By an overwhelming margin, professional movie critics love “The Master.” Yet a Rotten Tomatoes sample of 41,000 fans is only lukewarm. Why this disconnect?
Great movies frequently enjoy a strong critical following. They also often enjoy an enthusiastic broad fan base. “The Master” clearly is not that kind of movie. Yet you will want to see it more than once. This is one of those movies that cannot be appreciated without first knowing how it ends.
As always, one must ask first whether the underlying story is tragic or comic? Oversimplified, tragedy concerns the death of communities while comedy is about their birth or enhancement. The natural themes of comedy are the hero or heroine’s search for a most suitable mate and the dethroning of imposters claiming more than their due. While the “The Master” has the serious tone common to tragedy, and while its humour is understated, it is a comedy. It explores both usual comic themes…with a massage parlour-like happy ending.
The story begins as “the most horrible worldwide war in human history” ends. Survivors naturally will turn to what has been denied to them for so long: finding mates, creating families and building strong communities. Having suffered spiritual harm during the war, many will be seeking balm for the soul. Could there be any better time for dramatic new social movements promising empowerment like never before in human history?
Nominally, “The Master” is named for the leader of one such cult. While obviously based on the founding of Scientology, this is only a convenience of story telling or marketing. The movie is not about any particular social movement. The book on which Master’s cult is founded, “The Cause,” could refer to any social movement or religion. Moreover, since this Master is not even the true power in his own cult, the title also necessarily has an esoteric meaning. Nor even is the movie about the character named Master. Instead, it tells the story of his disciple, Freddie Quell. Unless, somehow, Freddie becomes the master to whom the title refers; the master of some other cause.
A spiritually flawed, yet able-bodied, seaman, Freddie finds himself invited to become part of Master’s cult family. Can Freddie find a most suitable mate and provide an example of leadership that might encourage us to be like him, once we see Master dethroned? This is the comedic story line that appreciating the movie requires us to unravel.
At first, Freddie appears to be a typical sex-starved survivor traumatized by the war. As we learn more, however, we discover that Freddie’s spiritual problems predate the war. His mother was insane. He did not know his father. He had sex with an aunt. Freddie’s character was not forged by any war trauma. It is a product of his early nurture or of an inherent nature.
Freddie’s first preference for a mate is his early or pre-war love interest, Doris. Yet his Doris was always more a Lolita-figure than a true potential partner. She never waited for Freddie to return before beginning her own family as Mrs. Doris Day. With this choice of names, the creator reminds us that “Doris Day” is most associated with a song (“Whatever Will Be, Will Be”) celebrating predestination; or letting the future (god’s will) take care of itself out of embracing present desires. Such a philosophy would have been suitable for allowing Freddie to have Doris as a partner and still remain within “the Cause.”
While choosing not to remain heroically loyal to Freddie, Doris remained true to her own being. If humans tend to seek the true, the good and/or the beautiful, then we might suppose that here Doris symbolizes the true. In passing, given the creator’s calling our attention to the repetition of water images, one might notice that “Doris” was a Greek water goddess representing all that was good in the seas and the mother of countless nymphs helpful to sailors during life-threatening storms.
The second candidate for the woman in Freddie’s life is a mother figure (the good.) Peggy is the Master’s wife. As a “grey eminence,” she is the true master of her husband and of their cult community. At a critical moment in the second act, Master confirms this as he obediently says to his wife, “yes master.” He says this as she grants him a sexual release while giving him permission for occasional clandestine sexual encounters but forbidding him multiple partners on an open, equal footing.
In the critical scene, Master sings and dances as the center of attention. Suddenly, all the women are completely naked. It is a fantasy. But whose? It seems one to which all three, Master, Freddie and Peggy have access. Freddie views the sexual banquet apparently available to Master with envy, he would have sex with them all indiscriminately, including Peggy. Then, in what may be the movie’s most telling shot, Peggy searches out Freddie for a withering stare. What Freddie represents provides the opportunity for Master to entertain secret fantasies of multiple partners. But what he represents is dangerous both to Peggy’s control of Master and to the cult’s ability to sustain itself. Peggy immediately takes action to assert control over both men.
After proving her mastery of Master, Peggy goes to Freddie in a filmy night dress, as a mother sometimes leaves her partner’s erotic embrace to attend a sick child. She warns him that he can only continue to enjoy what she represents to him if he becomes less of a bad influence on Master. She also gives Freddie the masterly advice that eventually puts him on a path to success: imagine some future you would like to have…believe that it is there waiting for you…go and get it whenever you are ready. Tony Robbins would be proud. She also makes him promise to “quit drinking.” However, the first thing Freddie does in his next scene is take a drink. Unlike Master, Peggy cannot control Freddie. Like Master, Peggy is also not “The Master” of the movie’s title.
Ultimately, it will be Peggy who cuts Freddie from the cult family. What makes Freddie dangerous to Peggy is the same thing that Master loves in Freddie. Freddie’s special talent is an ability to make “torpedo juice,” (moonshine liquor) in any setting. This allows him the freedom to become drunk at will, quelling the fear of the unknown that is commonly behind the religious impulse. Peggy says, “You can’t take this life straight, can you?” Apparently, not many people can. But her cure is an unquestioning eternal faith in some one “cause”or some one idea, “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all…This is not fashion.” The Cause has little place for imagination and creativity because the final word already has been spoken.
Unlike the others who find comfort in the all-knowing “Cause,” Freddie cares little about its teaching. For him, the cult merely provides the structure required by for those unprepared for self-mastery. It is just like the military. Just as in the military, Freddie quells with violence those who deny the cause’s validity or otherwise threaten its order. While adherents such as Freddie can be dangerous, (their violent devotion can drive away recruits and resources,) social movements nevertheless depend on those willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause.
As Freddie leaves the cause, Master wishes him well, “Free winds and no tyranny for you….If you figure out a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know. You will be the first person in the history of the world.”
To understand how Freddie might become “The Master” of his own life, or how he might become one who does not need a master, we must make sense of the woman with whom he does finally pair off. The very first woman we see in the movie, and with whom Freddie has simulated sex, is a sand nymph. She is a material representation of the beautiful that some creator other than Freddie has imagined…out of clay, as it were. Since the movie ends with Freddie cuddling another sand nymph, understanding the sand nymph’s meaning is critical.
Freddie’s character seemingly undergoes no real transformation throughout. The only change comes in the way that he directs his actions. Could the message be that our journey through life is meaningless? To show that it is not, without necessarily laying bare all its secrets, we can point to some clues from the movie’s “grammar.” That is, from what is communicated through the placing of images and sounds outside of the speeches delivered by the characters.
Freddie’s first civilian assignment is creating photographic images of people as they would like themselves to appear. Here the creator places the song “Get thee behind me Satan.” This is a Biblical reference to Matthew 16:23: “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” This accomplishes two things. First, it indicates that somewhere within the movie there is a high theme about grand issues. This movie is not just about the mundane trials of the characters, nor even about merely human concerns. It is also about those things of concern to the gods….like the designation of good and evil.
Second, “Getting Satan behind us” may indicate that we should think beyond good and evil. A specific concern with good and evil resurfaces in Master’s second book, “The Split Saber.” Like the New Testament in relation to the Old, it seemingly overturns the teaching of “The Cause.” Moreover, Split Saber is a playful reference to “Excalibur,” the lost book of Scientology’s founder. It also dramatically recalls notions of duality in human beings and in good and evil. Since Freddie is already on his way out by then, we can say that he remains beyond good and evil.
Not incidentally, “Excalibur” is said to ask, “Suppose all the wisdom of the world were reduced to just one line…?” With the answer being survival. In contrast, the creator’s apparent answer to this, delivered to us by the Master in full screen, is that “The secret is laughter.”
The first act ends with Freddie stowing away on Master’s boat, Alethia. Since Master calls our attention to the name, we are meant to notice it. This Greek word often is translated as “truth.” More literally it is “the state of not being hidden” or of “being disclosed.” This raises the issue of how we understand the world: is there one true world available to us as if from our memory of things outside of us, the view adopted by Master’s first teaching “The Cause.” Or can we only disclose for others as sincerely as possible what we imagine the world to be? “The Split Saber” suggests this less magisterial alternative, to the great dissonance of the cult community.
Freddie puts alethia to the test as soon as he joins the cult community. While listening to a teaching about how humans are not animals, he passes a note to a woman asking, “Do you want to Fuck?” Alas, alethia does not help Freddie get laid. Or to find his ultimate partner. Sincere disclosure has many practical limitations. The only time Freddie does get laid, at the end, he does not use words at all. Instead, he signs to a woman, “Would you like to have a drink with me?” Since getting laid is essential to survival of the species, this is a profound, or comic, way of teaching that appearances and human creativity play a more important role in our survival than does truth.
Of course, not every movie-goer, on seeing that the Master’s ship is named for this water goddess will think instantly of the scholar Heidegger’s many mediations on alethia in essays like “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Nor wonder whether, truly, the philosopher Nietzsche is “The Master” here (especially “Beyond Good and Evil” where he questions the moral prejudice granted to truth over appearances.)
In a second critical event during the second act, Master puts Freddie through an exercise in which he repeatedly walks from a wall to a window. In the manner of the physical trials preceding a shamanistic revelation, or from the long exercise of Zen sitting, Freddie here discovers enlightenment. He immediately begins creating his own sand nymph; nominally on the beach, but, in reality, within himself. Freddie is on his way to becoming “The Master.” He notes, with obvious joy, that he is free and has choices. Enlightenment teaches him that life is a work of art. It motivates him to become god-like and begin creating.
Three things happen at the end of the movie. Freddie finally gets laid. Freddie cuddles up with his sand nymph. And the creator plays the song, “Changing Partners.” This last does not imply an endorsement of free love, as it might be understood. But, instead, of being open to dancing with other people’s visions of reality while remaining true to one’s own creation.
Since Freddie asks the woman with whom he has sex to repeat her name several times, the creator means us to notice it. She is Winn Manchester. She is a “winner,” certainly, in that she wins the hero’s praise as “the bravest girl he has ever known.” This praise for hoping that this life might not be our only life. In other words, “the beautiful” was the final goal of Freddie’s pursuit of a suitable mate.
Her accent indicates, and the script explicitly specifies, that she is British. The British name “Manchester” originates from “mamucium” meaning “breast-like hill” or from the ancient Briton expression “Mamma” meaning female breast or mother, specifically here referring to a water goddess in the Manchester area. Freddie’s sand nymph certainly features “breast-like” hills.
All in all, the evidence justifies a provisional conclusion that the movie’s true underlying theme has to do with teaching and motivating respect for the “earth mother,” or perhaps the divine feminine (as the water goddess saving sailors lost at sea) and the creative (or god-like) part within each human being.
The movie teaches us at least three things: Laughter is the secret. Appearances are more valuable for life than truth. Each of us can be “the master” through the creative power of our imagination.
Great movies engage with great themes. This superficial glance through “The Master” shows that it might qualify as a great movie by this standard. That the general public is only lukewarm suggests that it does not have quite the right measure of entertainment. Critics like it because they sense that it does engage great themes, even if they cannot quite finger them. In his negative review turning on this point, Roger Ebert said that, when he reached for the underlying theme, he could not be sure there was any there.
When a creator so obscures his or her themes that they require extra diligence, so long as we believe that he or she is competent, it usually is from a fear of censure or silencing by powerful interests in his or her culture. And that might be worthy of reflection here.