P.T. Anderson’s The Master is great, primarily as an artistic presentation of a very dark subject: the manipulation of mind control. Not mind control in the mass psyche which this blog focuses on generally, but in the localized cult setting. Loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, The Master is an in-depth display of the tactics and techniques of manipulation, brainwashing and mind control, as the Hubbard-esque Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays the puppet strings with the fledgling cult. Dodd’s focus in the story is the base vagrant Freddie Quell, who stumbles upon a yacht rented by Dodd and finds temporary work. Interestingly, Hubbard himself possessed a similar yacht for a time, particularly during the heyday of his mountebank activities.
While most people have a vague idea of Scientology, most are unaware of Hubbard’s occult activities prior to creating Scientology. Hubbard was involved in Crowleyanism for several years and “graduated” from his period of occult tutelage. In effect, this meant that Hubbard had mastered the tools of manipulation and human psychology. Hoffman plays Dodd brilliantly as a charismatic con-man (essential for any cult leader). In this regard, what is lucidly portrayed are actual mind control techniques used by cults.
Principally, Dodd uses repetition of vague phrases, reaching into Quell’s subconscious to find the weaknesses in his psyche, as well as traumatic incidents involving war experiences, an absent father and sexual sins. After bringing up these traumatic incidents, Dodd quickly elicits warm-fuzzies by appealing to Quell’s most pleasurable memories surrounding a youthful flame. As the manipulation progresses, Quell is subject to a back and forth process of acceptance and rejection, where the individual is given a proxy family (the cult), and then fears exclusion and exile. A pattern emerges, and the individual’s will is subject to mandated meaningless, repetitious actions (often under sensory deprivation), with the goal of disorienting the psyche, and attaching it to the welcoming father and mother archetypes (Dodd and his wife, played by Amy Adams). Quell’s conditioning, termed in the film “processing,” is eerily reminiscent of trauma-based mind control. In fact, the film is really about Dodd learning to become a charismatic, slimy master of human manipulation.
The individual’s identity and meaning is thus bound up with the cult and its pseudo familiar structure. The cult’s imagined dogma thus provides a narrative story and explanation for one’s life, as well as (in this case) a cosmic purpose. All of the universe’s meaning and focus is channelled into the wild dreams of the creative and charismatic cult leader, leading to a prideful sense of galactic privilege. The cult thus appeals to all of man’s base and higher desires, as Quell is manipulated by his baser desires, as well. In a word, control is the name of the game, and the mind is treated as a computer that is rebooted and reprogrammed.
One thinks of Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising, particularly where “base programming” is mentioned in regard to food and sex and the social taboos that surround them. While Wilson is wrong to think that all systems are systems of control and oppression, it is true that cults take those same basic structures and schemas and rewrites them. In this regard, one can think of systems like Marxism, which replaces a totality mythos for the older religious and bourgeoisie narratives, or the national Germanic mythos of the Nazis. Those who study systems and worldviews are able to notice the basic patterns and “imprinting” they all possess, the most important of which is their explanatory power, which gives its participants meaning and order.
The acting in the film is phenomenal: look for a Phoenix nomination for Best Actor. The cinematography is amazing, shot for 70mm, which I was able to see, and recommend. The visuals are amazing, and leave one precisely with the creepy, odd feeling the cult itself possesses. The viewer feels they are being swept along as a cult member undergoing the psychological trauma and mind control Quell experiences. The Master is a must-see for those interested in the topics on this blog. My only criticism is that the film seems to lack purpose. As Ebert noted, what exactly are we to take away from this? The cult is certainly a cult, but eventually Freddie is broken down and accepts his role as a sheeple cult member. See the below video for a great analysis of cult patterns.