there’s one scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master that crawls under your skin and refuses to leave. Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic cult leader of The Cause (read Scientology) opens up his arms to Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix’s post-WWII sailor drifter, a lonely alcoholic specialising in lethal booze mixtures and sexual obsession and whose psychological burdens are erratically flashed in public through violent outbursts.
in this particular scene Dodd invites Quell to a ‘processing’ session in which he asks him rapid questions demanding equally quick and truthful answers. Quell jokes around at first, seemingly incapable of making an effort, but as the scene escalates suppressed memories surface and the face of Phoenix becomes distorted, almost inhuman, a ruthless reflection of his extreme psychological torment. the diabolical vein plastered across his forehead grows bigger and bigger, the eyes go black, his voice is painfully desperate and honest.
The Master raises many questions, while answering few – all within a sort of anti-narrative almost completely devoid of a traditional storyline. The Cause, perhaps unable to cure a wounded drifter, is nonetheless the only form of help on offer. Dodd is perhaps the first person that cares about Quell and makes genuine attempts to change his ways (with perhaps dubious cult-like methods), while the great American star-spangled state has thrown him into a faraway war only to refuse him a second chance on return. Quell, among thousands of other soldiers haunted by psychological trauma, is expected to neatly conform to social norms and become a respectful suburban citizen with a prosperous small-scale business.
The Cause is portrayed as an obvious sham, the imaginings of a captivating and manipulative mind that sometimes spirals out of control, exploding in anger and thereby mirroring the unaccebtable volatility of Quell. Quell, a man without family, roots or home, is vulnerable and easily swayed and has perhaps nothing else to believe in.
an old homeless man spat at the back of my friend’s heel in Rochester. the streets change from one end to the other, an America of diversity in every sense of the word. extremities, extreme bodies, extreme poverty. an unhinged atmosphere like obscure glass fibres of destruction in the air, invisible but everywhere and silently digging into the walls of your throat. freedom is a clichéd American catch phrase, but whose freedom are they proclaiming? most people we met couldn’t afford a passport.
our destination: nowhere places built for the purpose of motels and petrol stations. the backside of America plastered with numbing highways, escape routes? what lies beyond the isolated island of sharp skyscrapers, gigantic mirrors cutting down the sky… beyond the transience of New York, bright lights and the PR-related affluence floating around in half-hidden bars in Brooklyn? it was raining when we left Manhattan, tears pouring from the holes in the sky, from freshly cut up cloud-wounds, drowning the streets and flushing last night’s shame off the pavements. traffic lights trickling downtown through the gutters.
we got on a bus to Albany, NY, and admired the scenery of a stolen land, taken and turned into roads that continue to spread all over like expanding asphalt tentacles. [in another semi-dead town we went to the local art gallery and discovered an exhibition devoted solely to The Inner Loop – the surrounding highway. we looked at paintings of traffic signs, roundabouts and road turnings, not knowing whether to laugh or break down and die.]
Kathy Acker says it’s difficult to get off the roads in America.
Albany is ghostlike and grey, eerily quiet like the opening sequence of an apocalyptic zombie film. sleepy homeless eyes watched us getting lost among derelict churches of the apostolic faith and fort-like FBI buildings. dragging our damp suitcases behind us we wandered through empty, identical streets, feeling the out-of-place excitement/paranoia numbing our insides as if something bad might happen. distanced from the situation like it’s an illusion, a construction on a screen.
a man began following us, big-bodied with a funny walk and a cracked loud voice, slightly insane. our panic grew and in desperation we hitched a ride with a stranger wearing pilot sunglasses and a black cowboy hat. he invited us to one of his blues gigs but we politely declined, bought dinner from a nearby petrol station, barricaded ourselves in the motel room and turned on the TV. windows locked, curtains closed, we fell asleep next to each other like three sisters on the run from a repressive community of Twin Peaks-like strangeness.
regardless of the cult surrounding On the Road at the moment (recently cinematically transformed into a contrived teen drama submerged in a stylised sick-pool of self-indulgence), Jack Kerouac is a predictable weakness of mine.
a hitchhiking Marlon Brando-pisshead with a talent for immediate expression he’s perhaps the embodiment of a hipster wet dream, but also an incredible writer whose talents go beyond the current obsession with ‘retro lifestyles’ and the appliance of ‘vintage’ to anything of the past that looks remotely cool. the appeal of On the Road is obvious – a riotous trip of jazz, drugs, sex, alcohol – but in other words also a slightly pretentious repetition of supposed male-exclusive amusements.
Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans on the other hand deal with issues of alcoholism, alienation, race and identity within a society of assumed affluent progress. the novels present alternative ways of living and thinking, discarding the normative roles synonymous with the American dream of extreme suburban boredom. The Subterraneans is also an everyday love story, which I like since it’s authentic and beautiful and could happen to one of us if it hasn’t already.