Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Master (Rhoades)

“The Master”
Is a Product of

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Ever been to Clearwater, Florida? There’s a big 11-story monolith with 220 rooms, three restaurants, a swimming pool and a ballroom located on South Fort Harrison Avenue. It used to be known as the New Fort Harrison Hotel, part of the Jack Tar chain. But in 1975 it was purchased by the Southern Land Development and Leasing Corporation, which turned out to be a front for the Church of Scientology. Now called Flag Land Base, it serves as “worldwide spiritual headquarters” for the organization (or “org” for short).
The first Scientology church was incorporated in 1953 in New Jersey. There are now hundreds around the world. The legal address for the Church of Scientology International is the old Hollywood Guaranty Building in Los Angeles, California.
Scientology is a belief system invented in the ’50s by a science fiction writer named L. Ron Hubbard. Evolving out of a self-help system that he labeled Dianetics, it also believes in extraterrestrial civilizations and alien interventions in earthly events. “Space opera,” Hubbard used to call it.
Scientology has attracted some very prominent members, among them actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Jenna Elfman, and Kirstie Alley. It has an estimated 15 million members worldwide.
Now, Paul Thomas Anderson (“Let There Be Blood”) has gone and made a movie about a Hubbard-like character who creates a movement called The Cause. When he previewed the film to Tom Cruise, who’d appeared in Anderson’s movie “Magnolia,” word is Cruise was not amused with this backhanded homage to his church’s founder.
Anderson’s controversial new film is titled “The Master.” It is currently disseminating its message at the Tropic Cinema.
In it, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays the head of a philosophical movement that’s joined by a hothead drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix.
While working on the screenplay, Anderson would read it to his buddy Hoffman (he wanted him to star in the movie). It was Hoffman who suggested that the story be told from the point of view of the drifter, not the Master.
Originally, Jeremy Renner was cast as the drifter but he dropped out for better parts. A hot commodity, Renner snagged ongoing roles in the “Mission: Impossible,” “Bourne,” and “Marvel’s Avengers” franchises. No matter, Anderson was having trouble finding financing.
Joaquin Phoenix, looking for redemption after his year of pretending to be a bearded, befuddled rapper, signed on. This would be his first film following the mockumentary “I’m Still Here,” the career-derailing stunt he awkwardly launched on David Letterman’s TV show.
Also joining the cast was ubiquitous Amy Adams, acting-pedigreed Laura Dern, and steady-as-he-goes Kevin J. O’Connor.
Financing came by way of Annapurna Pictures, a company owned by Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison. With an estimated worth of $41 billion, her daddy is the third wealthiest person in America – too rich to be afraid of Scientologists.
Shot in 70mm, “The Master” takes on a larger-than-life mystique, like an epic film that’s not quite as large as it pretends to be. Moviegoers waiting breathlessly to see Anderson’s opus have suffered mixed reactions.
After catching “The Master” in New York, my friend Peyton Evans emailed me: “Am I one of the few people in the world to find the film boring, mushy, and poorly acted? If this gets Oscar nominations I’ll eat my hat. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors in the world, but this film gave him nothing to work with. Joaquin Phoenix was pathetic, and I felt embarrassed for adorable Amy Adams being stuck in this movie. Never have I been so annoyed by the hype, and this film (as you know) is hyped to the hilt. By the way, in my Soho movie theater there were a few people walking out in the middle. Long, boring, poorly done, and the topic is one I expected to find intriguing. I guess I’ve got my knickers in a twist over it.”
So it’s moviegoer beware. Whom do you trust? Peter Travers of Village Voice and Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly offered glowing accolades. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 85% of critics gave the film positive reviews. However, crusty ol’ Rex Reed called it “lobotomized catatonia” and “unmitigated crap.”
I’m more in the middle with Roger Ebert. “Fabulously well-acted and crafted,” he said, “but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”
Phoenix tackles his role like the schizophrenic drifter he portrays, a man with stooped shoulders and stumbling gait, an alcoholic looking for a Bill to follow. With his newfound master, this damaged World War II veteran has found a father figure, a drinking companion, and a family – if only he can give himself to the Cause.
As Newsweek puts it, “It may be the highest compliment that a lot of people are going to think Phoenix isn’t acting at all – that they’re watching a genuine nutcase.”
As Lancaster Dodd, Philip Seymour Hoffman glides through the film like a Wizard of Oz who has all the answers – even if he’s making them up as he goes.
To Dodd this hanger-on named Freddie Quell is “a beast desperately in need of taming.” While on one hand this is a challenge, on another it provides Dodd with a secret companion who allows him to put aside the mantle of all-knowing guru and kick up his heels. They share a pleasure in homemade booze. They travel together spreading the word. Freddie beats up anyone who challenges his master. In many ways, the film turns out to be a chaste love story, a symbiotic relationship that never quite finds its balance.
Yet, like most of Anderson’s films, violence and rage bubble just beneath the surface, like a volcanic action that could erupt if the tiniest fissure develops.
The film’s eerie foreboding echoes Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” He compares Phoenix’s performance to Daniel Day-Lewis, saying, “He got into character and stayed there for three months.”
Perhaps that’s because much of “The Master” comes from that earlier experience. Anderson pasted unused scenes from early drafts of “There Will Be Blood” into his script. Also, he relied on anecdotes told to him by Jason Robards Jr. about his drinking days in the Navy. Snippets from the life of John Steinbeck. And, yes, stories about L. Ron Hubbard.
I’m intrigued by movies about charlatans. Burt Lancaster’s performance in “Elmer Gantry” lingers in my memory. Steve Martin’s false ministry in “Leap of Faith” left me musing. Rosanna Arquette beguiled me in “Black Rainbow.”
“The Master” intrigues me in the same way, making me question those who talk to God, contact spirits, listen to angels, or have found the one truth path.  
Those who come here looking for an exposé of Scientology are indeed going to be disappointed. While Anderson freely admits he based the Dobbs character on Hubbard, he gets a bit stressed when the subject comes up, finding himself “much more defensive and protective of [Scientology] than I would have thought.”
Nonetheless, officials of the Church of Scientology reportedly “hit the roof” when Tom Cruise told them about a scene in the movie that suggests the belief system was a product of the leader’s imagination. This from a church started by a science fiction writer? Go figure.

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