Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Master

The Rotary Club Booster

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L. Ron Hubbard was unquestionably one of the more incredible figures of the twentieth century, but popular culture, which hasn’t been shy about going after Scientology itself, has tended to steer clear of his life and personality as a source for stories. One exception is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which is less about Hubbard than an electrifying mediation on the nature of dianetic auditing. Another is Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, which features a villain, whom we glimpse only briefly, with the evocative name of L. Bob Rife. Hubbard isn’t the only inspiration here—there are equally obvious affinities to Ted Turner—but many of the parallels are intriguing. Rife is a seafaring media mogul who starts a religion using a form of mind control based on the phenomenon of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. It perpetuates itself through a franchise of churches called Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates, as the lead character, Hiro, explains:

[Rife] constructed a string of self-supporting religious franchises all over the world, and used his university, and its Metaverse campus, to crank out tens of thousands of missionaries, who fanned out all over the Third World and began converting people by the hundreds of thousands…L. Bob Rife has taken xenoglossia and perfected it, turned it into a science…[His followers] will act out L. Bob Rife’s instructions as though they have been programmed to. And right now, he has about a million of these people poised off the California coast.

And Hiro concludes darkly: “L. Bob Rife’s glossolalia cult is the most successful religion since the creation of Islam.”

A big chunk of Snow Crash is devoted to a reinterpretation of Sumerian religion as a form of neurolinguistic programming, most of which is delivered in the form of long conversations between the characters. (This is actually the least successful part of the novel—it seems to be trying to pull off what Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea did in The Illuminatus Trilogy, but it ends up sounding more like an anticipation of Dan Brown, complete with people who say things like “Bear with me.”) The central figure is the mythological hero Enki, who developed a linguistic virus that led to the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. After stumbling across this fact, another character in the novel, Lagos, begins to look for additional information in the remains of cuneiform tablets:

The surviving Sumerian myths exist in fragments and have a bizarre quality. Lagos compared them to the imaginings of a febrile two-year-old. Entire sections of them simply cannot be translated—the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind…There is a great deal of monotonous repetition. There is also a fair amount of what Lagos described as “Rotary Club Boosterism”—scribes extolling the superior virtue of their city over some other city.

Eventually, Lagos manages to reconstruct the original virus, which Rife then steals for his own benefit. To stretch the analogy a bit, you could say that the Enki myth plays much the same role for Rife that the Xenu material does for Hubbard, except that within the plot of Snow Crash, it happens to be real.

But the part that really catches my eye is the odd reference to religion as a form of “Rotary Club Boosterism.” If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that this is remarkably close to what the journalist William Bolitho says of Muhammad in his book Twelve Against the Gods:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent…but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

The italics are mine. And one of Bolitho’s fans was none other than L. Ron Hubbard, who once described Muhammad in a lecture as “a good small-town booster.”

The use of the phrase “Rotary Club Boosterism” in this context is so peculiar that I can hardly help concluding that Stephenson is quoting Bolitho. As far as I can tell, he’s never made this connection in public, although it isn’t hard to believe that he would have read Twelve Against the Gods, since his appetite for this kind of material seems limitless. (The fact that Elon Musk is also a big fan of the book makes me want to trace its subterranean passage from the hand of one futurist to another, which would be an adventure in itself.) I don’t know Stephenson’s work well enough to talk about it further, so I’m just going to throw it out here in case someone else finds it useful—which brings us, in a way, back to Snow Crash. Hiro’s job, as described by Stephenson, is that of a “freelance stringer” who assembles and distributes information like this for its own sake:

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster. He uploads it to the CIC database—the Library, formerly the Library of Congress, but no one calls it that anymore…Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC’s clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns, rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put in it, Hiro gets paid.

Stephenson finishes: “[Hiro] has been learning the hard way that 99 percent of the information in the library never gets used at all.” Which is probably true of this blog, too. But here’s one more piece.

The Best Movies of 2012, Part 2

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper

Note: The first part of the list can be found here, along with an explanation of its many omissions.

5. Looper. As Rian Johnson’s online commentary for the movie makes clear, this is the ultimate rarity: a labor of love, developed over the course of a decade, that is immediately accessible and exciting, and which knows how to tell a complicated story in quick, economical strokes. The montage that follows one character’s life over three decades may be the year’s single most bravura sequence, and although Johnson isn’t quite as good at shooting action as he is at conceiving a twisty plot, that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise remarkably assured and singular movie. In a year in which Prometheus and John Carter confused effects with storytelling, this was a small masterpiece of grounded science fiction, and should stand as an example for many filmmakers to come.

Denzel Washington in Flight

4. Flight. In some ways, this was the movie that made me most hopeful for the future of Hollywood. It isn’t an independent film or the work of a visionary auteur: rather, it’s a solid mainstream picture, based on an ambitious original screenplay, with a major star and superb director willing to tackle thorny, uncomfortable issues of character and ethical choice. Above all, it’s a slick, entertaining movie for adults that puts technology at the service of a story that comes across as old-fashioned in its belief in narrative, performance, and big moral themes. The fact that it was brought in on a modest budget and enjoyed considerable popular and critical acclaim only underlines that this is the kind of movie that studios can, and should, be making all the time.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

3. The Master. At this point, Paul Thomas Anderson has evolved into a director of such peculiar, hermetic intensity that it would almost be more surprising if he delivered a movie that wasn’t so elliptical, mysterious, and deeply strange. Yet for all its apparent shapelessness, it delivers more scenes, moments, and images that linger in my memory than any other movie I’ve seen all year, as rendered by Mihai Malăimare, Jr.’s gorgeous cinematography, which was scandalously denied an Oscar nomination. Anchoring it all is the ravaged presence of Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what I emphatically believe is the year’s best performance: secretive, violent, and tender, with an Easter Island face that speaks more eloquently than any dialogue ever could.

Life of Pi

2. Life of Pi. The year’s most technically astounding movie is bound to be diminished on the small screen, but its achievement goes far beyond the most lifelike special effects I’ve ever seen. As a director, Ang Lee is both hungry for new challenges and capable of doing almost anything, and he indulges in a great deal of delicious trickery—changing the aspect ratio, playing with the visual possibilities that 3D affords—without losing sight of the story’s underlying humanity. The ending is heartbreaking and inevitable, and cuts deeper than it seems at first glance: this isn’t just a love letter to the possibilities of digital filmmaking, but a meditation on the meaning and morality of storytelling itself.

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises

1. The Dark Knight Rises. Take this, if you will, as the testimony of an avowed Christopher Nolan fanboy, but even after the inevitable backlash and nitpicking—which I don’t think is altogether warranted—I still think that this is the movie of the year. Much of its power is inseparable from the beauties of the IMAX format, which Nolan and his collaborators employ as it has never been used before, to tell the epic story of an entire city on a massive scale. Even on Blu-ray, however, its pleasures remain considerable: Bane’s voice still rumbles menacingly, and it has a more shapely, satisfying story than any of its predecessors, to the point where I’d argue that it’s a stronger picture than The Dark Knight—which makes it the best comic book movie ever made. And at a moment when superheroes seem to outnumber ordinary mortals at the multiplex, it’s an achievement that I suspect will only look better with time.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

Lessons from The Master

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I met Paul Thomas Anderson once. It was years ago, in early 2000, when he came to Harvard to discuss Magnolia, which at that point had just entered wide release. At the time, I was a college sophomore working as a film critic for an online startup, and I managed to secure a private interview for after the presentation. Needless to say, I was excited: with the authority derived from a reviewing gig that paid fifty dollars a story, I’d already declared Anderson “the most extravagantly talented director of his generation.” At the auditorium at the Carpenter Center, I watched Magnolia for the second time—I’d go on to see it a total of three times on the big screen—and waited afterward while Anderson took questions from the audience. Standing next to me at the edge of the room was a young, very attractive girl I was positive I knew from somewhere, possibly from one of my classes. I was trying to remember where we’d met, and was on the verge of going up to say hello, when Anderson ended his talk, came over, and gave her a kiss. (It was Fiona Apple.)

Afterward, Anderson and I sat down and chatted for about twenty minutes. For various reasons, the interview was never published, but I still have the original microcassette recording of our conversation somewhere, although I’ve never listened to it since—I have a feeling that I’d be slightly mortified by my own performance. But Anderson was extremely generous with me, and looking back, I can see why: I was only nineteen years old, and Anderson, incredibly, was less than thirty. He was every much as patient and encouraging as I’d hope to be to a college kid under similar circumstances, and I left the interview feeling as if I’d been privileged to hang out with the closest thing I’d ever find to the young Orson Welles. And while I remember only bits and pieces of our conversation, one thing he said earlier that evening stood out: in response to a question from the crowd, he said that he admired Steven Spielberg, and would love to make a blockbuster movie one day that would reach a huge popular audience.

I’ve thought back to that comment more than once over the last twelve years, and after seeing his remarkable new movie The Master, it’s been on my mind a lot. Anderson, clearly, has not taken the Spielbergian route: ever since Punch-Drunk Love, his work has retreated all the more deeply into interiority, introspection, and strangeness. (The same year as Magnolia, I’d see another movie that impressed me just as much, never guessing that its director would go on to achieve Anderson’s dream of making complex, technically ambitious movies on a Spielbergian scale. It was Memento.) The Master may not be his most daunting film, but it’s a work that makes enormous demands of its viewers, although it offers equally considerable rewards: it’s saturated with craft and atmosphere, filled with wholly convincing period detail, and features one of the best performances in any recent American movie. In fact, for all his ingenuity and resourcefulness, Anderson’s smartest choice may have come right at the beginning, with the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, whose recent travails have transformed him into an eloquent, expressive, ravaged actor. It’s a very good movie that I’m going to revisit again and again.

Yet when I think back to his earlier work, and especially the popular ambitions that he once expressed, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. The Master is a deeply weird movie, and it’s likely to alienate many of its viewers, but it’s also weird in more or less the way I expected, with none of the startling surprises of There Will Be Blood. (Its portrait of the cult led by Philip Seymour Hoffman is also slightly unfocused: the rest of the movie is so startlingly specific that it leaves us wanting more information about how this movement really works.) There are moments when the film seems on the verge of breaking out into something larger, but except for a pair of short scenes with Hoffman and Amy Adams, it sticks resolutely to Phoenix’s skewed, peculiar point of view. On its own merits, this works: The Master is manifestly the movie that Anderson wanted to make. But I still miss the teeming, sometimes immature, but always exhilarating variety of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. As I’ve recently begun to understand, these were the films of a young man, and what Anderson is doing now is valuable and important. This may no longer be a world in which his movies can reach a Spielbergian audience. But that’s the world in which I’d like to live.

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2012 at 9:45 am

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