What's so special about 'The Master'?

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Every review of the new film “The Master” will make the point that it’s a fictionalized history of Tom Cruise’s faith, Scientology.  And this review will be no exception.

After all, between his movie triumphs and his personal failures--including three divorces and one couch-jumping with Oprah Winfrey--Cruise has been a major figure in American life for three decades.  And so if the actor insists, as he does, that he owes everything to Scientology, well, that makes Scientology interesting.

Indeed, the story of Scientology over the last six decades tells us much about trends in American society over that same period of time; we have seen a shift from Freudian psychiatry to new kinds of therapy, amidst the larger spreading of New Age values.  Not everyone has been happy about this New Age-ification, but for those curious about where it began, “The Master” offers some clues.

Indeed, “The Master” became even more interesting after Scientology fought hard and long to stop the movie from being made and distributed. And it became still more interesting after we learned that the primary financier for the film is one Megan Ellison, the 26-year-old daughter of Oracle software tycoon Larry Ellison.  Indeed, after Scientology had seemingly stymied the movie’s production, the younger Ellison reportedly put as much as $35 million of her own money into making the movie.

Partly as a result of this harmonic convergence of controversy, “The Master” has done well in limited art-house release; it opens nationwide this Friday.

So that’s the “meta” story of the film.  “The Master” is now blessed with a buzzy aura--The Movie That Movie Star Tom Cruise Doesn’t Want You To See!

Okay, so what about the film itself?  And its story?

Scientology as a belief system--or, if one prefers, a religion--emerged in 1950, with the publication of "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health." The author was L. Ron Hubbard, a veteran pulp science-fiction author, who had traveled from sci-fi into both psychology and the occult.  Out of those experiences emerged Hubbard’s Dianetics, combining elements of contemporary psychotherapy with what most would call pure fantasy.

Dianetics and Scientology made Hubbard both controversial and rich; he frequently appeared on the lecture circuit in the 50s and 60s, and lived out a pleasant life in Southern California till he died in 1986.

“The Master” focuses on the fictional life of the Hubbard-esque Lancaster Dodd, author of Dianetics-esque "The Cause."  Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman--who won a best actor Oscar for "Capote" in 2005--is a roly-poly bon vivant, reminiscent of the young Orson Welles.  And like the real Welles, Dodd possesses a showman’s flair for words and persuasion; he is given to saying fortune-cookie-isms such as, “Leave your worries for awhile.  They will still be there when you get home,” and “We fought against today--and won.”  In the film, those who want to hear even more are told they can buy Dodd’s book, or attend his lectures, or give money to his dubious charity.

Using his own outsized personality, Dodd puts on the psychodrama equivalent of parlor tricks in the homes of his devotees.  Indeed, his mind-shows remind us of the long American tradition of living-room role-playing, featuring--your choice--new discoveries or pure hokum.   From ouija to seances to hypnosis, from primal screams to encounter therapy to est, millions of Americans have wanted to try anything and everything.

Thus The Master develops a following, helping people, he says, regress into their past lives so that they can solve their problems in the present.  And Dodd goes even further, promising that The Cause can sustain not only personal transformation and happiness, but also eliminate war, poverty, and cancer.

Into Dodd’s Cause comes a World War Two Navy combat-veteran-turned-drifter, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix; Freddie becomes a regular part of The Master’s show.  In addition, The Master is attracted to Freddie because back in the Navy he had figured out some inventive  ways of distilling alcohol from just about anything.  And finally, The Master feels other kinds of attraction to Freddie, whose intensely taut physicality reminds the viewer of Montgomery Clift, Mel Gibson, and, of course, Tom Cruise.

Yet those buying tickets for “The Master,” hoping for a portrayal of Scientology’s rich future in Hollywood will be disappointed; the film confines itself to the early 50s, when The Cause is tiny and beleaguered, both by skeptics and by the police.  So while the movie--directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, of “Boogie Nights” renown--is blessed with a great cast and a near-magical ability to recreate the look and feel of that bygone era of loud ties and big cars, it is also burdened with mostly unpleasant characters and unsympathetic themes.

Still, those were interesting times.  Most of us today, of course, have no memory of the immediate post-World War Two era, in which 16 million Americans wore the nation’s uniform.  Yes, they were the glorious “Greatest Generation,” and a grateful nation revered them for their valor--and yet many vets confronted serious problems back home, including what was then called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Uncle Sam did his best for the ex-GIs, but it wasn’t easy.  The 1946 movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” for example, dealt candidly with the readjustment problems of three returning veterans; the film fully deserved its seven Oscars, including best picture.

Now, recapturing that historic era, “The Master” shows the government trying to provide psychological help to the troubled Freddie, although completely without success.  Indeed, as Freddie make a mockery of a Rorschach ink-blot test, one wonders how anybody could ever have thought such a procedure could show beneficial results.  And in fact, during the 20th century, most observers came to the conclusion that all of Freudian psychiatry, and its various offshoots, including Rorschach’s blots, is mostly ineffective.

The resulting vacuum in the therapeutic space has been filled by many new ideas, the biggest of which has been psychopharmacological drugs, including all of the pills we see advertised today.  But other ideas, such as Scientology, claimed their space, too.

The theory of Scientology may strike many as far-fetched, but the practice of Scientology is hard-nosed.  The religion--it gained formal recognition as such from the IRS in 1993--places special emphasis on rigor and self-discipline.  Perhaps that’s why Scientology has gained so many adherents in the Hollywood creative community, where the pressures, and the temptations, are always enormous.  That is, if a performer’s goal is to stay mentally and physically focused for a good show, while staying off drugs, that performer needs some powerful psychic mojo as protective armor.  And for some, at least, Scientology provides just that.

Actress and Scientologist Bijou Phillips -- daughter of John Phillips of the 60s groups the Mamas and the Papas--made the rigor argument in a 2009 interview: “My grandparents didn't take any pills and they were fine,” she declared, drawing a contrast between her grandparents and her drugged-up father.  So the lesson, in her mind, was clear; as she put it, “Just buck up and get over it.  Stop being such a [bleeping] pansy.” And if Scientology helps one develop such tough-mindedness against drugs, well, that’s what Phillips was looking for.

Indeed, Scientology’s critique of drugs has reached far and wide.  Just last week, three Members of Congress--two Democrats, one Republican--gathered in Washington, DC to praise Scientology for its efforts against the use of drugs, such as Ritalin, in school children.

To be sure, some will say there’s a fine line between tough-mindedness and mind-control.  And so public fascination with Tom Cruise--and, by extension, “The Master”--ratcheted up a notch when Vanity Fair’s October 2012 issue reported that Scientology had overseen the “recruitment” of Cruise’s third wife. Scientology denies the whole thing, to be sure, and in any case, that third wife, Katie Holmes, is now an ex-wife.

And of course, others will say that traditional religion provides even better answers to eternal human concerns.  Those traditional religions, after all, can provide plenty of rigor; indeed, it can be argued that the more rigorous the faith, the longer it survives and flourishes.

A case in point is Orthodox Judaism.  Lloyd Green, a lawyer in New York City--and sometime contributor to Fox News Opinion--notes that every day, the observant Jew recites a liturgy that includes the words, Yesh din v'yesh dayan--“There’s a rule and there’s a judge.”  Green explains: “We are reminded that there are rules and the individual is not the ultimate self-arbiter.”  Those rules were decreed by God, and have been adhered to for thousands of years.  Now that’s rigor.

So yes, “The Master” is an interesting movie to see, and Scientology is interesting in its way,  too.  But for most people, other traditions provide more.  Much more.