seems to wield a fair amount of clout, even just in terms of its Los Angeles real estate, I’m not sure we can blame them for suppressing The Master. On the contrary, if anything, its box office returns might have lowered in part because it didn’t dish about Hubbard much – there probably would have been plenty of people ready to believe the worst about Scientology, especially as the movie’s release came tight on the heels of Katie Holmes’ split from Tom Cruise.

But a film by Paul Thomas Anderson is usually very understanding of its characters, be they porn stars, oil barons, sex-chat addicts, trophy wives, former child prodigies, or misogynistic motivational-speakers who teach men how to “seduce and destroy”. (The latter character was played by Cruise in Magnolia; he and Anderson are said to have remained friends despite how differently they feel about Scientology.) It is unfortunate that Zero Dark Thirty’s filmmakers have recently given the idea of ‘not judging’ a bad name, because Anderson shows how avoiding judgmentalism should be done – not as a cop-out, and not from a credulous distance that allows for disengagement, but close-up, with a glaring light on the characters’ blemishes, and as part of a full and brave investigation which peers inside the characters’ psyches.

At the same time, a moment’s thought reveals how political The Master really is — American faith-based movements of many stripes have long had a bizarre, enmeshed relationship with the free enterprise system and the film shows, without stressing it too heavily, how much of a cash cow a thought system which promises cures for every ailment, psychological or physical, felt or unfelt, current or “billions of years” old (as Scientologists claim), might well be. The Master delves into the dynamics of spiritual hucksterism and charismatic leaders at a crucial time in our current culture, when these issues are still strong in numerous places besides the Church of Scientology.

Yet this is certainly not a film whose purpose is a simple exposé of Hubbard, or a criticism of cult brainwashing. Anderson has said that it’s really not about Scientology, and I don’t think he’s being coy. At its core, this elegant film is actually about the dynamic between the cult leader Dodd and his devotee Freddy Quill. What they bond over is not as important as the fact that they do bond. Like other father-son types of relationships in Anderson films, this one is complex and mysterious.

If you had not read advance press on The Master, you would have no idea what’s going on for the first few minutes: Anderson makes no mention of the cult (which he will name “The Cause”) throughout the early scenes, but instead immerses us in the desperate, pathetic life of Freddy Quill, a World War II veteran who is so weird he freaks out the other enlisted men as they pull out of the Pacific and return to shiny, materialistic, mid-century America. The tightly-coiled Quill (played with an other-worldly selflessness by Phoenix) is imprisoned by inarticulateness and a lack of control over his impulses; when he stumbles upon Dodd’s traveling cult, he starts to feel like he has been set free.

Dodd (in a magnificently layered performance by Hoffman) shows Quill another life. This suave, benign-seeming philosopher, this hypnotist and sci-fi novelist, wins over the hapless Freddy Quill with his warmth, charm, intelligence, refinement, and, above all, rapt attention. Freddy begins the film as a kind of anonymous Everyman, adrift in a prosperous urban America; he clearly feels alienated, and the psychological assessment the Navy gives him upon his discharge is too standardized and impersonal to be of use. Dodd, on the other hand, immediately treats him as somebody special and pays him the honor of staring deeply into his eyes and into his soul.

 

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It’s mind control, of course, but we can see how it helps Freddy at the same time as it messes with him, how it fills a visceral need he has to belong to some kind of family. Most interestingly, we see that Dodd himself yearns to have someone that needy around. Anderson doesn’t focus on the vastness of the empire Dodd creates; he focuses on Dodd’s power over one person, and how he gets off on it.

Those in the film with some sanity or self-possession can take or leave Dodd’s ideas, even if they are hooked on the power he wields over others. (Particularly ambivalent is his complicated, wholesome-on-the-outside/ruthless-on-the-inside wife, chillingly played by Amy Adams.) But Freddy is so loyal he’ll lash out violently at anyone who so much as looks askance at Dodd or questions ‘The Cause’, and Dodd is thrilled by this. In a telling scene, Dodd learns of a piece of thuggery Freddy has perpetrated. He happens to be sitting in a kind of furniture storage closet, and Dodd is framed sitting on a criss-crossed stack of dark-wood chairs that resemble a spindly, Grimm-fairytale throne. It boosts Dodd’s ego to have a fiefdom, even if it’s just pretend and even if it’s in a closet. But Freddy’s devotion feeds his ego even more, and so Dodd’s rebuke is perfunctory. Underneath, he is delighted that Freddy wants to be an avenging angel for him.

The search for happiness is a recurring theme in Anderson’s films; we can see it clearly in Freddy’s sad case but it is also behind Dodd’s grandiosity and his hedonistic, addict’s personality. It is Dodd’s vanity which will eventually undermine him. The unraveling of his god-like status will be gradual, and low-key — and the empire will go on. For Anderson, it is enough to show the point when Dodd is no longer Freddy’s “master”. The film, ultimately, is not about Dodd: it tells the story of Freddy finding a Cause, then losing a Cause – and to some degree, gaining himself.

Anderson is terrific at parables of disillusionment and redemption. The Master could have been from Dodd’s point-of-view, making his moral decline into arrogance primarily a cautionary or sensationalistic tale. Or it could have made Dodd evil or venal, perhaps also painted his followers as laughing-stocks to be satirized. But Anderson is too intrigued by concepts of success and happiness in America for that. In Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, each character’s decline is taken seriously, and each figure’s lonely struggle in the night is unique, compelling, unpredictable, and moving. This time around, the film depicts the amazing grace that saved a wretch like Freddy – and also why, in the end, it isn’t enough and can’t stick.

All of this is done in frequently intangible ways, with an experimental score and gorgeous 70 mm cinematography that feels epic without needing a cast of thousands – it is grand in its depiction of characters and behaviors rather than in sweeping panoramas. The large format creates an extraordinary intensity between the actors, which I’m sure was part of the reason this iconoclastic director insisted not just on using film in a digital age, but on using a size of film that is a dinosaur today. Anderson milks that large frame for deep emotion – he trusts his actors and knows exactly when to lock down on a moment and let their eyes fill the screen in a staring contest. Anderson’s rhythms are reminiscent of Kubrick’s unhurried pace, but whereas Kubrick could be dryly intellectual and remote, Anderson is always about human beings first, and there is an abundance of feeling in The Master.

In the end, he has not made a film that mocks or critiques religion but merely one that examines the need for it. It is both fascinating, like a William James study on the psychology of spirituality, and refreshingly honest.

Read more articles from Jennifer Epps.

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