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What Do We Know About Paul Thomas Anderson’s New Scientology Film?

I know it’s not customary, but the customary is fading like spit in the sun. So I want to review two trailers for Paul Thomas Anderson’s next film, The Master, which will be released in October. The second trailer appeared online in June, the first a month earlier. They accompany the limited announcement that the film, set around 1950, is about one man who starts a new religion, and another who becomes his follower. It remains to be seen whether this description is accurate or sufficient. I want to approach the trailers as two films, each about ninety seconds long. They are unlike regular trailers in that they intend to be mysterious; that’s what makes them movies.

The first (let’s call it “May”) begins with a close-up of Joaquin Phoenix, his head tilted back against the right-hand edge of the frame, his eyes narrowed by smiling at some interrogation he is undergoing. There is the blur of a shoulder in the other corner of the frame that may be his questioner. The image cuts to a beach, the sea, the horizon, and a line of clouds. There is Phoenix. He topples over; he plays with a sand castle. There are young men wrestling in front of a crowd, some of whom are sailors. He sharpens a machete on a stone. The interrogation goes on against the beach scene. Phoenix calls his questioner “Sir.” He is asked whether he is more jumpy than he was before, how is his sleep, does he have nightmares? “Not as much as before.” Were there violent episodes—a knife to the throat of an officer? Or the last episode on the way home? Phoenix laughs, “What episode, sir?” He does not seem quick or bright, but he is good-natured. He wants to help. “What kind of episode?” He doesn’t remember.

The scene shifts to what might be below decks on a ship—cramped, hot, difficult. Phoenix is working at some task and he drinks from a leak in a tank. Then we are back to the interrogation: a full shot with an officer in khaki posing the questions. Phoenix can’t remember. “Was there a fight?” he asks, grinning, and the soldier says they’ll try to help him. “All right,” says Phoenix cheerfully, and he chuckles, like a simpleton or a wild and disbelieving man.

I want to be accurate in my description, but I realize that one might write a book about these 90 seconds of film. There is so much more in Phoenix’s attitude or disposition than I know how to put into words. You can call that acting, presence, or simply his own appearance, his Phoenix-ness. I may have introduced mistakes or seen the less relevant things. The material I’m discussing could be dropped from the final film—that has happened before. And I have not begun to address the beat of two or three drums that goes on through “May,” though I take it for granted that this beat is significant and I suspect we will have to decide whether it is a heartbeat, a ticking, the toll of doom, or something else. I suppose it could just be drums. But with a fragment of unexplained film, we are so greedy for interpretation. I assume the music is by Jonny Greenwood who did the extraordinary score for There Will Be Blood. But why do I say “extraordinary?” Am I so eager or excited?

“June” has the same music; and familiarity breeds the sinister. We see Phoenix sitting on the bank of a country stream on a sunny day. Then he gets up, hurries through the water, and scrambles up a slope, trying to get aboard a passing truck. There are voices already. One is Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, talking to Phoenix and suggesting, “You’ve wandered from the proper path, haven’t you?” Then we cut to Hoffman, blonde and groomed, with a mustache, wearing a crimson pajama jacket. He says, “You seem familiar to me,” and Phoenix responds, “What do you do?” To which Hoffman replies, “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher.” In the midst of this speech there is a shot of him kissing a woman. “But above all I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

The scene cuts to Phoenix with Amy Adams in a restaurant. She may be Hoffman’s daughter and she tells Phoenix he is having an inspiring effect on “him”—“He’s been writing all night.” Then we see Phoenix walking alone in a small, sparse mall: There is a store with its sign, “Desert Hardware,” and there is talk on the sound track between the two men, but it is too fast and overlapping to discern. It rises to a climax, with Phoenix suddenly behind bars in a cell, and Hoffman outside as Phoenix roars at him, “I know you’re trying to calm me down. But just say something that is true! 

The purpose of “May” and “June” is to make us long for October. The film will be released by the Weinstein Brothers and I imagine they were close to Anderson as he made the trailers. But did he make them? What else can I tell you? Anderson wrote the script, and while this film seems to have no literary basis, there has been speculation that it may be inspired by Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. Both Universal and the Weinsteins declined to finance the project at $35 million, and that’s when Megan Ellison, the daughter of Larry Ellison of Oracle, stepped in to fund the picture for her company, Annapurna Productions. The announced cast also includes Laura Dern (is she the woman being kissed?) and Lena Endre. She is a Swedish actress who was in Faithless (2000), a film written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullmann. I was going to say she was “stunning” in it—you feel you have to say something. Let Bergman speak: He said Endre as an actress was “a Stradivarius.” In the cast list, Endre is “Mrs Solstad,” Hoffman is “Lancaster Dodd,” Phoenix is “Freddie Sutton,” and Amy Adams is “Mary Sue Dodd”.

With so little else to go on, what do you make of those names? “Lancaster” is as impressive as “Freddie” is ordinary and “Mary Sue” sweet. But I don’t feel I can trust any of that and I just hope that when The Master arrives it will be as stirring as the trailers. Even if it isn’t, the trailers are jewels to treasure. They are small movies, the new thing. There may be more before October.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.