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My 12 for ’12: The Master & The American Century

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #6

It’s very weird being a popular culture nerd who lives outside the United States. A significant portion of pop culture is exported directly from the United States. I grew up on Star Trek and Batman, two iconic American franchises. I probably know more about American history – filtered through feature films, television shows and other popular forms of entertainment – than school taught me about the origins of my own nation. Even then, it still feels a little strange to watch American film makers commentating on American situations, and to not only recognise but almost understand how those references work within the American subconscious.

The Master is a fascinating exploration of post war America, the period where America well and truly emerged as the defining global power, where the country embraced economic prosperity and manifest destiny no longer referred to expansion out west, but a bold adventure into a promising future. In an article published shortly before America entered the Second World War, Henry R. Luce argued that the twentieth century was “the American century.” If it seemed that way before the conflict, it was all but certain afterwards. Of course, economic prosperity does not always bring with it a sense of peace and tranquillity, and The Master explores the sense of existential ennui that took root in a way that is, if you’ll pardon the pun, masterful.

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After a lengthy, dialogue-light prologue exploring the listlessness of Freddie Quell, we join the former soldier as the US army attempts to acclimatise him to life in peace time. “Undoubtedly,” he and the assembled soldiers are informed, “there will be people on the outside who will not understand the condition that you have.” From what we see of The Master, there are relatively few people who are even interested in trying. Freddie comes home from the war, but he comes home to a country that has changed dramatically.

Freddie’s post war employment history takes us on a tour of the prosperous economic climate. He works in a department story that feels like a prototype of the shopping malls that would eventually sprout up across the country. Everything is for sale. The shop even hires a pretty young lady to walk around modelling a expensive furs, treating her as little more than a moving coat-rack with a voice. Nobody in the story seems to pay Freddie any heed. Certainly nobody is pay enough attention to notice that he’s brewing his own alcohol in his dark room, and so the attack on a patron that eventually gets him fired comes as something of a surprise.

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After sabotaging his career in the gigantic department store, Freddie embarks on a life of hard labour, picking vegetables. He is working outside in the open air, but he’s really just part of a human conveyor belt designed to efficiently harvest as much of this crop as possible to feed a nation that is already rapidly expanding. Freddie is part of the seedy underbelly. If nobody noticed him in the department store, he goes completely anonymous here – he’s just a drifter who wanders into camp. When a colleague dies, nobody knows Freddie well enough to be sure the death was an accident, rather than a cold-blooded murder.

And then Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is a charming con man, a shrewd salesman offering snake oil for the soul. Offering to do everything from curing cancer to connecting you with our past life, Dodd is an ingenious social manipulator. Named his new age philosophy “the Cause”, it offers to provide the answers to all of life’s questions – provided that you do exactly what Dodd says. As played by Philip Baker Hall, Dodd is the perfect charlatan, the kind of pompous charmer who could probably get away with calling himself “Doctor” despite never finishing his high school education.

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The debate on whether or not “the Cause” is modelled on Scientology is a bit of a red herring, despite the obvious similarities between the beliefs espoused by Dodd and those preached by the Church of Scientology. There are moments here that seem to reference the Scientology belief in “fair game”, as Dodd’s family attack critics and unbelievers in a way that Dodd himself claims to rise above. The parallels are interesting, and they add another layer to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, but they have tended to distract a bit from the discussion of a film as an entity of itself.

The Master is an exploration of how an America that had just become economically prosperous, and had become the dominant superpower in the world, could feel somehow spiritually empty. Milton tells us, “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” It might not be exactly the truth – apparently Alexander’s exact quote was “there are so many worlds and I have not yet conquered even one” – but it’s a power image, nevertheless.

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We see Dodd living in a prosperity he can’t afford – indeed, it turns out he all but stole the boat that we meet him on – but nobody in the film ever seems to want for something material. Dodd himself seems to have tired of his victories, as his own supporters wonder why he has changed some of his beliefs, and as he drives his family out into the desert to play a “new game” to keep things interesting. It’s implied that at least part of his fascination with Freddie is novelty, a desire to bend a different sort of will to his own.

Even Freddie himself seems to be pursuing something ethereal. Dodd, impressed with Freddie’s home brew, asks him to make some more. Freddie states that he doesn’t really think of it in those terms. He’s not so much brewing a particular mixture as he is trying to craft a new experience for himself. He can’t make more of the same, and each of his cocktails is unique. The best he can do is offer something “like” what Dodd enjoyed.

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Which is interesting, because Dodd’s hypnosis sessions offer participants the chance to go backwards, to return to a past life, to revisit an old experience so old that they didn’t even realise that they’d had it. In many respects, that’s how Dodd and Freddie differ with one another. Freddie at least wants to keep moving forward, while Dodd offers some comforting nonsense about past lives. It’s telling that Freddie is only able to break free of Dodd by speeding on ahead. Playing Dodd’s “pick a point” game, Freddie drives the motorcycle as instructed, but then he refuses to come back. He keeps going forward, making it all the way to where he needs to be in order to try to put his life back together.

The Master is a powerful, clever and thoughtful drama, one that it’s a miracle that Paul Thomas Anderson was able to produce. It hasn’t necessarily had the strongest box office running, making back $15m on a $40m production budget, most of which was provided by Megan Ellison. Ellison’s fundraising has generated a fair share of controversy, with some commentators arguing that such spending will ultimately damage the indie film circuit.

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I can understand the logic behind such an argument, but it’s hard to fault Ellison for investing in the artistic vision of a director like Anderson. (She also backed Killing Them Softly and Dark Zero Thirty, two other “important” films this year.) I’m generally hesitant to make broad sweeping statements about the subjective worth of various films. After all, that comes dangerously close to demanding that the studios produce movies aimed squarely at me, rather than with a broader appeal. I like to think I’m not especially cynical, but I’m wary of deeming some movies more inherently “worthy” than others, if only because its far too easy to sound snobbish or elitist.

However, it would be a massive shame if The Master hadn’t been made. It’s a bold, thoughtful, clever and beautifully constructed piece of cinema that offers a thoughtful exploration of the American cultural consciousness. At the risk of sounding entirely selfish, I think it was $40m very well spent.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

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