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Thinking pop culture

Mastering your domain or drinking the Kool-Aid?

The Master - now showing.

In one of the last scenes of The Master, cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sings On a Slow Boat to China. The romantic connotations aside, the ordeal of so long a journey perfectly encapsulated my viewing experience.

144 minutes, my friends. 144 gruelling minutes.

The other day in The Body Shop I was buying a shower gel and the shopkeep asked me if I wanted a Bath Lily. (For the uninitiated: it’s a nonsense and expensive sponge-thing). I said no thanks and needlessly noted that I hated them. Hate of course, was far too strong an emotion for a sponge. But it’d been a long day.

But I absolutely hated The Master. 144 shambolic minutes of overacting and characters so disposable that I wished each would die gruesome - but celluloid-worthy - deaths.

In those 144 minutes I counted four cult-themed films I’d seen in the last 12 months; a number that seemed a little too large for just one year:

Sound of My Voice. Excellent.

Trailer: The Sound of My Voice.

Martha Marcy May Marlene. Kinda interesting; very good ending.

Trailer: Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Higher Ground. Boring.

Trailer: Higher Ground.

Why? What is it that makes cults so interesting to filmmakers? To audiences?

I’m convinced that part of the appeal lies in the freak-show factor. Of watching “weirdos” who are oh so different to us. That on one hand here’s a (debatably) charismatic leader offering the lost and the angry and the anomic answers. That there’s something seductive about watching a self-styled prophet manipulate and exploit and destroy.

That the guy might be villainous but the lucky bastard also possesses those brain-washing techniques we’d secretly like to sample on days when playing God seems fun.

And, of course, we’re also watching for the devotees. Those sad sacks and dumb-arses and weak-willed saps who are so embarrassingly desperate for answers that they’ll let themselves be brainwashed - as PTSD-sufferer Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) did in The Master - by a dulcet toned Svengali. And we’re watching them, vacillating between thinking that they’re naive and idiotic.

And we’re - without a shadow of a doubt - thinking these followers are all other. That they’re unhinged while we’re far too smart to ever be tricked into some cultish tomfoolery.

And yet - I thought, at probably the 80th minute of torture - aren’t we all, in varying degrees, members of one cult or another?

One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions that I like is “a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator”.

I love advertising: both the art of it and the psychology behind it. And the most simple thing that advertising does is attempt to “cure” what ails us.

Without advertising for example, we might never have known that our genitals stank, had cellulite, had “abnormal” sexual functioning or that our hair was too thin, too frizzy or too flyaway.

Advertising teaching us what’s wrong - what our disease is - and then offers us a cure through product.

“Mapple” on The Simpsons.

But it’s not just consumer behaviour that can be cult-like.

Worship of rock bands and political parties and political philosophies and sporting teams and authors and actors and vitamins and coupledom and money and professions and dietary choices and…

Each of which can also be treated as though it’s a “solution”.

Of course, I’m not claiming that any of this is a bad thing.

One of Grand Master Dodd’s tenets is that no human can exist without serving a master. While I’m not sure that that one idea was worth 144 minutes of my life, it’s an interesting thesis.

Whether or not we have JC or Allah - at one end of the respectability spectrum - or Marshall Applewhite or Charles Manson at the other, or Apple or Chanel, that quest for a cure for the human condition seems pretty universal. And certainly a decent idea for a film. Perhaps.

Trailer: The Master.

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