The James Clayton Column: The Master and movie religions

As Philip Seymour Hoffman holds audiences under his sway in The Master, James takes a other possible PT Anderson-inspired religions...

In many ways cinema is a lot like religion. It has its gods, it has its faithful devotees and it has its specially ordained sacred spaces where worshippers congregate and fulfil their spiritual needs. (Your local multiplex may not be as architecturally impressive or majestic as a grand temple or cathedral but, really, it serves a similar purpose.)

Cinema is, in my eyes and mind’s eye, a highly spiritual thing. It touches my soul, communicates special meaning through images, influences my worldview and informs my life. I find solace, substance and a sense of identity in my ‘hobby’. Religion seems like a reasonable parallel when I note the fervent devotion, the observation of certain celebration days (release dates for major movies), the regular pilgrimages to the holy place (the cinema) and the evangelism inspired by euphoric experiences (gushing to the wider community about great movies).

There are a lot of cineastes and movie buffs around the globe engaging with cinema in this way. Some film fans, however, go even further than a loose spiritualised arrangement and take specific movies as a fundamental basis on which to build a faith. This is where film fandom becomes like organised religion with iconography, codified rules and venerated figureheads.

I’m not referring here to those who convert to Christianity after watching Ben Hur or people who join particular cults having been impressed by The Wicker Man or the Thuggee human sacrifice action in Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom. I’m talking about life imitating art or, rather, art inspiring real life and encouraging members of the audience to adapt fiction into an all-encompassing creed and way of existing.

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A high percentage of people putting ‘Jedi’ down as their religion on census forms may be joking, but it still proves that the Star Wars saga has had an incredible influence on the mass psyche and effectively presented a coherent spiritual vision in the form of The Force. (We’ll skip right past the midi-cholorians idea put forward in The Phantom Menace and dismiss it as blasphemous pseudo-science and a sorry retcon hash-job that spoils the supernatural mystique of Jedi/Sith power.)

Deep down at a subconscious level, mainstream society is moving through life guided by the morals and philosophies found in Star Wars works, and possibly even acting in accordance with the sage aphorisms spouted by Yoda. The Force is so strong with some folk that they consciously embrace Jediism as a structured religion, align themselves to the Orthodox Jedi Code and aspire to the spiritual excellence of Ben Kenobi. I’ve visited their websites and I’ve seen them perform Jedi mind tricks on traffic wardens – these guys are legit.

Another example of a real-world religion spinning-off from a movie is the Dudeism inspired by The Big Lebowski. It’s like a California riff on Taoism, with Jeff Bridges’s cardigan wearing slacker idealised as a quasi-Buddha guru figure. “The Dude abides” and legions of Lebowski fans find peace in a more relaxed, easygoing life philosophy than those presented by other characters around him (German Nihilism, Militant Sobchakian Judaism).

Always soul-searching, I’ve thought about throwing in my lot with the aforementioned pop culture-spawned faiths but have held off in anticipation of The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film features Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic personality behind a philosophical movement called “The Cause”.

Some say that The Cause is just a fictional analogue of Scientology and some say that we should steer well clear of “New Age mumbo jumbo” movements, but I’m approaching The Master with an open mind. I’m intrigued and eager to hear what Dodd has to say, though I’m also aware that I may not find answers or an enlightened path in The Master.

If that’s the case, I’ll still be spiritually bereft, but fortunately Anderson provides several back-up options. Glance over the director’s filmography and you discover that he presents audiences a range of religions, self-help methods and philosophical frameworks.

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If you’re looking for meaning in life, a new creed, some soul food or a fresh identity you may wish to consider one of the following faiths from P.T. Anderson flicks. Just adjust your moral compass accordingly and study the original screenplay as holy scripture whenever you encounter existential confusion. Reach out and touch faith…

Disciples of Sydney (outlined in Hard Eight)

Simply follow Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) just like deadbeat John C Reilly does, and soon you’ll find yourself lucky and prosperous if you don’t deviate from his gracious instruction. Become the smooth old gambler’s protégé and he’ll show you how to survive, how to make money, how to attract a wife and then he’ll clean up your mess when you upset Samuel L Jackson.

The mantra: “Never ignore a man’s courtesy”.

The Pleasure Temple of Dirk Diggler (outlined in Boogie Nights)

All hail the God of the Golden Age of Porn and praise his 13-inch long penis! Practitioners of this hedonistic cult worship the figure of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), ritualistically make blue movies and live in a constant state of ecstatic self-empowerment. Embrace the decadent excess and enjoy this aurous dream world of sex, special substances and soul-stirring disco music!

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The mantra: “I’m a star, I’m a star, I’m a big bright shining star.”

Seduce and Destroy (as outlined in Magnolia)

Follow sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) and enrol on his misogynist powertrip course and the world (perhaps just the world of women) will bend to your mighty selfish will. You will not apologise for who you are! You will not apologise for what you want! It’s universal, man! You are the one in charge!

The mantra: “Respect the cock! And tame the c**t!”

Smart Little Stanley’s Special Acolytes (outlined in Magnolia)

Weak of bladder but strong of mind, child prodigy Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is the tormented messiah and idealised embodiment of innocent goodness in this painful world of suffering. Followers of the What Do Kids Know? TV gameshow hero will accumulate empathy, fruits of the immense knowledge he’s amassed through intensive study and a greater understanding of the Universe and life when it’s a distressing deluge of frogs.

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The mantra: “This happens. This is something that happens.”

Punch-Drunk Pudding Love (as outlined in Punch-Drunk Love)

This cult is basically the same as Smart Little Stanley’s, except supporters of poor Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) gather Healthy Choice brand chocolate pudding as a holy foodstuff instead of gathering knowledge. The meek, mild and emotionally-troubled will overcome adversity and disturbing loneliness to reach the promised land of true love. (They reach it thanks to the frequent flyer miles they’ve won through the chocolate pudding promotion.)

The mantra: “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”

The Church of the Third Revelation (as outlined in There Will Be Blood)

Pastor Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) presides over this Christian community founded in the oil fields of California. Those who acknowledge the leadership of the divinely-inspired Eli and work with him will find riches (material and spiritual) and get a good shake down whenever sin and Devil bite at their soul.  

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The mantra: “Things go up, things go down, but at least the Lord is always around.”

James Clayton is a false prophet and Daniel Day-Lewis drank his milkshake right up (it was made of the milk of human kindness). You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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