Theater is well-known for staging political discourse. Shakespeare, whose political and psychological insights are still being understood in new ways, defined the canon of Western literature. He explored human nature through genres ranging from tragedies to black comedies, portraying the psyche with poetic acuity. While his plays and poetry put me to sleep in high school, I must admit that reading them now makes me realize just how relevant they really are.  The Bard’s play-within-a-play technique allowed him to do something quite amazing. Building layer upon layer within a single story, the complex plots tease the audience, daring thinkers to keep up with the playwright. Shakespeare’s provocative ideals about art translated into modern cinema. For example, Apocalypse Now, popularly known for its anti-war stance, represents the government as a failure of colonial enterprise. If you pay attention to the philosophy of Col. Kurtz, played by performance master Marlon Brando, the “horror” seen in war is the effect of people acting like gods.

In order to cover up such crimes, a politician like Nixon gave us such convoluted explanations that we got lost in his maze. Remember Inception, how reality is caked with layers upon layers of dream? Watch it again and judge whether Cobb, performed by Leonardo DiCaprio, reached reality in the end. Or did he just get lost in a web of chaos and deception?

Feeling similarly lost? You might watch American Beauty with comfort then, since pretty much everyone in that story feels the same. Coming across as a typical family drama, the movie is actually a harsh critique on our culture. And that floating bag— justify to me how that can be beautiful, and I’ll give you my tuition savings. When I watch the movie I feel that nobody knows what’s good for them, because values— ranging from a disheartened war vet to upper-middle class yuppies— have crumbled. What is termed “beautiful” in the movie is pathetic, and subjective judgement is thus made arbitrary and null of any grounding in reality. This, or so much of the world will claim, is the poor taste of North American mainstream— if you don’t believe me, ask Noam Chomsky.

When it comes to poor judgement, see if you can figure out any of the characters’ intentions in The Ides of March. This film, whose title emanates from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, shows its viewers the reality of Machiavellian politics. Look at Gov. Mike Morris, played by George Clooney. His deceptions are so careful that he not only fools his staff, but the audience watching the movie.

While you might catch onto political slants in pretty much every movie, the following is a list of my top cinematic critiques of the political game:

The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)

JFK (Oliver Stone)

Absolute Power (Clint Eastwood)

The Matrix Trilogy (Wachowski Bros.)

The Insider (Michael Mann)

Lions for Lambs (Robert Redford)

Enemy of the State (Tony Scott)

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi)

Manufacturing Consent (Noam Chomsky)

The Godfather Trilogy (Francis Ford Coppola)


Before tuning into the presidential election, watch these movies, read the newspaper, and make some appalling connections.

- Marco Filice

The fact that The Master was written and directed by the same person, Paul Thomas Anderson, shows that he has something important to say. The film is set in the ‘40s, and the disillusioned attitude of living in the West during tumultuous years of world war play as a background influence in the movie, but the quirky, dry humour avoids WWII’s melancholy.

The film’s opening scenes are idiosyncratic, strange, and without much dialogue. It’s well suited to the eccentric characers, as is the music. The soundtrack is so free of seriousness that the audience might think they’re watching a comedy. But there is a serious question at hand: the question of faith. How seriously do you take yours, and do you believe in religion, science, or politics? These questions become confused as even trying to figure out the film’s genre is difficult.

But the acting is what stands out the most. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the Master himself, successfully portrays a powerful yet disturbed individual. Hannah Arendt, a political theorist known for her insights on totalitarianism, once warned that we ought to be cautious of those gaining power having a conflicted personal history. Hoffman demonstrates this in intricate detail. Throughout the film, he is charismatic, charming, and, above all, believably sympathetic. And yet there lurks something mysterious underneath the façade, and as the story unfolds, we learn that “the Cause,” Anderson’s metaphor for Ron L. Hubbard’s Scientology, is a delusional attempt for a very basic human need.

After his shameless tirades as an aspiring rapper, Joaquin Phoenix truly does shine as the foolish Freddie Quell. A drifter who is totally ignorant to his own buffoonery, Freddie uses his service in the Navy to travel. He looks for work wherever he goes, picks fights in absurdly hilarious ways, and has the audacity to explicitly ask women to have sex with him. But there is something lovable about the childishness of his character. Phoenix plays the drifter, the jaded American, a product of warring exhaustion without value or ambition in pursuit of the very same need as the Master.

Throughout the film, I was reminded of lectures by Dr. David Penner from the course “Cults in North America.” In short, every human being needs love. There is a cultish instinct inside all of us to band together and belong to a group, and don’t all groups, be they religious, political, and so on, function in cultish ways? In the end, the way to live a fulfilling life is as simple as saying “I love you.” But either our pride or fear of appearing vulnerable get in the way, and become cause— the Cause— for straying from reality.

The Master and Freddie connect like brothers because they are both lost in their own ways, looking to the wrong things for spiritual fulfillment. But they do love each other, and fight like siblings reminiscent of Biblical archetypes Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau. They are opposite extremes of the same bonding force. Freddie, as the fool, and the Master, as the intellectual, are both looking for the same thing yet neither have the courage to say it.

I highly recommend watching The Master. It’s expressive, profound and a stimulating feast of insight.

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