Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Master

When we read powerful fiction, get drawn into a painting or transported by a film those characters are no less real to us than our best friends or worst version of ourselves. They penetrate our psyche, like it or not, tap into our mythos as archetypes and we disown them and squirm or welcome them as role models.

What if Jack Nicholson wandered from Five Easy Pieces into Edward Hopper’s Nighthawk CafĂ© and had a tantrum ordering the waitress to hold the chicken from his chicken salad sandwich? When he slams the table and sends her reeling Hopper’s melancholic paint would run with Pollack’s rage. The palpable mood of estrangement would be shattered. Chaplin would stop eating his shoe and all the while Oliver Twist might be in the corner pleading, Please sir, I want some more.  

Imagine early Brando, the brash biker from Wild Ones with a touch of the longshoreman On the Waterfront and throw in Stanley Kowalski with his ripped undershirt. Now add Nicholson from the Cuckoo’s Nest. Make room for Ratso Rizzo and stir well. You now have Joaquin Phoenix in the Master, a damaged, dysfunctional, womanizing, volatile alcoholic ex-G.I. you wouldn’t want your sister to hang around with.

It’s not quite Frankenstein meets the Dracula. But when Phoenix (Freddie Quell) meets the Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we have the conjunction of two demented products of a mid-century America, gone wrong. On the surface the Eisenhower decade was noted for conformity and consumption yet it also seeded small pockets of unrest and marginal behavior. The cauldron was bubbling with incipient radicalism, dissent, drugs and bogus spirituality.

As Master of his Scientology-like cult Hoffman is a charismatic, manipulative megalomaniac with erotic overtones. He takes on the Phoenix as his reclamation project yet Quell’s damage is irremediable and he exits the film how he entered. Hoffman, on the other hand, flourishes from small-time charlatan to international pseudo-spiritual guru. By this time I didn’t care whether they both floated off to a distant galaxy or got vacuumed into a black hole.

In the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster is the flamboyant evangelist selling eternal life under the threat of fire and brimstone.  Why bother summoning Jesus when, as Master, Hoffman becomes the supreme schemer? Both are hard-drinking traveling salesman of a sort, the ultimate hucksters of our market economy. The Sinclair Lewis preacher was exposed and ridden out of town but Scientology prospers. A congregation of the lost is always to be found, ready to surrender their autonomy. By creating a community these prophets fill the vacuum where soulful relationships may have once existed.    

With God irrelevant, in an interminable deathbed scene well into its second century, the field is wide open for demigods and false idols. Masters of all stripes are a growth industry for a gullible public. While this movie was unsettling and unintelligible at times I have a feeling the images will cling for a while. As for the co-leading men I went away humming, Still crazy after all these years.

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