(SPOILERS for, obviously, The Master, but also Hard Eight / Sydney. However: it’s assumed that any reader has seen both The Master and Hard Eight, knows their plots, with plot points cited without any attempt to give synopsis. This post’s subtitle comes from the chorus of the great song by Kasey Chambers, “The Captain”. The movie differs substantially from the script submitted to the guild, available here; therefore, all dialogue excerpts from the movie are from the subtitles, unless something is explicitly cited as a screenplay excerpt.)
A movie about intimacy and authority. The qualities most noticed of the film, the astonishing cinematography and its slow, unyielding pace, are intertwined with its subject, Freddie Quell, and not chosen for the purpose of self-aggrandizing grandeur. “Well,” begins David Thomson’s disappointed review, “at least it’s pretentious, and that’s a start in an age when too many films are hardly trying.”1 Rich Juzwiak makes what I think is an equally wrongful indictment, while at the same time acknowledging its creator’s talents: “The Master is so emptily ponderous, so happy to take its time to say not very much at all and, on top of all that, so bursting with craft that I got the sense that it, too, is aware of its own importance.” He contrasts the movie with his enjoyment of Anderson’s earlier work: “Its sideways recounting of (some of) history reminded me of Boogie Nights, an abstract of the porno chic era where all the names and several of the dates were changed. But at least that movie was fun, at least its script had momentum, at least some of its characters’ motivations were clear.”
The movie’s rhythms are slow and difficult, not out of the director’s selfish purpose that the audience bears witness to the diamond finery of his images, but because this is Freddie Quell’s movie, a movie where he is entirely the focus and in almost every scene, and the rhythms are his own. This is a man for whom life has become a cryptic, unlivable place, without handhold or foothold. The movie doesn’t have the kinetic rhythms of Boogie Nights because those embodied the sexual excitement of its own hero, and his eagerness to jump into life. This movie properly feels like a glacial, unanswered mystery, because that is what life is for Quell. The Master has the setting and scale of an epic, without the substance of one, and this is Quell’s life as well. He has had his epic, his Illiad, and now he returns to a place which will never have the intensity of what he just faced, and he stumbles upon a ridiculous man who styles himself as the hero of his own great quest, though his life is comparably mundane: his one great adventure involves digging up from the mountains an unreadable book that he himself has buried. Where other movies of the past are often shot with a slightly blurry scrim, to convey the sense of distance, of half-remembered memory, the images of this film are crystalline clear, more vivid and detailed than the movies set in the present. This reflects Quell’s perspective again, a man for whom reality is piercingly, frighteningly ever present, an invasion which never lets up, unless it’s finally shut down by his own toxic brews. It perhaps also reflects something else: this movie is not just about the distant past, but about the United States, now.
Though the film is willfully, necessarily, mysterious, there are perhaps some who see mysteries where there are none. Perhaps the best way of exploring the movie and unraveling some of it is by following Quell, in proper chronology, and his overwhelming drive. Quell has been described as man who is sex obsessed, and this, I think is wrong: he refuses sex at least twice. This is a man who hungers for, who wants and does not want, intimacy.
Quell has had sex, wants sex, but he looks at sex as tainted, and sex as something which taints an ideal woman. He might view sex as corrupt because of what took place with his aunt2, or because of something else. The genesis for this idea is unimportant; what is critical to the story is that this attitude was the conventional thinking of the time. That Freddie looks at sex as something that corrupts a woman, something only bad girls do, is mainstream thought3. His problem, from society’s perspective, is not this attitude, but his lust itself. More important is that he wishes to continue to believe this, that there is a convenience to believing this: because emotional intimacy often accompanies physical intimacy. Sleeping with a woman he felt some kinship for, not simply a prostitute he could walk away from, would mean that he would end up being more open with her, and this is something he both desperately wants, and avoids with cold fear.
A key, often overlooked, point of Freddie is his relationship with Doris – it is strange that it is so often passed over, because Quell stresses during his process session with Dodd that this woman is the most important person in his world. Doris is often written about with confusion, and her own details often wrongly stated. The often insightful Dana Stevens writes of her as Quell’s “war-time sweetheart” – she isn’t4. Quell is a man familiar with sex – one of his first lines is a joke about getting rid of crabs – but he did not have anything like a romantic relationship with Doris before the war, and she would have anyway been too young. During the war, she serves as a beacon of untainted innocence, a young girl in her mid-teens who writes to him because she is the sister of one of his friends.
This information on Doris is all there, explicit, in Quell’s interview sessions at the veterans hospital. Much of what takes place in the hospital section is a re-working of material from the John Huston documentary Let There Be Light (which is in the public domain and available in the usual place). This is not a kleptic revelation – it is not the same material, and Anderson has been open about the influence of the film on The Master, doing a Q&A after a screening of Light and Huston’s San Pietro5.
A good first example of how material is taken from Light, and re-worked, is the Rorscharch session, where one of the same blots is used, but where the patient’s answer in Light might discretely imply a sexual quality, Quell’s answer is explicitly, crudely sexual.
Light, from 17:35 to 18:02:
The things that the patient sees in these cards, gives significant clues to his personality make-up.
This looks…sort-of like a drawing of two women…standing on a rock. And waving their hands.
Tell me what you see, Freddie.
That looks like…
That’s just like a cock, actually, upside down.
Quell’s interview material is taken from two interviews in Light. Given the stigma surrounding PTSD, then and now, the interviewees were left unnamed. These interviews run from 8:15-11:05 in the documentary. The first contains the seeds of Quell’s own answers about Doris:
It says here in your record from overseas that you had headaches and had crying spells.
I believe in your profession it’s called nostalgia.
In other words, home-sickness.
It was induced, shortly before the war, I received a picture of my sweetheart.
PATIENT breaks down crying, and leaves the session.
After a short while.
Come on and sit down. Now…this display of emotion is alright. Display of emotion is sometimes very helpful. You wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be returned, as a patient, if there wasn’t something upsetting you. Now you say you received a letter from-
Not a letter, a photograph.
Well, what about that now?
To be perfectly honest with you, I’m very much in love with my sweetheart. She has been the one person, who gave me a sense of importance. Through her co-operation with me, we were able to surmount so many obstacles.
The second carries some of what later shows up in Quell’s answers about the dream of his family:
During the time…I got word, that my brother…was killed…in Guadalcanal.
What was he, a marine?
PATIENT gives a quiet yeah.
Now I notice in this history here, that you saw a vision of your brother…tell me something about that, what happened?
I guess it was a dream, or something.
Describe the dream, what did you see?
I dreamt that I was home. My brother was home. Me other brother was home. We all was home.
All of you were home.
Sitting around the table, everybody was happy. We were laughing. Talking. Just admiring each other…
And you could see these images clearly.
Yeah, it was like in a dream, see.
The change to Quell’s interview is instructive – he receives a letter, not a photo, which might have a more tangible erotic quality, and not from his sweetheart, but a girl he has not been intimate with, or might have the possibility of being intimate with – their relationship must begin through words, rather than a shared look or carress.
And what’s this about a crying episode?
What crying episode?
It says here you had a severe headache, and a crying spell.
I didn’t have a crying spell.
It was brought on by a letter I received from a girl I knew once. I think I…I believe I suffered what, in your profession, you call nostalgia. It was nostalgia that was brought on by a letter I received.
From your sweetheart?
No, sir, not my sweetheart. The kid sister of a girl…The kid sister of a friend of mine I knew from back home. I received this letter, and…I received a letter and I read it.
According to the history here, I notice that you say you saw a vision of your mother.
Now, it wasn’t a vision. It was a dream.
Well, tell me about the dream.
I need to know.
Why do you need to know?
This will help in your treatment.
You can’t help in my treatment, you don’t even know…Well, it was my mother and my father and me…back home. We were sitting around a table…having drinks. Laughing – And it just sort of ended there.
Thanks for the help.
Though I resolved to do this in chronological order, I deliberately skipped over one of the first, and most important images, because it ties in with Freddie’s perspective on women, and societal perspective on Freddie. This image is, of course, of a woman made of sand, who Quell vigorously fucks. A woman made entirely out of sand can always be re-shaped into something else, and a woman who remains only an image, only a beacon, like Doris, without actually being known, known in the manner that is physical and transcends the physical, can be re-formed into whatever image one wants.
This is also something of how society sees Freddie and other soldiers: a man that can be tossed into war, then brought back, and re-shaped into a civilian without difficulty or great work. Yet something has gone very wrong with this man – he hunches over, like his center has been broken: his center has been broken. Quell himself knows this, knows that something has gone wrong, and the efforts to help are too half-hearted and small – his answers in his interview are far more hostile and sarcastic than those of the original Light material. One of the closing bits of narration of Light, about the return to civilian life, is re-done here, but not over soldiers returned to form, but the blank, unhealed faces of damaged men.
Light, from 43:55 to 44:40:
The weeks pass, the therapy begins to show its effect. The shock and stress of war are starting to wear off. For these men are blessed with the natural regenerative powers of youth. Now they are living less in the past, and more in the present. Sometimes, they think of the future. The war years must be put aside, and the responsibilities of peace must be considered. A man might open a filling station, or a hardware store. Or he can buy a few acres of land, and raise some chickens. He might even go back to school.
From 46:50-47:40, a doctor’s speech to patients:
Undoubtedly, there will be people outside who won’t have any understanding of the condition…who may think of it as being a rather shameful condition. That’s why we’re having an educational program, trying to educate the public into understanding. Unfortunately, most of you fellas have gone through some very severe stresses in the army. Stresses that civilians are rarely subjected to. In civilian life, you can avoid serious stresses. If a civilian, the average civilian, were subjected to similar stresses, he would undoubtedly have developed the same kind of nervous condition that most of you fellows developed. All of us, have our so-called breaking point.
You men are blessed with the rejuvenating powers of youth. The responsibilities of peacetime must now be considered. You can start a business: filling station, grocery or hardware store. Get a few acres of land and raise some chickens…go back to school. Undoubtedly, there will be people on the outside who will not understand the condition you men have, or will think it a rather shameful condition. If the average civilian had been through the same stresses that you have been through, undoubtedly they too would have developed the same nervous conditions.
After Freddie has returned state-side, he meets up with Doris. That he is so much older than her in these scenes serves a proper intent: these memories are of extraordinary importance to him, they are a lodestone to which he is drawn and longs to return, so he casts himself in these memories as he is now, as if he is the same man, when they are years ago. These very memories which are so important to him may well have little or no importance to Doris, who has since moved on, gotten married, and had kids.
I quote one writer, Forrest Wickman, to convey some of the viewer confusion over these scenes6:
I was very confused about when they take place. It’s all about this girlfriend Doris, and we see her at sixteen, and then we see her again at twenty-three, and I’m not sure when the sixteen moment takes place, and I’m not sure exactly when the twenty three moment takes place. It seems like the second time is sometime in the 1950s.
We see Doris only in the past, at sixteen, though Freddie returns to try and find her seven years later – he speaks to her mother. The first meeting between him and Doris is after the war, after he received the letter – his emotional reaction is not over a past affair with this girl, but this girl as conveyed in the letter itself.
Here is their first scene together, recalled from the processing session:
What made you come and see me?
I thought about you. I thought about you when I was away.
I got your letter. They have you write to soldiers at school?
I wrote to you. How come you didn’t write me back?
I don’t know. I did. I just… never sent it.
Are you going to Briar Cliff?
I’m not in college.
What are you, a senior? Junior?
You’re not a freshman.
I’m a sophomore.
So how old does that make you?
Did you think I was older?
I don’t really remember.
The scene then ends, in a way that is, I think, critical to understanding Freddie. Because this man who is supposedly driven by lust, does not initiate anything with this girl, instead, Doris initiates something physical with him. Even more important, he does not reply to her kiss, but turns away: he badly wants this, but does not want this. He does not want to taint this girl with sex.
Can I kiss you?
They then have another scene together, where she tells him she is going to Norway. This time, the scene ends as she, once again, moves towards Freddie to kiss him – and while such a kiss should be a savored memory for this man, instead it cuts away just as her lips touch his, as if her kissing him is something he doesn’t want to remember.
It is after this that he abruptly signs up for the merchant marine, so abruptly that he has to wake up Doris the same day he leaves, to let her know he is going abroad. No reason is given for why Freddie suddenly chooses to leave again, so we’re left with our own guesses; that Doris is leaving for Norway, that she has no problem with taking the initiative when she kisses him, and this will mean she’ll want to have sex before she leaves. It is not Doris who keeps this affair from going any further, but Freddie – he leaves before this can take place, because he looks at sex as something corrupting, and he does not want to corrupt this woman. Before he leaves, he kisses her, and for the first time, we see them fully kiss, and for the first time, he is the one who moves to kiss her. He does so with such hunger that it is clear that he feels a lust for this girl as strong as anything she feels for him, but which he keeps himself from acting on.
When he returns from the merchant marine, he gets work as a photographer, creating the images of unironic normalcy that we think of as encompassing the america of the fifties, when they don’t: Freddie Quell is a man who desperately wants to be part of the very normal world of these images, but feels forever excluded. We see a series of these photos taken, then the focus moves to a salesgirl, Martha, who sells a coat by walking around the store sporting it. She is supposed to demonstrate how wearing this coat gives you confidence and glamour, yet every dismissal by a customer takes something out of her, causes her to lower her eyes as if the dismissal of the coat is a dismissal of her; she ends up moving towards Freddie, who, off-screen, has kept his eyes on her the whole time – he doesn’t dismiss her at all. These are two people who we might assume to be contained and comfortable in the homogenity of the fifties, but who don’t feel anything like this security. I also see something like a metaphor for the entertainment industry: the very people who create the images of convention, of normality, the people who strike the poses which are so coveted, are not people who belong to the world they portray, but are instead often marginal, lonely, deeply dysfunctional types. This woman has a drink with Freddie, Freddie has no problem caressing this woman as he had with Doris, but the closeness that accompanies this physical intimacy frightens him deeply: at their dinner date, he is passed out.
When Freddie gets into a fight with a man at the store, it is not out of envy that this man has a happy wedded life, or that this man has wealth that he lacks, but this man’s easy, assured belonging. It is the same pose all his photo subjects share, and which Freddie cannot assume. Some critics have found fault with Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as one that is too ostentatious, when I think it is nothing of the kind. The nervous, attention-getting gestures are not those of the actor, but of this man, visible tics to make others know that he exists, that something in him is unresolved and very wrong. This outbreak of violence, one of several by Quell, is one such expression of an anger, an anger that he can’t articulate, an anger at many things, but right now an anger at having to wish to be part of society again, in the way this man belongs with such unthinking, effortless ease. There is nothing alien in Freddie Quell’s actions, nothing of behaviour seen on-stage and only on-stage – a man like this can be easily found in every city and town of the United States, now.
This man’s inability to re-integrate into society is a problem that should fall to some responsible party, either a group of family and friends, or some long-term psychiatric institution which might allow him to slowly re-enter life. There is nothing of the kind to help Quell, so he falls through the cracks, and becomes prey for the kind of group which thrives on people who fall through the cracks, the Master and his Cause. They have a proper and noble purpose, of helping and repairing broken people, yet they do so for reasons that are ultimately self-aggrandizing, so that a guru with a sham medical degree might have his incompetent theories and his self-inflated stature validated. It is not the proper socialization that might have taken place in a family – but Quell’s home is a broken one – or through the proper medical care maintained by society – but the state has tossed Quell away – and it is now the only help there is.
Before going in-depth on the relationship between the Master and Quell, I make a brief, inevitable detour. A good focus of much of the coverage of this movie has been to the extent to which it is a Scientology exposé. Any casual look-through of the first unauthorized L. Ron Hubbard biography, Bare Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, would reveal that The Master is chock full of telling details, small and large, which would confirm its subject. Many of the questions asked during the process session – have you ever had intercourse with a member of your family?, have you ever killed anyone?, have you ever had unkind thoughts about Master Peggy? – are all taken from Scientology security questions7. Racing on a motorcycle to a pointed location was an old game of Hubbard’s8. Hubbard had pretend expertise in nuclear physics, and the Master has such pretend expertise as well9. After a fraud scandal, Hubbard left for Phoenix, where he founded a school and published a strange, lengthy book, and the Master does the same10. The Split Saber is both this published work, The History of Man, and Excalibur, Hubbard’s legendary unpublished religious text; the hyped details surrounding this latter book, such as it being so unsettling that those who read it went insane, are left out of the movie, but they are in The Master‘s screenplay11. Fake degrees litter the front page of Saber, including the entirely made up M.O.C., Master of Ceremonies, while Hubbard relied on a degree mill for a PhD, a made-up “Doctorate in Divinity”, and a made-up “Doctorate in Science”12. Peggy Dodd has all the fierceness, cruelty, and drive of L. Ron Hubbard’s last wife, Mary Sue13, and in the original screenplay, Peggy is not named Peggy, but the slightly less veiled name of…Mary Sue. These details, and others, are obvious to long-time observers of the group, and are brought up in “The Master Screenplay: Scientology History from Several Different Eras Skillfully Woven Together” and “Scientology and The Master”, both by Tony Ortega, and “Is ‘The Master’ Based on Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard?” by former Scientologist Marc Headley.
Though these markers are sufficient to make clear that it is taken from the life material of the notorious movement and its infamous founder, the movie has frustrated some by not being more direct and more scathing. It is not, in my opinion, anywhere near as biting as, say, Wild Palms, which was utterly merciless in its depiction of key movement figures, blows so direct yet so veiled, that outsiders had no idea how crushing the blows were, like hits that leave no bruises but turn a person’s insides into smoosh (I write about this now forgotten mini-series and its satire of Scientology at my usual tiresome length in “Bruce Wagner’s Wild Palms”). By not making the movement its focus, but rather, staying with Quell, with his interactions with the cult leader a small part of Quell’s larger story, the movie’s subject becomes something more than just Scientology, but instead the need of so many outsiders for such a group. For Scientology is only one of the latest, and most prominent, of semi-religious and religious movements answering the needs of such men and women. The value of a guru, real or fake, who might help the forgotten is well pinpointed in Alan Watts’ “The Trickster Guru”:
It must be understood from the start that the trickster guru fills a real need and performs a genuine public service. Millions of people are searching desperately for a true father-Magician, especially at a time when the clergy and the psychiatrists are making rather a poor show, and do not seem to have the courage of their convictions or of their fantasies. Perhaps they have lost nerve through too high a valuation of the virtue of honesty – as if a painter felt bound to give his landscapes the fidelity of photographs. To fulfil his compassionate vocation, the trickster guru must above all have nerve.
Though I think Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History is a book fatally flawed by a too sympathetic treatment of non-traditional religious movements of the United States (rather than demonize such groups, Jenkins commits the polar mistake of treating every criticism and action against every such group, even Scientology and the Unification Church, as a persecutorial tactic), it does provide a thorough, and often too little known, historical context of groups such as Scientology. Hubbard supposedly started his religion as a way of making money14, and it is not difficult to see many of its elements borrowed from other, earlier groups, many of whom had borrowed these same elements from others.
I give lengthy excerpt to Jenkins’ description of the Psychiana movement, which should feel like an uncanny precedent of Hubbard’s later organization:
Psychiana, the New Scientific Religion, taught readers to follow the inner God-Law, in order to find “health, wealth, and happiness,” a phrase repeated so often in the lessons as to become a mantra. Prayer consisted of visualizing those things the believer sought, in such a way that they would actually come true. Psychiana obviously drew on New Thought, and it foreshadowed The Power of Positive Thinking. In later years, Robinson drew more heavily on Theosophy and described himself as an adept.
Psychiana was a gold mine. The basic twenty-lesson course cost $28 ($8 off for cash), and three advanced courses went for $10, $40, and
$100, respectively, with a money-back-if-not-entirely-satisfied guarantee, of the sort not offered by competing religions. The adherent
could also buy extra books, emblems, and records. Robinson pursued a clever marketing strategy from his base in Idaho, advertising in magazines whose audiences might be interested in his readily accessible form of popular mysticism: at the height of his business, he was advertising in two hundred publications. As he boasted, the orthodox might dismiss their rivals as lunatics, crackpots, and racketeers, but “we lunatics have more than we can do. I don’t print application blanks by the tens of thousands, I print them by the 500,000. I buy envelopes by the five million lot.” In the first nine months of 1933, Psychiana took in revenues of over $130,000, with expenses at $80,000, and Robinson lived in luxury. At its height in the Depression, Psychiana reached hundreds of thousands of Americans, perhaps millions. Robinson also boasted highly placed followers, including Idaho’s U.S. Senator William Borah, who was able to save him from deportation (Mussolini was also said to admire the movement). However, Psychiana was in decline by the Second World War, with large debts from unpaid bills for correspondence courses, and the movement staggered on for only a few years after Robinson’s death in 1948. Predictably, Psychiana’s critics presented the “Moscow Jesus” as peddling “lunatic,” “crackpot” ideas to the gullible masses.
Robinson could have drawn his commercial approach from any one of a number of contemporary models. He had surely noted how the Ku Klux Klan had persuaded millions of Americans to join a pseudomystical order, and in these same years Aimee Semple McPherson was triumphantly developing her Foursquare Gospel mission. Other striking parallels are found in Unity, the first religion to apply modern mass-advertising techniques, and Alice Bailey’s booming Arcane School, which at its height employed 130 secretaries to serve the scattered faithful. Psychiana was an attempt to cash in on a separate but equally large potential public. In turn, Psychiana inspired other mailorder esoteric schools, including the Mayan Temple, which flourished from the mid-1950s into the early 1960s. Despite its name, this San Antonio-based group offered a hodgepodge of Qabalism, Buddhism, reincarnation, and esoteric Christianity, and it allowed the home-based student to rise through successive grades of adeptship by means of correspondence courses and examinations. Initiates received the most arcane secrets of “Mayanry” by means of a simple cipher, which was intended to guard against profane inquiry.
The I AM cult had other similarities, and had similar roots in eastern religions and cultures imported into the U.S.15, whose features were often altered and strip mined for movements built around a guru offering self-improvement through mental discipline and training16. The well-known and oft ridiculed aspect of Scientology which posits a world where humans are pawns in a larger alien struggle is not sui generis either, but part of a long tradition in american cults, where such figures as Atlanteans or Lemurians toy with humans for their own ends17.
The Master’s very name, Lancaster Dodd, I read as a very obvious hat tip to the great actor Burt Lancaster, whose charlatan priest Elmer Gantry provided comfort to the same group of disaffected that Dodd caters to. The interrogation which is an “audit” under Scientology, and a “process” in the Cause, by which adepts ascend through the ranks of the movement, was so common as to be mocked in Watts’ “Trickster Guru”:
To carry this through, you must work out a whole series of unusual exercises, both psychological and physical. Some must be rather difficult tricks which can actually be accomplished, to give your student the sense of real progress.
Others must be virtually impossible – such as to think of the words yes and no at the same instant, repeatedly for five minutes, or with a pencil in each hand, to try to hit the opposite hand – which is equally trying to defend itself and hit the other. Don’t give all your students the same exercises but, because people love to be types, sort them into groups according to their astrological sun signs or according to your own private classifications, which must be given such odd names as grubers, jongers, milers, and trovers.
A judidous use of hypnosis – avoiding all the common tricks of hand-raising, staring at lights, or saying “Relax. Relax, while I count up to ten” will produce pleasant changes of feeling and the impression of attaining higher states of consciousness.
That such a movement provides a focus, a direction, a belonging without which the adept is lost, the very thing that is so central to a movement’s appeal that The Master ends with Dodd warning Quell that he cannot survive without it, is what sustained so many of such groups. This existential crisis, and its possible relief, are the basis for the very question on which Watts ends his essay. How will you deal with the barren loneliness of human existence without embracing some form of God’s grace?
I am proposing this problem as a kind of Zen koan, like “Beyond positive and negative, what is reality?” How will you avoid being either a fool or a fooler? How will you get rid of the ego-illusion without either trying or not trying? If you need God’s grace to be saved, how will you get the grace to get grace? Who will answer these questions if yourself is itself an illusion? Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.
It is helpful to see the thought cure which Quell undertakes in this larger context of the longer history of movements and their thought cures, and it also helpful to see this attempt to integrate a lost man into larger society in the context of Anderson’s first movie, Hard Eight. Others have placed Master as part of a broader theme in the director’s work, of surrogate fathers and surrogate sons, mentors and pupils – though Anderson himself rejects this, arguing that the relationship between Dodd and Quell is closer to something homo-erotic18. I do not think this is a case of either-or, and I don’t attempt to place this movie as part of any larger directorial theme, but instead make a specific comparison to Eight, which helpfully demonstrates what is absent in Dodd’s therapy and Dodd as teacher.
A small connection, first, between Sydney of Eight and Dodd of Master. Dodd is the commander of a ship, a kind of captain:
Is this your ship?
I am its commander, yes.
This is Sydney in conversation with Clementine:
Do you remember my name?
Then why do you call me “Captain”?
Because you seem like the captain of a ship to me. I see the way John follows you and worships you…like you’re his captain.
Sydney takes it upon himself to act as a mentor first for John, then Clementine, trying to implement in them a proper social code and perspective. The movie opens with him offering help and guidance to John, and we are then given a similar setting as he offers similar support to the waitress:
There is something half-finished about these two, not simply because of their youth, but because there is something that feels halted in their development. Dodd tries to change Quell for his own purposes of self-aggrandizement, and Sydney’s work here is not entirely selfless either. If John is an unfinished man, it is in part because his father died when he was young, and Sydney is the one who killed him. He instructs this man in the proper attitude and perspective in life, that you cannot demand that the world appear as you wish it, but must surrender to how it is. Sydney is arrogant, but it is a different arrogance from that of Dodd: he thinks he can make up in a few short years for this man’s lacking a father most of his life.
This experiment ends, of course, in failure. Nothing has been built up in Clementine, she constantly feels herself on the verge of falling apart, so when a man refuses to pay her money after he sleeps with her, she must have the money, not for the money itself, but for her own sense of status. That this man can sleep with her and not pay is to concede too much power to a man, and she doesn’t allow it. John, despite Sydney’s lessons, refuses to submit to the world as it is now, and he kidnaps the man. When Sydney arrives on the scene, he is exasperated at their childish attitude and reckless actions. When he calls upon Clementine to “humble yourself!”, it is not a demand for obeisance to him, but to be humble before the state of the world, of the small things we can change, and the many things we cannot.
You don’t have to help us.
I sure as hell don’t.
Then get the fuck out of here!
You got yourself in this situation. I did not get you here. So you humble yourself. You humble yourself!
Sydney knows that the very humility he asks of these two, he has not practiced. He asks of these two that they see reality clearly, yet he doesn’t quite perceive all the difficulties of Clementine’s life. He shows her a gracious respect, but he has no sense of how this woman who is forced to humble herself before the world every day, in all the indignities of life as a waitress and prostitute, cannot humble herself in this moment, not because she is incapable of humility, but because there is only so much humility she can take.
Were Sydney to truly practice the humility he asks of others, he would not attempt to re-form these two so late in life, in the belief that somehow he can make them into better people. That he makes this attempt, however, is not an ignoble failure, but a noble one. After Jimmy, a friend of John’s, extorts money from Sydney, threatening to tell John of his part in his father’s murder, the movie ends with Sydney in the dark of this man’s house, with a gun drawn as he waits for him to return, and this is not the usual victory through violence, but a loss. Sydney has attempted to school two people in a better life, but he knows that he has shown the same impatience they did, and that he did not gain his position by submitting to the world, but by asking the world to submit to him, and killing those who stood in the way. In his youth, he was closer to this man he hates, Jimmy, who gets ahead not through humble compliance but through half a dozen schemes, than to John and Clementine. Where those two end up in dangerous circumstances, Jimmy has deliberately brought them about by threatening others, and in this, too, Sydney is very much like this man, and perhaps this only makes him hate Jimmy more. Sydney has tried to be something more than what he once was, someone productive and helpful, but he has ended up back as the man he always has been, perhaps doing the only thing he is really good at, waiting in the dark and destroying a life. The film ends with Sydney focusing on a bloodstain on his shirtsleeve, and this is not just Jimmy’s blood, but all the blood of the past, that will always be there and never go away.
Though he badly needs help, Freddie is not drawn into the Cause out of any intellectual or spiritual curiosity. Where the cosmogony and the therapeutic process of this movement might be examined by another neophyte, with their skepticism eventually overcome, Freddie shows no interest in either area. If he still has the intellectual wherewithal to examine such things, he doesn’t bother to exercise it. The initial appeal of the Cause is the simple fact that it lets him in, without qualifier. His first day on the boat is the day of the wedding, and Freddie is invited and welcomed as if he were any other guest. The belonging he sought in the outside world, he now feels here. This is an unacknowledged aspect of this movement, as well as many other non-traditional movements, and some of the basis for their appeal. They can be far more egalitarian and open than the country which contains them.
For instance, it is perhaps my giving weight to the wrong thing, or an example of historical amnesia on the part of others, but I think an important, unstated fact is that a man like Clark, with his olive skin and curly hair would be asked something like a two-fold question in many parts of the United States in 1950, were he to marry a girl who looked like Elizabeth Dodd: “a) are you white?, and b) how white are you?” There is no suggestion that the Dodds, whatever their other failings, ever raise such a question. Clark is brought into the family as any other upstanding young man might be.
Jenkins, again in Mystics, makes the important point that female led neo-religious movements would often show up in eras when women achieved greater political equality and power, such as in the 1920s and 1960s19. He does not, however, make the other obvious point, one made very clear in this film: that such non-traditional religious movements gave women the possibility of power and influence they could not achieve easily in the corporate or political world, and certainly not in traditional religious institutions. The Cause survives because of the funding of Mildred Drummond, and later, Helen Sullivan. The éminence grise of the group, the power behind the throne, is, of course, Peggy Dodd, who might be a fanatic, but is easily the sharpest tack in the entire film. When Mildred Drummond returns from a session where she visited a past life, we have this moment:
That man in the armor, was that me?
Yes. That was your spirit.
This matron has the knightly qualities of any man; there is nothing in the female biology that prevents or shapes this, her body is simply a temporary container for a spirit that is as heroic as any man’s, and when given a man’s form, has been allowed to act as heroically as any man.
All these characters are given a place at the table which they wouldn’t have outside. When the wedding begins, we hear for the first time Jonny Greenwood’s “Overtones”20, the theme that will play over the happiest Cause events. It sounds like disparate random instruments ultimately joining together in a mounting, unifying anthem, one for a nation you would gladly join and fight for, an anthem appropriate for this eclectic group of those excluded and diminished by larger society, who will now link up and work together in their great mission.
The second, and more important, reason for why Freddie joins the Cause is that the intimacy he always seeks out, yet avoids with a woman, he achieves with Dodd. Dana Stevens, in a Slate podcast with Forrest Wickman, captures the mood in their processing session very well21:
On a second viewing, it really struck me, the homo-erotic current. It’s not overtly a flirtation scene, but it’s very, very intimate. They very, very quickly get to a very very deep place with each other. You get the sense that most processing sessions don’t go this way. Because most people don’t handle the questions the strange way that Freddie would, and that Dodd is really interested in that, and the two of them sortof have this spark. And you pointed out something I hadn’t noticed, they both smoke a cigarette after the processing session.
I think the relationship between these two intentionally parallels that of a man over a woman at the time (and perhaps not just at that time), with the power and the possibility of dominance resting entirely with Dodd. To use the word “homo-erotic” implies a physical attraction, and I don’t think that quite captures the qualities of this attraction, which is very deep, but might not involve physical lust at all. It is an attraction between opposites, attracted to each other because they are opposites. Where Quell has no social gifts, Dodd has bundles of them. Lancaster is expert as a performer, at projecting an image of a figure of authority, with his aristocratic speech and his professorial pose. The image is almost entirely false, but the act never drops, except in the briefest of moments when he loses his temper; the most extended period where the mask falls entirely, even the refined accent, is in the prison cell22. These two roles, the strong man and the saint – though a false one, here – are old ones, and we can see them detailed almost exactly as they are in The Master, in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James:
The carnivorous-minded “strong man,” the adult male and cannibal, can see nothing but mouldiness and morbidness in the saint’s gentleness and self-severity, and regards him with pure loathing. The whole feud revolves essentially upon two pivots: Shall the seen world or the unseen world be our chief sphere of adaptation? and must our means of adaptation in this seen world be aggressiveness or non-resistance?
Compared with these beaked and taloned graspers of the world, saints are herbivorous animals, tame and harmless barn-yard poultry. There are saints whose beard you may, if you ever care to, pull with impunity. Such a man excites no thrills of wonder veiled in terror; his conscience is full of scruples and returns; he stuns us neither by his inward freedom nor his outward power; and unless he found within us an altogether different faculty of admiration to appeal to, we should pass him by with contempt.
In point of fact, he does appeal to a different faculty. Reenacted in human nature is the fable of the wind, the sun, and the traveler. The sexes embody the discrepancy. The woman loves the man the more admiringly the stormier he shows himself, and the world deifies its rulers the more for being willful and unaccountable. But the woman in turn subjugates the man by the mystery of gentleness in beauty, and the saint has always charmed the world by something similar. Mankind is susceptible and suggestible in opposite directions, and the rivalry of influences is unsleeping. The saintly and the worldly ideal pursue their feud in literature as much as in real life.
A society where all were invariably aggressive would destroy itself by inner friction, and in a society where some are aggressive, others must be non-resistant, if there is to be any kind of order. This is the present constitution of society, and to the mixture we owe many of our blessings. But the aggressive members of society are always tending to become bullies, robbers, and swindlers; and no one believes that such a state of things as we now live in is the millennium. It is meanwhile quite possible to conceive an imaginary society in which there should be no aggressiveness, but only sympathy and fairness-any small community of true friends now realizes such a society. Abstractly considered, such a society on a large scale would be the millennium, for every good thing might be realized there with no expense of friction. To such a millennial society the saint would be entirely adapted. His peaceful modes of appeal would be efficacious over his companions, and there would be no one extant to take advantage of his non-resistance. The saint is therefore abstractly a higher type of man than the “strong man,” because he is adapted to the highest society conceivable, whether that society ever be concretely possible or not. The strong man would immediately tend by his presence to make that society deteriorate. It would become inferior in everything save in a certain kind of bellicose excitement, dear to men as they now are.
There is, however, a very major distinction with how these types exist in The Master: it is the saint who entirely holds the power, who is the tyrant, and the strong man who is near helpless. They are not adversaries, but bonded by a deep attraction. Dodd has all the gifts which Quell lacks, while Quell shares Dodd’s animal-like temper, a temper which Dodd has the faculties to restrain, or channel into something else, while Quell has nothing of the kind: he is an unshaped and unrestrained creature of primitive instincts and feelings. That there is a mutual attraction should not imply that it is a symmetric one; James posits the saint as a female type, but here the false saint is very much a dominant male, though he dominates not through physical power but beguilement. Freddie reveals his deepest secrets to Lancaster, while Dodd gives away nothing equal to his student. Freddie has all the qualities of a perfect disciple, a man like a woman of sand, who can be re-shaped into a socially proper form, a vindication of whatever intellectual or political movement. One can easily picture someone like Freddie in any nationalist or nativist group, prepared to commit the most heinous acts out of fealty to his leader. Freddie’s devotion to the Cause is entirely rooted in his love for this man, a love that is something akin to the contemporary idolatry of an actor or singer, and his devotion ends not because of anything like Helen Sullivan’s questioning of the internal inconsistencies of their creed, but because he questions whether the reciprocal love from the Master is directed entirely to him, or whether it is just an outward radiance of a great performer, where each member of the audience thinks the connection is made exclusively with them.
That Freddie would make an ideal black shirt, or other political legbreaker, is not incidental, and I think there is a very obvious political resonance to this movie. It is an especially contemporary resonance at this time of a tragic anniversary, and it seems to be have been missed. I quote again from David Thomson’s review:
Surely when a movie is called The Master, the chance of revolution or extremism comes into play. And that dark vision of an outraged America ready to overthrow its government is more present now than at any time since 1919. This didn’t have to be a film about Scientology; it should have been a diagnosis of America ruined by kinds of belief that have gone mad and ecstatic with fear and loathing. Dodd needs to be touched by Ayn Rand’s fury.
Perhaps I make too much of certain things, but I see an obvious immediate relevance that appears to have been overlooked. The Cause is a movement that believes the universe is at the mercy of its will. It can transform the world into whatever it wishes, and reality is no obstacle. In the movie’s most striking moment, blue eyes are made black.
The egalitarian scientific method, a soundly democratic idea, where a theory either is or isn’t internally consistent, and either does or does not have an emperical basis, whether the proponent is a pauper or a prince, is considered a nuisance to the Cause. They impose their ideas through sheer will. When Dodd is questioned on the scientific basis of his ideas, it is by a stodgey man, a man who this movie rightfully requires to be stodgey, because his power does not reside in his charismatic appeal, but his skepticism, a skepticism not provoked by Dodd, but the ramshackle intellectual shabbiness of the theories themselves. I give lengthy and full excerpt to this dialogue, because it is crucial to understanding the movie’s contemporary relevance:
You’ve also said that these methods, Cause Methods, can cure leukemia, according to your book, and…
Some forms of leukemia.
THE MASTER CONT’D
In being able to access past lives, we are able to treat illnesses that may have started back thousands, even trillions of years.
With a sir.
The earth is not understood to be more than a few billion years old.
Even the smartest of our current scientists can be fooled, yes.
You can understand skepticism…
…can you not?
Yes, yes. For without it, we’d be positives and no negatives, therefore zero charge. We must have it.
Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion, does it not?
Which is why our gathering of data is so far-reaching.
Otherwise, you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not?
THE MASTER CONT’D
And thankfully, we are, all of us, working at breakneck speeds and in unison towards capturing the mind’s fatal flaws and correcting it back to its inherent state of perfect. Whilst righting civilization and eliminating war and poverty, and therefore, the atomic threat.
Well…I find it quite difficult to comprehend, or more to the point, believe, that you believe, sir, that time travel hypnosis therapy can bring world peace and cure cancer.
I have never been to the pyramids, have you?
And yet we know that they are there because learned men have told us so. May I ask, what is your name?
Mr. More, if I may, is there something frightening to you about The Cause’s travels into the past?
Frightening? No, no.
THE MASTER CONT’D
What scares you so much about traveling into the past, sir?
I’m not frightened.
Are you afraid that we might discover that our past has been reshapen? Perverted? And perhaps what we think we know of this world is false information?
Time travel does not frighten me, sir, because it’s not possible. What does frighten me is the possibility of some poor soul with leukemia coming to you…
There are dangers of traveling in and out of time as we understand it.
THE MASTER CONT’D
But it’s not unlike traveling down a river, you see? You travel down the river, ’round the bend, look back, and you cannot see around the bend can you? But that does not mean it is not there, does it? But certain clubs would like us to think that a truth, I say truth, uncovered should stay hidden.
I belong to no club, and if you’re unwilling to allow any discussion…
No, this isn’t a discussion, it’s a grilling. There’s nothing I can do for you if your mind has been made up. You seem to know the answers to your questions. Why do you ask?
I’m sorry you’re unwilling to defend your beliefs in any kind of rational…
If you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, PIG FUCK?!
For almost all of the film, I look at Dodd as a ridiculous figure and nothing more, but in this exchange, I feel anger, intense anger at the man, but not just this man, but for all those who he stands in for. This is a man who leads a movement that does not convince through intellectual argument, but charisma alone. They do not humble themselves before the universe, but demand that it humbles to them. Their claims meet no scientific standard, and those who have the temerity to demand they submit to such a standard are bullied and harassed. The Cause is not, to coin a phrase, a reality based community. On this tragic anniversary, what political administration does this man and his movement remind you of?
When Freddie is drawn to the cause because of his mixed up feelings about intimacy and sex, he meets his opposite, who is not Lancaster Dodd, but his wife, Peggy. Freddie has extraordinary problems with sex, because it compels intimacy, so he finds ways to avoid it. Peggy, who has all the drive and intelligence that in our time would have led her to be the CEO of a billion dollar company, has forsaken the pleasures of sex, and being seen as sexual in any way at all, because of the ways that being perceived sexually, and only sexually, can impair a woman. One of the only times that we break from Quell’s narrative, where we see what he does not, is when Peggy jacks off Lancaster, an act where the power should be with the man, but rests entirely with her; this is a woman without intimacy, even in the most intimate of acts.
There may be some confusion as to why this aggressive moment, which happens right after the surreal party, takes place. I quote from a conversation between Dana Stevens and Forrest Wickman23:
We definitely know that she’s picked up on the erotic charge of this gathering. From the next scene, she approaches Lancaster Dodd and she says something like, you need to not have these thoughts, I know you’re having these thoughts, and that’s when she gets him off. That’s more or less when she wins the power grab for the master’s favors.
Here’s my question to you, what makes her do that? What motivates the handjob sequence? Why does she feel she needs to assert her sexual control over her husband, while telling him, you can do anything you want, as long as I don’t know about it…essentially giving him license to cheat on her as long as it’s private, right? But she’s also making sure that she’s calling the shots. And I would love to know what motivates that at that moment, whether it’s the gaze exchange between Freddie and her at the party, or just a general sense, everybody’s trying to get their hands on my man?
So, I guess this is what I was trying to get into. This is when I think she really starts her dominance over the master. Partly because he’s starting to become attracted to Freddie Quell’s character, and I think it’s before this that we see Val, and this is one of the first crinkles in the Master’s facade, we see where Val, his son, says he’s just making it up as he goes along. And I think one of the reasons Val says that, he’s off on the porch, Dodd doesn’t spend much time with his son. He’s spending all his time with Freddie. And so, that’s how I think he disowns his relationship with his father.
This places too much focus on the party scene, which is important, and not enough on what happens right before. The Cause are being hosted by one of their wealthy benefactors, Helen Sullivan, who gives a presentation on the virtues of their thought cure. At this meeting, there are hints of two potential, separate infidelities.
Lancaster is drawn to Freddie’s unrestrained animality, but so is his daughter, Elizabeth. When Freddie goes to beat down John More, and asks if anyone else will be coming, Clark turns to his wife for her opinion on all this, and she gives him a simple, hard look: what are you waiting for? Be a man. GO.
The attraction Elizabeth has for Freddie’s animal violence recurs during the Helen Sullivan lecture, when she sits next to Freddie and is very, very forward about what she wants. Whatever ambitions this woman has, whatever influence she might yield in our time, is very, very limited in the fifties, and the only domain she’s given to play with is in this sexual area. In seeking out Freddie for an affair, she is at least able to exercise her own will, rather than that of others. When Freddie refuses her, the hurt she registers isn’t simply over the rejection, but that she hasn’t been allowed even that. She hates this man for not even allowing this exercise in freedom, and that is why she makes the false claim later, that Freddie made passes at her. Quell rejects her for the same reason he rejects the other women: he fears getting close.
This is the hint of one infidelity, and the other takes place during Helen’s presentation. She is speaking of the vivid qualities of past lives, when she turns to the Master to praise him, and her look might reflect something more than that of a devoted student. We then cut to Peggy, who is so very good at reading people, and she sees in all this something that makes her very, very upset.
Even human bodies seem to radiate a different kind of warmth when covered with the fabrics of another age. Now, memory filters all of that out. But…when we return this way, the Cause Way, the way Master has discovered, everything is intact.
It is the possibility that Dodd is having an affair with their chief source of funds which bothers Peggy so much, not that any marital intimacy has been violated. If the affair goes wrong, they lose their funding. This is why she is so angry at what she sees pass between her husband and Helen, rather than the sex itself. The guidelines she lays out in the bathroom are simple. He can do what he wants, as long as he is discrete and it doesn’t jeopardize their movement. “We have enough problems” doesn’t refer to the difficulties in their own marriage, but the issues facing the Cause:
You can do whatever you want…as long as I don’t find out. And as long as no one that I know knows about it. Other than that, stop with this idea. Put it back in its pants. It didn’t work for them, and it’s not going to work for you. We have enough problems as it is, OK?
There seems to be some confusion as well over the vision of the naked women at the party, whether the vision is that of Lancaster, Peggy, or Freddie, and what meaning there is in the look exchanged between Peggy and Quell24. It is very much Freddie’s vision, and different dialogue in the screenplay makes this explicit25. What we see is what Freddie wants, but does not want. The woman naked, revealed, while he remains clothed, something like the relationship of a man to the women in a strip club: intimacy with every woman, but without actual intimacy. I stress that at the same time this alone is what he does not want. He wanted to sleep with Doris, was deeply in love with Doris, wanted to be close to Doris, and the ersatz intimacy of simple images of women exposed are not enough. The look that Peggy gives him is not, I think, enigmatic at all. This woman, who can read people like a book, somehow perceives what he thinks right now, and there is something in it which disturbs her. This is not fear of him as a sexual predator, but her properly seeing him as her opposite: she avoids the intimacies of sex, while he deeply wishes for them. Lancaster may not see Freddie as an adversary, the physical man opposed to the priest, but Peggy does.
As part of his therapy, Peggy tries to re-shape Freddie, so that he is something closer to what she is, where sex offers no temptation, no power, nothing. It is an important moment, and one given too little comment. She reads from an erotic story, to which he must give no response. Freddie is in agony – not over any sexual impulse, but because he sees sex as corrupting, and he wishes to look upon Peggy as an ideal, a maternal figure.
This is difficult for you. Listen. “‘It’s really a damn shame to tease you so, my little whore, he laughed, ‘So, I will get the dildo out of my cabinet in the next room.’ He was scarcely gone many seconds before he returned, and I felt his fingers opening the lips of my cunt. ‘Oh, oh, who is that?’ I screamed from under my skirt.”
I don’t want to hear any of this.
Just listen. No reaction. “Kiss her. Put your tongue in her mouth, my boy. Fuck, fuck, fuck away.”
After this, after Freddie’s successful therapy, we hear again the mounting anthem of “Overtones”, and we see Peggy as this maternal ideal, when she announces the move to Phoenix. She is seen as Freddie and the other Cause members see her, shot from below, a figure of holy purity, holy gravitas.
What then follows is key to Quell’s break from the movement. The anthem continues on as Freddie, and Freddie alone, works with the Master, in the sacred work of excavating the second book. The landscape, the weapons, the music, all lend this the quality of an epic. At this critical moment in the faith, its leader has chosen Freddie, and only Freddie, to accompany him in this task. Freddie, again alone, then helps out Dodd in a series of three photos: outdoor rustic, ridiculous pretense with a quill pen, and an author profile. After this, he joins the others in the audience for the presentation of the second book. Just as at the wedding, Freddie, the perpetual outsider, is welcomed by all. It is only during the presentation, that something seems to change, something upsets Freddie that still affects him afterwards.
As said before, Quell lacks the intellectual focus to examine the Master’s ideas, as Helen Sullivan does, uncovering their arbitrariness and inconsistency26. Freddie’s devotion is not to any idea, but to the leader. He reacts violently to Val’s suggestion that their scripture is made up on the fly, not because the scripture has meaning for him, but because such an accusation would imply a falseness in Dodd. What upsets Freddie in the Phoenix presentation is that after their prolonged moments of intimacy – excavating the book and taking the photos – he recognizes that this closeness is false, a simple performer’s trick27. When Dodd turns to him in the audience, he looks down on him as an intimate, but – not as a known intimate; instead as just one more audience member who is supposed to feel as if the actor is acting for them, the singer singing a song to them. Before his speech, we see Dodd in preparation, and it is like seeing an actor before he takes the stage: he shuts out everything else in order to take on his role. Watts, again in “Trickster Guru”, properly identified the link between these two professions, shaman and actor: “The attractions of being a trickster guru are many. There is power and there is wealth, and still more the satisfactions of being an actor without need for a stage, who turns ‘real life’ into a drama.”
When Norman Conrad says that the book stinks, it only strengthens Freddie’s doubts that this man to whom he feels so close, is false, and he is not close to him at all. He is upset at Conrad not for maligning his faith, but because it confirms what he already feels. He beats this man just as a man might beat someone who confirmed that the man’s wife hadn’t been at work, or hadn’t been at her girlfriend’s house, when she said she had.
This brutal outburst, a regression to Freddie’s animal-man state, is the end piece of this movie’s complex portrayal of this man’s relationship to violence. For this man, violence is his only power, his only form of expression with the wider world, and his chief quality valued by others. He guards againt yielding any intimacy, and he lacks the eloquence to express all that is going wrong with him, so he signals to the outside world that he doesn’t fit in and envies the fitting-inniness of others by assaulting a man posing for his picture. His beating of an opponent of the Cause must be condemned by Dodd as the sort of brutal behaviour he cannot acknoweldge, but it is never raised as a reason for his expulsion of the group; the destruction of one’s enemies because of the over-enthusiasm of one’s followers must be spoken of as unnecessary, and something that is by no means wanted, but at the end of the day…such destruction is awfully helpful.
This violent power, always ready to burst out, is what makes this man attractive to Elizabeth, and perhaps Freddie’s moment of greatest pathos is when this power is entirely suppressed, when he is made into a spineless submissive, handing out leaflets to strangers, barely able to contain his rage at strangers, yet containing it. By making clear that violence is this man’s only power, the movie makes obvious why a marginal man like this so often turns to violence – stupid, nihilistic brutality. There is no fantasy in this, no vicarious experience for the viewer: the unleashed brutality of this man is frightening, and meant to be so. We might travel almost always with Quell, feel ourselves more sympathetic to Quell than Dodd, yet when these two men are imprisoned, we are given only the perspective of the outside of their cells, and the inside of Dodd’s: because Quell is an animal, a disturbing, uncontrolled animal, and whatever our antipathy for Dodd, we feel closer to him and safer in his cell than in Freddie’s, for this man is a rabid animal, and all sentimentality aside, we would fear to share a space with him.
It is after his beating of Conrad that Quell takes a frontierless landscape for what it is, and drives off where he wants, without submitting to the direction or order of anyone. He is not entirely a violent man, or perhaps something prevents him from physically hurting Dodd: he does not rebel by striking him, but by a simple demonstration that he is a creature of free will. That his devotion to Lancaster had been something like an unerotic love is reinforced when this break is immediately followed by his return to his lost love, Doris. A great affair doesn’t work out, so you go back to a past flame. Time, for this man, has remained entirely still while others have moved on: Doris left home long ago. This man who idealizes women, who doesn’t want them corrupted by sex, discovers that his Doris, the girl who happily leaned forward to kiss him, is now Doris Day, just like the asexual good girl icon.
The very loneliness that Watts warns about, which causes people to seek out a guru, a direction, a sense of being part of something greater, Freddie feels now, and it is mixed up with his personal connection with Lancaster. While watching a movie28, he dreams a very vivid dream that he has been summoned to London, and he goes there for his final encounter with Dodd. Neither man, however, is quite the same as before. The very fact that Freddie has it in him to rebel, that he is not simply clay to be re-shaped, diminishes his attraction in Lancaster’s eyes. The Master wants followers, not questioners or equals. Freddie may have returned, but he is not spineless. Before, Peggy was able to impose her own vision on him, have him render her eyes from blue to black, create her own reality, if you will. She now tries to impose her sight on him again, and this time, he rejects it.
Are you drunk?
No. No, no.
You look sick. Freddie, you don’t look healthy.
I don’t look like that. That’s not how I look.
You don’t think you can?
It’s just not how I look.
There is a hint that Freddie has changed in other ways as well, because he may have sought out Dodd, but he may be open to other intimacies as well, one in particular: he asks where Elizabeth is. She is, Peggy says, “DCF”. This phrase remains unexplained in the movie and in the script, an acronym perhaps for some Cause university that has just been established, or something like Scientology’s “SP”, suppressive person, a former movement member who is now an enemy. The answer is unimportant to this story, Freddie’s story, as the significance is that he now has an interest in her, where before he did not. After Peggy leaves the room, Lancaster sings “Slow Boat to China”29, and I think this is the culminating note in guru as performance, intimacy as performance. For the song sounds like it is being sung from Lancaster to Freddie, a deeply felt, sincere rendition, only to this man. But even with an audience of one, the suspicion arises, does this singer even see the person he is singing to, or does he remain entirely within his song, and anyone who hears it is touched by the illusion that the song is for them?
When Freddie leaves the school, we hear for the first time “Overtones” in a context outside of the Cause. Though Lancaster warns him of traveling as an outcast, he must now feel some kind of belonging, a belonging to something larger outside the movement, because this anthem now travels with him, and plays over the closing scenes. We see him have sex for the first time in this movie, not avoiding it or putting it off, and the very manner by which he reached deepest intimacy with Lancaster he tries out on his partner. Whether this is a full victory for Freddie is left unknown. He is close to this woman in a way he has been afraid of throughout. The play at a process session might be an attempt at intimacy, or a method to avoid it: it is the interrogee who always reveals themselves, not the interrogator. In a movie which shows how limited the roles were for women of the time, it ends with this woman, Winn Manchester30, hoping for a next life: one with more possibilities than this one. The scene is a hopeful note on which I wish The Master would end, but it does not. The anthem stops, and we suddenly return to the past, Freddie lying down next to a woman of sand, and maybe, even now, he sees Winn as others have seen him, an object of particles that can be sculpted by their hands. Freddie feels intimacy for a brief moment, feels belonging for a brief moment, but he may well soon be an exile again.
(I remain unsatisifed with this post, and will probably continue to give it further aesthetic edits, without altering any of its major themes. The footnote on Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage was added on April 2nd.)
1 Though I did not agree with many, or perhaps even all of them, reviews and commentary that I found useful while thinking about the movie included: “There Will Be Dud: ‘The Master’ Is Paul Thomas Anderson’s First Mediocre Movie” by Daivd Thomson, another “There Will Be Dud”, this time by Rich Juzwiak, “The Master” DVD review by Chuck Bowen, “An Intimate Epic of Irrational Need” by Geoffrey O’Brien, “‘The Master’: We Do Not Wish To Join Your Cult” by Maria Bustillos and David Roth, “Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, reviewed-again!”, The Master: Slate’s Spoiler Special with Dana Stevens and Forrest Wickman, “The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell: Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson”, “The Astonishing Power of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master”, by Richard Brody, and the reddit thread, “The Master by PTA: Considering who we are and if we can change that.”, to which I made a small contribution.
2 The script gives a slightly different version of this in the processing session, with the aunt promising to pay Freddie for what he does:
How did you come to sleep with your Auntie Bertha?
She said she’d let me have my inheritance if I were to sleep with her. So I did and I never got my money. I was drunk. She looked good.
And you did it again and again.
Yes. Because I liked it. It felt good.
She’s rich? Is she? She has your inheritance, does she?
She controls it all.
You feel you’re owed this?
3 Excerpts from Anatole Broyard’s book, Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, a recollection of his post-war years in New York City which focuses on the transient sensual instance, rather than an encyclopedic detailing of a life, provides a helpful insight into society’s attitudes then:
Nineteen forty-seven was a time when any suggestion of extramarital sex in a movie had to be punished, just as crime had to be punished. To publish a picture of pubic hair was a criminal offense. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer were banned and Portnoy’s Complaint was twenty-two years away. There was no birth-control pill, no legal abortion—yet none of this tells you what sex at that time was like. The closest I can come to it is to say that sex was as much a superstition, or a religious heresy, as it was a pleasure. It was a combination of Halloween and Christmas—guilty, tormented, clumsy, unexamined, and thrilling. It was as much psychological as physical—the idea of sex was often the major part of foreplay. A naked human body was such a rare and striking thing that the sight of it was more than enough to start our juices flowing. People were still visually hungry; there was no sense of déjà vu as there is now. As a nation, we hadn’t lost our naïveté.
Sex was the last thing such a girl gave a man, an ultimate or ultimatum. It was as much a philosophical decision on her part as an emotional one and it had to be justified on ethical and aesthetic grounds. To sleep with a man was the end of a long chain of behavior that began with calling yourself a liberal, with appreciating modern art—sex was a modern art—and going to see foreign films. Sex too was foreign. It was a postwar thing, a kind of despairing democracy, a halfhearted form of suicide. It was a freedom more than a pleasure, perhaps even a polemic, a revenge against history. Still, there had to be love somewhere in it too—if not love of a particular man, then love of mankind, love of life, love of love, of anything.
In a way I was just as inhibited as they were by my upbringing, which condemned me to a combination of boredom and desire. Like most young men, I hadn’t yet learned how to just be with girls, to exist alongside them, to make friends—and so once my desire was satisfied, I was bored. To make it worse, I suffered from a kind of boyhood chivalry and politeness that kept me from being natural, so that I was acting all the time, and that was fatiguing. I was guiltily aware that I was using girls badly—yet to use them well would have been to love them, and I didn’t have the time or space in my life for that. For all these reasons, there was always an aura of disappointment between us as we kept renewing a bad bargain.
The energy of unspent desire, of looking forward to sex, was an immense current running through American life. It was so much more powerful then because it was delayed, cumulative, and surrounded by doubt. It was fueled by failures, as well as by successes. The force of it would have been enough to send a million rockets to the moon. The structure of desire was an immense cathedral arching inside of us. While sex was almost always disappointing in retrospect, the promise of it ennobled and abstracted us; it made us pensive.
The saddest part of sex in those days was the silence. Men and women hadn’t yet learned to talk to one another in a natural way. Girls were trained to listen. They were waiting for history to give them permission to speak. They led waiting lives—waiting for men to ask them out, for them to have an orgasm, to marry or leave them. Their silence was another form of virginity.
Broyard’s life speaks to another way in the ways in which life then overlaps with life now, and yet is very different: this writer was, by the standards of the census form and the one drop rule, a black man, who passed for white. This detail of Broyard’s life is looked at in-depth by Henry Louis Gates in “The Passing of Anatole Broyard”, and it transforms a book like Greenwich into a series of coded phrases, adding an additional layer to the multiplicities to be expected of a gifted writer like Broyard. An example of this very specific, discretely hidden, theme might be found running through two excerpts.
On being brought in for a writing assignment on jazz music:
Then, just when I needed something to do, my friend Milton Klonsky asked me to collaborate with him on a piece he had been asked to write for Partisan Review. The piece was on modern jazz, a subject neither Milton nor the editors of Partisan knew anything about. Since I had always been interested in jazz, Milton suggested that I write the first draft and he would rewrite it. What he meant was that I’d supply the facts and he’d turn them into prose.
It never even occurred to me to resent this arrangement—I was awed by Partisan Review and flattered by Milton’s offer.
A later passage, on Broyard’s friend Saul Silverman, might be, in light of the previous citation, Broyard tipping his hand to his past. I bold the crucial part:
When he got sick Saul was working on a review for The New Leader. Isaac Rosenfeld, who was the book editor, sometimes gave reviews to friends, or friends of friends, even when they hadn’t published anything before. This was not as frivolous as it sounds, because the Village was full of young men like Saul who could be trusted to turn out a decent piece. Just as Negroes knew about jazz, Jews were expected to know how to write reviews.
4 From “Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, reviewed-again!”:
A series of flashbacks involving Freddie’s memories of his wartime sweetheart, Doris, seemed more conventional and less illuminating with each viewing, even if the girl was played with haunting directness by the exquisite Madisen Beaty.
5 From “The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell”.
6 The Master: Slate’s Spoiler Special
7 From Miller’s Messiah:
The laudable aim of ‘helping mankind’ sat rather uncomfortably with the requirement for security checks, which were stepped up during 1961. An even more intrusive questionnaire was introduced which appeared to have been designed with perverts and criminals rather than potential troublemakers in mind. Many of the questions reflected Hubbard’s morbid preoccupation with sexual deviation (‘Have you ever had intercourse with a member of your family’ and ‘Have you ever had anything to do with a baby farm?’) and a wide range of crimes were also probed (‘Have you ever murdered anyone?’ and ‘Have you ever done any illicit diamond buying?’). In addition Hubbard specifically wanted to know if the individual being checked had ever ‘had any unkind thoughts’ about himself or Mary Sue.
8 Hubbard disciple Ray Kemp in Miller’s Messiah:
‘One of the things he liked to do was ride his motorcycle – he had an Indian, a real monster – out into the desert. He played a game he called point to point. He’d pick a spot on the horizon and go for it, straight as he could, without deviating, regardless of what was in the way, cactus or whatever. Nibs and Dick Steves, from the org, used to chase him on their motorcycles, but Ron’s favourite trick was to put up dust devils behind him. That’s another thing he could do – manipulate dust devils. He could whip them up and move them around at will. I often saw him do that.’
9 Miller’s Messiah:
He also dashed off a new potted biography of himself adding further gloss to his already well-burnished career. It was included in a handout headed ‘What Is Scientology?’: ‘For hundreds of years physical scientists have been seeking to apply the exact knowledge they had gained of the physical universe to Man and his problems. Newton, Sir James Jeans, Einstein, have all sought to find the exact laws of human behaviour in order to help Mankind.
‘Developed by L. Ron Hubbard, C.E., Ph.D., a nuclear physicist, Scientology has demonstrably achieved this long-sought goal. Doctor Hubbard, educated in advanced physics and higher mathematics and also a student of Sigmund Freud and others, began his present researches thirty years ago at George Washington University. The dramatic result has been Scientology…’
Also from Messiah:
The various lectures delivered at this extraordinary event were later condensed into an even more extraordinary book titled All About Radiation and written by ‘a nuclear physicist’ and ‘a medical doctor’.
The doctor was anonymous, but the ‘nuclear physicist’ was none other than L. Ron Hubbard offering the benefit of his advice with customary scant recourse to the laws of science. He asserted, for example, that a sixteen-foot wall could not stop a gamma ray whereas a human body could, an assertion later described by an eminent radiologist as ‘showing complete and utter ignorance of physics, nuclear science and medicine’. In line with his philosophy that most illnesses were caused by the mind, Hubbard avowed, ‘The danger in the world today in my opinion is not the atomic radiation which may or may not be floating through the atmosphere but the hysteria occasioned by that question.’ Radiation, he added, was ‘more of a mental than a physical problem’.
10 From Miller’s Messiah:
At the beginning of April 1952, Hubbard packed his belongings into the back of his yellow Pontiac convertible and headed out of Wichita on the Kansas Turnpike with his teenage bride of four weeks beside him on the front seat. Their destination, one thousand miles to the west, was Phoenix, Arizona, where loyal aides had already put up a sign outside a small office at 1405 North Central Street, announcing it as the headquarters of the Hubbard Association of Scientologists.
Phoenix was so named because it was built on the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement on the Salt River, which had risen like the legendary phoenix. Hubbard, who had had more than enough of Wichita, could not think of a more appropriate location for the rise of his astounding new science from the still-smoking ruins of Dianetics.
In July, the Scientific Press of Phoenix (another Hubbard enterprise) published a book originally titled What To Audit and later re-named The History of Man. Introduced as a ‘cold-blooded and factual account of your last sixty trillion years’, Hubbard intended the book to establish the foundations of Scientology and he had no desire to be unduly modest about its potential. With the knowledge gained by Scientology, he wrote in the third paragraph, ‘the blind again see, the lame walk, the ill recover, the insane become sane and the sane become saner.’
Even judged by the standards of his science fiction, The History of Man was one of Hubbard’s most bizarre works and possibly the most absurd book ever written, although it was treated with great reverence by his followers. An amalgam of mysticism, psychotherapy and pure science fiction, the content invited the derision which was inevitably forthcoming. ‘To say it is an astonishing document does not adequately convey the peculiar qualities or contents of The History of Man . . .’ one government report noted. ‘For compressed nonsense and fantasy it must surpass anything theretofore written.’
In a narrative style that wobbled uncertainly between schoolboy fiction and a pseudo-scientific medical paper, Hubbard sought to explain that the human body was occupied by both a thetan and a ‘genetic entity’, or GE, a sort of low-grade soul located more or less in the centre of the body. (‘The genetic entity apparently enters the protoplasm line some two days or a week prior to conception. There is some evidence that the GE is actually double, one entering on the sperm side . . .’) The GE carried on through the evolutionary line, ‘usually on the same planet’, whereas the thetan only came to earth about 35,000 years ago to supervise the development of caveman into homo sapiens. Thus the GE was once ‘an anthropoid in the deep forests of forgotten continents or a mollusc seeking to survive on the shore of some lost sea’. The discovery of the GE (Hubbard hailed every fanciful new idea as a ‘discovery’) ‘makes it possible at last to vindicate the theory of evolution proposed by Darwin’.
11 The section of Miller’s Messiah which deals with the near-death experience which gave birth to the book and its strange qualities:
‘He opened his eyes and found a nurse standing over him looking very concerned. Just as a surgeon walked into the room, Ron said, “I was dead, wasn’t I?” The surgeon shot a venomous look at the nurse as if to say, “What have you been telling this guy?” But Ron said “No, no, I know I was dead.”
‘The next part of the story I would find very difficult to direct realistically if I was a movie director. According to Ron, he jumped off the operating table, ran to his Quonset hut, got two reams of paper and a gallon of scalding black coffee and for the next 48 hours, at a blinding rate, he wrote a work called Excalibur, or The Dark Sword.
‘Well, he kept the manuscript with him and when he left the Navy he shopped it around publishers in New York, but was constantly turned down. He was told it was too radical, too much of a quantum leap. If it had been a variation of Freud or Jung or Adler, a bit of an improvement here and there, it would have been acceptable, but it was just too far ahead of everything else. He also said that as he shopped the manuscript around, the people who read it either went insane or committed suicide. The last time he showed it to a publisher, he was sitting in an office waiting for a reader to give his opinion. The reader walked into the office, tossed the manuscript on the desk and then threw himself out of the window.
‘Ron would not tell me much about Excalibur except that if you read it you would find all fear would be totally drained from you. I could never see what was wrong with that or why that would cause anyone to commit suicide.’
[Forrest Ackerman] reported the good news to his client, but Hubbard, suddenly and uncharacteristically bashful, refused to produce the manuscript. ‘He said it was in a bank vault and it was going to stay there. I think he was quite sincere. He seemed like a man who had seen too many people go crazy or commit suicide, who had enough on his conscience already. I never did get to see the manuscript or show it to any publisher. In fact, I never encountered anyone who said they had seen it.’
From The Master screenplay, Clark, Dodd’s son-in-law, talks about the legendary book:
…it’s what started all this. Back then…in 1941, the Master…he’d been in operation, in army hospital. He died on the table…gone for seven minutes…but came back:
And in a storm of vision and creative output from this experience he wrote The Split Saber aka The Darkest Cloud.
Whoever read it…either went insane or committed suicide. Twelve people read it. Six dead, four disappeared. The last time anyone saw it…was his last publisher in New York.
Master walked into the office to find out what the reaction was, the publisher called for the reader, the reader came in with the manuscript…threw It on the table…and flung himself out of the skyscraper window….
Master took the book and hid it where no one could get to it…it’s inside this book: all the history. All the facts. All too dangerous. He re-wrote it, using what he could as the basis for what we are able to accept and learn today…that’s Book One that we all study and know…but the real stuff. The things at the center…are still too dangerous. They (kill/cure) any man who reads it. It’s passing through the jaws of resistance. It’s the truth about all this. The book is protected and hidden. No one knows where but Master.
12 The front cover of Split Saber:
In February 1953, Hubbard decided it was necessary to bolster his status with the phlegmatic British by acquiring some academic qualifications. He knew precisely where they were available – from Sequoia University in Los Angeles. The ‘university’ of Sequoia was owned by Dr Joseph Hough, a chiropracteur [sic] and naturopath who ran a successful practice from a large house in downtown Los Angeles and conferred ‘degrees’ on whoever he thought merited them. Richard de Mille was awarded a Ph.D. from Sequoia, somewhat to his surprise, for a slim volume he had written under the title An Introduction to Scientology.
On 27 February, de Mille, who was then living in Los Angeles, received an urgent telegram from Hubbard in London: ‘PLEASE INFORM DR HOUGH PHD VERY ACCEPTABLE. PRIVATELY TO YOU. FOR GOSH SAKES EXPEDITE. WORK HERE UTTERLY DEPENDANT ON IT. CABLE REPLY. RON.’ De Mille found Hough thoroughly agreeable and replied the following day: ‘PHD GRANTED. HOUGH’S AIRMAIL LETTER OF CONFIRMATION FOLLOWS. GOOD LUCK.’ It was in this way that Hubbard acquired the distinction of appending letters to his name – a mysterious ‘Doctorate of Divinity’ would follow shortly, along with a ‘D. Scn’.
13 I take these notes on Mary Sue from my previous post on Wild Palms.
From an interview about The Master conducted by Brent Bambury, with a former high-ranking scientologist, Kate Bornstein, on Mary Sue:
Did you know Mary Sue Hubbard, who was L. Ron Hubbard’s wife, and the number two figure in the church for many years?
I knew Mary Sue Hubbard well. And it was a brilliant performance. Amy Adams captured her, completely. And yes, Mary Sue was posted as L. Ron Hubbard’s guardian. That was the post, the guardian. It was her job to protect scientology from bad people. I was scared of Mary Sue. Everyone was.
Miller gives this description of the relationship between the two Hubbards:
Hubbard would never allow anyone to criticize Mary Sue and although he rarely showed much affection for her in public, it seemed, after two failed marriages and innumerable affairs, that he had at last formed a stable relationship, improbable as it had first appeared. They were indeed an unlikely couple – a flamboyant, fast-talking extrovert entrepreneur in his forties and a quiet, intense young woman twenty years his junior from a small town in Texas. But anyone who underestimated Mary Sue made a big mistake. Although she was not yet twenty-four years old, she exercized [sic] considerable power within the Scientology movement and people around Hubbard quickly learned to be wary of her. Fiercely loyal to her husband, brusque and autocratic, she could be a dangerous enemy.
Here is former member Cyril Vosper, from Miller’s Messiah on the implementation of the social control system of “ethics”; I bold his opinion on Mary Sue’s influence of this behavior code:
‘Conditions’ were an essential part of the new ‘ethics technology’ devised by Hubbard in the midsixties, effectively as a form of social control. It was his first, tentative step towards the creation of a society within Scientology which would ultimately resemble the totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984 . Anyone thought to be disloyal, or slacking, or breaking the rules of Scientology, was reported to an ‘ethics officer’ and assigned a ‘condition’ according to the gravity of the offence. Various penalties were attached to each condition. In a ‘condition of liability’ for example, the offender was required to wear a dirty grey rag tied around his or her left arm. The worst that could happen was to be declared an ‘SP’ (suppressive person), which was tantamount to excommunication from the church. SPs were defined by Hubbard as ‘fair game’ to be pursued, sued and harassed at every possible opportunity.
‘What happened with the development of ethics,’ said Cyril Vosper, who worked on the staff at Saint Hill, ‘was that zeal expanded at the expense of tolerance and sanity. My feeling was that Mary Sue devised a lot of the really degrading aspects of ethics. I always had great warmth and admiration for Ron [Hubbard] – he was a remarkable individual, a constant source of new information and ideas – but I thought Mary Sue was an exceedingly nasty person. She was a bitch.‘
An incident on one of scientology’s ships, from Miller, I bold Mary Sue’s part:
Arthur’s [a son of Hubbard's] special responsibility on board ship was to look after his father’s motor-cycles, in particular a huge Harley Davidson that had been given to Hubbard by the Toronto org. One afternoon, the Commodore told Doreen [a scientology member] to make sure Arthur had cleaned the Harley Davidson properly by wiping a tissue over the mudguards and petrol tank and bringing it back to show him. She returned with a black smudge on the tissue. Hubbard was incensed. ‘You go and assign Arthur liability,’ he roared at Doreen, ‘he’s not doing his duty.’
Doreen was relieved that Arthur didn’t seem to be too worried by his father’s reaction, or by the need to tie a grey rag round his arm, but it was not the end of the matter. Mary Sue, who was fiercely protective of her children, felt it was Doreen’s fault that Arthur had been assigned liability. Later that afternoon, she grabbed her by the arm and starting shaking her. ‘You little fiend,’ she hissed, sinking her nails into the girl’s arm, ‘you’re destroying my family.’
A few months later, Diana [a daughter of Hubbard's] upset her father in some way. Hubbard reeled off a long reprimand to the messenger on duty, adding at the end of it: ‘OK, go and spit in Diana’s face.’ The messenger was a little dark-eyed girl called Jill Goodman, thirteen years old. She ran along the deck to Diana’s office, burst in, spat in her face with unerring accuracy and began shouting her message as Diana let out a scream of fury. Mary Sue, who was in an adjoining office, burst in as her daughter was wiping the spittle from her face. She grabbed Jill round the throat as if she was going to strangle her and also began screeching. Jill started crying and when Mary Sue let her go, she immediately rushed off to tell the Commodore. Another acrimonious husband and wife row followed, which ended with Mary Sue throwing her shoes at the luckless messenger Hubbard despatched to chastise her further.
It is Mary Sue, following L. Ron Hubbard’s orders, who heads up the infamous Operation Snow White, an attempt by the church to eliminate any government account that might harm the church’s reputation by having scientologists take positions in government agencies, steal documents from various agencies, and destroy them.
Miller gives a good description of this project:
Now sixty-two, Hubbard was also beginning to ponder his place in posterity. The Church of Scientology had been swift to make use of the recently enacted Freedom of Information Act, which had revealed that government agencies held a daunting amount of material about Scientology and its founder in their files, much of it less than flattering. Hubbard, who had never been fettered by convention or strict observance of the law, conceived a simple, but startlingly audacious, plan to improve his own image and that of his church for the benefit of future generations of Scientologists. All that needed to be done, he decided, was to infiltrate the agencies concerned, steal the relevant files and either destroy or launder any damaging information they contained. To a man who had founded both a church and a private navy this was a perfectly feasible scheme. The operation was given the code name Snow White – two words that would figure ever more prominently over the next few months in the communications between the Guardian’s Office in Los Angeles and the Commodore’s hiding place in Queens, New York.
Operation Snow White, the impudent plan to launder public records that he had dreamed up three years earlier, was progressing rapidly and with a degree of success that few would have believed possible. By the beginning of 1975, the Guardian’s Office had infiltrated agents into the Internal Revenue Service, the US Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency. By May, Gerald Wolfe, a Scientologist working at the IRS in Washington as a clerk-typist, had stolen more than thirty thousand pages of documents relating to the Church of Scientology and the Hubbards. He was known to the Guardian’s Office by the code-name, ‘Silver’.
Within the hierarchy of the Church of Scientology, ultimate responsibility for the activities of Operation Snow White rested with Mary Sue Hubbard, the controller, but it was inconceivable that she was acting on her own initiative or not discussing progress with her husband. And although the amateur agents had discovered it was ridiculously easy to infiltrate, bug and burgle US government offices, the risks were considerable, both to the agents themselves and their church superiors. Hubbard was not too worried about who would take the rap if Operation Snow White was exposed, as long as it was not him.
Things eventually go wrong, with a number of these infiltrators arrested, and one of them, Michael Meisner, revealing the details of the operation, leading to an FBI raid on church offices, as well as the indictment and conviction of top church figures, including Mary Sue.
At six o’clock on the morning of 8 July 1977, 134 FBI agents armed with search warrants and sledgehammers, simultaneously broke into the offices of the Church of Scientology in Washington and Los Angeles and carted away 48,149 documents. They would reveal an astonishing espionage system which spanned the United States and penetrated some of the highest offices in the land.
On 15 August 1978, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted nine Scientologists on twenty-eight counts of conspiring to steam government documents, theft of government documents, burglarizing government offices, intercepting government communications, harbouring a fugitive, making false declarations before a grand jury and conspiring to obstruct justice. Heading the list of those indicted was Mary Sue Hubbard. She faced a maximum penalty, if convicted, of 175 years in prison and a fine of $40,000. On 29 August, all nine defendants were arraigned in the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill and pleaded not guilty.
Mary Sue never betrayed her husband, but then she had never intended to. The trial was scheduled for 24 September in Washington, but the government prosecutors and defence attorneys were still bargaining at that date and a stay was granted. On 8 October, in an unusual legal manoeuvre, an agreement was reached that the nine defendants would plead guilty to one count each if the government presented a written statement of its case, thereby avoiding a lengthy trial.
On 26 October, US District Judge Charles R. Richey accordingly found the nine Scientologists guilty on one count each of the indictment. Mary Sue and two others were fined the maximum of $10,000 and jailed for five years. The remaining defendants received similar fines and prison sentences of between one and four years.
14 That Scientology was started by an impoverished author as a money-making enterprise is made in many places, but for the moment I use as a citation this fascinating account of the New York science fiction writing community, related by Harlan Ellison to Robin Williams:
15 Jenkins’ Mystics:
In 1930 former medium, hypnotist, and gold prospector Guy Ballard claimed to have had a personal encounter on California’s Mount Shasta with none other than the Count of Saint-Germain, the figure who had fascinated [fiction writer Bulwer Lytton] and the original Theosophists. Though now thousands of years old, Saint-Germain lived on as an Ascended Master, who chose Ballard as his earthly vehicle and the channel of the forces of light: Guy and his wife, Edna, now became Accredited Messengers of the Masters. Ballard founded the movement of I AM, which claimed to show adherents how to achieve perfect unity with the higher self, the God within. Publishing under the pseudonym of Godfre Ray King, Ballard promulgated his beliefs in a number of books, including Unveiled Mysteries (1934), the title of which recalls Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. In 1932 the movement set up headquarters in Los Angeles, and it used profits from the books to advertise heavily on radio.
Critics attacked I AM for its flagrant exploitation of public gullibility, especially in cult-prone California. In 1938, the Christian Century described the new movement under the weary headline “Another One in Los Angeles.” One of the deadliest enemies of the group was Gerald Bryan, who produced a series of embarrassing revelations about its origins through the late 1930s. Among other things, Bryan showed that Ballard had plagiarized much of his written material from Theosophical works written over the previous forty years or so, which described meetings with ascended masters in words almost identical to Ballard’s, specifically naming the Count: of Saint-Germain. Visual portrayals of the Ascended Masters were also borrowed, uncredited, from standard Theosophical works.
Bryan shows once again how commonplace such esoteric ideas had become in popular culture by the 1920s and how easily a whole religious system could be concocted from materials lying readily at hand. He claimed that the Ballards “imbibed a little of Christian Science, read a bit of the Walter Method C. S. [Christian Science], branched over to the Unity School at Kansas City, linked up with the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), joined the Order of Christian Mystics [the Curtiss group], studied under Pelley the Silver Shirter, sat at the feet of some of the Swamis, read a little of Theosophy, looked into the magic of Yogi philosophy and Oriental mysticism, [and] interested themselves in Baird T. Spalding and his Masters of the Far East.” Ballard also consulted with Frank Robinson, who “just warned him to keep off my [Robinson's] stuff.”64 Pelley had also had his vision of the Masters on a California mountain, and like Pelley, the Ballards drew from the pulps and popular science magazines. I AM claimed access to “great and mighty Ascended Masters speaking audibly over a dazzling LIGHT AND SOUND RAY [sic],” which manifested in the Ballard headquarters in Chicago. This could easily have been borrowed from a contemporary science fiction magazine like Astounding, if not from a Flash Gordon movie serial.
Whatever its origins, I AM developed its own style of meetings and ceremonials, emphasizing the roles of both Jesus and Saint-Germain. To attract the curious, large public meetings were held in elaborately decorated public auditoria, while permanent I AM temples were developed to serve the fully committed initiates, the Hundred Percenters. Five I AM centers appeared in California, two in Florida, others in Philadelphia, Seattle, and Chicago. Members’ services were reminiscent of traditional seances. Also recalling spiritualism, the Ballard system involved exorcising the countless psychic entities that threatened the human race, with the believer invoking Saint-Germain or some other higher presence: on one occasion in 1939, some four hundred thousand troublesome entities were removed from greater Philadelphia. As well as raiding the ranks of spiritualism, “they have taken followers from Christian Science, Unity, the various metaphysical cults and even from the older religions; many persons of education and refinement are included in their number.”
I AM played to enthusiastic audiences across the nation, with a series of ten-day classes or crusades focusing on particular cities and regions. The movement’s claim to have a million followers is doubtful, but there were at least tens of thousands prepared to support a sizable merchandising operation, which included books, records, pins, rings, posters, and portraits of the Masters, including Saint-Germain and Guy Ballard himself. I AM rings sold for $12, photographs of Ballard for $2.50, a chart of the Magic Presence for $12, and $1.25 bought a special binder in which to store the flood of continuing I AM edicts. New Age Cold Cream was also available.67 By such means I AM allegedly took in $3 million during its first decade of existence.
The occult vision was hierarchical in nature, reflecting the influence of Qabalistic and Neoplatonic thought as well as Hinduism. The universe contained countless beings at different levels of spiritual development, including what past cultures have called gods, demons, and angels, and these beings or forces could be induced to serve the human adept possessing the appropriate techniques. In 1888, a text on rosicrucianism claimed that members of the group “say that if our spiritual powers of perception were fully developed, we should see the universe peopled with other beings than ourselves, and of whose existence we know nothing at present. They say that we should then see this universe filled with things of life,” including the famous elemental spirits of Renaissance magic: nymphs, salamanders, gnomes, undines, and fairies. Far more exalted were the planetary spirits, former human beings who had attained near-divine powers.
Humans were an integral part of this celestial hierarchy. As the spiritualists had supposedly shown, sentient existence did not cease with death, so the soul existed as an eternal spiritual presence. Many went still further in their belief in human survival, as both reincarnation and karma became tenets of most mystical movements. The process of rebirth was part of the soul’s evolution towards perfection and union with the Divine, the ultimate goal of all mystical enterprise: in this vision, alchemy was a material symbol for the inner transformation of the baser elements of the individual soul into heavenly fire. The idea that humans could progress towards divinity meshed well with the optimism of New Thought and with the popular evolutionary ideas so prevalent at this time. Most occult authors were fascinated by evolution, seeing it, however, in terms far broader than materialistic Darwinism.
Great mystics or prophets might represent souls in a very advanced state of spiritual progress, who should be regarded as the rightful teachers of humanity, Masters or Secret Chiefs. This idea explains the ambiguous attitude towards established world religions: the Buddha, Jesus, and other leaders were seen as highly evolved souls who offered authentic wisdom, however much their words had been twisted by their followers. Many Western occultists saw their own belief-system as a return to an authentic Christianity, which preached a message that was identical to Buddhism, as well as to Mesmerism, alchemy, and rosicrucianism. Whereas conventional Christians saw only the external truths, esoteric believers heard the real Jesus. To quote Manly Hall again, “So wisdom drapes her truth with symbolism, and covers her insight with allegory. Creeds, rituals, poems are parables and symbols. The ignorant take them literally and build for themselves prison-houses of words…Through the shadow shines ever the Perfect Light.” In addition to the overall belief-system, believers were offered a vision of a vastly expanded human potential. Then as now, one of these fundamental truths was that human beings contained within themselves immense forces presently unknown to science and that these powers could be mobilized by an individual with the proper insight, training, and initiation. Though some of the methods advocated to this end were purely magical (such as the recitation of spells or names of power), much occult training consisted of attempts to master one’s own body and mind through breath control, the regulation of sexual desire, and the development of skills like meditation and visualization. This shared many points of contact with the New Thought belief in the power of the will to control the ailments of mind and body, though occultists went still further, suggesting that a trained adept would be able to exercise skills such as precognition, psychokinesis, telepathy, miraculous healing, astral travel, and other traditional magic arts.
Meanwhile, tales of lost continents not only flourished, they proliferated. Throughout the twentieth century, believers would claim access to a whole alternate history and archaeology of the human civilization, venturing many thousands of years before the meager period marked out by staid academics. The ancient civilization of Atlantis was soon joined by the lost land of Lemuria, said to lie under the Indian Ocean and to have left traces throughout the Pacific world, making it of great interest to West Coast occultists. Historical accounts of this lost society were mainly derived from mediumship and channeling. The most-cited source for the Lemurian idea was Rudolf Steiner’s The Submerged Continents of Atlantis and Lemuria, which was translated from the German into English in 1911. By the 1920s, James Churchward was claiming to have discovered secret records from yet another sunken continent, that of Mu, the “Motherland of Man,” which had left its remnants in Polynesia. In his view, “[t]he Garden of Eden was not in Asia, but in a now sunken continent in the Pacific Ocean,” and memories of Mu were found scattered across the world, in Mayan, Indian and Egyptian records, on Easter Island, and in the rituals of Freemasonry. Churchward claimed that Mu had foreshadowed and even excelled all modern science, “We are probably now treading the same road which our forefathers trod over 100,000 years ago.” Contemporary groups hoped to gain access to these ancient secrets: in 1936, a Lemurian Fellowship was founded in Wisconsin; it relocated to Los Angeles in 1942.
Theosophy, which possessed a widespread network of lodges in North America, deserves much of the credit for popularizing yoga and associated Hindu ideas, as well as terms like “karma,” “mahatma,” “guru,” and “chela.” The Theosophical tradition also disseminated ideas like the Ascended Masters and reincarnation, which diffused throughout the California sects of the next half century. In 1898, the American Theosophical Society fell apart amidst vicious internal squabbles, but several new groups sprouted from the wreckage. Some of these factions were short-lived but others thrived, such as Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy.
One American strand of Theosophy was dominated by Katherine Tingley, who in 1899 established her headquarters at Point Loma, her “White City in a Land of Gold beside a Sunset Sea.” This became a Xanadu dreamworld, in which forty buildings represented a spectrum of architectural styles, with “Muslim domes, Hindu temples, Egyptian gates, and Greek theaters.” Point Loma gave Tingley a base for her educational and archaeological projects, which included a theosophical university and a raja yoga college. At its height, the colony supported three hundred residents under the autocratic rule of the Purple Mother, and some 2,500 children were educated there between 1897 and 1942. The community became an established part of the southern California social landscape, and it survived for several years after Tingley’s death in 1935.
The experiment had enduring results. Carey McWilliams suggested that “[i]t was through Point Loma that the yogi influence reached
Southern California. . . . After Mrs. Tingley’s appearance in Southern California, the region acquired a reputation as an occult land and Theosophists began to converge upon it from the four corners of the earth.” The location fitted well with the Theosophical worldview, in which a series of great races are said to have dominated the planet at various times since the primeval Lemurians and Atlanteans. Soon, a sixth race was expected to arise and replace the European Aryans; some writers prophesied that this new group would appear in the Pacific regions of the United States. By the 1920s, other Theosophical visitors to California included Annie Besant, a bitter rival of Tingley, and Krishnamurti, whom Mrs. Besant proclaimed to be a messianic figure. Krishnamurti was presented as the long-sought world teacher, successor to Christ and the Buddha. He was lionized on several American visits in the late 1920s, until in 1929 he repudiated both Besant and the messianic claims: later, he would warn listeners against all would-be messiahs and prophets. Another Theosophical immigrant was Alice Bailey, a prolific British writer on all manner of occult topics, who claimed to be channeling a spirit known as “The Tibetan.” Bailey later relocated to New York, where her Arcane School (founded in 1923) dispensed correspondence courses in mysticism.
18 From “Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master‘s Master” by Scott Foundas:
For his part, Anderson is loath to see the movie as a variation on a pet theme. “Is it getting tired?” he asks when I say that Dodd and Freddie recall the surrogate father-son relationships in many of his films, beginning with the aging gambler Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) and his naive protégé (John C. Reilly) in Anderson’s 1996 debut feature, Hard Eight. He prefers to think of his Master characters as unrequited lovers, a subtle, homoerotic tension that is triangulated in the film by the presence of Dodd’s loyal, steely wife (Amy Adams). “But maybe that’s just my way of dressing it up and thinking I was doing something different this time,” he says. In any case, he seems happy that people-including us-are finally talking about something other than Scientology. “I’ve kind of loved these screenings we’ve had, because no one’s talking about Scientology anymore once they see the film. They’re just talking about how fucking good Joaquin Phoenix is.”
Another social development of these years was the changing role and improving status of women. The suffragette years before 1920 show many parallels to the organized feminist movement that emerged during the late 1960s. In both eras, women enjoyed a higher degree of economic independence and a new social and political power, which was symbolized by important legal victories. For the generation of the 1920s, this meant the suffrage and prohibition; in the 1970s, it would involve sharply increased public awareness of issues of sexual violence. Both decades were also marked by the surging popularity of women-oriented religious ideas and sects, in the early part of the century, the groups founded by leaders like Madame Blavatsky, Aimee Semple McPherson, Myrtle Fillmore, Ellen White, and Mary Baker Eddy.
20 “Overtones”, by Jonny Greenwood:
21 The Master: Slate’s Spoiler Special with Dana Stevens and Forrest Wickman
22 It’s here that the break in character comes:
You’ve been implanted with a push-pull mechanism that keeps you fearful of authority and destructive. We are in the middle of a battle that’s a trillion years in the making, and it’s bigger than the both of us.
You’re making this shit up! You make this shit up! You don’t know what you’re talking about.
I don’t know what I’m talking about?
No, you don’t.
I give you facts.
You don’t give me facts! What facts? What facts?
They are fucking facts!
What facts? What facts?
Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!
Why don’t you kick the bed some more?
Fuck you, you lazy ass piece of shit!
Fuck you. Fuck you. I’m not lazy!
You’re fucking lazy!
Oh, you make shit up…
You’re fuckin’ lazy!
Your fucking family hates you! Your son hates you!
Oh, they do?
Yeah! Your son hates you.
Who fucking likes you except for me? Nobody! Except for me.
No, you don’t fucking like me.
Who likes you except for me? Except for me? I’m the only one who likes you.
The change in Dodd’s style of speech is there in the slightly different screenplay dialogue which is a jarring break from his usual speaking style. He never uses contractions, never vernacular like “wanna”, and now he does:
ME shut my mouth? You’re a fucking DRUNK.
You CACTUS. Play a game with me?
I don’t think so, you little yo-yo. That ain’t the way. You want to shut me up? I’m the best and only friend you have, shut me up for saving you? HELPING YOU. ONLY WAY. FIND ANOTHER ONE, YO-YO. You wanna get rid of this or live this way or MASTER it?
You listen – you wanna spit in that cops face for touching you? I’m gonna beat him with you. Bash his skull in. BUT DON’T TURN ON ME, DRUNK.
23 The Master: Slate’s Spoiler Special
24 From “Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, reviewed-again!”:
Here’s one moment that started to unfold for me only upon a second viewing and became one of the principal reasons I couldn’t resist a third: the party scene I mentioned above, in which Hoffman’s voluble Master performs the mildly bawdy traditional song “I’ll Go No More A-Rovin’” for an admiring group of acolytes, including his pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), while Freddie watches in a drunken stupor from a nearby chair. (The description that follows for the next few paragraphs contains no spoilers in the sense of significant plot revelations, but if you haven’t seen the movie and want to go in interpretively unspoiled, come back after you’ve seen it.) Abruptly, from one shot to the next, all the female partygoers appear stark naked, including the lady musicians. (I liked how the cellist kept on her ropes of pearls.)
The first time through, this sudden tableau of bare female flesh threw me for a moment-not only because a screen full of clapping, naked women will do that to a person, but because my relation to what I was seeing on screen had been unceremoniously destabilized. What was going on here? Was it possible that the women were truly naked-that the Master, established in earlier scenes as a skilled practitioner of mass seduction, had somehow compelled a roomful of his followers to strip mid-song? No, it had to be the sex-obsessed Freddie who was denuding them with his eyes (eyes which, for the majority of the scene, he can barely keep open as he lolls in his wing chair). Or the fantasy might be taking place in the mind of the Master himself, who’s clearly relishing the opportunity to show off his symbolic sexual power to everyone in the room, especially Freddie, who’s already emerged as Master’s pet “guinea pig and protégé.”
Only on a third viewing did it occur to me that the naked singalong might also be read as unfolding in the mind of Peggy Dodd, who’s one of the nude clappers on view, albeit modestly shielded by the arm of her chair. To the extent that there’s any dramatic action in this scene, it unfolds not between Master and the pretty young women he teases and tickles, but between the silent Peggy, seen only in the background of a wide shot that includes her husband and all the other partiers, and Freddie, whom we see only in intermittent medium close-ups, alone in the frame – a disconnected outsider whose spatial relation to the action remains unclear. As the revelry unfolds, Peggy fixes the out-of-frame spot we assume Freddie must occupy with a baleful, indeterminate glare and is herself eventually blocked from view by the bobbing, dancing bodies of the women surrounding her. Is it possible that the vision of Master surrounded by roomful of naked temptresses is a paranoid fantasy on the part of the fiercely protective Peggy (who in the very next scene will assert her sexual authority over her husband in what I can only pray will be this year’s most hostile on-screen handjob)?
25 An excerpt of screenplay dialogue from the prison scene:
Helen’s house…all those girls walking around, the wives of…I want to fuck all of them.
Sex is not an aberration. Never has been. So what’s wrong?
I want to fuck ‘em all. I want to stick it in every one of them.
26 From after the presentation:
You’ve changed the processing-platform question. Now it says, “Can you imagine…?”
If our previous method was to induce memory by asking, “Can you recall,” doesn’t it then change everything if now we say, “Can you imagine?”
We are invoking a new, wider range to account for the new data. “Can you imagine,” allows for a more creative pathway to the mind. More open.
But if the new…
What do you want?!
HELEN looks like she’s about to burst into tears at this.
Helen. This is the new work.
27 There are many examples of this, but I pick the one most conveniently at hand, a good and recently read piece by John Seabrook, “Factory Girls”, on K-Pop bands:
Standing beside me was Jon Toth, a twenty-nine-year-old white guy, a computer scientist who had driven twelve hours straight from New Mexico. Toth is a fan of Girls’ Generation, a nine-member girl group in the process of recording its American début album, with Interscope Records. At the time he stumbled across the Girls, on YouTube, Toth was an alt-rock guy; he loved Weezer. “I was definitely not the kind of guy you’d expect to get into a nine-girl Asian group,” he told me. But before long Toth was studying Korean, in order to understand the lyrics and also Korean TV shows. Then he started cooking Korean food. Eventually, he travelled all the way to Seoul, where, for the first time, he was able to see the Girls—Tiffany, Sooyoung, Jessica, Taeyeon, Sunny, Hyoyeon, Yuri, Yoona, and Seohyun—perform live. It was a life-changing experience.
“You think you love them, but then you see Tiffany point directly at you and wink, and everything else that exists in the world just disappears,” Toth wrote on Soshified, a Girls’ fan site. “You think you love them, but then you see Sooyoung look you dead in the eye and say in English, ‘Thank you for coming.’ ” Toth concluded, “I might not know how much I love these girls.”
I had arranged to meet Toth because somewhere between my tenth viewing of the Girls’ video “Mr. Taxi” and my twentieth click on “Gee” it occurred to me that I might not know how much I loved these girls, either. “Listen, boy,” Tiffany coos at the outset of “Gee.” “It’s my first love story.” And then she tilts her head to the side and flashes her eye smile—the precise crinkle in the outer corner that texts her love straight 2U.
Later in the story, the writer meets Tiffany herself:
From out in the arena came a long, low wailing sound—the screams of the fans, dying for the idols to appear.
“O.K., we have to go,” the S.M. [S.M. Entertainment, the music agency of Girls’ Generation] man said.
But I did have one personal question for Tiffany. “Your eye smile: did you learn that or is it natural?”
“No,” Tiffany replied, giggling. “My dad smiles this way.” She eye-smiled me from two feet away: a jolt of pure cultural technology.
After this meeting, he sees them in performance:
I was watching the show from beside the stage when the nine members of Girls’ Generation came out, in bluejeans and white T-shirts, to perform “Gee.” The whole place shouted the hook: “Geegeegeegeebabybaby.” Whenever a song ended, the Girls deployed around the stage. At one point, Sooyoung came to where I was standing and began frantically winking and waving her way through the crowd, wearing a blissful smile and shaking her glossy hair. She was no longer the cold idol I had encountered in the press room but a super cheerleader. It was just as Jon Toth had said it would be: the Girls had come to see us.
28 For those curious, the cartoon Freddie is watching is “Casper and the Deep Boo Sea”, which has the very fitting theme, for a movie about a deeply lonely man, of a very lonely ghost seeking out friends.
29 In the original script, the choice of song also serves as a bookend to the film’s opening, where Freddie leaves the military hospital without permission, leaving behind a note:
HALLWAY, DOCTOR’S OFFICE
Freddie places a note on the door of the Doctor. He walks away, CAMERA sees the note, it reads:
“I’VE GONE TO CHINA. SEE YOU AGAIN SOMETIME. THANK YOU FOR YOUR HELP.”
30 One can perhaps take a little lexical game a little too far, and say that the names of these characters imply they’ll end up together. Winn is short for Winnie. Anderson is a fan of Kubrick, so he no doubt knows the dialogue in The Shining, where Shelly Duvall’s character is asked, are you a Winnie or a Freddie, because her name, Winifred, is a union of both.
(The Master images copyright The Weinstein Company; Hard Eight images copyright The Samuel Goldwyn Company and associated producers.)