Always interesting, sometimes revelatory director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of a rare breed of writer-directors in the game today who qualifies as a true Auteur with little regard for mass market demographics when it comes to articulating his singular vision on the screen. An oddity in the studio system, Anderson’s storylines resemble intricately layered Venn diagrams that flaunt convention and aren’t easily summed up in a single tagline.
An expert craftsman, his first four films Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) revolve around the dysfunction and personal short-comings that make or break the relationships of his usually fragile characters, played to the hilt by A-List casts. Anderson resuscitated Burt Reynolds’ career and directed Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore to big wins, not to mention nailing one of the best uses of Tom Cruise ever in a movie. His keen ear for score helped break musician Aimee Mann into the mainstream and his collaboration with Radiohead guitarist/composer Jonny Greenwood on his fifth film There Will Be Blood (2007) resulted in a timeless classic and one of, if not the best film of the decade.
Anderson’s soon to be released fifth film is already mired in controversy. Titled The Master, the film stars PTA regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as a “charismatic intellectual” who founds a mysterious religion called “The Cause,” which is rumored to be based on the Church of Scientology and founder L. Ron Hubbard. Both The Church and the organization in the script were founded in 1952 following World War II where Hubbard served in the Navy and commanded two ships.
In the script Hoffman takes an interest in a drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix who becomes his right-hand man and in turn takes an interest in Hoffman’s daughter, played by Amy Adams. As “The Cause” gains in popularity with its adherents, Phoenix’s character begins to question the method as well as its Master.
The film comes along at an interesting time with the American Presidential Election coming into focus. The candidates for President of the United States have a lot in common with Hubbard who was a gifted pulp fiction and fantasy writer. At a 1948 author’s convention, Hubbard was quoted saying, "Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." Even in death, the details of Hubbard’s life are stretched and embellished by The Church. Like an American Kim Jong-il, his triumphs are fictionalized and his failures rewritten. As the author Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers." It’s revealing to note that Hubbard was deemed unsuitable for command and removed from both of his ships.
Given The Church’s pull in Hollywood, pundits wondered whether it would be able to yank the kill switch on the project but Anderson has a powerful sponsor in producer and financier Megan Ellison, daughter of billionaire Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. Ellison is putting her weight behind several high-profile, third-rail projects including Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow’s film on the Bin Laden raid (which is allegedly based on classified information), a film about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and PTA’s next film, Inherent Vice, based on the novel by Pynchon. Ellison, trumpeted as the savior of "high quality intellectual cinema," obviously has her work cut out for her. In these bizarre times when disinformation makes it difficult to ascertain any semblance of truth, expert storytellers like Anderson and Ellison have a ripe opportunity to frame the fine line between fact and fiction.