Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Master - A Synopsis

I saw your movie.  What happened? 

Bill Murray asked this question in Tootsie (1982).  After I saw The Master the first time, I asked the same question.  What was the point of the exercise?  Was this really about something, or was it [to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld] a movie about nothing?  I watched the movie again the other day, and I’m still scratching my head.  The word about this movie when it was released was that it somehow was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.  The only thing I know about L. Ron Hubbard is that he churned out a lot of books after he died, and Scientology is the “religion” of choice for Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kirstie Alley, among others.  So is this movie about…I don’t know.
The film starts out in the Pacific at the end of World War II.  Freddie Quell is in the Navy.  He’s a sex-obsessed alcoholic.  He makes his own brand of moonshine out of paint thinner and whatever else happens to be lying around.  He drinks fuel from a torpedo.  He simulates having sex with a woman-shaped sandcastle while he’s on R&R waiting for the war to end.  He ends up sleeping on the beach next to this ‘sandcastle.’  When he’s discharged from the Navy, he enters a hospital for psychiatric treatment, presumably for battle fatigue.  During his treatment he does the Rorschach test, where everything looks to him like genitalia [male or female, it doesn’t matter].  He gets a job as a department store photographer, but he loses that job after he gets violent with a customer.  Then he goes to Salinas, CA to harvest giant cabbages, but he loses that job after on elderly worker gets sick from drinking his moonshine.  So he’s an alcoholic sex-addict with a nasty temper who can’t hold a job – in short, a loser.

Somehow he ends up in San Francisco.  He stumbles upon a yacht, where a party is being held.  So what does Freddie do?  He stows away, of course.  It’s a place for him to sleep, nobody will find him [until the sun comes up].  This is when he meets Lancaster Dodd, aka The Master.  He’s the leader of the group called The Cause.  What is the purpose of The Cause?  Be freer, more productive and more in command with your life.  Free yourself from your ailments. To do so, you free yourself from past trauma.  And by “past trauma,” they mean trauma from previous lifetimes.  The "processing" begins with inducing memory – The first question is ‘can you recall?’  After the first question, the interrogation begins to help potential converts to relive traumatic events from their past and maybe past lives so they can clear their souls of toxicity.

When The Master and Freddie meet face-to-face for the first time on-film [that they talked the night before during the party was alluded to]. Freddie asks for a job on Master’s boat.  They’re sailing from San Francisco to New York via Panama, and Freddie tells Master he’s an able-bodied seaman as he was during the war.  Freddie asks The Master ‘what do you do?’  Master - 'I do many, many things.  I'm a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.  A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.’   The Master is also very fond of Freddie’s moonshine.  So for the price of making moonshine for The Master, Freddie gets his first “processing.”  He tells Freddie “You’ll be my protégé and my guinea pig.” There turns out to be a lot more to it than that. They are father and son, guru and disciple, passionate friends and bitter competitors locked in a relationship. During the “processing” we find out that Freddie’s mom was crazy and institutionalized for being such, his dad was a drunk who is now dead, he had sex with his aunt several times, and he left a girl named Doris behind in Lynn, Massachusetts.  Freddie is one messed-up dude.

Peggy is The Master’s very-protective wife.  When she meets Freddie for breakfast she says Freddie has inspired The Master to write.  He can't write at home, there's too much pulling him in each direction- people who are scared, people who are greedy, ex-wives.  So here it’s established that Lancaster Dodd and his following are some kind of social outcasts for preaching whatever it is they preach.  And in what comes next it’s established that The Master doesn’t take criticism, is easily put on the defensive, and loathes having to explain himself to ‘non-believers.’

Once in New York, there is a dinner party at the house of one Mildred Drummond, who has some sort of philanthropic foundation.  She had invited Lancaster Dodd and his Cause devotees to dine with her and others.  Lots of well-to-do people attended.  One guest named Margaret O'Brien has just undergone a "session" with The Master.  A lot of people watched. 

Margaret: I think I was a man.  What I just experienced, was that me? That man in the armor, was that me? 

Dodd [The Master]:  Yes, that was your spirit.  Our spirits live on in the whole of time. Exist in many vessels through time.  This is the vessel you're existing in now, in 1950.  As you all  may recall,  during the trauma that you were going through while we were processing, it was of the upmost importance that you experience every detail every specific detail, every specific detail, through all of your senses, of that memory.  And that we go over it again, and over it again, until it loses its power.  This is very important.  Why is it important, is if you bring someone out of a traumatic event back to the present time, no matter how carefully you do that, if you have not gone over the memory… 

One guy in the back of the room kept trying to ask The Master a question.  The Master finally got to the point where he could no longer ignore this guy. 

John More:  Some of this sounds quite like hypnosis, does it not? 

Dodd [The Master]:  This is a process of de -hypnotization, if you will.  Man is asleep.  This process wakes him from his slumber. 

John More:  I still find it difficult to see the proof with regards to past lives that your movement claims. 

Dodd [The Master]:  Would you care to submit yourself to processing? 'Look through the telescope' as my friend said? 

John More:  Perhaps another time.  You've also said these methods, Cause Methods, can cure leukemia, according to your book, and...

Dodd [The Master]:  Some forms of leukemia.  In being able to access past lives we are able to treat illnesses that may have started back thousands, even trillions of years.

John More:  With a T, sir?  Earth is not understood to be more than a few billion years old

Dodd [The Master]:  Even the smartest of our current scientists can be fooled, yes.

John More:  You can understand some of the skepticism, can you not? 

Dodd [The Master]:  Yes, yes.  For without it, we'd be positives and no negatives therefore zero charge.   We must have it.

John More:  Good science by definition, allows for more than one opinion, does it not? 

Dodd [The Master]:  Which is why our gathering of data is so far reaching...

John More:  Otherwise you will merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not? 

Dodd [The Master]:  ‘Tis ‘tis, 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 the inherent state of perfect.  Whilst righting civilization and eliminating war and poverty, and therefore the atomic threat. 

John More:  Well, I find it quite difficult to comprehend, or more to the point believe that you believe sir that this time travel hypnosis therapy can bring world peace and cure cancer.

Dodd [The Master]:  I have never been to the Pyramids, have you?

John More:  No.

Dodd [The Master]:  And yet we know that they are there because learned men have told us.  May I ask, what is your name?

John More:  John More.

Dodd [The Master]:  Mr. More, if I may, is there something frightening to you about The Cause's travels into the past?

John More:  Frightening? No, no. 

Dodd [The Master]:  What scares you so much about traveling into the past?  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?

John More:  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...

Dodd [The Master]:  There are dangers of time as we understand it, of traveling in and out as we understand it.  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?  That does 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.

John More:  I belong to no club and if you're unwilling to allow any discussion...

Dodd [The Master]:  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? 

John More:  I'm sorry if you're unwilling to defend your beliefs in any kind of rational...

Dodd [The Master]:  If you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, pig fuck? [Mrs Drummond looked most displeased when she heard that.  Additionally, John More didn’t get the memo that whatever The Master says should be taken as gospel]].  We are not helpless.  And we are on a journey that risks the dark.  If you don't mind, a good night to you. [Freddie throws a tomato at Mr. More]. 

Dodd [The Master]:  Freddie, stop!  This is not the time, stop!

The ride up the elevator to their hotel rooms was a quiet one.  They’ve been exposed as frauds, and they know it [they just don’t want to admit it].  Once Peggy and The Master are in their room, The Master starts to type feverishly, while Peggy sits on the end of the bed and starts to speak.  She’s revealed as a cold-as-ice, hard-as-nails [pick your favorite metaphor] true believer who may even be more devoted to The Cause that her husband who leads it.  The dutiful, attentive wife and mother is just a mask, but here the mask comes off.

Peggy:  And this is where we’re at, at the lowest level to have to explain ourselves, for what?  For what we do we have to grovel.  The only way to defend ourselves is to attack.  If we don't do that we will lose every battle that we're engaged in.  We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.  And this city, city is just noise.  I know this city.  I know its rotten secrets city its filthy lies and secrets.  They invited us here and welcomed us.  Only to throw us down and kick us out.    It's a grim joke.

And because John More disagreed with the Master, Freddie and the Master's new son-in-law go over to his apartment and beat the shit out of him.  After The Cause crashes and burns in New York, they decamp to Philadelphia, where they are welcomed as houseguests of another wealthy woman, Helen Sullivan [Laura Dern].  There’s a very strange moment at Helen Sullivan’s house.  There’s another party in which The 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, while Freddie watches in a drunken stupor from a nearby chair. In the first shot everybody is clothed, but then without skipping a beat all the female partygoers appear naked.  What is up with this?  Is this a fantasy of Freddie’s?  He is a sex addict, after all.  Does he want to screw all the females in the room, young and old, small and tall, skinny and fat?  When The Master and Peggy get back to their room, she tells him he can do whatever he wants sexually as long as she and nobody she knows finds out about it, all the while giving him a handjob.  And while she is doing so, he refers to Peggy as “master.”  After the deed is done, she tells The Master to stop drinking Freddie’s moonshine.  Then she goes downstairs to tell Freddie that he has to quit drinking if he wants to stay with The Cause.

The day after, Freddie and The Master’s son Val have a conversation.  Val tells Freddie his father doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that he’s making up everything as he goes along.  Freddie doesn’t take this well, but the seed of doubt is planted.  Then The Master is arrested by Philadelphia police.  Apparently he took $11,000 from the Mildred Drummond Foundation [remember her?], and now she wants it back [the charge – “wrongful withdrawal of funds”].  It doesn’t pay to swear in front of those whom you are trying to rip off.  As The Master is being arrested, Freddie attacks one of the cops.  It takes three to subdue him.  Once in jail, Freddie destroys the toilet in his cell.  The Master is in the cell next to Freddie’s.   The Master tells Freddie he has a fear of authority that dates back millions of years.  Freddie tells him to shut up, that his son hates him, and that The Master is making up everything.  Freddie is an erupting volcano of rage.  But after the two are released from jail, they reconcile at Helen Sullivan’s house.  Freddie is then subjected to a series of exercises, the object of which is for The Master to ‘cure’ Freddie.  Freddie tires of these exercises and gets frustrated.

The troupe then leaves Philadelphia for Phoenix for the First Universal Process Congress of The Cause.  It is at this meeting that The Master releases his new book.  But there is a slight change to The Cause’s methodology contained in the book, one that doesn’t escape the eye of Helen Sullivan.  Until the publication of the second book, the first processing question was always ‘can you recall?’  But Helen notices this has changed to ‘can you imagine?’  So she starts to question The Master about this, all the while implying that everything up until that time has been a lie.  The Master gets impatient with explaining the “new findings” to Helen and snaps at her – WHAT DO YOU WANT?  Something else happens in Phoenix – Freddie asks the publisher of The Master’s first book about his opinions of the second book.  The reply – I could have put it in a three-page pamphlet.  Again, Freddie unhinges and attacks the guy. 

The Master puts Freddie through one more exercise.  Called “pick-a-point,” you pick a spot on the horizon, ride a motorcycle as fast as you can across the Arizona desert, and return to where you started.  The Master demonstrates, and then hands the bike over to Freddie.  Freddie picks a point, hops on the bike and goes as fast as he can get the bike to go.  But he never returns – he leaves The Cause.  In the very next scene we see him back in Lynn, Massachusetts to find Doris – the love of his life.  But when he talks with her mother, he finds that Doris didn’t wait for him, got married, moved to Alabama and has two children.  Doris is “the one who got away.”

One of the weirdest scenes in the movie takes place in a movie theater.  Freddie is sleeping in a dark theater while the cartoons are playing, only to be interrupted by an usher with a telephone.  The Master is calling from England!  How did he find Freddie?  First, The Master shows his continuing paranoia when he asks whether anyone “got to him.”  When Freddie says no, The Master asks him to come to England where he’s established a school.  And while he’s at it, could he bring a supply of Kool cigarettes?  The Master can’t get them in England.  So Freddie hops on a ship, goes to England and finds The Master.  So when Freddie is brought into The Master’s gigantic office [Hitler would be proud], the first person to speak is not The Master, but Peggy.  She asks Freddie if he’s drunk – he says he isn’t.  She tells both The Master and Freddie that The Cause is something Freddie does for a billion years or not at all.  She rises from her chair and goes over to Freddie.  She asks him “you can’t take this life straight, can you?”  He doesn’t answer, so she says “he’s past help” and leaves.  Freddie sits and chats with The Master.  Is Freddie coming back into The Cause or isn’t he?  No, he isn’t.   So The Master tells Freddie that when he has found out what it is like to serve no master, he needs to tell The Master about it.  The Master has a “master” of his own – his master is his wife Peggy.  Then, out of nowhere The Master starts singing to Freddie that he’d like to get him on a slow boat to China.  That’s quite an interesting way to end a ‘relationship.’

So what’s it all about?  Is this a love story between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic fake and Joaquin Phoenix’s barely-functional alcoholic?  Could be… 

Peggy Dodd starts off being the quiet, dutiful wife of The Master.  Throughout most of the movie, she’s either pregnant or holding a kid.  But as the movie progresses, she reveals herself to be ruthless and single-minded about The Cause.  She is the one who goads her husband into doing the things he does.  Peggy is really Lady Macbeth.  Was The Master just a front-man for Peggy?  Given that the movie takes place during the 1950s, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.  Peggy definitely was not June Cleaver.
Another question – the movie pretty much starts and ends with Freddie Quell sleeping on a beach.  Was everything that happened in between just a dream?

How did The Master track him down to a movie theater?  Cue The Twilight Zone music...