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The release of The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson in commercial cinemas is quite an event, as it’s not often that the specialist critics praise a film quite so unanimously. Highly favourable descriptions and exegeses can be found in professional reviews (or official ones) as much as in amateur ones (blogs). There’s no doubt that we are looking at a very powerful film, with some impressive acting performances, and a highly topical (and morbid) background that deals with the origins of this religion called Scientology, which seems to be so fashionable in Hollywood. Although it’s worth asking ourselves about the ease with which cinephiles every so often pull “masterpieces” out of their sleeve. A masterpiece here, a cinematic genius there.
The still young Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) already bears a great career on his shoulders and seems to be someone who is incapable of making a bad movie. There is something typically American about him, he’s very familiar with the product that he manipulates. The inclination towards the Great American Novel or Grand American Cinema already seem to be standardised genres and if the first had its ambassador in David Foster Wallace (taking from Pynchon and DeLillo), PTA seems to embody a new messiah of film (taking a bit from all the modern classics, Douglas Sirk, John Huston, Kubrick…). But one of the novelties of The Master is to be found beyond the narrative.
PTA has made the film using 70 mm film, which equates to 65mm for the image, leaving the remaining 5 for the soundtrack. It is the first time, since Kenneth Brannagh made Hamlet in 1996, that something has been filmed in this format, and one has to go back to the 60s and 70s to find films shot in this way. Unlike the usual 35 mm, 70 mm supposes a greater screen width and an image quality that is unsurpassable in film. This format was very popular in the 50s and 60s, in films with a worldwide release, in demand for the genres of musical or epic film, as it offered large panoramas in colours that inundated the screen. Currently it’s not just that films aren´t shot in 70 mm so much as, to get an idea of what it means, in the United States there are only 70 theatres and cinemas capable of projecting something like this. In Spain, only two or three. To aim to see The Master in 70 mm is a chimera, though in the United States a purist movement is arising with regard to forms of viewing. PTA prefers for it to be seen in the original celluloid, though he knows that the immense majority will see it in the new digital format, in 4K or its equivalent.
The disappearance of what is known as film is already a reality, even in our country. Digitalisation has won the battle. Before watching The Master, with my a priori ignorance about the processes of digitalisation, I awaited something that didn´t happen: for the celluloid to crackle and expand on the screen, for one’s awareness of watching film to be confirmed. It wasn’t so. Instead, the projection began like any routine video session.
In an old essay by Peter Wollen entitled “Cinema and Technology: an Historical Overview”, the critic traced the evolution of film based on the evolution of the chemistry of film stock; no-sound versus sound, colour versus no colour, etc. He also traced a triangulation around the three phases on which cine is based: recording, processing/developing, and distribution/projection. For decades the second and third phases have remained static, it being the first where innovation took place. With the digital revolution facing film, this is about to change. Luddite movements, or those contrary to the innovations of machines, can find in this disappearance of film, a form of death that is utterly servile to the ends of multinational capitalism. Those nostalgic for film have it tough and one also asks, what is going to come of a filmmaker like Philippe Garrel.
What PTA has done with The Master is a heroic gesture (in the style of Wells) that will keep the nostalgics happy, even if it is at the price of knowing that 99% of the audience won’t see the film in the format it was made.
PTA wants you to see it in 70mm. It is not for nothing that he has personally been touring film-houses to ensure that the presentation is up to standard. This goes way beyond any technical or demonstrable value of analogical projection it’s a fetish, pure and simple. Of course, this fetish is what many people want to share with him. The differences in nuance, between a project in 70 mm and one in 4k (aside perhaps from the size of the projection), are so subtle that only a very experienced eye could perceive them. It is highly likely that The Master will be the last time that a contemporary piece, shot in large format negative, can be experienced collectively without it being an extravagant action in the IMAX format. Undoubtedly the project is sufficiently worthy for it to be celebrated for this alone. We are living at an interesting time within the course of history of the moving image, and in many senses The Master elps to expose the history of quality presentations and the future of audiences that go to the cinema drawn by the work of a great director.
But then a dialectic inversion occurs that really has to be born in mind, as if filmmakers accept the digitalisation of their medium (something they are condemned to) in whose hands will film, celluloid, be left? It’s not so long ago that the fetishizing of 16 mm and 35 mm in the hands of artists was simultaneously the object of celebration and criticism. Video didn´t seem to satisfy the search for an ontology and materiality specific to film. However, exhibiting film within museums replicates the work of filmmakers. Now that the latter have returned to a phase that negates or represses their very medium, artists using film find the path is clear, and maybe art will now become the only place where film, celluloid, is still possible.
The genius of PTA is to go just that bit further, by placing the actor Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell) in his role of occasional photographer, displaying the vintage photographic apparatus of the post-World War II period. The quality and light of the image and self-awareness of PTA with regard to the historicity of the evolution of film technology and photography situate The Master in a dimension where the categories of realism and hyperrealism are magnified. In short, a film where the ground and figure are interlinked in such a way, that just to contemplate this display it’s worth seeing at a cinema near you.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)