Guest Post: Voodoo Math, an attempt to wrestle with The Master

Today’s guest post comes from Evan Pulgino.  Even explores The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and what makes it a movie you should go to the theater right now and see.  I’d consider it simply because of the fact of 1. a Phoenix family member and 2. plot that features a cult-like religious leader, but Evan has more well-thought out and compelling reasons.  He’s also a movie buff as you can see from his introduction:

“I fell in love with movies after a chance encounter with 2001: A Space Odyssey in college. Ever since then I’ve been consumed by trying to watch every great film ever made. Being a lifelong stutterer, the idea of expressing thoughts through a visual medium was a powerful draw. I prefer movies that feel like dreams. My favorite films are Barry Lyndon, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, In the Mood for Love, and The Virgin Spring.”

I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It is an enigmatic, beautiful, and powerful experience.
However, the reasons why I love it are the same reasons I find it difficult to write about. The process is like trying to nail clouds to the sky. I feel like I’m leaving behind half-finished artifacts of articles about The Master in my wake that will later to be misassembled or refashioned by future generations. I’ve been holding on too tight, trying to turn a piece of art into a puzzle that can be solved. Instead of trying to form a coherent single critique of the film I’m going to embrace the film’s ethereal tone and just list a
series of stray thoughts, observations, and ramblings about The Master.

The Master is about the relationship between two men, a navy seaman returning to America after World War II and the leader of a strange religious movement called The Cause (a thinly veiled version of Scientology). Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an animalistic, alcoholic, and disturbed veteran. His body is misshapen and his speech is often slurred. It’s unclear if his problems are PTSD or have some deeper root. Drifting from job to job, Freddie stows away on a ship setting sail from San Francisco. The ship is under the command of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher.” Dodd is the master of The Cause and a great many of his followers have gathered on the New York bound ship for the wedding of his daughter. Dodd
keeps Quell on board for his ability to make hooch (with secret hidden ingredients like paint thinner or cleaning products) and eventually attempts to take Freddie under his wing for motivations that remain mysterious. The film focuses on the often-complicated relationship between Quell and Dodd. Sometimes it seems the men are locked in a power struggle for control, sometimes it’s a messy father-son relationship, and sometimes it feels like a love story.

By Hubbard_and_moulton.jpg: Oregon Journal staff derivative work: -- Cirt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

L. Ron Hubbard, 1943

One of the first things that struck me about The Master is the sheer confidence, beauty, and mastery of Paul Thomas Anderson’s style. What I love about it how the style doesn’t get in its own way. The visuals are stark, clean, and simple. The framing of the shots and the editing give the performers space to perform. The Master isn’t about editing trickery, but human beings inhabiting a very real world. This style is so underused that it actually becomes wonderfully disorienting at times. There are countless shots that are framed with no specific point of focus. This causes your eyes to dart all over the frame trying to soak in the details and nuance. The editing and the pacing felt very much like floating at sea, and not just because The Masteris filled with lots of water imagery. The opening of the film, detailing Freddie Quell’s post-war life, drifting from job to job, is a perfect example of how pacing and framing sets a mood. Quell is often surrounded by negative space that isolates him from the rest of the world. I loved the shot of Quell being chased through an empty cabbage field on a misty dawn. Additionally Jonny Greenwood’s discordant score creates and underlying sense of uneasiness and dread.

Much has been said about the acting in the film. I don’t want to dwell too much on this aspect, but it definitely deserves mention. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman tower in this film. Phoenix is one of the most underappreciated great actors working today, but is rarely in great movies. Here, he is given a great role in a great film and more than delivers. He is tortured, contorted, gaunt, and mysterious. His is a violent and powerful performance that belongs side-by-side with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood as one of the top performances in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Hoffman is spectacular as well. Charming, charismatic, and angry. There’s more than a touch of Orson Welles in his performance and Hoffman fills those shoes like no other actor could. His character may or may not be a charlatan, but you like him, admire him, and understand him.

Sailors on the USS Lexington, from the U.S. National Archives flickr

I’m sort of a sucker for movies about religion. More specifically movies about the power and appeal of religion, but that also understand the feelings of imprisonment and confusion that religion creates. I believe that The Master is about much more than Scientology or even religion in general, but I can’t help feeling drawn into viewing the film through a religious prism. I love the scene in the first third of the film where Freddie undergoes processing (the film’s version of Scientology’s auditing) for the first time. You can feel how the processing system is designed to penetrate through barriers that the subject has built
to break a person’s will. The two actors are masterful in this scene. The dialogue starts to take on the qualities of music. At first, Freddie seems to be playing with the master, but eventually the systematic manner of the questioning breaks him and the film gracefully transitions into a dream-like flashback that is a source of his pain. When Freddie comes out of the flashback he is reborn. You can see in his eyes that he is a believer, even if he never really is quite sure of what exactly he believes. For better or worse the two men have genuinely bonded. There’s an emotional bond that is formed between believers and spiritual exploration. Also, my second viewing of The Master also brought out a sense of rebellion in Freddie that I didn’t perceive the first time around. I initially thought that The Master was a riff on A Clockwork Orange and that Freddie is an Alex-type character that the master attempts to control. But now I see the film as Freddie’s journey to heal himself via The Cause and eventual realization that Lancaster Dodd is a fake. Freddie’s true rebirth comes when he rejects The Cause and sees through the master’s lies.

I love that this movie is fluid and dreamlike and open to interpretation. I’m less interested in a movie that is anchored to narrative logic than a movie that is trying to inspire emotions, ideas, and thoughts. Film is an inherently dreamlike medium and I love movies that embrace that quality and let the audience explore the worlds they create. The Master has a lot of rabbit holes to get lost in. The film seems to enjoy letting go of reality the same way a madman lets go of the wheel of a speeding car. The Master does this with both large and small details.

Joaquin Phoenix at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival. image by flickr user GabboT

A general sense of uneasiness permeates the entire film, but a scene about half way through removes the floor out from under you. Lancaster Dodd and his followers are staying at the house of a believer in Philadelphia. During their first night in the house he
sings a bawdy song to the group. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until mid-scene all the women in the scene appear naked without transition. The scene straddles the line between reality and fantasy. All of a sudden you are unsure if you are seeing something that is actually happening in the world of the film or the dream of a character. You never quite regain your footing in the world from that point on. Small strange details seem larger and more unusual. I loved the sequence when Freddie wakes up in a movie theater with an usher handing him a telephone with the master on the other end of the line.

I also love getting lost in the details of The Master. The clothes, the sets, and ordinary objects that feel extraordinary. I attribute the enjoyment of these details to the shooting of the film in 65mm. This is an intimate movie shot in an epic format. Movies are rarely shot on film anymore, let alone 65mm. 65mm is a larger film stock with a much higher resolution. This creates not only a higher quality image, but also captures more detail in the images themselves. Although in most theaters in the US you’ll be seeing a 35mm conversion, the effect is remarkable. The images of the film pop off the screen and become real. I’ve found myself noticing small, inconsequential details that contribute to the mood of the film. In my first viewing I fixated on an image early in the film where Lancaster Dodd is presiding over the wedding of his daughter on the deck of the ship. I remember being able to feel the texture of the clothes in that scene and loving the way Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s hair flew in the wind. My second viewing I just stared at the motion of a fan at a gathering of The Cause. These details only occupy a few seconds of screen time but they had aesthetic importance.

I feel like I’m not even scratching the surface of The Master. There’s so much more in this film to discuss and analyze and praise. After two screenings the film still feels elusive and mysterious to me. It’s a movie I want to obsess over and reinterpret over the years, reviewing it through different viewpoints and perspectives. It is a rich work of art that refuses to be categorized, defined, or ignored. Maybe one day its spell will no longer move me, but for now I’m a willing acolyte.

Other articles about The Master:

Battlefield Mankind” Kent Jones @ Film Comment
The Master: What does it all mean?” Jim Emerson @ scanners
Remastered” Dana Stevens @ Slate

Similar Viewing:

There Will Be Blood // Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally exhilarating previous film with a stellar
performance from Daniel Day Lewis
Higher Ground // Vera Farmiga’s beautiful exploration of the power, hopefulness, and
inadequacy of belief
F for Fake // Orson Welle’s charming, deceitful, and mysterious “documentary” about
charlatans, liars, and fakery


Buffy Meets Katniss . . . In Boarding School: Vampire Academy

A review of Vampire Academy (Vampire Academy #1) by Richelle Mead

Razorbill (Penguin), 2007

Vampire Academy Richelle Mead

A special guest review by S. Dubs, September 17, 2012

Crunchers & Munchers, it is my delight to bring you a guest review by the lovely and mysterious S. Dubs! S. is something of a cross between Scarlet O’Hara and Mata Hari (yeah—they’re almost the same name and don’t try and tell me that’s a coincidence). She has recently relocated to the Big Easy, where she divides her time between dirty jazz clubs and questionable sports bars. That’s when she isn’t reading young adult literature and watching Supernatural. Sam. Because obviously that was your next question. Welcome, S. Dubs! —Rebecca


Rosemarie Hathaway: Our plucky heroine, Rose is a dhampir—half-human, half-vampire— in training to be a royal bodyguard for her Moroi (i.e., good vampire) best friend, Lissa.

Vasalisa Dragomir: Rose’s best friend and the last living member of the royal Dragomir line.  Beautiful, kind, but slightly unstable. The object of Rose’s unwavering loyalty, the two have a special bond in that Rose can “read” Lissa’s thoughts and feelings (though Lissa can’t read Rose).

Christian Ozera: A snarky outcast who is shunned by his peers for the sins of his parents. The fact that that he is delightfully sarcastic and tends to tell hard truths doesn’t help his social standing. He and Lissa form an unlikely connection.

Dimitri Belikov: A super hot, super badass Guardian—a dhampir bodyguard for the Moroi.  He is tasked with tutoring Rose in battling Strigoi (i.e., evil vampires). As will happen during mock combat, sparks between the two fly.

Mia: Obligatory Mean Girl, and obstacle to Rose and Lissa’s re-entry into Vamp Academy popular society. In their absence (see below), she has become the Queen B. and isn’t ready to give it up.


Rose and Lissa have been on the run for two years, trying to escape a mysterious but very real threat to Lissa’s life.  They are found and returned to St. Vladimir’s Academy, a boarding school for Moroi—a race of vampires who are born (not made, as the Strigoi are) and eventually die—and dhampirs, who train to become Guardians, defenders of the Moroi against their enemies, the Strigoi. Rose and Lissa now have to face the consequences of their unsanctioned flight, reintegrate into the socio-political vipers’ nest that is high school, and uncover the threat to Lissa’s life is and how to stop it. NBD.


Vlad the ImpalerRichelle Mead turns to the vampire legends of Eastern Europe (Romania, specifically) and Russia to help create her world of warring vampire races: the Moroi, “living” vampires who wield magic and drink blood, but don’t kill their ‘donors,’ and the Strigoi, who give up their magic and morals for true immortality by killing their victims when they take their blood. Moroi blood is the Strigoi’s favorite snack so, to protect themselves, the Moroi hire dhampir bodyguards. As half-human, half-Moroi, dhampirs have a mix of human and vampire qualities: they are super strong, have fast reflexes, can go out in the sun, don’t drink blood, and, oh yeah, can’t reproduce with other members of their species.

Max Schreck as NosferatuFor me, this biological sidebar is one of the more interesting aspects of Mead’s particular take on the vampire legend. Dhampirs can’t make babies with other dhampirs and so, in order to perpetuate their race, they must reproduce with Moroi (the offspring of a Moroi/dhampir coupling is always a dhampir child). But the Moroi tend to want to marry and make Moroi babies with other Moroi, so there are a lot of single dhampir mothers around. In fact, there seem to be two occupations available to dhampir women: Guardian or baby mama. Guess which one Rose chooses? (She herself is the daughter of a famous Guardian mother and unknown and absent Moroi father, and has plenty of mommy issues and daddy issues to deal with throughout the series.)

Basically, the Moroi and dhampir live in a mutually beneficial arrangement, though dhampirs are socially subordinate to the Moroi, who have a ruling aristocracy of twelve royal families.  However, the main worldview of Vampire Academy is boarding school and all the delightfulness that this entails (mainly teens running around with minimal and/or ineffective adult supervision for large swaths of time which allows them to participate in various madcap adventures).

what were this book’s intentions? does it live up to them?

Living under a rock!Unless you have been living under a rock for the past ten years, you know that the market is glutted with vampires.  So what makes Vampire Academy so special?  Honestly? Not much—though I do like the Old World Russian flavor of Mead’s particular take on vampire society (itself not super original, but well-executed here). If I had to pick one intention, I would say that Mead is after entertainment, and on that front she delivers.  There are some interesting moral and political quandaries raised throughout the series, which give the books a bit of added depth, but overall they are just fun to read.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerMead’s characters are gratifyingly complex, her Rose Hathaway the anti-Bella Swan. Indeed, Rose is Buffy-meets-Katniss and neither of them at the same time. She is quippy, hot-headed, impulsive, moral (but comfortable with grey areas), loyal, strong, simultaneously practical and a romantic.  And she (along with the rest of the main characters) grows over the course of the series, rather than becoming a stronger version of a one-dimensional self (*cough* *cough* Bella).

Mead’s dialogue is fun and funny, and the overarching plot arc has lots of delicious teen angst to propel you through the series.  And, despite the overt dualism of “good” vs. “bad” vampires, Mead offers a realistically complex view of the world in which the good and the bad mix on an individual and social level and people are always more complicated than they first appear.

Frostbite Vampire Academy 2One of the things I most appreciated about the novel is the way that Mead deals with sexuality: sex is both something that just happens and a big deal. Rose is an alluring individual and she knows it. What’s more, she takes pleasure in being found attractive, without being (too) obnoxious about it. She has a basically healthy self-image; she can be self-deprecating, but she generally likes herself and understands her value, which is plural. (Side note: I kind of hate the cover art for the whole series, but the model on the first novel’s cover looks uncannily like a young Angelina Jolie, which is actually a fairly good correlative for Rose’s appeal.)  As urban** fantasy/paranormal romance, the novel could easily dwell on the racy and/or romantic and there’s definitely an entertaining amount of that going on. But, like the best young adult works out there, the primary relationship is friendship:

“Lissa and I had been best friends ever since kindergarten, when our teacher had paired us together for writing lessons. Forcing five-year-olds to spell Vasilisa Dragomir and Rosemarie Hathaway was beyond cruel, and we’d—or rather, I’d—responded appropriately. I’d chucked my book at our teacher and called her a fascist bastard. I hadn’t known what those words meant, but I’d known how to hit a moving target.

Lissa and I had been inseparable ever since.” (8)

The bond between Lissa and Rose is the stuff of fantasy—and not just because it involves a mystical psychic connection.  Theirs is a do-anything-for-each-other relationship, one that pushes both of them outside of their comfort zones and contributes to the aforementioned personal growth/character development.

[**The series actually ends up spanning quite a geographical range, but the primary action takes place at St. Vlad’s Academy, which is in The Middle of Nowhere, Montana.  So anti-urban fantasy?]

personal disclosure

Succubus Blues Richelle MeadI discovered this book through reading Richelle Mead’s adult urban fantasy series about the adventures of Georgina Kincaid, Succubus. Both series were guilty pleasures/secret shames, until I remembered that I was pretty shameless in my tastes and started telling all my friends about them. There are some real similarities between Rose and Georgina and if you like one (and are of an age to enjoy both adult and young adult fiction), there is a good chance you will enjoy reading about the other.  But I am new to this whole book review thing, so hit me up in the comments if you have read either series and want to fangirl and/or disagree with me (or suggest a good read-alike!).

A Cookbook Library, with recommendations for the new cook.

Welcome to our first guest post! I’m super excited to introduce someone who wants to share her home library with you, and what a tasty library it is.  The kitchen can be an intimidating place if you’ve just decided that you want to start cooking more of your own meals, and what better person to give advice on the best cookbooks to give you a stress-free start than a cookbook author and food writer?  Read about her library and check out our previous home library posts here and here.

Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories. as well as a
freelance food writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in
Gourmet Live, Better Homes & Gardens, iVillage, ReadyMade, DRAFT, Time
Out New York, and other print/online publications. She contributes
regularly to Serious Eats as Slice’s New Jersey correspondent. Casey
is the author of the forthcoming cookbook Classic Snacks Made from
Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand Name Treats
(Ulysses Press, 2013).

(Spoiler alert, she’s also my sister. -Tessa)

My cookbook library parallels my career in food: I didn’t leave grad school with a grand plan to be a food writer and cookbook author, just someone who cooked to clear my head and get away from the stress of my *real* writing job. As cooking grew from a distraction into an obsession and then a vocation, my small stack of cookbooks morphed into a full-on research library.

And as I meet and befriend more colleagues–aka, other writers in the food world–my dining room bookshelves get stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey with work form people I know personally and want to support.  Sadly, the earliest cookbooks that kickstarted my kitchen confidence are no longer in my collection. Better Homes & Gardens Microwave Cookbook, I salute you and your recipe for spinach deviled eggs, even though I don’t remember actually using a microwave in any of my protozoan attempts at cooking.  And the binder in which I slavishly stored recipes ripped from the pages of Bon Appetit or printed from the internet has been relegated to an out-of-sight cabinet after I realized I was creating more recipes for the web than using what others had already developed.  As a somewhat OCD home organizer, I like to have my cookbooks divided by category:

  • general purpose: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The New Doubleday Cookbook
  • chef-written cookbooks (subdivided by genre, like Italian, farm-to-table, Southern, etc.)
  • cocktails
  • breads and pizzas
  • breakfast (sort a bridge between bread-specific and general baking)
  • baking and dessert
  • ice cream
  • meat and grilling
  • canning and preserving

and so on.


canning! and MEAT

But the built-in shelves that came with the house are small and oddly sized, Making it near impossible to group all themed books together. Some need to be turned on their sides just to fit onto the shelves; other don’t fit neatly into one category, like my lone stir-frying book that hangs out with an overly large jam book and The Flavor Bible, a cool but genre-defying book that tells you what flavors match up with others. Sounds dorky, but sometimes it’s fun to page through and see that scallions and Dijon mustard are a good pair.  Think of them braised in a wine sauce. . . .

the trouble with built-ins.

But I digress. Over the years, my rationale behind the cookbooks I buy has shifted dramatically from impress-the-guests books like The French Laundry Cookbook and The Babbo Cookbook (both of which I still do cook from, honest) to a more well-rounded selection that covers all the bases from bread baking to curing meat to pressure cooking to regional Spanish cuisine. I read my cookbooks like they were novels and I turn to them often for reference and comparison.

If you’re building your own cookbook library, here are my top recommendations for filling your shelves:

For Cooks Just Starting Out

Jamie Oliver got a lot of flak for his “Food Revolution” TV show, but he’s still a smart and enthusiastic chef who knows of what he speaks.  Jamie’s Food Revolution and its follow-up tome, Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes, are like soothing guidance counselors for novice cooks who might otherwise turn to a frozen pizza or Lean Cuisine for dinner. Tasked with the idea of prepping a complete meal, whether it’s for yourself or a whole family, sounds daunting.  but Jamie breaks it down step by step–prepare, cook, and serve–covering all the bases in a conversational way.  He doesn’t ask you to dice the onions into 1/2-inch cubes, he just wants you to “roughly chop” them, knowwhatImean?  Before you know it, there’s a platter of parmesan chicken breasts with crispy posh ham on the table.  Meals in Minutes takes the concept one step further, pairing main dishes, salads, and veg together in one group so you can prepare an entire meal, start to finish, all at once in the kitchen. It’s an ingenious way of looking at things, since that’s the way most of us actually prep our food, and helps new cooks realize that cooking is a really intuitive process.

For Cooks Who Want to Know

Yes, Alton Brown’s recipes are available on the Food Network website, but if you’re a Good Eats junkie like me, you’ll be thrilled by the trilogy of books that covers every single recipe from every single one of the 249 episodes in the TV series. If you’ve never watched an episode, I nonetheless suggest you leaf through one of the tomes the next time you’re at the bookstore–I think these books make a better basic reference series than most of the chestnuts that came before them. Sure, The New York Times Cookbook can give you an eggs Benedict recipe, but Good Eats will explain the provenance of the name, tell you the history of the English muffin, teach you how to poach an egg, and give you a near foolproof hollandaise recipe.  All in one chapter. Isn’t that infinitely more useful, educational, and entertaining?

For Dessert Freaks

My friend Shaina Olmanson’s new cookbook Desserts in Jars takes a novel concept and explores its versatility six ways to Sunday. Newbie bakers can tackle their first yeast bread with the simple pull-apart cinnamon breads; pie crust-ophones like Tessa can tackle mini strawberry or peach bourbon pies, where rolling out pie dough doesn’t have to be perfect; and everyone should get a spoon for the recipe I’ve been jonesing to try ever since I picked up the book, sweet corn panna cotta with bacon-blueberry sauce.  Shaina’s got four kids, so she knows how to make recipes work for any age or experience level.  She’s patient and explanatory in her writing style, but her desserts have oomph.

For the Next Generation of Little House on the Prairie

Maybe you’ve always wanted to try your hand at canning, but are squeezed into a tiny studio apartment or don’t have a way to bring 10 pounds of tomatoes or strawberries back form the farmer’s market with you.  As the force behind the small-batch canning site Food in Jars, Marisa McClellan is the expert at the possibilities of preserving no matter how small your space.  Now she’s got a whole cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, with canning recipes that don’t require a forest’s worth of fruit.  Take a stab at Marisa’s simple raspberry ma, rhubarb jelly, or gingery pickled beets, and you’ll see how crazy satisfying canning can be–not to mention you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to buy Smucker’s in the first place.  And as she says, “Most people believe that you need a ton of special equipment in order to get canning. Truth is, provided your kitchen is stocked with some basics (I’m talking post, bowls, and measuring cups here, not Viking stoves) you can do a wide variety of canning with what you’ve already got.”

Oh, and what would any library be without its resident cats?  Lenny is still upset I took away some of his sleeping space, since he used to nestle in-between books before the space was filled.  But he’ll still relax against the cookbooks and gaze out the window at birds.  Harry prefers the other side of the bookshelves, where he can chill with the art history books.


Har-Har. (pronounced Hair-Hair)

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