Director Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film—his first in 5 years—is garnering major Oscar buzz for the  performances of its ensemble cast, especially Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic cult leader some say is based on L Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.

As the film opens, World War II is ending and with it the shipboard career of able seaman Freddie (Joaquin). Freddie is shown making home brew to celebrate. This is one of Freddie’s chief talents and favorite pursuits. The secret ingredient (paint thinner) lays the crew low. They are shown in an aerial shot suffering the after-effects of having ingested Freddie’s powerful elixir. Indeed, when Freddie eventually meets Lancaster Dodd aboard ship, there is talk of whether he can concoct more of his potent booze to share with the loyal members of the cult known as The Cause, which Lancaster Dodd has founded and leads.

Reviewers around the world are universally hailing the intense performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Some in foreign countries (most notably England) are seeing political parallels for this time in our nation’s history which U.S. film-goers may (or may not) find relevant.

Joaquin Phoenix

This is the first film since Joaquin Phoenix made bizarre appearances on talk shows like David Letterman’s “Late Night.” Bearded and touting a documentary entitled “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix announced his retirement from show business and his possible entry into a career in music. No one bought it then. Nobody is buying it now. Especially since he’s back on the big screen as the “go to” guy to play neurotic leading men.

Former actors who (in years of yore) used to be called on to play psychos (and always did so brilliantly) were Bruce Dern (“Black Sunday” comes to mind), William DeVane (“Rolling Thunder”) and Steve Buscemi in pretty much anything, prior to “Boardwalk Empire.” In today’s cinema, Joaquin Phoenix is the real deal. Rambling. Incoherent.  Seemingly ready to become violent instantaneously. A younger version of Crispin Glover.

Some of the things Phoenix does in this film, in fact, were improvised, such as destroying a toilet in a jail cell (which the “New York Times” reports he didn’t even know was possible before it happened) or getting into a bizarre fight in a department store with a portly middle-aged photographic subject. This is a tour de force whacko-gone-nuts scene in a film where Phoenix is described as “profoundly unnerving,” and “hunched over insecurely in a display of surprising weirdness.”

My thought on that remark: What’s surprising about it? Joaquin Phoenix seems to have perfected portraying the high-voltage nut case who could go ballistic at any minute. In this role, as Director Paul Thomas Anderson told the “Huffington Post’s” Mike Hogan on September 11, 2012:  “There were a number of opportunities for him (Phoenix) to hurt himself and I think he did, you know?  But that’s kind of what you want, hopefully, within reason.”  It doesn’t surprise us at all to learn that the fictional character Joaquin plays has a mother in an insane asylum, is an alcoholic, is not too bright, and is obsessively fixated on sex and most primitive things. (Farting comes to mind)

The movie opens with young boys making an anatomically correct sand sculpture female form on a beach. Freddie ends up curled up next to it, arm thrown over the sand sculpture’s mid-section. When Quell is given a Rorschach test upon dismissal from the Navy, every single ink blot reminds him of something sexual. Freddie’s idea of a snappy come-on to a potential sexual mate: he holds up a sign that says, “Want to fuck?” with a happy face drawn below it.

That occurs when Freddie has found his way to Lancaster Dodd’s (Hoffman’s) ship, where, it should be noted, he is a stow-away as he runs for his life from migrant workers who think he has poisoned an old man with his home brew. An interesting comment he makes about the old man is, “You remind me of my father,” just before all hell breaks loose regarding the old man’s condition. Food for thought.

Much has been made of the cinematic change of colors as Freddie moves from his initial post-war job as a photographer in a ritzy department store to fruit-picker with other migrant workers. Salinas, California is mentioned, and Anderson admits that he used some stories of Steinbeck’s life in writing the film, which was shot with 70 mm film using an old Panavision Super 70 Camera. (The cinematography by Mihai Malaimareh, Jr. is Oscar-worthy. Anderson usually works with Robert Elswit, but Elswit was involved in shooting “The Bourne Legacy.”)

An original score by Jonny Greenwood (“Radiohead) adds what sounds like a ticking clock (during an auditing session) and the music fits the material, although I’ll never hear the song “Slow Boat to China” again without thinking of the scene where Hoffman sings it to Phoenix, much as I can’t hear “Singin’ in the Rain” without thinking of Malcolm McDowell kicking the crap out of an elderly couple in “A Clockwork Orange.” [My mother always told me that that was the song playing on the radio when her younger brother Cliff came home from World War II, so it has a special place in my memory bank. And hers, were she still alive.] The period music and costumes are authentic and lovingly photographed. The supporting performances by Amy Adams as Mrs. Dodd and Jesse Plemons as Val Dodd, his son, are excellent. (For fans of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Plemons is Walt’s new blonde replacement for Jesse Pinkman.)

The film has elicited plaudits like this one from Todd McCarly on 9/1 in Venice Review (the film opened the Venice Film Festival):  “A bold, challenging, brilliantly acted drama that is a must for serious audiences.” Paul Thomas Anderson admitted to the “Huffington Post” that he was still trying to work out what it all means. This successor to Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia” caused Toronto Film Festival patrons to leave muttering, “Whoa! I’m going to need to see that again.”

For me, it came at a great time, as I had just read Paul Haggis’ 26-page interview with “The New Yorker” entitled “Paul Haggis vs. The Church of Scientology.” (February 14, 2011.)_ Haggis is a former believer who has fallen away with a vengeance. Then came “Vanity Fair’s” October, 2012 issue with the article:  “What Katie Didn’t Know: Marriage, Scientology-Style.” Although Anderson pleads that “The Master” is not necessarily based on L. Ron Hubbard (founder of the Scientology religion that claims to have 8 million followers, when 40,000 is closer to the truth), the parallels are unmistakable. Anderson cites Dyanetics from the 50s.

Here is a passage about the process of  “auditing” that the Church of Scientology uses on its practitioners, from “Vanity Fair.”(p. 224) “We used hidden cameras behind mirrors, in picture frames, in alarm clocks.  I know every single covert camera made. I installed hundreds and hundreds of them” This according to Marty Rathbun, another fallen-away former Scientology church member. Rathbun described members being “audited” where they would hold what looked like 2 soup cans and be asked questions about their early lives, which they were to answer honestly or the meter would detect their duplicity.  David Miscavige, the Church’s current head man (and Best Man at Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes) “used those frailties and weaknesses in order to manipulate.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman as “The Master”

Rathbun reported that Miscavige eagerly awaited the tapes of the famous at the Gold Base headquarters in Helmet and liked to read them aloud to entertain others. Claire Headley (a former member of the sect) said, “I know he did it with the reports of Lisa Marie Presley back in ’95, when she was married to Michael Jackson, and I know he (Miscavige) did it a number of times with Kirstie Alley. I saw and heard him.” Miscavige’s close aide Tom DeVocht said, “He loved to dish about celebrities. He’d whip out a bottle of Macallan scotch at 2 or 3 in the morning in the Officers’ Lounge (of the sect’s floating ship), play backgammon, and read Cruise’s reports with a running commentary, usually reports dealing with Cruise’s sex life. “He’s probably got a lot of embarrassing material,” said DeVocht.

The manipulation of Joaquin Phoenix’s character using his auditing sessions, (which are called “recordings” in the movie, is obvious.) Even Freddie begins to use the manipulative system on others by the time the film comes to an unsatisfying close. The questions asked of the faithful were exactly what these recent articles have described as being asked in Scientology auditing sessions:  “Do you have muscle spasms?  Do your past failures bother you?  Is your life a struggle? Is your behavior erratic? Are you consumed by envy?” All these (and more) are asked of Phoenix in the context of Lancaster Dodd’s (Hoffman’s) appraisal of Freddie Quell (Phoenix), including the use of various games that seem senseless (Don’t blink while truthfully answering the questions. Pick a point and drive to it as fast as you can). Freddie even asks outright, “How is this helping?” and is told “You’ll see.” (I’m not sure Freddie ever did see; Paul Haggis definitely did not.)

The “Vanity Fair” article tells us that L Ron Hubbard’s belief was that 75 million years ago a galactic emperor named Xenu sent millions of frozen souls on spaceships from his overpopulated kingdom to the bases of volcanoes on Earth. The volcanoes were hydrogen-bombed and today the scattered and reincarnated spiritual beings or “thetans” pick up human bodies as “containers” to inhabit. [Perhaps some of you even remember the 2000 John Travolta vehicle “Battlefield Earth,” which owed a great deal to the deceased L. Ron Hubbard. (What poor Barry Pepper and Forest Whitaker were doing in the movie is a mystery.)]

Some of you may be better informed about the Republican candidate for President of the United States’ religious beliefs and realize that Mormons believe all people existed as spirits or intelligences of God and that life on earth is just a stepping point, with a privilege to advance like Him. The spirits were free to accept or reject this plan. [Only Satan’s 1/3 rejected it.] The rest came to Earth and received bodies, which exposed them to suffering. In the Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints afterlife, there are 3 degrees of glory and a hell often called Spirit Prison: the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom and the Telestral Kingdom, or Outer Darkness. The current presidential campaign involving a Mormon may be why reviewers in England point to the movie as having a particularly relevant historical referent at this time in United States history.

The mention of John Travolta (“Battleship Earth”) brings to mind another whispered tenet of Scientology, alluded to in the plot of “The Master:” the presence of some famous alleged homosexual members within the church. The rumors reached such epidemic proportions that television’s “Southpark” even did an episode involving the rumor. In “The Master,” (just as many saw a homoerotic subtext in “Blue Thunder,”) the attraction between the educated, urbane, charismatic Lancaster Dodd and the down-and-out, seedy, violent, alcoholic Freddie Quell is somewhat inexplicable. Perhaps the scene in jail, when both Lancaster (Hoffman) and Freddie (Phoenix) have been arrested is the most revealing. By now, Dodd’s own son (Val, played by Jesse Plume) has told Freddie: “He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?” This earns Val a beat-down at the hands of the always violent Freddie, who will pummel any nay-sayers, without specific orders from the Man himself.

Lancaster will not countenance any questioning of his cult.  When he is corrected by a listener named John Moore about the age of the Earth (Lancaster says trillions, while More comments that it is only billions), he barks, “You seem to know the answers to your questions; then why do you ask?” At three o’clock that morning: Beat-down for Moore at the hands of Freddie. When a former proofreader for Dodd’s first book tells Freddie, candidly, that he thinks Dodd’s second book “stinks” and should be reduced to a 3-page handout: a beating again, from the ever-faithful Freddie, Dodd’s self-appointed enforcer.

Only when the duo are carted off to jail (stemming from Lancaster’s assertions that he can “cure” certain forms of leukemia and, later, insanity) for illegal withdrawal of funds from the Philadelphia-based Mildred Drummond Foundation (plus another $1,500 for damages to Ms. Drummond’s sailing yacht) do we see the two men, side-by-side, within their respective jail cells. Lancaster Dodd is quite composed and urbane. Freddie Quell is like a caged animal, stripped of his shirt, destroying everything in his path, full of violent fury. Freddie yells at Lancaster, through the bars, “Shut the fuck up!” Lancaster shouts back, “You’re a lazy-ass piece of shit. Who likes you except me?  I’m the only one that likes you. The only one. You’re a fucking drunk and I’m done with you.”

Except he’s not. The two are reunited not once, but twice more during the film, with a particularly fond reunion after their mutual imprisonment. Freddie makes a trip back to try to find the girl of his dreams (Doris), 7 years after he received a letter from her overseas. He learns that time has marched on. She is married with two children and living in Florida. Freddie goes to a neighborhood movie theater. He is watching “Casper, the Friendly Ghost” (The film’s overheard line is:  “The Captain never leaves the ship.”) Somehow, Lancaster knows Freddie is in the theater (we never learn how). An usher brings an old-style black rotary-dial telephone to Freddie.  “I have a matter of such urgency,” says Lancaster to Freddie.  “I miss you. Come to England. We have a school here now and we have a way to cure the insane.”

More symbolic water shots as Freddie heads for England. Freddie shows up looking like the wrath of God. He is unkempt, unshaven, thin, and looks like a man in his late fifties, rather than someone a decade younger.  Lancaster’s wife (Amy Adams as Peggy), seeing Freddie, says, “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all.  This is pointless. He isn’t interested in getting better.” At least Mrs. Dodd is perceptive enough to realize this about Freddie, “You can’t take life straight, can you?” When Freddie asks about the children, Lancaster responds “DCF.” (Department of Children and Families.)

The singing scene (“Slow Boat to China”) follows, causing one reviewer to declare this and later scenes “a finale unworthy of so much that has come before.” Noting the power, mystery and dangerous unpredictability of the plot (primarily due to the personality of Joaquin Phoenix in real life), some critics were not happy with the film’s finale. I fall into that category.

 Director Paul Thomas Anderson told the “Huffington Post’s” Mike Hogan), “That attraction the Master has for Freddie—absolute sheer excitement and the thrill of the possibility that he may leave or do something crazy at any moment.” (Right actor for THAT job description!)  Anderson also said, “The homoerotic thing—you know, you can consider it that way, sure, but I think of the characters as stand-ins for any relationship story.”

There will be many interpretations, some opting for Freddie to represent pure carnal desire and primitive urges, while Lancaster Dodd represents civilizing influences. This is underscored when Lancaster says, “We are not ruled by our emotions.  Do away with all negative impulses” and tells Freddie, “You’re aberrated. You’ve wandered from the proper path.”

A thought-provoking film in the same vein as “Tree of Life” (or “There Will Be Blood”) that will definitely be prominent at Oscar time, especially for its fine acting.