The Master’s Voice

from Film Quarterly Winter 2014, Volume 68, Number 2

Claudia Gorbman

In sound cinema everything—narrative development, mise-en-scène, editing, other sounds—is normally organized around the voice.1 Michel Chion thus asserts that the sound film is vococentric. Strange, then, how seldom scholars and critics attend to voices. Perhaps the focus remains so extensively on the image as a holdover from silent film (the “art of moving images”), or perhaps it is because film studies has been long concerned with establishing the difference between cinema and wordy forms like literature.2 The film voice is, of course, not merely a vehicle for words as text. Voices scream, cough, laugh, cry, sing, growl, and moan, and they carry distinctive accents, pitches, timbres, and rhythms. Voices interact with other voices, other sounds, and music, and with whatever appears in the image. Maybe it is the voice’s very multidimensionality that makes it so elusive, so outside the study that has been devoted to other key aspects of cinema.

In the last thirty-five years, sound studies has addressed the prevailing critical deafness to sound in general and worked to advance the consideration of formal audiovisual relations of all sorts.3 But what of the human voice as it is spoken by actors in narrative films? Roland Barthes first wrote about the “grain of the voice” in 1972, in a much-quoted essay in which he exults in the sensuality of voices as molded by the body in “the encounter between a language and a voice”—but it was the singing voice, not the speaking voice, that captured his fascination and inspired his piece.4 Jim Naremore’s beautiful Acting in the Cinema (1988) mentions actors’ voices, but his otherwise trenchant observations fall short of fully regarding the ways in which actors speak or cameras and microphones deliver their voices.5 A decade later, Sarah Kozloff’s Overhearing Film Dialogue takes as its primary aim an explanation of the structural, narrative, and aesthetic functions of movie dialogue. Kozloff devotes several pages to considering dialogue in the context of its vocal performance, brilliantly synthesizing the range of possibilities of the actor’s voice. She insists on the difference between dialogue as written and as physically delivered: “Lines are improvised, cut, repeated, stammered, swallowed, paraphrased; changes may be minor or major, but the results represent the unique alchemy of that script in the mouth, mind, and heart of that actor.”6 She quotes the drama critic J. L Styan: “The text is a tune to be sung.” Today Barthes’s “grain” is more relevant than ever.

In The Voice in Cinema, Chion charts many more avenues of exploration.7 He writes eloquently about the thematized voice—the powers of the mother’s voice in so many films, the powers of the unseen speaker in horror movies, characters who don’t or can’t speak, the gendered dimensions of screaming. In addition, he develops a conceptual vocabulary for so many vocal phenomena that previously went unnoticed. In an almost trivial example, he considers whether particular films allow the audience to hear voices at the other end of a phone receiver or not, terming the onscreen talker the “proxi-locutor” and the person at the other end the “tele-locutor,” then takes up the sonic qualities given to those voices, and their consequent effects.8 And from Greek and French words that essentially mean “unseen being,” Chion comes up with the word acousmêtre for the unseen speaker in film that is endowed with unusual powers—like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) or Dr. Mabuse in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933).9 He invents terminology for voices heard subjectively and voices heard from behind the speaker. The immense value of his work lies less in his neologisms than in the new ways of thinking about the cinematic voice that he brings to the fore. Chion’s writing attends to the qualities given to voices both by their speakers and by cinema’s technology and spatial dimensions.

The Voice of the Actor

This variety of perspectives on the voice in film suggests more thorough ways of approaching its specific behaviors in the work of actors and directors.10 Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) offers a particularly apt occasion to consider a striking vocal performance at the height of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career. For if Kozloff can talk about “the unique alchemy … of that actor,” and if Barthes writes about the thrill he derives from hearing the recorded voice of the French baritone Charles Panzera, one realizes that in a new age of film acting, at least with some actors like Hoffman, the essential, recognizable voice need no longer prevail.

smug_seymour_gorbman_replacePhilip Seymour Hoffman gives voice to Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012).

Was it Method acting that led some film actors to alter their voices for roles? Think of the pre-Method star Humphrey Bogart, whose voice is always recognizable, whether he applies a veneer of Irishness as the stableman in Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939) or accents of street-toughness as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Laurence Olivier’s voice shines through whether he’s Hamlet or Heathcliff or Maxim de Winter; and Cary Grant, despite some modulation between comedy and drama, between British characters and American ones, remains Cary Grant to the core.

The classical period was marked by actors with stable and recognizable voices. This tradition of the trademark actor’s voice persists in the postclassical era, but actors such as Brando as early as the fifties, and De Niro in the seventies, famously extended their vocal ranges. Meryl Streep has been the vocal chameleon par excellence—with studied accents of Polish (Alan J. Pakula, Sophie’s Choice, 1984), Aussie (Fred Schepisi, A Cry in the Dark, 1988), Irish (Pat O’Connor, Dancing at Lughnasa, 1998), and Danish (Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa, 1985). She vocalized such specific cultural icons as Margaret Thatcher (Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady, 2011) and Julia Child (Nora Ephron, Julie and Julia, 2009), as well as other female characters of all social classes, American regions, and personalities, from the hesitant and accommodating Rachel in Heartburn (Mike Nichols, 1986) to the witheringly sardonic I-don’t-have-to-raise-my-voice fashion autocrat Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006) and the Oklahoma harridan-matriarch Vi in August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013). Actors such as Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton approach a role by developing a specific voice for it, the opposite of Bogart or John Wayne, who always began with themselves.

Philip Seymour Hoffman also devoted much effort to cultivating voices for his range of roles. He memorably played the word-slurring SoCal shlub Scotty J. in Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), the deep-voiced, cool Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000), the breathily fey Truman Capote in Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005), a Jewish New Yorker with Asperger’s in the animated film Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009), and the mildly Boston-accented Father Flynn in Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008). One might say that Hoffman used his voice the way he used his hair: just as the same hair follicles produced the wildly differing dos of the cocky craps player in Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996) and Gust in Charlie Wilson’s War (Mike Nichols, 2007), so the very same vocal cords produced Scotty J.—whose limp, mumbled Valley-speak expresses his spongily unformed core—and Truman Capote—a complete transformation through timbre (breathy), intonation (higher, with a kind of regal fatigue), and accent (uber-affected, a touch of Southern).

I want to examine just one Hoffman character, Lancaster Dodd in The Master, in order to explore the dimensions of the cinematic voice. The Master‘s fine sculpting of individualized voices (both Hoffman’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s), its sheer vocal profusion, and its thematizing of the voice as that which charms, seduces, equivocates, sings in many senses, and exerts and loses control, help to mark a high point in Hoffman’s career and also to indicate something compelling about Anderson’s skill as a director of voices. If I’ve already mentioned Hoffman’s roles in several of Anderson’s films, it is no accident. The “master” of my title applies not only to this film’s protagonist, to whom characters refer as “Master”; it applies equally well to the director and the actor. And if the distinction between Hoffman and Anderson sometimes gets fuzzy, that’s because it is exactly that collaboration between actor and director that creates their film’s alchemy.

Michel Chion’s analysis of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) can serve as a model for considering movie voices thematically. Chion argues that Kane conducts his quest for power first through the written word but then “meets his demise in trying to be the master of voices.”11 It is through the written word—a mine deed and a promissory note—that Charlie Kane comes into a colossal fortune as a child. He continues to succeed through the written/printed word with ease; once he is grown up, he chooses the musty Inquirer newspaper as the part of his inheritance to develop. He buys “pens” for it—all the writers he hires away from the rival Chronicle—and through the printed word he comes to exert enormous influence on public opinion and even start wars. But then, as Chion puts it, he “has his work cut out if he’s going to be a ‘self-made man’” by proving himself through vocal rather than written means.12 Despite his increasingly grandiose efforts to dominate the world through the voice—in his oratory as candidate for governor, and also in his desire to assert control over Susan’s voice by building opera houses and making her sing in them—Kane cannot do it. Everything was given to Kane through writing, but in trying to remake himself through the voice he ends in failure.

Similar observations can be applied to the narrative prominence of the voice in The Master, although here the written and the spoken word carry more equal powers. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads a postwar cult, The Cause, and Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in Dodd’s orbit. Dodd’s personal magnetism depends largely on his voice, which he uses to spellbind audiences, loosen the purse strings of benefactors, and pacify creditors. His followers not only hang on every word of his speeches and performances but also listen to recordings of his voice uttering pseudo-philosophical maxims. The film recounts Freddie’s initial eagerness to believe, his doubts, his back-and-forth, and finally his rejection of Dodd and the Cause. The Master might be seen as a kind of distant remake of Citizen Kane in its treatment of a megalomaniac’s effort to control the world through his voice.

Although Anderson has denied it, likely for legal reasons, it’s obvious that he modeled his cult leader Lancaster Dodd on L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986), the founder of Dianetics and the Church of Scientology in the 1950s. The official hagiography of Hubbard can be found on a number of Scientology websites. In 1987, the British journalist Russell Miller published a book that sets the record straight with exhaustive documentation; it gives quite a different account of the author and cult founder’s life, multiple marriages, dramatic shifts in thought about “the human mind,” and often troubled relationships with the law in the United States and abroad.13 Anderson’s film walks a line between the opposing accounts of the Great Man and the charlatan, the visionary and the wacko, in the character of Dodd.

Dodd is full of contradictions. On the one hand, he stands firm on his outlandish accounts of human evolution and appears wholly to believe in his unusual therapeutic methods; on the other, he lies about his own credentials and is “making it all up,” as his son Val blurts to Freddie at one point. Con man or not, he seems to be sincerely devoted to curing Freddie of his torments; in their first “processing” session he listens empathically and makes rapid progress in accessing Freddie’s traumatic past. He’s almost always “on,” exercising magnificent control over others and himself, but he turns belligerently paranoid and given to involuntary outbursts of foul-mouthed hostility when anyone questions or challenges him. A commanding paterfamilias with his adult children and followers, he submits in private to the iron rule of his wife.

processing_gorbman_replaceFreddie (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes processing.

Dodd’s voice inhabits the full range of cinema’s three types of audio—speech, music, and noise—as Hoffman marshals every nuance of intonation, tempo, rhythm, timbre, volume, articulation, eccentric pronunciation, and silence, as well as facial expression and gesture, to constitute this voice, including an inventory of coughs, gasps, grunts, and varieties of audible breaths. The character possesses the voice of authority, speaking with a clear, resonant midcentury American diction. Like a minister of the church, he conveys supreme confidence in his own importance, using biblical and Shakespearean affectations or antiquated turns of phrase to give weight to his utterances. For example, he advises Freddie to “scrub yourself and make yourself clean” for his daughter’s wedding. He brings a close to the wedding party with an oratorical “We fought against the day and we won, we won.” Whatever that means, it sounds grand. He knows how to work language, inserting dramatic pauses, raising and lowering pitch and volume, gesturing with hands and demonstrative facial expressions, bringing his interlocutors in on a joke with a wink, creating faux-irony by lowering his voice, and generally sharing his wise and marvelous self with others through speech.

To Wit: Three Examples

Three examples of Hoffman’s vocal embodiment of Dodd may help to illustrate the film’s particular combination of vocal performance and audiovisual style. I here describe the scenes, provide verbatim dialogue, and in italics, their vocal and physical expression.

1. In Anderson’s hands, the very first meeting between Dodd and Freddie becomes an encounter between two mutually alien consciousnesses that exhibit a fascination with each other. The inarticulate, shell-shocked sailor Freddie has stowed away and awakened on the boat on which Dodd’s Cause followers are cruising through the Panama Canal from San Francisco to New York. Freddie is brought to Dodd. They talk briefly about Freddie working on the boat, and Dodd comments on Freddie’s drunken “naughtiness” the night before. When it is Freddie’s turn to ask Dodd about himself, the dialogue unfolds as follows:

Freddie: What do you do?

LD (looking down and away): I do many, many things. (Looks up at Freddie, then away again.) I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist (looks up at Freddie), a theoretical philosopher (shakes head slightly as he says the latter phrase, as if astounded at his own breadth and depth. Pauses, tightens his lips as he continues to look at Freddie, suggesting the simplicity of what he is about to say)… But above all, I am a man (“man” said with unusually crisp consonants), a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you (said rapidly, emphatic through its very quickness).

This reply indicates that Dodd thinks quite a lot of himself, not only because of the impossible list of vocations he lays claim to, but because of the long a of “I am a writer.” His mispronounced “nucular physicist” is a dead giveaway that he is precisely not a nuclear physicist. With great efficiency, Anderson and Hoffman establish the likelihood that Dodd is a con artist, or at least not all he cracks himself up to be. His combination of head-shaking and eyelid-fluttering connotes gravitas. As he speaks, Hoffman alternates between looking at Phoenix and looking into space. Looking away while talking can give the impression of thinking such big thoughts that one must focus on an abstract space. By alternating the directions of his gaze, he is at once establishing rapport with Freddie and displaying himself as an important thinker.

Also in this scene, Dodd calls Freddie “aberrated.” He uses words pretentiously, and incorrectly. (But L. Ron Hubbard actually used this word, too; more on the Hubbard-Dodd connection presently.) He projects a mixture of arrogance (trapping Freddie into admitting that he doesn’t know what “aberrated” means) and inclusiveness (for example, flattering Freddie as an inquisitive person like himself).

As Sarah Kozloff makes clear, it is most instructive to consider utterances in a movie in the contexts of the visuals—gestures as well as camerawork and editing—and other sounds. The words, and the visual and aural means used to convey them, all contribute to the signifying system of dialogue. Anderson’s two main actors in The Master create a complex, internally consistent reality through their voices and gestures.

2. A few scenes later, after officiating at his daughter’s marriage, Dodd offers a toast to the bride and groom at the dinner where his followers in the Cause are gathered together:

The camera during this minute-long speech alternates between Dodd, Freddie, and the rest of the wedding party. A hint of composer Jonny Greenwood’s lushly beautiful C-major string theme for The Master can be faintly heard through much of the scene of the toast. This astonishing monologue opens with a cut from the celebrating couple on the ship’s deck, dominated by a joyous Dodd, to the wedding dinner below decks. Dodd’s word “Marriage!” provides the audio continuity between spaces.

LD: Marriage! (shouted, followed by a dramatic pause) previous to the Cause, was aw-ful. (Guests at the dinner celebration laugh.) Awful. There’s a cycle. Like life: birth, excitement, growth, decay (this word said nasally, like a Disney witch), death (said, like the first “awful,” in a cartoonish throaty low voice. The guests laugh.). NOW,… now… How about this: Here it comes… A large dragon! Teeth! (Freddie laughs.) Blood-dripping, red eyes… What do I get? A lasso. I whip it up… I wrap it around its neck, and then I wrestle, wrestle, wrestle ‘im to the ground. (Each “wrestle” pronounced with great emphasis, each higher in pitch, as Dodd makes his hands into claws and wrestles with the air.) I snap up, I say “Sit, dragon.” Dragon sits. I say “Stay,” dragon stays. Now it’s got a leash on it. (Guests chuckle.) Take it for a walk. (More chuckles.) And that’s where we’re at with it now. It stays on command. (Hands out like an orchestra conductor, head lowered but eyes fixed on his audience. Long pause.) Next we’re going to teach it to roll over and play dead. (This last sentence is said rapidly in low voice. Laughter and applause.)

The substance of Dodd’s remarks is elusive, illogical. His speech is supposed to be well-wishing the newlyweds, but very quickly he proposes a story about a dragon, as a metaphor for what holds human beings down, and the way to tame this animal instinct through the Cause. Dodd is a silver-tongued free-associator, addressing a willingly sycophantic audience.

The dynamics of Hoffman’s voice in this speech, the drop in pitch and throaty timbre (“marriage previous to the Cause was awful“)—a vocal gesture he likes to use—suggest humorous irony of a brainless sort. Hoffman’s Dodd is a compelling speaker, even if what he says leaves the hapless wedding couple high and dry. He has vocal charisma. The speech has a staccato rhythm of dramatic pauses and single-word outbursts and exclamations: the vocal style imitates brilliant, inspired substance. By being so compelling, it distracts from its own illogical transition from the topic of marriage to the topic of dragon-taming. Then at the end of the monologue, Dodd rhetorically comes in for the kill: “next we’re going to teach it to roll over and play dead.” Imagine if he delivered it emphatically: “Next, we’ll teach it to roll over and play dead!” How much more authority he seems to have in uttering the climactic punchline as a throwaway instead.

3. Dodd’s public voice is showcased on an occasion much later in the film, where he gives a speech to adherents of the Cause to launch his second book:

Here is the substance of the speech:

LD: (His speech begins on MCU of Freddie, listening and watching intently) Book Two … is about Man. And the title of the book is “The Split Saber.”14 And here we have some answers… (cut to Dodd in LS, elbows out, hands on waist) No more secrets. The source of all creation … good and evil … and the source of all (cut to Freddie), now, funny enough, the source, of all, … is you. (Long pause, cut to Dodd in CU, smiling smugly.) I have unlocked, and discovered, a secret … to living in these bodies that we hold. And oh, yes, it’s very, very, very, very serious. (Dodd’s face slackens in this last sentence as he looks down, and his voice drops comically. After “serious,” he looks up, then to each side, and smiles paternally as the audience chuckles.)

The secret … is laughter. (His eyebrows rise and he gives an impish sidelong look, smiling. Then he clenches his mouth and pauses. Cut to Freddie, whose eyebrows are increasingly knit.) Now I’d like to discuss processing and communication. The art of listening, if you will. (End of scene.)

Here too, Dodd creates broad conspiratorial humor with “very, very, very, very serious,” descending in pitch and pronounced with the same comic airy tone as “aw-ful” in example 2. The monologue is nonsensical, even more so than the marriage toast. He builds up “the source of all creation, the source of all,” to “is you”—uttered not with an assertive downward inflection but rather a neutral, almost questioning “you”—and then leaves the whole thought behind in the dust. Dodd mobilizes all the signifiers of brilliance—twinkling eyes, raised eyebrows, activation of muscles around the mouth, hand gestures, turning to address all sides of the audience, quasi-biblical language (“living in these bodies that we hold”), an enormous range of vocal modulations, repetitions, and pauses—but there is no content to latch on to. Again, reaction shots of Freddie, the internal audience, give a face to the puzzlement, the fruitless wait for a logical explanation. Is Dodd vamping? Could it be that his wife is the actual author of the book, which he hasn’t had time to read yet? Is he so secure in his command of the Cause that he doesn’t need to make sense?

hooch_replaceLancaster Dodd and Freddie share Freddie’s hooch.

The Original Object: L. Ron Hubbard

At this point, it’s useful to return to L. Ron Hubbard, the ostensible butt of this cinematic portrayal. Lancaster Dodd’s voice as performed by Hoffman is far more varied, articulate, and entertaining than the historical figure on whom he is modeled. The one extant sustained interview of Hubbard, filmed in England in the mid-1960s, shows an affable man who dodges Scientology’s crazier claims.15

His lips project slightly forward, as if in a Jimmy Stewartish, folksy American articulation of his thoughts. Aside from cult jargon such as aberrated (aberrant, with “crooked thinking”), clear (the rare state of being fully conscious after undergoing Scientology processing), and auditors (those trained to process subjects, in Scientology), Hubbard’s vocabulary is prosaic—his speech is peppered with “and so forth,” “and so on,” “that sort of thing,” and he’s given to invoking the bland “very interesting.” His diction is flat, his voice is slightly nasal, with a broad Midwestern r. This is hardly the voice of a great orator.

Anderson has opted for a much more compelling voice for the Master. His Dodd has great fluency, an arsenal of pseudo-intellectual vocabulary, a more convincing aura of sincerity, and a vastly more entertaining variety and dynamics of speech. He uses much of the Scientology lingo (aberrated, processing) but none of the dull space-fillers of Hubbard’s speech. To accompany his speaking, Hoffman gestures, his eyebrows and mouth assume dramatic expressions, he controls eye contact as the actor that he is. The actual Hubbard smiles frequently to establish his command of the conversation, to indicate that no challenge can ruffle his certainty. He eye-connects with his interlocutor, but not with Dodd’s showmanship.

Lest there be any question whether Hubbard is the real-life model for Dodd, consider a scene where The Master quotes the actual 1966 Hubbard interview, during a party at the home of a rich devotee of the Cause. Dodd has been processing a woman before the eyes of the guests. As Dodd talks, a fellow in back has politely been trying to engage him with a question and finally gets Dodd’s attention. Physically this interlocutor closely resembles Hubbard’s interviewer in the 1966 video. Anderson’s “Mr. Moore” wears a suit, speaks in an intelligent and direct manner (though without the British accent of the actual “Mr. Hidgeman”), and has prominent eyebrows and short-cropped hair.16

Interviewer (in 1966): Is this some form of hypnotism?

L. Ron Hubbard: Oh, no … (chuckles) that’s very funny … Man is asleep. He is hypnotized. … He eventually becomes a person who has no awareness. Now, in Scientology, we reverse the process … he gets more and more wide awake, and his IQ rises higher and higher … he becomes un-hypnotized.

Moore (in The Master): Some of this sounds quite like hypnosis, is it not?

Lancaster Dodd: This is a process of de-hypnotization, if you will. Man is asleep, this process wakes him from his slumber.

Not only does the film obviously borrow words and ideas from Hubbard; it even pays homage to the interview by similarly placing Dodd in front of a landscape painting.

Anderson transforms the Hubbard interview and gives it a dramatic arc: Dodd expresses increasingly paranoid irritation at the challenge to his authority. Here is where the film communicates the full madness of Cause doctrine and its leader’s volubility. At first, Dodd’s voice is that of a tired schoolteacher addressing the questioner, his singsong inflections conveying that the questioner is testing his patience. But in a minute or two, his voice rises, both tempo and volume climbing; he gestures more and more irritably, he uncharacteristically stumbles for words, he interrupts the man, and he ends with a Tourette-ish verbal explosion, completely out of control: “If, if, if you, if you, if if you already know the answers to your questions then why ask PIG FUCK!” Shocked reaction shots follow, in silence.

This vocal explosion wonderfully encapsulates, in the fiction film, the decades-long narrative of Hubbard’s and Scientology’s litigious paranoia. Dodd’s voice has a mind of its own, and irrepressibly shatters the civil decorum of the Cause. This voice issues from the body whose animal instincts the Master cannot entirely master. Anderson reminds us of this body and its needs throughout the film: Dodd’s gasping pleasure at his first taste of Freddie’s horrendous brew, his grunts as Peggy summarily masturbates him over a sink, and a similar verbal explosion (“WHAT DO YOU WANT?”) with benefactor Helen when she quietly expresses confusion about Dodd’s new book:

The End: Four Vocal Strategies

The plot of The Master follows Lancaster Dodd’s efforts to make a true believer of Freddie. Freddie embodies the animal instincts that the Cause endeavors to conquer—sexual desire, aggression, alcoholism. When Freddie roughs up a critic or gets in a fistfight with the police, Dodd addresses him like a wayward pet: “Naughty boy,” “Silly boy,” “Freddie—STOP.” He seems to need the unruly acolyte to prove his own viability as the Master.

At the very end, some years later, Freddie, who has left the Cause, goes to see Dodd once more, in England, at Dodd’s bidding. Peggy crisply sizes up Freddie and declares it pointless to continue his relationship with the Cause. She walks out. Then Dodd unleashes all his means of vocal seduction: first, he speaks to Freddie in poetry; second, he tells him a mythic dream; third, he issues a threat; and fourth, he sings him a love song.

The first appeal, poetic language, comes out of the blue. Dodd turns gorgeously eloquent, speaking in metaphors of sailors and the sea, using both meter and rhyme. “Then go, go to that landless latitude,” he says alliteratively. It is both pretentious and grand, and completely coherent, unlike the Hubbardesque ramblings of earlier scenes. “For if you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you?” Here we sense Anderson speaking through Dodd, making some sense of the confounding and compelling film that is coming to a close. But on the diegetic level, Dodd is daring Freddie to leave, still confident in the power of his rhetoric to exert its magic on him.

In this entire sequence, nothing occupies the soundtrack save Hoffman’s almost whispered voice. The poetic diction begins with Dodd in medium close-up, set against the brightly lit rectangular-paned windows that form a sort of grid behind him, and intensifies into a close-up of Dodd after one of Freddie. Hoffman’s delivery of these lines is rather like some avant-garde theater performance: what kind of psychological reality could it possibly express? “Free winds and no tyranny for you,” he begins, looking alternately at Freddie and away. This is a far cry from the naturalism of L. Ron Hubbard’s language, and also from the character of Dodd until then. After a long pause, he says: “Freddie.” Then “sailor of the seas,” with the very pure, tight “ee” of seas accompanied by a hand gesture sculpting the air, as if Dodd is reciting a poem self-consciously. By now he is looking steadily at Freddie, smiling, and gives out a little laugh before continuing his appeal in poetic language. Why laughter? To what register has this monologue moved, and how should it be understood?

Throughout the film, Dodd has been trying to remember where he and Freddie once met. He seems to have summoned him to deliver the answer. The past life Dodd then describes to Freddie (“I went back … and I found it”) casts the two of them in a mythic, heroic partnership in Paris during the Great War, flying messenger pigeons and delivering mail and secret messages past the Germans’ communications blockade for the British to save the free world. In the same eloquent, intimate voice as the earlier “landless latitude” spiel, he aims his preposterously romantic account well at his impressionable target, Freddie the military man, who himself hardly dares to dream of love. “We sent sixty-five unguided mail balloons and only two went missing, in the worst winter on record. (Long pause) Two.” The repeated “two,” and “the worst winter on record,” help put this dream-story into the category of historical fact. How could Freddie possibly spurn an invitation to return to the comradeship the two men had in this past life?

For his third rhetorical strategy, Dodd gives a simple ultimatum: “If you leave here I don’t ever want to see you again.” A long pause, then he softens the bargain: “Or you can stay,” he says, shrugging and smiling vulnerably. But then he returns to the ultimatum, making it a threat: if the two men ever meet again “in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy, and I will show you no mercy.”

The fourth vocal mode is the most striking of all. Without prompting, after a sincere shake of the head, Dodd starts to sing to Freddie:

It’s an a cappella rendition of “Slow Boat to China,” a song penned by Frank Loesser and made popular in 1948 by Kay Kyser’s orchestra (and thus would have been popular at the time the movie is set). Poignantly, Hoffman sings, “I’d love to get you / On a slow boat to China / All to myself, alone…” as the film cuts between close-ups of the two men, looking deep into each other’s eyes. An extraordinary moment, because it’s so mysterious. This is a musical number that is too “realistic” to be recognized as a musical number—no orchestra strikes up, no one sings “professionally,” and in fact Hoffman doesn’t hit all the right notes. He was not an accomplished singer by any means, and commented after The Master‘s release that he didn’t ever want to have to sing in a film again; sadly, he got his wish.

The song is sexily romantic. The “slow boat” resonates with several ships and boats referenced in the story (Freddie is seen on his Navy ship, and in a later scene recalling his relationship with the young Doris, he leaves her to sign up for work on a ship headed for Shanghai). It also may refer to L. Ron Hubbard’s real-life fleet of Scientology ships, his “Sea Org” that he headed as “Commodore” in the 1960s. Most directly, though, the song is a seduction. Dodd sings much of the song offscreen, while close-up images show Freddie falling under its spell—amazingly, a tear forms on his face as he smiles and even laughs quietly, until the tears take over and he bows his head.

When the camera returns to Dodd, his voice gathers strength for the last line, “I wanna get you on a slow boat to China / All to myself, alone.” Dodd’s lower lip quivers as if in anger, as his singing voice expresses desperation, urgency, even aggression. Loesser’s frothy, flirty song has morphed into a last-ditch appeal. The lighting remains the same throughout the song, but the suggestion of menace in Dodd’s voice at the end becomes emphasized by the backlighting of Dodd against those windowpanes: his eyes appear like dark sockets. A silence follows, and a cut to Freddie looking up toward Dodd, and the C-major orchestral theme comes in to segue to the long tree-lined lane leading away from Dodd’s institute.

The ambiguity of the entire sequence is deafening. Is this patently what it seems to be, a sexual proposition, now that Dodd’s wife has left the room, thus recasting the story’s master-devotee relationship as a suppressed queer narrative? (This framework would help make sense of the first scene where they meet, Dodd clad in a red bathrobe that is saucily open at the top.) Or should the song be read more figuratively, as Dodd pulling out all the stops to seduce Freddie once and for all into the Cause? In any event, the scene is so memorable because it’s so surprising, and Hoffman’s singing voice is so naked, without the armors of star talent or an orchestra on the soundtrack.

Whether Freddie leaves after this assault of vocal seduction because he’s the stronger character, or unnerved by its queer subtext, or simply too damaged to be able to commit, his departure signals that Dodd’s voice mastery has failed—much as Kane fails in Citizen Kane.17

Anderson does not stop here. Dodd may be the charismatic leader, but repeatedly the film suggests that the locus of real power resides with his wife, Peggy. There are hints of possibility that she is the Dr. Mabuse behind the whole operation. In the scene where she masturbates Dodd, at the moment of his climax she makes him agree to lay off his drinking—then dispassionately she washes her hands and walks out of the shot. Similarly, when an important Cause event goes horribly wrong, it is Peggy’s voice that runs the show. Dodd appears merely to be taking dictation on a typewriter while she, angry at what she perceives as an attack on the Cause, decides on the group’s next moves.

yell_replace_gorbmanFreddie rides off into the desert on Lancaster Dodd’s motorcycle as Dodd yells “Freddie!”

At the end, just before Dodd’s four-pronged seduction attempt, Peggy stalks out of the room, declaring of Freddie, “This is pointless…. He isn’t interested in getting better.” In embodying the plain and plain-spoken Peggy, Amy Adams speaks in a voice that is measured, quiet, uninflected, matter of fact, undemonstrative, but the ultimate voice of power and control.


This brief analysis of the voice in The Master has hardly touched on gender. The unassuming voices of the female characters—the Cause acolyte/benefactor played by Laura Dern, the woman at the party who submits to processing, Freddie’s girlfriend, Doris (the one other character who sings to Freddie), and Peggy Dodd—turn out to be the voices of reason, unadorned and yet somehow the most threatening to the male ego of the Master. Gender offers an alternate approach to voices in this film.

Nor have I dwelled on the curious status of the mediated voice in The Master: Dodd’s recordings of endlessly looped Cause mantras to which followers slavishly listen through headphones, his nonsensical speech at the microphone in Phoenix, and his phone call from England to Freddie in a Hopperesque movie theater. (How has he reached Freddie there? Is Freddie imagining or dreaming this call?) The mediated voice, whether enhanced or filtered, seems even less trustworthy than Dodd en direct.18 Is the film commenting on the mediated essence of cinema itself—an essence that is deceptive—through these moments?

My aim here, however, has been less to drill down to psychological or social meanings in The Master than to begin, through it, to appreciate the centrality of voices (and not just dialogue) to narrative films in general, to begin to explore patterns in their deployment, to attend to actors who are brilliant with their voices (as both Hoffman and Phoenix are), and to discover directors who use the voice as a key raw material.

It is imperative to develop a critical vocabulary for the voice in all its dimensions, but more importantly, to actively use the concepts named in that vocabulary. The spatial dimensions of screen voices—such as offscreen and onscreen, close-miked and distantly miked, “theatrical” speech and “emanation” speech, “frontal voice” and “back voice”—are as important to understand as are the temporal relations between the voice and the diegesis.19 The gendered voice in cinema has been explored by Kaja Silverman, Amy Lawrence, and others since.20 As The Master indicates, though, individual film voices establish many other power relations in many ways. The aesthetics of voice recording and reproduction can be crucial: for example, the increasing intimacy of the operating system voice Samantha in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) leads to a humanizing, even romanticizing, of digital technology. The often thin borders between speech, singing, and noise—think of Streep’s and Hathaway’s quasi-naturalistic singing styles in Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008) and Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012), respectively—suggest how conceptualizing the voice along these lines may be richly productive.

Is it possible to write about film voices with the same systematic rigor that can be applied to film scene construction, for instance, which has built its own vocabulary for shots and transitions? How can the inflections of a voice, even the relative pitches and sound levels in a single line that an actor utters, ever be adequately described with theoretical language? If it’s necessary to note the rhythms of visual editing in conjunction with the rhythms of speech, how could that possibly be accomplished in a form that isn’t unreadable and tedious?

Thankfully, the digital age has made it increasingly possible to reproduce video excerpts and thereby free the accompanying writing to convey the musicality, drama, power, and infinite variations of the voice. Recalling J. L. Styan’s characterization of the text as “a tune to be sung,” it appears crucial not to remain tone-deaf to cinema’s vococentrality, but to attend to its voices and the way they shape the movie experience.21

1. “In actual movies, for real spectators, there are not all the sounds including the human voice. There are voices, and then everything else… [T]he presence of a human voice instantly sets up a hierarchy of perception.” Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999 [1982]), 5.

2. The Introduction to Sarah Kozloff’s Overhearing Film Dialogue (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) succinctly presents the aesthetic positions on the place of speech in film. She documents the long-held notion that speech is somehow uncinematic, and argues against that idea (1–14). Chion’s characterization of sound film as logo- and vococentric therefore came as a breath of fresh air.

3. The consolidation of American scholarship on film sound began in earnest with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s “Sound in the Cinema,” chapter 7 of their textbook Film Art: An Introduction (orig. Addison-Wesley, 1979, now in its tenth edition, Mc-Graw-Hill, 2013). See also Rick Altman, ed., “Cinema/Sound,” special issue of Yale French Studies 60 (1980), with articles by Mary Ann Doane, Alan Williams, Rick Altman, Claudia Gorbman, and others; and Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, eds., Film Sound: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

4. Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image – Music – Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 181.

5. James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

6. Kozloff, Overhearing Film Dialogue, 92.

7. Chion, The Voice in Cinema, (see note 1).

8. The Voice in Cinema, 62–66.

9. Ibid., 16–29.

10. Kozloff devotes the entire second half of her book to dialogue and film genre, though she gives only minor consideration to the vocality of dialogue.

11. Chion, Voice in Cinema, 89.

12. Ibid., 90.

13. See The introduction to this site mixes documentary photos of Hubbard with stock footage and reenacted imagery. With a background of lushly stirring Coplandesque music, it describes Hubbard as “the nation’s youngest Eagle Scout … a pioneer at the dawn of American aviation … a giant in the Golden Age of pulp fiction … and the most published and translated author of all time,” among other accolades. Wikipedia’s entry on Hubbard supplies fact-checked counternarratives to the Scientologists’ version of LRH’s life. It cites the Church of Scientology’s extensive legal efforts to control the narrative of Hubbard’s life. In one defamation case the Church brought in 1984 against a warts-and-all biography, judge Paul G. Breckenridge ruled in the biographers’ favor, writing, “The evidence portrays a man who has been virtually a pathological liar when it comes to his history, background and achievements. The writings and documents in evidence additionally reflect his egoism, greed, avarice, lust for power, and vindictiveness and aggressiveness against persons perceived by him to be disloyal or hostile.” See The main source cited in the online article is Russell Miller, Bare-faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (New York: Holt, 1987). See also Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (New York: Knopf, 2013).

14. Hubbard reported in 1949 that he was writing a psychology book to be entitled The Dark Sword: Excalibur.

15. The entire program, “Introduction to Scientology,” filmed in April 1966, is posted at

16. Moore is played by Christopher Evan Welch, who coincidentally died just a few months before Hoffman.

17. Elisabeth Weis points out resemblances between Kane’s verbal appeals to Susan as she is leaving him and Dodd’s strategies toward Freddie here. At first, Kane promises Susan that he’ll change to make her happier, but then he reverts to saying “You can’t do this to me.” Thanks to Liz for this insightful parallel (personal conversation, November 2014).

18. Throughout his work, Chion writes about many instances of the mediated voice, its effects and meanings. For example, see his early comments on “on-the-air” sound in Audio-vision: Sound on Screen, ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 76–77.

19. The clearest exposition of these temporal and diegetic relations appears in Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art, chapter 7.

20. See especially Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988) and Amy Lawrence, Echo and Narcissus: Women’s Voices in Classical Hollywood Cinema (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991).

21. J. L. Styan, The Elements of Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).