Film Review: ‘The Master’

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, and Joaquin Phoenix as the damaged WW2 veteran Freddie Quell.

This film is about the trauma and loss caused by war but also about hope and renewal. The opening part of the film is influenced by the 1946 US government documentary Let There Be Light directed by John Huston which was filmed at Edgewood State Hospital on Long Island, and chronicled shell-shocked soldiers entry into a psychiatric hospital, and their treatment. These war casualties suffered from debilitating emotional trauma and depression brought on by their experiences in the war.

The use of the popular wartime song Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me) is reminiscent of its emotionally powerful use in the 1976 film Tracks by Henry Jaglom which starred Dennis Hopper as a traumatised Vietnam War veteran. During WW2 and after song lyrics spoke of ‘seeing you in my dreams, finding you in another day’. The scars of war and the heartbreaking returns to Civvy Street prompted people’s interest in other lives, memories, ghosts, science fiction stories, other worlds, and time travel.

The periods after war are fertile times for religion, spirituality, and metaphysical ideas as balm for scarred people, in fact they are ‘the opium of the people’. After WW1, spiritualism and theosophy were very popular, and after WW2 there was the ‘beat generation’ interest in eastern religions, and the publication in 1950 of Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health by L. Ron Hubbard.

Hoffman’s character Dodd is the charismatic leader of an organisation that seems to offer light and a beacon of hope to those damaged and lost in the world such as Quell. The Master is described as ‘riffing lightly off the life of L. Ron Hubbard.’ Director Paul Thomas Anderson says the film ‘takes its lead from the beautiful ideas expressed in Hubbard’s book.The idea of recalling past lives is so hopeful, so optimistic, and it is something I would love to go along with’. Anderson adds that war and death make ‘people want to talk about past lives, about where we go after we die, time travel is possible, those are great ideas’.

Hubbard’s book Dianetics was criticised in the New York Herald by Erich Fromm who saw that Hubbard’s mechanistic view of the mind had no need for human values or conscience, and in the New York Times, Rollo May identified the fallacy of trying to understand human nature by invariant mathematical models taken from mechanics. Fromm lateridentified the mental health consequences of the contradictions in capitalism between ‘having’ and ‘being’, and the need for a sane socialist society in his book The Sane Society.

The Master was shot on now rarely used 65/70mm film stock and is a cinematic treat. It is reminiscent of the stately grandeur and beauty of films like 2001 and Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick.

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