Monday, September 24, 2012

Now turn my eyes black.

My mother became a born-again Christian when I was eight years old; while I was an unusually skeptical third-grader, I decided to give it a try with her after a few months and, eventually, went with her every week to a startup Calvary Chapel. Calvary grew out of the "Jesus freak" movement in the 1960s, merging Pentacostal and fundamentalist characteristics with an informal, populist style intended to appeal to those who were put off by traditional church doctrines. Churches such as Calvary, with their relatively independent polity, pride themselves on their non-denominational status and the independent-mindedness this implies, even if they maintain most of the same dogmas and prejudices as any mainstream denomination. This was the strongest impression of the church I got as a child, feeling surrounded by adults who passionately believed they were unique, set apart for a common purpose that would be integral to the future of not only the church but the whole world. As I got older, I realized how many of these churchgoers were recovering from substance abuse, abusive relationships, severe depression and other painful experiences; it seemed like, for them, this sense of being a part of a tight-knit community united in a unique and special purpose was as much of a support as their faith in salvation through Christ. As if their past failures and traumas were preparation for their roles in the great work ahead.

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.

It's the relationship between Freddie and the Master that is at the heart of the film. Phoenix is terrific as Freddie; as interminable as I'm Still Here was, it was worth it if the experience results in more uninhibited, full-bodied performances like this one. Freddie isn't a contemplative man, but he's not dumb either; he's a creature of pure instinct who soon becomes one of Dodd's most passionate followers; while it's not clear he's even interested in the cause's philosophical tenets, he seems attracted to the promise of being freed from his past by his persuasive new teacher. Many of the film's most fascinating scenes involve Freddie's "processing" and other exercises meant to trigger memories of his current and past lives; these scenes are exciting both for the physical trials they put Phoenix through and through the intense, ambiguous chemistry between Freddie and Dodd. As Dodd, Hoffman is affected, jocular and even a bit mincing; we see early on that the Master's outward geniality barely masks a temper that is as strong as Freddie's. It's clear, as much as Dodd wants to cure Freddie, he also envies his wildness and, it's strongly suggested, may even be in love with Freddie. The language Dodd uses to scold Freddie, calling him a "naughty boy," has been interpreted as paternal, or that of a person speaking to his pet; I also read it as the language of domination and submission, of a master struggling to control the disciple that, he secretly hopes, will overpower and dominate him. It's a magnetically charged battle of wills, and both actors provoke each other into some of their best work.

Dodd tells Freddie at several points that they've met before, that theirs is an eternal struggle, and Anderson and DP Mihai Malimaire use the 65mm format to elevate their relationship to epic proportions. James Cameron is fond of saying that 3D can be as effective with a character drama as with an effects picture; after seeing The Master, I feel the same way about 70mm. While the film contains some gorgeous exterior shots, particularly the recurring image of the vibrant blue wake of a ship, this is a story largely told in close-ups, the clarity and detail of the format bringing every nuance of the performances into striking relief. The bold colors and stunning contrast, coupled with Jonny Greenwood's otherworldly score, give the scenes between Dodd and his disciples a hyperreal quality. The members and practices of The Cause aren't depicted with the kind of savage intensity as the scenes of Eli Sunday and his flock in There Will Be Blood; here, Anderson's approach is more analytical, distant, but heavy with intimations (as with Freddy's sleepy hallucination of a Cause gathering turning into a Bacchanalic orgy) of something darker. This is especially true with Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who is suspicious of Freddie from the start and perhaps more fanatical about the cause than her husband; we see her able to use her sexuality to manipulate both Freddie and, especially, Dodd. Adams doesn't have as much screentime as the two male leads, but she's fantastic, dialing down her usual likeable screen presence to marvellously chilly effect. There's a very creepy scene where Peggy gets Dodd off while telling him in no uncertain terms what he can and cannot do, and we realize that Dodd's needs and failures are not far from Freddie's, that it's Peggy who is Dodd's master and, perhaps, the true leader of the cause.

As Freddie rebels against and returns to his master, lurching towards clarity only to regress into sudden violence, The Master becomes increasingly elliptical, blurring the lines between reality and Freddie's dreams and fantasies in ways that hold very interesting implications for the rest of the film. I spent much of the last third hoping that, as with There Will Be Blood, the final confrontation between the two leads would bring the film's intentions into focus. Honestly, that didn't quite happen, although Freddie and Dodd's final scenes together are quite moving. There's the suggestion that Freddie has, in fact, grown in some small meaningful ways over the course of the film, but he's still a puerile skirt-chasing scoundrel. The final scene and closing shot feel right, but I'm not sure why. Has Freddie mastered Dodd? Is he his own master? Is pussy, finally, the only thing worth believing in? These are the kind of questions The Master leaves us with, and it's frankly a bit maddening; while I don't agree with Ebert's assertion that "When I reach for [The Master], my hand closes on air," I do understand how he could feel that way. It's easily the most cerebral movie Anderson has made, and I look forward to revisiting it many times, I'm sure, for answers to these and new questions. I don't agree with the idea that Anderson has only recently grown up as a filmmaker - Boogie Nights and Magnolia are the works of a confident adult storyteller - but it has been fascinating to see him evolve from the wunderkind who, like quiz kid Stanley Spector in Magnolia, seems to be desperate to employ his prodigious gifts to win our love. The Master is the work of a director confident enough to follow his cinematic muse wherever it takes him, even if the journey is idiosyncratic, puzzling and even alienating to much of his potential audience. It's a fascinating chapter in the ongoing narrative of one of the best filmmakers working today, and I can't wait to see where Anderson takes us next.