There is serious award buzz swirling around Paul Thomas Anderson's film "The Master," but Father Steve Grunow wonders if perhaps the buzz could have been amplified by a redeeming character or two. Today he takes his signature enlightening look at the messages of the movie, and what we can and should take away from it all.
“The Master” is the latest cinematic creation by director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “There will be Blood”). It is the story of an addled alcoholic by the name of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who has tendencies toward violence and sexual deviancy and is taken under the wing of self-proclaimed mystic, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The relationship of the two men is the focal point of the movie and the viewer is meant to discern from their interaction why this story is worth telling. It is not a short story. The running time of the film is nearly two-and-a-half hours. The movie’s presentation of Freddie Quell’s disturbed mind and behaviors is graphic and visceral, and in these respects, let the sensitive and squeamish beware.
“The Master” is also the current darling of the critics. One is hard pressed to find a negative review of the movie. Praise for Anderson and the acting ensemble he has assembled gusheth over. Oscar buzz is buzzing. If one is looking for a negative appraisal of the movie, Barbara Nicolosi doesn’t pull a single punch.
The character of Lancaster Dodd is a thinly veiled version of the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology is a system of convictions that is known for the most part because of its celebrity adherents. However, I would hardly describe “The Master” as an expose of Scientology’s alleged excesses. The esoteric philosophy of Lancaster Dodd is an expression of the kinds of beliefs that one frequently finds in the American Gnostic and therapeutic culture. Freddie Quell is hardly a victim of Dodd, as both receive a kind of benefit from their troubled master-disciple relationship. It is clear that both men are early on learning how to use one another to achieve immediate needs and long term goals. The methods that Dodd applies to Quell ultimately prove ineffective, but seemed little different from gestalt therapy. By the end of the movie, when it becomes clear that the link of dependency between Quell and Dodd has been severed, neither seems the worse for wear. In fact, neither man has changed at all. Is this the real indictment of Dodd’s system? Or is it the man who failed, not the principles Dodd purported to be true?
We might, as an audience, be predisposed to think of Dodd as a charlatan and find the attitudes of the true believers who follow him to be creepy, but the film leaves that perception up to the viewer. Dodd may, after all, be sincere in his beliefs and his conviction that the methods he espouses can actually do good — or maybe not. The film is not really about, it seems, the truth or falsity of Dodd’s philosophy. Arguments are gestured toward this end in the course of the story, but who really knows if Dodd is sincere or not? Those looking for an indictment of Scientology or other perceived cults likely might leave this film disappointed.
Like other films by Anderson, “The Master” emphasizes relationships between generations, particularly fathers and sons (of which Dodd and Quell are a dysfunctional symbol). It is also about the dialectic between alienation and the pull of community and family (Dodd’s family and followers become surrogates for the lack of both in Quell’s life). Anderson seems to like misfits and using them as a route of access into a cinematic mirroring of culture. In this respect, Joaquin Phoenix is aptly cast. He is as convincing as a misfit as Philip Seymour Hoffman is as a guru. Much has been made about the high level of acting in the film and how the actors “own” their characters. The ensemble cast is the great success of “The Master” even if the story ultimately falters.
The appeal of gurus with their esoteric and pseudo Gnostic philosophies is one of the constants of the American experience. This appeal, combined with the cultural emphasis on the freedom to decide for oneself the meaning of existence and the value placed on entrepreneurship, are the conditions for the possibility of the success of people like Dodd to attract followers and propagate their ideas. “The Master” is an interesting portrayal of a certain type of American guru and his disciple. The yarn Anderson spins might have been more interesting if Freddie Quell was not such a sad sack and cultural outsider, and instead more mainstream. The endurance of these sects would not be possible if Quell was the normative type of member. These gurus and groups survive and in some cases flourish because the members are able to espouse and practice their curious convictions while at the same time living as participants in the American experience.
The temptation to follow gurus is not something that only happens outside the Church. Creating a cult of personality around a priest or spiritual teacher happens with great regularity within the Church despite all the attempts to create effective checks and balances against that tendency. The early testimony of Saint Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians demonstrates that this temptation seized hold of Christians very early in the life of the Church. Pope Benedict, in his reflections on the life of St. Irenaeus, who opposed Gnosticism in some of its early forms, remarked that the true faith is always public in character and it is precisely this public character than helps the Church to resist the siren song of the guru.
The authentic Faith of the Church is not a matter of charismatic appeal or hidden knowledge, but of the Gospel that comes to us, not from inner experience, but public proclamation and witness to the Apostolic Tradition. The Gospel is not dependent on the personality of a priest or teacher to be what it is, and the one can distinguish a true minister of the Gospel from a charlatan by paying careful attention to whether or not he represents himself and his ideas or the Lord and the Apostolic Faith. For the guru, he or she will increase as the Lord and his Church will decrease. For the saint, the opposite is true.
“The Master” is about sinners rather than saints. It might have been a more interesting story had a saint been permitted to show up.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
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