10 Years Ago, The Master Foreshadowed the Mess of American Politics

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The post 10 Years Ago, The Master Foreshadowed the Mess of American Politics appeared first on Consequence.

Much has been written about the meanings and intentions of Paul Thomas Anderson’s artfully enigmatic The Master. Upon its September 2012 release, the movie was largely perceived as being inspired by — if not directly based on — the life, teachings, and practices of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Anderson admitted as much, and the similarities were so precise and abundant that a number of the faith’s followers were upset (namely, Tom Cruise).

Over the last decade, other theories have cropped up, including its real meaning being related to acting, latent homosexuality, male loneliness, post-war weariness, and — like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Clubfather-son bonds, “ master-disciple dynamics,” and the id vs. superego. Of course, none of these readings are mutually exclusive; in fact, they’re all valid and interconnected to some degree.

So, too, is the fact that The Master serves as a prophetic glimpse into the irrational and hazardous nature of present-day American ideological tribalism. While it’s easy — and, honestly, inevitable — to focus on Trumpism and its associated right wing beliefs/actions, many of the same associations (self-righteousness, unflagging conformity, identity politics, negativity toward “the Other,” etc.) are often found within militant leftism as well. Thus, The Master’s representations pertain to anyone and everyone who subscribes to such extreme and exclusory sociopolitical polarization.

It’s important to begin by dissecting the film’s two main figures, starting with Joaquin Phoenix’s socially awkward and psychologically damaged WWII veteran, Freddie Quell. Like countless real soldiers, he feels purposeless and misplaced upon reentering society because he’s unsatisfied with his profession and relationships, among other things.

Returning home to learn that his girlfriend, Doris, got married while he was away, Quell’s frustration, loneliness, and resentfulness toward those around him — such as a customer who commissions Quell to photograph him for his wife — turns Quell into what Phoenix deemed “just a dog, just a monkey who is ruled by instinct or impulse.”

He’s abandoned, adrift, embittered, and sexually repressed (c’mon, he humps a sand woman in the opening scene and then repeatedly sees intercourse in a Rorschach test). As such, he epitomizes what Port’s Lynn Hirschberg viewed as Anderson’s “enduring fascination with lost souls — especially men — who attempt to find their way with the help of a determined mentor.”

In those ways, he’s also a precursor to — well, if not the Proud Boys themselves — at least the legions of disenfranchised, indignant, and self-superior men who unite to worship the toxic alpha male pontifications of Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson, Matt Walsh, and yes, Donald Trump. Granted, Quell is too sympathetic and complex to boil down to broad stereotypes or imply that he fully embodies those present-day figures, but there are certainly parallels to be made.

Likewise, the “determined mentor” that Quell attaches himself to — Philip Seymour Hoffman’s self-important and deceitful Lancaster Dodd — personifies the ideal, well, master who can yield a cult of personality.

True, Dodd’s feigned gentleness and altruism, alongside his pseudoscientific babble, make him significantly different from today’s more combative tribalist leaders (at least on the surface). Yet, he’s ultimately the same sort of scholarly swindler who, as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody observed, “sees his acolytes’ and patients’ attachment to him as the primary goal of his method.”

Undoubtedly, his flock shows unfaltering loyalty to him and their movement, “The Cause,” at all costs. One of the greatest scenes to depict this devotion is when Dodd gets arrested for dishonest and illegal practices (including a “wrongful withdrawal of funds” from a foundation and operating “a medical school without a license”). Rather than believe the accusations, he and his followers become oppositional, as if the police and court are the ones who are lying because Dodd is infallible.

Adding to that is the fact that right before Dodd is taken away, his son — Jesse Plemons’ Val — tells Quell, “He’s making all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?” Quell doesn’t even consider that as a possibility, though; instead, he assaults Val while telling him to “be a man.”

In total, then, this scene illustrates what Ain’t It Cool News’ Andy Howell perceived as “Dodd lust[ing] for power, dominance, and control, and Freddie need[ing] a direction to channel his urges.” On a larger scale, it also depicts the Cause members turning the situation into an “us vs. them” scenario in which the “other side” is lying (or, you know, spreading “fake news”) to bring a great man (Dodd) down.

Obviously, many other moments demonstrate how confrontational Dodd’s devotees become when their outlooks and lifestyles are ostensibly threatened. Take, for instance, what’s probably The Master’s most famous scene: a naysayer named John More chastising Dodd for spreading intellectual falsehoods to gain admiration from partygoers.

After going back and forth for a bit, More says, “Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion, doesn’t it? Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not?” Shortly thereafter, Dodd’s peaceful and understanding façade breaks, and he finally shouts: “If, if you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, pig fuck?!”

Clearly, Dodd hates being caught “making all this up as he goes along,” a fact that’s further emphasized when he shows an analogous sort of hostility toward one of his most loyal supporters (Laura Dern’s Helen Sullivan) for doubting his revised rhetoric. After reading Dodd’s second book — The Split Saber — she asks him why some of it contradicts what was written in its predecessor, Book One. Once again, he tries answering with as much composure as possible before screaming, “What do you want, Helen?”

He even turns on Quell when Quell begins to question him. After both men are placed in adjoining jail cells, Dodd stands calmly as Quell destroys his cot and toilet. At first, Dodd tries connecting with him like a father would an upset son, yet once Quell rebels — “Shut the fuck up! You’re making this shit up! You don’t give me facts. What facts?” — Dodd wastes no time turning on him. “You’re fucking lazy! Who fucking likes you except for me? I’m the only one that likes you, and I’m done with you.”

Surely, Dodd’s verbal lashings and rejection of those who oppose him resemble Donald Trump’s post-2016 censuring of all who criticize him. Going back to Quell’s animalistic nature, this character also highlights how Cause members — like actual members of modern ideological/political clans — may physically assault their rivals, too.

The biggest example of this from The Master comes immediately after the Dodd/More confrontation, when Quell beats up More because he dared to challenge Dodd. Later, Quell strikes another man — former Cause disciple Bill William — because William admits that he thinks The Split Saber “stinks” and that Dodd has lost his way.

In between these two scenes, Dodd admonishes Quell for resorting to violence on his behalf (which we’ll get to in a second). Similarly, when the pair meet in England at the end of the movie and Dodd realizes that Quell is deserting him, he offers Quell an ultimatum: “If you leave here, I don’t ever want to see you again. Or, you can stay.”

Quell responds, “Maybe in the next life,” to which Dodd concludes (somewhat bittersweetly): “If we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy, and I will show you no mercy.” Put another way, “You’re either my follower or my foe, and I will cast you aside the moment you move away from me and my mindset.”

All of this should seem very familiar, as we’ve seen the same kind of fierce reactions in America over the last several years. Just look at the hostility between pro-choice and pro-life camps; the antagonism displayed by both sides of the COVID-19 mask/vaccination debate; the highly contested results of recent Presidential elections; the sometimes smug extremism of “ cancel culture”; and the obstinate nature of “Bernie Bros.” and Sanders, Clinton, and/or Biden supporters who refused to vote for anyone else.

(Plus, it’s hard not to see a parallel between Quell’s aforementioned attack on Dodd’s adversaries and what happened on a much larger scale at the January 6th, 2021 Capitol riot, with both Dodd and Trump insisting – falsely or not – that they didn’t want it to happen.)

As Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri claimed when The Master came out, “Anderson seems to have an amazing ability to build in contemporary echoes into his films without making them feel overtly topical.”

While the movie obviously evokes earlier and/or international incidents of persecution and groupthink (from the medieval Crusades and 17th century Salem Witch Trials to 1950s’ McCarthyism and the 20th-century cults of Manson, Koresh, Rajneeshpuram, Heaven’s Gate, NXIVM, and Anne Hamilton Byrne), its ability to foresee modern American tribalism is just as salient.

In particular – and as Polygon’s Sean T. Collins previously asserted – both the Cause and today’s most contentious sects give “its adherents… the intellectual and philosophical justification for theft, abuse, hatred of outsiders, and near-orgiastic self-adulation.”

At the end of The Master, Dodd says to Quell, “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

Let’s learn from their missteps – and the ones that result from our country’s multifaceted division – to show people like Quell and Dodd that such a thing is indeed possible.

The Master is streaming now on Pararmount+ and Hoopla.

10 Years Ago, The Master Foreshadowed the Mess of American Politics
Jordan Blum

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