Monday, September 24, 2012
I thought a lot about Calvary Chapel while watching The Master, the audacious and challenging new film by Paul Thomas Anderson. While Anderson's film is largely inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the early days of Scientology, it isn't really an exposé of Hubbard's controversial religion. While many of the central teachings and methods of The Cause, as it's called in the film, are very similar to those in Scientology - many of the questions posed to its disciples during "processing" were ones I answered when I took a personality test at the Church of Scientology in Boston - it could just as easily stand in for modern religious or secular movements like non-denominational Christianity, self-help doctrines, the New Age movement, est, Landmark, and the Human Potential Movement. It's a film about the new faces of spritual leadership in post-WWII America, our new attempts to find meaning and whether it's possible to thrive without a master. Alternately exciting, perverse, confounding and mesmerizing, it's a distinctly American story that is also the most original American film so far this year.
The face of The Cause is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), referred to by most of the film's characters as Master, a writer and self-described doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher who is above all, as he puts it, "I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you." He's talking to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy vet who has boarded Dodd's yacht looking for work and to escape trouble. Quell is an impulsive, violent, sex-obsessed guy - his idea of flirtation is to write a note reading "Do you want to fuck?" signed with a smiley face. Physically and psychically scarred by his experiences in the war and pining for the lost love of his life, Freddie drifts through jobs as a department store photographer and cabbage picker, fighting and screwing and mixing toxic alcoholic concoctions out of paint thinner and Lysol. When one of Freddie's drinks nearly gets a migrant worker killed, he flees and hops aboard Dodd's ship; the next morning, with no memory of the night before, he meets Dodd, who is charmed by Freddie's animalistic nature (and homemade booze) and offers him a job with The Cause.