For the average auteurist critic, deconstructing an opaque work like Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER (2012) tends to involve making connections to the topographical 'conscious' of the artists' life, while the geological 'unconscious' -- the subtextual kernel to which the artist himself is usually blind by definition -- tends to be ignored. And yet it's this exact lower strata where underpinnings are made clear, a strata linked inextricably not to the artist but to his parents. In other words, to understand THE MASTER don't look at at Paul Thomas Anderson, look at his father, Ghoulardi.
I just re-watched THE MASTER (2012) today, and while the first time it mainly left me irritable (too stuffy in the theater), this time, on the safety of my own couch, paying only marginal attention, I thought of my own late father, Jim Kuersten, and of Paul Thomas Anderson's late father, Ernie Anderson, aka Ghoulardi, a Cleveland horror movie host of some legendary renown from the mid-60s. I knew the name, but figured he was just a Vaudeville schtick-jiving Mockula ala mein own Dr. Shock (with daughter Bubbles, below) on Channel 17, my favorite as a child in Wilmington, Philadelphia.
But as I researched Ghoulardi on Wiki, my eyes started widening and the pieces of the MASTER plan puzzle popped into place. He was beyond any mere horror-host pigeonholing, apparently. Ghoulardi was a maniacal anarchist, blowing up models and toys the kids sent in, live on air. He used a lot of free-associative beatnik slang of his own invention, like 'stay sick!' He played his own surf rock intros (he was a direct inspiration for the look and sound of The Cramps), and ranted against suburban towns like Parma (Par-ma) with its polka music fetish. He had a pet raven named Oxnard. He smoked on air. He aroused the ire of the higher-ups. It was all broadcast live, and he said whatever the hell popped into his head. Not a lot of it survives. What there is seems ridiculously slow (he holds every prop a beat too long, as if thinking of the next thing he's going to say, then blurting it out so fast it drowns in the echo chamber. But whatever! The kids loved it! Rebellion! The T-shirts live on.
Watching THE MASTER this second time I could see some of Ghoulardi in the Satanic twists of Freddie Quell's forehead and in the cult-building improv 'making it up as he goes along' prowess of Lancaster Dodd. Anderson's cult might have been of young, crazy Cleveland mid-60s proto-punks rather than serious-minded adult proto-Scientologists, but it was a cult nonetheless. As Cleveland.com remembers: "Ghoulardi came before all the things we identify with the 1960s: the Kennedy assassination, the Beatles, Vietnam, civil unrest... Ghoulardi was the last Beatnik from the '50s and had this wisecracking irreverent attitude..." Check out this, one of the few surviving clips of the great Ghoulardi in action:
Listen to that deep, resonant Charles Middleton-ish voice! Do you hear a touch of Lancaster Dodd's deep croak? Most interesting is the knowledge that he had trouble memorizing his lines so just made it all up as he went, live on air, which is how Dodd's son describes his dad's methodology. And Ghoulardi was a chronic challenger to authority, standing up to the big wigs at his local TV station, and regularly doing crazy things like driving a motorcycle through the offices.
Here's what Paul Thomas Anderson said about his dad in an interview, as reported in WIKI
"He was in the Navy stationed mainly in Guam. I don't think he did any fighting. I think he was trying - he was fixing airplanes and knew just where the beer was stashed and played the saxophone in bands and stuff like that. You know, every picture I have of him [shows] a beer in his hand. Every single picture from the war he's got - so he was pretty good about probably finding ways to get out of fighting. But again, you know, we never really talked that much about it."
In other words, Ernie Anderson was a wild man, a ballsy, deep-voiced iconoclast, a trickster, the father as wild man. He later became the announcer for most of ABC's programming and promos. And some of that fine work can be heard here.
I know it's weird to write about a father on mother's day, but I was just on the phone with my mom to wish her a happy one, with THE MASTER paused on the first big 'session' between Dodd and Freddie. My own dad died of cancer a year and a half ago, and I never got to visit him in the hospital; he never would have wanted me to, either. He despised soap operatics. Our true good-bye was watching together, and rhapsodizing over, Lumet's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), the highballs making him merry and open, me tapped into that, and both of us enraptured by the pure ballsy artistry of every aspect of the film - and me especially the resemblance to us (right down to the alcoholism and two brothers situation). I'm sure I'll think of him whenever I next see it again, which I hope is soon, but I doubt it - there never seems to be enough a time. I don't have any recordings of my dad, but he lives on in my memory every time I hear whispered pro-golf announcers (which I avoid), and old horror movies for me, which we used to make fun of together in a ritual of wit-honing.
My dad was fierce, tall and with a booming Wellesian voice, a drinker. He was larger than life, and he drank right up until the end, like a Peckinpah maverick. The doctors were amazed his metastasized cancer hadn't killed him years earlier, they jokingly theorized the booze was keeping him alive. We knew it wasn't a joke, yet it was too serious not to laugh about. After I left, he fell and broke his ankle mixing a drink and had to be hospitalized, since his bones were shot because of chemo. And of course being in the hospital meant no booze. He was dead in a matter of days. I've hated doctors ever since, worse than Kate Hepburn's character does in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY. I still smoke, because my 101 year-old granny wishes she had, and when I feel my big Wellesian dad's archetypal energy alive in a film I tend to love that film as if it were my father's ghost. I want to avenge it against the Claudius critics and shout it from this blog's parapets.
Ernie Anderson died of cancer in 1997, the year BOOGIE NIGHTS came out, the year I was first struggling to get sober. Paul Thomas was there for it all, sitting beside his dad's bed ala Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his 1999 film MAGNOLIA (see here for an appreciation of the sheer level of bravery it takes for an actor to use their own real life imminent death in their art -ala Edward G. Robinson's death scene in SOYLENT GREEN). Anderson wasn't around for his dad's Ghoulardi phase, as it was over by the time he was born. He did get to see it on the VHS tapes that are around in circulation and pieces of which are on youtube (and above): "What I do and what he did is so different, but he hated authority and he wanted to stir things up. And I hope my work always has that kind of spirit."
It does, Paul. Tell your parents to turn blue, he'd say. "Stay sick and turn blue." That must be a weird thing for PT to hear on a tape made by his own late father, but it's a weirdness the same late father left him equipped to handle, as mine did for me. As a result PTA's films fly past the maudlin sand traps and safety-first water hazards of most films about flawed or dying fathers, and straight into the hole of modern myth. There's no stern moral or tsk-tsking in a PTA film. No matter how vile some figures are (such as the incestuous talk show host in MAGNOLIA), Paul just shows them forgiveness, because he respects wild men. It's pretty clear in studying the Ernie Anderson story just where PT's love of wild man Screamin' Jay Hawkins-esque energy comes from.
There's also the sense Ernie was a partier, like my own dad, like me, like Jason Robards's character in LONG DAY'S, and of course Freddie Quell, who always has a drink in his navy hand, and knows alcohol for what it is, the last true line of defense against the void, as well as the void itself. It is the mirror through which the artist may behold the Medusa Muse of Mortality without turning to stone. If, in the end, it stones you just the same, at least you get to pick your frozen pose.
One last coincidence: my dad always joked he was going to retire... to Oxnard. I forget why. He loved that name. It wasn't related to Ghoulardi's use of it as a name for his raven, to my knowledge, but it must have been in the wind - maybe he picked it up from back in the day. He joked he wanted to retire there, and I needed to make money to pay for it. "You gotta earn a lot of money so I can retire in Oxnard," he'd say. I didn't. Oxnard exists now only in my memory. But life is weird like that... it ain't over til the fat lady shouts cut.
(See also Great Dads of the 70s: Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights)
(and my initial post on The Master - Butler of Orbs
and the The Master's Questions Answered by the I Ching)
And of course, The Wild Man from my CinemArchetypes series.