P.T. Anderson’s upcoming film The Master looks to be the Valley prodigy’s masterwork. So why is he so sorry?

When in 1988 the medievally uncool Ayatollah Khomeini condemned to death (& catapulted to fame) an unassuming author called Salman Rushdie, it was not so much terrible as it was typical. As a rule, religious institutions would have nothing to do were there nothing to be offended by; and the Rushdie Affair, so cheaply named, merely presaged a violent vogue that would cement in everyone’s eyes the image of Islam as the world’s worst over-reactors.

What was surprising was the simple fact that the offending book—as if there could be such a thing—was unsatisfactorily blasphemous. Which is to say that the novel, though hardly halal, would have been oddly charitable to those who sought its author’s death, had they took the time actually to read it.

This is nothing new: those who devote their lives to imaginary tyrants must by necessity despise competing fictions. So one cannot but sympathize with the staff of The Master, the upcoming masterpiece by Paul Thomas Anderson, in their never-ending plight to make distant or deny the film’s connection with the world’s favorite cult, Scientology.

If one were to call The Master the single most important cinematic event of our generation, one would not be unjustified. Mr Anderson is the only mainstream American director making Movies That Matter (as opposed to the forgetfully pretentious flicks of yesteryear), whose vision rivals Kubrick at his sublimest; that his next picture—about a writer cum cult leader at the midpoint of last century—conjures uncannily the likes of L Ron Hubbard seems almost incidental.

But to say that the film “is not about Scientology,” as the cast and producers have aimed ceaselessly to do, is a bit disingenuous. That it may step potentially on the toes of half of Hollywood makes The Master all the more important.

I have of course no doubts that the film will, in fact, be more than mere polemic. For who else but our very own P.T. could have formed from the vulgar Valley porn scene a tender family drama? or turned a two-bit propagandist’s tirade to the decade’s most haunting character study? In anyone else’s hands, There Will Be Blood would have turned out a mere moralistic flop; but Blood says (wisely) less about capitalism than about human greed itself—manifested sharply in different hues, including that of a pious preacher.

The oil barons and televangelists did not get their panties in a bunch. Nor did an unduly sensitive Paul need to quell the qualms of the politically correct. But the publicity spree of The Master marks unprecedented heights of groveling, with a suspiciously sincere string of interviews and press releases promising that the film is about everything except for what it’s about.

This must be more than litigious caution. When a devilishly daring director belabors, in a medium obsessed with expressing “truth,” that his film is “a fabricated story: pure fiction”; or when a whimsically blameless Amy Adams blushes at mere mention of the famously defensive cult’s name, something sinister must lurk unseen.

The Master seems to portend its own inevitable backlash: “The only way to defend ourselves is to attack,” warns a preciously spiteful Adams. “If we don’t do that we will lose every battle that we are engaged in. We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.” An attitude which would not be unfamiliar to the faithful.

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