March 08, 2013
The Master is a film about a science fiction writer in the states who founds a religious cult. That's what the publicity rightly says. Its also a film about a soldier returning post World War Two to find his place in society. It is also a film about how men sublimate the desire for sex into religion. It also might be a film about how followers can become even more zealous than their religious masters. I think though more than anything its a film about the 1950s in America. There is something in it that reminds me of Pleasantville- the film in which two modern teenage kids- Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire- find themselves in the midst of a Happy Days like sitcom and proceed to wreak sexual and psychological havoc. It reminded me of Pleasantville because of the same sense of restraint and violence.
The Master is about a man who returns from war, damaged. He returns to a world in which all he basically wants is sex. Joaquin Phoenix's character is not very pleasant: he is positively unpleasant. He'll sleep with anything- even piled sand on a beach and kill for kicks. What restrains him is the fact that he finds religion. Under the tutelage of the Master, he sublimates his violence and his sexual anger into the practice of religious dogma, the dance of cultic movement. Within the group, he is seen as dangerous- the Master's daughter wants to sleep with him, the Master's wife wants him expelled and in a curious way, both are sensing the same thing: he represents the possibility of change and of disruption, of violence. The Master feels that the real test of his repressive system is whether it can cope with this ultimate explosion of the human unconsciousness- in a sense the film deals with the fundemental question of the fifties, how does one repress the memory of war and the difficulty of desire?
Perhaps that's why my favourite character in the whole film is neither of the male protagonists but Amy Adams's wife of the Master. It is because she incarnates the double sense of the film- this masterpiece of repression and desire. She will permit her husband to have affairs, to do anything, so long as the religious movement survives- and she will turn on anyone who in any way damages that survival. Its a fantastic piece of acting- never has a fanatic been brought to screen with such tender ferociousness. Amy Adams both smiles tenderly and stabs at the same time. Its a terribly horrifying display of what repression is. I was wrong the Master is terrifying: its all in Adams's smile.
March 07, 2013
What's the purpose of writing history? Some people might say "to tell the truth" and that's a perfectly reasonable response- its there in one of the first history books when Herodotus talks about making sure that the deeds of Greeks and Barbarians are not forgotten. Some more postmodern people might talk about writing different narratives of the past and that's legitimate too: whether its women's history or black history or the history of the poor, that kind of history has added a lot to our understanding. We don't write history from the perspective of white men anymore and that's all to the good: we are more sensitive to the fact that there are other stories about the past that need to be read and written. These two modern senses of history though don't really help us understand why someone would write a history about someone who was a King but who they believed almost certainly never existed. Such a history isn't true but nor does it rescue some marginalised group from the margins- so why would you write it?
March 05, 2013
What did the writers of the US constitution think about the major issues of economic policy? The question has a vital political importance in America because it is tied to an argument about the legitimate sources of law. Some judges and scholars argue that the original writers' interpretation of the text that they wrote must take precedence over any later interpretation: consequently they argue Americans should refer to the past in thinking about their institutions. I'm not interested in that argument today. What I am interested in is another argument- which is what did the writers of the constitution actually think about economics.