Experiencing The Master

by: Kate Messinger

September 27, 2012

P.T. Anderson, writer and director of the film The Master, is hesitant to say that he wrote a movie about Scientology. The movie is about a possibly insane, definitely alcoholic, disturbed WWII veteran named Freddie Quell, played hauntingly by the elusive Joaquin Phoenix, who finds temporary solace in a self-betterment spiritual practice called the Cause, run by self-proclaimed writer, philosopher, physicist, and sea captain Lancaster Dodd, a.k.a The Master, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. If you’ve ever Googled Scientology, it sounds pretty close, but Anderson says the cultish religion was only inspiration.

The Master P.T. Anderson Joaquin Phoenix Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Anderson admits that the Dodd character, who uses Freddie as a pet project to prove The Cause’s belief that humans can overcome their animal nature and obtain perfection by remembering past lives, was inspired by Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard but not based on him. And it’s definitely not hard to find the similarities between “The Cause” and the information that has been leaked about the secretive, celebrity-endorsed religion of Scientology (if you need a specific comparison, The Daily Beast has 22).  It is obvious that The Master was not made to expose Scientology–most of the shocking information we know about the practice  is all over the Internet and Tom Cruise headlines– but it’s almost impossible to watch this film and not try to find the realities in the mystifying religion we all hate to want to know more about.

There is something about the film that makes you question reality even beyond the references to the mysterious religion. The cinematography is gorgeous, capturing the era with the use of 70 mm film that transports you between the waking life of Freddie’s experiences and his often abrupt hallucinations.  Some of the hallucinations are more blatant:  a scene showing a regular party (singing, dancing, drinking) for the Cause without warning suddenly changes and all the women are completely naked as Freddie watches with manic eyes. It is obvious it is his imagination, but there is not much explanation of the hallucination besides that you can tell he’s a bit sex starved. Other shifts in reality are subtle, like in a scene early in the film before Freddie finds Dobbs and The Cause and is working as a portrait photographer at a department store. As he photographs, the audience sees the flashing of the bulb, the smiling prospects, and for a split second, it looks as if the frame were captured and frozen still in an actual portrait from 1950. It’s hard to tell whether it was real, or Freddie’s imagination, or yours.

Many of Scientology’s members are part of the Hollywood scene; some believe because the actors and artist trying to make it in the film industry are vulnerable from the hardships of show business, and find comfort in the classes and the community the practice provides. In The Master, Freddie is broken down from the war and possibly mentally insane (his mother is in the “looney bin”), and he immediately finds comfort in the attention that Dobbs gives to him.  He is fully dedicated to the Cause without really asking questions and Dobbs treats him like a pet, rewarding him for committing fully to the strange techniques of the practice, like walking back and forth between a wall and a window with his eyes closed, saying what he “sees,” for many hours. Dobbs is trying to prove that humans do not need to act like animals, but he treats Freddie like a dog that he knows will always be loyal, always come running back. It’s never very clear why Dobbs has Freddie do these exercises, but Freddie doesn’t know either. You can see why a man like this, so broken, so afraid, would go towards a religion like the Cause, or even Scientology, a place where successful people make you feel welcome if you can pay the price. It’s not hard to wonder if you would be sucked in too, if you where that alone and had the chance.

You get the feeling that there is some point to the whole thing (the Cause, the whole movie) that will come in an ah-ha moment at the end (the end of Freddie’s grueling exercises, the end of the film). But that moment never comes for Freddie or the audience. Freddie leaves Dobbs on a whim, which could be a sign of freedom for the first time for the character, but he ends up going back. Then, when confronted with Dobbs’ threat that if he ever leaves again, he won’t be allowed back, Freddie leaves seemingly for the last time. The Cause did not fix Freddie, but it did change him enough to be able to make the decision to leave. The practice of Scientolgy is similar: it will fix you, but you won’t know how until you’re involved, and then you might not be able to leave.

Watching The Master is an experience somewhere between fiction and fact; a movie that moves you–though your not sure why, and reminds you of something–though you’re not sure what. Though the Cause is not Scientology, the two are too similar to be fiction and too bizarre to be taken as true fact. Freddie’s experience is the audience’s experience, one where we are too curious to not look inside this strange, secretive world but skeptical to stay. All Anderson can give us is a view; we’ll have to explore it ourselves to get the whole picture.

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