10 years ago, the Master foreshadowed the mess of American politics


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Much has been written about the meanings and intentions of Paul Thomas Andersonis cleverly enigmatic The master. When it was released in September 2012, the film was widely perceived to be inspired by – if not directly based on – the life, teachings and practices of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. anderson admitted as much, and similarities were so specific and abundant that a number of followers of the faith were upset (namely, Tom Cruise).

Over the past decade, other theories have popped up, including its true meaning being linked to acting, latent homosexuality, male loneliness, post-war wearinessand – like Chuck Palahniuk fight clubfather-son bondmaster-disciple dynamic,” and the id vs superego. Of course, none of these readings are mutually exclusive; in fact, they are all valid and interconnected to some degree.

The same goes for the fact that The master serves as a prophetic insight into the irrational and dangerous nature of current American ideological tribalism. Although it’s easy – and, honestly, unavoidable – to focus on Trumpism and its associated right-wing beliefs/actions, many of the same associations (self-righteousness, unwavering conformity, identity politics, negativity toward”The otheretc.) are often also found in militant leftism. Thereby, The masterrepresentations of refer to somebody and everybody who subscribes to such an extreme and exclusive socio-political polarization.

It is important to begin by dissecting the two main characters of the film, starting with Joaquin PhoenixSocially awkward and psychologically damaged World War II veteran Freddie Quell. Like countless true soldiers, he feels aimless and displaced when he reenters society because he is dissatisfied with his profession and relationships, among other things.

Returning home to learn that his girlfriend, Doris, got married while he was away, Quell’s frustration, loneliness, and resentment towards those around her – like a client who commissions Quell to photograph him for his wife – turns Quell into what Phoenix judge “just a dog, just an ape who is ruled by instinct or impulse.”

He’s abandoned, adrift, embittered and sexually repressed (come on, he hump a sand woman in the opening scene, then repeatedly sees sex in a Rorschach test). As such, it embodies what Portby Lynn Hirschberg seen as Anderson’s “enduring fascination with lost souls – especially men – trying to find their way with the help of a determined mentor”.

In this way, he is also a precursor to – well, if not the proud boys themselves – at least the legions of disenfranchised, outraged, self-superior men who band together to worship the toxic alpha male pontifications of Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson, matt walchand yes, donald trump. Certainly, Quell is too sympathetic and complex to be summed up in broad stereotypes or to imply that he fully epitomizes these current numbers, but there are certainly parallels to be drawn.

Likewise, the “determined mentor” Quell clings to – Philip Seymour HoffmanLancaster Dodd, who is important and deceitful, personifies the ideal, well, the master who can worship personality.

It’s true that Dodd’s meekness and feigned selflessness, along with his pseudoscientific babble, make him very different from today’s more combative tribal leaders (at least on the surface). Yet he is ultimately the same kind of scholarly trickster who, like the new yorkerby Richard Brody observed“sees the attachment of his acolytes and patients to him as the primary goal of his method”.

Undoubtedly, his herd shows unwavering loyalty to him and his movement, “The Cause”, at all costs. One of the greatest scenes to portray this devotion is when Dodd gets arrested for dishonest and unlawful practices (including “wrongful withdrawal of funds” from a foundation and operating “an unlicensed medical school”). Rather than believing the accusations, he and his followers turn naysayers, as if the police and the court are the ones lying because Dodd is infallible.

Added to this is the fact that just before Dodd was taken away, his son – Val of Jesse Plemons – told Quell, “He’s making it all up as he goes along. You don’t see that? Quell doesn’t even consider that a possibility, however; instead, he assaults Val, telling her to “be a man”.

All in all, therefore, this scene illustrates what Isn’t it cool‘Andy Howel perceived like “Dodd lust[ing] for power, dominance and control, and Freddie needs[ing] a direction to channel his impulses. On a larger scale, it also depicts the members of Cause turning the situation into an ‘us versus them’ scenario in which the ‘other side’ is lying (or, you know, spreading ‘fake news’) to bring in a big man. (Dodd) down.

Obviously, there are plenty of other moments that show how conflicted Dodd worshipers become when their prospects and ways of life are ostensibly threatened. Take, for example, what is probably The masterit is most famous scene: a dissenter named John More chastising Dodd for spreading intellectual lies in order to win the admiration of partygoers.

After some back and forth, More says, “Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion, doesn’t it? Otherwise, you only have one man’s will, which is the basis of the cult, isn’t it? Shortly after, Dodd’s peaceful, understanding facade shatters, and he finally shouts, “If, if you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, fuck pig?!”

Clearly, Dodd hates being caught “making it all up as he goes”, a fact that is further underscored when he shows a kind of analogous hostility towards one of his most staunch supporters (Helen Sullivan of Laura Dern) for doubting his revised rhetoric. After reading Dodd’s second book — The split sword — she asks him why some of them contradict what was written in his predecessor, book one. Once again, he tries to answer with as much composure as possible before shouting: “What do you wantHelen?

He even turns on Quell when Quell begins to interrogate him. After the two men are placed in adjacent jail cells, Dodd stands calmly while Quell destroys his bed and toilet. At first, Dodd tries to connect with him like a father would with an upset son, but once Quell rebels – “Shut the fuck up! You do this shit! You don’t give me facts. What facts? “Dodd wastes no time turning on him. “You are a fucking lazy man! Who the fuck loves you but me? I’m the only one who loves you, and I’m done with you.

Admittedly, Dodd’s verbal lashes and rejection of those who oppose him resemble Donald Trump’s. post-2016 censorship of all who criticize him. Going back to the animal nature of Quell, this character also highlights how members of Cause – like actual members of modern ideological/political clans – can physically also attack their rivals.

The greatest example of this from The master comes immediately after the Dodd/More confrontation, when Quell defeats More because he dared to challenge Dodd. Later, Quell punches another man – former Cause follower Bill William – because William admits he thinks The split sword “stinks” and that Dodd has wandered off.

Between these two scenes, Dodd berates Quell for resorting to violence in his name (which we’ll get to in a second). Similarly, when the pair meet in England at the end of the film and Dodd realizes Quell is abandoning him, he offers Quell an ultimatum“If you leave here, I never want to see you again. Or, you can stay.

Quell replies, “Maybe in the next life,” to which Dodd concludes (a bit bittersweet): “If we meet again in the next life, you’ll be my sworn enemy, and I’ll show you no mercy. ” In other words, “You are either my disciple or my enemy, and I will reject you as soon as you move away from me and my state of mind.”

This should all sound very familiar, as we’ve seen the same kind of fierce backlash in America over the past few years. Just look at it hostility between pro-choice and pro-life camps; the antagonism posted by both sides of the COVID-19 mask/vaccination debate; the highly disputed the results of the recent presidential elections; sometimes enough extremism of ” cancel culture”; and the stubborn nature of “Bernie Bros.” and supporters of Sanders, Clinton and / or Biden who refused to vote for somebody other.

(Plus, it’s hard not to see a parallel between Quell’s aforementioned attack on Dodd’s opponents and what happened on a much larger scale on January 6, 2021. Capitol Riotwith Dodd and Trump insisting – rightly or wrongly – that they didn’t want that to happen.)

As Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri claims when The master came out, “Anderson seems to have an incredible ability to weave contemporary echoes into his films without making them overtly topical.”

Although the film obviously evokes previous and/or international incidents of persecution and groupthink (from the medieval crusades and 17th century Salem witch trials to 1950s McCarthyism and the 20th century cults of Manson, Koresh, Rajneeshpuram, Heaven’s Gate, NXIVM and Anne Hamilton Byrne), his ability to foresee modern American tribalism is equally prominent.

In particular – and as Polygonby Sean T. Collins previously asserted – Today’s most controversial Cause and cults give “its adherents…the intellectual and philosophical justification for theft, abuse, hatred of strangers and near orgiastic self-adulation”.

At the end of The master, Dodd told Quell, “If you find a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let us know, will you?” Because you would be the first person in the history of the world.

Let’s learn from their missteps — and those that result from the multifaceted division of our country — to show people like Quell and Dodd that such a thing is indeed possible.

The master is streaming now on Pararmount+ and Hoopla.

10 years ago, the Master foreshadowed the mess of American politics
Jordan Blum

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