Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Master

The Master (2012, USA, Paul Thomas Anderson)

"Nothing frightens those in authority so much as criticism. Whether democrats or dictators, they are unable to accept that criticism is the most constructive tool available to any society because it is the best way to prevent error. The weakness of rationally based power can be seen in the way it views criticism as an even more negative force than a medieval king might have done. After all, even the fool has been banished from the castles of modern power. What is it which so frightens these elites?"-- Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul. 

The above words from John Ralston Saul came to my mind when viewing a scene in The Master when Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets quite upset when someone questions his methods. Dodd starts attacking the questioner even though the person raised a question in order to have a rational debate. However, it is clear that any form of questioning of Dodd’s methods will be met with such hostility. In fact, Dodd appears as a person who would not entertain any rational analysis of his work. He wants everyone to follow his words as gospel, which is why he surrounds himself with those who blindly follow his words/writing. The only exception to this blind follower rule is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who does not believe in Dodd’s methods. But Freddie is fiercely loyal to Dodd and acts like a bodyguard willing to rough up anyone who troubles Dodd. As useful as his muscle is, Dodd keeps Freddie around for his alcoholic creations.

Paul Thomas Anderson brilliantly reveals that Dodd is a fake who makes up things as he goes along. In order to come up with new ideas and visions, Dodd needs alcohol. As it turns out, the only thing that Freddie can maintain focus for is mixing alcohol. Otherwise, Freddie is constantly haunted by sexual desires which prevent him from maintaining any form of focus. So Freddie's strange brews help in soothing Dodd. In return, Dodd is willing to liberate Freddie’s soul by training him in his methods. The two share a master-pupil relationship but even though Lancaster Dodd is shown be the master, it turns out his control is an illusion. One example of a scene where this illusion is shattered takes place when Dodd needs his wife Peggy’s (Amy Adams) assistance to masturbate. As Peddy holds Dodd’s member in her hand, it is clear that she exerts a lot more power than previously shown in the film.

In debunking Lancaster Dodd’s methods, The Master shares some sentiments with Todd Haynes’ Safe which also shows a fake teacher willing to profit from others. While Safe is a bit subtle in exposing a fraud, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is far more savage and does not leave any doubts as to Dodd’s identity. In exposing Dodd, The Master is also a devastating case study of how some people could easily be manipulated by impressive speakers. In this regard, The Master is a film whose message is much more universal and not grounded to just a single religion or ideology. The core message about manipulating people could easily be applied to political parties who try to seduce voters by telling them what they want to hear.  

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