As Napoleon in War and Peace, King Vidor, 1956. The great Czech-born actor was 95. Among his many laudable attributes was his willingness, briefly, to work with Jesus Franco.
As Napoleon in War and Peace, King Vidor, 1956. The great Czech-born actor was 95. Among his many laudable attributes was his willingness, briefly, to work with Jesus Franco.
In her September 20 A/V Club piece "Should Some Movies Be Taken More Seriously Than Others," Stephanie Zacharek, doing the sort of end run that's become a reliable feature of the "Your Art Film Sucks And So Do You" thumbsucker, characterizes the music score of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master as "interesting," and then muses that that term, which she put in quotes to begin with, "might just be a euphemism for something you wouldn't want to play at home with your cats around." In a parenthetical, she then adds, "And I say that as someone who has subjected her own cats to Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and late Coltrane, God help their small ears."
I should add here that Stephanie is a friend, but also that I feel for her as Edmund Wilson did for Vladimir Nabokov, that is, a "warm affection sometimes chilled by exasperation."
Anyway, you get what she's doing there—she's trying to tell you, and in an ingratiating way, that just because she's hostile to this particular piece of possibly "difficult" art, she's hardly hostile to ALL such art. Dan Kois did the same thing in his notorious "cultural vegetables" piece when he admitted that he eventually "got" Derek Jarman's Blue, which still tops the shameless self-aggrandizement chart in that it bids to make himself look not just open-minded but gay-friendly and compassionate. (Jarman himself has yet to tell Kois "Good on yer, mate!" or any such thing, alas.) But I'm not writing this to decry the rhetorical device as such. I'm writing this because cats really don't care what kind of music you play in their presence. For the most part.
We like to romanticize and anthropomorphize our delightful feline friends, but let's face it: the domesticated feline consciousness, such as it is, is simply not wired to respond subjectively to, let alone process, music. Cats are attentive, sure, and have very sharp senses. But their senses are arranged in a way that's entirely different from our own, and their pleasure centers have very little to do with those of humans. It stands to reason that the inverse follows—they're annoyed by different things. Loud noises startle cats, to be sure, just as they startle humans. A blaring saxophone, played by Coleman, Ayler, or Coltrane, simply doesn't register to a cat the way it does to us. Cats don't try to make sense of it because A) their intellectual apparatus is not so sophisticated as they're able to make sense of it and B) there's no practical need for them to make sense of it. They categorize sounds in an almost binary way: those that are specifically friendly and inviting (your voice, the snap of a cat food can opening) and those that either threaten them or put them in stalking mode (as in the chirp of birds on a branch outside a window). If you put on No New York, your cat won't saunter in front of the speaker, raise a cat eyebrow, and ask "What's HE on about" as James Chance and the Contortions subject "I Can't Stand Myself" to a seizure.
My cat, the above-pictured Pinky, a.k.a. The Pinkster, a.k.a. Beast, a.k.a. Purr Beast, a.k.a. about two dozen other really stupid nicknames, never showed any visible reaction to any of the music I played in my apartment during the period of our cohabitation, which was from 1990 to 2006. He was five years old when my cohabitating girlfriend of the time, Beth "The Shermanator" Sherman adopted his adorable ass, and we had no idea what environment he came from or what kind of music was played in it. As you can imagine, what with my being a very nearly professional Rock Snob of a certain age and having come of a certain age in a certain era, the amount of ostensibly Unlistenable Noise in my music library is pretty formidable, and I can find it for you in pretty much nearly every genre in which the quality of unlistenable noisiness is possible. From AMM to Xenakis with DNA, Metal Machine Music, Swans and The Velvet Underground in between, the Pinkster heard it all, and frankly, he didn't give a shit.
All except for one recording. The 1991 Gramavision CD The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer, a particular iteration (the 1984 "Melodic Version") of a piece by the American composer LaMonte Young. Young is a composer with a particular interest in long durations, microtonal intervals, and drone music, and unlike his The Well-Tuned Piano, High Tension Line Transformer is not, on the face of it, a particularly complex or knotty piece; it consists here of an ensemble of trumpet players who chose between four specific pitches and play them at varying lengths. The first time I played it at home on my stereo, which was/is pretty good and can get pretty loud, it made Pinky very nervous. I don't know if it was the specific pitches, or the phases they might seem to go in and out of, the sounds in relation to the silences, but the piece made him immediately extremely nervous. In very specific way: he began pacing in front of the speakers, and pausing, and then he would look at me, and then he would pace some more, then look at me. It was the damnedest thing. After about four minutes I just had to turn it off. He never reacted to any other music, including the scant amount of Young music on disc, in the same way again. And, you know, in the interim, Keiji Heino made A LOT of records and I owned and played a lot of them.
Some time soon after the unfortunate experience with The Second Dream Of The High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer I had the occasion to interview LaMonte Young and his partner Marian Zazeela, and I told him this story in the spirit of sharing a droll anecdote. Young is a man of rather gentle demeanor, but that did not prepare me for his reaction: he was genuinely upset, almost hurt. Whatever his overt intentions concerning his music, causing unrest in the nervous system of another living creature did not figure. The idea that it did my cat some brief harm was not even vaguely amusing to him.
Artists are unusual people. And their thought processes are unusual, and the extent to which their thought processes are unusual is often not unrelated to the medium in which they work. Later in Zacherek's article about...whatever it's about, she says "[t]he movie I’m yearning to see again was not made by anyone who has been deemed a great artist, but by a sometime-director who mostly writes screenplays." This movie is Premium Rush, which I haven't seen. I couldn't review it because not one but two friends worked on it, but I hear it's very good and I look forward to catching it. I rather doubt, however, that sometime-director David Koepp would really appreciate having his movie adopted as a club with which to attempt to beat The Master and its fans over the head. The implication Zacharek is barely bothering to try to cover up is that there are some directors who like you and who want you to have fun, and some directors who hate you and want to punish you and make you do homework. Because no actual pleasure can be had from a "difficult" film. Even if you do own some Albert Ayler records.
Before I get too exasperated, I'll give the last word to Orson Welles, who, in a mid-'60s interview for a British television show called Tempo, is asked by the interviewer: "To what extent, though, do you normally consider the audience you're going for?"
Welles pauses for a good five seconds, then answers:
"Not at all. Impossible to.
Sounds arrogant. It isn’t meant to be and I don’t think it is. It’s because the
public is so unimaginably large. Whenever I do a play I think not only of the
public but of the specific public of that year and that time. And what it will
be like. That’s part of what’s
good about the theater. And part of what’s bad. What limits it even as it makes
it wonderfully immediate. But a film you simply cannot think of the public
because it’s made up of people in Manila, in the mountain vastnesses of the
atlas in the Andes, in Indianapolis, in Manchester, in…tin huts in the jungle.
You simply cannot think of that audience or think what they like because…they
simply aren’t an audience. It’s just a whole…population, you’re making it for,
of the globe, some percentage of which…will drift into a hut or a movie palace
and see what you did. Which is what limits films to an extent but which to a
great extent frees you. But the people, the PURELY commercial people, the
downright movie hacks who 'give ‘em what they want' are not thinking of the
public they’re thinking of the distributors. They know what the distributors
want, but they’re not anymore thinking of the public than I am. They can’t
imagine that public any more than I can. They just know the distributors say, 'There’s a market this year for tough, sexy spy movies. So give ‘em what they
want.' But they’re not really thinking of a public that likes them. They’re
thinking of bookers who will play them and report that we did that much money.
I think it’s an important distinction."
The Tempo interview is an extra on the excellent foreign-region Blu-ray disc of Welles' The Trial, a movie that wants to punish you and make you do homework.
Here is another picture of my cat Pinky, God bless him, who I miss every day and whom I aspire to be more like all the time. As in, for instance, this:
I know what you might be thinking: "What, ANOTHER movie about the travails of young white women seeking fulfillment in challenging urban America, someone kill me now." That feeling will not necessarily go away for the first ten minutes of Frances Ha, wherein Frances (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend Sophie address each other in arguably offensive faux-Ebonics, share a bed, get drunk, go to a PARTY IN BROOKLYN, WILLIAMFUCKINGSBURG TO BE PRECISE, exchange confidences about the Men In Their Lives And How Lame They Are, and do a few other things that you might be under the impression that you've seen in a movie or on a television show something like ten or fifteen thousand times before in the last eight months. I can't lie to you about that, even if I wanted to.
But Frances Ha starts to take shape in a somewhat more possibly amiable way after this introduction. As a somewhat slightly qualified admirer of the HBO series Girls I can report that the agenda of Frances Ha is not, like that of the series, to contrive a sort of "look from the inside" at the situations of particular young women in the circumstance of seeking fulfillment in challenging urban America and from therein to perform some sort of inversion of traditional audience expectation. No, Frances Ha is a somewhat more conventional contrivance, a specific sort-of adult coming-of-age comedy. Directed by Noah Baumbach from a script by Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, who also plays the title character, Frances Ha brings a reasonably fresh perspective to material that people who go to a lot of film festivals and follow a lot of non-audience-connecting film-festival-dubbed "movements" or genres might consider overexposed to the point of losing-the-will-to-live over.
I'll try not to be so trite as to assert that what Baumbach brings to the table is a kind of artistic detachment. But, first, and most strikingly obvious, thing first, he does put this material through his own particular sensibility, shooting it in black-and-white and scoring it with a bunch of old Georges Delerue music, and hence attaching his own wistful notion of how this particular material (which I'm going to assume at least originated with Gerwig, as she is, or was, an authentic representative of the class portrayed herein) should be cinematically rendered. And he and Gerwig go through the trouble of constructing something of an actual narrative. The movie begins with Frances declining to move in with her boyfriend on account of having promised aforementioned best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) that they'd stick to cohabitating until at least their lease ran out, and OF COURSE Sophie's the one who then turns around and bails into a new roommate situation. Leaving Frances to "crash" at the big apartment of a guy with whom she MIGHT have been able to at least hook up (the movie's structured around a series of addresses Frances roosts in, which come up in nice white-on-black title cards). Again, I cannot tell a lie: this guy is played by Adam Driver, the big white lug of Girls, and here his character is actually rather charming and goofy in a mild 20-something-semi-cad sort of way. Frances Ha is pretty kind to its male characters, and it's not particularly harsh on Frances herself, although the movie doesn't stint on depicting her as something of a fuck up. But as it is in fact a pure comedy—Baumbach never overreaches here in the ways that made parts of Margot At The Wedding the wrong kind of uncomfortable—the viewer is pretty sure things will pick up before Frances has to go rooting around dumpsters. On the way we are treated to some very awkward and funny and engaging scenes that often ring quite true. I was particularly taken with a dinner party sequence in which Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips are cast against type as aging snooty one-time yuppies who turn out to be not entirely unsympathetic to Frances; it's just that, with pretty much very nearly a generation separating them, they do in fact turn out to speak entirely different languages. The dialogue is fresh and sharp throughout: little offhand quirked-out observations like "Transportation's his thing" get some of the movie's biggest laughs.
Unlike Joe Swanberg's opportunistic and quasi-voyeuristic Hannah Takes The Stairs—a similarly-themed picture starring Gerwig for which its director tacked a new name on the actress and then sat her in front of, say, Kent Osborne, who's apparently Swanberg's idea of Brice Parain, and then switched the camera on—Frances Ha gives Gerwig the performer some tasks, in the form of a character who eventually repairs herself, somewhat, off-screen. I'm a Baumbach fan, but it's been some time since he's made a film this...I think the word is "winning." But there you have it. Nevertheless, if I read one more piece about the movie referring to it as a "valentine" or "love letter" to its star, with whom Baumbach reportedly has some kind of personal involvement, I may barf even more prodigiously than Mickey Sumner's character does at a crucial point in the film.
I imagine many of you have already heard tell of an event down in Texas wherein a debate/boxing match between "film critic" Devin Faraci and filmmaker Joe Swanberg occured, in which Swanberg gave Faraci a pasting for the ages. Now, I have nothing against showmanship, and indeed, the prospect of a Faraci/Kenny (we are not friendly) boxing match has been offered on Twitter, which I agreed to on principle, and also in the event that such a thing be staged to benefit a charity. However. It seems to me that arranging such an event as a Thing Unto Itself is kind of adolescent, and says much that is unpleasant about Contemporary Film Culture. But let's put that aside for a moment, the better for me to ridicule Faraci. I know—I should be on his side, right? I'm no fan of Swanberg, or of his films, and I don't much care for many of his friends either. However. When Faraci chooses to compare Swanberg's output unfavorably with that of John Cassavetes, and asserts that "Cassavetes didn't have scripts" you have to wonder about this thing where the Internet means that EVERYONE gets to be a critic. But, you know, you and I, we've been through that. What's really kind of staggering is the opening sentence of Faraci's typically lacking-in-graciousness account of his beatdown, which is this: "Joe Swanberg's first punch knocked out my right contact lens."
Faraci wrote this thinking it would make a sure-fire gripping "lede." I wonder if he was aware that it would convince a not-likely-insubstantial portion of his readership that he ought not be allowed to leave his house by himself, ever. Because, if one is a boxing novice, and one goes into the ring without wearing protective headgear, keeping one's contact lenses in is about the stupidest thing a supposedly sentient human being can do. I mean, we're talking staggeringly dumb. If you watch the video, which I don't necessarily recommend, you'll see that after the first time Faraci goes down, when the two square off again, Faraci's got headgear on. Somebody got his head out of his ass, or somebody who wasn't Faraci got scared of a lawsuit. Who can say. I suppose Faraci figured he would look more "badass" bare-headed. And he learned how that works. Faraci's gone on on Twitter about taking boxing lessons: he either needs to pay more attention, or get his money back. You'd think he'd have actually tried to get in some shape before the bout, but while Swanberg charges at him with a belly full of spite (he looks genuinely, blue-flame pissed off throughout, as if Faraci's standing in for every critic who's ever talked smack about him, your humble servant included), Faraci is working off of the usual belly full of Cheetos and Fat Tire. And that forward charge of Swanberg's: it's more street fighting than boxing. But anyone with any boxing chops/training would know what to do with such a thing: keep your fucking hands up and keep moving around. Backwards, to the side. Get a circle moving. Don't just put your hands up and stand there and let the guy come at you. A moving target's harder to hit, Einstein. Defend yourself and make your opponent weary, less fierce, and after that, you can get your first shot in. Then make it count. But not Faraci. He barely adopts the defensive stance, and then makes the mistake of trying to land some kind of punch through Swanberg's onslaught, despite the fact that he's acutely aware—how can he not be?—of the size/reach advantage that Swanberg has over him.
Like I said: should not be allowed to leave the house by himself.
I was a little taken aback by the ebullient social media response from this year's Cannes Film Festival to Leos Carax's first feature in over a decade. Aside from the usual deplorable over-familiarity—I don't recall if anyone actually stated "Oh, that Leos," but, might as well—the reports of its imaginative ebullience gave a weird sense that those of the assembled who chose to laud the picture were also ready to coronate Carax as the new "roi du crazy." And the Leos Carax I personally value is not really an inordinately "wacky" guy.
So I was pleased and relieved to find Holy Motors a largely downbeat, even mordant film. Its opening scene, in which lead actor Denis Lavant has a metal key in the place of one of his fingers, Motors is not particularly "surreal" or hallucinatory. Particularly once one settles in with its conceit, which is not presented in an insistently enigmatic fashion. Lavant's character is referred to throughout by his chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob) as "Monsieur Oscar" as she drives him in a ridiculous white stretch limo (any resemblance to DeLillo/Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is likely coincidental but not entirely unpropitious) to a series of "appointments" in which Oscar, in a variety of outfits and makeup contrivances, emerges from the limo to "act" and interact with people who may be ordinary Parisians or who may be other "actors." One of Oscar's most memorable incarnations is as the "Merde" monster that Lavant previously played in Carax's droll installment in the 2008 omnibus film Tokyo! (the last picture Carax made; his prior feature is 1999's Pola X). Here he rampages through a Pere Lachaise festooned with headstones reading "Visit My Website" and eventually kidnaps a model in Cocteau-esque makeup played by Eve Mendes. In a sense, yes, there is something funny about an overhead shot of the legendary Parisian cemetery underscored by Ifukube's Gojira themes, but in a larger sense, there's something not at all funny about it. That larger sense being, perhaps, among other things, that of a hurt and spiteful grown-up child reluctantly sharing old enthusiasms. Holy Motors has been touted as a celebration of or love letter to cinema, but throughout all of its allusions I senses something like an exhausted renunciation. Oscar's day of appointments wears on, and his assignments take in murdering a doppelganger (or two), upbraiding a socially awkward teenage daughter (the way a cramped, constipated Sparks song abuts a breezy Kylie Minogue hit on the soundtrack in this sequence speaks volumes), dying old in bed, and reminiscing with an old love who may or may not be "real" (played by the aforementioned Minogue, in a very affecting performance). And all the while he's drinking more and more, falling into depression and disillusionment (when he looks in his folder and sees his assignment to play Merde, the virtuosic Lavant, I mean Oscar, mutters "Merde" and I don't think he's just noting the character); he even gets a visit from a superior (played by the legend Michel Piccoli) who wonders whether the performer's heart is in it anymore. And at the end, Oscar is delivered to a new home with a new family, and the constitution of that family, while again kind of funny on the surface of it, can also be read as a very determined "fuck you" to the entire prior enterprise.
The love letter aspect is confirmed for some by the fact that at the beginning and end Carax intercuts into the picture some motion-study footage by 19th-century cinema pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey; to them, this and other references (Scob's iconic role in Franju's Eyes Without A Face does not go visually unremarked-upon, for instance) suggest a nod to continuity. To my eyes, the statement these things suggested was "This is so OLD, I am so TIRED of it, but it's ALL I'VE GOT." Of course I could just be projecting here. But throughout the movie, which certainly has its ups and downs (I thought its coda, which nods to It's A Wonderful Life, of all things, was kind of a disaster), I kept thinking, "this is the work of an artist who can't figure out which story he wants to tell, or even if he has a story to tell anymore, and this is the only thread he can grab on to." I did not read the movie's press notes until after the screening I attended, and I was gratified albeit aomehwat saddened to discover therein that I wasn't ENTIRELY wrong, that the impetus for Holy Motors lay at least in part in Carax's mounting frustration at being unable to get project after project off the ground.
And so, in short, and for better and for worse, un vrai film Carax. And not funsy at all.
UPDATE: I am informed, in typically friendly and helpful fashion by a commenter below, that the figure with the metal key in place of a finger is in fact Carax and not Lavant. And Carax is indeed credited in the film as "the sleeper," so I stand corrected, and by all means do disregard all of the above, which is clearly now nothing save verbal fluff.
FURTHER UPDATE: But seriously, the distinction as pointed out is significantly thematically pertinent. The sleeper with the key for a finger awakes in the bedroom of an airport hotel; all of Carax's unrealized projects over the years have been outside of France. The door-in-the-wall that his finger-key unlocks leads into a cinema, and it's in that cinema that, it appears, the film that constitutes the remainder of Holy Motors (opening with a very beautiful Tarkovsky-homage shot, incidentally) is screening. So there's almost literally the sense of the picture as a projection/dream of Carax.
My initial attempted aperçu about this romp was: "Passion purports to be a Brian De Palma remake of Love Crime but is in fact a Radley Metzger remake of demonlover." As we all know Twitter isn't so great with nuance and while the above is thereby wracked with small but not entirely insignificant innaccuracies I'll still stand by it. In any event Passion is, by De Palma standards, as compellingly watchable as his 2007 Redacted was aesthetically and by extension morally repellent. The problems with Redacted were many, but the main—formal—one casts a useful light on what helps makes Passion work. That is, the various visual platforms from which De Palma told Redacted's story were so haphazardly contrived/executed as to very nearly scotch De Palma's rep as a visual "master." The "surveillance video" didn't look like surveillance video, the computer screen chats didn't look like computer screen chats, etc. "Brechtian" or not, this created the wrong kind of alienation effect. Someone or something must have made DePalma understand this since that time, because Passion shows he's done some homework. While I daresay a very sharp dissector could point out ways in which total accuracy eludes him, the phone-camera advertising spot and hotel sex file look convincingly and compellingly authentic, as does all the multi-screen Skypeing in the picture, and more. That these screens all appear in frames put on real celluloid film by longtime Almodóvar cinematographer José Luis Alcaine. Long a top player in the realm of split-screen and multi-bifurcated compositions, De Palma really makes his frames within frames within frames work for him here.
And this, some will intuit, is in the service of saying something about The Way We Live Now. In a way the real world has caught up with a vision that De Palma has always been putting forward, one that he and his fellow movie brats intuited from Michael Powell's Peeping Tom perhaps: that we are always looking, and we are always looking not at what is, or more to the point, ought to be, in front of us, but at something we're putting in front of us, some screen containing some contrivance of what we would like to think is our desire. This vision has become, for DePalma, so distilled (some would say rarified) that his best work of the past twenty years or maybe even more (hey, I really LIKE Femme Fatale!) has almost everything to do with that idea and nothing to do with the way actual human beings behave or speak. So the ridiculously flat dialogue and almost pantomime performance styles on display in Passion will not come as any surprise to a longtime De Palma watcher, although they are likely to elicit some sort of "That was stupid" reflex in non-adepts. No matter—does this thing even have a U.S. distributor yet? In any event, in adapting the tonally straightforward but full-of-myriad-plot-twists 2010 Alain Corneau thriller Love Crime (a far more conventional picture than his still brain-melting 1979 Serie Noire, the seediest of Jim Thompson adaptations, and that's really saying something), De Palma insists of course on reconfiguring it into a movie not about the duplicity of cinematic subjectivity and then cranking the volume of that subjectivity up to eleven once a strong prescription sleep aid enters the scenario of ruthless corporate one-upswomanship.
it's a hoot, all right, but it isn't quite Radley Metzger, which is to say in a sense that it isn't quite Brian De Palma either. It doesn't have enough sex, is the thing. At 72 hardly an enfant terrible any longer, De Palma is nonetheless palpably constrained. American female stars of the bankability caliber necessary to obtain foreign funding (if I read my credits correctly there's not one American dollar in this movie, so to speak) simply won't do the kind of thngs De Palma leading ladies of the '80s had little if any trouble with. Hence, the ostensible sapphic tensions between the characters played by Rachel McAdams (American Canadian [see comments], appears in her underwear) and Noomi Rapace (European, appears topless) don't really get all that much traction and the most explicit stuff here is in the reveal of sex toys. Being an old master doesn't cut certain kinds of ice these days, I guess. I almost feel sorry for the guy.
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.