The Heart, the Head and ‘The Master’

I spent a good deal of high school thinking I would devote my life to writing about movies.  In this pursuit, four years of college taught me exactly one thing:  I don’t know the first thing about them.

Higher education, properly understood, exists for two reasons:  First, to impart knowledge; second, to impart wisdom.  In my own case, the knowledge was that I did not comprehend the world of film.  The wisdom was in realizing I didn’t need to.

The allure of movies, I have slowly come to appreciate, is that they cannot (and possibly should not) be completely, fully understood in the usual sense of the word.  They exist in a dimension beyond simple logic, and are driven as much by emotion as by reason.  Our favorite films are the ones that linger in our minds in ways we can’t quite put into words.  As an old Supreme Court justice famously said, we know it when we see it.

I make these points having just seen The Master, the latest project by Paul Thomas Anderson, at whose feet I will partly lay blame for scaring me out of becoming a movie critic.  His pictures, which include one of the very best from the 1990s (Magnolia) and the 2000s (There Will Be Blood), are as much symphonies as films—pure, visceral experiences, like an opera in a language one doesn’t speak—and can be seen and appreciated as such.

The Master very much follows in this tradition, with its relentless and brooding score, its uber-sharp-focused (yet paradoxically dreamy) photography, and especially its macabre lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The storyline is not difficult to follow, per se, but the real pleasures in The Master are tangential to its narrative thrust.  One needn’t take it literally, comprehending every detail, to be wholly enraptured.

I told you about movies so I can tell you about politics.

People like to think that electoral politics is a simple matter of appraising “the issues” and choosing the candidate whom we deem “better” for them.  That the dilemma of whom to cast one’s ballot for is reducible to some kind of equation—wholly rational, with no emotional or “gut” considerations necessary.

Ah, were it to be so!

By what rationale, might I ask, did most fans of Barack Obama in 2008 lend their ever-so-enthusiastic support?  Was it from the sheer force of his arguments about the need for affordable health care and withdrawing troops from the Middle East?  Or was it rather from the tenor with which he made such arguments, and the words and phrases he employed?  Was the attraction logical or visceral?

Could the average Romney voter, if pressed, name the specific policies of the Republican ticket that draw him or her to support it over the Democrats’?  Does the proposition of voting for “change” or as a means of “taking the country back” withstand the plain light of day, or does it merely reflect the way people feel?  Do I need to stay for an answer?

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), not every citizen votes his heart over his head, just as many moviegoers can’t stand anything that approaches the ponderous or the abstract.  Just the facts, thank you very much.

What I wonder, though, is whether viewing politics with an emotional, rather than rational, bent is actually the preferable approach.  David Brooks argues frequently that good decision-making requires a healthy combination of both, and that dismissing emotional considerations entirely is impossible.  Might this be a good thing?

We would do well to consider the limits of pure rationality in the complex world of governance, particularly when our present enemies—in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere—find so little use for it themselves, thanks in no small part to the outsized influence of organized religion in that region of the world.

By no means should we abandon reason altogether—that way madness lies.  I am acutely aware that when comedian Lewis Black joked that the best way to defeat psychotic nemeses is to “be more psychotic than they are,” he was being (mostly) ironic.  The whole point of The Master is that following men who make unverifiable claims tends to lead one astray.

The fact remains, however, that most voters do not comprehend the nuances of public affairs any more than I comprehend the nuances of film.  Our faculties of thought can only get us so far before the wisdom of our gut kicks in to take care of the rest.  Such an impulse need not be batted away.  Humans are rational creatures, but that is not all we have to offer.

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