I remember planning to watch ‘The Master’ in installments because it was a school night and I didn’t wish to stay up late. The lone Anderson film I had seen by that point was ‘There Will Be Blood’ which many considered to be the greatest film of the 2000s, with that dazzling Daniel Day-Lewis performance bustling with raw human emotion that somehow translated to such profundity on the screen that it spoke to a truth essentially timeless and rising above the very obscure and specific setting Anderson chose for his film. What I was about to see, though, managed to be even more obscure and specific in its details, while reducing its accessibility but intensifying the ambiguity to a degree it would be hard to analyse, let alone draw any tangible conclusions from the experience I had. Needless to say, I watched it in one go.
Anderson has been attacked for not appropriately handling the Scientology idea many believe the film focuses on. The problem with that characterization is just that: it’s not solely focused on exploring the ideas and seductive pull that led to the advent of these cults in a time where everyone felt unfulfilled after the war, let only just Scientology. Anderson moves past all these simplistic generalizations to create something that’s not easily understood or even intended to be, but something that becomes poetic and harrowing at the same time as he presents to his befuddled audience the absurdly grounded realities in the most surrealistic of times.
Anderson explores the idea of image versus reality to ask the question: what dictates and foresees our actions more, the way we wish to see the world, or the way we it actually is? The master keeps asking Freddie about the time he met him years ago. It’s virtually impossible that Freddie’s small-town life in Lynn, Massachusetts would have collided any time with The Master’s constantly moving, high-society world before he left for the war. It is just his desire to have been in contact with Freddie’s being, the animalistic free spirit whose perverse predilection is strangely attractive to him; to have already known him, so that mastering him would come to him naturally.
He says to Freddie at one point, inviting him to his daughter’s wedding, “Your memories aren’t invited.” As the film progresses, and as we learn more of the master’s “processing”, he seems to deal primarily in memories. But those memories, which he proclaims to have arisen from the past lives of his clients, are actually their imaginations driven by him to fully convince them that their ideologies and belief systems have been transformed within minutes of him working on them. It could be called a sham, or it could be, as is elemental to the success of such cults, highly effective. At the end of the day, we only believe what we wish to believe. So when he tells Freddie his memories aren’t invited, he desires a clean slate for him to make the man out of Freddie he wants, not what his life so far would have him be.