Sunday, December 23, 2012


First we see the subject. Not just the topic but the character about to be subjugated. Freddie Quell is all deconstructed animal, bleeding the alcohol from torpedoes  humping the prone sandwoman on the beach and then finishing himself off in the shallows, giving only sexual answers to a Rorschach test, fashioning booze in the cleaning closet of the department store where he works as a photographer and sharing it with the store model he's just picked up, provoking and then fighting with a customer before storming out and dragging the model with him like a coat he's just remembered. He could be a caveman with a club from a fifties Playboy cartoon, dragging a woman by the hair.

He is not alone in this. He's just been demobilised from the US Navy at the end of WWII and has, along with his fellow servicemen been lectured about the struggle they will face in getting back to civilian life after what they've been through. He's the same as them but perhaps pushed a little further in certain areas. He's not Everyman but Damagedman.

So when he flees the scene of a possible manslaughter he jumps dock on to a lavish looking yacht party and stows away. He's discovered and taken to the commander of the ship, the self possessed Lancaster Dodd who effortlessly takes control over Freddie, recognising him as the perfect guinea pig for his ideas on human existence and its cure, a body of supposition he calls The Cause.

Freddie is taken into the well-funded looking cult but I wouldn't say absorbed. He is subject to some experimental processing by Dodd which involves answering some penetrating questions, many repeated until the answer changes. The processing is a means of identifying vulnerability in the subject and is the only thing short of physical violence that has got through to Freddie and his violent narcissism. This scene shows a clear case of alter ego between the two men: one controlled and controlling and the other wildly rapacious. This, folks is not how you start a cult but how you perpetuate one; a market of human parasitic commensalism.

PT Anderson has played down the similarities between his Cause and Scientology and rightly so. His brief here has more to do with the motion of a fabricated alternate reality than a particular instance of it. Dodd does come across like an L Ron Hubbard but also like an a-religious David Koresh or Jim Jones.

A beautifully eerie scene plays this out as Dodd sings a bawdy Irish folk song to one of  his gatherings. We see Freddie gazing at it with pleasure and then in the next shot and for the duration of the number all the women in the room are naked. At first this seems like more of Freddie's galloping libido but soon enough it's clear that he is recognising how Dodd is experiencing the occasion; the adoration of available women and docile men. Roll on, ye Joneses, Koreshes and Mansons, here is the bounty of your pluck.

Also absent is any concreteness to the details of The Cause. Beside notions of humans being not of this earth there is little to attach this fabrication to those of Scientology. The scenes of physical and mental processing carry the same kind of hypnotic/entrancing/brainwashing manner as any indoctrination. The scene of Freddie's enforced pacing and continual redefinition of what he is touching is interminable and exhausting. The physically gentler intercuts of Peggy Dodd and her exercises in doublethink are chilling but seem all too brief.

The question of whether Freddies evil ways can be fully subjugated to the Master's plan is the question of whether Freddie and Dodd can fuse together. What at first might seem a good proposition for a bit of Jack Sprat compliments of the reason eventually develops to reveal conflicts. A telling moment when Dodd bursts into puerile fury at the persistent questioning of a journalist about the claims of The Cause strikes him off the roll call of the self-controlled. Dodd's violence is altogether more disturbing than Freddie's ready fists.

But there's a clear limit to how profoundly the master can penetrate Freddie's being when Freddie's self interest is so essential. The sequential question is then how much need has he or any of us for a master of any kind? What does that make any member of the cults that have existed and those countless that shall? Weak-willed? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, a touch too civilised or socialised ... or processed.

I find an interesting comparison between this and Martha Marcy May Marlene rather than PT Anderson's other films. In Martha ... there is no need to inject obvious religion into a cult that clearly already has a charismatic leader. The offer of a kind of alternative life consolidation seems key to both the fantasy history of The Cause and the unnamed family of Martha ... and in both cases it can only mean subjection. The scary part is the apparent will towards subjection, the guilty victims that cults create.

I'm a critical fan of PT Anderson but I will say this of his work: I seldom feel the need to revisit it because it stays with me. It's very hard to forget Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love or There Will Be Blood. And though I find this one harder to connect with than any of the others I'm left haunted by it.

Anderson's visual strength remains intact. He is like Kubrick in the deliberateness of his images but not as winceable as Wes Anderson. His use of music has been improving steadily since he gave up on the jukebox approach. And his casting is again central to his films' integrity.

Hoffman brings his industrial strength presence to Lancaster Dodd. He is intimidatingly present in his scenes and his few sudden flashes of anger reveal a terrifying narcissism.

Phoenix takes a rather strange path in creating Freddie but it's worth it as it allows for both the vulnerability and visceral force elemental to his character. We know more about him than any of the others but he keeps a lot of himself in shade to the end.

Last and best, IMHO, Amy Adams. Peggy Dodd is the cold and deadly brains behind the man. Whether falcon-eyed in a crowd, servicing her husband with such matter of factness that it is both disturbing and arousing, or staring straight into Freddie's point of view and persuading him and us that her eyes are changing colour, or reciting pornography in a voice as cold as a catheter, her performance is like watching a cyclone without a soundtrack; her violence will always look like beauty but will also look like death.

I saw this at the Astor in its 70 mm presentation and was glad of it. The sound cut out about a third of the way through and we missed a little dialogue but quite pleasantly I don't think we missed a single point made in those few minutes, even though there was clearly dialogue being spoken. There's Hitch's requirement seen to and not even intentionally ;)

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