David Gately

Strange Brew: A toxic blend of master and follower

In David Gately on September 28, 2012 at 7:16 am

Since 1993’s Cigarettes and Coffee, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has charmed us with idiosyncratic films that pit extraordinary complexities in human temperament against fascinating history. Consider his three Oscar-nominated movies: Boogie Nights (naive nightclub dishwasher inhabits 70s golden age of porn), Magnolia (misogynist self-help guru antagonizes 90s vacuous San Fernando Valley) and There Will Be Blood (gold miner-turned-oilman lords over early 1900s frontier).

His latest, The Master, is another cinematic outlier. Here we have the promise of post-War World II America beguiling two extremely flawed men: one a reckless alcoholic drifter, the other a manipulative cult leader. Both are looking for a fix.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the drunk, needs help. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of a Scientology-like congregation called The Cause, needs someone to repair.

The story opens at end of WWII. Freddie, a sailor onboard a U.S. Navy ship, lies alone, passed out on top of the ship’s engine, staring blindly into what’s most likely a South Pacific sky. Something about him whispers unhinged misfit. He’s a drink mixologist, adept at concocting a grain-alcohol blend of paint-thinner, bread and sugar. Devoid of this brew, he drains (and drinks) either fuel or incendiary liquid from a bomb.

On a beach with other sailors, Freddie gulps alcohol from coconuts and mimics sex with a busty sand sculpture of a woman. Trapped and frustrated in his hyper-sexualized fantasy, he wanders to the ocean’s edge to masturbate. Later, when a shrink presents him with a Rorschach test, he sees only “pussy” and “cock” in the inkblots.

At war’s end, Freddie’s in San Francisco, aimless and showing signs of colossal post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enter Dodd, onboard a yacht at a San Francisco wharf, cajoling his flock of followers. He’s readying the herd, including his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), for a long, spiritual journey to New York, via the Panama Canal. Something about him says charismatic huckster. Freddie, drunk again and wandering the docks, stumbles onto Dodd’s boat and passes out. When the boat’s at sea, Freddie wakes, and Dodd summons him for a meeting.

In Freddie, Dodd sees a “protégé and guinea pig,” someone he can cure and offer to doubters as shining proof of his ideology’s veracity. The elder gentleman wields his smarts and paternal authority to manipulate Freddie’s vulnerabilities. He’s also looking for a comrade who knows how to make a stiff drink, he tells Freddie, which furthers his mixed-message seduction. In Dodd, Freddie sees the only person in his small world who cares and may have the answer to his desperation.

The Master’s cinematic peak – and the scene that will no doubt screen at the Oscars next year when Phoenix, Hoffman and Thomas Anderson are nominees – has Dodd “processing” Freddie. [Thomas Anderson admits borrowing from Scientology for The Master, and similar to L. Ron Hubbard, Dodd believes he can cure sickness through a Q&A session similar to Scientology’s auditing, by recalling and exorcising demons from childhood and past lives.] Here, Phoenix and Hoffman’s artistic sparring and Thomas Anderson’s camerawork showcase a master class in film making.

Phoenix’s physicality throughout The Master recalls Brando and De Niro. Rarely in modern cinema do we get to witness such a stunning method of inhabiting a character.

Hoffman is just as agile. His outbursts of rage, childishness and violence are brilliantly tempered with grace and charm. His Dodd is a prideful shaman, weakened by the weight of his own make-believe world.

Eventually, Freddie and Dodd run an inevitable course toward toxic rivalry, between philosophical contempt and brotherly love. But like all affection built on lies and deception, the pathology eventually breaks the bond. Neither can fix the other.

The movie presents a surreal story based on facts that are at once lucid, a bit confusing and thoroughly engaging. Its power – and perhaps source of both its appeal and ambiguity – relies on questioning what’s on scene:  who’s setting up whom, and more pointedly, what dialogue and imagery are real, and what scenes only reflect Freddie and Dodd’s psychotic imaginations?

With The Master, Thomas Anderson – one of America’s few, young (he’s 42), outside-the-lines writer-directors – presents a tour de force in human character study and semi-conscious disquiet.

Evil Garden: An American family’s foray into Nazi Germany

In David Gately on May 17, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Dateline: BERLIN, Germany, 1933 – a simmer of dire portents.

Extremists prosper as calls for a defense of the Aryan race echo throughout the county, and Jews are blamed for the nation’s ills. In January, as Adolf Hitler is sworn in as chancellor, whispers of the country’s escalating racist ideology ricochet throughout Europe and across the pond.

Seven months later, during a blistering hot summer, a new U.S. Ambassador arrives, thrust into the fermenting milieu. His name is William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered University of Chicago professor, and his ambassadorship brims with fascinating personalities, among them his sexually coquettish daughter Martha.

Seventy-five years later, Dodd’s tenure (1933-37) makes for a captivating read in Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

Larson’s one of the few contemporary American writers exceptionally deft at crafting an imaginary work of novelistic history. “Beasts” certifies another well-conceived work of nonfiction that breathes life into a previously obscure tale. It’s familiar literary territory for him, as best-selling author (and winner of a National Book Award) for “The Devil in the White City.”

“White City” brilliantly animated the mind-boggling events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (White City refers to the Fair’s white stucco buildings, which, in comparison to the brick and mortar Chicago, seemed illuminated.)

It unfolded the bizarre tale of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the great American architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. The effect: an engrossing account of the delightful charm and shockingly sinister side of 19th-century Chicago.

“Beasts” brilliantly illuminates not just the dark side of Nazi Germany but also the delicate scale of human relationships in international politics. Larson’s nimble writing humanizes the whirlwind of escalating cruelty and panic against a backdrop of U.S-German relations leading up to World War II.

Dodd, who prefers to go to bed early each night with a bowl of peaches and warm milk, bumbles his way through dicey diplomacy as a supporting yet key player in the early 20th century nightmare now stamped Nazi Germany.

He met Hitler several times before becoming strongly anti-Hitler and eventually refusing to meet with him. He spoke out vehemently against the regime, warning of war ahead. His remarks angered his State Department bosses, who wondered how an ambassador not on speaking terms with his host government could be effective.

Dodd’s time in Berlin serves as focal point for the horrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, as the city becomes the site of a glittering social life, secret affairs and political meetings that take place within lavish homes and embassies scattered throughout the city.

Martha, a journalist wannabe, becomes totally smitten by the allure of Berlin’s capricious setting, flagrantly sleeping with members of the diplomatic corps, the SS, the Gestapo and several high-profile American reporters and authors, Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg among them.

Though not a comparative study of 1930s antisemitism in Germany verse America, where antisemitism has always been less prevalent, “Beasts” also excels in revealing – through Dodd and his daughter’s prolific journal and letter writing, as well as official State Department dispatches – America’s own struggles with racial and religious intolerance.

“I accepted the attitude that Jews were less socially desirable,” writes Martha from Berlin. In Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt grapples with how to respond to a letter from Hitler calling out America’s hypocrisy in shaming Germany for bigotry when African-Americans – who made up approximately 12 percent of U.S. population vs. a 3 percent Jewish population in Germany in the 1930s – lack voting and other civil liberties.

The narrative of “Beasts” climaxes with “The Night of the Long Knives,” a weekend in June 1934 when Hitler rounded up most of his political opponents and had them executed. It is then that Martha finally sees the cautionary light and accepts the evil of the Nazis.

Dodd survived his ambassadorship in Berlin, an assignment he loathed, retiring to his Virginia farm only to die three years later in 1940. Until Larson’s research, history painted Dodd a weak and ineffective ambassador.

“Beasts,” which takes its name from Tiergarten (Animal Garden), the park across the street from Dodd’s Berlin residence, recasts Dodd an everyday man under unimaginable pressure to maintain personal moral compass serving a thankless job in an immoral environment.

John Brown’s Body: Revisiting a rebel’s raid

In David Gately on April 27, 2012 at 9:29 am

As America recognizes the sesquicentennial of its Civil War, John Brown and his role in sparking that war remain a mystery to many.

Ask, and you’ll likely hear an assortment of reactions toward the man. Abolitionist. Agitator. Hero. Lunatic. You could get a simple: “who’s John Brown?” Or you may hear the hymn of the infamous Union battlefield march:

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul’s marching on.
He’s done to be a solider in the army of the Lord,
His soul’s marching on.”

Brown is often a footnote in American history books, relegated to a fuzzy heliographic engraving of a crazed dissenter who staged the botched, blood-spattered raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va., in October 1859, in protest of slavery.

But read Tony Horwitz’s “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” and a fresh supposition surfaces.

In Horwitz’s fluid, engaging narrative, Brown is rebaptized a proud American, passionate humanist and suffragette of social ills. He may have been a woefully flawed, madcap anarchist, but he was fundamentally a good-hearted husband, father (to 20 children) and citizen, organically revolted by the imorality of American slavery.

The Brown of “Midnight Rising” is a self-anointed insurgent, a nineteenth-century forerunning rebel-rouser, feverishly devoted to committing suicidal violence to spark a moral crusade against injustice.

Brown didn’t die in the raid, but 16 of his men did, including two of his sons. Another died while waiting trial for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, and six men, including Brown, were eventually hanged for their involvement.

In Horwitz’s account, Brown’s path to Harper’s Ferry seeded early as his Calvinist parents preachly loudly against America’s sins – slavery, foremost – while turning their Ohio home into a stop on the Underground Railroad. When he witnessed the whipping of a slave boy, young John Brown was deeply sickened. A mini abolitionist emerged.

Born in 1800, Brown by his 20s was a fledgling figurehead in the growing national debate on slavery’s abhorrence and antithesis to equality, a founding principle. By the 1830s and ‘40s, he was travelling the country speaking to noted abolitionists, including Fredrick Douglas.

Brown’s half-baked Harper’s Ferry scheme plotted a rally of mutinous soldiers – anti-slavery whites, as well as free- and runaway-slaves – to steal guns and ammunition from the federal armory and to turn those weapons on slaveholders in the South. His actions drastically altered Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy on slavery during his 1860 presidential run and ultimately led to the start of the Civil War a year later.

Reading “Midnight Rising” post-9/11, through the lens of a newly Occupied world, offers an intriguing glimpse into the mind of a civil aggressor.

Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a nimble writer. As a best-selling author of books like “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War,” his “Midnight Rising” is part history, part biography, but mostly fascinating to read. It’s John Brown: humanized, demystified and maybe not so lunatic after all.

As the war began to fracture of the country in 1861, Henry David Thoreau called Brown “the most American of us all.” He added, “They called him crazy then; who calls him crazy now?”