I don't want to make too big a deal of this, as God forbid I should get another scolding from a commenter on account of writing too much about other critics, and also God knows I prefer to contemplate the critic I'm about to cite as little as possible. However. As the topic is becoming what some people like to call "a thing," I have one "thing" to say about it. Writing in the mysterious publication City Arts, Armond White grouses "All that ballyhoo about The Master being shot in 70mm means nothing in the digital cinema age (too many oppressive home-video close-ups waste technology specifically designed to give tactility to what might be lost in distant scope). Praising this shows ignorance about cinematography. Instead, the smart-about-movies crowd should be looking at Paul W.S. Anderson’s aesthetics." As is usual with White and, to be frank, everybody else, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; the idea that the 70mm "format" was "specifically designed to give tactility to what might be lost in distant scope" sounds real nice and convincing (although copy editors and many other persons of literacy might find the specific use of the word "scope" in this case questionable, but that's Armond) but is not easily definitively provable. The cited "tactility" is obviously a feature of what the higher-resolution 65mm film frame can deliver but good luck with finding a quote from Herman Casler in which the word comes up. "Praising this shows ignorance about cinematography." Okay, Armond, if you say so. There certainly are a lot of film critics who are ignorant about cinematography, not to mention editing, and who judge films solely on what they hear and very rarely what they see, as some of the more vexing notices on Cosmopolis testify. Of course White himself, judging strictly by his copy, has barely a thimbleful of tech knowledge himself. He hates digital, except when one of his pets uses it. In his incredibly puerile "Battle of the Andersons" (anyone who isn't twelve will be no more than momentarily amused by the fact that two directors with similar names and polarized generic characteristics premiered films on the same day, but White's gotta make a thesis out of it) he praises Resident Evil: Retribution director Paul W.S. Anderson because his frame "activates the screen’s fields, planes, and composition quadrants." That happens a lot in Cronenberg and Fincher movies too, but those guys are unclean, because they're cynical. (Incidentally, I rather like Paul W.S. Anderson's movies, just in case you're wondering.)
But I'm losing the plot here and I said I'd be brief. It's true that if you measure the visual scheme of The Master against that of what is considered to be the 70mm film nonpareil—that is, The Sound of Music—oh wait, no, Lawrence of Arabia, or is it 2001: A Space Odyssey?—then The Master is, yes, a little different; not a lot in the way of "sweeping" action, and no one in it plots a raid on Akaba or kills an astronaut. And it's true, in The Master there ARE a lot of closeups. Are they, per White "home-video close-ups?" Hard to say. White evokes the "home-video close-up" as if its an item in the lingua franca. The more you think about the term, the less sense it makes.
But anyway, to complain that 70mm is not appropriate to Anderson's visual scheme is simple arbitrary dogma, nothing more. It makes as much sense as to say Richard Avedon ought not have taken large-format photos of those post-Okies 'cause as subjects they're not majestic enough. Why did they shoot The Buster Keaton Story in VistaVision, anyway? The reason this "matters" (oh dear how I don't like that word) or, to put it more palatably to myself, why it's a topic of particular pertinence at this point in time is because Anderson has chosen to use 70mm at a moment that many are defining as a turning point in the history of motion pictures, that is, in J. Hoberman's phrase (which serves as the title of his new and as always provocative and brilliant book) "film after film." As digital and its discontents seems to coat the world of cinema like some intractable virus (at least in the formulation of some), Anderson's use of 70mm strikes many as a "statement." I don't think it's as extreme a statement as some are taking it. As meticulous as he is, Anderson is a practical man. The Master is being projected digitally in most venues, in a 35mm print in other venues. In interviews he has discussed what attracted him to the format, which is, paraphrased briefly, the beauty of the image it produces. He acknowledges its impractical side. But never does he discuss his use of the format in terms of throwing down, as it were, against the digital tide. He investigated the format, liked what he saw, and took the opportunity to use it. What I think The Master points to from a practical angle in the bigger pictue of things, finally, is the future of celluloid as a kind of specialty format.
I interviewed the musician Robert Fripp in 1992 about the challenges of getting the catalog of his legendary rock band King Crimson into the digital realm. Fripp is a punishingly intelligent and exacting man, but he, too, is a practical one, and after insisting that the "mechanics of reproducing music" did not interest him "at all" he displayed a staggering command of those mechanics. And at one point he mourned—provisionally—the death of vinyl. "I accept that people with real ears probably would prefer vinyl to CDs. However, if you use vinyl, you've got to have a superb pressing plant, you've got to have superb metal work. And you're not going to get it." Several things have happened since 1992. For one thing, digital reproduction of music has advanced to the point that (and I allow that this is in itself an arguable point but bear with me here) debates over whether analog remains a superior reproduction method tend to rely, invariably and insolubly, on intangibles that rely entirely on subjectivity. The other thing that has happened is that vinyl has improved also. It's such a niche format, what with the 180 gram vinyl and similar concerns, that it is now HIGHLY likely that if you opt for vinyl now you'll be getting something from a superb (albeit small-scale) pressing plant, with superb metal work. If we're to take the glass-half-full approach with respect to movies, their making and their preservation, we should be able to anticipate a future where the digital realm continues to show improvement, and where celluloid reproduction is accomplished on a consistently high level. I allow that things probably will NOT pan out this way, but what are you going to do.
Over a decade ago, my friend Harry Allen wrote a piece for Premiere about the various issues of digital technology that, unfortunately and for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of the piece (it was superb) was never published. I may ask Harry for a copy, and for permission to run it here; I think his prophecies could stir up some interesting discussion.