The Master (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) was always going to be a high profile project, following the celebrated director’s Oscar-laden There Will Be Blood (2007) and being the latest addition to a CV that includes Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002). But when it was revealed that Anderson would be drawing inspiration from the life of L Ron Hubbard, interest in the project exploded across print and online media at a pace only matched by the insidious rise of Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology.
Hubbard, originally a pulp fiction writer by trade, evolved the tenets of Scientology from a self-help system he named Dianetics, first presented to the public in a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction. Since the publication in book form of Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health in 1950 (referred to amongst Scientologists as Book One, in the same fashion as The Master’s The Split Sabre is referred to as Book Two), Scientology has spread in scope, claiming up to 15 million followers worldwide (although this figure has been firmly contested). The organisation has routinely faced accusations of being a harmful cult with a commercial focus, but has long since outgrown its questionable roots, gaining considerable influence in the US particularly.
The religion (still not officially recognised as such in the UK), has never been short of publicity. Popular interest in the organisation has been continually stoked, from the leaking in the early 1990s of documents purporting to reveal the extra-terrestrial mythology underpinning the faith (information usually only obtainable to the most advanced members of the church, also reportedly those with the deepest pockets) to material such as the bizarre video featuring one of the world’s biggest movie stars, created for a faux-award ceremony in his honour. What elements of the stranger-than-fiction story would make the screen? Most tantalisingly, what would Tom Cruise, Scientology’s most high-profile adherent and erstwhile star of Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) make of The Master? The ever-present threat of legal action by the hyper-vigilant and extremely litigious organisation added still more drama to the production underway.
However, while there may yet be a movie that does justice to the saga of Scientology, with all of its grim fascination, Anderson’s film is no more definitive than Battlefield Earth (Dir Roger Christian, 2000), the much-pilloried adaptation of one of Hubbard’s less pervasive works. Ultimately, The Master is a much more subtle and complex proposition, no more and no less ‘about’ Hubbard and Scientology than Boogie Nights can be considered simply as a portrait of the American porn industry. There are other elements to Anderson’s film that are of equal importance.
Exerting more of an overt influence on the fabric of The Master is John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946), a documentary commissioned by the US Government and subsequently suppressed by the Army upon completion. Focussing on US soldiers undergoing psychiatric treatment necessitated by their experiences in World War II, sequences and dialogue from it were lifted wholesale for inclusion in related scenes in Anderson’s film. Anderson also reportedly drew upon wartime stories told to him by Magnolia star Jason Robards (who once woke up on the mast of a ship, having partaken of homemade ‘torpedo juice’) and the life of writer John Steinbeck, who worked, as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) does, in Californian sugar beet fields.
The Master’s focus on the entirely fictional Freddie, away from Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Anderson’s rhyme for Hubbard, was reportedly suggested by Hoffman, who has appeared in all but one of Anderson’s six films to date. Although there are several clear relations between Scientology and Dodd’s The Cause (the time period seems almost exact, several biographical details jibe and the ‘processing’ undertaken in the film is a clear analogue for the ‘auditing’ practiced by Scientologists), Anderson is clearly less concerned with a simple, though fictionalised, retelling of events than he is with pursuing themes that have consistently preoccupied his work.
Dysfunctional families – and particularly surrogate fathers – recur time again in Anderson’s films. Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood all feature central characters who take younger men under their wings with questionable motives. Punch-Drunk Love and particularly Magnolia are driven by the frustration and anguish wrought by overbearing or irresponsible relatives on their protagonists. In all of his films, Anderson’s characters seem to struggle with their sense of self and how that is defined by the relationships they seek out. In Dodd’s espousal of his quasi-religious quack psychology, Anderson has found an apposite context for exploring these issues. It could be said that the burgeoning success of Dodd’s philosophy is explained by the same basic human need that drives Dodd and Freddie together, and the credibility of The Cause is mirrored in the summation of their relationship.
As should perhaps be clear from the title, The Master is concerned with the dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the shifting balance of power exerted within them. Dodd is referred to explicitly as ‘The Master’, but a question remains over who is truly in control at any one time, or who ultimately prevails. His charm, persuasiveness and general success is evident and those around him treat him deferentially. And yet, at several points, his confidence and power is shown to be illusory, compromised at best. His confidence does not extend to blithe rebuttal when he is put on the spot – twice he loses his composure and lashes out when his authority is competently threatened – and it’s clear his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), exercises considerable influence over him herself.
The desire to abdicate responsibility to a higher power – be it in a moral, religious or family context – is universally powerful. Dodd is self-consciously fulfilling a role that he is superficially suited for, but full of human flaws as he is, cannot justify. By allowing and encouraging the incursion of Freddie into their lives, Dodd is inviting a challenge to his power in order to prove it – for what is a master without a servant? – but also perhaps to relinquish it. In the end, Freddie’s rejection of Dodd and The Cause is a qualified triumph. Returning once more to the base pursuits that have driven him all along, he may not be the master of himself, but at least he’s rid himself of the illusion of control.
Sean Welsh, November 2012
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.