In Susan Loesser’s 1993 biography of her father, the Tony-winning songwriter Frank Loesser, she parses the etymology of her dad’s late-’40s pop standard “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China.” Loesser’s great gift as a lyricist was the compression of complex emotions into insinuating innuendo; think of the coy, call-and-response seduction of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in which metaphorical decorum gets stretched to the breaking point.
For “Slow Boat,” Loesser borrowed a phrase common to poker players describing somebody unable to extricate themselves from a run of bad luck yet unwilling to fold—a loser whose agony is drawn out. Recognizing the kinship between gambling and romance—and the exquisite ache of a situation with a high-stakes yet indeterminate outcome—he crafted a love song with possessive undertones, whispered in the barely suppressed language of conquest and control:
Out on the briny
With the moon big and shiny
Melting your heart of stone
I’d love to get you
On a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
The first image in The Master is of the ocean, of massive waves churning both of their own implacable accord and also in response to the presence of a vessel—an American military transport tracing a slow, steady swath through the water. Given the subsequent revelation of time and place (the Pacific circa 1945) the ship might even be a slow boat to China, subliminally anticipating the deployment of Loesser’s song at the film’s climax, where its performance by a major character for another stands in plangently for their mutual dependency. The singer is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder and frontman of a controversial philosophical movement called “The Cause”; the listener is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran who is the Cause’s most ardent and yet intractable initiate. For several group insiders, including members of Dodd’s family, Freddie’s impulsiveness supersedes his loyalty, making him a liability to a fledgling movement already under scrutiny by the authorities. And yet Dodd, for reasons that are strange even to himself, refuses to let him go.
Dodd’s serenade has been selected strategically, playing directly on the younger man’s past vocation as an “able-bodied seaman” and the circumstances of their initial meeting. Once, Freddie stowed away on the Cause’s luxurious flagship, the Alethia, while it sat docked in San Francisco Bay; now, newly headquartered in England, Dodd hopes to keep
his wayward disciple close at hand. Digging deep into his bag of tricks, he personalizes the song’s melancholic desperation, but Freddie, long resigned to being a receptacle for the great man’s charisma, resists—to his surprise, and Dodd’s as well. The implication is that this reunion is a precursor to a parting. Freddie’s emancipation may be provisional, but it opens up the possibility of independence, while Dodd, for all his influence, appears isolated, a transference that throws the very question of mastery into doubt. “[The song] speaks the sad truth of the aspiring mystic,” the writer and critic Kent Jones has said. “There can be no such thing as a cult of one.”
“I just want to tell you that I don’t think that we’re dealing with a cult,” Paul Thomas Anderson stated during a press conference for The Master at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. The director’s defensive posture was unfamiliar, if not unexpected. Most of the advance word on Anderson’s sixth feature centered on rumors that it was a veiled biopic of L. Ron Hubbard, the notorious founder of the Church of Scientology, an organization whose history and reputation were particularly acute in California and especially Los Angeles, long the site of Scientology’s most sustained recruiting drive. “Celebrities are very special people and have a very distinct line of dissemination,” Hubbard said in 1973, sounding as much like a studio publicist as a man who had discovered the secret to unleashing human potential. “They have communication lines that others do not have and many medias [sic] to get their dissemination through.”
Dissemination was always Hubbard’s game, and his resourcefulness in spreading his version of the good word made him a unique modern entrepreneur, successfully annexing and redeveloping psychic rather than geographical space. In Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard, author Russell Miller depicts his subject as a pathological liar who parlayed a knack for pumping out dime-store novels into a religious-industrial complex steeped in the trappings of period science fiction. Initially trained as a military psychiatrist, Hubbard saw an opening in the early 1950s to monetize the encroaching doubt and despair of those who hadn’t (or couldn’t afford to) buy into the Eisenhower era’s fantasies of prosperity. Imploring his readers to look within, he promised them a cleaner slate, to say nothing of a more goofily entertaining cosmology, than his longer-tenured Judeo-Christian competitors.
The idea that with the right training and care, people could return themselves to a state of primal perfection—purging their souls of a corrupting influence of extra-terrestrial origin—enacted a nifty synthesis of the Book of Genesis and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While it would take nearly 50 years for a Hollywood studio to actually dramatize one of Hubbard’s sci-fi narratives—in Roger Christian’s abjectly hilarious Battlefield Earth (2000)—the innate appeal of his material aligned with Hollywood’s gradual shift in the ’60s and ’70s toward archetypal yet technocratic fantasies à la Star Wars (1977). If Scientology never took hold of the popular imagination, it still cultivated a nicely gilded niche in a specific sphere of influence. The combination of the group’s elite connections (and robust war chest) had, for citics, kept their spiritual grift an open Hollywood secret since the construction of the Church of Scientology of California in Los Angeles in 1954 (relocated to Sunset Boulevard in 1977).
For any filmmaker to tackle the checkered and secretive history of an organization now known the world over and, to its many disciples, respected, would be a risk. There was speculation that the church would object to the script and possibly try to get the production canceled. In the Vallejo Times Herald (June 2011), producer JoAnne Sellar was quoted as denying that there was any connection in the film to Scientology, calling it “a World War II drama.” Universal, who greenlit the film in 2011, eventually backed off, leaving Anderson in the lurch. Had it not been for Silicon Valley heiress-turned-producer Megan Ellison contributing an undisclosed but significant sum, the film’s fate might have been sealed. “Could the film have been made without [Ellison?]” queried Danny Leigh in The Guardian. “Not the movie you saw,” answered Sellar.
It’s amusing—and reductive—to parallel Ellison’s faith in Anderson and his eccentric auteur vision with the suggestible high-society types being sold a bill of goods by Lancaster Dodd, who employs both grandiloquent oratory and sotto voce stage hypnotism to shore up the Cause’s collateral. Scenes like the one where Dodd and his entourage peddle their wares to the wealthy are derived, like so many aspects of Anderson’s film, from Hubbard’s personal life; if its makers are to be believed and The Master is not a film about Scientology, it’s difficult not to believe that it uses the movement’s history and core texts as texture, starting with Hoffman’s performance. Cast slightly against type, he doesn’t quite impersonate Hubbard but draws on the personality of a man who luxuriated in his powers of persuasion, channeling additional charisma from Mercury Theatre–era Orson Welles (who might have admired Hubbard’s hoaxster hustle and sci-fi fantasies). The performance earned Hoffman the Best Actor prize at Venice (shared with Phoenix) and his fourth Oscar nomination; less than a year after the ceremony, he would be dead at the age of 47.
As portions of The Master’s script were reworked from the initial writing sessions for There Will Be Blood, it’s tempting to compare the films as journeys into the past. Yet their textures as period pieces are distinct: The Master is rich and shimmering in opposition to There Will Be Blood’s purgatorial minimalism. Working with the Romanian-born cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who was swapped in when the director’s regular DP, Robert Elswit, became unavailable), Anderson opted to shoot the majority of the film on 65 mm, a format usually used to accommodate the sprawl of massive outdoor locations. The result is a film whose play with scale is at once subtler and more audacious than There Will Be Blood’s. The enlarged format, combined with short lenses ensuring a narrow, stylized depth of field, has the effect of transforming even probing close-ups into panoramas, suggesting entire universes lying behind the characters’ eyes.
In contrast with the forbidding mountain range that announces There Will Be Blood with a stark sense of physical impediment, the opening oceanic view of The Master implies a point of entry and immersion, a deep dive into something impossibly vast. In Senses of Cinema, Daniel Fairfax noted that “repetitions of the same shot … punctuate the film on two further occasions,” and that their primacy, “may also connote Freddie’s ‘oceanic consciousness,’ … a state, according to Freud in his works The Future of an Illusion and Civilisation and Its Discontents, of ‘primitive ego-feeling,’ in which the pre-subjective individual lacks any concept of a self divorced from the external world.” Where Daniel Plainview reaches the sea and then reroutes in the direction of subterranean sanctuary (an ironically elongated lateral move from a mine shaft to a bowling alley), Freddie is, at least for the majority of The Master, content to go with the flow. If There Will Be Blood is a film about a man transforming the landscape in accordance with some insatiable appetite for forward momentum, The Master follows someone whose most fervent wish, only barely acknowledged amid baser urges but yoked to them as surely as lust is to loneliness, is to fit in—to find a place (and perhaps a partner) in a society that’s changing rapidly around him.
Change is in the air in The Master. “You could say,” noted Kent Jones in Film Comment, “that [the film] picks up where There Will Be Blood leaves off. … By the ’40s, long after the great religious revivals and reforms, after the land has been tamed and settled, the railroads and cities built, the gold mined, the oceans of oil tapped … a mounting standardization, desperation, and rancidness has set in, and another war has left men shattered.” Jones’s swift socio-historical survey of America’s transition from the 1920s to the 1940s is aware of the developments that Anderson skips over without ever actually filling in, but this is not to say that he’s doing the film’s work for it. What Jones is responding to is the suggestiveness of Anderson’s scene-setting: The resonance of his few scattered expositional details; the uncanny presence of his structuring absences. In the same way that There Will Be Blood more or less dispenses with Upton Sinclair’s reportorial thrust in favor of a more archetypal milieu, The Master trusts—or perhaps challenges—its audience to be cognizant of a social, historical, and political context that exists in the margins of its judiciously chosen images. And even then it mostly eschews the kind of easily digestible period signifiers used by filmmakers to flatter (and flatten) our understanding of the past in the present tense.
Anderson’s willingness to play with time is evident in the sequence that follows that first, piercingly blue oceanic view. We are on an unnamed Hawaiian island where a company of American servicemen celebrating the Allied victory are portrayed as the inhabitants of a primitive, homosocial Paradise—an Eden overrun by Adams. Eve in this equation is a life-size sculpture of a woman splayed out in the surf, with which Freddie immediately and energetically starts simulating sex, first drawing hoots of supportive, good-humored approval from his comrades before alienating them with the intensity of his charade. The disarming ribaldry of the prologue, which includes, as its first lines of dialogue, a joke about crabs and genital mutilation told by Freddie to a friend (“You take an icepick and you fucking stab every single last one of them”) is balanced against its elemental splendor, the bleached whiteness of the sand and the Gauguin tint of the sea. The scene is at once less lonely and even more abject than the opening of There Will Be Blood, where Daniel’s solitude is a matter of professional discipline. Here, Freddie’s attempts to be “one of the boys” leave him stranded somewhere between uneasy inclusion and exile.
Freddie’s sense of difference is signaled by Phoenix’s odd posture, which generates kinetic energy even while he’s standing still. His crooked, asymmetrical comportment—torso hunched, arms akimbo, neck craned by turns in curiosity and recoil—styles him as a kind of human question mark, a figure of the same ellipsis that marks There Will Be Blood, transferred now from the level of narrative to that of characterization. There Will Be Blood was edited with increasing openness to keep pace with a man rapidly being consumed by his obsessions; The Master begins with Freddie already far gone, a twisted history inscribed on and within a broken body. There is a visual pun linking Freddie to Daniel in terms of their mutual assault on the earth, but where Daniel penetrates solid rock in order to extract what lies within, Freddie seeks a softer sort of communion. As in There Will Be Blood, Anderson nods (more overtly this time) to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Dawn of Man” overture, complete with his own version of the monolith in the form of the woman on the beach, a voluptuous, ephemeral avatar for Freddie’s compulsions. Lying side by side with the sculpture in the final shot of the film’s prologue, Freddie is physically dwarfed, clinging to her in a fetal position; the conjoining of sexual want, romantic attachment, and infantile need. What Freddie wants is to reach out and touch somebody; The Master is a chronicle of his grasping.
Excerpt from the forthcoming book Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks by Adam Nayman published by Abrams. Text © 2020 Adam Nayman and Little White Lies.