The task of interpreting Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, “The Master,” is unusually challenging. I got a hint of the impending difficulty when, after first viewing the film, I realized that many of the promotional trailer scenes had been cut. My difficulties were compounded after I downloaded the official film script and saw that the film deviated from it in many respects. Moreover, the recent Blu-ray packaging of the film includes 20 minutes of separate extra footage that was not included in the final cut of the film. I will stick to discussing the theatrically released version.
Most critics agree that The Master is a master class in acting, with bravura performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, all nominated for academy awards. Critical opinion is less enthusiastic with regard to the coherence of the story and the absence of a clear message in the film. I will offer my own interpretation of the message and argue that it is largely a cultural critique of ground zero of the American post-WWII boom.
One of the most important clues that The Master is very much about America circa 1952 is Anderson’s decision to shoot the movie on film. He made the unusual choice of 65mm high-resolution color film (last used for a feature film in 1996) instead of digital cameras or standard 35mm film. According to Anderson, this gave him the “look” that is appropriate to the period.
Anyone who has seen Kodachrome slides or magazine images from that era will instantly recognize the color palette that shouts out American Superpower Sunrise! The Kodak film on which The Master was shot shows its pedigree in just the way Anderson wanted, setting up a constant tension between the nostalgia of the image presentation and the unsettling action of the film.
The decade following WWII in America was extraordinarily dynamic. Veterans of the war returned to a society experiencing explosive economic growth. California enjoyed an especially brisk boom resulting from the expansion of its WWII defense industry into the aerospace establishment essential to sustaining the Cold War. California led the way in building the suburban “sprawlconomy,” as millions flocked to the good life of modern living and happy motoring.
But like most economic booms, the post-WWII prosperity in America had shallow cultural roots, and thus it presented a chaotic spectacle of new money chasing new possessions, styles, and ideas – including new religions. The Master is about the interactions of three characters in this turbulent era: Freddie Quell, a dysfunctional, alcoholic navy veteran; Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic head of a religious cult (loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, the precursor to Scientology), and Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s powerful and manipulative wife.
The genius of "The Master" is that it undermines completely the Manichaeism that is the basis of most religions and moral philosophies. The Manichaen view is one of ethical dualism: light and darkness, God and Satan, angels and devils, saints and sinners - and it echoes endlessly through cultural history. But preacher Dodd and misfit Quell are not symbolic champions of Good and Evil. Dodd and Quell are drawn to each other because each recognizes that the other is propelled by uncontrollable desires. Anderson shows us that Freddie's obsessive pursuit of drink and sex are just different emanations of the same dark energy that drives Lancaster Dodd to the religious seduction and victimization of his credulous followers. (The clue to this linkage is their shared interest in moonshine.) The title of the film is deeply ironic, because the true master of both men is compulsion.
What breaks the simple symmetry of the Quell/Dodd relationship is the unsettling role of Peggy Dodd, who appears to control her husband but fails to control Freddie. The most shocking scene in the film is an episode in which Peggy masturbates her husband in a dominating manner while dictating the terms of their relationship. In another scene she reads a pornographic text to Freddie in a supposedly therapeutic experiment. Through Peggy’s creepy actions, Anderson explicitly shows that Dodd’s cult is led by twisted people. Peggy is also the advocate of taking aggressive measures to attack the enemies of “The Cause.” Although Anderson has cleverly avoided the wrath of the Scientology establishment by minimizing resemblances, the Peggy character is partially based on L. Ron Hubbard’s third wife, Mary Sue, who was imprisoned as a result of her activities as head of the Scientology “Guardian’s Office.” GO members infiltrated and burglarized numerous government organizations in an effort to silence critics.
"The Master" is a blistering critique of the shallowness of postwar American culture and the shoddiness of formulaic religion. The society is shown to be shallow because it can't grasp that Dodd is a huckster and it is shoddy because his deluded followers are chasing a recipe, a success formula, a kind of "processing" that will fix their spiritual ills the way a car mechanic would repair an engine. Anyone who believes Anderson exaggerates the squalid spectacle of “The Cause” need only spend an hour on Wikipedia to learn the far more bizarre history of Hubbard and Scientology.
Beyond the pop-religion critique, this is also a politically subversive film. Freddie Quell is a damaged and discarded part of a war machine that dropped atomic bombs on civilian populations, in response to another war machine that ravaged much of Asia. When sailor Quell is guzzling propellant alcohol out of a torpedo designed to sink a ship and kill hundreds of people, where is the locus of evil?
Anderson’s film depicts an absurd world and demolishes the ramshackle edifice of a fraudulent religion. He presents us with a visually sumptuous depiction of pathetic delusion as a madman attempts to cure another madman while a gullible mob cheers them on. For me, the climactic moment in the film occurs near the end, when Dodd tells Quell of his recovered memory of their encounter in a past life:
I recalled you and I working together in Paris. We were members of the pigeon post during a four-and-a-half month siege of the city by Prussian forces. We worked and rigged balloons, delivered mail and secret messages across the communications blockade set up by the Prussians. We sent 65 unguided mail balloons and only two went missing. In the worst winter on record. Two.
This barking mad recitation is delivered by a plump and prosperous cult leader addressing a battered and penniless drifter before they separate forever. The only master in evidence is Anderson, whose audacious depiction of the extremes of frailty and folly is a new masterpiece of American cinema.
“The Master” is a film that plays on the distinction between two definitions of the word. Anderson displays the traits of a master of the cinema, with mastery defined as perfect command of an art. He uses this art to attack a cultural manifestation of a darker meaning of master: one who controls slaves. Anderson reveals, in exquisitely painful detail, the sad and shabby workings of a false prophet and his fraudulent schemes. The result is a magnificent depiction of how, in post-WII America, some of those searching for a spiritual master became enslaved.
Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.