Philip Seymour Hoffman as "The Master"
This movie is often presented as a “take” or “take down” on L. Ronald Hubbard who devised “Scientology” and “Dianetics” after a short career writing scifi. “The Master” is already a strange film, but watching it now, after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, makes it even more strange. L. Ronald Hubbard is sort of crowded out of the picture. The critics were all very positive, but couldn’t really explain the film, which has left it open to an “Emperor’s New Clothes” sort of understanding. How should we think about such a seductive but overwhelming figure as the one played by Hoffman? Is it religion? Is it psychology? Is it about gullible society? Or all three? Certainly, it’s fascinating to just watch.
One can “master” a body of knowledge, or a skill, or even master other people. But does anyone ever really master themselves? What does “mastery” mean anyway? Skill? Power? Special gifts?
I note that “Quell” (spelled “kwell” is the name of a cure for lice which is not recommended because it contains poisonous Lindane, gamma benzene hexachloride -- which sounds like something Quell might drink. Counter indications include: “Uncontrolled Epilepsy, Lower Seizure Threshold, A Mass Within the Brain, Hardening of the Liver, Atopic Dermatitis, Psoriasis, Skin Condition, Seizures, Head Injury, Pregnancy, A Mother who is Producing Milk and Breastfeeding, Habit of Drinking Too Much Alcohol.” Quell the character is totally, deliberately, out of control. He goes with the flow, simply records as he goes, searches for the edge which is often violent. He is a great cure for control freaks, but a risky one. Maybe the cure is worse than the affliction.
Over the years I’ve known a few guys like this “master” spellbinder which is not surprising considering where I’ve been. In acting, Weldon Bleiler. In ministry, Davidson Loehr or Clarke Wells. There were professors. Even cops. “Insiders” who knew these guys will understand what I mean. It’s the Orson Wells shadow. Charismatic, persuasive, and then -- where did he go? They were gifted, grandiose, narcissistic, controlling, but finally had nowhere to go, no goal, just the going. The wake of the ship.
The two characters, Quell and Dodd, are not buddies. This is not Butch and Sundance. I also reject the theories about homosexual relationship -- surely it’s clear that the grip (literally -- you know where) of sexual relationship and generational children belongs to the wife of Lancaster Dodd. His strength comes from her and she protects him, but when he is truly confronted by unbelievers, she’s no help.
I nominate Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” This pair is Prospero and Caliban. Or maybe Caliban is mixed with Trincolo, the drunken sailor. So maybe Dodd’s wife is Sycorax. (If you’re not up on your mythology, you’ll need to do a bit of research.) If I showed this movie in a film class, I’d pair it with Julie Traynor’s version of “The Tempest.” (Other versions would work -- I just like Traynor’s best.) Master must have servant, servant is trapped but obedient, then servant escapes. There are ships, but the wrecks are onboard rather than a storm crash. When all is dry, Caliban escapes, racing away across the desert, the old sea-bed. Maybe Prospero has set him free. All these forces of enchantment are at play under the quite conventional events of sailor, evangelist/inspirational coach, family and society.
John Gielgud as Prospero in "Prospero's Books."
The vulgar phrase for what’s going on in this movie is “mind-fucking” and surely that’s what it is. In the beginning the two protagonists are brought together through solvents, alcohol plus whatever other volatile substance was around. The Caliban side knows how to mix it, the Prospero side appreciates the relief. No one is so susceptible to magic potions as a magician. The two bond in oblivious abandonment. Lancaster Dodd’s name is sort of vaguely English, but his set-up is pretty much like any of the spell-binder evangelists we know.
The closest I ever came to being like Dodd was being the “key-noter” as a women’s spirituality conference in Seattle. I was the opener for Star Hawk. Emotions were high, I was confronted for being a “Christian” speaking on the Jewish sabbath (Friday), and for the idea that any one person, much less me, HAD a key, etc. But that just polarized a lot of people onto my side. My sermon (“low-key”) about homemade socks (even the wool was from sheep the knitter had raised) became sort of semi-famous. (It’s the lead essay in “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke.”)
Curly Bear Wagner
It’s so EASY! People want someone to be the mighty leader, the truth-teller, the one who assures them they are wonderful and can succeed. I’ve watched Bob Scriver do it. I must know at least half a dozen local Blackfeet shamanistic spell-binders who can throw an enchantment over an audience by telling stories and holding up metaphors. The supplicants and sycophants are often do-gooders, educated, well-heeled, not from around here, sort of drunk on mega-scenery and a romantic culture. They want a different reality than the boring one they know -- something with more meaning, more pizzazz, something that will make their friends gasp in admiration. Magic.
There’s a hunger for emotional connection in our culture that gets interpreted as sexual, but in fact is sort of pre-sexual, like a child’s need for a parent’s approval. Maybe it’s more like a need for understanding. There’s a saying that a “sick” (unequal, unapproved socially, dangerous, maybe out of control) intimate relationship can be much closer and more intense than a “normal” one that meets all the social standards. Lancaster Dodd, when pushed out of his savoir faire, can only shout “pig fuck!” But that sounds more real that his moonbeams about this and that.
One might think that Quell is vulnerable, but just about everything that could be done to him has already happened. He has sex on the brain in the beginning and has actual sex in the end, but outside of that, the only way to take anything away from him is to give it to him in the first place. Like a role in an organization that seems significant. Like approval. But never love. Never escape from loneliness.
I look at Tom Cruise and think about the way he was used and tortured to make “Eyes Wide Shut”, Kubrick’s last gasp before death. As often happens, the real drama was on the set and the real subject was not sex but social status and the grasp it can give a person over the lives of others. The more pretentious it is, the more the naive will think it’s an accessible reality. From way outside, I think Kubrick damaged Cruise’s sanity -- or maybe it wasn’t all that stable anyway.
Once I was at a Hollywood party and had a long conversation with someone in the corner of the kitchen where I was trying to hide. This person confided much about her life and I did my duty as a minister trained in pastoral care. Not counseling, but reassurance and encouragement. I told her nothing at all about myself, nor did she ask. But later she said she felt deeply moved, even changed. Most of what she told me I’d heard before from dozens of people. I could see she had not listened to what I said, but had watched herself tell me her story: she was acting. Is there such a thing as intimacy masturbation?
Yes. But “The Master” is not a depiction of that. It’s we watchers who are indulging in it, as we do much of the time at the movies. This is a movie about S/M -- not the obvious stuff like bondage or whipping, but the clever domination of someone who seems to be a loser but turns out to be a sly survivor. A guy like L. Ronald Hubbard -- or whomever you want to dredge up from the nutcase box -- uses up enormous amounts of energy but it's intoxicating. The danger of a short-circuit is real. A woman at that women’s spirituality conference, literally sitting on the floor by my chair, sighed to me, “Oh, I could just sit at your knee and listen to you babble forever.” Babble.
I stood up and left. It was a narrow escape from shipwreck. I’m back on dry land now.
L. Ronald Hubbard monitoring the thoughts of a tomato.