Monday, October 08, 2012

'THE MASTER' AND THE MOTORCYCLE


Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, riding what looks like a Norton 16H across a dry lake bed
Months ago the New York Times ran a story on Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film (starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman), 'The Master', a meditation on L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.  The principal events of the story were carefully based on Hubbard's life, from the borrowed yacht on which he escapes his troubles, to the threats and intimidation used to silence critics, the school set up in England, and...a lust for motorcycles.
L Ron Hubbard aboard a BSA C15 in West Sussex, England, ca 1960
'The Master' is a difficult and beautiful film, with a pair of intense and fascinating characters who seem strangely bound to each other, exploring each man's nature while leaving open the question of their troubled bond.  Gorgeously shot, whether in a landscape, at sea, or in full-frame closeup,  PT Anderson is a renegade from digital film, using extraordinarily expensive 65mm stock, the reward for which is an old-fashioned look you didn't know you missed until you see it.  Cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr is achingly lush; he brings Dorothea Lange's dustbowl photographs to full-color motion in Salinas cabbage fields and in farmworker housing; when the camera's gaze rests for long periods on Joaquin Phoenix's face (playing Freddie Quell, ne'er do well), it revives the mesmerizing glamour of 50s Cinemascope close-ups.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, riding hard over the dry mud pan
In tackling the notoriously litigious Scientology founder's story, Anderson has, of course, used no 'real' names, but the parallels are abundantly clear to anyone who's swallowed the church's teachings, or read the numerous debunking websites highlighting the chasm between Hubbard's extravagantly self-promoting fantasies, and the truth of his back story.  'The Master' lands an axe into that chasm, and splits Hubbard in two; Freddie Quell, nearly an animal in his passions, a creature of id in his lusts, his alcoholism, his pain.  Freddie is the nobody seaman 'Elron' was in reality during WW2, while Lancaster Dodd (the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman), on whose yacht Freddie stows away at a dark moment, is the charismatic charlatan, spinning tales of 'trillions of years' with megalomaniac drama, creating 'the Cause' and its pseudo-scientific techniques for 'making you better', mostly by Dodd's 'making it up as he goes along', according to his son (who in real life was excommunicated from Scientology for being gay).
L Ron Hubbard uses his e-meter on a tomato
The two halves of Hubbard meet in a Venn diagram of common masculinity; drunkenness, lust, and violence.  Each man does his best to deny his basest motivations (Quell with lies, Dodd with spiritual/sci-fi hokum), but as Dodd's darkness is revealed in harsh bursts, the film finds the common ground of the two characters, halves of the same man who have forgotten themselves.  Dodd is fascinated with Quell, and vexed with 'Where have we met before?', never comprehending Freddie is his shadow, but attempting to control him as 'guinea pig and protegé'.  But the Shadow is uncontrollable, and in a pivotal scene involving, finally, a motorcycle, we see Freddie escape to face his own demons and truths, while Dodd finds the financial hookup he needs to create an unquestioning empire, with his Lady Macbeth (a ferocious Amy Adams) at his side.
Joaquin Phoenix and the 'Norton'
The dry lakebed scene with Quell and Dodd and a Norton 16H lookalike (apparently a BSA M20 with a Norton tank and fake check-springs on the forks!) is equal parts thrilling, dangerous, and liberating, stunningly shot with both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix actually riding the bumpy and alligatored dry mudflat at a fast clip, the old Norton bouncing and clattering, the actors up on the pegs and giving it some stick, genuinely exhilarated.  The scene references Rollie Free's 1940s Bonneville runs, with a small entourage in perfect period gear and support car. Hoffman as Dodd is real rider, but a genteel fellow out for a moment of controlled thrill, needing the context of a 'process' to justify cutting loose on a bike, while Phoenix's Freddie at last looks natural and at ease and completely appropriate in cuffed jeans and boots.  Previously a shambling, nearly hunchback mumbler, he kicks the beast to life with skill, circling on the mud pan and accelerating over the dirt, until he's going 'really fast', by which point Dodd realizes he's lost the man, who has found himself, and freedom.
Saint Hill Manor in West Sussex, near East Grinstead, the Church's UK headquarters
In real life, 'Elron' indeed liked motorcycles, although I've only dredged up one evidentiary photo, from his days in Sussex, where he famously gave Scientology its first fixed address in an old school.  As part of his civic-minded participation local culture, Elron rode a BSA C15 in a sheriff costume (he was often photographed in Western gear) in a Sussex parade.  A few of Hubbard's excoriating biographers mention a Harley or two during the 1950s...but after digging through the the Church's muck online after that first NYT article, its a rabbit hole I'm happy to stay clear of.
L Ron Hubbard in his 'sheriff' costume...
The bike?  Somehow, the film's prop master (Justin at Glory - he seems to have all the moto-film-fun these days) made a BSA M20 look like a Norton 16H, making that still-humble machine look sleek, cool, and dangerous...no small feat!  For those who can't stomach an extended ramble into one man's darkness, I reckon 'that scene' will appear on Youtube sooner or later...

14 comments:

Glenn Morgan said...

Great article with lots of insight, and not just about the bike. I hope you got to see projected in 70mm.

Hairy Larry said...

There you go, pissing off Mr. Cruise...Back in the college days of the 70's a pal and I fell for a couple of pretty girls and their rap about Scientology...ended up at a meeting in Davis CA. with a bunch of other suckers. No pretty girls there, we left after the first 'smoke-break'.Been kicking ourselves over that one for years, we missed a performance by Ravi Shankar at Sac State College (CSUS these days...). Doooooh!

Sam Lovegrove said...

Hey Paul, great article, I used to live next door to "The manor" on a steiner comunity farm, great contrast in neighbours, I fixed tractors on the farm by day and sorted out the odd Masser, Porsche or an occasional Ferrari for the neighbours of an evening.
I had fun hearing everyone rant hard about each others shortfalls too.
Nice to hear your good experience on the cannonball, I would love to ride that one some time.
Sam

CBarton1 said...

I want to see this movie!

kevin said...

Hey Paul,

That bike is actually a mid 40's BSA WM20. Justin put the tank on it from a 1930's Norton Model 50 owned by his mechanic. One telltale feature of it being a BSA vs. a Norton is the spring set up on the forks. A 16H has multiple springs, whereas the BSA has a single spring.

I enjoy your site and read it frequently.

Kevin in Los Angeles

The Vintagent said...

Kevin,
thanks for the confirmation; Justin has replaced Bud Ekins as the 'go to guy' for movie bikes! But, you'll notice when you see the film that the 'Norton' has shiny new check-springs on the forks (which I thought odd) - part of what fooled me. The engines are pretty similar looking, being flathead singles...the bike looks great in any case. Perhaps the most romanticly thrilling sidevalve film scene ever! Haha...

leslie said...

I want to see this movie too. I like that you gave us all the information and not just on the bike. I wonder if they have it in the red box? I'm going to watch this movie today there's no ifs, ands, or butts about it. I'll come back and let you know how it was.

WeBuyUsedBikes said...

A great blog and a really interesting read

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Chris Bartlett said...

Fantastic review, Paul! Can't wait to see this film - even if only for the motorcycle scene. Although, knowing it's a period piece actually shot on "film" has made me want to see it even more.

Conchscooter said...

I walked out after an hour of sillyness at Key West's Tropic Cinema. Strong performances but good grief! The story can only hold you for so long with all the crazy Scientology talk. So I missed the only good bit on the mud flats... I will look for it on youtube, I guess.

mrWak said...

Hello, just a silly question there: What kind of boots is Joaquin wearing during the bike scene ? You can take a closer look on one of the pictures captioned "Joaquin Phoenix and the 'Norton'". Just interested if it's the kind of boots you would find at that time. If anyone has the answer...

Thank you !

F-

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