Fourth Way Perspectives

Film Review: Disciples & Masters
The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

In his First Series, Gurdjieff tears the veil from a world that has been and is ruled by "the consequences of the properties of the organ Kundabuffer," the perception that, based on mechanicality, self-love and vanity, sees the world not as it is but upside down. Gurdjieff's intent is to break the societal hypnotism so the world is seen right side up. Gurdjieff also warned about pseudoteachings that appear to do so but only lead to an embalmed-esoteric view of the world that we see here with The Master.

Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Film Review: Disciples & Masters
The MasterFreddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and the sand woman

Director-writer-producer Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia) clearly has drawn upon Scientology, and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, as the principal source for the character of the Master, Lancaster Dodd, and his movement, the Cause. Scientology had its roots in Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health published in 1950, the same year as the First Series. Similarly, Dodd takes The Cause broadly public via a 1950 convention in Phoenix along with the publication of his book, The Split Saber, the name paralleling the book Hubbard had said he was writing about "the cause and cure of nervous tension," called The Dark Sword, Excalibur or Science of the Mind. Anderson has Dodd announcing his book as Book Two, slyly invoking and trumping Scientologists' references to Dianetics as Book One.

Despite these and other correspondences, the film is not simply "about" Scientology. Rather it's a deep, disturbing, multi-level study of any teaching that has been incompletely realized by either master or disciple and so must produce negative results. Anderson's camera closes in on his actors. If we don't flinch from them, we may see every nuance of emotion that drives them.

Incarnated by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dodd (rhymes with God) is powerful and charismatic—a cornucopia of "I"s by turns smoothly charming, persuasive, commanding, candid, kindly, humorous. All seemingly under control of the Master, who sees himself as a "man," as having been "unlocked" and so having controlled and harnessed his "animal." As Dodd says, "Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom...." So the master, at a higher level of self-development, will try to teach his disciple who is at a lower level, the context thus framed as one of evolving from being a "silly, silly animal" to a man. However, other "I"s flare up in Dodd as well, sometimes under control, sometimes not—raging, domineering, demanding, obstinate, needy, drained, resentful.

We see his wife, Peggy (beautifully played by Amy Adams with quietly irresistible force), pregnant, but never in bed with him. At a party for his followers, Dodd, seductively singing and dancing for them, Peggy visualizes all the women as nude, the reality being they are objects of his lust. Afterwards, we see her command of his physical sexuality when, as he bends over the sink in the washroom, she coolly masturbates him, telling him, "You can do anything you want. As long as I don't find out. As long as no one hears about it." As a good wife, she supports Dodd's power, yet she controls and moulds it, as for instance sitting behind him while he writes, confidently dictating to him the content for a book or a talk when he seems stuck. Later, after a setback, it is she who will say, vehemently, "The only way to defend ourselves is to attack," echoing the position of the Church of Scientology. Who is the true master?

The Disciple

Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Film Review: Disciples & Masters
The MasterMind and body not connected as Quell’s face and body movements show

Our first sight of Freddie Quell, played ferociously by Joaquin Phoenix, is of the upper part of his face, framed by the lower rim of a steel combat helmet, peering over the top of a ship's metal railing. He is staring at us, the eyes bleak, immovable, anguished, resigned, uncomprehending. The wary eyes of an animal. Freddie's traumatic experiences, compounded or complemented by his moonshine cocktail-fueled frenzies and torpors, have cracked the surface of his view of the world.

We then see the wasted and only half-present Quell, a tightly coiled spring, bottling up tremendous energy, in the South Pacific at the close of the Second World War, as he cavorts on a tropical beach with other sailors in a maleonly world, having sex with a surrogate female—a large sand sculpture of a woman—and then masturbating into the ocean. To arm himself during demobilization interviews with military officials and a psychiatrist, he makes moonshine with engine fuel taken from a torpedo in a ship's hold. For Freddie, these officials are Martians who tell him his alcoholism and trauma are a "nervous condition" and that he can start a business or "get a few acres of land and raise some chickens." Freddie recognizes their automatism and seems to sense his own. Put in a psych hospital, he's medicated. He finds a job taking pictures in a department store, moving the lights so close to a man he almost burns him. The ordinariness of the people he photographs is beyond him, enrages him. He quits, labors on a cabbage farm, poisoning an elderly farm worker—"you look like my father"—with his homemade moonshine and is chased by the workers out to punish him.

Walking alongside a San Francisco pier, cold, arms huddled, outcast, Freddie passes a large yacht with a party in progress. Attracted by the convivial atmosphere, people laughing, dancing, he slips aboard unquestioned, wanders through the crowd, passes out in a bunk, the yacht leaving the dock and sailing under the Golden Gate. Later, a girl wakes the disoriented Freddie, telling him, "You're safe," and leading him to a stateroom where Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd. Freddie cannot remember that they have already met and spoken. Taking Quell's measure, Dodd says, "You were acting aggressive because you drank too much alcohol.... Why all the stalking and sneaking? You've wandered from the proper path, haven't you?" Dodd wants some of Freddie's moonshine, which apparently he has tasted previously. "I have no idea what's in this remarkable potion," he says. "Secrets," replies Quell.

A Bond Is Forged

Telling him they are both "hopelessly inquisitive" men, Dodd invites Freddie to remain with him and provide him with continual supplies of moonshine, attend his daughter's wedding on board and join him as they sail to New York City. Peggy invites Freddie to eat with the family, confiding, "He's been writing all night. You seem to inspire something in him."

What, one asks, binds the two men? From their first meeting, there is an unconscious, wordless recognition of affiliation. For Dodd, whose teaching centers on childhood trauma and reincarnation, just as Hubbard's does, they have a past lives connection, one he will eventually see as the two being in the Prussian war together. Each discerns in the other the force of a nuclear reactor of inchoate emotions—the animal's power. Dodd's high degree of control of this energy is a mystery for Freddie, it is what he wants for himself, for from that source of boundless energy, Freddie reacts uncontrollably, the animal exploding again and again with brutal physical force or speaking in ways that puzzle or unsettle listeners. He cannot accept it and so cannot control and integrate it. For Dodd, Quell is also "my guinea pig and protégé." Dodd is drawn to raise Freddie from the animal, but is also attracted to Freddie's raw, animal power.

The film opened with a view from the stern of a ship, of its wake, a visual metaphor for a looking backward that is central to the film. We must look backward to have any understanding of what drives the characters—or ourselves—in the present. "Processing," the principal method of the Cause, mirroring the auditing of Scientology, is on the surface a means for such an investigation. Face to face with the "student" the processor asks a sequence of questions, repeating them again and again until they break through any resistances and cover stories. Many of the questions are versions of the "Oxford Capacity Analysis" test used by Scientology to recruit members. Dodd asks Freddie repeatedly, "Say your name"; "Do your failures betray you?"; "Are you often consumed by envy?"; "Are you unpredictable?"; "Did you kill anyone?"; "Who in the past scares you?" At first Quell responds with resistance, answering flippantly as if a question has no impact. With repetition, his answers change, memory flashbacks shake him—his dead father, his crazy mother, the love of his life whom he abandoned. When Dodd tells him that's enough for now, Freddie wants more and gets Dodd to continue.

As Scientology auditors do, Dodd records the processing to have a record of what's been revealed, which can be used to confront a forgetful student of what he actually said or to wield power over the student. As the film proceeds, we see that another aim of processing is control and power—the processor's and the organization's power over the student by means of what has been extracted. Freddie comes to know about events from his past, knows of feelings he's suppressed, but has this given him any regenerative understanding of them?

After enduring many types of processing, being tested again and again, becoming a devotee, a defender of Dodd and the Cause, Quell is sent out into the public, passing out flyers, trying to bring others into the teaching. Although he attacks Dodd's son Val for saying, "He's making all this up as he goes along... you don't see that?," the question cuts into Freddie's faith in Dodd. Still, when defending Dodd from arrest for embezzlement, it takes four policemen to bring Freddie down to earth. Locked up then in a cell adjacent to Dodd, Quell, handcuffed, attacks himself and the cell with such violence that he smashes a toilet to pieces. He turns on Dodd who has tried to calm him, raging that Dodd is a fake, nothing he teaches is true.

Although afterwards they reconcile, Peggy has her doubts. When she had "seen" Dodd singing and dancing before the nude women, she looked at Freddie, and saw him looking at her looking at him—Freddie also knowing of the reality of Dodd's lust. "I wonder how he got here and what he's after. Is it really so easy that he just came across us?" she asks. "He's dangerous and he will be our undoing if we continue to have him here." Dodd counters: "If we are not helping him then it is we who have failed him." Peggy concludes, "Perhaps he is past help or insane."

A Bond Broken?

Dodd moves his teaching to Phoenix, Arizona, where he, armed to the teeth, and Freddie walk into the desert to dig up Dodd's new teaching, long buried in the sand. Symbolically, Dodd has had to dig down deep in himself for it and needs the power of the animal man to get it. Freddie has advanced to the place where Dodd gives him a final test of his allegiance to the Cause. He takes Freddie into the desert again, this time to a salt flats for an "experiment." Mounting a motorcycle, Dodd explains, "You pick a point and go to it." Dodd does not say "and return." He then roars off and returns. Freddie roars off too but, instead of returning, disappears into space, freeing himself from Dodd and the Cause.

Gurdjieff, Fourth Way, Film Review: Disciples & Masters, The MasterLeaving the courthouse in an elevator, right to left, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) and Clark (Rami Malek), their son-in-law

The next shot we see is Freddie asleep in the balcony of an empty movie theater, no film playing. An usher wakes him and hands him a phone. It's Dodd calling from England. "I've started a new school. I can cure you. Once and for all," he tells him. Quell goes to meet him. Dodd and his followers—the women now dressed in schoolgirl uniforms, the men in naval ones—live at a large estate in the English countryside. He meets Dodd now not on a yacht but in an immense Victorian room, Dodd sitting behind a great desk, his wife Peggy at his side. "Are you drunk?" asks Peggy. "You look sick, Freddie you don't look healthy." Freddie slumps into a chair, unshaven, his face in anguish, not looking at Dodd. He had escaped his master and the Cause, but not completely.

We have no inkling whether Dodd himself has subjected himself to a master. Unless we consider his wife Peggy to be the real master. Peggy is strong enough in herself to accept and work intimately with the animal man. It was she who taught Quell to stare into her eyes and do something—change their color to black. If he can consciously change his perception, he can change his feelings, beliefs, change himself. So is the master not the man but the woman-man; Dodd still man-woman not completely processed?

Now, in England, with Quell slumped in his chair, it is Peggy who poses the ultimatum, "This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all," then storms away. Dodd is gentler, he wants Freddie back, but Freddie resists. Dodd can't change Quell's perception.

Finally, Dodd warns Freddie, "If we meet again, in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy." Such a meeting would be a life and death struggle—the partially conscious animal man against the higher, supposedly complete man. Dodd could, like Horus defeating Set, become truly one-eyed and have the energy and power of the animal his helper. But Freddie cannot be swayed. "I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China," sings Dodd to Freddie as he leaves. Quell won't get on the boat again with Dodd—won't put himself under the will of the master. As long as he refuses, the game will continue and the longer it continues the better the odds that Freddie will not complete the teaching, but crystallize as a half-man. This is dangerous because most men are boys and so to be half-a-man is powerful, but this half is still open to the control of the animal.

At this final meeting, Quell appears to have broken from Dodd. But afterwards we see a casual encounter with a woman in an English pub and a quick cut to Freddie in bed with her, she atop, riding him, her breasts as ample as the sand woman's. Bantering with one another while having sex, he offhandedly begins asking her the auditing questions Dodd first asked him. She is giving him her love and acceptance as a man, and he is giving her the processing— to the degree he has experienced and understood it.

We see that he enjoys his power as an auditor. Paraphrasing what Dodd once told him, he tells her, "You're the bravest girl ever," reining in his mastery of an easily dominated person. And so we wonder, what exactly has he learned?

Anderson's film demands pondering all that he has shown us, the questions raised. Has Quell incorporated Dodd's control, channeling and crystallizing it into the personality of a pseudo 'master' as Dodd has done, a personality which can restrain his irrational outbursts and exercise their power? Is Quell now a 'master' in the making? We are left in uncertainty. In the end, we see him lying on the beach asleep beside the sand woman he violated. A song plays in the background, his state put into words.

     We were waltzing together,
     To a dreamy melody
     When they called out, "change partners"
     And you waltzed away from me
     Now my arms feel so empty,
     As I gaze around the floor
     And I'll keep on changing partners
     Till I hold you once more

—Henry Korman


1. The Dark Sword. Russell Miller, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (Middlesex, U. K.: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1987), 144. Also online at

2. Book One. "contains all basic principles on Dianetics in its original form." James R. Lewis, Scientology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 417.

3. Unlocked. In Scientology terminology the word is "clear" of childhood traumas.

4. Seductive singing and dancing. Dodd sings "So, we'll go no more a roving," a poem written by Lord Byron derived from a version of a Scots song known as "The Jolly Beggar." The poem describes the fatigue of age conquering the restlessness of youth.

5. Attack. One of Hubbard's main beliefs was to attack all those who attacked him. Critical former disciples, the medical profession, FBI and the Internal Revenue Service—all were attacked. The decades-long attack on the IRS—every year thousands of Scientologists claim religious deductions for the money spent taking its courses and file lawsuits when not approved—finally resulted in Scientology gaining religious status as a church.

6. Processing. Initially, when Dianetics, the processing was simply verbal, but then Hubbard added Wheatstone Bridges, lie detectors, he called E-meter.

7. Subjected himself to a master. Hubbard initially worked with Jack Parsons and his teacher, "the Great Beast," Aleister Crowley.

8. Billion years. According to Hubbard, some 70 million years ago the Earth, known as Teegeeack, was one of 6 large planets of the Galactic Confederation. Its peoples operated on a super-human level, but the planets were badly overpopulated with hundreds of billions on each planet. The Confederation's president, Xenu, or Xemu, had excess population sent to Teegeeack where they were put alongside volcanoes and killed with nuclear devices. The victim's spirits, or Thetans, were then "implanted" with religious and technological images for 36 days, and then sent to either Hawaii or Las Palmas to be stuck together in clusters. Human beings, according to Hubbard, are actually a collection of Thetans, a cluster of "Body Thetans." See William Patrick Patterson, Adi Da Samraj—Realized or/and Deluded (Fairfax, CA: Arete Communications, 2012), 17.

9. Slow boat to China. "I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China was a well-known phrase among poker players, referring to a person who lost steadily and handsomely. My father turned it into a romantic song, placing the title in the mainstream of catch-phrases in 1947." Susan Loesser, A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life: A Portrait by His Daughter (New York: Donald I. Fine Inc., 1993), 62. Such a trip was as long and slow as one could imagine.

» Fourth Way Perspectives
    » Essays
    » Interviews
    » Working in the World
    » Meetings
    » Film Reviews
    » Book Reviews

Recommend This Page: