Manipulator and Commander: 'The Master'

Something like The Master is fascinating for what it offers up, and what it leaves behind.

The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers
Rated: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-14 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-11-09 (General release)

They're called inner demons for a reason. Unlike the true mythic minions from Hell, who haunt us in moments of moral weakness, these creatures contradict our very human being. They destroy our psyche, contravene everything we believe about ourselves and our place in the world. Through exorcists like therapy and drugs, we try to rid ourselves of their unholy power, but in most cases, the efforts are for naught - or worse, complicated and ongoing. So when something like The Cause comes along, offering the promise of both freedom from said devils and continued clarity within one's mind, it's allure is incalculable. Toss in the spellbinding speciousness of a leader like Lancaster Dodd and you've got a cult waiting for its fodder. Someone like Freddie Quell fills that role quite effectively.

For filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, there is nothing more compelling than men in crisis. From the troubled gambler Sydney Brown in Hard Eight, to a down and out Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights or a baffled Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, his aesthetic eye is drawn to the traditional male role model torn, tormented, and twisted. Sometimes, it's a son (Tom Cruise) unable to communicate with his dying dad (as in Magnolia). In other instances, it's an oil baron unable to see the familial forest for the despotic trees (There Will Be Blood). The same sensibility applies to his most recent work of unbridled brilliance, The Master. In his two leads - a charismatic if trouble '50s outsider 'evangelist' and a sailor whose clearly fallen from grace with everything, including the sea - we witness the continuing contradictions of the gender, while wondering why such stigmas ever existed.

Freddie (essayed in uncomfortable spastic spurts by an amazing Joaquin Phoenix) is having a hard time adjusting to life after the War. Having spend most of his time drunk and disorderly, he carries said vices over to his various attempts at reentering society. One night, he steals aboard a boat looking for a way out of recent trouble. He winds up under the tutelage of Dodd (a fantastic Philip Seymour Hoffman)

a self-proclaimed 'writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher.' Along with his stoic wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and a large group of devotees, he is touring the country, applying his practices and hoping to inspire success, and sponsors.

Freddie is a fascinating case for the considered charlatan. Within the troubled young man is everything Dodd is trying to demystify while tweaking similar tendencies he sees inside himself. As they attempt to help each other, it's clear that Freddie may be a lost cause...and for a man whose not used to losing, such a possibility is more than problematic. It's a potential career killer. Along the way, we meet the son who sees through his father's ruse, the various members of Dodd's dedicated financial support group, and the forces flitting around the fringes who are out to debunk the man and his 'made-up' mission.

While some have suggested that this is nothing more than a veiled Scientology screed (it has many allusions to the bizarre religion's earliest earmarks), The Master is actually a movie about two men who couldn't be more different, and yet are almost exactly the same. While he holds himself to a supposedly higher level of learning, Dodd bonds with Freddie over a common compulsion - drink. As a matter of fact, the protégé pries his way into the inner circle via the ability to make a mean alcohol and various solvent based beverage. Like Prohibition era gangsters, Dodd and his newly discovered subject share a love of liquid escape, and thus begins a bond that will make everything about The Cause, and its crafty creator, even more convoluted.

You see, Anderson is not out to destroy the alien-based tenets of Scientology. In fact, this film feels like an attack on all "feel good" self-help-styled shell games. Dodd is clearly grasping at therapeutic straws, keeping those which work and tossing aside others as "antithetical" to his newer approaches. He's an emotional opportunist, the kind of shaman who shares little because he knows he has nothing of value to offer. Instead, he's an archeologist of pain, prying and prodding until he gets what we wants (or what his fledgling faith needs). Hoffman is perfect here, using his robust physicality and vulnerable demeanor to show the kind of short lease Dodd is on.

Phoenix is even more fascinating. His is a pure method turn, a semi-stunt loaded with q uirks and tics. But there's definitely a reason for such character surrealism. Freddie is seen as arrested - lost in harmful poisonous drink, desperate for sex, eager for a fight. The war has reversed any aging or maturity, turning him into a halting child via a mannequin of mannered meanness. He is ready to explode at any turn, taking any attack as wholly personal and unprovoked. But under Dodd's determined provocation, Freddie begins to open up. Soon, he is sharing some of his past problems, as well as using the various techniques to tap into the supposedly hidden source of his inner turmoil. The last act, where Freddie turns from pariah to patient, truly show what the actor is capable of. in fact, everyone in the cast (including a steely eyed Adams) deserves kudos.

But as with any Paul Thomas Anderson film, the director deserves equal billing. From the languid shots of swirling seas to the pinpoint accurate period detail, The Master is a marvel to look at. Less stylized than some of his other films, Anderson uses the image (which should really be viewed in the intended 70mm format, if possible) as a counterpoint to all the internal flux. Settings seem tranquil until Dodd and Freddie arrive. Suddenly, they take on the feeling of a prison, or of a far too pretty asylum. Indeed, throughout The Master, Anderson offers up the visual inferences that lie at the heart of the movie's message. Everything might seem the picture of perfection on the outside, from the cocktail dresses to the impressive family homes. On the inside, however, are things dark and disturbing...and distrustful.

Something like The Master is fascinating for what it offers up, and what it leaves behind. There are no trapped extraterrestrial souls, no nods to Lord Xenu or E-meters. On the other hand, it definitely explores the reasons behind someone seeking an alternative to traditional belief. As they would for the next five decades, the post-war world needed something more than God and Church to explain the horrific nature and consequences of man against man. Something like The Cause (or its Scientological cousin) found a way to swoop in and fill that gap. Instead of preaching faith, it argued for more practical ways to deal with said demons. For Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell, the journey may treacherous and tiring. For us, however, it's the height of cinematic splendor.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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