When I was a tween sci-fi reader, L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth dekalogy—Hubbard’s publisher coined that term specifically for the purpose—was impossible to miss. Ten fat volumes totaling 1.2 million words, and for reasons unclear to me, owned by most public libraries in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It’s weird stuff. In L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Marco Frenschkowski describes it well: “The satire is not humorous, but biting and harsh, which makes the novels not easy to read…Many of the scenes (especially some sexual encounters) are incredibly grotesque.” I bailed during volume four, when a woman gave a blowjob to a man whose junk had been surgically enhanced and she ended up delightfully bathed in semen. Even at age 12, I was pretty sure that was not how things worked.
The author of that charming scene was the man who founded the religion known as Scientology, bane of psychologists and destroyer of celebrity marriages. Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master, set mostly in 1950, was inspired by Hubbard’s early days, when he was first peddling his “Dianetics” system: a form of self-help that involves an “auditing” process meant to clear the mind of damage caused by traumatic experiences. It was much like conventional psychotherapy…except for the parts about reincarnation, alien cultures, and the psychological basis of cancer.
The Hubbard character is named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man whose brain is constantly trying to catch up with his charisma. He’s called Master by a number of subjects, including the troubled young WWII vet Freddie Quell. You can’t look away from Joaquin Phoenix’s intensely focused performance as Quell: leaning forward with his chin jutting out, his elbows at uncomfortable angles, and his speech slurred by a defect that swells one side of his upper lip, Phoenix is a whip that’s constantly poised to crack.
Unable to hold a job and addicted to toxic mixes of the kinds of alcohol you’re not supposed to drink, Quell meets Dodd accidentally and finds himself more-or-less-willingly adopted by the Master. Though Dodd is in the business of recruiting any and all new followers, his family can’t understand why he lavishes such attention on the problematic Quell, who puts “the Cause” at risk by stealing from supporters, sexing indiscriminately, and overeagerly abusing Dodd’s dissenters.
Why does Dodd give Quell so many chances? That’s the central question of The Master, which unfolds as a series of exchanges between the two characters. They talk, they fight, they laugh, they wrestle. Quell never seems entirely convinced of the empirical validity of Dodd’s bizarre cosmology, but the Master’s hand is the first power capable of containing Quell’s self-destructive impulses.
The relationship between the two approaches homoeroticism asymptotically, but by the end we realize that for Anderson, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Master wants Quell’s body: what matters is who controls Quell’s mind. All the relationships in this movie are about power and control—the relationship between the two men, the relationship between Quell and his hometown sweetheart, the relationship between Dodd and his wife (a fiery Amy Adams), and even a hook-up between Quell and a girl he meets in a bar. Once they’re having sex, the first thing Quell does with the girl is to initiate a Cause-style psychological audit, which so absorbs him that he only belatedly realizes the sex has stopped.
The Master is a consistently compelling film, but it’s also a challengingfilm, and one that will frustrate many viewers. The plot is episodic and open-ended, and many questions remain unanswered. There are no heroes or villains, and Anderson doesn’t provide any tidy theories explaining what makes his characters click. (By way of contrast, consider Phoenix’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, where Cash’s relationship with his father was presented as the one and only key to understanding the singer’s life.) We’re simply shown two men locked in a psychological wrestling match, with no referee and no timer.
In one scene, Dodd tells his protégé that if he ever learns to live without a master, he’ll be the first man in the history of the world to accomplish such a thing. But can one be one’s own master? I’m trying, and presumably you are too, but we always have other options available. It’s now been almost 25 years since I mailed a single postage-paid information request card that I found tucked in one of the Hubbard books, and I still receive occasional mailings from the Church of Scientology. Whenever I’m ready, the Master awaits.