How Scientology Works: A Primer Based on a Reading of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film, The Master

Paul Thomas Ander­son­’s The Mas­ter focus­es, with almost unbear­able inten­si­ty, on two char­ac­ters: Joaquin Phoenix’s impul­sive ex-sailor Fred­die Quell, and Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man’s Lan­cast­er Dodd, “the founder and mag­net­ic core of the Cause — a clus­ter of folk who believe, among oth­er things, that our souls, which pre­date the foun­da­tion of the Earth, are no more than tem­po­rary res­i­dents of our frail bod­i­ly hous­ing,” writes The New York­er’s Antho­ny Lane in his review of the film. “Any rela­tion to per­sons liv­ing, dead, or Sci­en­to­log­i­cal is, of course, entire­ly coin­ci­den­tal.”

Before The Mas­ter came out, rumor built up that the film mount­ed a scathing cri­tique of the Church of Sci­en­tol­ogy; now, we know that it accom­plish­es some­thing, par for the course for Ander­son, much more fas­ci­nat­ing and artis­ti­cal­ly idio­syn­crat­ic.

Few of its glo­ri­ous­ly 65-mil­lime­ter-shot scenes seem to have much to say, at least direct­ly, about Sci­en­tol­ogy or any oth­er sys­tem of thought. But per­haps the most mem­o­rable, in which Dodd, hav­ing dis­cov­ered Fred­die stown away aboard his char­tered yacht, offers him a ses­sion of “infor­mal pro­cess­ing,” does indeed have much to do with the faith found­ed by L. Ron Hub­bard — at least if you believe the analy­sis of Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, who argues that the scene “bears an unmis­tak­able ref­er­ence to a vital activ­i­ty with­in Sci­en­tol­ogy called audit­ing.”

Just as Dodd does to Fred­die, “the audi­tor in Sci­en­tol­ogy asks ques­tions of the ‘pre­clear’ with the goal of rid­ding him of ‘engrams,’ the term for trau­mat­ic mem­o­ry stored in what’s called the ‘reac­tive mind.’ ” By thus “help­ing the pre­clear relive the expe­ri­ence that caused the trau­ma,” the audi­tor accom­plish­es a goal that, in a clip Puschak includes in the essay, Hub­bard lays out him­self: to “show a fel­low that he’s mock­ing up his own mind, there­fore his own dif­fi­cul­ties; that he is not com­plete­ly adrift in, and swamped by, a body.” Sci­en­to­log­i­cal or not, such notions do intrigue the des­per­ate, drift­ing Fred­die, and although the sto­ry of his and Dod­d’s entwine­ment, as told by Ander­son, still divides crit­i­cal opin­ion, we can say this for sure: it beats Bat­tle­field Earth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When William S. Bur­roughs Joined Sci­en­tol­ogy (and His 1971 Book Denounc­ing It)

The Career of Paul Thomas Ander­son: A 5‑Part Video Essay on the Auteur of Boo­gie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, The Mas­ter, and More

Space Jazz, a Son­ic Sci-Fi Opera by L. Ron Hub­bard, Fea­tur­ing Chick Corea (1983)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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