Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson has done an audacious and a foolish thing. He shot "The Master" completely in 70mm (a rare event for a narrative, having last occurred in 1996 for Branagh's "Hamlet"), and it opens in a very limited engagement of 70mm prints, a total of 8 or 9, in which actual 70mm projectors had to be installed in the theatres.
Theatres can't show 70mm anymore. This format is absolutely obsolete and has been for 15 years. I'm not sure people realize this. Anderson's box office mojo is not near the level of Christopher Nolan's, who shoots on 70mm as often as he can (at least for the action sequences) and calls it IMAX, but the general audience is confounded by what that actually means, nowaways often only meaning that the screen is bigger. While the negative may have been 65mm (plus 5 for the soundtrack) actual 70mm IMAX projection is rare and appears in only specialized venues; while the quality is more impressive than 35mm (and has what can only be described as "impact" far beyond normal digital imagery) the dilution of the IMAX brand by IMAX themselves who are trying to spread the brand has muted the general audience's appreciation for the gesture.
So Anderson, beyond Nolan (who merely marshals the means to create a more impressive experience), is reviving and embracing an archaic and obsolete mode of production as well as of distribution, practically limiting the access through an enforced technological scarcity of the platform, insisting (or allowing?) the film (at least for now) to only be presented in theatres that can show 70mm. This understandably will serve the film better than any wide release ever could and in the process demonstrates a Luddite insistence to carry the analog torch even past some of the film-brat generation you would have expected it of; Spielberg, Scorsese, and De Palma seem to have made peace with the tension between digital production and analog content with their recent attempts to revive or reflect on "the old days." (Lucas link goes here.)
The striking aspect of "The Master" is that this in no way an "IMAX" movie (a pure spectacle or gravity-defying documentary) or even in 3-D, but rather a (-n ostensively) conservative historical fictionalized biopic - a period piece in which cultural details and the question of physical existence in struggle with some larger higher (in perhaps more than one sense) or spiritual (dare I call it) virtual meaning play a critical part in its subtexts. In the era in which digital is perceived as clearer, cheaper, easier, better; doesn't scratch or fade or break, moving the industrial headlong to this mode of distribution (and distribution is what it is ultimately about, not content, not warmth, not flicker or scratches) creates an anxiety not just for how films are made but how they move and resonate in the larger culture.
You can't steal a 70mm print. You can't stream it or hack it. It is performative, like all films that run through a projector at a measured speed over sprockets in order and show, one time completely before starting again, in many respects an index of the performances that the original negatives captured on set to be conveyed in pieces put together just so. As over 75% of all theatres in the US are now converted to digital and will reach 90% in 2 years, film prints are the scarce objects Hollywood was built on and are so anxious about they embrace filmmakers who try to eulogize or mythologize their passing, their meaning, a murky past receding so much faster than we can grasp (ergo, "The Artist" (a clumsy if good-natured remembrance) and "Hugo" (more mediated that nevertheless seems (if inadvertently) corrupt).
"The Master" exists initially and solely as 70mm prints, as sacred object that must be carefully handled, shepherded, installed and displayed, and moves the discussion from on the screen to in the booth. It's no longer just a story of a seduction, free will, power, or something more personal about power (or what ultimately lurks within the text), but instead a meta-textual performance of nostalgic hubris, a kind of elitist Marxism. The fact that Joaquin Phoenix stars whose recent career is a kind of performance art itself adds to the irony.
The aggressively analog nature of "The Master" can be perceived as a last gasp, just past the "use by" date, of the film print as spectacle and a defiant gesture against digital and its conveniences, forcing audiences (at least those who remember (or imagine) how things used to be) to go to the work rather than having it delivered to them, to meet the artist (at least) halfway.
It's a masterstroke. And Anderson has reached the point in his career where we no longer doubt his decisions but instead must discover their intent.
And I anticipate with a certain amount of dread when some hapless projectionist inadvertently puts a perfect yellow-red scratch down the middle of one of these $50,000 70mm beautiful objects and the blogs fire up again about what the value/cost/aesthetic trade-offs are with film vs. digital distribution.
That scratched print will become the single most famous and important film print/ philosophical relic of the 21st century.