A non-partisan journal of the left.

Review: The Master

Sun 28th Oct 2012

OK, I saw "The Master." Now I know what the fuss is about. I don't pretend to know the film's "message" but I walked out afterward seeing/feeling the world from its point of view -- that happens to me with really fine films, like Fellini's. Phiilip Seymour Hoffman skillfully offers a believable portrait of a charismatic cult leader with obvious flaws who brilliantly improvises his way through anything. Apparently the character recalls L. Ron Hubbard. Well, no matter what any of us think of Scientology today, Hubbard must have been a powerful, if flawed, man.

What attracts me about the cult methods portrayed in the film is the quality of attention paid to people being "processed" -- individuals are listened to, honoured, imaginatively led on a journey back in emotional time as valid as many other forms of psychotherapy. Is the cult based on provable ideas? No. (Are Christianity or Judaism?) Is the leader anywhere near saintlike? Absolutely not. (Neither are most psychotherapists I've met.) But finally, the proof of any method is in the pudding. Does being "processed" do more good than harm to people who undergo it? It seems so in the film. A lot depends on motive. Does the master want to dominate for selfish gain, or is he trying most of the time to help the people around him? In this film, I'd say the Hoffman character is more motivated to do good than evil. Of course, nothing is all one way or the other. The cult leader and his followers in this film are, like all of us, partly good, partly bad, partly able, partly dysfunctional, and, like many of us I think, in search of meaning. Perhaps what distinguishes the Master in this film is that he doesn't merely search for meaning intellectually, he makes meaning for himself in the moment, and hopefully inspires those around him to make it for themselves. A pretty creative way to be, no?

Eddie, the Joaquin Phoenix character, follower to Hoffman’s master, is well-acted, complex, likeable enough despite his twisted physiognomy and ways of expression.

Like his master, Eddie, an ex-soldier, tries to build meaning for himself. He builds a naked woman in the dry sand of what is to him an incomprehensibly bloodless post World War II beach. (Recall the Nevil Shute/Stanley Kramer post World War II novel and movie On the Beach?)

Eddie, working as a photographer in a two-dimensional suffocating department store, attacks a father figure.

Then, pinioned in a hopeless John Steinbeck-like migrant worker world, he makes hootch out of turpentine, feeds it to a man who looks like his father, perhaps killing him.

Master and Eddie recognize in each other a passionate quest for meaning, for real contact. Eddie’s impulses come from a darker more unconscious place. The master tries to help Eddie express himself less self-destructively.

Eddie’s father, by Eddie’s own account, wasn’t a giving man. The master, more giving, loves Eddie (“I’m the only one who loves you.”) while Eddie reciprocates. Does their love seek sexual expression? As a gay man, I’d guess not, but what does it matter? Love is the most precious drink, whatever you mix in it.

When the master asks Eddie about his mother, Eddie is silent. He won’t or can’t go there, though he admits often having unfeeling sex with an aunt. The implacable glacial character of the master’s wife, whom the master strives to please, gives us a hint as to what Eddie’s mother, and possibly the master’s, might have been like – an iceberg.

Throughout history, soldiers are sent off to fight, kill, and be killed – sacrificed in the name of “the motherland.” When yet another tragic, meaningless, monstrously bloody war is over – surviving soldiers, traumatised, try to retrieve some human meaning for themselves, to redeem their lost souls.

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