Ignorance is probably the most universal human experience, but how you choose to deal with that cold conscience is individual.
Some people seek solace in ideas and communities born of love, art, or religion. But in the extreme, a few of us are prey to groups and people who isolate us and take advantage of our desperation: sects. As intoxicating as they are terrifying, cults are ready fuel for our wildest imaginations. And nowhere is that perhaps more true than in Hollywood.
With roots in film going back to the work of Edgar G. Ulmer the black cat in 1934, the cults’ cinematic appeal intensified in the 1970s, eerily correlated to the real-life Manson murders that unfolded in the same decade. Moviegoers devoured classics like The devils, the wicker man, Y Sigh. But for much of movie history, cults were a tabloid horror movie trope, used to terrify and excite audiences with satanists and witches.
Movies that offer deeper, more realistic portrayals of cults are a relatively new phenomenon, which is part of what makes watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies Teacher an experience so intensely transformative ten years after it first appeared on screen.
Cults fascinate us because we are all susceptible to their attraction. worship week explore these stories and the liminal spaces between the real and the imaginary.
Teacher At 10
Born from an idea that Anderson had been nurturing from the earliest days of his career, Teacher combines disparate inspirations (including the life of American author John Steinbeck, the literary masterpiece of Thomas Pynchon vand even naval stories shared by Jason Robards on the set of Magnolia) to paint a portrait of post-World War II America through the eyes of a disillusioned and tumultuous Navy veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Although Quell is undoubtedly the main character, the plot doesn’t really begin to unfold until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the boisterous and enigmatic leader of a burgeoning religious movement known as “The Cause.” .
Prior to the film’s release, there was much speculation as to whether or not Hoffman played his role based on L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology, and although Dodd is a fictional character, the resemblances are deliberate and uncanny. The Cause presents itself as a spiritualist movement begun in the 1950s with core beliefs in reincarnation and the healing powers of mental conditioning, a direct overlap with Scientology’s early 1950s origins, its “Thetan” philosophy, as well as the practice of Dianetics and Review of accounts. Scientology has more than earned its classification as a cult, due to its secretive nature, coupled with the hostile and militaristic methods of leaders to punish critics both inside and outside the group.
It’s easy to see how Teacher It evokes the early days of Scientology in building its fictional cult presence, but the film also doesn’t fall back on the classic cult trope as too sensational or seemingly sinister. It rejects horror movie motifs and allows the most nefarious aspects of the group’s behavior to be revealed in subtlety and subtext. It can be fun to portray cults as legions of faceless killers dressed in red, but the scariest part about cults in the real world is how they can use a facade of normality and friendliness to mask their motives. Typical cult recruits are ordinary people with emotional, financial or health problems that make them vulnerable to predatory ideologies and people.
Drink TeacherThe main character of Freddie Quell. Joaquin Phoenix brings Quell to life, oscillating between bouts of manic violence and quiet, introspective loneliness, painting the portrait of a veteran excluded from a world that has moved on while he has been trapped in a prison of his own trauma. He plays the role of a man who puts Band-Aids over his problems: sex and homemade moonshine fill the void left by her shattered love life and his personal conflicts.
Enter the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodds. Unlike the ghoulish quirkiness of hackneyed cult-leader types in horror movies, Dodd is warm and welcoming, funny and charming, all traits you wouldn’t expect from someone looking to manipulate you. Where Phoenix is physical and impulsive, Hoffman is just as intense in his stillness. Dodd is a man who strives to have absolute control of his physique and his personality at all times; the preferred method of manipulating him is to erode the truth. Within The Cause, Dodd is the only person who fully understands his philosophy, but he is so ingrained in his followers because he convinces them that he is the only way to become whole, and in turn, he is the only person who really cares about them.
Arguably one of the most pivotal scenes in the film is also the most memorable: Shortly after Quell hides out on Dodd’s boat and becomes acquainted with the man, the two men sit down and share a drink before Dodd convince Quell to participate in something he calls “Prosecuting.” Before Quell can fully understand what is happening, Dodd assaults him with a flurry of intensely personal questions, delving into his childhood, his time in the military, and the traumas he experienced before and during his time in the service. Dodd is simultaneously probing Quell’s life for details that he can use to con him later, as well as forcing Quell to remove vulnerabilities from him so that he becomes a blank slate for Dodd to fill in.
Teacher it reveals the nature of cults on a deeper level than the myriad of movies that try to use these groups as a vehicle for horrible ideas, scenes and characters. Instead of orchestrating some great human sacrifice or practicing witchcraft, TeacherThe characters in are locked in a struggle for control of their own stories.
It is a film that has been incessantly criticized in the ten years since its release, but amid all the possible interpretations, it is a film about our search for meaning through other people. Dodd isn’t after riches or fame: being the figurehead of The Cause gives him a purpose, and his relationship with Quell is so appealing because Quell represents a beast he has yet to tame. Due to the fact that our society is hierarchical, and our search for fulfillment in life comes at the expense of those hierarchies, many people seek to upgrade themselves by exerting power over others, including yourself.
Cults fascinate us because we are all susceptible to their attraction. worship week explore these stories and the liminal spaces between the real and the imaginary. Visit our hub to read more stories about cults.